This whole idea was coffee induced. On December 31, 2018, I was sitting with my first cup of the day — Michael Pollan wrote that we enjoy that first coffee so much because it relieves our caffeine withdrawal, so I was on a high from that — and I said to my wife, Sadé, “What do you think people would do if I offered a comedy tip every day next year?” and she said, “I think they would love it.” Her response was all I needed, so I tweeted out that I was going to do it.
I don’t know exactly why I decided to do this. I think, subconsciously, that since my career took off, I had survivor’s guilt in that there are plenty of people funnier than me, more talented than me, and harder-working than me who haven’t built an audience like I’ve been fortunate enough to. Having my special, The Great Depresh, coming out was part of it, too. I was so grateful for the opportunity that I’d been given by Judd Apatow, who has consistently given back in a way that a lot of comedians fail to, that I wanted to give back, too. I don’t have enough juice to give young comedians a career or enough money to quit their day jobs, and I couldn’t commit to doing a lecture series like I wanted, so this small way was the best I could do.
The problem was, I didn’t think I had 365 comedy tips, or if I did, they’d be so specific that they’d only apply to one percent of comedians. But I read somewhere that you should honor your commitments, and I learned I shouldn’t abandon something because it’s challenging. I needed to hold myself accountable to this idea of writing every day and not being discouraged, so I would go to a Dunkin’ Donuts near my apartment, set a timer for 18 minutes, and figure out something from my notes. I wasn’t that familiar with Twitter either — I wasn’t aware that people thought it was such a wretched hive of scum and villainy — but pretty early on, there was a great reaction to it. One day, the tips trended and I didn’t even know what that involved, only that I got like 30,000 new followers from it. That’s when I thought, There’s no getting out of this now. You have to really come through.
By necessity, this undertaking had to morph from writing tips into general tips about mood maintenance and inspiration. Some of it came from things I learned in therapy, like my insistence on exercising or getting out of the house, that I was applying on a daily basis. There was one tip about not suffering for your art but letting your art suffer for you, which meant that if you are really sick like I was with my depression, then it’s okay to take time off from it to get well. It will still be there when you return. The response to that made me realize that people were thirsty for something more than just tips on organizational habits. Also, I’m not very organized, so you have to figure out your own system there.
There was one comedian who said, “Why are you giving this away?” Well, I didn’t give away anything that I didn’t get from somebody or somewhere else. These aren’t secrets, and a lot of these things shouldn’t have taken me as long to figure out as they did. Other people said I should put the tips out as a book, but I thought it was tacky to sell people something that you’d given them for free. I didn’t want to sully it with commerce, but I also wanted them to be in one place. And I had such a great time doing Vulture’s Good One podcast that I thought this would be a good home for them.
In the end, these tips aren’t proclamations from Mount Comedy — it’s like any other craft in that it can be improved with some helpful information. You don’t have to follow all of them to the letter. I hope you question some of them, I hope that you’ll embrace some of them, and I hope you’ll adjust some of them for your personal makeup. Whether you’re new to comedy or even 25 years into it, I think if you use a handful of them regularly, you’ll get a lot out of it. And if you don’t, send me a self-addressed stamped envelope and you can get your money back.
Writing | Ideas | Originality | Identity | Performance and Delivery | Developing Material | Collaboration | Fans and Audience | Big Breaks | On the Road | Bombing and Risks | Feeling Stuck | Motivation | Staying Focused | Useful Exercises | Growth | Mental Health | Money | Attitude | It’s Never Too Late | Recommended Reading/Listening | The Final Tips
Click on any tip number to see Gulman’s original tweet. Among his 366 tips, we’ve highlighted:
• Gary’s Favorites: We asked Gulman to choose his ten favorite tips and provide some extra commentary or insight about them.
• Most Popular: The ten tips that received the most retweets.
Tip No. 2: Write out a favorite joke word-for-word one sentence at a time. After completing each sentence, analyze each word. Why does it work? How do the syllables of the words create rhythm? How do the sentences build to the punchline? What’s the grammar of comedy? You can do [Tip No. 2] at any stage, but probably it’s best early on in your career. If it sounds daunting to write out entire jokes, you should know that the immortal Hunter S. Thompson transcribed The Great Gatsby word-for-“w-o-r-d.”
Tip No. 5: Mark Twain said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” You’ve been meaning to do this. Go through your jokes and add some lightning today.
5A: Tweet a series of bombastic writing tips so that if you don’t write every single day, you’ll feel like a hypocrite and a charlatan.
5B: What I’m trying to say is you don’t have to thank me (although if you didn’t, I’d be devastated) because I’m getting more out of this than you.
Tip No. 6: Words with the sound “buh,” “puh,” and “kuh,” especially at the beginning/end are funnier. No one knows why. “Buick” is funnier than “Nissan.” I learned this early. I assumed everyone knew. They don’t. Take some soft punch-words and replace them with a b/p/k sound.
Tip No. 15: You know that joke you’re sick of telling? Write/type it with a space in between each sentence. Add some details, change a word, or unpack an idea. To me, unless it’s on a special, a joke isn’t done. When the audience is mouthing the words with you, it’s done.
Tip No. 19: Use variety in your words. Don’t keep using the same word. If you use a word that is crucial to your punchline, you should try not to use it before then because it will diminish the impact. This is where listening to your sets is so helpful.
Tip No. 33: Change your writing routine today. If you usually write on a laptop, write longhand and vice versa. If you write in small notepads, write in a big notebook. I may be imagining it, but I think using unruled notebooks changed my writing years ago.
Tip No. 67: You should try to adhere to George Orwell’s first rule for effective writing: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Take the time to create your own. It’s part of the job.
Tip No. 163: Keep a journal! It gets you to write without any pressure to be funny or interesting. It will allow you to see how far you have come and gain perspective as you examine what used to be important to you. It will become a valuable resource, I promise.
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 196: Write outside whenever you can. I miss the frequency with which I could write outside at the Starbucks across from the New Beverly Cinema with Dave Anthony. I have no proof, but I think writing outside energizes.
Tip No. 212: Invest in some quality notepads with a cover. No legal pads! Unless you’re annoyingly fastidious, you lose the first three pages at least. Get a box of pens that you look forward to using, hopefully not those writer’s-cramp inflictors by Bic. I use:
Tip No. 269: I usually start a joke by trying to write a funny or interesting sentence. It takes away the intimidation of writing an entire joke. Just play around with a few versions of your sentence and maybe say them out loud to get the feel for which is best.
Tip No. 284: Close friend Joe List reminded me of advice I gave him: “Just press play on a [recorded] set … once you’re listening … you are writing … it’s easier to press play than … to start writing in a notebook.” I still start every writing session this way.
Tip No. 291: “I wanted to be as good as anything I read from my favorite writers. I wanna write on that level in this space (hip-hop). The lyrics matter.” — Mos Def. Apply this philosophy to joke writing. You will stand out. I promise.
Tip No. 333: Learn the “Rule of 3”! Any list should have three items: two that set a pattern and the last should break the pattern in a funny way. Example: “Whether they be: (looking at Flanders) Christian, (looking at Krusty) Jew, or … (looking at Apu) … miscellaneous.”
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Tip No. 41: You know those quirky little things you do and think? Collect them in a file or on paper. Even if you’re a storyteller, you can use these as details to add depth and distinction to your jokes.
Tip No. 62: Look for inspiration everywhere. Paintings, music, poetry, rap, novels, nonfiction, short stories, theater, philosophy, etc. can all provide a spark for creativity. Cross-pollinate your work with broad influences and watch your creativity grow.
Tip No. 63: Write it all down while the coffee is still telling you you’re mighty. Reread after you’ve turned back into Dr. Banner (yes he’s a genius, but not as self-confident in that condition). That buzz is so valuable but needs editing.
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 92: Notice where you do your best thinking. The shower? Running? Listening to music? Not listening to music? Driving? Walking? Make sure to put yourself in the places where you’re doing your best thinking as frequently as possible.
Tip No. 132: I think you can limit frustration and discouragement by writing just a page on a new premise before trying it out onstage. See if there’s anything there before you spend a day on a new joke. But if you’re truly excited by the new idea, keep going!
Tip No. 143: Listen to strangers’ conversations. (I tell myself it’s not impolite if they’re being super-loud.) I got “How Dottie is that?” when a supercilious woman named Jodi bragged “How Jodi is that?” “So Jodi,” her friend replied.
Tip No. 157: Need new joke ideas? Be sensitive. If you’re uncomfortable with that word, use “irritable” (or grow up). A lot of good comedy comes from reaction to injustice or discomfort large and small, which requires being hypersensitive to those feelings.
Tip No. 217: “All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” — Federico Fellini. Purposefully mine your personal history for your act. Your life is a wellspring. Dig deep.
Tip No. 241: Many of your favorite writers include the same themes/subjects/objects/interests repeatedly in their work. Don’t be afraid to return again and again to your passions and obsessions to explore and expound.
Tip No. 285: Xplore unusual angles in a joke. Xample: Xamine things from the POV of a child or an Xpert. My man Jimmy P and I still laugh over his “Martian response to high school football practice: Why are the hard-heads (players) taking orders from the small soft-heads (coach)?”
Tip No. 297: One of the miracles of comedy is that you can get redemption for suffering, small and large, by making something funny with it. When you are ready, try to write something funny about your mistakes, setbacks, or even tragedies.
Tip No. 298: Skim your life for the unusual events and activities that you can’t believe you were a part of or that people can’t believe you were a part of. Then write about it! Back row No. 93 MULLET:
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 310: When it comes to solving the puzzles that are our jokes, draw on every area of knowledge, expertise, and talent. It’s so gratifying to use a fact, a lesson, or a memory from elementary school, high school, or elsewhere to fill in the joke.
Tip No. 311: Some of your best ideas will come to you in the shower. There’s science behind why it happens. Get a shower notepad if you have trouble remembering your ideas. Don’t listen to music. Listen to your thoughts. Ruminate on tonight’s set or a new joke.
Tip No. 313: Try teaching or informing the audience about something through some of your jokes. We love to learn while being entertained and vice versa. You have knowledge? Put it in your act! Just make sure it’s funny.
Tip No. 327: Going home for Thanksgiving? Take copious notes! Your family is unique. Being reminded of the dynamics and adding new memories will be great resources for your act. “Family isn’t a word. It’s a sentence.”
Tip No. 331: There are great stories from our lives that we’re not able to translate into stand-up. Don’t throw them out. Collect those stories in a file for radio and TV and other interview situations.
Tip No. 340: Volunteer! Especially if you don’t have a day job. There are so many opportunities to help. You will do good and have something new to write about. In NYC we have New York Cares. One year we decorated an elementary school for Halloween.
Tip No. 358: I have recently started audio recording all notes sessions (for projects), and next time I pitch jokes with a friend I will record that too. It’s very helpful. You will be surprised at what you forgot when you listen back. Ask permission first.
Tip No. 360: Spending holidays with kids? Pay attention to them. Listen to them. Take note and embrace their curiosity and enthusiasm within your writing. (Also avoid the “kids these days” writing. It’s lazy.) Merry Christmas from your second favorite long-haired Jew.
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Tip No. 24: There are things you’ve become expert in because of passion. List them and write jokes about them. Writing informed by a vast knowledge in unusual subjects will lead to original, compelling jokes. Patton Oswalt is king of this. Today, mine your obsessions.
Tip No. 35: If you’re struggling to find an area to write about today, you can always find original jokes by examining your family. Identify the unique aspects of your family in writing. It’s a rich vein you could mine through March and beyond.
Tip No. 38: Want to stand out? Avoid hacky topics. You know what they are. Unless you’re Pryor, I don’t have time for your angle. “But @_______ said, ‘There’s no hacky premise! It’s what you blah blah blah.’” I disagree. No one’s ever been accused of being too original.
38A: Watch the comics before and after you. The topics that keep getting brought up — Tinder, TSA — are most likely hacky. Instead of accusing theft, write on a less pedestrian topic.
38B: You really have to be your own judge of these things. I don’t feel comfortable being the arbiter of hackiness. Be strict with yourself. It will pay off later.
Tip No. 46: Your most original, compelling ideas will come from inspiration, which I see as a type of luck. If you’ve been writing every day, you’re starting to get luckier. The month is halfway done. Keep writing!
Tip No. 52: You have a new joke. It seems too easy. Go online and type in some of the joke and see if someone has said something similar anywhere. Ask your comedy-obsessed friends if they have heard anyone do a similar bit.
Tip No. 121: It’s nice to have a “lane,” but you don’t have to stay in it. George Carlin didn’t. Joan Rivers didn’t. Richard Pryor didn’t. Early on, they were very different. Try a new “lane” for a while. See how it feels. Experiment! Think big! Challenge yourself!
Tip No. 127: “I’m not for everyone” is a valuable position to acknowledge and embrace. You can have great success by being appealing to the type of audiences you enjoy. I’ve heard it said that trying to please everyone is a certain path to failure and frustration.
Tip No. 136: I believe being vulnerable is vital to creating memorable comedy. For the first few years, just getting onstage is vulnerable. As a pro it means sharing a part of yourself that makes you uncomfortable and, just as important, committing to the joke.
Tip No. 156: If someone admonishes you by saying “No one has ever done that,” you’re on the right track. Keep going.
Tip No. 189: “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Commit to the unusual and the ultra-original. You’ll attract the right audience and enthusiastic allies. Good artists love to reach out and help hard-working contemporaries who are trying something different.
Tip No. 195: From Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: “Any line or idea with even a vague feeling of familiarity or provenance had to be expunged. There could be nothing that made the audience feel they weren’t seeing something utterly new.” We should aspire to this.
Tip No. 199: I try to avoid jokes that reinforce stereotypes about Jews. It’s lazy and banal and I’m ashamed of the times I’ve done it. The worst thing about it is it lets bigots off the hook. They can say “See! Even he admits it!,” which sickens me.
Tip No. 210: Early on, those esoteric jokes that a handful of “weirdos” laugh uncontrollably at and the rest of the audience stares at you? Over the years, there will be thousands of these “weirdos” who will thank you for being “odd” by showing up to see you live again and again.
Tip No. 223: Train yourself to ignore the obvious punchline. We rely on surprise to make people laugh, so generally, use the third+ idea that comes to you. No heckler should be able to yell out your punchline. If it’s too esoteric, you can always pull back next show.
Tip No. 225: Is it time to stop using the “I know what you’re thinking …” formula to open your sets? I say yes. Nobody in the audience thinks that two celebrities you sort of look like had a baby. You could use that time working on a more original joke.
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 229: If it’s on a T-shirt, it’s dead. We stand out by writing things the fashion people and advertisers and other hacks/amateurs can’t think of.
Tip No. 233: When I started in 1993, there were probably 50 New England comics doing the “gay voice,” another 25 doing “Indian voice.” If you don’t want to stop doing these voices because they’re bigoted, stop because it makes you a HACK!
Tip No. 246: Callbacks (a joke that refers to one told earlier in the set) really work, and they are a fun and impactful way to end a joke or a set. Just make sure it’s not contrived and that you’re not being lazy about finding a better ending. #I’mBatman
Tip No. 247: Two years into comedy, a legendary Boston comic gave me a list of “You can’t say you killed if …” The lesson I took to heart: How you get the laugh is as important as the laugh.
247A: What I remember from the list — take it/leave it/amend it:
You can’t say “I killed” if you use:
1. Hacky impressions (’94 it was Nicholson and De Niro, which was my act)
2. Shit jokes
3. Gay voice
4. Stock lines
5. Airplane jokes
6. Song parody
7. “F—in’” in the punchline
He felt these “tricks” made it too easy.
Tip No. 260: Some comics say (though not this eloquently) “No premise is inherently hacky.” Maybe, but you aren’t going to distinguish yourself in a pack of thousands of hungry comedians by writing TSA and Tinder bits.
Tip No. 264: By excluding hacky premises from your act, you will free up time on and offstage to work on original and innovative jokes. (I know, “There are no hacky premises!” Tell that to your peers rolling their eyes behind your back while you’re middling.)
Tip No. 278: I remember in an interview Brian Regan (whom I consider the GOAT) said he tried to write away from the areas he became known for. I think that’s one of the secrets to staying fresh and maintaining a high level of creativity. #ReganTip?
Tip No. 296: For many years there were joke ideas I didn’t try because (A) I wasn’t certain they were funny and (B) if nobody laughed, I would be embarrassed by the idea. I know now there are few better indicators that you’re onto something special than A and B.
Tip No. 302: Hunt for topics where your opinions genuinely differ from those of your peers.
Tip No. 322: The best compliment from another comic about a joke is: “I never could’ve thought of that!” When you have an idea with the potential for that compliment, then you must relentlessly hone it. Those jokes will make you. #MitchHedberg
Tip No. 336: “What the f—,” “F— you,” and “Go f— yourself” are not your punchline. They’re used by 1,000 other comics who didn’t put in the work. They get big laughs of course, but they’re borrowed laughs. Keep writing to replace them. Swear all you want, just be original.
Tip No. 363: Avoid writing jokes about places comedians spend a lot of time at: hotels, airports, airplanes, subways, dating apps, casinos. “But I have a fresh take on hotel room keys!” Unless you’re Brian Regan, I stopped listening.
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Tip No. 37: My favorite writer Kurt Vonnegut said he wrote for an audience of one, his sister Alice. I write for a 21-year-old me. Today, think about your ideal audience member. This should help you narrow your writing focus and help you find your voice.
Tip No. 113: Be aware of the constraints your appearance may put on jokes. For example, if you’re really attractive, it can be hard to convince the audience that you’re having a hard time finding a date. Wearing expensive clothes will contradict claims of poverty.
Tip No. 211: “The world makes way for the man who knows where he is going.” — Emerson. Where are you going? Define your mission. Be specific. It will guide how you spend your time. Pardon the 19th-century chauvinism.
Tip No. 228: Assuming a persona/character onstage? Once again, Kurt Vonnegut says it perfectly: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.” — Mother Night.
Tip No. 242: In 2018, I struggled during an early iteration of The Great Depresh. The club manager showed me negative comment cards, one of which said: “DON’T TALK ABOUT DEPRESSION!!!” Don’t ever let one audience decide the fate of a joke or your path.
Tip No. 280: I think in order to become other people’s favorite comedian you have to strive to be your own favorite comedian. This means enjoying your topics, your takes, your presentation. Am I my favorite? Close, I’m right behind Todd Glass and Brian Regan.
Tip No. 356: Don’t compromise your beliefs to get a laugh. I’ve done it and I cringe at the memory. You didn’t get into this to suppress your identity. Have faith that you’ll think of something more honest.
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Tip No. 8: When trying out new jokes, you have to be prepared. Start with a few proven jokes to make sure the crowd is receptive and so you can get a gauge on the volume of the laughter. Make sure you have a good one loaded to follow the new one in case it dies.
8a) “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” — Saint John Wooden, UCLA basketball coach, philosopher, humanitarian. “It’s okay to fail! Fail a lot!!! But don’t fail because you were being lazy.” — Me
Tip No. 10: Get onstage! Writing a joke down is less than 50 percent of the process. You need to get onstage a ridiculous amount before you figure out how to write for stand-up audiences. I chose five/week (arbitrarily) as my minimum when I began.
10A: I used to go when my friend Randy Vera would take a break from singing. The audience did not listen to a single word I said. I would often tell a joke three times just to practice the rhythm and figure out how to use a microphone.
Tip No. 20: Today, try to eliminate those verbal tics. The “and aaaahs” (I call it Miller-ing) after the flat punchline, the “What else …” when you forget your next bit. The ahms, y’knows, and stammers that muddy your rhythm. Again, record and listen to your set! It’s very possible to sound natural without saying “ahm y’know” and “like” over and over again. It’s irritating when you’re just in brief conversation with someone. Over an hourlong set, it’s infuriating.
Tip No. 23: Timing. Some say it’s “essential,” others “useless.” You can get by with lousy timing, but you can soar with great timing. It can take thousands of shows to figure it out. Experiment every show to see what works best. Someday you’ll just feel it.
Tip No. 48: Hosting/MCing shows is a great way to become comfortable onstage and develop a valuable skill. Volunteer to MC shows and it will pay off in many ways. One great thing is that you can consult your notebook and then go back on and try a new bit.
Tip No. 68: Don’t “Give it up for your host!” or “Give yourselves a big hand!” or “How’s everybody doing tonight?” etc. You could do another minute of jokes with the time you waste on this claptrap. Especially foolish if you only have five minutes.
Tip No. 77: Never, under any circumstances, use a stock line. It undermines your entire set. Example: Someone arrives late to the show. The comic says: “Welcome, can I get you anything? Like a watch?”
Tip No. 81: On “f—”: Use or don’t. I don’t care. If you use “f—in’” as the penultimate word in a joke, try it without once to see if it works. On a show with other comics, limit F’s so it still has impact when they use it. If you’re opening for someone, ask if it’s okay.
Tip No. 82: On “savers”: Don’t keep a weak joke because you came up with a great saver for it. It’s tacky. If you must, then at least leave a generous tip for the club’s staff for stifling their contempt during your treachery. “But Johnny Carson …” Shut up, please.
82A) Don’t “That one was just for me!” or “You’ll get that one on the way home!” They won’t, they’ll be too busy trying to rinse their brains of your lazy act.
Tip No. 83: It’s helpful to make a set list, especially for long shows. I write it on a napkin and put it next to a drink on the stool. It’s mostly new jokes and new lines for old jokes. It’s so aggravating to forget to do a new joke you’ve been honing. Glance sparingly.
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 89: Your friend has brought you to open for them this weekend. If you are not trying out some new jokes in that prime spot, you are a fool. Don’t overindulge, but take advantage of the weekend crowd to expand your act.
Tip No. 99: Starting a punchline “Bitch …” is a guaranteed laugh. It is also a guarantee you will sound like 1,000 other comedians.
Tip No. 101: “Writing” onstage is a super-effective way to create. Listening to the set after to harvest the good lines is crucial. If the riff goes poorly, have a strong joke ready so you can fulfill your entertainment obligation.
Tip No. 105: Friday and some Saturday late shows can be brutal. It helps to lower expectations and coordinate with staff on how to manage hecklers and rowdies. If you can be generous of spirit but fair to yourself, it can be fun and valuable.
Tip No. 107: Use the time on the way to the show to go over your set, especially new jokes. Figure out what you want to open/close with. I love my 45-minute subway to the Comedy Cellar for this. You can do it while driving. If driving with a comic, discuss together.
Tip No. 122: How I prepped my first show 10/8/93: Collected all the jokes I wrote and timed them out. Chose my favorite five minutes and did it. A year later, I was using none of those jokes. Just get onstage that first time. You’ll figure it out after. Have fun. Work hard.
122A) Let me add that I was unwatchable for most of two years (and remain unwatchable to many), but I loved and lived comedy. I was obsessed with jokes and words. That was helpful. Once you get onstage, the hardest part is over.
Tip No. 150: More benefits to listening to your set and reducing the ahms, uhs and y’knows: (1) You sound much better in interviews. (2) Onstage, it makes you sound more sure of yourself and contributes to the aesthetic quality of your act live and on albums/TV.
Tip No. 151: A joke’s position in a set may affect its success. Something really personal may need to go later after the audience knows you better. A five-minute set may not give you enough time. If a bit you like doesn’t work, adjust where you deploy it.
Tip No. 159: Voices are an excellent way to add color and laughs to a story or joke and also display your versatility. Don’t do the stock/stereotype voice or accent or a voice used by another comedian. Make up your own and practice it offstage if you can bear it.
Tip No. 160: You have a new joke. There are at least two laughs in it including the ending. You don’t tell one-liners. You’re not auditioning for a TV set. You should be trying to add more laughs in between those laughs every single time you do that joke onstage.
Tip No. 237: If you need to come out to music, make sure your act can live up to the promise. I see comedians come out to booming high-energy songs and their act is not nearly as compelling. I call them CSI: Miamis.
Tip No. 263: Vary your vocal intonation. Especially over a one-hour plus set, an audience can lose its steam if the material is delivered without much variety. Of course, you can ignore this if you answer yes to the following question: Am I Steven Wright?
Tip No. 266: I find preshow rituals very helpful in focusing and relieving anxiety. Among other things, I say a prayer of gratitude before taking the stage. When I do a TV set, as the host intros me, I turn to the curtain person and ask, “Can you get me out of this?”
Tip No. 271: I wish kids could learn to shoot a basketball on eight-foot hoops. Similarly, I wish new comics could learn on nurturing audiences. You can’t, but you CAN concentrate on delivery and preparation without worrying about laughs. Just shoot with good form!
Tip No. 286: In memorizing a precise order of jokes for a long set, I found it helpful to write the set list as quickly as I could over and over again. While I did have a set list placed in an inconspicuous spot front of stage, I didn’t need it by show night.
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 289: When you’re on a showcase, watch the person right before you at least. You can ruin your whole set if you repeat their attitude or pace or content. Audiences won’t laugh at you if they just saw you. Consider it part of your preparation.
Tip No. 318: I love to start a show by making fun of something on the stage. Choose something that isn’t obvious to every comic. Audiences will immediately know they’re with a pro, and it’ll give you confidence, like making your first jump shot. Video by Sam Koppelman.
Tip No. 346: “Saying nothing … sometimes says the most.” — Emily Dickinson. You don’t have to fill every second with words. A person comfortable with silence onstage is telling the audience they’re in good hands.
Tip No. 354: When you have to go up first on a show you have to be prepared. Get your first laugh quickly and pick up your energy if not your pace. Treat it like you’re auditioning. You are auditioning … for better spots in the lineup.
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Tip No. 3: Go through an old notebook/file. You will probably find a premise/sentence/phrase that you forgot. (I found a promising joke in a notebook from 2015 yesterday.) Rewrite your promising idea with the skill you’ve earned since you first wrote it down.
Tip No. 9: Cannibalize your act. Go through your joke inventory and relocate some jokes or pieces of jokes. Add them to jokes that are working to add some density to your act. You just need to take some time to find a connection.
Tip No. 26: Today, go through your joke inventory. Write/type it out. Identify or create logical connections between jokes, and combine them. It can be easier to hold a crowd’s attention when you stay on topic longer. Have a good show tonight! Shabbat Shalom!
Tip No. 34: Today, start by going over your writing from the past few days. Highlight or mark the parts you like and organize them so you can remember to try them onstage next chance you get. Review them before your show. Repeat this tip regularly. It’s important!
Tip No. 43: Proximity contributes to funniness. In general, a brother or sister is funnier to mention in your joke than a sister/brother in-law. Use an aunt instead of a neighbor etc. Adjust your jokes to make the people closer relations. I don’t know why this works.
Tip No. 49: Specific is usually funnier than general terms or words. Go through your set today and find where you were general and change to a specific. There will be cases where general is still funnier. Use good judgement.
Tip No. 50: Hopefully you’re writing for longer periods now. You’ll notice it takes time to warm up. After you warm up, go back to the beginning of your session and make changes to the jokes there. I just learned this and it’s very helpful.
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 53: Listen to a recent recording — I know it’s excruciating, and it won’t get much easier. Pause every sentence or two. (1) Can you say it in less words? (2) Can you add or change something to make it funnier? Press play and repeat.
Tip No. 56: Choose at least one thing to work on during every set. Work on a new joke, adding a physical component, a character or voice, etc. every single time you take the stage. This helps at every level.
Tip No. 58: The most common advice I give new comedians is to “make it sound more conversational.” I’m not entirely certain how to go about that other than to make it a goal to sound less scripted. Yet another instance where listening to your set is helpful.
Tip No. 64: You have a joke on a topic you want to cover. It gets a good laugh but it’s pedestrian. Keep it! Use it as scaffolding to build a better joke by adding on-topic jokes to the original joke. Just remember to remove the scaffolding once the joke is great.
Tip No. 66: Thursday nights are perfect for trying out new jokes. Today, before trying it out onstage, say the joke out loud to play with and figure out the rhythm. You will probably change or drop some words. And, per Tip No. 58, make sure it doesn’t sound too written.
Tip No. 72: If you want to make a good joke denser and deeper, do some research on the topic. You will find insight and perspectives that you hadn’t thought of. Spending an hour or two to add a minute to a good joke is a bargain.
Tip No. 87: Here’s a helpful organizing tip for notebook users. I can keep a premise together by adding ideas to the Post-it and sticking it to the original page.
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 91: Organization tip: When transcribing your sets, leave space in between each line so that you can make changes and edits later on that day.
Tip No. 119: Today, try and add some laugh lines to the setups of some of your jokes. This will be fun, add denseness to your jokes, and put some new energy in old jokes. Try and work them in tonight during your show.
Tip No. 123: Listen to early versions of the joke to see if you’re using different emphasis, words, or pace. Sometimes, adding laugh lines to a joke has diminished the punchline’s impact. Some jokes work best early or later in a set, so experiment with placement.
123A: Sometimes you aren’t telling it with the same energy and/or confidence you used to. Energy is easy to add. Confidence? I’ll let you know when I get there. “Act as if” until you get there.
Tip No. 130: When you’re building an act or writing a new hour, it helps to keep an inventory handy. I think separating into: (1) Jokes that work, (2) Jokes that need work, (3) Jokes to try. Refer often so you ruminate over the ideas. Put most effort into 2.
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 139: I’ve found adding some silliness or absurdism very rewarding over the years. It’s fun to experiment with and often adds life to a joke in need of it. Also, it attracts a really cool audience. This weekend, try adding some silliness to your jokes.
Tip No. 144: Having a tough time figuring out a joke? Try switching perspectives. Tell the story from another person’s point of view, or even from an object or animal. You can even time travel and tell it from the perspective of a younger or older you.
Tip No. 152: I know how hard it is to listen to your sets, but honestly, it’s the most valuable tip I’ve given. It’s painful and the audience reaction sounds bad because of the audio mix. “But I hate the sound of my voice!” How much do you hate wasting your potential?
Tip No. 153: Understatement is a very effective joke technique that is not used as much as sarcasm, which is less effective because of its ubiquity. Go through your jokes that need work and see if understatement can be applied.
153B) Example: Re: Jewish people: “We can be a rather cautious group, which is understandable. We’ve been in a couple of pickles over the years.”
Tip No. 178: On swearing: Swear or don’t swear. I do think if the impact of a swear in a joke is not significant, keep digging for something stronger. Also, it may help when a joke is new to add a swear to spice it up. Later, try it without the swear.
Tip No. 201: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” —Voltaire. Ruminate on your jokes obsessively, but don’t wait until they’re flawless to try them. After, make improvements. Later, recognize when you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, let go. You’ve got more to say.
Tip No. 238: More than one show in a night? If there’s enough time between shows, listen to the new jokes that worked so you can adjust or replicate the earlier version next show. Write while the synapses are still firing. Celebrate the new joke on the way home.
Tip No. 252: Some nights you may realize you don’t have as much material as you thought. Don’t panic! It’s great news if it motivates you to write. I always start by trying to expand on what already works. Then take your joke fragments and premises and hammer away.
Tip No. 282: I have no strict opinion on whether you should swear in your act. I used to swear two or three times a show, but I found that when I stopped using any swears the audience greatly appreciated it, so if you’re not swearing a lot maybe consider it?
Tip No. 295: I keep a file all year long labeled “For Boston” where I add specific jokes for my yearly show. Your knowledge of your city lets you make original jokes other comics can’t. Audiences appreciate it, and it helps build a new hour to perform there each time.
Tip No. 342: Someday, you may be able to choose the perfect words in the moment onstage. Then all you have to do is listen to the audio, and transcribe. You still should perfect the words in writing/type. Word by word. Sentence by sentence. Perform. Repeat.
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Tip No. 7: Find a comic friend to call/meet and go over jokes/premises/ideas. Play “Is This Funny?” Be honest but gentle and don’t just wait until it’s your turn! Tell them if you’ve heard similar bits! Two people is best, more is okay. It’s one of the most fun and helpful exercises. Even if your partner just gives you more confidence in a new joke/idea, it is invaluable. A lot of times they will suggest excellent tags (additions to the joke usually but not limited to the punchline) or different angles. It also gives you a safe place to say things out loud.
Tip No. 14: Best insight I ever got came two shows in: Nearly all of your work will come from other comedians. Be a good co-worker. Don’t run the light. Be original. Be supportive. Write a lot! Be kind!
Tip No. 22: You can learn by watching the other comics on your show. The great ones will teach and inspire and the bad ones’ shortcomings are instructive. You can assess the crowd and note overused premises to avoid. Also, you may be able to offer a peer a good idea.
Tip No. 44: Headliners! Watch your opening acts at least the first night. When asked for it, be generous with guidance and encouragement. These comics are paid poorly and underappreciated. You can help them immensely with some small kindnesses like lunch.
Tip No. 74: I once spent a year asking veteran headliners advice on doing an hour. “I take them on a ride!” “You need to build slowly.” “I sing a song!” Only one person gave me worthwhile advice: Tom Papa, who said without sarcasm, “You need A LOT OF JOKES.”
Tip No. 104: Hang out! Early on in your career, if you’re not on the show you can sometimes get a spot if someone is late or a no-show and you ask nicely. You also get to watch comedy and make friends and build comfort. If you don’t get on, go home and write.
Tip No. 114: At Boston College, Professor John McAleer wrote on a short story I turned in: “You have a storytelling ability you should zealously cultivate!” I was lucky to have a lot of John McAleers. Be that professor for a new comedian you work with.
Tip No. 125: Find the teachers! Nearly every working headliner has a breadth of knowledge and experience that would dwarf my collection of tips. Most love talking shop. Ask questions, and this is tough: Listen to the answers.
Tip No. 142: Veterans, mentoring young comedians is a very gratifying experience that is valuable to all parties. You teach and cement your knowledge while staying informed and inspired by current trends in comedy.
Tip No. 168: Sometimes we need to vent. Pointing out the King’s nudity is human nature, but make sure to balance your karma by lauding people who inspire like Todd Glass, Mike Birbiglia, Phoebe Robinson, Judah Friedlander, Emmy Blotnick, Ramy Youssef, Robert Kelly, Naomi Ekperigin, etc.
Tip No. 174: I have never collaborated so extensively as I have with director Michael Bonfiglio on my current special: The Great Depresh. It has been a revelation how much better two minds have made it. Collaborate! One rule: you have to make each other laugh, hard.
Tip No. 200: I stuck with it [Tip No. 199] partially because a lot of very generous comedians were kind. They complimented a joke or gave me work opening for them or passed along my name to showbiz folk. For my birthday today, do that for another comedian. You’ll feel great.
Tip No. 219: When I first started, we were all terrified of being hacky. We’d let each other know if a new bit had already been done or was from a hacky formula or topic. It helped ensure originality. Dehack your act with your friends. Be gentle.
Tip No. 230: Make a new comedy friend this weekend. Tell someone whose act you admire that you admire their act. Maybe don’t use the word “admire.” This probably will not work with celebrities or jerks and certainly will not work with celebrity jerks.
Tip No. 231: Have you tried to make that friend yet? I promise you this Sisyphean journey becomes much more manageable if you have someone to discuss the boulder with.
Tip No. 255: I’ve found confidence to be elusive throughout my life. I have learned to rely on friends like Brian Koppelman, Chris Fleming, and Michael Bonfiglio to give objective criticism of my work. In doubt? Call on and trust the opinion of your life team.
Tip No. 262: Watch the comedians the other comedians watch. In Boston, it was Don Gavin and Patrice. In L.A., it was, among others, Todd Glass, Maria Bamford, and Andy Kindler. In NYC, it’s Dave Attell, Ted Alexandro, Aparna Nancherla, Jessica Kirson, and Robert Kelly.
Tip No. 274: Early on, I used to ask older comics to watch my set. They would give tips (one was put the stand behind you after you take the mic out) or tags or encouragement. It was invaluable. I still sometimes ask a friend to watch if I’m working on new jokes.
Tip No. 292: What they don’t always tell you about helping other comedians move ahead is that it feels really good. Recommending a comedian who then gets passed at a club or gets their first TV spot is invigorating. Try it!
Tip No. 300: Pass your knowledge of comedy and comedy business on to newer/younger comedians. Explaining your craft, process, and philosophy will reinforce your personal understanding and remind you to practice it now. Also it will strengthen comedy overall.
Tip No. 308: Be there for your comedy friends. We have a bizarre lifestyle even the greatest therapist cannot grasp. Opening up about fears and frustrations as well as your hopes and victories with a simpatico colleague is invaluable, especially while on the road.
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 312: I never learned a thing about comedy while I was talking. Ask the veterans questions and then put your mouth away. Thanks for your wisdom coming up, Don Gavin, Paul D’Angelo, Tony Viveiros, Brian Kiley, Teddy Bergeron, and the Comedy Studio’s Rick Jenkins.
Tip No. 330: If you’re hypersensitive like me, it helps to ask people you’re working on projects with to sandwich all criticism between effusive praise. Director Michael Bonfiglio is an expert at this. My ideal coach would be Mister Rogers.
Tip No. 359: Meet your heroes! Almost without exception, meeting my heroes has been energizing and joyful. Worst case, you will learn how not to act when you’re in their position. Best case, you’ll stay over Chris Elliot’s house with Michael Bonfiglio.
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Tip No. 59: Early on in your career, it can be difficult to win over a crowd. It’s very helpful to open with your best joke (the shorter the better) and close with your second best.
Tip No. 76: I’ve heard so many stories of comedians performing in front of a handful of people with as much zeal as they did for a sold-out show. Be that comedian!!! It’s difficult but great training. It’s okay to acknowledge the poor turnout, but don’t dwell on it.
Tip No. 97: For your first few years, limit your crowd work. You need joke inventory and practice. There will be plenty of time to work on your whereyafroms. Many headliners don’t like an MC or opener to do crowd work. It emboldens hecklers.
Tip No. 98: In general, when the audience is laughing, stop talking. It’s our insecurities that make us want to fill every moment with sound.
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 117: Headliners, consider doing a meet-and-greet after your shows. The audience really appreciates it and it feels pretty good. Mine rarely take more than 45 minutes so it’s not a huge time issue. Don’t charge for pictures or autographs. That’s super-tacky.
Tip No. 120: It’s very helpful, especially early on, to perform in front of a large variety of audiences. It develops skills in adjusting on the fly and builds confidence in your ability to do well no matter the circumstances or survive even if it goes badly.
Tip No. 128: How do I build an audience? I have no idea. Luck, timing, and hard work all come into play. You can only control the hard work, so concern yourself with that. Do unique comedy and trust they will find you. Have faith. Believe. Persist.
128A: My manager Maureen Taran promised me in 1998, “They will find you.” I believed her. That helped a lot.
Tip No. 131: Modern audiences expect mostly new material every time they come to see you. Before you accept a return to a city, you should think about whether you can deliver. It’s better to wait a year than risk diminishing interest through repetition.
130A: One last thought on this: It may take as much care and energy to maintain an audience as to build one. It’s worth it. Good night, everybody!
Tip No. 177: Though not what it once was, TV is still a great way to add fans/followers. So, especially early on, make sure you’re spending a lot more time on your act than you are trying to build your online following. I try to keep social media under an hour a day.
Tip No. 188: Judge the worth of a joke based on the response from ideal crowds. Get in front of those crowds by opening for acts and performing in clubs that have cultivated ideal audiences. I would have abandoned my most popular jokes if I judged by the average club crowd.
Tip No. 215: I try my best not to return to a venue without at least a new hour not on any album or special. I think if you return with less than 20–30 new minutes, you will diminish any draw you have — but worse, you’ll feel lousy. These are not laws but helpful guidelines, I hope.
Tip No. 222: You don’t have to do the really vulnerable stuff in front of the rowdy or small or tough audiences. You’ll risk losing confidence in your most important work. Or, kill for 20 minutes with easier jokes and then ease into the tough stuff.
Tip No. 265: On crowd work: It’s fun to do and really blows an audience away. However, it can make it really hard to get them into written jokes after you’ve done great stuff extemporaneously. Early on in your career, I think it’s best to deploy it sparingly.
Tip No. 279: I’m not a fan of “clapter.” If your joke only elicits applause, it’s not a joke, it’s a slogan. It doesn’t mean the joke isn’t on the right path. It means some things about the joke should be adjusted. Back to the lab.
Tip No. 317: Many times, the crowd hasn’t settled down when you take the stage. The best way to settle them down is to talk slowly and quietly until they are quiet. Yelling at them to quiet down will make you into a substitute teacher. Slow and low.
Tip No. 332: Do not fixate on that one person with the stone face in the crowd. It is distracting and is just reinforcing insecurities. Instead, find those people who are getting you and let their reaction in. Those are the ones who matter. They’ll be back.
Tip No. 338: The very wise Jonny Donahoe said you only need 1,000 true fans. That’s very doable. They will come see your new show. So, bring a new hour, do a meet-and-greet, and answer your fan mail (I’m working on it!), and they will be back, maybe with a friend.
Tip No. 351: If you’re brave enough to work New Year’s Eve, remember this will be a rowdy crowd that, unless you’re super-famous, aren’t there to see you. They pay well and that’s to reimburse you for your dignity. Prepare accordingly.
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Tip No. 27: You will be designing your set with a producer. Most of them are excellent and can provide valuable insight. J.P. [Buck] at Conan and Jessica [Pilot] at Colbert have been tremendous. Be polite and professional. Make a case for your preferences, but don’t be a pain in the ass.
27B: This seems obvious, but practice the set in front of as many crowds as possible, good and bad, until you’re sick of it. Especially if it’s your first time, you want to know it cold.
27C: Video if possible so you can eliminate the physical habits that annoy you. See what you look like on TV so you can adjust to look like you want to. Make changes to tighten the set, squeezing in as many laughs as you can. Just clear changes with the producer.
Tip No. 28: One thing to take the stress out of a TV set or any big show is to ignore the 8 Mile idea that you only get “one shot.” NONSENSE!!! If you’re nice and write you’ll get 60+ shots. It’s an ultra-marathon. B-Rabbit got a second shot later that month! Persist.
Tip No. 31: Day of show: Bring a calming friend who hasn’t appeared on the show you’re doing so you can try to get them on in the future. If you’re a napper, plan one that won’t make you groggy at show time. Run your set in your head or out loud many times. Exercise.
31B: It’s still very hard to get a TV set. Don’t think about what it can lead to. This is a milestone. It doesn’t have to lead anywhere. The kid who watched stand-ups on TV growing up would be blown away by you. Congratulations!
31C: Watch me on Conan tonight! When I tug on my ear lobe, it’s to say hi to Carol Burnett’s grandmother.
31D: If it’s your first time: Ask for your introduction cue cards signed by the host. They’re a fun memento. Frame them with some or all of your appearance fee. My routine is as Conan says my name, I turn to the person in charge of the curtain and say “Can you get me out of this?”
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 73: We all hate waking up early to do radio, but you should do it and take it seriously, especially early in your career. It will be your biggest audience of the weekend by far. Many comedians still build a fanbase with radio. Do your best stuff!
Tip No. 88: On patience: It’s better to be seen by the comedy “industry” two years too late than one second too early. It’s hard to undo a bad first impression, and you change and grow so much year to year the first ten years of your career.
Tip No. 146: Treat your next album/special/TV appearance like it’s your first. Prepare obsessively! Leave them not wanting to see more of you but needing to see more of you because you committed fully to your performance.
Tip No. 161: When making a special/album, try to keep references timeless and limit the amount of popular names you use. Also, try to avoid current slang. I cringe hearing myself say “F up my shit” on my first album.
Tip No. 176: Shot my fourth special last night. When you shoot a special it’s best to apply consistent effort over a year or more to get it right. You can cram for a late-night set, but a special is more like the SATs. Prepare! Thank you, Michael Bonfiglio, Judd Apatow, and HBO.
Tip No. 190: Be ready. If a booker wants a five-minute set, have a video of you ready to send immediately. If an agent asks if you have a movie/TV idea, have a script or a synopsis ready to send. It’s the intersection of preparation and opportunity where a lot of fun occurs.
Tip No. 221: The time during my show-business career when I wasn’t on a TV show or filming a movie (my career) was a great time to single-mindedly work on my stand-up.
Tip No. 270: Whenever you have a showcase or audition or TV appearance, spend whatever you have to to look right. Arrive early and prepared, and if your hands shake when you’re excited, get a prescription for a beta blocker. I use propranolol.
Tip No. 276: Promotion is really the only “work” in stand-up. Best advice I got regarding promotion was they are paying you for the promotion, not the stand-up. It’s a fair deal considering I often perform for free. Give it your energy and be professional.
Tip No. 309: There’s a bias toward performing our newest, freshest jokes. Resist the temptation to do them for auditions or showcases or TV appearances. You should do the jokes you are most confident in and have gotten the most reps with. Let the new stuff ripen.
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Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 103: On the road this weekend? Open with a few jokes about the city. No traffic jokes or jokes that seem like they had to have been done 1,000 times before. Don’t spend a ton of time writing, but make an effort.
Tip No. 173: On travel: You want to get to the point where you are staying in nice hotels, performing in front of people who know who you are, and most importantly, not getting up at 6 a.m. for radio. Carousing post-show will delay that significantly. Moderation!
Tip No. 180: On travel: Enroll in TSA and/or Clear to expedite your entry at the airport. The time you will save and the stress you will eliminate is worth the initial time and money outlay. You’ll reduce the likelihood of missing a flight and of writing a hacky TSA bit.
Tip No. 251: On the road, one thing that helps me stay sane and out of bed is making early breakfast plans Friday/Saturday with a friend or the other comics. I tell myself I can go back to bed after, but 99 percent of the time I don’t.
Tip No. 258: Whenever possible on the road, you and your opener should watch each other’s sets and take notes. Discuss in between shows and at meals paid for by the closer. Collaboration is good for your act and your mood.
Tip No. 315: If you live in a cold climate, spend whatever you have to for warm gear. It’s so hard to go do spots, get to the gym, visit friends if you’re in agony every time you go outside. Borrow if you have to. Don’t be proud! If you can, donate an old coat.
Tip No. 348: On the road it’s important to exercise to maintain/lighten your mood. (A) Ask where the gym is when you check in. (B) Change into exercise clothes as soon as you get in the room. (C) Go exercise for ten-plus minutes. (D) Nap if you still feel like it.
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Tip No. 93: It’s okay to “bomb.” Taking risks is essential to becoming an original voice. You should bomb occasionally, even frequently, if you’re taking risks and committing!!! Bomb taking risks, not with Tinder jokes.
Tip No. 100: “When someone asks you if you’re a god you say YES!” —Winston Zeddemore. Accept challenges zealously! It will help you expand your limits. If you fail, so what?! Brian Koppelman told me this!
Tip No. 111: Zag. Take “the road less traveled.”
Tip No. 148: What to do after you bomb: (A) Don’t panic! It’s just one set. You’ll do thousands more. (B) Take a few minutes to address mistakes. (C) Watch the other comedians to see if they handled it differently/better. (Sometimes it’s the crowd.)
Tip No. 149: With few exceptions (Todd Barry), everyone has bombed. If you never bomb, there’s something off. You’re either not taking any risks or lying to yourself about the audience reaction. Bombing for the right reasons is part of the process.
Tip No. 171: Summer goal: “We have to be continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe your goal is your first open mic. Keep this quote in mind now and throughout your journey. There’s no blueprint. Take that leap of faith!
Tip No. 232: You bombed? It’s just one set. I’ve spent too many mornings letting last night’s show dictate my mood. You’re not as bad as your worst set. You’re not as good as your best. Over time you’ll be closer to your best set. It’s just one set. Back to work.
Tip No. 293: I used to respond to failure and rejection by spending days in bed. Some setbacks completely derailed me. A healthier approach to a setback is to ask yourself: “How is this helpful?” In most cases it was that the “no” gave me more time to improve.
Tip No. 321: I find endless motivation from the life and work and words of Georgia O’Keeffe, born today in 1887. “To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.” Use the energy that comes with feeling brave to reach higher this weekend. Take some risks!
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Tip No. 60: You will have countless setbacks if you stick with comedy. It’s okay to take a day or two to lick your wounds after a rejection. Then, ask yourself: Can I be working harder? If yes, then it’s not a setback, it’s a message.
Tip No. 71: “I hate my act!” This is usually a good sign. Don’t despair. Use the frustration to motivate you to work in some new stuff tonight. Soon you’ll have a new 20 minutes to be sick of.
Tip No. 83: Frustrated with a joke? (1) Keep writing. The next sentence could crack it, or (2) write about something else for a while. Sometimes when you return, the subconscious has solved it. It’s frustrating, but when you solve it, it’s exhilarating.
Tip No. 134: In a writing drought? Meet up with or call people you feel funny around and are generous laughers. I got this advice from the brilliant Brian Kiley early on and it is good advice in and out of comedy. #CallYourMom
Tip No. 208: I’ve quit comedy twice. I kept jotting down ideas and when the itch to perform came back I returned with renewed vigor. No shame in quitting if you must, but leave the door open. When you come back you’ll be welcomed. Be a lifer.
Tip No. 261: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein. Don’t give up on a joke you believe in! My joke about state abbreviations was first in my notebook in the ’90s.
Tip No. 344: Whenever you get frustrated, it helps to think about all the things you ever struggled to learn and now do without even thinking. If you persist, performing comedy will become one of those things.
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Tip No. 110: Make sure you’re in this because you love comedy and NOT because you love show business.
Tip No. 138: Go to a music concert this weekend. A singer/musician works much harder than us. The physical exertion is extraordinary. Also, every word they say rhymes for two hours. Let it inspire you to perform harder and write more intensely.
Tip No. 158: I can’t remember who, but a comedian said a good joke/comedian can occupy space in your mind. That stuck in mine. It makes for a great aim for your work and also tells you how influential we can be. Be responsible with this power! #BenParkerTip
Tip No. 245: It’s easier to live by “Words to Live By” if you are reminded of them frequently. My front door:
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 259: When I first quit smoking in 2010, I would buy myself something every Saturday with the money I saved. Reward yourself for a great set or for writing ten days in a row or for not melting down while bombing. Rewards help.
Tip No. 267: Last day of Summer. RT if you wrote every day and/or reached any of your summer goals. Keeping to a routine in the summer is the toughest so reward yourself! Write your fourth quarter goals out by end of today. Be bold!
Tip No. 324: When I was really struggling to get out of bed every morning, I made a deal with myself: Get out of bed for a half hour. If you want to go back to bed after, you can. I didn’t go back to bed once. Ten minutes will probably work.
Tip No. 353: Be careful who you share your dreams and goals with. Share them with people who will say “F— YEAH!” not “Well … if … but.” Most of us have enough of the second one in our head already.
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Tip No. 11: Had a bad set? Go home and write. Had a great set? Go home and write. Bumped by Bob Saget? Go home and write. Few things can offset the feelings of helplessness in show business like engaging in one of the few things over which you have total control.
11A: I’m not saying don’t hang out with your friends. You need to limit it though. There will be plenty of time to hang out when you’re full time. Unless you have another spot, it’s nice to stay to support the others if there isn’t a big crowd.
Tip No. 32: Today’s tip is a challenge. February is the shortest month. I want you to write every single day. You don’t have to write all day. You do have to write every day or be marked incomplete. Put your head down. Look up on March 1 a stronger comic.
Tip No. 42: If you’re still with the challenge, writing every day is now habit. Hopefully you’ve had a session where it flows. When you’re in a flow, don’t stop. Cancel appointments, stay up late, be late to lunch. The Muse is elusive. If you have her attention, write.
Tip No. 51: Get out of the house! There are too many distractions and temptations (mostly to nap) in your home. Go to a coffee shop or bookstore or library (my favorite) and write.
Tip No. 118: Last night, Colin Quinn filmed another magnificent special. Stand-up veterans, you can continue to do great work and reach greater heights if you write diligently and prepare like CQ. This weekend, prepare!
Tip No. 185: I tend to get distracted near the end of a project, or maybe I let up to keep myself from being too invested in the results. Either way it’s not helpful. Writing this reminder on my whiteboard two months before I filmed my special helped keep me focused to the end.
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 191: Early on (0–5+ years) you really need to prioritize stage time of all kinds. The reps will scrape off that amateurism, that neediness, that stilted delivery. Even the greatest material can’t surmount the glaring green of inexperience.
Tip No. 192: Over the next week, keep track of how you’re spending your time. Reduce/eliminate time-killer habits. Winning a hand of solitaire will never feel as good as finding an ending for a joke. “If you’re killing time, you’re murdering opportunity.” — Thing I read.
Tip No. 209: “… Look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock … a hundred times without as much as a crack … Yet at the 101st blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” — Jacob Riis. Pound that rock this weekend!
Tip No. 216: I moved to NYC from L.A. in 2006 because I couldn’t get onstage even 25 percent as frequently, despite a slew of major TV credits. If you want to reach your potential and you can’t get onstage 300 times a year, you should seriously consider moving somewhere that you can.
Tip No. 226: I started in Boston in 1993. If you really hustled and were willing to occasionally drive four hours roundtrip, you could get on stage every night. This was invaluable. If you can manage it, find or create your Boston.
Tip No. 249: I gave up watching college football on Saturdays because on the road it’s the best day to write. You can listen to what worked on Friday and integrate it into your act in front of the best crowd of the week. What will you give up to reach your goals?
Tip No. 253: You’re making a living at stand-up. You didn’t even have to write every day or get onstage every night to get there. Aren’t you at all curious about how good you could be? If so, go all out for the rest of 2019. Put your head down and see what happens.
Tip No. 272: I watched Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, and Judd Apatow Wednesday night, and they were even funnier than when I saw them for the first time 20+ years ago. If you maintain high standards and work diligently you can do great work indefinitely. Don’t let up!
Tip No. 304: Maintain the highest quality in everything you put your name on. If you can’t give a project your focus or enthusiasm, then politely pass. It is invaluable to have audiences and bookers who rely on you for great work. Don’t squander it.
Tip No. 305: You will hardly ever feel like writing. Frequently you will be glad you’re writing shortly after you start writing. You will almost always feel better after you’ve written.
Tip No. 307: A good reason not to skip a day of writing/performing is that it makes it much easier to rationalize skipping two or three days or a week or more.
Tip No. 347: A worn-out ball was the sign of a kid who worked hard. Now it’s empty pens, full notebooks, or keyboards that look like below. They’ll call you obsessed, but it’s putting in that ridiculous level of effort that will produce great work. Get there.
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 357: Writing on consecutive days is important. Two hours/day > eight hours twice/week. I have read again and again that if you can write every day at the same time you can engage your subconscious faster. Writing from the subconscious is how “genius” happens.
Tip No. 361: It seems like every great hoop player had the keys to the gym growing up. Getting to do hourlong sets is the keys to the stand-up gym. It’s the single most important factor in improving every aspect of your act. Prepare zealously.
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Tip No. 4: Procrastinating? Open your notebook/laptop. Set a timer to your favorite number between 15 and 19 minutes. Write until the timer goes off. No checking your phone! If you feel like it, and you usually will, keep writing. Inertia is powerful. It’s hard to start doing something but once you start, inertia will help you keep going.
Tip No. 17: You’ve been killing every night. You’re not sure this is still a challenge. For the next few months, ask to go on first. It’s a great test of your act. The booker and host will love you for it.
Tip No. 30: Today, Remove your earbuds for an hour+. Take time to ruminate in your head and toss around ideas. If you can think out jokes while listening to music, I envy you. For a lot of us, near silence is best. If you need the distraction for anxiety, I get it.
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 39: This weekend, spend two hours in an art museum. Notice how meticulous and precise the artists are with their paintings/sculptures. Consider the countless choices they made. Seeing masterpieces up close makes writing a joke seem far less daunting.
Tip No. 40: This weekend, do something new and/or ridiculous. Examples: Take a date on a hot air balloon (Ryan Hamilton), fight anarchy at Trader Joe’s (the Gul), be a Jew at a meeting of young anti-Semites (Alex Edelman).
Tip No. 47: Limitations often breed creativity. Today, set in writing some restrictions for your act. (“I won’t talk about ______. I’ll only write jokes this month about _______.”) It seems counterintuitive but it works.
Tip No. 65: Writing a new joke can be intimidating. Break it down. A good joke is just a collection of good sentences. Today, write a funny sentence. That’s it. It can be to an existing joke or set up, or completely new.
Tip No. 70: Today, put together a list of the most embarrassing moments in your life. Take one or two and write them out in detail. Next time you’re in front of a warm crowd, work on telling the story.
70A: This exercise should help you to be more vulnerable onstage. A lot of us feel this is a major component of the best contemporary stand-up comedy.
Tip No. 75: Take acting classes. Don’t go to a culty one and make sure you get to act every class. It will make you a better comic. “But @____________ never took a class and blah blah blah.” Please shut up.
Tip No. 112: Holidays are rich topics with near-universal recognition for audiences. This weekend, write about holidays and personal stories about them. Just be careful not to do the ordinary takes or bite my “All I Want For Chanukah Is Christmas.”
Tip No. 115: It’s been so long since I wrote. What’s another day? Open your notebook or your joke file on your computer and put in the date. Done? The hardest part is over. Write some thoughts, a set list, goals, anything. Keep writing until you can’t, plus 15 minutes.
Tip No. 124: Sports is another subject with near-universal recognition for audiences. Sports have been and continue to be a wellspring of content for me and many other comedians. Today, write about your experiences as a participant, fan, or hater of sports.
Tip No. 126: Some of my favorite comedians and I have found rich veins in analyzing ideas and experiences we found captivating when we were children. Make a list of your most enduring childhood thoughts and memories and write about them.
Tip No. 164: Ten days until summer. Start thinking about goals for this 91 days or promises to make to yourself regarding effort and dedication. Keep the goals within your control, not reliant on gatekeepers. I’ll share some ideas and my aims over the next week or so.
Tip No. 165: Some goals: Write every day or 85/91 days for at least 15 minutes. Write for 100 or 200 hours. Get onstage 100 times. Send X # of emails/texts asking for stage time. Read four great books. Start a podcast. Write an outline and/or a chapter of a book.
Tip No. 166: Some more ideas for goals: I’ve tried to stress the value of getting things right in your mind so you can write and perform at the highest level. So, this summer find a good therapist, meditate, exercise 3+ days a week, get sober, or go to more meetings.
Tip No. 175: Hopefully you started work on your summer goals yesterday. If not we can call today the first day of summer. Share your goal to hold yourself accountable. I’m going to do 90+ sets this summer and prepare three TV sets. “It’s gonna be a good summah!”
Tip No. 170: Summer goals: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou. This summer, write that story. You don’t have to perform it or make it funny. It will inform your writing. It may open you up on and offstage.
Tip No. 182: Sometime today, unless it’s too painful because of anxiety, sit in some boredom. While washing dishes, folding laundry, walking around etc., unplug from distractions and daydream or ruminate over your act. Keep a pen and paper handy but don’t touch your phone.
Tip No. 183: Start an ambitious project. Share your goal with people who will encourage and support you. Before you know it, you’ll be halfway done. Time passes whether you’re working on your goal or not. You might as well chip away every day.
Tip No. 202: List your stand-up weaknesses. Be honest. (Among 100+ others, I need to weed out numerous performance flaws.) Write them down and take a pic and consult that pic before every show. Work on at least one of those weaknesses every show.
Tip No. 206: About a month into the summer. Go over the goals you set. Note progress and reward yourself. If you’re lagging, figure out why. If you didn’t set/start a goal, there’s still almost eight weeks left, which is so much time to do something special. Forgive yourself.
Tip No. 236: I made a “vision board” in ’09. I put Late Show With David Letterman, Conan, This American Life, and an HBO stand-up special on it. They’ve all happened for me. Corny? Maybe. Maybe coincidence, maybe subconscious reinforcement? Regardless, very fun to make.
Tip No. 248: Offer to close long shows. Ask for the time remaining or extra as a bonus for doing this challenging spot. It’s a great test of your skills and will be appreciated by bookers. I’m forever grateful to the Comedy Studio for giving me the last spot 1,000 times.
Tip No. 254: Summer is over soon. Go over your goals from Tip 175 to see how you’re doing. Start thinking about how you want to end 2019. Don’t coast to 12/31. Sprint through the finish and set yourself up to break through in 2020.
Tip No. 283: There are things you love but haven’t done in years. Do one of them this week. The enthusiasm and fresh perspective may inspire some interesting writing. Even if it doesn’t, you reunited with a loved one. Enjoy!
Tip No. 290: Some crowds are actually too hot to be a good test of your material. Put in some restrictions to make it harder. Examples: Use all new material, no swearing, improv additions to old jokes. Sometimes I dig myself a hole to see if I can win them back.
Tip No. 294: There are jokes that haven’t worked for us early on because we didn’t have the right audience. This weekend, revisit some jokes you believe in now that you have more receptive audiences. “But [—] said the audience is always right!” [—] is wrong.
Tip No. 301: Collect joke fragments and one-liners (unless you tell one-liners) in a file/folder. Friend and super comic Tom Ryan calls it “The Parts Store.” Review the collection regularly to see if anything is useful in another bit or you have something to add.
Tip No. 303: If you are spending weeknight unpaid or low-paid sets doing only your best jokes that you know work, then you are phoning it in. Force yourself to try some completely new jokes or premises. I feel better bombing with new than killing with tried and true.
Tip No. 306: We don’t have many universally shared experiences anymore, but Halloween is a fun one to make jokes with. For four weeks I have had a ball talking about the evolution of Jack (or Jill) of the Lantern Carving. Happy Halloween!
Tip No. 334: I remember when I was really sick with the depresh my friend Keith Mercurio told me to write down five things I was grateful for every morning. I believe along with a dozen other things that it contributed to my recovery. Try it!
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 335: This weekend is a good time to figure out your resolutions for 2020. Determining what you will need to get off to a good start is crucial to the success of the res. Get whatever items will make your plan work.
Tip No. 337: When taking a break, set a timer for 15–30 minutes. Don’t turn on the TV or go online. I find it best to walk and get coffee if I need it. The breaks should allow you to refresh and let your subconscious do some work. I usually get ideas on break.
Tip No. 341: (A) Write out an autobiography of a significant four- or five-year period of your life. Be specific and detailed. (B) Identify components that you can use for your act. (C) Write it into your act. (D) Repeat B and C.
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Tip No. 94: 99 percent of us are awful for our first few years. It’s frustrating because we want to honor this art form we revere. Have faith that you’ll improve if you get onstage as often as possible. It is bizarre to learn a craft in public. We’re carnies. Persist.
Tip No. 108: When is it time to move to New York or L.A.? Are you the best comedian on nearly every show you do? Dissatisfied with stage time? Then start thinking about one of those cities or a bigger stand-up scene. Like most fields, you get better by being around better.
Tip No. 154: When the alt-scene boomed in the ’90s, many veteran comics resisted it. Now the principles of it are mainstream, and those veterans work much less. “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” — General Eric Shinseki. Evolve!
Tip No. 169: “Nope, it’s not good enough, scribble it out. New pad, crinkle it up, and throw the shit out.” — Eminem. Be hypercritical of your writing. Holding on to weak jokes keeps telling your brain that you can’t do any better. You can. #Now CallYourDad
Tip No. 205: It’s not helpful to dwell on where you should be “by now.” Instead, think about where you were a year ago or more. If you cringe at what you were doing onstage that’s great! If there hasn’t been much change, you need to make a fearless inventory of your approach.
Tip No. 214: A young comic, hungry for stage time, hustling to get better, can’t help but resent the veteran who goes on with the same act for years, wasting valuable stage time. Don’t be that veteran. Keep writing and keep current. You owe it to stand-up comedy and yourself.
Tip No. 287: I’ve heard people advise comedians “Stay in your lane!” Solid advice, if your aim is to stagnate and not challenge your limits. If you want to evolve as an artist and human then ignore that nonsense. Try. Fail. Try again. Grow. Two men who didn’t stay in their lane:
Photo: Gary Gulman/Twitter
Tip No. 316: When you think you’re as good as you can get, take an inventory of where you have cut corners and make a promise that you will eliminate those shortcuts for the rest of the year. You will get even better.
Tip No. 320: Aim for gradual improvement. It may “click” for you one night like in movies and TV shows about stand-up, but for most of us it clicks over months and years and then clicks again and again. Joke by joke. Show by show. Year after year.
Tip No. 355: Reach out to someone you started comedy with but have not spoken with in a long time. As you reconnect and reminisce, you’ll see how far you’ve come and remember where the heart of this absurd game is. Perfect time of year for it.
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Tip No. 54: If you suffer from mental illness, make sure comedy is helping you cope or feel better or get out of the house and be with people. If it’s adding to your suffering, take a break and get healthy. Comedy can wait.
Tip No. 55: This one will meet with resistance. Many of us lean toward sloth, but exercise, even just a long walk, fuels creativity. Try your best not to listen to music or podcasts. If you’re ruminating on your act it counts as writing.
Tip No. 96: With any competitive field there are crabs trying to pull escapees back into the bucket. Be polite, I guess, but don’t let cynics and the embittered get in your head. We need to pull each other up, not drag each other back to Sidesplitters Tampa.
Tip No. 133: Negativity and resentment are poisonous. If you’re prone to it, you need to avoid your commiserators the same way an alcoholic has to part ways with their drinking buddies.
Tip No. 140: Writing while severely depressed/anxious is running in deep sand in ski boots. Writing healthy this past year feels like running on the moon. If you’re sick, put all of your energy into getting healthy and write jokes and notes on your life when you can.
Tip No. 141: Building on yesterday’s tip, I encourage you to open up about any struggles with mental illness even if only offstage, initially. Opening up onstage about my experiences changed my life and career.
Tip No. 145: Don’t fear antidepressants. I’ve taken them for 30 years. NONE have negatively affected my writing or performance at all. 2018–19 has been my most creative time ever because of the strength of my mental health, which is due mostly to meds and therapy.
Tip No. 181: From the late Carrie Fisher: “If you’re living with this (mental) illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medications one has to ingest.” Pat yourself on the back.
Tip No. 184: You may not always believe in yourself, especially if you suffer from mental illness. It’s important to have at least one person around who sees your potential. They can be your eyes and ears when you’re in the cloud of self-doubt. Reach out to them today!
Tip No. 187: You have a great excuse to take today off. Everyone will understand. Don’t give in. Keep your streak going or start one with the extra free time you have today. Write a little bit. You’ll feel good about it and you’ll enjoy the rest of the day more. I promise.
Tip No. 197: I fight anxiety with this: (1) Low level: Breathe in for a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. Breathe out for a count of eight. (2) Higher levels: Clonazepam. (3) Highest: Consult my doctor (psychiatrist). Don’t white knuckle it! #BreatheNow
Tip No. 204: Years ago I went off my meds because I couldn’t afford them. I was too proud to borrow money. Don’t do that. It’s dangerous. Ask a friend/family member. If it ever comes to that and you have my phone # (meaning we’re friends) reach out please.
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 207: I collect positive comments made by peers and thoughtful audience members. When my depression-addled brain tells me I’m mediocre, I can look at the nice thing that, for instance, Nikki Glaser said to me this year. I trust her more than my depresh.
Tip No. 235: I can’t prove this of course, but I believe having my dogs contributed to my recovery from depression. I had to walk them regularly, which is decent exercise, and also dog park culture forced me to talk to people. Think about getting a pet. Cats are great too.
Tip No. 240: My depresh has been in remish for over a year now, but I remain ever vigilant. Exercise 5+ times/week, eat right, take my meds, see friends, see therapist weekly, write and perform every day. Depression is a relentless enemy. Don’t let up.
Tip No. 243: Think about group therapy for coping with mental illness. With few exceptions, non-sufferers don’t understand our day-to-day struggle. I attend a free support group in NYC every week and it has helped me for years. It’s similar to AA, people who get it.
Tip No. 273: A wise woman I met at a meet-and-greet taught me about “H-A-L-T.” When my mood feels off I ask myself “Am I H-ungry, A-ngry, L-onely, or T-ired?” Then I try to do whatever I can to address it. I’ve added “Have I exercised and meditated today?”
Tip No. 281: It was clear in The Great Depresh that recovery is easiest when it’s a group effort. So is comedy. Surround yourself with positive, supportive partners. I am grateful for the dozens of people in my life who lifted me up. You don’t have to do it alone.
Tip No. 326: When my anxiety was really bad I found it helpful to listen to audiobooks (free on Libby and Overdrive apps) as soon as I woke up. It distracted me from my anxious and depressive rumination and also made me feel like I was doing something productive.
Tip No. 349: For too long I accepted low-grade depression/anxiety because I didn’t have the energy/hope to fight for more. Since 2017, through meds, exercise, therapy, meditation, nutrition and relationships, I’ve not just survived, I’ve thrived. So can you. And this: Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail better.
Tip No. 350: You probably shouldn’t need alcohol or drugs to do stand-up. It’s a perilous path that few have navigated successfully. Maybe address it in a resolution.
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Tip No. 25: There is no shame in working a day job. Take notes. Caddyshack was inspired by writers’ memories of working at a snooty golf club. The insight your experience will bring to a joke/sitcom/screenplay is priceless. Today, write about a job.
Tip No. 135: Don’t quit your day job until it’s keeping you from taking quality road work. The routine, structure, and stimulation from working part or full time will help you write and the life experience is priceless. Quitting to “write more”? You probably won’t.
Tip No. 220: Try not to take too much work just for the money. I believe there’s a karmic price to pay for prostituting your talent. There’s enough stress in writing without adding money woes. So, keep a low overhead. Of course, if desperation motivates you, enjoy!
Tip No. 299: Headliners, this weekend if you make your bonus or get more $$ than expected, how about throwing an extra few hundred to the opener and/or the MC? It’s tough earning a living from the undercard. We won’t forget who looked out for us (and who didn’t).
Tip No. 339: Overtip the staff at the comedy clubs you work. It’s probably good business but more importantly it’s good. Especially this time of year.
Tip No. 352: Once I decided I would be a comedian instead of a CPA (two years after college) I started a string of day jobs. Choose day jobs carefully. They shouldn’t be taxing mentally and shouldn’t require travel. My favorite was high school substitute.
