DIY: Standup

Guest columnist Paul Warford tells you how to stand up, comedically.

Well. Hello there. I’m not normally on this page.

I’m supposed to advise you fair people on how to get started in standup comedy. My giving advice on hitting the brick wall now sort of makes me feel as I was reviewing Radiohead a couple weeks back: fraudulent.

So, I asked George Price for help.

George knows about this thing better than I do.

George is a comedian. He settled here just a few years back, but he’s originally from Toronto.

I met him at the second open mic night I attended at the Victory Pub. It’s a regular thing they’ve got there.

The first piece of advice he ever gave me about standup was: “your first 100 shows don’t matter.” With 40 years of experience in this bungee jump—the latter of which he spent doubling as a George Carlin impersonator—I’ve decided to take his word for it.

“No two audiences are ever the same,” is another thing he told me. I’d have to agree. Each audience is, in fact, like meeting a different stranger on the street: some will be attentive, some will be disruptive, and some will be very, very drunk. This is a gauntlet. If you have a night where you totally kill though, it has a habit of feeling more satisfying than any other dirty sin or pleasure.

(Yes, sometimes, even that pleasure.)

Eddie Murphy is the reason I do standup. Ever see his standup movie Delirious? Who hasn’t. If your answer is ‘nay’, do yourself a favor and watch it. It’s great. That movie stuck with me because it taught me how to swear. I would watch the—pirated?—VHS tape my brothers had of this performance. I was about 11.

I’d never seen something before that was so funny from beginning to end. And so candid.

That and Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer were shows I loved as a kid, and I got more and more interested as I got older. And then eventually I got started.

I did my first standup show in university, covering other performer’s material—Leary, Seinfeld, Hedberg—until I finally took the plunge and began writing the stuff myself.

If you want advice on how to write comedy, my best advice would be to carry a little book with you wherever you go. That’s because funny happens every day, and you never know when you’re going to trip over it while you’re waiting for the bus. And you probably will trip over it while you’re waiting for the bus.

Second, judge everyone. You have to understand and pinpoint the ridiculous idiosyncrasies of the media, the powers that be, and the general population. You are better than everyone. Do you have a little book, yet? If so, write that down.

“The first rule of standup is that you have to grab the audience’s attention,” says George. “Miss that and it’ll be very difficult for you.” Again, this is George and not me. And he’s right. Thanks to stuff like Pay n’ Go Mastercard, most people have the attention span of a gnat. If you don’t get an audience laughing immediately, you’re going to lose their interest the moment after.

I should also advise that you take each show in stride. They do not all go smoothly. Trust me. All comics bomb at some point. Ever experience that playground grade-school thing where you don’t get picked for kickball? It hurt, right? Multiply that by infinity. Squared. That’s what your first bad show feels like. Pick yourself up and dust yourself off. That old adage? It applies here.

I would add that standup is the loneliest form of performance there is. You write alone, you prepare alone, you perform alone. You die alone.

Wait. Scratch that last one.

I will conclude by saying that standup is mostly outside of my realm of advice, or George’s advice, or anyone else’s advice.

It’s in you.

Gag me, I know, but it’s true. You have to want to be the centre of attention constantly. Once you become serious, as I did after I met George, you’ll want to go on stage every night. Money won’t matter, drink tickets won’t matter…

…There will be drink tickets, I should add. And I haven’t seen a whole lot of money, but, like I said, that’s not why you’re up there.

You have to, have to, have fun. Strangely enough, I have only learned this within the last month, and it is already beginning to change everything for me.

All right, last piece of advice:

“The cardinal rule is to never begin with new material,” says George. So, you want to get up and give this a shot, and you can’t wait to try that new bit you wrote? Save it.

Unless it’s your first time. Then it’s all new. In which case, good luck. Because this pastime is a dartboard. It is standing in front of a dartboard.

Thank you.

Illustration by Kira Sheppard.