A Crash Course in Stand-Up Comedy

It felt like getting hit by a truck.

My fear of going on stage was visceral. The thought of it made my palms sweat.

I had zero stand-up experience. Every time I had to chance to try it, I ducked it.

Naturally, I wasn’t mentally prepared when my friend Ben Bailey asked me to do a few minutes of stand-up to open his next special.

I would have just three weeks until the taping. Three weeks to get from square one to a half-way decent stand-up performance.

It takes most stand-up comedians years, not weeks, to get good.

I accepted, feeling like this was my chance to face perhaps my greatest professional fear.

My name wasn’t known outside comedy circles. Even inside comedy circles I was barely a name. I’d built a career working behind the scenes as owner, editor, and writer of The Onion. My work had been almost exclusively in print. I didn’t do stage.

My success as a writer made my palms even sweatier. I felt the enormous weight of it. As someone whose comedy writing in print and online was now famous, I had unknowingly chained an ion ball to my leg when it came to performing on stage.

Why did I think that? It was psychological, which is such a big part of the challenge of doing standup, I’ve learned.

See, if someone introduced me at a comedy club as “The guy who started The Onion,” which they surely would (because that would be my main selling point), they’d be unwittingly setting me up for failure, giving the audience absurdly high expectations that I could never live up to.

Audiences would assume I was a brilliant, acerbic wit, and my inexperience on stage would quickly disappoint them. Or worse, they’d be skeptical and assume there’s no way I could be as funny as their favorite Onion article. They’d remember the funniest thing they’d ever seen in The Onion's twenty-five year history and if they got anything less than that, they’d be disappointed.

Either way, I was doomed before I even stepped in front of the crowd.

Yes, I faced the same fears as everyone who tires stand-up, but I faced even more pressure because of the reputation that preceded me. I found myself wishing I could just be an unknown again, starting from scratch, with no baggage.

So I put off trying stand-up. I kept saying, “I’ll try it some day,” but secretly I was afraid. Years went by and I never took the plunge.

I performed a little bit as a kid. I performed door to door selling band candy. I was a class clown and often performed in class. I did stand-up comedy at my high school talent show once, but I hid behind a Groucho Marx nose and glasses so no one would know who I was.

Going on stage to tell jokes was terrifying to me. So I stayed in the shadows, writing comedy, or performing voices for commercials, video games, or cartoons. I was almost always out of the limelight.

When The Onion started to become better known, event planners at colleges started inviting us to give speeches at their campuses. I developed a shtick where I showed up in a suit and tie and used a slide show as a crutch to pretend I was going to buy up the school’s school newspaper and other media in a corporate takeover by the powerful Onion, Inc. media giant. This was a “safe” type of performance because it was really more of a funny, scripted lecture than a genuine stand-up performance.

Even under those circumstances, I was stiff. I clung to my script and slides for dear life. And I hid behind this character facade for years. The idea that I could be myself on stage and just stand there and tell jokes was a serious mental block.

My lack of stage experience was limiting me. With The Onion’s success, I was sometimes invited to be a guest on TV shows. But the big shows wouldn’t have me. Letterman’s people wanted me on, and asked for tape. Once they saw me doing some local shows, they said “no thanks.” Conan O’Brien was the only big show that took a chance on me despite my inexperience. Thankfully, they script those appearances heavily, especially with authors who don’t have a lot of TV experience.

(Funny, the era of non-TV-star authors appearing on late-night talk shows is gone now.)

During those years I took improv classes at the Improv Asylum in Boston and then at the UCB in New York. I felt I needed to loosen up and get better at being on stage and on camera.

But stand-up was the ultimate crucible I was avoiding. Being on stage, by myself, with the expectation that I would be funny—that was a whole new test.

I met Ben Bailey through Judah Friedlander, who I had cast in my movie, Bad Meat. He encouraged me to cast Ben too, so I did, and Ben and I became fast friends. We joked around and hung out. We have similar senses of humor. But he was a professional stand-up comedian. I could chum around in person, but I wasn’t stage-ready.

(Here's my interview with Ben on the How to Write Funny podcast.)

He had decided to record a stand-up special in Chicago, where I was living at the time. I helped him find a venue and a host. He was also looking for a warm-up act. We got talking and the subject of me opening for him came up. He knew I did lectures at colleges, and I think he liked the Onion connection, but I told him I had never done stand-up before.

He said, “Well, you’d better learn.”

And the three-week countdown began.

