The Rules Of Stand Up Comedy (And How To Take Advantage)

Too often, people say that the only rule of stand up is that there are no rules. Unfortunately, that’s not true. The problem is that there are so many UNWRITTEN rules of stand up. Stand up has had so many unwritten rules for so long that it’s hard to navigate what is a rule and what is a suggestion. 

The truth is that some rules can and have been broken by every comedian. But for you to break the rules, you have to know the rules. The most significant rule of comedy is to get the laugh. As long as your goal is to get laughs, not groans, boos, or some other feedback, you will find that you are doing comedy. 

I just like to make people laugh.

– Andrew Dice Clay

So let’s get to the rules of comedy, how you can take advantage, get laughs, and grow your comedy career. 

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RULE 1: Your Opening Joke Is The Most Important Joke

I’m a stand up comic, but I also have ideas, and I want to get them out. People think getting in front of the mic is the only way to work out. You’ve got to try different situations.

– Joey Diaz

Your first joke is your first impression and is the most crucial thing a comedian can say. It sets up the rest of your set and expectations from the crowd. NEVER ask the audience, “How Are You Doing?” People who do that don’t have a good opening joke. They came to see you tell them how they’re doing, and by asking that question, the comedian just digs a hole.  

The audience is judging you the moment you get on stage, and they came to laugh. “Make me laugh.” is the unspoken challenge from the audience. If you do not deliver laughs fast, then you are dead. Trying to recover from a bad start is simply hell, and most comedians don’t have the skills to do so. So make your first joke your best joke and get the laugh within your first 15-30 seconds on stage.

RULE 2: Your Closing Joke Is The Second Most Important Joke

I’m really good at stand up. I always win at stand up.

– Leslie Jones

Your last joke is the second most important. Most people will probably only remember one joke, and that’s usually your last joke. And that will be the one they tell when they tell people about you. Make it one that will make people remember and use to tell others about you. 

Most people can’t tell you the entire story of their favorite movie, but they can often tell you the opening and closing moments. This is true for most things. It’s why TV pilots and series finales are often the most-watched episodes of the show. As P.T. Barnum famously said, “Always leave them wanting more.”

RULE 3: Open And Close Strong

The pressure to being a comedian is being funny, but I’ve given that up, so there is no pressure whatsoever.

– Gilbert Gottfried

Open strong and close strong.  Limit the fluff between these. If you have no more great punchlines, don’t waste the audience’s time and get off the stage. Some comedians become successful with a great opening and a closing joke and only 3-4 minutes on stage. If people laugh the whole time, a comedian is on stage, no matter the time they will want more. And you know what they say, “Always leave them wanting more.”

RULE 4: The Middle Is The Meat Of Your Act

I can’t prove it, but I can say it.

– Stephen Colbert

Build your middle material by taking an idea and building multiple punchlines and tags as possible. Silence from an audience lets comedians know when they’re bombing, but silence can also function as a storytelling tool. Pauses can be just as powerful as a setup or a punchline. Some of the best comedians use pauses effectively to elicit laughter.

RULE 5: Your Face Gets Laughs

Funny is an attitude.

– Flip Wilson

Your facial expression and look are an integral part of your routine. Words are only about 30% of communication. The rest is tone, volume, timing, facial expression, appearance, etc. Your body size, skin color, manner of dress, and even your accent, are vital comedy tools for you to use. Some of the best comedians look different and use their physical and facial storytelling skills to elicit laughter. 

RULE 6: Punchlines And Twists Get Laughs

I know what people laugh at. I know their vocabulary.

– Gallagher

Comedians do not write jokes; they write observations and ideas, opinions, and arguments, all while sprinkling in punchlines. Unusual situations make people laugh, and they laugh more if they can imagine the situation because they have been there or done it themselves. They laugh more if the situation is extraordinarily embarrassing or upsetting.

A good joke can be like magic or a great script. It is about misdirection. Lead your audience to think in one way and then, in the last second, turn the tables and Hit them with that twist at the end. Brevity is the soul of wit, but try to be specific. Don’t say, “So, I told my friend…,” say, “So, I told Tom…”

RULE 7: YOU Are The Secret Ingredient To Laughs

 If you can be yourself on stage nobody else can be you and you have the law of supply and demand covered.

