Have you ever wanted to try stand-up comedy but then thought “Oh, that’s for 22-year-old dudes!”
It is not just for 22-year-old dudes! In fact, my friend Amy started doing stand-up JUST LAST YEAR, and she’s booked for 16 shows this year! This is her story.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Amy and I live in Sacramento, CA. I’m 35 years old, and I currently work as a writer, teacher, and comedian. I live with my partner (also named Amy!) our dogs, Hank and Olive, and my cat Matilda.
How did you think about humor as a kid?
I grew up in a HILARIOUS family. My dad is literally one of the funniest people on the planet and my mom has the best dry wit and one liners. My brother and I both grew up being pretty funny, and I like to think my kitchen table growing up was my first stage. We loved to tease and pull pranks and laughed a lot.
I don’t really recall being funny when I was younger. I was a serious student and definitely focused on my grades and being a musician. Recently, I’ve seen friends from childhood and they said they’ve always thought I was funny so maybe I was?
In high school, I do remember realizing that my humor helped me befriend others and I felt like I became less shy at that age. As I became an adult, I definitely reveled in being “funny.”
You’ve been writing online for years – both funny and more heartfelt essays. What made you decide to try comedy in earnest?
I think that for so long, I felt like there was a divide between who I was online versus who I was in person. When I was blogging more seriously, I felt like I was always trying to be serious and write more sensitive pieces. I believed that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a writer if I was just being weird.
When I would meet fellow bloggers and when my friends would read my blog, they would express surprise about the dichotomy between who I am and what I wrote about. I felt like my sense of humor was always too “over the line” or that it wouldn’t translate well online.
Additionally, one thing I’m constantly working to unravel is this weird guilt I have about admitting that I enjoy the spotlight. I was raised religiously, and I think that for women in general, society makes women feel bad if they admit that they like being on stage or want attention or desire fame or spotlight.
It took me a really long time to come to terms with the fact that yes, I enjoy making people laugh in a public forum and that is more than okay. Being a comedian, and a comedy writer, has always been my secret dream — I was obsessed with Tina Fey in my late teens and early 20’s.
However, it seemed much more realistic to go to school to be a teacher than to work hard to be a TV or comedy writer, or to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. That said, doing comedy has a lot of similarities to teaching — you’re trying to get an audience to pay attention to you and convey information in a way that connects you to others.
I finally decided to try comedy after performing in Mortified’s SF/Oakland show. I had a middle school journal that was full of hilarious gems that I’d read for friends sometimes. I heard about Mortified and decided to submit a piece. I went through their audition and editing process and was on the San Francisco/Oakland show last April.
It was an incredible experience but I was on stage in front of HUNDREDS of people. My friends came to support me and we were ALL surprised that I wasn’t nervous, but rather, felt energized by being on stage.
One of the show’s producers asked me if I’d done comedy before, and I confessed it was my secret dream. He encouraged me to check out ways to do it. I signed up for a stand-up 101 class driving home that weekend.
My class was amazing and helpful, but honestly, the most helpful thing has been just DOING COMEDY. Going to open mics, connecting with other comics, trying new things, writing a lot, and trying to learn.
I feel profoundly lucky that I have been booked so frequently and had some people who really believe in me vouch for me and tell bookers and other people that I am worth having on shows. Like most things in the entertainment world, it’s a combo of hard work, showing up, and “right place, right time” stuff.
Tell us about your first ever stand-up set!
I did my first set ever on June 11th, 2017! NOT THAT LONG AGO. I took a Stand Up 101 class from The Comedy Spot in Sacramento, which is one of my home clubs. I’d spent the first few weeks of class developing and delivering material and practicing. I was unsure if I’d be good at it, but thankfully, my instructor pulled me aside one night and told me he thought I was talented and should start working hard to do comedy.
I did an open mic night at the Comedy Spot for my “graduation” from class. It went okay. I told jokes about Facebook and being a teacher and I got some laughs! When I got off stage, I felt good and ready to do it again! I started showing up every Sunday evening and then things blossomed from there.
I kept going to open mics and working on things. I took Stand Up 201 and worked hard to improve and then, I got booked for my first show, which was a roast of Donald Trump where I had to write all new jokes about him (though truly the jokes wrote themselves) and then things kind of took off from there.
Walk us through the process of writing and developing one joke.
