This article was written by Jake Fromm (@jakefromm), a standup comedian and co-host of Green, a comedy podcast where green comedians ask better comedians how to get better. If you want to hear more in-depth advice from some of the comedians quoted below on topics like writing for TV and performing on late-night, you can subscribe to Green on Soundcloud or iTunes today. Episodes 1-3 are out today and subsequent episodes of the first season will be released every Monday.
“Keep your head down, be nice, and you’ll get in.” This piece of advice, originally attributed to Bill Burr and oft-quoted by Pete Holmes on his podcast You Made It Weird, is meant for young comedians grappling with the maddening notion of actually building a career in comedy. Because here’s the thing about comedy: nobody tells you how to do it. There’s no clear path to a successful stand-up career; each comedian, seemingly blazing their path anew through the wilderness of show business. That’s all well and good if you want to be a pioneer, but if you just want to make people laugh for a living, the prospect of how to go about actually being a comedian can be daunting. And successful comics can be pretty stingy about doling out advice to up-and-comers. When my friend Stu asked me if I had any ideas for a potential podcast, I had been stewing about this lack of available advice for a long time. Out of this frustration came Green, a podcast where Stu and I interview successful comedians about comedy things they’re particularly good at. Without this podcast, we’d be at the mercy of the people most eager to tell young (and not-so-young) comedians how to do comedy, who are consistently—and ironically—the people least qualified to do so.
Extended family members, friends you haven’t talked to since high school, strangers in the audience, even other comics—they all have advice for the fledgling comedian in their lives, advice which is invariably bad. Just total garbage. You might know a lot about refinancing mortgages, Uncle Bob, but I promise that that funny thing you said at the office will not work on stage. I know the impulse to advise a comedian comes from a good place, but please stop. Your advice is bad and will never be heeded. To prove it, I asked some of my favorite comedians in New York City about the worst comedy advice they’ve ever gotten. Below are some of their responses:
Corinne Fisher (@PhilanthropyGal)
“Get a back-up plan, because if you have a back-up plan, you’re giving yourself a second option besides succeeding.” There is no second option, in my opinion. It’s try until you die.
Subhah Agarwal (@subhah)
“Do more Indian stuff about cab drivers and doctors. Those are our people.” – from an actual Indian guy. Or just, “do comedy.” That’s horrible advice.
Anthony DeVito (@AnthonyDeVito_)
My mom always thinks I should work Ocean’s Eleven into my jokes. She saw it once 10 years ago and has a crush on George Clooney.
Nick Vatterott (@nickvatterott)
The worst piece of advice I ever got was, “You should try to get on Cheers.” Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything, and I feel like I’ve at the very least gotten something similar, like trying to get on some show that’s isn’t on anymore. I’ve gotten tons of bad advice, I just do my best to forget it!
Marlena Rodriguez (@MarlenaRodrigz)
I’ve always done improv / sketch / acting and stand-up, and when I got hired by Second City, several people told me I should focus on Second City and quit stand-up. Thank God I didn’t, because Second City, though I am so grateful, was a huge growing pains experience and if I didn’t have stand-up I think I really could have lost myself comedically.
Jo Firestone (@kingfirestorm)
Hmm, I guess I would say the worst advice I’ve ever gotten would be something along the lines of, “just have fun and be yourself up there”
Langston Kerman (@LangstonKerman)
I would say the worst advice that comes to mind was when a comic, who pretty soon after telling me to quit performing completely, told me I shouldn’t move to NY until I had an hour-and-a-half of good material. Like this city and its comedy scene would have been unmanageable without a special and a half.
Casey James Salengo (@caseyJsalengo)
When I started, I was told I need business cards. I was told they’ll make me look professional and they will make people remember me. I got huge box of probably 300 business cards, handed them to about six people who all laughed at me, and now they’re looking very professional under my bed. Second, I was told that if I’m going to record my Comedy Central presents submission tape “at some Bushwick bar” then I shouldn’t even waste my time. I recorded my submission at one of my favorite bars, the Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, and I got it.
