Comedians get a thrill from making people laugh. A comedian develops a unique style,
skill, and body of work as an entertainer. Most noncomedians are only familiar with
comic superstars, such as Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams,Whoopi Goldberg, and
Jerry Seinfeld, to name a few. Most of the comedians we surveyed mentioned these visible
successes as partially responsible for their staying in the profession, however unlikely a similar
meteoric rise may be. Most of the surveys received from comedians were distinctly
unfunny in their responses to our questions about how they live day to day. “Everybody in the
world thinks they’re funny. It’s just that I’m crazy enough to bet on [my
prospects as a comedian],” wrote one professional comedian from
Denver who quit his job as a salesman to pursue a full-time career in
comedy. A comedian works long hours for little (if any) pay and endures enormous uncertainty,
never knowing where the next paycheck will be coming from. The average stand-up
comedian earns around $50 for two 20-minute sets at a comedy club. While this translates
into a solid hourly wage, a new comedian may do four sets per week, with the rest of the time
spent writing material, watching other comedians, and keeping an additional job to pay the
rent. A successful comedian must be quick-witted, able to think on his or her feet, dedicated,
and lucky. A great deal of self-confidence is required if one is to last over two years in this
profession (and over half don’t), since failure, disappointment, and rejection are standard.
Comedy troupes develop, perform, and publicize their own material. Most of the
members maintain freelance or day jobs that allow them to pursue this career. They usually
schedule a weekly show, bracketed around rehearsals and workshops where they critique one
another’s sketches and performances. Because attendees will not return to see the same material,
it is a highly pressured large-output environment. A troupe comedian must adapt to
peers’ comments and take criticism well. The ability to work with others is critical to success
in comedy groups. The troupes are often formed in major urban centers where actors and
comedians congregate due to the larger opportunity for work.
Solo comedians perform on club circuits around the country, usually one after another
on a given night, creating a very competitive atmosphere. Being a solo comedian can be an
“if-you-win-I-lose” type of career. “There are only so many laughs on any given night, and if
possible, you want to get all of them,” wrote one regular at a comedy club in New York. Solo
stand-up comics face a significant level isolation. At the same time, studying fellow performers’
material, style, delivery, and presence are facets of the successful comedian’s life.
Being in dingy nightclubs before an audience of one for unpaid stand-up sets are part of
the aspiring comedian’s dues. No academic requirements exist, but many performers get
their start in college acting or comedy troupes, thereby gaining some exposure to large audiences.
Stand-up comedians have a more uncertain road than troupe comedians, going from
club to club, writing material, practicing and refining it, and hoping for a break. It is not
unusual for an aspiring stand-up comic to log more than 200 days per year away from home.
More than 30 percent of exiting comedians slide smoothly into acting, where they face
much the same odds against success. Others find homes in advertising, teaching, writing, and
one mentioned that he ended up in law enforcement. The skills associated with comedy—the
ability to make others laugh, defuse tense situations with a well-timed remark, and think on
one’s feet—are invaluable assets in any other career.