Behind the Scenes & Off the Stage

by Shelby Kittleson

I love comedy.

When I moved to Chicago after college graduation, I thought I’d take a couple years of writing classes then casually write a Second City Mainstage revue then probably be headed to NYC to write for Saturday Night Live and get to hang out with Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon all the time and eventually Amy Poehler would come to host and she'd be like, “Shelby, you’re so attentive and polite and you have the prettiest hair, I want to introduce you to my friends Abbi and Ilana” and I’d die a blissful death and float to comedy heaven. Aside from the fact that that timeline is entirely ludicrous and I honestly know I have just OK hair, note that nowhere in my fantasy did I assume it would be necessary for me to get on stage. How doe-eyed and naive I was then - like Piper Perabo’s character in Coyote Ugly assuming she could get her ‘Can’t Fight The Moonlight’ song sung by a pure talent like LeAnn Rimes without having to, at first, perform herself in a couple crappy night clubs.

But if you’re like me and being vulnerable about your art and having faith in your path and maintaining the strength of character it takes to get up on stage and get noticed doesn’t sound like your cup of tea either, don’t fear; I’ve found that there are ways to stay engaged with the comedy community that don’t involve performing.

Maybe you’re like me and you love comedy, but you’re not a comedienne.

Here’s how to stay involved with comedy if you’re passionate about it but not the performing type:

1. Take classes to work on the craft, but consider taking classes for other skills as well.

I took improv classes at The Second City, but I also took Acting 1 and Storytelling. The storytelling class gave me a chance to really work out what I find funny, but to be more analytic about when a joke is necessary in a narrative. Plus, at most storytelling nights, I ended up being the funniest one in the room, which is not the case when I’m in an improv class. Sometimes using your humor in a non-competitive/comparative environment can be healthy and encouraging.

2. Work as a host/hostess at a comedy theater or club.

I got to serve fries to Lorne Michaels, I attended a surprise Phish concert during an improv set, I hugged John Mulaney, I once accidentally kicked Fred Armisen while protecting him from being photographed, all while making money. I’m not saying being a server or hostess or box officer pays well, but I am saying that the opportunity to see the artists you believe in for free while getting paid (even minimum wage) is pretty divine.

3. Volunteer and work with arts and comedy festivals.

Know how easy it is to see your favorite comedians perform for free? Volunteer and train and work a comedy festival. Don’t slack off, and don’t ever ask if you can take a photo with or talk to the performers. I’ve worked at Chicago Humanities Festival (where I met Lena Dunham), RiotLA (where I met Moshe Kasher and Thomas Middleditch), and Detroit Improv Festival (where I met Kevin Dorff and Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson). Do the work, remain calm, be humble and grateful, and festivals can be the most amazing Coachellas of Comedy.

4. Watch PaleyFest videos.

There are a million books you could read and a trillion podcasts you could listen to about comedy. My favorites are 'Poking a Dead Frog' (Mike Sacks) and 'You Made It Weird' (Pete Holmes), respectively, but I also recommend Googling ‘Paley Center [insert favorite TV show here]’.

5. Attend charity/benefit shows for comedy.

The best part about benefits featuring comedians is that you’ll feel great about selflessly spending money to help those less fortunate than you while also selfishly cackling.

6. Intern for a theater to learn the ins and outs of production from behind the scenes.

Through interning and assisting at for-profit theaters, I’ve learned about equity contracts and the legality of intellectual property and the creative process. I learned about accountability and demographics and marketing and the real grit of the business side of comedy. I learned about customer service. I learned a little about stage management. I learned we should all know a little more about stage management so that stage managers aren’t worked to death. I learned that not everyone finds the same things funny, and that most critics are hacks, but that their reviews are still really important to the business.  

Most of all, if you get the chance, try to really listen to performers you respect. 

Ask them about their path, but ask specific questions - answering "How did you get where you are?" is really complicated, so try to ask a more pointed question like, "Did you ever take improv classes?". Make connections of any people or places you have in common. Don’t try to sell anything; no one likes being handed a mix tape (your comedy reel) unless they explicitly asked for it. And try not to cry when you meet John Mulaney, it seems to make him uncomfortable.

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Shelby Kittleson is the Director of Sales for Go Comedy! She grew up in Michigan and moved to Chicago and briefly lived in LA and now she's proud to be in Detroit. She refuses to get on stage but promises to do one (1) Fresh Sauce one day. 

Posted on April 20, 2017 .