Mastering Stand-Up: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Successful Comedian

Mastering Stand-Up: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Successful Comedian

by Stephen Rosenfield


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This entertaining and sharply written guide—for both beginners breaking into comedy and professionals seeking to improve their sets and advance their careers—examines the work of great comedians such as Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Izzard, Moms Mabley, Hannibal Buress, Sarah Silverman, Richard Pryor, and more as a means of illustrating the most important techniques of performing and writing stand-up.

Here, Stephen Rosenfield lays out a clear plan for achieving success, candidly explaining what works, what doesn’t, and why. Including a 12-item “Successful Comedian’s To-Do List,” Rosenfield states, “Get undeniably good at each of these and you can kiss your day job good-bye. You will be a pro.”

The New York Times heralded Stephen Rosenfield as “probably the best known comedy teacher in the country.” His alumni include some of today’s most prominent comedians and comedy writers, such as Lena Dunham, Jim Gaffigan, Eric Slovin, and Jessica Kirson. Rosenfield has directed, coached, and/or written for these and hundreds of other comedians. As a pioneer in the field of teaching comedy, he founded the American Comedy Institute, the premier stand-up comedy school in the United States, in 1989.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613736920
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 233,525
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

The New York Times heralded Stephen Rosenfield as “probably the best known comedy teacher in the country.” His alumni include some of today’s most prominent comedians and comedy writers, such as Lena Dunham, Jim Gaffigan, Eric Slovin, and Jessica Kirson. Rosenfield has directed, coached, and/or written for these and hundreds of other comedians. As a pioneer in the field of teaching comedy, he founded the American Comedy Institute, the premier stand-up comedy school in the United States, in 1989. 

Read an Excerpt



You have a lot of comedy inside you. I don't want you to ever doubt that fact again. There are only a few things I know absolutely; this is one of them. You may ask yourself, How the hell can he say that? He doesn't know me. He's not even here. Here's how I know. Would you have picked up this book if you didn't have a sense of humor? Put your palm out so I can read it. All your life people have told you how funny you are. Sometimes you didn't even think you were being funny, but people laughed. If someone other than you was the class clown in school, you heard what that person put out there for laughs, and thought to yourself, I'm funnier. You were right. And the people who've been telling you that you're funny, they're right too.

So now, knowing you, you're probably thinking, OK, I'm funny with my friends and family, but that doesn't mean I could be funny onstage or write comedy professionally. You're wrong again. I'm sorry to keep contradicting you, but I feel I owe you the truth. You've been nice enough to pick up my book. There are tons of other books you could be reading right now, but you've picked mine. So now we have a relationship. And when a relationship is founded on comedy, there has to be absolute candor. Why? Because the truth comes out quickly in comedy. It comes out the moment you get in front of an audience. Either they laugh or they don't. If I insincerely tell you that you're funny, and you believe me and go out in front of an audience and get no laughs, then you won't believe me again — and that will be the end of our relationship. I have to be honest with you because I know the audience is going to be honest with you.

Here's the truth: if you're funny with your friends and family, that's a sign you'll be funny onstage and that you can be both a writer and a performer of comedy. You have the talent. What you need now is the craft. Craft is what will transform your comedy from an entertainment for friends and family to an entertainment for a mass national audience. I can teach you the craft of performing and writing comedy. It's an exciting thought — you, onstage at a comedy club, getting big laughs; you, submitting your comedy writing to a television show and hearing back about a staff writer position.

It's exciting, but let's not uncork the champagne yet. You have to get very, very good at stand-up for good things to happen. And I don't mean good once in a while, when you give a terrific performance. I mean good night after night after night after night; in small clubs and in big clubs; in your town and in towns and cities across the country; in front of packed audiences and sparse audiences; in front of people who know you and like you, and in front of complete strangers; in front of great audiences and dead audiences; opening a show and closing a show; following a comic who bombs and following a comic who kills; when you're pumped and when you feel like crap; when ... you get the idea.

When you get this good, undeniably good, you'll have a career as a stand-up comedian. I guarantee it. There's no such thing as a great undiscovered comedian. There are "table comics," stand-ups who are hilarious at the comics' table while having a drink after the show but not hilarious when and where it counts: showtime onstage. When you consistently get big laughs on stage from the beginning to the end of your set with original, tightly written material, the people who hire comedians will hear those laughs and hire you. Guaranteed.

