Comedian: Getting Started
Have you ever joked around with your friends or co-workers and thought, “Wow, I am pretty funny, maybe I can take this show on the road?” Zach Sherwin, a member of the sketch comedy group The Late Night Players, did. The difference is he actually followed through on the thought.
Like many popular stand-up comics and comedy groups today, The Late Night Players started pretty accidentally. Sherwin says that he “had this group of friends in college and we used to crack each other up all the time”. They began writing sketches and honing their art, and by their third show they had about 500 people rolling on the floor with laughter. Sherwin claims that “this was by no means a pro-quality comedy show, but the energy and chemistry of the group members was just through the roof. It was such a great event that it confirmed our hunches that we might want to make a go of this comedy business after we graduated”. The Late Night Players then hit the road…
Building a Base
Booking gigs and trying to make a few dollars as a young comedian is not easy. Many comedy clubs have open-mic nights, so new comedians can actually get on stage, but they will often be performing for no, or negative, money. Working for free is common for those young comics trying to build a reputation. The Late Night Players started doing shows in local comedy theaters and art galleries, and then moved onto the college circuit.
Now the group tours colleges almost exclusively and is getting paid better than when they started. Sherwin says that “the college circuit is not the most prestigious thing in the universe and obviously not a way to get rich, but for up-and-coming comics, it’s where you start”. He notes that comics like Dave Chappelle, Ray Romano, Al Franken, and Janeane Garofalo all got their start on the college circuit. The Late Night Players are currently burning up colleges across the country and are building the grassroots base they will need to make it to the big time.
The Big Time
The next step for the Late Night Players would be to break into the late-night talk-show market, after they are done honing their act on the college circuit. From there, it is common for the most popular comics to come out with TV shows and comedy albums, which is not easy. Dave Chappelle pitched 11 TV pilots before landing “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central, which became an instant classic.
Today some of the hottest comics out there include Ron White, Kevin James, and Lewis Black. Ron White is described as a “good ol’ boy” and is currently climbing the Billboard charts with his comedy CD, “Drunk In Public”. White made his mark at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in 2001 and 2002. He then appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” before joining the Blue Collar Comedy Tour with Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Larry the Cable Guy. The Blue Collar Tour has hit over 60 cities, grossed tens of millions of dollars, and produced a Comedy Central special and a top-selling DVD. Ron White has come a long way from his Texas comedy club roots.
The next step for Ron White would be to star in a sitcom like his fellow stand-up comedian, Kevin James. James is the star and Executive Producer of TV’s “King of Queens”, a show drawn along the lines of Ray Romano’s “Everybody Loves Raymond”. James made a quick jump into to TV after being discovered in 1996 at the Montreal Comedy Festival. The comedian vows never to stray from his stand-up roots and can still be seen as a regular on David Letterman.
Another comedian burning up the charts into ’05 is Lewis Black, dubbed “America’s foremost commentator on everything”. Black didn’t take the traditional stand-up route, which holds that life is the best education for a comic. He graduated from the renowned Yale School of Drama, has acted in various movies, and has written over 40 plays. Black has helped Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” achieve immense popularity as a weekly commentator. He also can be seen on tour with fellow Comedy Central stand-up Dave Attell. These are some of the few comics who became successful after laying it all on the line.
Keeping It Fresh
Sherwin notes that “almost every event or social interaction can be mined for humor value”, something he learned from watching Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Seinfeld”. The Late Night Players have written many sketches from Sherwin’s comedy ideas notebook, a little pad he carries around to write down funny things that happen throughout the day. He also claims that the notebook is fun to read on the toilet. The Late Night Players use a lot of improvisation to keep their show fresh, customizing their act to each college or event they play. The group does not “feel constrained to stay within the bounds of stand-up, or anything for that matter”, which keeps the show wild and unpredictable.
So if you think you are funny, it may be time to lay it all on the line and chase down your dream. Sherwin notes that comedy “is very hard and can be really anxiety-producing, but when success happens, it is so, so sweet, it’s kind of unbelievable”. So if you want to be a comedian, stop joking around the water cooler, start writing a TV pilot, gas up the tour bus…and dream on!