There’s a saying about music that “everyone can sing, just not everyone can sing well.” The same is true for comedy. Everyone can be or has been funny at some point in their life. You can be the funniest person to your friends or the funniest guy in the office or even have some funny tweets but that doesn’t always translate into being a comedian.
For a lot of people they transition that will and want to be funny into taking improv classes or doing open mics. Some flourish and some sink. Humor is an inherent trait and the process of channeling it can be difficult if you don’t push yourself to tap into it. If you’re a well-to-do person who watches SNL and just think, “I can do that” then you’re going to struggle in the reality that there are a million other people with the same thought process and a lot of them are funnier, more talented, and have more drive.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of outstandingly funny people from different avenues. With that I’ve met a lot of unfunny people who desperately want to be funny. Reality usually takes people in three different directions of either- “Yes I suck but I want to get better” or “Yes I suck and I should quit and focus on something else” or “No, I don’t suck everyone around me sucks for not getting my brilliance.” Comedy is an attention wanting process. You’re presenting yourself in a light of “look at me, laugh at my thoughts, and chuckle at this silly thing I can do.” For me personally I got “serious” about stand-up in 2009 and that was also when I started doing improv, both of which were in Birmingham. I would drive 2 hours to Birmingham from Auburn every Sunday to rehearse and then 2 hours back to go to class the next morning. I didn’t party. I didn’t drink. I worked 3 jobs, was a full time student, and did as much comedy as possible.
Since then I’ve kept up with doing both stand-up and improv and a question I always get asked is which one is better and the response I always give is that they’re both very different. Stand-up is a solo performance. It is you and a microphone telling thought out material or things that come to you in the moment. Improv is a group minded thing. A bunch of people working together with the best of their ability to think stuff from the top of their head.
The key difference is dependability. When I’m doing stand-up I know I can trust myself to do something funny and make something funny. If it doesn’t work it is all on me. With improv if something doesn’t work, there is a reason it doesn’t work and it could be an idea that was stepped on or negated or just one person who is a weak link in the group because the truth is not all improvists are strong.
I’d rather watch a stand-up fail than an improv team fail. If a stand-up fails on stage (unless he’s delusional) he knows where he lost the audience and he can try to win them back or say “good night” and bring up the host. If improv does badly YOU HAVE TO STILL WATCH THEM TRY. The scene could get swiped and then you look at that person on the side of the stage with 1 of 2 faces: Face A: “Aw man, that wasn’t good.” or Face B: “Aw man, I can’t wait to get in again and try to make that work.” I don’t fault multiple attempts at putting in effort to make something funny but sometimes you have to wave the white flag and know when to be a good prop for the rest of the scenes.
In August I got into a discussion with a girl about which is more profitable to do, stand-up or improv. I explained that improv performers have the quicker pay-off but stand-ups have a higher success rate.
If you think about the city of Chicago, you have several improv venues such as Second City, iO, The Annoyance, Comedy Sportz Theatre, etc etc… Out of those you have at least 5,000 people coming from all over the world taking classes. 10% are people who need a confidence booster and probably won’t do anything past a couple of classes. 30% enjoy comedy and are just looking for something to do in the meantime. Another 30% are musical theatre majors who have been told their entire life during their musical theatre classes that they’re musical theatre funny and all of their scenes will be the exact same thing, they’ll play the exact same characters, and will potentially be the most annoying person in these classes. There’s another 25% who feel they can make something out of it and will try their best and there’s a final 5% that make something out of it be it a career in improv or teaching or making it big in television and movies- success is all dependent upon how you see it and how far you want to go. The reality should set in that not everybody who signs up for these classes or does all of the improv jams or performs at every improv show is going to be the next big thing in improv. There is a very small percentage of people who get paid to do improv.
Stand-up is again similar but different. There are multiple venues and bars and coffee shops with a microphone and stand. The biggest fall-off is in between doing open mics and doing shows. I’ve seen a lot of people who do open mics disappear but typically those who are in the showcase circuit or who are doing clubs stick with it in some fashion and get paid whatever amount. Taking from an open mic, let’s say there are 50 people signed up. Out of that 50, 10 of them are already somewhat established in their city or region and are trying out new jokes or just need a stage. 15 of them are growing and are the comics to watch for when that first 10 move to a different city or begin to travel or do whatever their specific goals are (goals are relative). The remaining 25 will either meander around open mics, quit within a year, or find what works for them. The group that finds what works for them typically become that 15 and the cycle continues. The difference between here and improv is you have maybe 400 people doing stand-up in the city vs that 5,000 in classes and performing their show “Wacky Title with a Political Figure Involved Honey Boo Boo”.
Out of all of this, the truth is that cream rises. There’s a quote from Red Skelton, “if you’ve got talent they can put you behind a brick wall and you’ll break through.”
A lot of people in improv and stand-up have the talent and will definitely flourish, and a lot more will be stuck counting bricks.