The new rules of standup comedy

LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - The standup comedy playbook has changed. New media have created more ways to get your act to the masses, and the prevalence of reality TV means fewer scripted series, so success performing live is less likely to earn you a trip to the sitcom big leagues.

But audiences still crave talented comedians and, in these crazy economic and political times, need a good laugh as much as ever, so opportunities are out there -- if you’re good.

“The cool thing about standup is it’s entirely a talentocracy,” says Steve Rosenfield, founding director of New York’s American Comedy Institute, a school for aspiring comedians.

“It really comes down to getting undeniably good, night after night, in front of different kinds of audiences, whether it’s a late Saturday night or an early Tuesday show, because when a comedian achieves that, they’re going to be seen.”

Open-mike nights are the inevitable starting point for standups, but Rosenfield doesn’t think they’re entirely useful when it comes to developing new material, because they don’t attract a diverse audience. “It’s usually other comics, not a regular audience,” he explains, “and while you’re up there, they’re half listening to you, half trying to figure out what they’re going to be doing. There’s a tendency for material that does well at open mikes to be bluer and jokier, but regular audiences want to hear something where there’s a sense of genuineness about it, something that’s a reflection of who they really are.”

Rosenfield recalls students who honed their acts on the subway or at Grand Central Terminal, away from industry audiences.

Eddie Brill, a comedian and booker for the “Late Show With David Letterman,” touts the usefulness of open mikes when working on new material but adds, “You don’t want to be stuck there for the rest of your life.”

He often finds new talent through managers, agents, friends, and comedians he works with on the road. “You can’t teach standup comedy,” Brill says. “The only way to get great is stage time. The other part is vulnerability. Richard Pryor is considered the greatest because he showed his vulnerability. We all have this bravado, but when it comes down to it, we’re all kind of nerds.”


“Be very persistent,” says Jamie Masada, owner and founder of Los Angeles’ legendary Laugh Factory. “With new media,” he adds, comedians “have to be able to expose themselves.” Masada points out that the casting director of a TV show he’s putting together recommended a comedian found on YouTube. “You’re seeing fewer industry people in clubs; they’re going to the Internet.”

In booking his club, Masada is conscious of the public’s desire for headliners, but tries to sprinkle in still-sprouting talent: “I’ll usually put two or three comedians that they haven’t heard of in front of a Tim Allen or a Kevin Nealon. My obligation in comedy clubs, especially showcases, is to find the next Chris Rock, the next Adam Sandler, because once they go into film, they don’t do standup anymore.”

Al Martin, booker and owner of the Big Apple’s Broadway Comedy Club and New York Comedy Club, says part of his mission is to deliver potential sitcom talent: “Is it a housewife that has a crazy household? Is it a blue-collar guy talking about his blue-collar life? I look for people talking about unusual characters in their acts. And of course, you want to remember you have an every-night audience, so it’s a balancing act.”

Other considerations are the time of the show -- the audience at an 11 p.m. show is likely to be younger and edgier than one at 9 p.m. -- and the time of year. “In May and June, we have late-night shows for after prom, and the same comedian that might make a 30-year-old laugh because they’re talking about relationships might not make a 17-year-old laugh,” explains Martin.

Location matters too. Martin says his Broadway Comedy Club, located in midtown Manhattan, draws an audience of 60 percent out-of-towners (“They might not get things that a New Yorker would”), while the audience at Gramercy Park’s New York Comedy Club is 90 percent locals (“I book that with more of a New York edge, people with a lot of attitude in their acts”).

Martin has cut back on live auditions in recent years -- partially due to the prevalence of reality TV. Previously, he says, “comics would be funny, they’d graduate to the top of their class, go out to L.A. for a sitcom, and bring potential writers with them. Then the next batch would move up. Now, with sitcoms being expensive to produce and reality series being cheaper, a lot of the top echelon of comedians have not left New York. They’re bumping their heads against the ceiling. Two or three classes have not graduated.”

He cautions young comedians about exaggerating their credentials, since the Internet expedites reference-checking, and about sending links to video clips that aren’t polished. “All you have to do is put someone’s name in and you’ll see where they’re performing and at what level,” Martin says. “I can also, when and if I do open up these unsolicited emails, tell in as little as 30 seconds whether the person is funny or not.”


At comedy festivals, the programing is often more diverse and riskier, depending on the event’s size and scope. “We’re looking for people who have real, true voices, who have a sense of realness to them, a sense of polish to them,” Comedians who are part of its New Faces showcase have been honing their craft for five to seven years.

“In the comedy world, there’s been a lot of emphasis on YouTube,” Praw says. “We like to bring it back to the live feeling, connecting the audience directly with the comedian.” Not that new media can’t play a role in shaping or promoting a comic. “You’re not just a comedian when you’re on stage anymore,” says Praw, who talks about comedy with contagious enthusiasm. “It is a true identity, and you live it every day through every tweet, every online video.”

As such, a lot of today’s star comedians aren’t just funny, he says; they also have an uber-cool public image, like Ricky Gervais or Russell Brand.

Even though New York and Los Angeles are the country’s media capitals, “the comedy business is not strictly a New York/L.A. business,” says Robbie Praw, manager of programing for Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival (July 7-18).

“The true money is when you can transcend not only the States but the world.” He cites the edgy Louis C.K. as a comedian who draws crowds in the U.S. and internationally, in places like Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia.

Praw urges comedians to stay true to their own voice, even if it’s on the risque side. “There’s a place for any type of humor,” he says, “whether you’re naturally the guy in the green room who’s the dirtiest or the one who’s really a family guy.”