It really varies! Sometimes, I will have something come to me and it just works. Most of the time, I come up with a premise and then try to expand it. In comedy, one of the rules is basically that you aim to create tension and then release it with a punch line, and you do that by adding “tags” or little additions to your original idea to heighten it.
Sometimes, tags will be obvious; other times, I have to re-work things. I am always making notes in my phone, in my notebooks, writing things out, etc. I run my jokes by my partner a lot as she is really, really funny, and she will help by either adding to things or telling me she thinks it won’t fly.
Then, running them on stage at open mic nights is really the best way to work things out. I like to record my sets so I can hear them back and understand where the laughs happen — or don’t. Sometimes, I think things will be HILARIOUS and the audience strongly disagrees with me.
Have you bombed yet?
Yes! I told a very long story that was funny and worked in other circumstances to a crowd that was pretty tight (aka not really interested in laughing). I didn’t have a solid open and it took me FOREVER to get to the punchline. I got really nervous because it was so obviously not going well and clammed up. I got a few laughs but it felt terrible!
I got out of the bar ASAP and cried a little. Then, I went back to another show two days later. One thing I’ve realized over the past year has been that everyone bombs and that few things are as helpful as a set that doesn’t go well.
In your opinion, what qualities make for a good comedian?
There are SO MANY good comedians in the world, and sense of humor is so personal. I really appreciate comedians who give me a taste of their world or show me who they are through humor — to me, laughter is really about connection to a universal experience, so even comedians who I don’t have much in common with on a surface level can crack me up because they’re showing me something through their comedy that I can laugh at.
I think the best comedians are ones who write well and thoughtfully, who connect with the audience they have in front of them, and who keep working and growing. I also appreciate comedians that will give 100% even if the audience doesn’t respond. One of the most awkward things you can see happen in comedy is when a comedian turns on the audience and gets mad when they’re not getting the laughs they expect.
A good comedian will keep going for it, and then do their best to “own it” when they get off stage. Also, I think being willing to grow and keep trying is the best quality. I am still SO NEW. People often say it takes 10 years to get really good. I have a LONG TIME ahead of me.
Where would you like your comedy to be in five years?
I have some goals around where I’d like to be, but they more have to do with subjects I am willing to cover and delivery styles. One comedian I am most inspired by is Cameron Esposito, a queer comedian. She is currently working on expanding her material and I got to see her do an hour of new material.
It was SO vulnerable and hilarious and covered really important topics like sexual assault and queerness in a way that is so refreshing and beautiful. It inspired me to be more vulnerable in my own writing, specifically around mental health, queerness, and feminism.
Additionally, I saw the brilliant Beth Stelling perform this year and she has some of the funniest physical comedy I’ve ever seen. I loved it. Those are both goals of mine.
I’d also love to be working towards an album or special, developing a podcast or storytelling situation, and writing for The Onion or Clickhole. And yes, of course, a Netflix situation is most comedians dream, I think. Mostly, I want to still be doing it and pursuing the opportunities in front of me.
What books, websites, tools have helped you do this?
I haven’t read a lot of books about comedy. I loved Tiffany Haddish’s book because it was so honest about the journey that is comedy and finding your voice. I was part of the Women In Comedy Festival in Boston this year, and I got to see an incredible speaker discuss storytelling and also attend a panel by the female writing staff of the Onion and Clickhole, all of which was really inspiring.
I listen to a lot of podcasts, such as Karen Kilgariff and Chris Fairbanks’ comedy podcast “Do You Need A Ride?” and Laurie Kilmartin and Jackie Kashian’s “The Jackie and Laurie Show” that talk a lot about comedy and are just funny. I try to watch a lot of comedy.
The best way to learn about comedy is to write often, get on stage often, keep getting on stage even when it feels terrible, be patient with yourself, and keep working at it.
I also really appreciated taking classes. I found it helpful to have people teach me some basics and to have consistent feedback. I also feel fortunate to have people around me who I can run jokes by and who will provide me with honest feedback when I ask (and sometimes when I don’t).
What advice would you give to people who want to try stand-up?
Try it! Take a class or write some things and go to an open mic. There’s no way to know if you’ll like it until you go do it. It’s different than being the “funny friend” or office clown, but it’s really fun and rewarding. And keep trying it.
Keep a notebook or a notes file on your phone and start writing down ideas to play with. Then, tell your jokes on stage as often as possible. Listen to feedback and be willing to improve. And enjoy it! It’s comedy.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Amy! Do you guys have any questions for her? Do any of you do comedy?