What does it take to get undeniably good? Talent, yes, but mostly work. Lots of work. Years of work. Great talents are people who are obsessed with their work. Are you up for this?

Don't answer yet. There is something else you need to know before you make this decision. You don't need to put in all this work. There are legions of generic comics getting laughs with jokes that anyone can tell, giving performances that are sometimes funny but never indelible. You see these people all the time at open mics, at "new talent nights," at regular shows, even on television. If you're OK with being one of them, don't be ashamed. It will save you a lot of time. And some money — you don't need to buy my book. I am not the right guy for you. We wouldn't be happy with each other and neither of us wants to get involved in something that's not going to work out. The only thing I ask is, if you're reading this book in a store, please put it back carefully. If you tear the cover or get a smudge on the page, it's harder to sell. Let's part as friends.

If, however, you're interested in creating original comedy — if you're excited about using your life, your experiences, your opinions, your observations, and your imagination to create comedy that the world will know is yours and yours alone — then uncork that bottle, sweetheart, and let's get cookin'. Cheers!



Successful comedians get good at 12 things. Get undeniably good at each of these and you can kiss your day job good-bye. You will be a pro. Here is the stand-up comedian's to-do list:

1. Find Your Originality. Get in touch with what is original about your sense of humor. Originality is a hallmark of exceptional art. In comedy, it's what the entertainment industry looks for first and foremost when determining who has the makings for the big leagues. Most club comics aren't originals. Their work is generic. Their material may get laughs, but it could be performed by anybody. That's why they're not memorable. And then, on the other hand, there are the stars of comedy. They make an indelible impression on us. We feel like we know them. We think of them as friends, as family. We love them. When they finish a set, the buzz in the room is not about jokes, it's about them. I'm going to help make that happen for you.

2. Master the Techniques of Stand-Up Comedy Writing. You may not think of yourself as a writer. You may think of yourself as just a funny person who says funny things. The idea of trying to write comedy may be intimidating. But it shouldn't be, for one simple reason: you're already writing comedy. Like many comedy writers, you're writing with your mouth. What you need to do now is capture the funny things you say and think by writing them down. Once you get your spontaneous comic creations on paper, you can start to apply the writing techniques that will transform your ad-libs into stage-worthy stand-up comedy material.

3. Master the Techniques of Stand-Up Comedy Performing. Sometimes new comics feel like if they know their lines, they're prepared to do their set. Not true. That would be like an actor saying he doesn't need any rehearsal because he's memorized his lines. A stand-up, like an actor, must have the ability to produce onstage the emotions that give life to his performance. He must be capable of creating this emotional life night after night, in a way that seems spontaneous and unrehearsed to the audience. Masterful comedians acquire the techniques to do this, and it's the reason why many of them become exceptional actors. In the upcoming chapters, you'll learn how to acquire these skills.

4. Create Your Comic Persona. To become a successful comedian, you must develop a vivid and distinctive onstage personality — a personality as individual as your real-life personality, only more so. This stage personality, or persona as it's called in comedy, must be manifest in your material, how you look, what you wear, and how you move and speak. The process of creating a persona is a collaboration between you and your audiences over an extended period of time, usually several years. I'll teach you how to make this collaboration happen successfully.

5. Deepen Your Understanding of Comedy. Gifted stand-ups go on to careers as actors, writers, directors, and producers in television, theater, and movies; as hosts of their own television talk shows; and as bestselling authors. Their versatility comes from the knowledge and experience they acquire about comedy during their formative years in stand-up. Getting good at stand-up writing and performing is an education that will enable you to pursue comedy in all areas of the arts and entertainment.

6. Study Great Comedians. Watching great comedians will help you learn and improve your act. Just because someone is onstage doing stand-up doesn't mean that you should study that person and try to incorporate what they're doing into your work. The comedians you love are the comedians you want to study. Louis C.K. says that studying George Carlin taught him what he needed to know to move up in the stand-up ranks from hack to comedy star. Carlin's work taught Louis the two things that became Louis's trademark. The first is to have the courage to speak the unspeakable onstage. And the second is that if, every year, you throw out all your old material and write an hour of new material, you will be forced to dig deeper and deeper into yourself to find your comedy. Don't limit yourself to studying only the current crop of star stand-ups. View video of the great stand-ups of the past. The Internet has made this easy. You're not going to know what's possible to accomplish in your stand-up unless you know the work of the great comedians who came before you.

