There’s only one way to know for sure if you have what it takes to do standup:
Can you get up in front of a room full of strangers and make them laugh?
While the pros might make that look easy, the polished performances you see on HBO, YouTube, an L.A. venue or at J.R.’s Comedy Club in Valencia on Saturday nights, come from years of performances, trial and error and, usually, more than a few risks taken along the way.
Netflix and numerous social media outlets provide us more access to standup comedy than we’ve ever had before, and the art itself largely remains unchanged — a performer has to engage an audience and bring the funny. There’s no instruction manual, how-to guide or way to know if you can do it until you try.
Talking to a handful of comedians, and even a comedy professor, there’s no clear-cut path for making people laugh, but they all had insights and stories to share from their respective journeys into the world of comedy.
Don’t be afraid
Jeff Johnson, a Santa Clarita Valley resident who owns a film-production company, said comedy was one of a few leaps he just decided it was time to take about eight years ago, when he first decided to do standup.
For most of his life, Johnson, 45, listened to the voices that told him being a standup comedian wasn’t a “responsible” goal to pursue.
“I wanted to do it ever since I was in high school, and (standup was) something I always wanted to do that I just never did,” Johnson said.
“Finally, I have this sort of big blowup moment where I left my job. I started a new company, I started making a documentary and I started comedy all the same time. I was like, ‘I’m doing all the stuff that I want to do that I’ve never done.’”
He began by taking a comedy class, and says a turning point for him was about six months after that, when he began hosting a weekly comedy show for J.R.’s Comedy Club, which was at Marie Callender’s, and is now hosted at Mimi’s Bistro + Bakery.
Practicing every Saturday gave him confidence and experience, which are critical to developing as a standup — along with having a good sense of humor. (Johnson is on Twitter and Instagram as @JeffMakesJokes.)
From the class to the stage
While it’s not always easy to tell if you have what it takes to do standup, there are usually some signs.
Paul Moomjean, the current host of J.R.’s Comedy Club, who produces the show with its founder Randy Lubas, and teaches at comedy school — Flappers University in Burbank — said he was always known as “the funny guy at work.”
Moomjean also had a longtime desire to do comedy, but like Johnson, the steady career, aka “the day job,” whether it was coaching, teaching or reporting, kept him preoccupied.
“As I got older, I decided as a bucket list to try comedy,” said Moomjean, 38, who lists a few of the 90s luminaries, Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey and their subsequent TV sitcom success, as influences on his style.
Like Johnson, he used the opportunity to host for J.R.’s to hone his timing and delivery — critical elements for every joke-teller.
“What I learned the most, when I started out, was when I was a teacher making jokes, I had an hour, hour and a half to be able to explain myself. But as a comedian, I needed to have a punchline every 20 seconds for it to work,” he said. “So I had to learn how to have a punchline.”
After he started to figure that out, he credits his ability to get on stage to his approach.
“People just kept booking me because I was funny, supportive and professional,” added Moomjean, who now, after about a half-dozen years of experience, also teaches comedy to aspiring comedians at Flapper’s. “And that’s become kind of the mantra.” (For information on J.R’s comedy club, visit ComedyinValencia.com. Moomjean is on Instagram as @themoomabides.)
Write what you know
“I’m definitely more of a short-joke structure kind of guy,” said John Wynn, “but I do try to base it, some of it, on my life — maybe … an exaggerated view or, you know, a skewed perspective of my life.”
For Wynn, 41, who lives with his family in Santa Clarita, standup is about “having a perspective or an opinion or a voice … on a topic and trying to make it funny, that’s palatable … to whatever audience you want it to be,” he said, mentioning a few different types of comedians.
But he also acknowledged that’s something performers struggle with: “Do you cater to an audience or do you kind of do it for yourself … it’s always so challenging.”
At the end of the day, several comedians agreed that authenticity and relatability come through in great performers.
“I think you have to be honest to your perspective. Hopefully, the audience will find you, the fans at least, and you’re not gonna you can’t please everybody,” Wynn said. “I mean, that’s just kind of a futile endeavor.”
If you’re honest from your own perspective, you’ll also avoid another absolute no-no in the world of comedy: “One of the first things you learn that you should never do — don’t steal jokes,” Wynn said, adding it’s been more of a problem of late with all of the access that’s out there to the material.
“When you’re writing your own material, you take pride in it, you know? And so that’s why that’s one of the rules. Don’t steal when you’re doing comedy because you should take pride in your work, I think.” (Wynn is on Twitter as @TheFunnyAsian and Instagram as @JohnWynnComedy.)
Learning what’s funny
Julia Loken, who grew up in Santa Clarita, performs standup and co-hosts a podcast — a legal requirement for doing comedy in L.A., she jokes — called “What’s Your Sign?” which combines two of her interests, astrology and humor.
Starting out, Loken, 32, said the first thing anyone who wants to do standup needs to learn is the mechanics of telling a joke, and being comfortable on stage with a mic.
After performing on stage for nearly eight years, she still sees herself as defining her voice, but you also learn a lot of lessons pretty quickly once you start getting on stage, she added.
“You find out what you think is funny about you isn’t necessarily what other people think is funny about you,” Loken said.
“I think there is a certain amount of decision to it,” she said, in terms of how a comedian can find their subject matter: “What do I want to talk about? What do I have opinions about? What are things that bother me?”
And then it’s a matter of getting on stage and practicing the timing until you get it right. You might not always feel like the person in the power when you’re on stage, but Loken’s attitude is: Everyone’s “on the same team, and you just want to have fun.” (Loken’s podcast can be found at whatsyoursignpod.libsyn.com, and also on Instagram @julialoken, @whatsyoursignpodcast.)
Roll with the punches
An enjoyment of being on stage is definitely an important trait for most standups, but just as important, said Easton Gage, a 26-year-old SCV native, is being able to roll with the punches.
“If you screw up with a joke you’ve been working on or a line, don’t stop it, try and retell the joke,” said Gage, a standup comedian who also writes for the animated series “The Tom and Jerry Show.” “You know, acknowledge it in your head, and say, ‘OK, we can find the funny in this. I butchered it, but we’ll find the funny.’”
In Gage’s opinion, even if someone who wants to try comedy gets up on stage, that’s basically half the battle won already. As far as joke-telling, there are no rules, but he did offer one bit of advice on things to avoid: Don’t use racial slurs.
“If you can’t say the racial slur, do not say the racial slur,” he cautioned. While it might seem obvious, it’s a scenario Gage had to deal with, indirectly.
“I did a show in Lancaster with a white comic who used the N-word,” Gage said, adding there were death threats from the audience before the comic finished his set.
“And then the host came up to me and he said, ‘Hey, you’re next,’ and I went, ‘Oh, no — no, I’m not.’ I said, ‘I think I’ll just watch this one. I can’t … I can’t be a part of this.’ He said, ‘No, win ’em back.’ I said I don’t know if you’re looking at me. …
“I won ’em back,” said the brown-haired, blue-eyed caucasian former model, “by saying, ‘Man, I hate white people.’”
(Easton Gage is on Instagram as @EastonGage. J.R.’s Comedy Club in Mimi’s at 24201 Magic Mountain Parkway is hosting one of the many stages for The World Series of Comedy, an annual competition, from Feb. 26-29.)