20 Funny Stories About Becoming a Comedian

Zack Galifianakis, Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Jerry Seinfeld, Jerry Lewis, and 15 other stand-ups share their funniest stories about being a comedian.

My First Joke

by Zach Galifianakis

[The joke, told 16 years ago at a club in Times Square, went like this]: I was with this girl the other night, and we ended up at her house, and she said, “Hey, look, you can crash on my futon.” And I looked at her, and I said, “I don’t sleep on anything that rhymes with crouton.”

I think I heard a cough and a fork drop at the same time. Silence. But after that night, I remember thinking to myself—not to be too dramatic, but I do remember—This is the path I’m going to take.

—Excerpted from the New York Daily News

• Zack Galifianakis stars in The Hangover 3 (out May 24).

Dealing with the Network

by Louis CK

HBO asked us why there was no nudity [while we were shooting Lucky Louie]. What they really meant was, Why wasn’t Pamela Adlon, who played my wife, nude? When I hired Pam, I didn’t tell her she was going to be doing anything like that. It wasn’t supposed to be that kind of show. So I said, “You know what, I’ll do it.” And I did that episode, and they were like, “Okay, we have plenty of nudity, thank you.”

—Excerpted from the New York Times

• Louis CK stars in, writes, and directs Louie on FX.

Forming My Act

by Joan Rivers

I was always very edgy, but for me, “very edgy” in the ’60s was talking about my hairdresser, Mr. Phyllis. People gasped. I talked about having an affair with a married professor. People gasped. I even talked about my mother wanting me to get married and putting up a sign saying “Last Girl Before Freeway.” And people said, “You don’t bring family and dirty laundry onstage.” So what I was doing then was very outrageous — for then.

—Excerpted from the San Francisco Chronicle

• Joan Rivers costars in Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? on WE.

The Wrong Club

by Heather McDonald

I was new in the business when a guy offered me a gig at his club in Santa Monica. When I got to the address and spotted the illuminated silhouettes of women flashing on the roof, I was energized. This place really supports female comics, I told myself. I walked to the door and announced to the bouncer that I was there to perform.

“Are you here for amateur night?” he asked.

Though I’d been doing stand-up for a year, I tried not to appear offended. He motioned to a waitress, who led me into the green room, where I met the other comedians. My first thought: They’re all so attractive. I wonder if they’ll be telling jokes about being single and dating like me. My second thought: Why are they wearing only their bras and underwear?

Suddenly, the feeling came over me that I had had once before when I was applying lip liner in a poorly lit bathroom at a TGI Friday’s and a man emerged from the stall — I’m in the wrong place!

They all think I’m a stripper!

Of course, I was flattered. Who wouldn’t be? And when I found out the prize was $100, I considered entering. But then I remembered the high-waisted panties I was wearing and decided to stick with comedy.

• Heather McDonald is a regular on the E! network’s Chelsea Lately.

This Is the Job for Me!

by Jerry Seinfeld

[When Jerry was eight, he told a joke that made his friend spit up his milk and cookies.]

I felt the milk, and I saw it all coming at me, and I said, “I would like to do this professionally.”

—Excerpted from CNN

• Jerry Seinfeld was the star and cocreator of Seinfeld.

I Almost Died Laughing

by Jerry Lewis

I’m preparing the big finale for my 1960 film Cinderfella.

The setting is a ballroom. The centerpiece: a long, majestic staircase with 64 steps. I’d flown in the Count Basie Orchestra from New York, so the soundstage is packed with hundreds of crew members, actors, extras, musicians, and visitors. I tell the cameraman where to set up the camera and what his cue is. Now I’m ready to film. I make my entrance at the top of the stairs. The camera follows me as I do my choreographed routine, going from the top stair all the way into the ballroom. I go to my costar Anna Maria Alberghetti. I take her hand and kiss it. I leave her and run up those 64 stairs in nine seconds flat. Nine seconds flat!

And then I wind up at the hospital — I had a heart attack at the top of the stairs.