Marcia Belsky (@MarciaBelsky)
The worst advice I’ve ever been given was a male comic who told me that just because I was a female comedian didn’t mean I had to be a “female comedian” … I asked him what that could even mean, and he said, “you know I just get tired of hearing about periods.” His opener was humping a stool.
J.P. McDade (@jp_mcdade)
The worst comedy advice I ever got is advice new comics get all the time, often unsolicited. When you’re starting out, inevitably you’ll encounter some talentless open mic philosopher who offers this gem: “don’t be afraid to bomb.” I don’t know if this has always been the case, but in the last few years I’ve seen many comedians develop this odd and unsettling comfort with bombing. They think if they fail enough, comedy karma will reward them with career prosperity. A bomb should be a cruel and unusual experience that shoves you, ashamed, back into your notebook. If you bomb often, you’re a bad comic and you should quit. For the love of God, be afraid to bomb.
Ben Kronberg (@benkronberg)
I was once told that audiences ages 40 and over don’t like poop jokes and to avoid them at the biker bar I was performing at.
Molly Ruben-Long (@mollyrubenlong)
Once another open micer in New Orleans who I barely knew FB messaged me and said “molly i just wanted to tell you the other night that i hate you have to take your comedy to a sexual level you have so mych [sic] more to talk about! i respect you”
Dan Perlman (@danjperlman)
Someone told me to try falling down and jumping around on stage more. Someone else told me that I should just worry about hanging out at shows the first few years, not worry about going on stage.
Christi Chiello (@christichiello)
My first year in comedy I met this much older comic at an open mic. He told me that I “wasn’t bad,” but I “needed a catchphrase.” I laughed because I thought he was kidding but he was very serious. “Yunno, like a word you can always shout after a killer bit! Something like, ‘KABLAM!’ You can put that on a button pin, too!! Wear it on stage!” I don’t know what ever happened to him but I hope he went into the button pin business!
Samantha Ruddy (@samlymatters)
I think hitting as many mics in a night as you can is bad advice. When I moved to New York in 2014, it seemed like the goal for a lot of people. Instead of trying to do five open mics, do two or three and actually stay and meet people. Or go write. It’s good to do a lot of mics but at a certain point, there’s other things you could be doing that would benefit you more.
“There are two ways to be successful at comedy: You can work hard or do cocaine”
Shak Standley (@ShakNotShaq)
One time this booker told me that I looked and sounded a lot like Dave Chappelle and I should use that to my advantage. She told me that I should start doing some of his bits.
Sam Evans (@ReallySamEvans)
“Don’t go to New York, you’ll hate it there.” And also, “Why would you ever leave New York?” I think comedy has less to do with the place you do it and more to do with time well spent.
Shalewa Sharpe (@silkyjumbo)
I did a show in Asheville once and an older gentleman approached me after my set and said, “I used to do stand up, so lemme give you a little advice: ditch the glasses. Makes you look smart. Ain’t nobody laughing at a smart gal.” When I explained I needed them to see, he said, “Oh, that doesn’t matter.”
Mike Lebovitz (@MikeLebovitz)
Probably the worst advice I’ve gotten is something along the lines of, “It’s all about selling merch.”
Dina Hashem (@dinahashemsays)
“Never say no to anything.” I mean I think it’s fine advice when you’re starting out and getting as much experience as you can, but after a point I think it’s good to say no to things you feel are dishonest to yourself.
Shane Torres (@SyrupMountain)
Honestly, I think the best advice I ever got was to start a podcast. Never really did it.
Comedians are often wayward maniacs in need of some major life advice. If you think you can help us grow and succeed with some hard-earned general wisdom, we’re all ears. But be warned: if you try to tell us how to do the one thing we actually know how to do, you might wind up being ridiculed on an internet list, which is a modern fate worse than death.