Standup Comedians: “It’s an obsession.”

A comedian’s life doesn’t sound very fun to me. They stand on a stage in blinding lights trying to make stranger laugh. They risk being stared at blankly or, worse, heckled by an audience member. They travel often, make little money and seem have something “off-kilter” about them. What in the world makes a person wants to be a standup comedian? And how is it possible to feel encouraged to keep on through all the trials and tribulations, let alone get famous doing it?

Comedian Interview Notes & Discussion Guide

Soliciting Participants & Conducting Interviews

To find out if there were specific personal traits, life events, or other reasons for taking up standup comedy, my team sought out comedians at various stages of investment and performance experience. We attended introductory standup comedy classes, a professional touring comedians’ show at a comedy club, a small regular performance by local Chicago comedians and an open mic.

Comedian Interview Notes & Discussion Guide

Ultimately we interviewed 10 comedians in less than one week using a discussion guide that we developed based on participants’ self-identified status (professional versus amateur). I personally attended five interviews, swapping note-taking and interviewing roles with my teammates. I also led one recruitment effort through the ID community and scheduled and led team meetings throughout the entire project.

Comedy Analysis

The Big Insights

In a whirlwind of analysis, our team discovered interesting commonalities among our ten participants and we identified key stages in the standup comedy career journeys. We also discovered comedians pursue their comedic passion because of two key moments in their comedic journeys: pivot points spur them to pursue comedy and reality checks encourage them along the path.

The Standup Comedy Journey

Each comedian has a pivot point in their life when they identify their passion for stand-up and act on that information. These life events may have nothing to do with comedy but provide a spark that encourages the person to try standup comedy and this signals entrance into a testing phase, where they seek out comedy classes and attend their first open mics.

After a standup comedian has been doing comedy for a while, they have reality checks where they determine their next steps. Our team found three choices for the comedic career at this point: striving forward towards “making it” which could involve moving for opportunities or quitting a day job, continuing their comedic efforts “as is”, or dropping out of stand-up to pursue alternative interests such as teaching comedy or producing (or organizing) comedy shows.

Our team knew that if we could elevate pivot points and cash reality checks, we could keep stand-ups standing. We believe that by increasing stage time, establishing an informal mentorship program, creating comedic income opportunities and facilitating critique, Chicago could foster a standup environment that could become a rallying cry for the city.

Comedy Presentation

Copyright © 2012 Paul Sheetz

Communication Design

With analysis and insights in hand and a framework of the final report’s content, I designed our report and took a first stab at the poster layout. My teammates adapted my basic framework and finalized the poster in time for our final presentation. Access the final poster and report.

Standup Comedy Final Poster
Comedy Report Notable Quotes