13 Things a Stand-Up Comedian Won’t Tell You

We’ll do almost anything to get onstage. Find out what other secrets our profession holds.

1. We’ll do almost anything to get onstage.
When we’re starting out, we’ll hand out fliers for the club, answer phones, and work the door. At one club, comics cleaned toilets—until a guy said that he would clean the toilets only if he could do so using the manager. Surprise! That comic isn’t there anymore. And the  toilets are filthy.

2. Please buy something from us after the show.
Those T-shirts and CDs we sell are what we make our real money on. “We’re often paid $5 or a drink for stage and mic time,” says comic Dan Upham. And when we do book a paying gig? We spend most of the money on transportation to get there.

3. Supply and demand applies to comedy.
Comedians scrape for gigs because there are so many of us, says Comedy Central’s Ophira Eisenberg. “Few club owners have the time to develop a comic’s career. In this economy, they need to develop their own business, and their business is basically a bar. And some of those bars charge as much as $17 for
a Cosmopolitan.”

4. Some club owners dictate our material.
“An owner told me to do family-appropriate material,” says Craig Sharf. “I asked her to be specific. She said that after telling a joke, I should look at her face, and if she was frowning, it wasn’t appropriate.”

5. Comic, know thy audience.
“At one gig, the comic before me did a bit about how he hated and plotted against his girlfriend’s cat,” says comic Andrea Henry. “The show was a fund-raiser for an animal shelter.”

6. The worst audience? Bachelorette parties.
The bride-to-be expects the entire evening to be all about her, her, her … and alcohol doesn’t help. Some comics have learned how to give Bridezilla her 30 seconds and move on. But if she’s going to yell “Whoo!” every few seconds—it’s a problem.

7. Beware the front row
If someone’s talking during my set, “I’ll move over to that side of the room and slow my words down,” says comedian Eddie Brill. “All of a sudden, their conversation feels really loud and out of place.” If they go quiet, he moves on. But if they persist, he finishes them off: “It stinks when you come out for a chat, and they build a comedy club around you.”

8. We don’t care if you’re offended.
Oh, and we’re not going to stop telling a joke because you’re offended.“Don’t sit in the front row with a girl you’re trying to impress,” says Tonight Show and Late Show with David Letterman performer Dan Naturman. “It could get awkward when the comedian asks if you’re dating and the two of you give different answers.”

9. Don’t worry, we rarely pick on audience members unless we’re provoked.
“I don’t like to pick on audiences, because I don’t want audiences to pick on me,” says Last Comic Standing finalist Myq Kaplan. “You know the golden rule—silence is golden. So as long as the audience is quiet, so am I. Also, I’m a mime.

10. When will we stop telling a joke? When it stops getting laughs.
Our jokes come from personal experience. “I use the fact that redheads like me get picked on,” says comic Steve Hofstetter. “In my act, I say, ‘We’re never going to protest. What are we goingto do, have a march? What if it’s sunny?’”

11. Joke stealing is rare, but it does happen.
Jeff Caldwell, a Letterman regular, says, “I had a joke stolen and done on the Tonight Show years ago. I sent the guy a nasty letter, and he sent me $500. With as little money as I had back then, I was praying he’d steal a few more jokes.”
Don’t be afraid to say hi if you recognize us somewhere, but don’t expect us to start performing at the gas station, please. Musicians won’t sing to you, and surgeons won’t operate.

12. We don’t care who your favorite comedians are.
Would you go up to a model and say, “You know who’s pretty? Someone else.”

13. When do we know we’ve made it? When we’re on Letterman.
“For most stand-ups, it’s the end of the rainbow,” says Andrea Henry. “That said, if they ever brought back Hollywood Squares, that would be at the top of my list. Every episode looked like a party.”

Additional reporting by Natalie van der Meer

Sources: J-L Cauvin, Joe DeVito, Wendy Liebman, Matt Wohlfarth, and David Baker

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest