Being a Comedian is one of the most rewarding experiences on Earth! It’s instant gratification, you can see your hard work paying in the moment. It truly is a business like no other, constant failure and success, a roller coaster ride that never ends. So do you crave the adrenaline rush that stand up brings along with the drinking problem? ( just kidding on that second part…..kinda) And you want nothing more than to be a professional comedian, making a living selling laughter? So the question is how long does it take to become a professional comedian? And how much money can I make?

This is a loaded question, everyone’s learning curve and natural talent is different. I’ve seen some comedians that were god awful and years later become one of my favorite comic to watch on stage and some just start out funny it does happen. And there are several ways that comics earn their living making people giggle.

  • Comedy Clubs
  • Cruise ships
  • Corporate
  • Colleges

These different revenue streams each come with their own guidelines their own rules of the road if you will and some of these things I listed can be achieved much quicker than others. But first we have to take a look at comedy at its base level… the open mic, where it all starts. There is no way around it you have to do the coffee shops, restaurant, and bar open mics all over town and for quite sometime up to 2 to 3 years before you can make the shift into getting a few paid gigs here and there to either MC or feature. The open mic is where you learn the building blocks of comedy and learn to become funny. No matter how you get around it comedy takes a long time to get good at. There usually is the rule of 10 years, that’s when you can start earning a living which you could become a doctor in that time and but if you’re like me and pass out at the sight of blood comedy is still a better option. There are some new factors to the comedy industry that has changed due to social media. Social media can propel a career much faster than the old days of faxing jokes to as many of your friends as you can. I have friends that are doing very well for themselves and are only 4 to 5 years in due to savvy in the world of the internet. But even with early success being this young in the game usually means you don’t have an hour of material yet which is crucial to making your living as a stand up.

So how long does it take to have a polished hour of material? That relies on your work ethic and your talent. I’ve seen comedians headline in as quick as 3 years and some it takes 10 and I’ve even seen some that have been doing it 20 years and still do not headline, they say its their choice but we all know what’s going down.

Is there any edge to quicken the process? In a sense there is, there is no magical pill you can take that will make you a great comic there are only two words, experience and work ethic. By work ethic I mean are you recording all your sets? Rewriting your material constantly to polish it? Getting on stage as much as possible? Networking? Writing down goals? Working harder than your fellow comedians? These are the things that are a must if you want to make this into a career.

Experience is the key to comedy, the more you do it the better you get. It’s like when you get out of college and you have that 150,000 degree and you keep getting told they want experience, comedy works the same way. If you’re starting out in comedy and doing open mics and only doing one a week I promise you that not enough. Even if there is only one in town go find places you can start a show. Jay Leno once said don’t call yourself a comedian until you have 3000 shows under your belt. I’m sure if I agree with that but I do understand what he is trying to say. He’s saying it’s a long hard road! Remember when you’re starting out and you’re doing only one open mic while the comic beside you is doing 6 he’s already has a month and a half on you. So get as much stage time whenever possible.

Let’s say you made it through the open mics and ready to become a paid comic in the clubs! You have a few steps to make before you can make a living at the avenues I mentioned above. You will start off at the MC spot who is the host of the show, it’s the MC’s job to do time up front and introduce the comics as well make any announcements the club wants you to read. This job pays between 25 and 50 bucks a show so you won’t be making a living off of that. You also have to watch for being too good of an MC, MC is a different skill set and when clubs get a great host the tend to stick them there longer then they should be and it can be a struggle to move to your next spot the feature.

After MCing for a year or two you’re ready to be a part of the main event! You get 30 mins and it is the sweet spot in comedy, you have somebody in front of you warming up the crowd, you’re only on stage for half an hour, and their someone behind that’s has to be funny no matter what! The pay for this spot is between 75 and 100 bucks a show.. still can’t quit your day job but you can if you want to live out of you’re Corolla! You’re going to be at the middle spot until your doing so well in that position that the club will have no choice but to move you up to headliner which also takes a few years.

Now you’re a headliner! so how long did that takes us, well if we used the above scenario it’s around 7 years. Once again this varies due to you! I know this all seems like a long time but it flies by when you get into comedy so don’t be scared it’s just a number.

So now your headlining making the big bucks!…. not really headlining pay is between 150 and 200 bucks a show and that does good when you have 7 shows a week. But you have to travel and eat while you’re on the road and the only thing covered by the club is a hotel. So most headliners rely on sales from T-shirts to CD’s to help supplement their income. So at this level being just a headlining road comic you can get by. But if you’re looking to make great money at comedy you have to look at the other options I listed.

To work anywhere outside of the comedy club atmosphere requires your act to be squeaky clean which clean material is more difficult to write as well. But if you do work clean there is a lot of money working outside of the clubs.

Let’s take a look at the other venues for your stand up and what they pay.

First cruise ships, if you’re already a comedian you’ll hear comics talking about “the ships” a lot and why is that? Because in order to work cruise ships your act has to be bland and not have even an offensive tone to it. I’ve had many friends doing great on the cruise ships and then one complaint after working for years with that company will simply get fired over that singular complaint. Another thing cruise ship comics run into is the cruise director, you have to buddy up to that person in a big way because if the director doesn’t like once again you’re fired. This is the thing that is scary about cruise ships that and you have to sell a piece of soul as well to water down your act. So what’s the upside? a big pay check. A low estimate it 2500 bucks a week, the nicer cruise lines start you off at 3500 bucks, sounds amazing right! and if the ship likes you you can get some sizable raises. Doing cruise ships leave you out at sea away from your family which I guess in certain cases is not a bad thing. Cruise ships put you on contracts, most like to have you do two weeks on and two off but some can be months at a time. Getting on the ships can be a bit tricky, the good news is there are usually at least cruise ship contest in comedy clubs which allows them to come to you and see your show live at a club. The other way is through a press package to the booker of the ship, I’m not going to get into press packages but once you’re ready for this step I’m sure you will know what one is and have one.

Corporate is another world in which you can make a lot of money and I mean a lot. Corporations will hire comedians for social events this a very lucrative and competitive market. One of my close friends does mostly corporate shows and he is constantly trying new ways to advertise his show and spends a lot of money doing so, but just one booking from his efforts can cover a lot of costs. A corporate comedian can make anywhere between 1500 and 10k a show. That’s really big money, I use to do corporate shows and I eventually burned out (rather quickly) from doing them as you really have to adjust your show to meet that company’s needs. To be really successful at it you have to research the company you’re working for and ask your contact for the show if there is any inside jokes or people the want made fun of. It takes away from the art of comedy but it’s a good way to make a great living. Getting into the corporate market requires an agent which you have to send them a press package or be computer savvy in order to rank on google so people can find you.

The college market, this market is usually reserved for young comedians and you can be only 3 or 4 years in to start working the colleges depending of course on your skill level and work ethic. This is, as you would’ve guessed by now is also a tough market. It’s very competitive and the money starting out is least paying outside of the clubs. The big misconception about the college market is that you’re in theaters in front of the whole university…sometimes… maybe but sometimes it’s 11am and your doing a show in the cafeteria which is never good. Colleges start off at 800 bucks a show will most likely cover your airfare and works its way up to 2000 a show with no television credits or millions of twitter followers.

There are many ways to make your living as professional comedian and there’s things I didn’t even discuss like writing jobs and acting but that’s a different article. As far as time in before becoming a professional comedian is up to you, you may move up the ladder fast or you may not you just have to enjoy comedy, it has to be a passion in order to stick with it, being on that stage has to be a calling and if it is you’ll be fine!