The film and all those actors, extras, crew members, and musicians are on hold for eight weeks because I’m now inside an oxygen tent. We’re talking 1960, so it’s a huge canvaslike affair — square, with zippers. And on the top of it, there’s a flap you can open to put in the stethoscope, medicine, and so on.

That night, my father comes into my room. He opens the little flap on the oxygen tent, sticks his face inside, and says, “Do you know what you’re doing to your mother?”

• Jerry Lewis is a comedian, actor, producer, writer, director, singer …

The Day My Act Was Born

by Lisa Lampanelli

Bring back the fat chick!

It was only five words, but they changed my life forever.

The place, in Meriden, Connecticut, was a mediocre crab-and-burger joint that hosted a stand-up comedy show. The crowd was full of food, half full of liquor, and devoid of civility.

To be honest, my set wasn’t my best — having just started in comedy — and I did about 15 minutes of jokes about my weight, my Italian family, and my current relationship.

As I introduced the next comic, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had made it through the set. But while watching the comic struggle for laughs, I heard that fateful line: “Bring back the fat chick!”

I froze. Sure, the drunken creep who yelled it was implying I was funnier than comic No. 2. But he had called me fat, a word that every woman from Eve to Eva Braun to Eve Ensler has feared. I felt my face turn red as the audience shifted its gaze to where I stood. In that instant, I made a decision: I was gonna get them before they got me. I may be the only comedian who has been heckled when she was offstage, but in that moment, “Lisa Lampanelli — Insult Comic” was born.

• Lisa Lampanelli is a mainstay of the Comedy Central Roasts.

My Favorite Act

by Dan “Larry the Cable Guy” Whitney

Johnny Vegas was a crazy Brit. I remember he was standing on a table at this comedy club belting out “God Bless America” when suddenly he fell off and cracked his head open. The place went silent. Is he dead? Is he alive? No one knew. Then out of the blue, a voice shouted, “Come on, you sorry so-and-sos, sing with me!” Johnny staggered to his feet and, with blood pouring from his head, marched around the club leading us all in a sing-along. I’m telling ya, the Brits do some strange stuff.

• Dan Whitney’s Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy will air in 2012 on the History Channel.

Hanging Out with Royalty

by Don Rickles

About 50 years ago, I’m sitting in the lounge at the Sands Hotel with my date, the kind of girl you wouldn’t bring home to mother. In those days, the lounge was a very romantic place — roaming violinists, flaming torches, the works. Frank Sinatra happened to be sitting at another table with Lena Horne and a bunch of other stars. I was trying to be a big shot and get in good with my date, so I offered to introduce her to Frank.

“Do you really know Frank Sinatra?” she said.

“Are you kidding, sweetheart? He’s a dear friend.”

I get up and walk over to Frank’s table. “Frank, I got a favor,” I say. “Could you come over to my table in about five minutes so I can introduce you to my girlfriend? It would mean a lot to me.”

He says, “You got it, Bullethead.”

He always called me Bullethead.

Five minutes goes by, and he gets up and walks over to us, and, with a huge smile, says, “Hey, Don, how are you?”

And with that, I jump up from my seat and shout, “Not now, Frank. Can’t you see I’m with someone?!”

• Don Rickles is, well, Don Rickles.

Soap Opera

by Joy Behar

Early in my career, I wanted to get into commercials, so I met with an agent. He took one look at me, and he said, “You’re a good type for Ragu and Driver’s Training Institute, but you can’t do Procter and Gamble.” Then he reconsidered: “Well, you can do Procter and Gamble, but the blonde has to have the clean floor, and you have to have the dirty floor,” which is ironic because you can eat off my mother’s floor. We often did, since she could never decide on a dining room set.

• Joy Behar stars in The View on ABC and the Joy Behar Show on HLN.

This Is a Tough Room

by  Wanda Sykes

I was working at a club in Newark, and somebody bent over, and his gun fell out on the floor. Everybody began checking their coats to make sure it wasn’t their gun.

Excerpted from Rolling Stone

• Wanda Sykes was named one of the 25 funniest people in America by Entertainment Weekly.

The Day I Let It All Hang Out

by Cory Jarvis

Before I was a stand-up, I taught English in Japan. A girl I dated suggested we go to a hot-springs resort. I said yes without knowing one crucial fact: I would have to be naked.

Walking outside the locker room, I realized something: No one but me was embarrassed. The Japanese are far more comfortable with nudity than the family I was raised in. When I was a kid, I walked in on my grandpa in just his underwear, and he still won’t look me in the eye.

Sensing my trepidation, people began to make idle chatter with me, trying to put me at ease. I got so comfortable, I chatted back. I even got a couple of laughs.

Later, when I began doing stand-up, I realized that the hot-springs trip had prepared me for the pressures of being a comic. What else would help you get used to feeling like you’re naked in front of a bunch of strangers who can’t understand your jokes besides being naked in front of a bunch of strangers who can’t understand your jokes?

• Cory Jarvis is a New York–based comic.

My Mad Party

by Andrew Daly

Like most people, I got into show business for the parties. So when I joined the cast of MADtv in 2000, I posted a sign at the show’s offices: “Party at My Place! Bring Anyone!” It would prove to be poorly worded.

My first guest was a demure-looking stranger in her 60s. She arrived at 8:30 on the dot and introduced herself as June. She said, “I’m a friend of Jackie’s.”

“Jackie … ”

“She works with you at MAD.”

I pretended to know who Jackie was, and I got June her Sprite. Then two of my friends showed up. We chatted with June until two more strangers arrived. “We’re friends of Jackie’s,” they said.

Next, some friends were followed through the door by a short, fat guy with silly-looking curly hair. His name was Howard, and then, as if in a horror movie, he added, “I’m a friend of Jackie’s.” Now I was concerned. Who was Jackie, and how many people had she invited?

I was right to be worried because by 10 p.m., the air was heavy with social ineptitude. There were 25 of my friends, 50 friends of Jackie’s, and no Jackie. And Jackie’s friends were poorly cast for a young-Hollywood blowout. Eventually, I learned that Jackie and her friends were enrolled in something called the Flashforward Institute, where they had taken classes in confidence building and networking. Their homework: Attend a party. Apparently, Jackie, who held an administrative position at MADtv, had passed along my invitation — to all 100 of them.

Around 11, a woman thrust her big, smiling face in front of me and yelled, “Hi, I’m Jackie! I’m the one who invited a hundred people to your party!” She then handed me a wooden end table and said, “Everyone brings something with them to a party, but nobody ever brings anything to put those things on!”

Jackie was what psychologists call a “crazy person.”

At the end of the night, I gave Jackie and each of her friends a class evaluation: Everyone got an F in networking, except June, who got credit for being punctual.

Adapted from the LA Weekly

• Andrew Daly is an actor, a comedian, and a writer.

Joan of Arch

by Whitney Cummings

The way comics show love and admiration for each other is by insulting one another on the Comedy Central Roast.

But the key to a roast working is that the roastee has to enjoy it, or else it feels mean. That’s what happened when we roasted Joan Rivers.

Greg Giraldo went up first and ripped into her, but he got no reaction from her. The next comic went up, same thing. Everyone was laughing except Joan. The comics were getting nervous. We were whispering, “Her feelings are hurt. Look at her. She’s not smiling!” I was panicking. Here she is, my hero, and I was convinced she would never speak to me again.

But Joan Rivers — the butt of all these nasty jokes — saved the day. Sensing the unease among the comics, halfway through the show she stood up and assured us, “I’m having fun. This is funny!” It turns out she was a victim of her Botox. She had to subtitle her own face so that people would know she was enjoying herself.

• Whitney Cummings stars in Whitney on NBC this fall.

My Successful Career

by Judah Friedlander

People often ask me, “How did you get started in stand-up comedy?” I tell them, “I got drafted right out of high school.” I was in tenth grade, about to turn 24. In the middle of class, I decided to make fun of the teacher. Everyone started laughing. Students fell out of their chairs and were convulsing on the floor. Other classrooms emptied out and squeezed into our room. The principal entered to stop the chaos. But he laughed harder than anyone. It got too crowded, so I karate kicked the wall down and took the show outside to the parking lot. The cops and military were there. Not for security, but because they really appreciate a quality comedy show.

