By Caleb Synan
Good comedians do stand-up every night. Sometimes a wedding, a broken-down car, or some other emergency can get in the way of this, but as a general rule, the good ones work more nights out of the year than they take off. That being said, doing 500 shows a year won’t make you better just because 500 is a big number. If you go recite your bad 5 minutes 500 times in one year, it will be the same ole bad 5 minutes at the end of the year. I see people do this all the time. They don’t edit. They don’t adjust. They don’t grow.
Every show you do has something unique that you can get out of it. A road gig might offer you a chance to relate to an unconventional audience. An open mic with an all-comedian audience might offer you a chance to say a few bits out loud for the first time. A packed-out showcase at a club might offer you a chance to do your tightest 10 minutes and get noticed by someone. An audience member’s phone ringing during your set might give you a chance to work on being in the moment and being more comfortable riffing onstage. There’s unlimited possibilities. The people who take comedy seriously know this, and they suck every bit of experience that they can out of each and every show. They carefully plan out their sets, but they’re also prepared to adjust on the fly. They watch the comedians before them and after them. They record their sets and critique them later. They expand and trim bits to get them as good as possible. These people get better at a faster rate.
This is how comedians plan out their months. They use different shows for different things. Some rooms are for trying out brand new stuff. Some rooms are for tried and true material. Some rooms are for doing a set of jokes on one subject so they can eventually arrange the order and focus the bit into a solid 5-minute chunk.
The 10,000-Hour Rule only applies if you worked hard for all 10,000 of those hours. Nobody’s following you around and adding up every second you’re doing comedy and then giving you a Conan spot when it hits the magic number. Some people don’t seem to understand this.
There’s a lot of comedians who are (as Jeff Foxworthy put it) “Just smokin’ dope and chasin’ waitresses.” Going onstage and fooling around for 5 minutes a night can only do so much for your comedy career. Or as another person my Dad likes said: “Faith without works is dead.” – James 2:14. (That’s the Bible, ya’ll.) Similarly, stage time without hard (offstage) work is also dead. As a comedian, you can afford to be lazy about everything BUT your comedy. It feels like homework sometimes to watch a video of yourself, write out your bits, do self promotion, or try to book yourself, but nobody is going to be your personal comedy trainer.
Just because comedy is your passion, doesn’t mean that it has to be fun all the time. Stand up is my favorite thing in the world, but I intentionally do things that I dread, because I know they’ll make me better. Writing new jokes and performing every night can be grueling, but it’s necessary. It’s the vegetables and exercise of comedy. You’ll never be a strong, fast, Olympic level comedian if you’re eating cupcakes all day. The cushy, packed out shows with warmed up crowds are great, but if those are the only shows you do, your comedy muscles are going to get flabby. You might have great material and comfort onstage, but when you’re presented with a rowdy crowd, they’ll run all over you.
The rowdy, disinterested, or otherwise undesirable crowds are the vegetables. And just like the cupcakes, you can’t survive exclusively on them. Comedians who only do crap rooms freeze up under pressure the same way that cupcake comedians do, because they have only one gear to work in.
Some shows have such good crowds that even bad comedians can have a decent set. Crowds are just in an unstoppably good mood sometimes. Now, these shows are fun for everyone, and I understand how some comics prefer to do JUST those kinds of shows. But you’ll notice that the people who do the best at these shows are the comics who work hard. With hot crowds, there’s a glass floor for how bad you can do, but there’s no limit to how hard you can kill. And that killer instinct comes from working out.
This is why the dazzling, virtuoso comics are on top. They have the material, the skill set, and the experience to read a room, adjust, and switch gears so that they can entertain all different kinds of crowds on a consistent basis. And it probably took them around 10,000 hours of work to get there.
Before Hannibal Buress recorded his hour Comedy Central special, his friend and mentor Chris Rock told him to watch Rocky. Now, Rocky isn’t about stand-up, and it’s not even a funny movie. But Chris Rock was trying to communicate the same metaphors that I’m using here. Ninety-five percent of Rocky is spent on his training and preparation. Rocky isn’t having a whole lot of fun. But when it’s time for your big moment on TV, you’ll be glad you’ve done every conceivable kind of practice that you could.
I guess the main point here is this: Onstage and offstage are equally important.
One of the biggest comedy managers, Rory Rosegarten once said ,“There’s a reason managers make 10% of the money.” The reason is because the comedian has to do 90% of the work.
So if you don’t have a manager… well… you do the math.
Republished by request of the author. This originally appeared on Caleb Synan’s Tumblr. Synan is a stand-up comedian based in Atlanta.