In this post, I’m going to explain how to have a stand-up comedy career in America or Australia or India (although the advice applies anywhere) and things you need to know AFTER you start getting on stage and have written a few jokes. If you haven’t even begun or are wondering how to do stand up comedy for the first time, I suggest you attend an open mic and then come back here. It’s a long post, but considering it’s the most viewed post on this site I guess we’re onto something. Thanks, friends.
Never tried comedy?: See How to Write a Joke for Stand Up
I’ve been doing comedy across the world for years. having started in Orange County and Los Angeles, California.
Two years ago I wrote about the mistakes I see newer comedy market comedians (Singapore, Thailand, India, Malaysia) make all the time.
While a lot of that stuff seemed obvious in 2016 to a comic in LA or NYC, it was received well here and I got tons of questions from comics all over the world. Hell, some of those same comics who commented on that post are now doing great things.
Regardless, I was cleaning up my website and realized it’s been a while since I talked about standup comedy in ANY COUNTRY, what I’m seeing, what I think is happening and what my predictions will be on the trends and where I think it’s going.
If you’re interested please read on and I’m always more than happy to hear your feedback in the comments and/or social media.
I will discuss a few things that are India specific as I currently live here, but rest assured all of this will be helpful in kickstarting your comedy journey wherever you live.
I regularly do spots in NYC//SF/LA/Singapore/Hong Kong/Canada/Amsterdam and can tell you that comics are pretty much the same in any scene. Yes, New York sets are tighter, UK folks like dark humor, yada yada…but the business of comedy and the hustle are pretty much the same.
You have to be a sick individual to put yourself through this career.
Ok, I kid. This is comedy right?
We’re all trying to figure out how to write the perfect stand up comedy routine and more importantly (after you do a few mics you’ll know)…how to get people to watch it.
Regardless, no way are comedians more alike than, for most newcomers, instead of just going to an open mic and eating a fat one, they probably look for tips online on how to be a stand-up comedian in India or the UK or whatever.
So on that note, since you’re here…time some bitter truths.
1. You need to do Open Mics, they will get worse, and that’s OK.
As Indians, we often have a build first, think later mentality.
We see a formula for a movie or sketch or microbrewery or restaurant or app and we copy it and assume it will work. We bring it here and do it faster and cheaper.
With open mics, I’ve noticed (even my own advice) that the Book My Show listings have gotten out of hand. Everybody is listing an event…but, to be honest, that’s ok.
Comics need stage time and a normal byproduct of that is that audiences will get confused. “This show is Rs.150, but this one is Rs. 499 and the same comic is on both. Wait, what? What’s a trial show?!?”
Ahhh, finally we’ve arrived. This is a good problem to have.
As the years’ march on and comedy continues to grow, I hope people realize as in Europe and the US that just having a show isn’t good enough.
Art takes effort and it’s dirty, unpolished and embarrassing. Comedians are the only ones who have to practice in public.
To stand out from the noise as a comedian and still be able to “practice your instruments”, you need to build something special so audiences can always be guaranteed a good time because that’s what they care about.
How to Organize a Good Open Mic so You’ll actually write a good stand up comedy routine?
Why do some comedians rise faster than others? It’s quite simple, they get on stage more. In fact, some comics I know get on stage more in a month than other comics get on in a year.
Who’s gonna do better?
So How do you start an open mic?
- Invest in a brand, like “the South Indian Comedy Club.” that you can do in various cities or pubs.
- Make a property like Tequila Tuesday Comedy Nights at Toit BrewPub (fictional example)
- Differentiate your show, give free stuff, encourage audience participation, make a comedian have a beer before he goes up, read live tweets, whatever.
- Focus on more audience, not more comedians. The comics will come…oh they’ll come.
- Take good photos or videos of the crowd, ensure you’re maintaining a good FB page or IG.
- Build buzz, pass flyers, make a FB event, learn how to market yet not spam.
- Invite friends, walk on the pavement and pass out flyers an hour before the gig, put in the groundwork.
- There is no stand-up comedy template, and existing joke structures like rule-of-3 and such are helpful in the beginning…but the closest thing you’ll get to a stand-up comedy template is the points above.
- If you run a good room, you will GET GOOD FAST because you have 20 minutes of stage time a week that YOU OWN and *drumroll* a REAL AUDIENCE.
For the love of God, play upbeat music for the 30 minutes your audience is settling into the venue. Anyone who goes up to silence and doesn’t know how to set the tone for the room deserves to bomb.
If you build it they will still come but make sure you BUILD IT TO LAST.
Nobody gives a shit that you got a coffee shop to give you a corner room.
What are you doing to make sure an audience comes?
Why are you buying a coffee/beer to an empty venue and a wasted evening instead of putting that 300 INR in FB ads to promote it?
Why are seven comics standing by the door smoking cigarettes when they should be inside filling up seats, so the people who do peek inside to see if they should join don’t get intimidated by an empty venue and 7 strangers?