– Bill Hicks

The best comedians have the strongest opinions. Nobody cares what you think; they just came to laugh. If an audience knows nothing about the comedian or their views by the end of the set, they won’t remember that comedian. In comedy, nothing is off-limits because, in life, nothing is off-limits. Even though the material is vital, a comedian must be honest with who they are and what they believe. If they do not believe the message in their material (and material with a message is better), then no one will take them seriously as a funny man. An audience can see a fake, faster on the comedy stage than on any other stage. You can be anything and anyone as a comedian, but you cannot be stupid, and you cannot be dishonest. 

RULE 8: NEVER Run The Light

I’m glad I’m a comedian. Otherwise, my life would just be a series of undocumented low points.

– Kyle Kinane

Never run over your allotted time ,EVER! It is always better to go short than to try to bluff your way through another few minutes just to fill your time.  You don’t want to be known as ‘that comedian who regularly runs the light.’ If you get that reputation, no-one will book you. Aim for under, not over. The person who runs the light will not be welcomed back to the show by the bookers or the comedians. Sure it happens from time to time, but more often than not, it can be avoided. 

Everyone has seen the one comedian in the club who thinks they are killing and wants to ride the wave. Laughter is addictive; that’s why we do stand up! But everyone gets their time on stage. Being a stage hog is as bad as being a ball hog in any other sport. You won’t do yourself any favors by upsetting the venue, booker, or fellow comics because you think you are hot. Most likely, you will end up being blacklisted or despised, both of which will be bad for your career. 

RULE 9: Comedy Is A Club, Be An Active Member

There is no off position on the genius switch.

– David Letterman

Stick around your club or show after the show. Don’t just turn up, do your slot then leave. Professional comics do this because they are often traveling from another show, or have been going all day, etc. But if you’re still learning, then it’s an excellent way to get there at the start, watch the acts, mingle with other comedians, and make friends. If at all possible, stay until the end. It lets others know that you want to be part of the community, and people will like you for it. 

Don’t be a jerk or get caught up in the rumor/gossip mill of comedy as comedians are almost as bad as rappers, but fewer acts of violence. However, it can be beneficial to listen to warnings if they seem legitimate regarding certain promoters/gigs, etc. Comedy is one part being yourself and one part pandering to the audience. It’s a delicate balance that sets amateur comedians apart from professional ones.

RULE 10: Only YOU Can Ruin Your Laughs

When I’m up on stage and do a joke, half the people interpret it one way and half of them interpret it the way I want them to.

– Maria Bamford

Sometimes it’s the audience, but often it’s you. If you are consistently bombing, take time to consider if it might be your material. However, if you usually have a good set but then a few bomb, review your sets, get feedback, and carry on as usual. Sometimes it just is the audience. 

Low hanging fruit. Avoid low-hanging fruit unless you write something uniquely funny about it. If you want to talk about your bad Tinder date, TV shows nowadays, pop culture topics, or whatever everyone else is talking about, then write something uniquely original. This is why you should hang out and watch shows. After seeing five people in a row talk about Tinder, it makes you want to write about something a bit more original.

You know, be able to do something great in your life, you’re gonna have to realize your failures. You’re gonna have to embrace them and figure out how to overcome it.

– Dave Chappelle

Knowing what expectations there are for comedians will help you avoid pitfalls and jump light years ahead of those who don’t understand the often unwritten (but now written) rules of comedy. The best rule is the golden rule “Treat others how you want to be treated.” So you wouldn’t want people to talk behind your back, waste your time, be rude, or have a bad time at a comedy club. If you think about what you would like your best comedy experience to be and apply that to how you behave and perform, you will find that good things will happen for you. 

James D. Creviston

James D. Creviston is a writer, blogger, comedian, and podcaster in Los Angeles. He is the producer of the wildly popular Clean Comedy Hour stand up show, as well as the co-host of The Clean Comedy Podcast. James has been doing stand up for the last three years and has performed in LA and NY at some of the hottest clubs. James is a former veteran of the United States Navy as well as a graduate of the University of Las Vegas, Nevada. He is an avid comic book, television, and movie nerd. James can be seen performing his clean comedy all over the United States and heard giving advice on his weekly podcast The Clean Comedy Podcast.

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