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Keep On Keepin’ On: Motivation in Stand-Up Comedy Part 2

May 24, 2011

Howdy, welcome back to part 2 of this week’s article on Motivation in Stand-Up Comedy (part 1 found here).  As usual, the second part of the article will concern itself with more practical ideas.  So let’s do this thing:

10 ways to stay motivated are GO!

1) Book sets ahead of time

While you’re at it, make a giant, wall-sized calendar and dress like a hipster.

The best, most honest intentions can seem like a distant echo after a bad day.  That’s why I book as many stand-up sets in advance as possible.

Recently, I was working through some personal problems, and the last thing I wanted to do was tell jokes.

That night, walking to the set, my feet felt like lead.  Several times I stopped in place, phone in hand, ready to cancel.   At the venue I sat alone, nursing a beer and staring at a coaster.  Even when I heard my name called, I considered just walking past the stage and out the door.  But that first laugh was like medicine.

When I got offstage, I realized my mistake.  I had been thinking of stand-up as an ordeal to get through before returning to a miserable state.  But the set was actually a solution.  Much better than Plan A, which involved moping like an Evanescence fan.

Burn on you, band who nobody listens to anymore!

My point?  Book sets ahead of time and go to them.  9 times out of 10 you will be very glad you did.

2) Set A Line, Then Shout “This Far, No Further!” 

Yup, you will definitely be acting out a scene from Star Trek when you do this…

It’s easy to rationalize your way out of stand-up, especially when you’re in the constant suck stage of development. You go, “I’ll take a week off, no big deal.” A week becomes a month, a month becomes six, and suddenly you’re not a stand-up comic anymore.

That first year and a half – I’m surprised I didn’t get an ulcer. I was so nervous for every show!  It was a tremendous energy investment and it would have been easy to back away a little bit.  Especially with a million excuses like job, girlfriend, digging my hole to Atlantis, etc.

So I would suggest creating a point of no return for set frequency. Be honest with yourself.  What is the length of time that signifies to you that you’ve quit?  Maybe it’s a week, maybe two, it’s your decision.  And then simply don’t cross the line. Just don’t cross it, and if you do, you’ll have some hard questions to ask yourself.

Don’t want to quit?  Don’t cross the line.

3) Enjoy stand-up comedy
Musicians listen to music because they like it. It motivates and inspires them to create. I guarantee the same thing will happen if you listen to stand-up comedy albums. Not sure where to start?  This list might be able to help.

4) Learn About Stand-Up Comedy
Whenever I feel down about stand-up, a surefire cure is to watch Comedian, the documentary that follows Jerry Seinfeld and Orny Adams.

I love it, and it’s nostalgic because I remember before I even did my first set, wondering, “How do they do that?”  Now the slang is old hat, the comics make sense to me, rather than seeming strange, exotic magicians. So that movie does it for me. I find biographies of famous comics very inspiring as well.

5) Reward Yourself When Appropriate

If it’s a pain in the ass to get to your set, decide to do something nice for yourself. If I have a set way out on the Danforth and I decide to walk it, and it’s an hour to get there, I stop on the way for a Slushee. It’s just a dumb Slushee, but… man, Slushees are the best, right?

6) Find Ways to Make Your Life Easier

I knew when I decided to do stand-up that I wouldn’t be able to handle a huge commute. Lots of comics drive into Toronto from Hamilton, Oshawa, etc. just for five minutes of stage time.  Mad props, much respect.

As much as I love stand-up comedy, I knew that a long commute would take a toll on me.  Stand-up is often disappointing enough that the added thought of an hour commute home would just seem terrible.

So, recognizing that, I committed to the lifestyle. I moved into Toronto, central to most venues, at Spadina and Bloor. Instead of having to deal with transit hassles, I could walk leisurely to gigs, have a couple of brews without worrying about driving, and stay later at shows instead of peacing out to arrow home.