I mean if you don’t value your time, why would an audience member?
2. the Low Hanging Viral Comedy Fruit is finally getting scarce.
I think most of us who started in the last eight years got a little lucky in that we got views on jokes which were probably not the most inventive, it’s just nobody had ever heard that stuff on stage before.
Indian mothers (I’m guilty) are like this, Flying is like that, Punjabis and Gujus are this way, Engineers are virgin, etc….. Now that the views have come and gone, you’re going to see that just putting a stand-up clip where you kill in a crowd isn’t enough. It has to offer a more personal point of view, more unique, AND crush as hard as the generosity of all the applause breaks of years passed. AND let’s be honest…do you really REALLY care that Delhi is so different from Mumbai?
I’m not saying don’t talk about your Mom, I’m just saying tell us a story, make it specific, and really think about if anybody else could tell the same story.
Also, one thing I’ve learned watching those who have really done well digitally the last few years, you HAVE TO BE consistent. (I wish I followed my own advice).
A million views on one video in a month can actually be worse than 250K views on 4 videos, 4 weeks in a row.
Try to write about things you haven’t seen anybody discuss on any YouTube videos before, and if you’re getting laughs, you’re on the right track.
3. Newer Comedians Need to Remember to live their lives
I know comics complain.
Man don’t we all.
In a country where it only matters that you did better than your neighbor…we compare…a LOT.
In fact, watch any cricket match at a bar and listen to the conversations around you. Many Indian businessmen are people who will never follow their dreams so they need to compare those who are following theres to feel better.
Sachin/Virat, Federer/Nadal and just one year in your comedy journey someone will say “He is trying to be a Russell Peter.”
You know every comedian you see on Netflix has heard that last line?
It can get ugly.
If I could shake myself in 2010 I’d say just focus on what you’re doing, not checking Facebook to see who is doing what.
I always tell people,
“if comics wrote even 5% of the time they complained, they’d have nothing to complain about because that 5% would get them a new hour every year.”
Newer comics ask me how I write, or what the principles of writing and performing stand up comedy are.
I get it, you’re looking for any bit of ted talk wisdom to give you the secret sauce, but like bro…don’t steal jokes and try to write for 10 minutes a day about anything.
Even if it’s just 5 bullet points in your phone. Because that’s more than most.
But after you figure basic joke structure from watching 10 comedians and analyzing it 100 times with ur other open micers…all I can tell you is….
LIVE YOUR LIFE!
Instead of reading every tweet, or every insider blog or industry whispers….maybe, just maybe…spend that time hanging out with friends outside of comedy, go to the gym, take a walk, chill with your girlfriend or boyfriend…and DO STUFF.
Your audience does exactly that and they’re the one you need to relate to remember?
If you don’t go to the gym like they do, go on dates like they do, watch the shows they do, work like they do, unwind like they do…what exactly will you have to say to them?
4. Stand Up Comedy is WAY MORE than JUST being on stage, especially in 2019
One thing even I’ve changed my viewpoint on, and maybe I’m channeling my inner Gary Vee, is that the industry has changed across the world.
Going “Viral” in an age of constant scrolling doesn’t mean anything anymore. Hell, even this blog post might get a few head nods before the readers move on to something else.
Where’s that link to HOW TO DO DSLR PHOTOGRAPHY IN 2019 when you need it?
As comedians especially in India I still see so many people spending 5 hours around attending an open mic (traffic, hanging out, performing, eating, going home) and that whole time was simply in service of 10 minutes on stage.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO IN THOSE 5 HOURS?
Were you learning video editing, PhotoShop, planning a podcast (and I mean actually scripting one), planning your social media posts for the week, writing a book maybe?
I’m not saying you won’t get famous just off of stand up, but I’m saying for most of us, you really need to stretch your creative muscles far beyond what you’re currently doing.
And you know I’m right.
Everything you do should be in service of getting on stage, don’t get me wrong.
The right clip or sketch or content gets you to the front of the line, but I wish comedians didn’t look down on social media people that are hustling in their own right.
If you can figure out social media, having a stand-up comedy background…the world is your oyster.
A YouTuber can’t do stand up, but a stand up who kills at YouTube has a very lucrative career.
Now to depress you even more:
Skills a Stand Up Comedian also needs in 2019
- Video Editing
- Motion Graphics
- Social Media Marketing
- Blogging (Hi!)
- Basic Web Design
- Public Speaking
- Story Telling
- Digital Marketing
- DSLR Film Making
- YouTube Film Making (yes they’re different)
- Stage Production
- Event Management
- Crowd Control
- Oh…and you also have to be great at writing jokes.
Amazon: the Podcast Recorder you Need to Also Record Live Sets
It’s midway through 2019 and trust me things have changed.
And in 2020 they might change again.
A lot of you have Instagrams and Facebook’s but don’t even have a website or a simple “Email me for Bookings” link.
WHAT THE FU*K!?!?!
