Creating a Comic

Bombing, killing, and other occupational hazards of stand-up comedy


I'm your host, CJ Alexander.
This is my blog about breaking into stand-up comedy.

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Stand-up Comedy Glossary

Are you confused by some of the insider comic lingo used here or elsewhere? Study this comedy glossary and you, too, can sound like a jaded veteran road comic:

  • Act — A comic’s current body of work on stage, comprised of various Bits (see below). “I used to be really crazy on stage, but my act these days is a lot more observational.”
  • Act-out — When a comedian physically acts out a joke, typically with exaggerated body motions and gestures. Dane Cook is especially well-known for these nowadays. “The story about my prostate exam only started getting laughs when I made it into an act-out.”
  • Bit — A joke or, more often, a series of related jokes. “His bit about jogging killed, but the doctor’s office bit was too long—it definitely needs some more polishing.”
  • Blue — Dirty jokes and other adult-themed material, most obviously characterized by curse words (obligatory NSFW Carlin link) but sometimes used to mean anything with an “R” rating that couldn’t be said at a school or on network TV. See also ‘Clean,’ below. “His act is absolutely brilliant, but it’s way too blue for him to ever get booked on Late Night.”
  • BumpedA set that gets canceled, usually do to time constraints. “I was scheduled to feature last night, but got bumped when a famous headliner dropped by to do some new material.”
  • Bombed — Sucked, failed, stunk up the joint. “I had the worst set of my life—absolutely bombed it. The audience had torches and pitchforks.”
  • Booker — The person who schedules comics for a specific room, typically a venue manager or owner. “The booker at that club prefers to book clean acts.”
  • Callback — A punchline that refers, or “calls back,” to a joke or premise from earlier in the performance (as opposed to a tag, which is a consecutive punchline within the same premise). One of the most reliable comedy tricks, a callback can elevate a marginal joke to legendary. “And then he closed strong by tying it all together with a callback to his opening joke about lupus.”
  • Clean – The inverse of “Blue,” above. A comic can technically be considered “clean” if he avoids cursing; “squeaky clean” material eschews ribald or shocking topics of any kind. Saying “cock” is definitely blue (rated R); saying “masturbate” and making the wank motion is technically clean, but blue-tinged (rated PG-13); avoiding the subject of one’s dong entirely is squeaky clean (rated G). “I have an opportunity to work a cruise ship this summer, if I can show that I have an hour of clean material.”
  • Closer A comic’s final bit (see above). Since the idea is to leave the audience wanting more, this will usually be their best (or signature) material.  “My jokes about aliens are getting huge laughs lately, so I’m thinking of making it my closer.” Alternately, can also refer to the Headliner, the comic who “closes” the show.
  • Crowd Work — When a comic interacts with the audience. Often done to heighten the sense of improvisation, or simply kill some time. Can be the best part of a set when done well. “Comics from the UK, like Jimmy Carr and Dara O’Briain, tend to be superb at crowd work and incorporate a lot of it in their act.”
  • Died — see “Bombed,” above.
  • Feature — Typically refers to the professional comic who comes on before the headliner, someone who does 15-30 minutes and maybe headlines the occasional small room. Sometimes used interchangeably with ‘Middle.’ “Her career is going well, she’s been getting a lot of feature work on the road.”
  • Hack — Short for “hackneyed,” as in unoriginal. When referring to material, a hack joke is an overworn premise that’s been done to death, with nothing original added. A hack comic is one who tells primarily hack jokes. (Hack comics can still make a very good living, regardless of the disdain of their peers.) “He’s such a hack; his set was nothing but the same old differences-between-men-and-women material you’ve already heard a thousand times.”
  • Headliner — The big cheese, the closer; the comic whose name is on the marquee outside and who people came to see. Headliners will do at least 45 minutes of material, and usually closer to an hour (or more). “She worked her ass off for years and has been getting some well-deserved breaks as a headliner.”
  • Host — The first comic up on stage, who does some material (5-15 minutes) and then introduces each subsequent comic. Sometimes called the MC or Opener, some parts of America (like Seattle) this underrated job is the lowest on the comedy totem pole. In Canada and elsewhere (like Nashville) the Host ranks just below the headliner.  “He did a great job as host, setting the audience up for each comic and maintaining an even energy level all evening.”
  • Joke Structure — Jokes follow a very specific formula: setup, punchline, and then tags/toppers (see below). There’s a lot of “stuff that’s funny” in this world, and some of it can get laughs on stage, but the joke is still the comic’s bread and butter.