Maybe you can’t move closer to your venues for whatever reason. But put some thought into making your life easier.  Maybe that means taking transit instead of driving, so you can read, write, or sleep during the trip.  Be creative.  But don’t give your subconscious more reasons to quit stand-up.  There are plenty as is.

7) Learn How to Suck Back a Bomb.

This guy is on his way to a Pauly Shore show.

It can diminish your self confidence and enthusiasm for stand-up to bomb hard, I talked about this yesterday in part 1.  Bombing might be the single biggest reason people quit. I wrote a whole article on the topic, with some suggestions for how to turn a negative into a positive.  You can find it here.

8) Make Friends

Stand-up comedy is so much easier when there are friendly faces out there in the crowd.  This is advice I wish I’d gotten, as my natural shyness stunted me in connecting with fellow comics.  Remember that shyness out of context comes off as aloof and superior.  Don’t assume no one wants to talk to you, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and introduce yourself to people.  If you liked someone’s set, tell them.  Buy the host a beer, whatever.

A word of caution: stand-up tends to attract… let’s be generous and say “eccentric” people.  So use your judgement.  Try to find people in the scene who mesh with you. Stand up is all about truth.  If you are approaching someone only because you want something from them, they will KNOW.  Just find people you’d invite over to have a brew and watch an Ernest film.


Acquire enough of these friends, and you will find that every stand-up show becomes a fun party with a bonus that you get to do stand-up.

9) Don’t Compare Unless You’re Sinead O’Connor

“I got no hair, but I’m hella soulful.  Paaaaaaaayce!”

Everyone’s on a different journey.  You are only ruining yours by constantly comparing your progress to others.  Just do the best that you can, and everything else is beyond your control.  Don’t waste energy on it.

10) Try to Get Your Friends and Family On Board

I rarely invite my family to open mikes. It’s important to me that they see what I do as respectable. So I invite them when I get to play clubs, or I’m in a competition where there will be a big, rowdy crowd.

I know they’d support me regardless, but I want to see respect in their eyes for what I do. It’s an important motivator for me to know that my parents are proud of me.

Maybe you hate your parents, but everyone has friends, and you probably want their respect too. Consider this when you lean on your peeps to come to shows.


Finally, sometimes motivation is just all about a pump-up.  I like to listen to music as I walk to sets and feel awesome.  Music like this:

Hope some of this helped you, John!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Brandon permalink
    May 25, 2011 2:01 am

    Hi, Joel,

    I really enjoy your articles. This week’s are stellar.

    I am curious, though–and I apologise if this has already been talked about–but, as someone who has trouble finding the nerve to even get up and do his first set, I would really appreciate some insight into your early experiences with stand-up. Do you perhaps have any anecdotes about one of your first shows, and when/why you decided to do stand-up comedy? How did you approach joke-writing with your first set? What were some of the challenges you faced?

    Hope these aren’t too personal…

    Love the blog!


    • May 27, 2011 1:26 pm

      Hi Brandon,

      Thanks for your kind words. I like the idea of looking specifically at a first set. Let me see what I can come up with for a future theory article.

  2. May 25, 2011 5:05 pm

    Thank you Joel. My favourite quote on bombing comes from a woman in the States whose name I am too lazy to look up, “I stopped worrying about bombing when I realized people were too self absorbed to remember my bad sets”.

    • May 27, 2011 1:25 pm

      Glad you enjoyed reading, Veronika, I enjoy your blog too. If you’d ever like to write a guest post, just let me know.

  3. Mark permalink
    June 1, 2011 1:17 pm

    I did about a dozen shows this year and began to feel it was unnatural for me, that you guys had some Special Knack for it, a gift akin to predicting lottery reslts. Your blog is giving me a kick in the ass to keep working on it. Thanks Joel for a great blog.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    April 9, 2012 8:06 pm

    will you be my stand up mentor??


  1. Been awhile… « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog

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