Two hundred miles away, Jeff Bloomwichz, the top comedy scout in America, was driving his speedboat in the Atlantic Ocean. He followed the sound of earthshaking guffaws to my show. Afterward, Jeff stepped out of his speedboat and said, “Funny stuff, kid.” I signed a deal to turn pro right there in the parking lot. The rest is history.

• Judah Friedlander plays Frank Rossitano on NBC’s 30 Rock.

Learning to Be a Pro

by Andrea Henry

I was backstage at a talent-based reality TV show watching another comic being interviewed on camera. This, he said, was his last shot in the business. He had a wife, a baby, and one on the way, so he either wowed them tonight, or he was quitting the business forever and getting a real job. As he spoke, he choked up, and I saw a little tear well up in the corner of his eye. When he finished, the producer said, “Great! Now let’s shoot it from a different angle.” After they readjusted the camera and lights, he did it pitch-perfect again, even the same little tear.

• Andrea Henry’s There She Is … was named best comedy at the SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival.

On the Cusp of Stardom

by Brian Kiley

Years ago, I got the opportunity to open for Jerry Seinfeld in Worcester, Massachusetts. There were 4,000 people per show, and they were great. The next day, my wife and I came home to New York. Waiting for us was a message on our answering machine: “Brian, this is ABC TV calling …”

I began to shake. This was my big break. “Your VCR is ready.”

Then we remembered: ABC TV was the name of the place where we had taken our VCR to be fixed.

• Brian Kiley has been nominated for 12 Emmy Awards as a writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

On Cruise Control

by Tom Papa

It was my first time on the Late Show with David Letterman, and I was doing my best to control my nerves. After all, the crowd would be excited. Tom Cruise was scheduled.

The problem was, that night Tom Cruise was pumped. Really pumped! He was trading-jokes-with-Dave and running-through-the-crowd pumped. I was doing my best to stay cool before going on, when Cruise ran offstage and made a beeline for me. He was sweating and breathing heavily like he had just won a prizefight. He grabbed my hand, locked eyes with me, and shook all his adrenaline into me.

“Whoo!” he yelled.

“Whoo?” I tried to say. I looked down and saw a drop of Tom Cruise sweat on my new suit.

He gripped my hand harder and screamed, “Kill it out there!” Cruise slapped my shoulder and in two quick leaps was up the eight steps to his dressing room.

I was now about to perform in front of a crowd of people who apparently filled Tom Cruise with pure rocket fuel, and I was freaking out! Making matters worse, David Letterman — who I’d totally forgotten about — was getting ready to introduce me. Me. Covered in Tom Cruise sweat!

Despite my brain screaming otherwise, my body went out and did the set without me. I don’t remember much of it. The good thing about being a comedian is you don’t really have to be there as long as the jokes show up, which, luckily, happened that night.

• Tom Papa hosts The Marriage Ref on NBC.

Best Heckle

by Tom Dreesen

I was at a club trying out new material. Every time I got a laugh, some guy in the back would say something for a bigger laugh. I’d reply and get a laugh, then he would top me. After ten minutes of this, I finally trumped him.

“Just between you and me,” I said, grinning, “I won that one.”

He responded: “Just between you and me, you needed it.”

• Tom Dreesen is touring with his one-man show, An Evening of Laughter and Memories of Sinatra.

The Day I Won Them Over

by Jim Mendrinos

Right after 9/11, I performed for some relief workers. The audience was justifiably on edge, and I was just as nervous. What could I possibly say under the circumstances? How about the one thing that kept nagging at me?

I began by thanking them for working so hard. Then I said, “On that terrible day, New Yorkers asked two questions: ‘Is everyone safe?’ and ‘I wonder if I’ll have tomorrow off?'”

The relief workers laughed their butts off, and we had a great show.

• Jim Mendrinos wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Comedy Writing.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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