When I have conversations with people pursuing a career in comedy, one of the things I always ask them is how they define themselves and their “job.” Essentially, what do they tell people that they do?
Inevitably, they often respond that they are (or they’re in the process of becoming) a standup comedian. I understand this, but I also have a problem with it because I don’t really believe that the career of “standup comedian” actually exists. And if it does, the ceiling for that particular career choice is incredibly low so it’s probably not the best way to define yourself. Here’s what I mean…
When you define yourself as a standup comedian, you’re essentially saying to yourself and the world that standup comedy is what you do and how you make a living. The problem with that is that in order to make a living as a standup comedian, you’re going to have to succeed at doing something other than standup comedy. The vast majority of successful standup comedians wind up having that success as a result of something they’ve done other than standup. Their success in acting, or writing, or creating content on the web, is what ultimately winds up earning them more money than their standup or getting them the notoriety/fanbase that allows them to make good money performing standup.
Very few comedians are able to have standup careers by only doing standup comedy, and those that are able to “make it” doing that inevitably earn a fraction of what comedians who have leveraged their skills in other mediums to fuel their standup career make.
You may think this is obvious and that when people describe themselves as standup comedians it’s implied that they’ll do other stuff as well, but in most cases I don’t think it is. Words are powerful – they can help motivate you, but they can also hold you back.
If you tell people you’re a standup comedian, that means that you’re thinking of yourself as a standup comedian. And if you’re thinking of yourself as a standup comedian, you’re focusing your efforts on being a standup comedian. And if you’re spending all your time working on your standup act, you’re not spending nearly as much time working on your writing, or acting, or creating other forms of comedy content – all of which you will ultimately need in order to enable you to have the standup comedy career you think you want.
By now, you either think I’m crazy and you’ve tuned me out, or you’re wondering what I think you should call yourself other than a standup comedian. I think that you should just call yourself a comedian. And more importantly, you should think of yourself as a person who gets paid to make people laugh through a variety of different mediums.
I believe you should approach your comedy career as if every medium is a weapon you have at your disposal and that all of them are equally valid in terms of growing your fanbase and career. Every possible outlet for you to be funny presents you with an opportunity to gain exposure and earn money – and none of these outlets is necessarily more important than another. Your standup act is just as important as your writing, which is just as important as your podcast, which is just as important as your YouTube channel, which is just as important as your acting.
It’s impossible for you to know exactly how your career will evolve and you won’t know where your breaks will come from, so you need to be committed to exploring all of these creative outlets. Too many comedians focus 90% of their energy on their standup, and basically ignore all these other elements which are just as vital to their career as a comedian. And the reason they ignore them too often is because they think of themselves as a “standup comedian,” so they convince themselves that the other stuff doesn’t really matter.
But it does. It matters a lot.
Think about it: if your goal is to build a career in which you get paid to make people laugh, are you currently doing everything you can to make that happen? Or are you just doing everything you can to make it happen in one way?
Click here to get more valuable comedy career tips!
23 thoughts on “Why It’s Time To Stop Calling Yourself A Standup Comedian”
This is probably the best article I have ever read on this topic. One of the first things I learned while starting comedy is you can’t live on just the salary of what (and if) the local bar is willing to pay. Content is king, and comics must be willing to provide it. If not, then they must create a unique way to get the additional revenue required to support their craft.
Thanks to several podcasts, I have learned how great it was for comedians in the ‘good ol’ days’! Like every other business, the model has changed. This is why I continue to explain to starting comedians (disclaimer: I’m also starting out, but have access to a lot of successful mentors) – map your comedy career! You may start doing stand up, but use any additional free time to work on potential projects that may develop in the future. If you’re blogging, study other blogs and then make yours unique. If you want to create video, that an inexpensive course at a local college.
Thanks for posting this – Now I’m confident that I am on the right track!