7. Perform! Perform! Perform! To become a pro, performing must be a regular part of your workweek. Perform stand-up as frequently as you can. The only way you'll absorb the techniques you learn from this book is to use them onstage over and over again until they've become second nature to you.

8. Never Blame Your Audience. Your audience can be an invaluable guide to improving your writing and performing. In comedy, they're ultimately your editor in chief. Over time, they'll teach you what subjects and attitudes work best for you. Just as important, they'll teach you what doesn't work for you. Sometimes they'll be your friends and sometimes they'll be strangers; sometimes they'll love you and sometimes they'll be cold and indifferent; sometimes they'll be rude and sometimes you'll wish you could take them home with you because they'll give you more than anyone else in the world gives you. They'll do all of these things, some of the time. Remember, however, that all of the time, they're your collaborators. In good shows and bad, they have lessons to teach you about how to be a better comedian. Never blame an audience; learn from them, instead. This book will teach you how.

9. Know the Forms of Stand-Up Comedy. As in all art, stand-up has classical forms. Knowing them will help you define and clarify the type of stand-up you want to do. Knowledge of the forms will expand and give shape to your comic ideas.

10. Understand the Business. To work as a stand-up, you need to be knowledgeable about the comedy business. There have never been more opportunities for comedians and comedy writers than there are now. Because of the Internet, it's possible for you to create and produce, at virtually no cost, comedy that can launch you professionally. I intend for you not only to do stand-up, but also to be paid to do stand-up. I'll provide you with a working knowledge of the entertainment industry.

11. Trust Your Nerves. It's OK to be nervous. Your nerves can give you invaluable assistance onstage. In this book, you'll learn how to make your nerves work for you.

12. Have Fun. Stand-up is the one endeavor I know of where having fun is actually a requirement. And it's a requirement for this reason: when individuals become an audience, a transformation takes place. They stop feeling what each of them is feeling individually, and they start to feel collectively what the performer is feeling. If the audience picks up from you that there's nowhere else on Earth you'd rather be than onstage talking to them, then they start thinking, I'm having a ball here, listening to this guy. If, however, you go onstage thinking, Christ, let me get this over with, then your audience will start thinking, GET THIS OVER WITH. Before each of our shows, I ask the comedians, "What's the most important thing tonight?" The answer is, have fun.

Now that you know what you're working toward, we're ready to begin. Remember this moment. The memory will make you smile when you're standing in the wings, waiting to go on for your first television special.



Benjamin Franklin said, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." He was wrong. There's one other thing that's for certain. When people discover that you're doing standup, someone undoubtedly will say, "Oh, you're a comedian! Tell me a joke!" This chapter explains why you should say "No!"

First, let's examine what they're asking. They want you to tell them something funny that they can later retell to other people and get laughs. This is material like, "A priest, a rabbi, and a nun are in a lifeboat ..." Or "A man walks into a bar with a kangaroo ..." Or "How many strippers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" That kind of joke is a riddle or a short story with a cast of characters and one laugh line at the end.

You're going to say "No!" because stand-ups don't use this joke form. They did in the past. Watch video of Myron Cohen and you'll see a famous comedian of the 1950s whose act involved telling these kinds of jokes. You can find his work on the Internet. He was a joke-teller who often used an Old World Jewish accent when he acted out characters. He was a big star — and funny. Watch him and you will laugh. You will also see why comedians haven't used this form since the 1960s.

Myron could take two minutes before he got to a laugh line. Jokes of this kind can take that amount of time or longer to get to a laugh. If we're on a break at work, or at a gathering of family and friends, taking that much time to deliver a laugh is fine. It's not fine, however, in a comedy club. Because comedy club audiences have watched late-night TV comedians for years, they've been trained to expect laughs far more frequently. Watch the opening monologues of former Tonight Show hosts Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Watch Jimmy Kimmel's, Stephen Colbert's, and Jimmy Fallon's monologues. These late-night comedians get upward of four laughs per minute. Watch video of David Letterman performing his Top Ten Lists. He can get laughs every five seconds. These laughs-per-minute ratios are what's expected of a stand-up. Riddle jokes and short story jokes with one laugh line at the end don't deliver laughs nearly that frequently. One reason stand-ups don't tell these kinds of jokes is that they take much too long to get a laugh.