5. Gatekeepers don’t really exist. Your content is the gate. ANYBODY can get 1M views online.
Any open mic in this country has comics discussing who got what show, what special, what deal, what video, etc…
Let me tell you something.
Even some of the comedians who have Amazon or Netflix specials might be broke (not just in India).
And many comics who don’t have those specials are doing just fine.
It’s nice to be in a group or in an agency, but ultimately, your value is not dictated by any organization.
All you have to do is have some clever bits succeed (that’s the hard part) and then build a following online (that’s the harder part) and then consistently monetize that following (the hardest part).
Renting an auditorium or recording more sketches will come super easy once you’ve done that.
Sure it’s nice to get on a show or be in front of a crowd but every single comedian has performed for 5000 one night and 5 the next.
You’re in it for the long haul right?
NEVER let yourself think “If this comedian just gave me this opportunity” I’d be fine.
Once you get 5M views on your own video without that comedian’s help, he’ll be asking to be on your show.
6. Even the Best Stand Up Comedians Need to Take More Risks and Fail
Some of my good friends and hilarious/viral comedians are absolutely horrible at being funny on Instagram.
They can tell the jokes on stage, but beyond that, they really don’t do much. And trust me, they’re not too busy to learn the other skills. They just are banking on stand up, and that’s fine.
But at the same time, our industry in this country is putting its eggs in one basket.
Comics across the world are minting money on writing for ads, doing podcasts, handling corporate training, running their own rooms (even after getting famous).
Why aren’t we?
You were 35 when you started doing stand up, now at 45 you can’t talk into a mic on your laptop to discuss a few things?
In fact, one great thing I see now is comics who have been protecting their position of “experience” now realizing newcomers are outshining them in a matter of a year or two.
As stage time gets more scarce I hope I see my fellow older comics (many of whom are now much more successful than me) continue to mentor, to blog, to write, to fail publicly and do things other than protecting an image they don’t realize they once weren’t so protective of. I love watching old Bill Burr clips, of him, even after he made it driving around and just rambling and seeing it peak at 20K views. And you know what, he didn’t give a fU*k.
7. Ego is the Enemy
One of the worst parts about the comedy boom, or any boom, is a lot of people attribute having luck with having talent. I’m sure it was true for the Gold Rush or the Dot Com Boom, and I’m sure it’s true for our Indian comedy boom.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m friends with all the comics we love and know, but I’ve had my own personal friends/colleagues act pricey with me for no reason. I even had a comic who I spent hours editing a video for, when he was fairly new, then tell me years later he doesn’t want to do my podcast cause “he’s not doing podcast these days.”
But that’s fine man.
I learned many years ago that you shouldn’t expect anything from anyone and everybody is going through their own struggles and way of doing things.
So if you’re running a room and a lot of comics burn up your stage but never get YOU on another stage, that’s ok.
Just keep doing you.
If you helped somebody get famous, congratulations on guiding that person to whatever their destiny was meant to be. You’re lucky you’re in a country where even a shitty open mic gets 10 people, so just please count your blessings and keep moving forward.
And if another 20 kids email you asking for advice…don’t be a dick, stop stalking that girl on Instagram and try to reply once in a while to people who can do nothing for you. Don’t go out of your way, but don’t be a jerk for no reason.
8. A Note on Indian Stand Up Comedy Earnings
Look…I get asked this question all the time and since four of you emailed me in the last 8 days asking, I’m jotting it down here.
Let me get one thing clear for those of you wondering how much Indian stand up comedians get paid.
Nothing for the first two to three years.
You hear me?
Sure, some comedians make 10K per show, a few make 10 lak per show, and a lucky few make much more.
August 2019: How Much Do Stand Up Comedians in India Earn or Make?
But as with anything in life, if it were that easy, everybody would be doing it. In reality, if you expect money out of this you will burn out and quit much earlier.
Pro Tip: Don’t expect to get paid for your first three years, and if you keep a clear head with that, you’ll probably start making 3-5K per show after a few.
CONCLUSION aka my big Closer
ALSO: How Do I Get More Stage Time?
ALSO: Ten Mistakes Indian Stand Up Comics Made
ALSO: Who or What Enables your Mediocrity?
So yeah, that’s about it for now.
I’m happy to see the market increasing, but I’m sure I speak for most comics when I say…all of us…beginner to veteran…could do a lot more than we’re currently doing. And if you’re new to comedy, you can get years ahead in a matter of months if you just PUT IN THE TIME, and EFFORT.
- STAY AWAY FROM DRAMA.
- PUT DOWN THE BEER.
Comedians make a living on calling out people who could do better.
Unfortunately I wish we did that to the mirror to.
So get to it.
Sanjay Manaktala is one of the top stand up comedians in India who started building the comedy community in the country back in 2010. Since then his stand up comedy videos and podcasts have helped millions laugh or get motivated. His latest effort is the Birdy Num Num podcast, helping you learn creativity in life after engineering. You can learn about Sanjay here or check out his YouTube channel here.