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11 Wisecracking Secrets of Stand-Up Comedians

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Laughter may be contagious, but it’s hard to make an audience of strangers laugh night after night. Whether it’s telling jokes, doing impersonations, or sharing stories about their mother-in-law, stand-up comedians try their hardest to get the crowds to cackle. Mental_floss got in touch with a few stand-up comedians to learn more about what it’s like to try—and occasionally fail—to make people laugh for a living.

1. THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS DEPRESSED.

Although many famous stand-up comedians have struggled with depression and substance abuse, the stereotype of an unhappy, insecure comedian is overblown. “There’s this pervasive perception that all stand-up comics are depressed, divorced, alcoholic losers at the end of their rope, but that's not the case these days,” explains Andrew Michaan, a comedian who lives in Los Angeles.

Michaan tells mental_floss that it’s possible to be a stand-up comedian while also being a happy and pleasant person: “Maybe [we’ll] … eventually be broken by impending emotional upheavals and the defeating nature of show business and the universe itself, but for now we’re defying stereotypes one well-adjusted smile at a time.”

2. DON’T ASK THEM TO TELL YOU A JOKE.

Although their job is to make people laugh, stand-up comedians draw a line between performing on stage and interacting with people in their daily life. If you discover that someone is a comedian, and your usual response is to demand a joke, you’re probably being annoying (sorry). Likewise, most comedians don’t want you to tell them jokes or funny stories, hoping that they’ll add it to their act. What’s funny to you may not be funny to a larger audience, and your story might not translate well to a stand-up act.

3. MOST OF THEM HAVE TO PAY TO PERFORM.

Unless they’re at the top of their game or have built a sizable following, most stand-up comedians have to pay for the chance to make you laugh. Beginning comics often practice their routine at open mic nights, where they may have to pay a cover and sit through hours of other newbie comics’ performances. After they’ve succeeded at open mic nights, comics usually perform at what’s known as “bringer shows"—events where they perform in exchange for guaranteeing the venue that they’ll bring anywhere from two to 15 friends (who will each pay for a ticket and drinks) to the venue.

4. THEY SPEND A LOT OF TIME WRITING.

Stand-up comic Chris Fairbanks says he’s often asked if he writes his own material. “All stand-ups do, or should,” he says, “unless they’re cheating and stealing from other comics. And if you’re having someone else write your jokes and doing them on stage as your own, then in my opinion, you’re an actor,” he explains.

But not just any writing will do: Comedians try to tell stories, particularly ones that will not only make an audience laugh but also connect emotionally. (One definition of a good story: it introduces a problem that needs to be solved, includes an element of vulnerability or fear, and concludes with a resolution to the problem.) Long before they ever step on stage, most comedians are putting pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—drawing from their daily life, their family, or their romantic relationships to try and tell compelling, funny stories.

5. TO MAKE MONEY, THEY HIT THE ROAD.

Because some large cities have a surplus of comedians, it can be difficult to make money by performing shows in just one area. “We don't make any money doing shows in Los Angeles. Maybe you can make cab fare here and there in NYC, but LA comics have to leave the city and work the road to make an actual living,” Fairbanks explains. And because audiences in different cities have varying senses of humor and taste, some comedians alter their routine slightly to appeal to the locals—perhaps by referring to local sports teams, weather, or stereotypes about the city's residents.

6. THEY’RE PAYING CLOSE ATTENTION TO YOUR REACTION.

Until they try a new joke in front of an audience, stand-up comedians don’t know if their material will actually work. Even minor tweaks in tone and diction can elicit more laughs, so comedians have their ear fine-tuned to the crowd to determine what works and what doesn’t. And when a certain joke continually fails to elicit laughter from multiple audiences, comedians will remove it from their set.

Stand-up comedian Christina Lopez, who admits that it can take years to develop a killer 30-minute set, describes how she reacts instantly to what the audience is feeling: “As my act goes on, I feel the audience going in another direction and will literally switch jokes in my head to make my LPM (laughs per minute) go up. Kind of like some weird mind trick going on right before your eyes,” she explains.

7. THEY KNOW HOW TO GRACEFULLY HANDLE HECKLERS.

Audiences will sometimes include an individual so drunk and/or obnoxious they shout at the comedian and try to interrupt the show. But according to Michaan, it’s very rare to encounter someone who’s truly having a bad time and wants to ruin the show for the performer and audience. “What’s more common is someone who is enjoying themselves but doesn’t understand what’s expected of an audience member. They don't know the boundaries, and they talk too much and want to be involved,” he explains. To deal with that type of heckler, Michaan addresses the person, thanks them for being excited, and asks them to please stop talking. “I usually speak to them right on the border of nice and mean,” he says.

Jared Volle, a stand-up comedian who also trains other comedians at CreativeStandUp.com, adds that hecklers can give comedians an opportunity to improvise, be authentic, and add fun to the show. “Some of the greatest moments I’ve had on stage [were] due to some type of heckle … I see hecklers as an invitation to be real with the audience and to really connect with them,” Volle tells mental_floss.