  • Killed — Had an awesome set; the audience was rolling in the aisles. “How’d you do at the club last night?” “I killed!”
  • Light — The offstage signal to the comic on stage that their time is almost over and they should wrap it up. Can be as elaborate as an air traffic wand or as simple as a waved cell phone; either way, the comic had better get off the stage, as “riding the light” (staying on stage beyond one’s welcome) is a cardinal offense. “The set was going so well, I didn’t even realize my time was almost up until I got the light.”
  • Material — Can refer to a single joke, a bit, a routine, or one’s entire act.  “I feel really good about the new material I’ve been working on lately. It’s darker and edgier than my old material.”
  • MC — See ‘Host,’ above.
  • Merch — Short for merchandise, refers to the DVDs, CDs, t-shirts, etc. that a comic will often sell after a show. “The club owner would like you to set up your merch table over by the bar.”
  • Middle — Often used interchangeably with ‘Feature,’ above.
  • Open Mic – The boot camp of stand-up comics, where we learn our craft and test out new jokes. Usually at a comedy club but often in a bar or other venue. “I’m heading down to Giggles tonight to test out some new material at open mic.”
  • Opener — The comedian’s first joke or series of jokes, typically among their best and most crowd-pleasing material. “He uses a really funny and self-deprecating opener to get the audience on his side.” Alternately, used interchangeably with ‘Host’  or ‘MC,’ but only if the comic comes back to the stage between comics to introduce each one. If there are no hosting duties, and each comic introduces the following comic, the first performer is the Opener. Lowest level on the pro comic totem pole. “The feature performer will go up as soon as the opener is finished.”
  • Parallel Thinking — a.k.a. “No, I did NOT steal that joke!” Occurs when two or more comics come up with the same material independently. “Someone asked me if I got that joke from Will Ferrell’s one man show, but it turned out to be parallel thinking.” See more in this blog entry.
  • Persona (also ‘Stage Persona’) — The voice, personality, mannerisms, and everything else that the comic adopts when they go up on stage. For some comics this is completely different from their normal personality, but for most it’s an exaggerated version of themselves (the rule of thumb is “you plus 15%”). “His career really started to click once he got comfortable with his persona up on stage.”
  • Playing to the back of the room — When a comic tailors their set not to the paying audience but to the other comics in the audience, who typically watch from the back of the room. It’s natural to want the respect of your peers, but this is a self-defeating way of getting it and generally not advised, even at open mics. “When the audience didn’t like my opener I was tempted to just forget about them and play to the back of the room for my buddies.”
  • Road Comic (also ‘Working Comic’) — A comedian who makes a living performing on the road. It’s not a good living, necessarily, but it’s a living. Usually a feature act (see above). “I’ve been working as a road comic for a few years now, and I’m really hoping to break through to the headliner level soon.”
  • Room — Another way of saying venue; the physical location of the gig where the comedian performs their act, be it a comedy club, bar, old folks’ home, frat mixer, etc. If a comedian says “That’s a really difficult room to work” they mean that something about the venue somehow distracts from the laughs: maybe a pool table right near the stage, or bad acoustics, or bar TVs that stay on. (Or they’re just making an excuse for bombing.)
  • Routine — See ‘Bit,’ above.
  • Set — The comedian’s act for a specific show. “The early crowd was wild, ready to laugh but also attentive. It was a really great set. Then I bombed the late show. That set sucked.”
  • Squeaky Clean — Totally inoffensive material that’s rated G; Disney-clean. See ‘Clean,’ above. “The amazing Jim Gaffigan has done it again: an entire hour of utterly hilarious, squeaky-clean material.”
  • Street Jokes — These are the (author-forgotten) jokes that people tell each other in ordinary life, often preceded by “wanna hear a good one?” Also called Internet jokes (because they get sent around via email) or public domain jokes. Some comics are good enough to tell street jokes as part of their acts (Gilbert Gottfried); most can not. “Open mic tonight was terrible, with newbie after newbie telling nothing but street jokes.”
  • Tag — The extra twist after the punchline that generates an extra laugh. A good comic can keep tagging a joke more than once, twisting a premise back and forth to continue generating laughs. “The joke itself does alright, but the tag gets a huge laugh.”
  • Topper — see ‘Tag,’ above.
  • Voice — see ‘Persona,’ above.

Have you heard any lingo that’s not on this glossary? Are you a comic with some suggestions or thoughts? Am I a retard who can’t alphebetize? Let me know and I’ll adjust the list as they come.

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