His would be a paying audience at a fancy theater. There would be multiple TV cameras, lights, the works.

Somehow I would have to rise to this challenge.

I called Tim Clue and asked him to mentor me. Tim is an old friend, and a master stand-up who’s not only been doing it for decades, he’s taught it and mentored other people. Ben hired Tim to host the stand-up special, so we’d be working together. I told Tim I needed to develop material I could use to open for Ben that would be passable, and I needed to be able to perform it convincingly enough not to embarrass myself or Ben.

( Check out my interview with Tim on the How to Write Funny podcast here)

(And here's Tim doing some stand-up.)

Stand-up comedy is different from other comedy endeavors. It’s deeply personal. It exposes all your flaws and all your raw nerves. It’s unforgiving. It’s the Everest of the Seven Summits of comedy. It was important that Tim and I were family friends who’d known each other for over 20 years. I would make myself extremely vulnerable, and I trusted him to guide me through the darkness.

The first thing we did was discuss my comic persona. This is something a comedian usually develops over several years. I had to assess what kind of person I was, what people thought when they saw me, and what my personality was.

I didn’t feel like I had a personality. When it came to comedy, I took on whatever voice was required. Everything I did was done through a parody voice, whether the AP style of The Onion, characters I would play in audio, or the characters I dreamed up for my comic strips. Was there really a real me? I wondered.

Tim helped me assess myself. People tell me I look like Woody Harrelson, and Woody sort of has a chill yet weird vibe, maybe a little creepy. I came off in a similar way: sort of intense, sort of off-putting. Add to that I was bald, and was an Internet pioneer, so I had a technological or futuristic aspect to my personality.

It was enough to work with. My jokes would exist in this sphere.
The next thing I did was write material. A lot of material. I wrote hours and hours of jokes and bits. Most of it was terrible, of course. Tim listened and encouraged me and helped me identify the material he thought had the best chance to work on stage.

What works on stage is different than print, I found out. They’re different beasts. Tim was my test audience at first. Later he was joined by his wife Kathryn. I’d actually known her longer than Tim. She was a radio personality and we performed radio skits together for years. My test audience grew to two.

Performing in front of them wasn't as easy as you might think, in term of stage freight. It helped that I knew them and that they were a friendly audience. I still had trouble remembering my bits.

But Tim had a methodical process. He knew how to build my confidence one step at a time.

Next, I had to learn how to perform in front of strangers.

I quickly learned that stand-up is far more demanding than giving a speech. The audience expects jokes! The quality of the material mattered—this was a standard I’d tried to uphold most of my career—but it wasn’t the most important thing. Obviously good jokes didn’t hurt, but what mattered more was how much confidence I displayed performing them. That’s the whole game in stand-up.

I knew from watching other comedians that a confident performer could own a crowd with material that wasn’t that funny. But a nervous performer, even one with good material, would likely bomb.

The more I performed, the more I discovered undeveloped comedy muscles I had never used. They had atrophied. Tim knew I just had to start working them, and slowly build them up.

To memorize material, Tim recommended I practice it, over and over. Practice in front of a mirror, in front of a camera, and just get used to saying it. He supported the use of mnemonics, which were a big help to me. He was against bringing notes on stage. I agreed. Referring to notes was unprofessional.

I started with open mics. The first was a friendly little crowd at Second City, mostly other wannabe stand-ups. Second City Chicago offers a free open mic on Saturday mornings. It’s a great way to get in the shallow end of the pool. They’re a supportive and encouraging audience. I definitely felt butterflies, but there was far less pressure than I was likely to feel at a real comedy club.

Next came open-mics around Chicago. There are at least 3–4 every week at bars or small clubs in the metro area. Sometimes you can wait for two hours before going on stage, and they happen late. I had a young kid at home, so this wasn’t exactly a lifestyle conducive to parenting. But we worked it out.

A former student, Caryn Ruby, came with me to the open mics and helped me navigate the scene. She’d been doing it awhile. Doing it with her and sometimes other friends of hers helped take the pressure off.

Tim also had a young kid at home, but he came with me when he could.
All of this support helped reduce the fear I felt facing crowds.

The open mics weren't too scary. Sometimes, the crowds at these Chicago bars and clubs were smaller than the Second City Saturday morning crowd. My confidence got a boost with every performance.

Tim confirmed the principle I’d learned at The Onion: quantity is the key to quality. But instead of just writing a bunch of jokes that I would throw away like I did at The Onion, this time I would perform a bunch of jokes for audiences and throw them away if they didn’t work. It was the same principle, but it involved me going through what felt like a mini firing squad each time.

