"Don't Be A Hack": 10 Tips for Aspiring Comics with John Wessling
John Wessling has been a professional comic since 1995, spending time in Kansas City, Des Moines and Los Angeles. The married father of two also heads up the Houston Comedy Union, which holds weekly open mikes and events at the Baker St. Pub & Grill location in Rice Village on Sunday and Monday nights. The group just finished up this year's edition of the Houston's Funniest Person Contest, with newcomer Matthew Broussard taking the top honor. Wessling asked me and my girlfriend to judge a round or two of the month-long proceedings.
Wessling was the house MC at the Hollywood Improv from 2001 to 2004, competed on Last Comic Standing in 2003, was a regular at the Laugh Factory and Comedy Store, and did two years at the Montreal Comedy Festival. He was also seen on Fox's Free Ride for a bit too. Today he does sports radio here in Houston.
"I co-host Houston Gameday with Anson Ainsworth on ESPN 97.5 on Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon, and since they just bought our station, I'm about to start hosting weekend shows on 1560 The Game and Yahoo Sports Radio next week," he says.
Wessling is understandably protective of his craft. To hear him talk about stand-up comedy is to get an inside baseball glimpse into what goes into standing alone on a stage and making with the jokes. With the rise of social media, a lot of folks are trying their hand at stand-up.
"Facebook and Twitter give regular people -- we call them civilians -- a conduit to express themselves and receive feedback. Once you start cracking jokes online and getting likes and retweets, that builds up the confidence to attempt telling jokes in front of a live audience," he says. Of course, not every one of those Twitter jockeys will have what it takes to command a crowd.
"The flame-out rate is still high, but a lot of people come try it, and that is good for business." Wessling also has a big pet peeve with new comics that rely on shock value and horribly offensive material, mistaking that for innovation.
"You have to be very skilled as a comic to do material like that successfully and creatively, and intelligence is a must. Too often I see new comics doing low-brow dirty or racist jokes that sour a crowd and ruin a night," Wessling says. He adds that is a cop-out for new comics, thinking it's easier to offend people than to relate to them as an audience. Better-crafted written material usually gets left on the back burner.
"Everybody wants to be Daniel Tosh, Doug Stanhope, Sam Kinison or Lenny Bruce, but nobody wants to pay the dues and put in the work like those guys did. If you have to say the seven dirty words to get laughs, you aren't funny. Yet."
As a part of our conversation, I asked Wessling to reel out ten tips for aspiring comics who are itching to become the next _________ or _________ but aren't sure how to go about it.
1. Don't wait to get started, do it now!
"If you think you want to try stand-up comedy, there is nothing to it but to do it. Think long, think wrong! Jump! I can hear what you're thinking: 'But I want to be prepared and do it right!' Don't waste your time waiting to begin, get to an open mike and get onstage as fast as you can."
2. Drink little before you go up, get hammered right after.
"I'm sure that I've met some potentially all-time great comics who never came back after their first open mike because they got shit-hammered, sucked onstage as a result and threw up all over the place. Getting wasted before your set is a cop-out. Comedy is scary; don't dull your senses to the point that you are useless onstage. A few drinks is okay, but have your wits about you when you go onstage, give yourself a chance to be as funny as you think you are."
3. Don't bring friends out until you've been up a few times.
"This will help you with #2...
Look, your friends are good people and I'm sure they want the best for you, but embarrassing yourself in front of them isn't going to make you any better. The stakes are high enough as it is, don't make it worse. Go up a few times and enjoy the gift of blessed anonymity while you can. Give yourself the freedom to fail in front of perfect strangers; bring friends out once you've gotten the first-time jitters out of your system. Then you can pretend it's your first time when they all come out and they'll think you're a phenom!"
4. Don't be a hack.
"Nobody is expecting you to split the atom up there, but for God's sake don't perform other comics' material and pretend it's your own. You will be ridiculed for that, and deservedly so. Don't think you can sneak it in; we've seen it all, and we will shout you down for being a thief. Have the courage to eat shit with your own material; other comics will respect you for that. Write unhackable jokes, talk about yourself and your experiences and observations. It won't take long to find your own voice."
5. Bring cigarettes and rolling papers
"Even if you don't smoke, it's a great way to make friends, just like prison."
6. Open strong, close strong -- who cares what's in the middle
"More than likely you'll only be doing three to five minutes onstage as an open-mike performer, so when you break it down, you don't need that many jokes. Of course, when you are just starting out, three to five minutes feels like an eternity.
To keep it simple, follow this basic and time-honored template...open with your second best joke, close with your best joke...they won't remember what's in the middle anyway!"
7. Don't go long -- short is okay
"Nothing on Earth is more painful than watching a new comic go long in search of the laugh to end on. The first commandment of comedy is "Obey Thy Light"
Sometimes new comics go long because they have no idea how long their jokes are, so that's why you have to practice them out loud."
8. "Don't bore us, get to the chorus!"
"One of my favorite quotes is from screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, "Everything can happen sooner, faster and with much less said about it."
You should mercilessly chop out all the unneeded words in every joke. You will be amazed how little you need to say to set up a joke. Get to the funny parts as fast as humanly possible, if not quicker."
9. The audience is always right and they're the only ones you can trust.
"You may think a joke is funny. Your own friends can tell you that a joke is funny. Your Twitter buddies might even think a joke is funny. But if you go onstage and tell that joke to an audience of people who don't know you, and they don't laugh, that joke is actually not funny. Maybe later, when you are a working pro comic with a fan following, you can start blaming the crowd when something doesn't work...but until then, it is you and not them."
10. Ask many questions and make friends with pros and other open-mike performers.
"With very few exceptions, comedians are friendly to one another and want to help those brave enough to try telling jokes in public. Don't be shy, go right up to comics at an open mike, introduce yourself and ask for advice. We've all been through the hell and euphoria you are experiencing and will be glad to lend a hand and give you tips.
Remember this: More Americans are afraid of speaking in public than being naked in public. By even attempting stand-up comedy, you are conquering one of the greatest fears people have in this modern world. Doing stand-up comedy, even when it goes poorly, is invigorating. It's as exciting as skydiving except it's cheaper, takes longer and more people die from it each year."
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