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A Day in the Life of a Comedian

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.

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

Comedy has historically been the mirror of every age, from the Greek playwright Aristophanes to the sarcastic drollery of Dennis Miller. Every known culture has its own form of comedy, and the smile and the laugh seem hardwired as responses in the human brain. Comedians have been in entertainment ascendancy of late, with Adam Sandler making about $20 million on each of his films. But, in general, comedians should expect to face the same odds in the career tomorrow that they face today.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Progression in this profession is unpredictable, but for the majority of comedians, it follows the scenario outlined here. Two-year comics are just developing their comic personas and getting their feet wet on the comedy circuit. They have just started writing their material and experimenting with different styles. They go to open-mike nights to try out new material, get to know the clubs and vice versa, and make contacts with other comics. The new comic is lucky to get a few bookings. Persistence and confidence are the key to working at all.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Comedians are skilled self-publicists by this point, and some of them even have agents. After five years in the profession, comics know clubs around town and around the country and have, hopefully, performed at many of them. They could even be regulars at one or two clubs. Club managers know them and their style, and they know where their material will be welcomed and where it’s not appropriate. Other comedians have seen their work, and they have probably auditioned for a few comedy troupes and maybe even started working with one.

TEN YEARS OUT

Comedians who have lasted 10 years in the profession have attained a measure of success in their field and probably have a strong regional following. They have had many opportunities to show their work, possibly including TV specials and performing for specific groups, such as political associations or college clubs, depending on their material. They have probably worked for a comedy troupe, at least for a while. Comedians keep seeking out new venues for their performances, writing and developing new material, and hoping for a big break.