Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Funny Beginning

One of the questions comedians are asked the most is "how did you get your start in stand up?"

To many people stand-up comedy seems like one of those impossible jobs which everyone wants, but no one seems to know how to get.  In many ways it's on the same level as rock star, video game tester, or male porn actor.

While the story for each comic may vary, most follow a similar path.  First, friends tell you you're funny.  Then you try an open mic at a club and eventually work your way into the circuit.  Finally somebody gives you a big break, and then you retire a successful famous millionaire.

I myself am waiting for the big break (along with several thousand other comics).  Other than that my story follows mostly the same path.  Still, I'm told, my tale is an interesting one and since it's one of the most common questions I get asked after shows I thought I would put it down in this blog.  You never know.  This may one day be the first chapter in my best seller autobiography (see previous comment about big break).

I was 7-years old when I told my parents that I wanted to be a stand-up comedian.  The idea sparked after I had seen a stand-up comic on TV.  I don't remember the comic's name, but I do remember that he was making some kind of joke about the safety instructions on airplanes.  In hindsight the material was probably pretty hacky (it was the 80's after all), but I remember being hooked on the laughter of the audience and imagining myself on stage getting the laughs.

I had already had a brush with the showbiz bug in kindergarten when I became a big hit on show-and-tell day demonstrating a toy microphone that could change your voice to make you sound like a robot.  Nothing fancy, but it was comedy gold to 5-year-olds.

Two years later the showbiz bug had formed into the goal of a stand-up comedian.  I knew I would be good at it, because I was able to make both my parents laugh when I told them my plan.  Despite their amusement they encouraged my ambition and gave me tapes of some of their favorite child friendly comedians, including Bob Newhart, Rodney Dangerfield, and a lot of Bill Cosby.   It's interesting to me that these three comedians formed the basis for my comedy education.  Each has a very unique style of comedy and my particular style is nothing at all like any of theirs.

Of course as a 7-year living in a remote town in the middle of Alaska, my options for pursuing my comedy career were a bit limited.  So, I had to resolve myself to being the class clown.  In the sixth grade I gave a five minute speech on "how to beat up your younger brother" complete with a torso dummy tied up with duct tape.
I'm sure if a student gave that speech in a classroom today the teacher would call the cops, who would then show up with pepper spray, but thankfully my teacher thought the speech was so funny he gave me full marks and to this day he still brings it up when he runs into my parents at the grocery story. 

As I moved into high school I noticed my attempts at comedy were getting more groans then laughs and I put my dreams of comedy on hold so I could become a moody pessimistic teenager.  I maintained a connection to performance through speech and drama classes eventually focusing my skills on a more realistic career of journalism.

After college I landed a decent job as a television news producer in Boise Idaho.  Despite my success my parents began encouraging me to look into my childhood dream of comedy.  As it would happen there was a local comedy club called the Funny Bone and they had an open mic night.  I first checked out a couple of open mic shows before trying it for myself.  Some of the comics at the shows were pretty good, but most were bad or in some cases just plain awful and if they could do it, I could do it.  I made a few calls and got on the list for the next open mic show.  

Most comics will tell you that the first time they performed on stage that they had a really rough set.  The rest are probably lying.  I remember my set going alright, but not great.  Most of my jokes were about hockey and some are still part of the routine I do to this day.  The club manager happened to be at the show and seemed impressed by my set.  After the show he asked if I would be interested in being the MC for the next open mic night.  I accepted, and after that show I was asked to MC the following week at the club.  It was my first paying gig as a professional comedian!

Within six months I was regularly working at the club and was put in contact with a comedy booker who sent me on my first road gig.  (More on that story in a future blog.)  Within two years I had a part time journalism job and was making most of my money doing comedy.  Four years after my first open mic I was doing comedy full time and beginning to headline at some clubs.

It may seem like a simple path to success in comedy, but the road is not an easy one.  I would estimate only 2 percent of comics who take the stage at an open mic ever make a career out of comedy and even fewer are able to be a big success at it.  Ultimately it takes more than mere talent to be a working comic.  You must also have a solid business mind, and it doesn't hurt to get a big break as well.

I now have worked in more than 30 states and three countries.  My career has taken me to some of the most luxurious resort and to some of the shadiest small towns that you could possibly imagine.  I've been on television, made a brief appearance in a movie, and I've even done some acting in commercials.  I've made a lot of progress, but still haven't gotten my major break.  Hopefully someday you will be able to say I've been a fan of Ryan Wingfield when he was still an unknown.  And I have the blog to prove it!