8. IT’S STILL RARE TO SEE SUCCESSFUL FEMALE COMEDIANS.

Although comedians such as Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Tina Fey have achieved mainstream success, comedy is still largely a man’s world. Author and speaking coach Judy Carter says that when she was touring as a female stand-up comic in the late 1980s, the amount of sexism in the business always shocked her: “Most often I was introduced as an oddity—‘Are you ready for something different? We have a FEMALE stand-up!’” And she says sexism is still entrenched in the comedy world. “Still today I am shocked at the consistency of all-male lineups at comedy clubs,” she admits.

9. A SILENT AUDIENCE ISN’T THE END OF THE WORLD.

Although most comedians are terrified of the idea of bombing—performing to a silent crowd that doesn’t laugh or smile—a quiet audience can be an opportunity. “If you just plow ahead and do your normal material without mentioning [the silence and uncomfortable vibe], you’re going to continue to do poorly,” Michaan says. Rather than insult the audience, Michaan says he’ll start chatting with them to confront the silence head-on. Once he determines where the weird vibe is coming from, he can try to create a shared funny experience that brings the room together, then build from there. “Or I just run away crying. Either way,” he jokes.

10. DON’T TAKE EVERYTHING THEY SAY AT FACE VALUE.

To be conversational and topical, stand-up comedians often relate a story about something that happened to them recently, whether it was their dog’s trip to the veterinarian or their dishwasher breaking. But don’t take everything they say literally. When they’re on stage, comedians inhabit a persona, exaggerating certain qualities and glossing over others for comic effect. For example, comedians will often say that something happened to them recently when it really happened years ago—or may have never happened at all.

11. THEY’RE ADDICTED TO MAKING YOU LAUGH.

Struggling stand-up comedians put up with low (or no) pay, grimy clubs, and hours of bad open mic nights because they simply love to make people laugh. Being on stage, with the spotlight and everyone’s attention on them, makes them feel important and confident. And because laughter (or silence) is immediate and audible, stand-up comedians know right away whether they’ve been successful. This instantaneous feedback, and the sweet sound of laughter when their jokes kill, draw them back to the stand-up stage again and again.

All photos via iStock.

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15 Funny Quips from Great American Humorists
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Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The art of social satire is a tough one, but a great humorist's keen observations, witticisms, and turns of phrase continue to ring true even decades later. "Humor is something that thrives between man's aspirations and his limitations," the musical comedian Victor Borge once noted. "There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth." (In other words, it's funny 'cause it's true.) Here are 15 more quips from some of America's most astute commentators.

1. MARK TWAIN (1835-1910)

Mark Twain
Rischgitz, Getty Images

"Familiarity breeds contempt—and children."

2. DOROTHY PARKER (1893-1967)

Dorothy Parker looks at the camera. There is a man in a tuxedo and wine bottles in the background.
Evening Standard, Getty Images

"That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment."

3. JAMES THURBER (1894-1961)

James Thurber smokes a cigarette sitting in an armchair.
Fred Palumbo, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"Last night I dreamed of a small consolation enjoyed only by the blind: Nobody knows the trouble I've not seen!"

4. NORA EPHRON (1941-2012)

Nora Ephron smiles for press at an event.
Stephen Lovekin, Getty Images

"Summer bachelors, like summer breezes, are never as cool as they pretend to be."

5. GORE VIDAL (1925-2012)

Gore Vidal
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"The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so."

6. ARTEMUS WARD (1834-1867)

A sepia-toned cabinet card of Artemus Ward
TCS 1.3788, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"They drink with impunity, or anybody who invites them."

7. GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1946)

Gertrude Stein sits at a desk with a pen in her hand.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

"The thing that differentiates man from animals is money."

8. FRANKLIN PIERCE ADAMS (1881-1960)

Franklin Pierce Adams sits at a desk that's covered in papers.
Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory."

9. ETHEL WATERS (1896-1977)

Ethel Waters leans in a doorway.
William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"All the men in my life have been two things: an epic and an epidemic."

10. ROBERT BENCHLEY (1889-1945)

Robert Benchley sits at a desk in a scene from 'Foreign Correspondent.'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"Drinking makes such fools of people, and people are such fools to begin with that it's compounding a felony."

11. AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1914)

A seated portrait of Ambrose Bierce
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"Saint: A dead sinner revised and edited."

12. MAE WEST (1893-1980)

A portrait of Mae West
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"When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I've never tried before."

13. GEORGE S. KAUFMAN (1889-1961)

A seated portrait of George S. Kaufman
The Theatre Magazine Company, photograph by Vandamm, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"At dramatic rehearsals, the only author that's better than an absent one is a dead one."

14. VICTOR BORGE (1909-2000)

Victor Borge plays the piano.
Keystone, Getty Images

"Santa Claus has the right idea—visit people only once a year."

15. GEORGE CARLIN (1937-2008)

George Carlin doing a stand-up set
Ken Howard, Getty Images

"Atheism is a non-prophet organization."

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12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledgling publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: The envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.

2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.

3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, MAD finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’s other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by MAD’s New York offices and submitted his work; his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with MAD almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.

8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: A 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; MAD parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, MAD also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.

11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

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