Everything I wrote that felt half decent, I used. Everything that didn’t work on stage, I scrapped and didn’t use again. I started to get a feel for what would work.

I didn’t tell the open-mic hosts I was affiliated with The Onion. I didn’t need the pressure.

My performances stood toe-to-toe with other stand-ups, I thought. They were all amateurs like me. But even when I didn’t do well, it didn’t matter. This was a process. It was never about one performance.

Well, actually it was. It was all about the looming performance for Ben’s stand-up special. That was the only performance that mattered.

I tried to block it out and focus on developing my act.

Tim upgraded me and got me a spot at Zanies on Wells Street. This was a real comedy club, and it wasn’t an open-mic night. Here, the audience expected professional comedy. And they wanted to interact with the comedians. They liked to see them respond to hecklers and think on their feet. This wasn’t the case everywhere.

Tim explained that every audience is different, and that I had to watch the previous comedians and listen to how each audience reacted, whether they talk back or sit politely and listen. He urged me to pay attention to what kind of jokes they laugh at, to ask myself. “Do they respond well to improv, shock, clever analogies? What do they want?” And then try to steer my material toward them.

I always did new material whenever I performed. And I tried to improvise and do "crowd work," which was really just talking to the crowd and being a smart-ass. The main goal was to keep writing and keep figuring out what worked and what didn’t, and then keep writing.

When I struggled with remembering material for each set, Tim kept repeating, “Run it again. Run it again.” He urged me to perform it out loud, over and over. Get used to saying it. Sometimes just walking around the block before a performance repeating jokes out loud helped me.

On a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, during this time, I performed at Comedy on State, the big club there. This time I called the club and used my clout as The Onion guy to get a spot. I knew I would have to. They weren’t going to give a spot to just some random guy. This was another paying audience.

Funny enough, Judah Friedlander was headlining that night. I got up and did about 15 minutes before him.

The crowd was polite, but didn’t laugh much. It wasn’t exactly a bomb, but it wasn’t great. Judah sauntered up and improvised for almost an hour and killed. To watch him effortlessly bring out the laughs was a wonder to me, and an inspiration.

There’s nothing like 20 years’ experience.

I was still rough around the edges, but Tim coached me to be myself, pay attention to the audience, keep generating material, and just think of it as a conversation where I was doing all the talking.

Tim’s trick for conquering stage fright was “radical self-acceptance.” It’s a wonderfully simple idea. I brought my own tricks to bear, the main one being to tell myself that I’m safe, that the audience isn’t there to crucify me, despite the fact that my brain thinks a crucifixion is clearly what’s happening. The audience actually wants to hear what I have to say, and after the performance, I won’t be hurt. I’ll go home and have a delicious meal and a nice night’s sleep. Whatever happens on stage is a learning experience that will make me better. It didn't matter beyond that what happened.

The more I did it, the less scared I felt, the less “bombing” felt like a bad thing.

I did okay with the open mics. I didn’t do quite as well with the paying audience, but I wasn’t terrible.

The night of my performance at the Second City's Up Comedy Club opening for Ben Bailey came all too soon.

The big crowd and the lights awaited me as the make-up person prepped me for the cameras.

Tim was there, and expressed total confidence in me. I was in my head, running my jokes, trying to focus, but his calm presence was welcome.
He got up and warmed up the crowd and was light and funny. Then he introduced me.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the stage, Scott Dikkers!”

I jotted out and took the mic.

My brief act was made up only of jokes that had done pretty well on stage in at least a couple of different venues. I had repeated it in my head until I knew it. Memorizing stuff for standup is difficult, because when you’re up there under the lights, your mind has a way of freezing.

The lights and the cameras got under my skin. They affected my brain. Remembering each bit, remembering the order, was a challenge.

One of my bits, an analogy bit about clicking and drinking, bombed. Just wasn't connecting with this crowd even though it had worked before.
Would I get through the set? Would I at least be good enough?

You be the judge. Here’s the video.

Taking this ad hoc crash course in stand-up comedy transformed me personally and professionally.

Because of it, I’m more confident than I used to be. I’m more at ease and comfortable in my own skin. I feel like I’ve been through a crucible and have nothing left to prove. It’s a wonderful personal improvement, and I feel it every day.

Of course, after my little set, Ben Bailey came out and absolutely killed. The room came alive and it sounded like the crowd had grown ten times its size.
Check out his whole hilarious special here.