To explain the second reason they don't tell them, I want to share one of my favorite Myron Cohen jokes. It's been a long time since I watched him tell it, so I'm doing it from memory: This man is not feeling so good at work and decides to come home early. It's two in the afternoon. When he gets home he calls out, "Honey, I'm home!" and there is no answer. He goes up to their bedroom to see if everything is all right and he sees his wife naked in bed. He looks at her and asks, "What's going on?" She says, "Nothing." The husband opens up his closet and there is a naked man standing there. "What are you doing here?!" he demands. The naked man replies, "Everybody's got to be someplace."

Myron Cohen told this joke and got laughs, I tell this joke and get laughs, and you can too — anyone can. A joke that anyone can tell and get laughs with is the definition of a generic joke. You don't want those in your act. You want jokes that are so clearly stamped with your personality, your opinions, and your attitudes that no one can tell them as successfully as you. That's the kind of comedy material that makes you pop out as an original and moves you up in the stand-up comedy ranks.

People don't go to comedy clubs to hear material that they've heard other people tell, or even worse, told themselves. A study revealed that a joke travels our entire country within 72 hours. Given all our social media, this makes sense. It's fair to assume that if you've heard a joke, so have a lot of other people — and some of those people may be in your audience. Yet another reason for the "No."

You're going to say "No" to people who ask you for a joke because if you're doing it right, you won't have the kind of joke they're looking for. Your set will be composed of original jokes that are imbued with your persona, your point of view. These jokes will be carefully ordered so that there's a flow: one joke contributes to the next; one joke is woven into the next joke to form a brilliant tapestry of comedy. You can't just pull out a thread for the "tell me a joke" guy. He probably won't get it without experiencing it in the context of your whole set. It would be like someone saying to a songwriter, "Oh, you write music! Sing me a note!" "No!" Tell him that you'd love for him to hear all of your jokes — and give him the time, place, and cover charge for your next performance.


Excerpted from "Mastering Stand-Up"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Stephen Rosenfield.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Part I Beginning Our Work Together

1 Things I Know About You 3

2 The Road Ahead 6

3 "No!" 11

Part II The Forms of Stand-Up Comedy

4 Observational Stand-Up 17

5 Anecdotal Stand-Up 22

6 The Stand-Up Sketch 30

7 Act-Outs 34

8 Put-Down Humor-Celebrity Put-Downs 39

9 Put-Down Humor-People in Your Life 45

10 Put-Down Humor-Hecklers 49

11 Put-Down Humor-Insult Comedy 53

12 Put-Down Humor-Self-Deprecating Humor 60

13 Crowd Work 66

14 The Comic Flaw 73

15 Character Stand-Up Comedy 77

16 Edgy Stand-Up Comedy 83

17 Specialties 93

18 Ad-Libbing 99

Part III The Handbook for Creating Stand-Up Comedy Material

19 Preparing for Your First Draft 105

20 The First Draft 113

21 Trying Out Your First Draft 119

22 Setup and Punchline 125

23 Working Backward 135

24 Creating Your Set List 139

Part IV The Handbook for Performing Stand-Up Comedy

25 Nerves and the Three Gifts They Give You 149

26 The Single Most Important Thing: Joyous Communication 153

27 Coming Alive Onstage: Emotional Fullness 158

28 Be in the Room 163

29 Delivery 167

30 The Things to Do Before You Get to the Club 175

31 Before the Show Starts 181

32 Showtime 186

Part V Get Undeniably Good

33 Building an All "A" Set 195

34 Creating Your Persona 203

35 The Six Characteristics of a Successful Persona 207

36 The Seventh Characteristic 219

37 The "This Joke Used to Kill and Now It's Bombing, What the Hell Is Going On" Checklist 222

38 Hosting 227

39 The Voice 236

40 Everything You Need to Know About the Business of Stand-Up Comedy 242

Acknowledgments 247

Index 249

About the Author 255

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