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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In its review of Mr. P Patrice O’Neal’s latest and final album, Slate reminds us that at the end of his career, Patrice liked to open his sets with an extended series of crowd work. He makes it hilarious, and he makes it look easy.

It is not. New comics, do not try this at your home club.

You only ever want to open with this much crowd work if you’re a veteran who’s so damn good at it that it’s guaranteed to turn out funny.1 Otherwise you run the very real risk of losing the audience completely before you’ve even started in on your actual material–which they will no longer be paying attention to, by the way, filled as they now are with intense homicidal loathing by your continued presence on stage.

In other words, only do this if you’re incredibly talented and have certified adamantium GODZILLA-BALLS. Patrice O’Neal was, and did.

While we’re on the topic of Patrice, two more quick links…

First, here’s a post about “>Patrice O’Neal’s Harassment Day proposal, which includes a video that I’d strongly encourage watching if you’ve never seen him.

Second, courtesy of my friend Jay Hollingsworth, a podcast withBobby Kelly, Dane Cook, and friends remembering their friend Patrice. It’s touching, funny, and includes some amazing anecdotes from a special recent & Anthony tribute show, where it sounds like every major comedian in the NY/Boston/Philly corridor showed up. As usual, it sounds like Dave Attell was the funniest off-the-cuff mofo in the room, even in a room filled with all-star comics.

  1. Or if it’s an open mic and you’re experimenting with failure — which actually happens, and isn’t just me making a joke. A lot of comics experiment with bombing on purpose for a variety of reasons: to see if they can recover, to see what it feels like, etc. []
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    After this site had a recent mishap with a social media plug-in, I got several comments amounting to, What’s the point of that stuff, anyway?

    I didn’t have a very good answer until today:

    Social Media broken down on a whiteboard


    I would only add eBay: “A++++ donut arrived promptly, would stuff into face again!!1″

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      When I was just starting out in comedy, I saw a comic on TV do a hilarious, insightful routine about the myth of “the good old days,” a bit that became an immediate and obsessive favorite of mine. I went on to mention or paraphrase it at least a dozen times in various conversations, to the point where it even became a running joke with a girl I was seeing at the time.

      But I never could remember which comedian deserved the credit!

      Two years later, my attribution mystery solved itself in a wonderfully surreal and insider-y way. I was helping out behind the scenes at one of the 2011 Seattle International Comedy Competition‘s venues,1 ostensibly shepherding ballots but mostly watching the show and enjoying the Green Room’s charged competitive atmosphere. So I was sitting way up in the balcony, scanning the crowd below for any familiar faces, when I heard something from the stage that made me suddenly bolt upright in my seat.

      Kane killed Abel,” rang the magic words, as Patrick Keane2 did an updated version of the brilliant routine I had originally seen on Comedy Central. In the clip below it begins at about 50 seconds:

      As soon as Patrick finished his set, I raced back to the Green Room so that I could sidle up to him and gush like a fanboy.3 I embarrassed myself a bit, but it was very much worth it: despite my being a nobody, I was just enough of an insider to be allowed hobnobbing privileges with a comedy role model–who turned out to be surprisingly tall:

      Patrick Keane and CJ Alexander at the 2011 Seattle International Comedy Competition

      It felt like the first week of MLB’s Spring Training, when the just-drafted teenage rookies get to suit up, take batting practice, and trade banter alongside the likes of Ichiro.

      Which isn’t to say that I’ve been naked in a locker room with Patrick Keane.4 That would be a terrible rumor for someone to start. (Please?)

      1. This year the Edmonds Center for the Arts once again hosted; 2010’s amazing show was my first as a volunteer. []
      2. Patrick is a talented stand-up entering his prime, and ended up finishing a very strong #4 overall in the competition. That’s out of 32 participants, drawn from a pool of invite-only auditions that numbered in the hundreds! []
      3. He was super gracious about my fanboy outburst, probably at least as embarrassed initially as I was. But we went on to have a long and interesting conversation about developing material that resonates, what makes a bit truly timeless, and the difficulty of catching lightning in a bottle a second time. His insights deserve an entire separate post, at some point, so if someone less lazy/Puerto Rican than me could please get to work on that… []
      4. Nor has Ichiro. []
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        Partying sorority girls do something clever that a lot of us should emulate, is an actual sentence that I just typed. It’s true, though: when they go fratting they’ll bring a cheap digital camera,1 and make a point of taking periodic snapshots in order to memorialize the carefree fun of being young, blackout drunk, and surrounded by rich handsome rapists.

        Even for those of us who lack the glowing, pulsating, infectious crotch colonies of a pledge sister, it’s nice to have a photographic record of where we’ve been and what/who we’ve done.

        For example, on Tuesday I was at the Royal Lounge Comedy Night down in Washington state’s capital city, Olympia.2 I’m grateful to MC Manus  and other impromptu praghotographers who helped me memorialize some fun that I had already forgotten about the very next day.

        The first was my triumphant discovery of The Evergreen State College Most Granola Hipster Couple Ever. Behold…

        Evergreen State undergrad, or long-haul trucker?

        HIM: Long-haul trucker, or irony-drenched undergrad?

        HER: Getting slightly more of my personal attention

        I enjoy talking to people after comedy shows because I can usually get away with saying some pretty outrageous shit, as long as I immediately play it off with “Ha ha, joking! Comedy guy!” This one was taken after a frank observation about their collective grooming:

        Hottie granola girl reacts to my jokes

        All I said was that if they look down during sex, it must look like
        the banging together of two giant tumbleweeds

        Good times. So try to bring a cheap camera to your shows, is my point. I’ll bolster it soon with part 2, from that gig, once I’ve figured out which photos won’t irrevocably damage the lives of everyone involved.

        1. Why not just use a phone? Because your phone is actually important and shouldn’t get beer dumped on it or be grabbed and passed around by strangers for an hour. I’m talking about cameras, btw, not sorority girls. []
        2. Olympia is the state of Washington capital city, and that’s capital with an “a”. It contains the government’s capitol building, which is capitol with an “o.” The reason for this is that English is a fucking mess. []
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          Headliners Go Home

          Want to see a show by a successful national headliner who used to be a struggling local comic? Check the local comedy show calendars during the winter holidays. The comics who originally hailed from somewhere nearby may have moved on to LA, New York, or “the road” — but they still have family in the area, and will often come home to visit during the holidays.

          And what could be more fun, for a conquering hero’s holiday homecoming, than to book the prime comedy clubs and venues in their old stomping grounds?1 These are typically some of the best-attended, highest-quality comedy shows of the year, and are a lot of fun for the local comics who get booked in the opener slots.

          There’s a catch, though: the seasonal influx of national headliners temporarily swells the local talent pool, so everyone who’s not a national headliner gets temporarily bumped down a rung. In practice this means that the regional headliners get bumped down to feature gigs; features are bumped to host and MC work, and the local host/MCs… well, we go back to the open mics.

          Oh yeah, that’s another thing about the holiday season: the open mics also tend to be really, really crowded.

          The holidays aren’t all bleak bookings and bump lists, though; yes, stage time and bookings are scarcer than usual, but they also offer a number of great opportunities to meet, watch, and learn from professional comedians. This type of off-stage socializing can be tremendously valuable, even more so than the stage time.2

          1. Of course, booking this type of “working vacation” is also smart calendar management — and good business. This is one of the reasons they’re a successful headliner! []
          2. And remember, you can still have a productive open mic experience even when you don’t get to perform. []
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