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Tip No. 21: I could never prove it, but I believe that young Jews started walking a bit taller in 1995. I did. That was the year Adam Sandler released “The Chanukah Song.” Comedy is influential. Comedians are powerful. “Just jokes”???
Tip No. 57: As they say in AA, “Compare and despair.” It’s human nature, but it’s time better spent reading/writing. Be happy for the good guys/women/et al. Keep your head down and work. Someday it will be you.
Tip No. 78: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” — Georgia O’Keeffe. A lot of us get nervous before and even during shows. It may never go away, but the audience can’t tell.
Tip No. 79: When you start thinking of yourself as an artist, it makes you work like one. So, tell yourself you’re an artist today and believe it and everything that goes with it.
Tip No. 102: It will take between three (unlikely) and 15 years (likely) to feel like you know what you’re doing. Write as if you only have six months.
Tip No. 116: Be mindful of how you talk to yourself. I have a habit of calling myself “schmuck” or “dummy.” Trying to replace with #TheGul and The Incredible Gulk. You would never allow anyone to talk to you the way you talk to yourself sometimes.
Tip No. 137: Making a living in this business is a bit of a long shot. Try not to let that deter you or become a barometer for your success. Whether you love working at it and doing it is the only way to measure your success.
Tip No. 147: Optimism and pessimism are probably equally accurate predictors of your comedy future. I’ve tried both. Optimism is a more productive and fun philosophy to live under. It also makes you more pleasant to be around, and that matters.
Tip No. 186: “Practice any art … no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow. Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives!” — Kurt Vonnegut
Tip No. 194: Take your comedy seriously right up until you take the stage. Then have the most fun you can. Let go and have faith that serious preparation will see you through. I don’t always do that, but I’m at my best when I do.
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 198: It’s not a competition. Your colleague’s success can only broaden the reach of our art form and make yours more likely. Don’t concern yourself with being better than anyone. That’s not conducive to creativity. Just try to be different from everyone.
Tip No. 203: Gratitude is a powerful fuel. Consciously reviewing my luck overpowers my fears and insecurities. I always include the unique creative outlet of stand-up comedy and the extraordinary friendships that it has generated in my audit. List five things you’re grateful for.
Tip No. 213: “It is important to remember the inconsequence of one’s talent and hard work and the incredible and unmatched sway of luck and fate.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates. Don’t take all the credit for “success.” More importantly, don’t beat yourself up for not “making it”!
Tip No. 224: Be relentless in every way. In your pursuit of stage time. In your joke writing. In editing. In finding the right word. In pursuing writing/performing jobs. In improving. Relentless.
Tip No. 227: I get a lot of DMs asking for specific advice. I don’t have time to respond to all of them, but I can lend you some maxims to reduce anxiety. I used to write on the cover of every notebook: (1) “Don’t worry. Work.” (2) “I’ll figure it out.”
Tip No. 239: When you work with a great comedian you’ve never seen before, your first reaction may be envy, then usually despair. Make your third reaction spreading the word about this person. Your fourth? Write more.
Tip No. 244: “If it was gonna happen it would have happened by now.” —Me, talking to me dozens of times over the years. Are you doing stand-up? Are you having fun? Are you looking forward to your next show? Then it’s happened. Money, fame — mostly beyond our control.
Tip No. 256: “Fake it ’til you make it.” is gross. Rhyming does not make something wisdom. “Whoever smelt it dealt it.” is another lie. Work hard and be positive until you reach your personal definition of success, which should not be money or fame. Then keep going.
Tip No. 257: It may be the audiences, it may be the bookers, or it may be the industry that’s holding us back. It’s probably all three. Unfortunately, we have no control over them. Your notebook and your calendar are within your control. Focus on them for now.
Tip No. 268: This is what I think it takes to improve steadily: “Believe that you are the baddest ass in town and that you suck. It keeps you honest.” — Bruce Springsteen
Tip No. 277: I found early on in writing The Great Depresh for HBO that I could alleviate the stress of mounting an ambitious project by defining success as “helping the depressed feel less alone.” Design a mission that is independent of grand outside forces like TV.
Tip No. 288: When I believe “I am exactly where I am supposed to be” then I am at peace and I am productive. Thinking about what, who, or where I should be mostly brought anxiety, regret, and despair. Take a deep breath and say “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
Tip No. 319: Please, don’t disqualify yourself from pursuing this because you have nerves or stage fright. I do too. A lot of us get anxious before every TV set, some before every live show. It’s okay. Good jokes will make up for any imperfections in your performances.
Tip No. 323: Our families often mean well, but they can be undermining and take the wind out of our sails because they don’t get it. If that’s the case, be judicious in what you share with them and whether you let them see you perform.
Tip No. 328: Avoid the expectation of managers and the levelers and the “don’t-get-your-hopes-uppers.” Or set boundaries and explain to them politely over Thanksgiving that you prefer people charge your batteries (or an analogy of your choice). Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey, is another great one.
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Tip No. 29: Feel like I’m too old. I’ve been doing it so long. I can’t get any better? George Carlin said he really figured it out in 1988. He was 51 and at the time he was GEORGE CARLIN!!! Don’t stop pushing yourself. You owe it to your audience and yourself.
Tip No. 69: “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” — C.S. Lewis (published The Lion, The Witch … after 50). Please don’t use your age to keep you from starting stand-up or improving as one. You will just have to work harder than the kids.
Tip No. 85: Feel too old? 50 years ago this month Kurt Vonnegut published this masterpiece (Slaughterhouse Five or The Children’s Crusade) He was 47. That’s like 65 today. He’d written five or six books before but reached only a small audience. It continues to heal and educate and inspire. Please don’t give up!
Tip No. 218: At nearly every age I’ve felt too old. I look back at journals when I was 23 and I was lamenting my “late start.” I was a child. If you’re alive, you’re young enough.
Tip No. 250: “I just made the decision that I was going to try comedy, and if it didn’t work, then I knew it didn’t work. Then I would go back and do whatever. But at least I wouldn’t torture myself the rest of my life, wondering whatever would have happened.” — Bob Newhart.
250A: “I think you should be a child for as long as you can. I have been successful for 74 years being able to do that. Don’t rush into adulthood, it isn’t all that much fun.” — Bob Newhart. Use the child’s perspective, energy, and passion to create.
Tip No. 275: Try stand-up at least once. Getting laughs from strangers is the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve dunked hundreds of basketballs. Write down your funny ideas for a few months and then find an open mic. If you already do it be grateful.
Tip No. 325: Before I did my first open mic 10/11/93, I went to two open mics in Boston to watch. You should watch at least a few to quell your fears and make it real. You’ll see people that make you say “I can do that!” Some will make you feel you can’t. You can!
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Tip No. 12: Read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” now! Already read it? Read it again. There is gold within. It will be the least popular tip so far, but it’s actually the most valuable tip yet. Donate to Wikipedia to thank me! Some have called it pap. I have found it invaluable.
Tip No. 18: Read books. Listen to audiobooks. You need a huge inventory of words to write interesting jokes. If you bombard your brain with words, it will improve your writing. You’ll also learn new ideas and insights to write about. Look up the words you don’t know.
18A: “You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader.” — J.K. Rowling.
Tip No. 61: Even if you’re not a topical comedian, try to stay informed. You don’t have to read the newspaper front to back every day, but knowing what’s going on in the world will broaden your comedy palette and enhance live performance.
Tip No. 80: Read this by my friend Chris Gethard.
Tip No. 86: LISTEN TO THIS!
Illustration: Jason Ford
Tip No. 95: Over the next several months, take the time to become an expert in something new. Read a few books and a ton of articles. This exercise will give you a new topic and fresh beginner’s enthusiasm and perspective to write from. It’s also good for your brain.
Tip No. 106: Read and heed! This essay by Kurt Vonnegut has gotten me through so many rough times. Print it and tack it up where you can see it when you need it.
Tip No. 129: Make the following investment in teaching yourself today: Buy Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. If you take even one of them to heart, you won’t need much else.
Tip No. 155: For beginners (0–4 years in), in Howard Stern’s new book he says “You have to study and master technique before you can become an original.” You can find all the joke formulas online. They’re the “scales” for jokes. Learn them, use them.
Tip No. 162: I find so much motivation in the work habits of great athletes. Read bios and articles about them. The lengths they go to to improve will make you realize that writing in a notebook every day and getting onstage every night is easy and fun.
Tip No. 193: 25 years in, I’m having my most creative run ever. I’ve written 2+ hours in 18 months. There are several factors, but I think reading more than ever, 100+ books in that time, is important … or a complete coincidence. Either way it’s heaven.
Tip No. 234: For months at a time I like to make comedy my hobby the way sports cards were when I was a kid. I read humor books and biographies of stand-ups and comedic actors and watch comedy docs and films. It’s fun in small bursts and brings inspiration and knowledge.
Tip No. 314: Print this out and hang it where you will see it frequently. Memorize it and heed it. Sean Fitzgerald gave me a copy in 1993 that I still have in Peabody. I think LeBron (James) has it tattooed on him.
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood who strives valiantly … who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never known neither victory nor defeat.” — Teddy Roosevelt.
Tip No. 329: For holiday gifts ask for these books: Sick in the Head, by Judd Apatow, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, and Poking a Dead Frog, by Mike Sacks. What would you add to the essentials?
Tip No. 343: My brother/friend/hero interviewed Jeff Garlin and it is a masterclass in comedy and stand-up. Listen to it NOW. Humility, confidence, joy. I’ve never told you to listen to an interview. Trust me.
Tip No. 345: The following books helped me to understand depression and mental illness and feel less alone: (1) Darkness Visible, William Styron. (2) Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon. (3) An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison. Buy them, gift them, discuss them.
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Tip No. 365: To sum up: Write EVERY DAY. Get onstage every night. Record EVERY set AND LISTEN TO IT! Be original. READ!!! Be vigilant about your mental health. READ!!! BE KIND. BE THE COMEDIAN YOU WANTED TO SEE. #PenultimaTip #Sisyphus12/30/19
Tip No. 366: Finish what you start.
Keep your promises.
Forgive yourself when you don’t.
The greatest teacher, failure is. — Yoda.
Thank you and GOOD NIGHT!
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