Awesome article. I generally tell people I’m working on comedy or making people laugh. Well said. In my experience being open to whatever comes along and being prepared for whatever comes along are the strongest words of advice I’ve received. This reaffirms the approach I’ve been developing but still need to kick into action.
‘Awesome’? American bullshit terminology!
Too many spoilt brats with not enough true wit with grit!!!!!
Great point. Maybe we should call ourselves coMEDIUMS. I appreciate the info you’re posting. Keep up the good work!
Yes, a good friend of mine/booker said I am not a “professional” (or legitimate) “stand up” because I don’t make a living at it. Then proceeded to mention that most of his club headliners have a day job. It’s a given that you have to have your ducks in a row when hollywood calls, if they ever do. And I don’t mean because you’re some ass on a reality show. Writer, actor, a screenplay ready, can you write one liners for Letterman/Kimmel?, singer, dancer, street performer – you have to have in your arsenal everything else but. And improv, by the way, is how they select most SNL players for the past 15 years…another totally different craft to learn, and mystery to go it alone stand ups. Mad TV, character actors.
I like the article. Anytime you mention comic as a profession, however, there’s always a “tell me something funny/tell me a joke” to follow. After I tell people I’m a “stand up” and ask if I’m funny, I politely say, “No.” and leave it at that.
Now I’m trying to push Cement Carpet, but who knows. One thing is for sure, because of the glut of “stand ups” in this country the odds are against you.
You have to love it and work hard. So do just that, and make that your goal.
A very interesting post. I’ve written/directed several short comedy films (and have one on the burner), written feature length scripts (some interest, but no takers), and two blogs: a strictly fake news blog and an atheist/comedy blog, as well as doing open mic standup. Laugh if you will (please do!) at the idea of an atheist comedy blog, but the godless are a tight online community and fairly loyal. The standup, however, is my latest endeavor and I’m still in the awkward/nearly sucking stage.
It’s important to point out that each comedic medium has different “rules”. Writing a feature length script with 3 jokes a page (of differing types) is very different than doing standup, for example. Writing a humorous blog post of 500 words is something else.
I don’t agree that you can’t call yourself a stand up comic unless you are employed professionally as one. You can be a good comic and still not be making a living at it. I tell people I’m a talking mime – which is probably why no one has heard of me.
Hey Ed, you’re right. But what I’m basically saying is that if you are hoping to actually have a “career” as a comedian, then pigeonholing yourself by thinking of yourself as just a “stand up” comedian will likely prevent you from succeeding in that career.
Your 110% right on the money. I have been doing stand up for just about 4 years. However I have been in sales for 20 years. I have a big interest in sports and have always had a passion to make people laugh and enjoy a QUALITY SHOW. I started to do videos for football picks and NBA picks as well and showcase my talent for comedy and quality picks that ended up having a 67% winning for those that followed and entertainment value built in. Just go to my YouTube page and see for yourself, especially my Halloween edition (GenoT32 on YouTube). I have also done a few other things on there like impersonations etc. But since last august have taken my sales skills and attention to detail as I said earlier, a QUALITY SHOW, makes the best show and focus on not only performing but creating a mobile comedy club called Bust-A-Gut Comedy Clubs that has been highly successful and has given me credibility in not only stand up, but production of quality shows with a great group of top performers that have now established 2 really great venues that on a monthly basis pack the house. Keep up this site and the articles as I have found them highly informative and have learned a few things from them as well. And for those of you who think you know everything always remember, there are people who can rejuvenate your thinking and maybe open your eyes to some things that will make you more successful than you already are. By the way Josh the idea of posting others material and links have increased my fan base on facebook The Comedy of Geno-T by 10 in the last 2 weeks. Thank you,
That’s great Geno. Tell me more about the “mobile comedy club?”
