We sat down one-on-one with comedian Judy Carter for a
conversation on comic careers.
Judy Carter knows funny. A stand-up comedian who has played
venues from cruise ships to Caesars Palace to a Cincinnati
bondage bar ("When they said, 'Do that joke again,' you
did!"), Judy Carter founded Comedy Workshop Productions to
show businesspeople how to use humor at work. She also
teaches classes for would-be comedians in New York, Los
Angeles, and San Francisco, and is the author of Stand-Up
Comedy: The Book (Dell Books, 1989), a guide for
e: Is the comedy business growing?
jc: The traditional method of working in comedy
clubs has declined, but as far as writing jokes for Internet
companies, greeting card companies, and other groups, the
workload has grown.
What kind of person makes a good comedian?
A person who thinks they're the only sane person in
their family and knows that their relatives are good
material. Good comedians are people who always exaggerate
their pain because they know it's funny.
How do you teach people to write
We give people little notepads and tell them to write about
the stuff that bugs them. It's also important to have a
comedy buddy. People who just write material at a computer
sound too literary. You want to create material in the
presence of another human being, so you can see it on his
face when he's bored.
When you look at the really great comedians, it
seems as if they're talking spontaneously, off the top of
their heads, telling funny stories. Most people don't get
that great comics are great precisely because they appear to
be making it up as they go, when actually it's heavily
crafted material. Skilled comedians spend a lot of time
working out a piece, and trying different words to see which
one fits best.
Once a comedian has written material, what should he
or she do with it?
You've got to go to open mikes [nightclubs that
allow new talent to perform onstage]. Otherwise it's hard to
judge what material will fly.
What are open mikes like?
Some open mikes are pretty weird. You get there and they
say, "Come sign in about six o'clock and stand in line. And
you'll go on somewhere between nine o'clock and two a.m. And
you get to do your little five-minute set at some point. And
we're not sure there's going to be anybody left in the
audience when you go on, OK?"
Are there other ways besides open mikes?
I had an idea for one comedian. She was a greeter
at Banana Republic, and I said, "Why don't you call your boss
and ask if you can do your five-minute set at the next
company meeting?" Well, she did it, and they wanted her to do
more. Now she's traveling around to Banana Republic stores
nationwide, and from there, she gets more jobs.
How do comedians develop stage
Stage presence comes from experience, and from getting up
there and doing a lot of what we call "ring time"-at least,
what I call ring time. Comics need a lot of ring time,
because you have to learn how to craft a really great act,
and how to deliver it.
How can you get over the fear of bombing?
You bomb. You bomb a lot. Eventually you get used
to it, but everybody who is successful has bombed-there's not
one comic making money who hasn't. Jay Leno bombed. Jerry
Seinfeld bombed. It makes you more powerful, and it makes you
What is the hardest part of the job?
For a while, I was on the road 42 weeks out of the year. You
fly into Houston, and you do Houston, Dallas, and Huntsville.
You go touring through Texas, a different night for every
city, and you're by yourself most of the time. People who
work in offices have a sense of family, as dysfunctional as
it might be. But as comedians, we're in and out. We're like
the ultimate temps. The hardest part is the creative part. If
your act is working, you want to keep doing it. But you
constantly have to come up with new material. And you
constantly have to see the world with fresh eyes.
What's the best thing about the job?
You don't have to wear a hat. No name tag. What I
like about it - it's a hardship, but also a great thing - is
that your life is your work. There's no boundary like, "I'm
going to work!" I'm always at work. I woke up last night in
the middle of the night because I dreamt of a joke, so I got
up and wrote it down. I'm working all the time.