What is a Comedian?

Do you love entertaining people and making them laugh? You may want to consider a career in comedy!

The words of renowned comedian Victor Borge speak to the philosophical side of the business: ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.’ If the prospect of closing that gap gets your blood pumping and you are willing to embrace some twists and turns on the road to your dream, you may have the makings of a comedian.

What do Comedians do?

Becoming a comedian is an exercise in determination, patience, faith, and confidence. And a sense of humor is helpful – both in the often lengthy process of becoming one and, of course, in the actuality of being one.

A comedian entertaining an audience and making them laugh.

Comedians typically develop an overall structure for their act, and also create an on-stage personality that they will use and keep consistent throughout the show. They also write and perform their own material. However, more established comedians may work with one, or a team, of writers.

Within the structure of the act, comedians tell jokes, amusing stories, or do some slapstick. They also reference political happenings and trending news, so it is important to keep up to date with current events.

A comedian needs to be able to interact with the audience and be able to deal with both positive and negative feedback. Capturing the attention of the audience is key, and so is being able to adapt and/or improvise in order to respond to the audience's reaction.

A comedian may hold a Ph.D. or may be a high school drop-out. Neither status determines the degree of their success. In contrast to other creative professions, stand-up comedy is unique. Unlike graphic design, film production, acting, and other fields that offer degrees, there are, by and large, no comedy schools or training programs.

While artists of every kind learn by practice and by doing, this is especially true in this profession. Comedians learn comedy by doing comedy.

Fortunately, most major American cities have comedy clubs that are in constant need of performers. Many of these clubs invite amateurs to ‘open mic nights,’ allowing them to tell their jokes to a paying audience. Those who are endlessly curious about and observant of the world around them will have a diverse repertoire of material and are likely to create the funniest routines.

Open mic nights are often unpaid, but they are also the best way for comedians to learn, hone, and cultivate their craft. They present exceptional opportunities to give live performances and get immediate feedback; build a portfolio of joke sets; and develop a personal brand and an on-stage persona. With well-received material, comedians eventually are offered paid gigs and progress to road gigs in other cities.

The process demands a willingness to accept long hours and some rejection along the way. A great set in front of the right room of people – especially if that single right industry connection is in the room – can unlock doors and launch a career. This is how a comedian is born.

Are you suited to be a comedian?

Comedians have distinct personalities. They tend to be artistic individuals, which means they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive. They are unstructured, original, nonconforming, and innovative. Some of them are also enterprising, meaning they’re adventurous, ambitious, assertive, extroverted, energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if comedian is one of your top career matches.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are Comedians like?

Based on our pool of users, comedians tend to be predominately artistic people.

Comedian Erma Bombeck said, ‘There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.’ Comedy has also been described as ‘tragedy plus time.’

If these perspectives are correct – and it appears that they are – doing stand-up comedy is definitely an art, one that calls for its practitioners to keenly observe and deftly find humor in both life’s joys and triumphs and its sorrows and defeats.

Should I become a Comedian?

Before considering a career as a comedian, it is important to appreciate some truths about the profession:

Comedy is about self-expression; not about telling jokes.
Aspiring comedians who sit at their computers and try to come up with jokes are likely to become very discouraged, very quickly. The best comedians use their writing time to express themselves. They talk about their frustrations, their relationships, the politics of the world around them, and almost any aspect of their lives in which they see humor. The power of comedy resides in the audience’s ability to identify with the comedian and their material.

Comedy is harder than it looks.
The truth is that a lot of people want to get into stand-up because they think it is going to be an easy ride. They go to the bar, tell a few jokes to their friends, get some laughs, and think, ‘Why would I work a nine-to-five job when I have this talent for making people smile?’ The fact is that notable personalities like Jerry Seinfeld and Trevor Noah make it appear that they have gone straight from laughing with friends to filling arenas. Do not be fooled. It is tremendously difficult to make stand-up look easy.

You will be flying solo from the start.
Most jobs have a clear outline of expectations and new employees have a mentor or supervisor overseeing their work. Neither of these characteristics describe the pursuit of a stand-up comedy career. From the outset, aspiring comics fly solo. They have no experienced leader checking their work, advising them how to become better and more skilled, and making sure that they succeed. If this excites you more than it scares you, comedy may be a fit for you.

To succeed in the field you have to immerse yourself in it.
Any working, up-and-coming comic knows that the route to success involves much more than getting on a mic once or twice a week. The reality is that performing at multiple locations on the same night is not uncommon. Serious aspiring comedians immerse themselves in the comedy culture; they go to clubs; they connect with promoters and owners; and they doggedly work at getting booked. This is because the stage is the only place for comics to try things out, to make tweaks, to abandon the jokes or sets that aren’t working, and to find their stand-up voice.

Success in comedy generally happens at a much slower pace than in other fields.
The phrase, ‘Don’t Quit Your Day Job’ is without question very sound advice for aspiring comedians. The simple fact is that walking into this business and ‘killing it’ on the first go-around does not happen. Furthermore, a lot of clubs pay nothing or next-to-nothing to wannabe comics. It is not uncommon to work for drinks and exposure. This is just the way the business works and, like in any other industry – perhaps more so – be prepared to pay some dues.

You have to be willing to fail.
You are not going to bring the house down every time you step on stage, especially when you are just starting out. And, you’re going to find out what it’s like to bomb – just like Jerry Seinfeld did his first time on stage. Bombing, though, can be very useful. You will learn which parts of your act aren’t working and possibly why. You will quickly find out how you react in these situations: Can you handle the stress? Are you fast on your feet? Can you recover the set? At the very least, the unpleasant experience of bombing will propel you to work even harder to avoid it happening again.

You have to be able to ignore the critics.
Inevitably, there will be some negative reviews, but aspiring comics need to be able to look beyond these and focus on positive word of mouth and sold-out gigs.

You have to learn how to handle hecklers.
Dealing with a joke-bomb is one thing. Handling hecklers who push themselves into your set and force you to interact with them is quite another. Still, managing the situation also comes down to confidence and thinking on your feet. Do you give them a jab back? Do you engage them in conversation? Do you bring them on stage? Hecklers challenge your comic skills on a different level; they force you to summon your wit to diffuse the situation or perhaps even discover a new set!

How long does it take to become a Comedian?

That question could easily be the setup or punchline of a joke, because it is essentially unanswerable. Unlike the career path for a teacher, a surgeon, or an engineer, the journey to becoming a comedian is not structured. It is rarely the same for any two aspiring comedians.

Natural talent, individual learning curves, dedication to getting on stage and on mic, and persistence in pursuing promoters and club owners typically have the most influence on a professional timeline. But there are no guarantees and almost never a fast track to success. As with many artistic careers, timing and luck often play a part.

For some comedians it may take two to three years before they shift into getting a few paid gigs. Some seasoned professionals refer to ‘the rule of ten years’ as the mark when they started making a living as a comedian. Jay Leno once said, ‘Don’t call yourself a comedian until you have three thousand shows under your belt.’

So, how long does it take to become a comedian? Well, the only possible answer to the question is this: It takes... as long as it takes.

Are Comedians happy?

Comedians rank among the happiest careers. Overall they rank in the 100th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

It is not uncommon to hear or read that a disproportionate number of comedians suffer from depression when compared to the general population. While this may be true and confirm the proximity of comedy to tragedy, it is encouraging, even reassuring, to know that comedians are ultimately happy people.