An interesting and worthwhile perspective. I thought of this column when listening to Bill Simmons’ interview with Jeffrey Ross. Simmons asked who the greats are and Ross included Chris Rock and said that Rock was about to be in a Broadway play. Simmons asked why Rock would do this and Ross said something about branching out. I thought that it was because Rock is a comic actor, not only a stand-up comic, so being in a play is logical for an actor. As you stated, we shouldn’t typecast ourselves–others will be quick to do this so we shouldn’t do this to ourselves.
I came across this post and it is spot on! It actually inspired me to take a look at my own career path and to create a new website http://funnyhoneycomedy.com where I’m not just focused on stand-up but on a blog, comedy videos, and who knows what else in the future. Thanks for the post!
I love this article! Standup is great, but there’s SO many other cool things out there to do in conjunction with standup.
I linked to this post in my blog:
Keep the great content coming!
Well. I’m a stand up comedian. It’s paid the bills all by itself now for twenty five years. I’m blessed to be busy and to make a good living at stuff that used to get me spankings! While I appreciate your article I don’t think you represent those of us who are career comics. Just that. No other revenue streams. Just being funny on stage.
While I am not a career stand-up artist, I have felt the same while going through this article and reading the comments posted. The article overall is extremely logical, and reinforcing for many seeking varied modes of professionalization. However, the bias in this article against career stand-up comedians was almost distinct. There are plenty in the world who make a living purely from stand-up, and it would sadden me to think that someone’s dream of doing the same (one that I share) might be deemed ‘illogical’ because of this article.
this is a fantastic article
i began a career in comedy doing stand-up and then realised that I had to pay my counselling and rehab. bills . The lucrative deals i have done with comedians and promoters has convinced me that my side line as a dealer was a much more sensible choice for myself and my dependants (my old dad).
Nowadays I rarely have time to ‘gig’ because i am always driving from this club to that. My book will be out soon which will also pull in some more cash.
I agree 100%!!! it’s too much fun doing other things, to put 90% to stand up.
I have been pursuing the art of being funny for almost a decade. I have yet to make any money from the ‘stand-up’ part of that. While I agree with Leanna about having stuff ‘ready’, there are many avenues for being ‘discovered’ such as short films, festivals, web content not just on youtube, but many other channels, local papers such as LA Weekly (I live in LA) acting, improv can be learned in classes, send in jokes to Late shows until one bites…the old adage you can’t get hit by the train unless you are on the track and there are many here in LA who use the term stand-up with a feeling of entitlement who glut open mikes with no experience while those they can learn from and network with are left at home most nights with no available stages. So sad and nothing to do with whether these ‘pros’ who have made a living are funny or not.
A good example of how odd LA market is. I have spent time on many stages in places that aren’t even on a list to do stand-up. I have produced web content, worked with song parody, written short comedy scripts, acted on screen and off and worked in sketch and improv… in short, pursued all avenues I found available and have yet to make it to a comedy room stage in this town (ie Laugh Factory etc) as anything but an audience member with special privileges because I know the comics. This last week I received an invitation to watch a friend of mine ‘debut’ on the Main stage at a comedy room. As I congratulated him on his hard work I asked him from which comedy school he was graduating. His reply was the reason you cannot take this business personal – “I didn’t take any classes. I just wrote a couple jokes and answered an ad on actors access. I ‘auditioned’ and he gave me 10 minutes in the main room.”
He now advertises himself as a stand-up comic and had new head shots printed with this respected comedy club’s address et al.
Pauline, time and time again, the no-talent fakers will expose themselves soon enough. I have seen comedy sets with jokes I heard when I was in grade school and shake my head in wonder why this people don’t apply themselves to be genuinely funny and not take the easy way out. Real comedic timing cannot be taught,it’s born in us…it’s in the dna string right behind the donut gene.
P.S. > Is your friend still doing his brand of comedy?
So how does a comedian make the jump from an open mic show to actually getting paid? I assume he or she must negotiate with the club owner. Do you have to guarantee that you will bring in more audience members?
Very accurate and most informative article I’m a comedian from Zambia in USA, I’ve been in the game for 9 yrs.
Very accurate and most informative article