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 comedians.

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
comedy?

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.

Then what?
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
presence?

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 stronger.

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.