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A Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Stand-up Comedian

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A Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Stand-up Comedian

Hollis Gillespie, award-winning humor columnist, author and NPR/TV commentator, has started doing stand-up comedy. She’s a beginner, and here is her personal guide.

The Bad News: I live in the city of Atlanta, which is notoriously horrible about supporting local talent and artists. All the traditional local publications are about as useful as a bucket of canine Kotex when it comes to covering upcoming comics (or even already up-and-came comics), comedy venues, comedy shows and/or just about anything that isn’t Real Housewives of Atlanta or New York or the Fucking Freeway Overpass for that matter.

The Good News: Comics are immensely inventive and resilient. They must be driven by something other than the need for approval from the bunch of seeping ass sores who run Atlanta’s main news outlets, because unknown to these traditional media outlets (seriously unknown to them), is the teeming underground open-mic circuit in Atlanta. To that end, here is link to the most detailed calendar of underground open mics available in Atlanta.

Step One: Get onstage at a local open mic, and be aware that it might not be at a comedy club. Let me clarify—all comedy clubs have open mic, but not all open mics are held in comedy clubs. You see, open-mic stages have proliferated out of the traditional comedy clubs and into every restaurant, bar, brewery, coffee house, art gallery, gas station, dilapidated building, abandoned overpass and back-alley dumpster that can accommodate an amplifier and a microphone. In fact, if you ask me, the more unlikely the venue, the more amazing the open mic. One of my favorite venues is the Big House on Ponce, which, at night, kind of looks like the remains of an old building bombed by a B-52. These events are in turn promoted via a community Facebook page created by a burgeoning comic, and burgeoning comics are very inventive and industrious when it comes to creating “stage time.” Get it? Good. There’s more.

Step Two: Try not to be old, like me. It’s okay to get old after you’ve already become a comic, but starting stand-up already old is a disadvantage because there is a hierarchy among your local comics, one that necessitates homage and all that, and as an old person you will tend to not give a single moldy crap about pecking orders. You must try to resist the urge to tell everyone to suck your dick (unless it’s part of your set) (in fact, you should probably make it part of your set).

Step Three: Speaking of hierarchy, identify the comics who are considered the gatekeepers of your “local stand-up comedy scene.” Some of these figures were bestowed this crown, others captured it via hostile takeover, and still others reluctantly bear it in the absence of anyone more worthy. In Atlanta, John-Michael Bond was one of these gatekeepers until he moved to Los Angeles. Before him it was Andy Sandford, and before him it was who knows. None of this shit is documented. It’s all passed down through pictures carved into cave walls and fireside chants done in a dead language. Whatever the case, figure out who these people are and try not to piss them off.

Step Four: Submit to a comedy festival. Comedy festivals are coating the earth like a crust of dried pus these days. It’s your job to pick some, put together a 3-4 minute clip of your best stage time, pay their insane entry fees, press send and sit there for months with no idea whether a single second of your act will actually be seen by a judge, let alone facilitate your selection as a comic who gets to perform at the festival, which, by the way, won’t pay you unless you’re one of the winners, maybe. Atlanta’s Laughing Skull Comedy Festival is considered by its website to be one of the best comedy festivals in the Milky Way. This year it will be “doubling industry attendance,” though it doesn’t cite the number of industry originally in attendance or even say who these “industry” types are. It also claims to have launched some of the best comedians in the country, but doesn’t name those comics, either. I called Marshall Chiles, the founder of the festival and owner of Atlanta’s Laughing Skull Comedy Club, and asked him to put names to “the industry” he expects will attend the festival this year, as well as those who had attended last year, and he did name a bunch of names, none I’d heard before (not that I should have), and assured me that every clip of every entrant will be seen by a judge, though he hadn’t completely nailed down the list of judges who will perform this duty or the qualifications, if any, they’d need to hold your future in their hands. But he did sound very upbeat, and who wouldn’t? At $40 an entry he stands to make a ton of money off this festival. I submitted my clip. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Step Five: Stand up, bomb, repeat.

Comedian and writer Hollis Gillespie is the author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, which is on bookstore shelves now. Follow her on Twitter.

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