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What Does a Comedian Do?

By A.M. Boyle
Updated May 23, 2024
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A comedian, otherwise known as a comic, is an entertainer who writes and performs routines designed to make people laugh. The word “comedienne” is sometimes used to refer to a female comic, but the term comedian is often used to refer to either a male or female performer. Comedians use various types of comedy to evoke laughter. The different types of comedy generally include stand-up comedy, slapstick, prop comedy, and impersonation. Some comedians may specialize in one particular type of routine, while others may use a combination in their acts.

One type of comic many people are familiar with is the stand-up comic. A stand-up comic basically comes in front of an audience and uses jokes, stories, and anecdotes to make the audience laugh. Some comedians may evoke laughter by poking fun at themselves, common life experiences, or politics. Others may entertain the crowd by tossing good-natured insults at members of the audience.

Many comedians use slapstick comedy as part of their routines. Slapstick is comprised of silly and exaggerated physical antics, such as tripping, falling, and faux hitting. Clowns often use slapstick as a primary part of their performances. Slapstick, because of its nature, frequently involves more than one participant. Some of the most famous slapstick routines were performed by comic groups such as the Three Stooges, The Keystone Cops, and Laurel and Hardy.

Prop comedy is another popular choice for comedians. It is similar to stand-up comedy, except that the comic uses a prop of some sort during his or her act. Comedians who perform as ventriloquists are considered prop comedians. Other prop comedians use costumes to assume different character roles, while others might design entire routines around a unique prop. For instance, one particular comedian by the name of Gallagher focused his entire routine around smashing various items with a mallet.

Impersonation and impressionism are still other tools used by comedians. For this type of comedy, comedians imitate or mock a famous person, oftentimes replicating the person’s voice and mannerisms. Again, some comedians perform this type of comedy exclusively, while others might include it as part of their routines. One of the most famous impressionists in comic history was Rich Little, who was able to imitate countless voices and impersonate a great number of celebrities.

Regardless of what type of comedy a comedian chooses to perform, the goal is to evoke laughter. While many comedians write their own material, some hire others to write material for them. Aside from the particular material a used, timing and delivery are crucial to a comedian's success. There is no special training or schooling required for a person to become a comedian, and a comic must rely on natural talent and skill. A comic could have the funniest material ever written, but if it is not presented properly, the audience will not laugh.

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Discussion Comments

By SZapper — On Aug 27, 2012

@JessicaLynn - I enjoy slapstick comedy too. I think there are still some current shows that do slapstick comedy, but probably not too many. There are a lot more situational comedy shows on television these days.

I feel like there is also a pretty good amount of stand-up comedy on television too. I've never actually been to a comedy club, but I've seen tons of stand-up comedy specials on television. I find them really enjoyable to watch from home, but I don't know if I would make the effort to actually go to a comedy club.

By JessicaLynn — On Aug 26, 2012

I know it's a bit old fashioned, but I think slapstick comedy is the funniest kind of comedy there is. I love the Three Stooges, and I also love watching re-runs of I Love Lucy. There is a ton of slapstick comedy on that show, and I laugh non-stop every time I watch it.

By Azuza — On Aug 26, 2012

@KaBoom - I think there's definitely been a trend in the last few years to take jokes in stand up comedy and in comedy movies a little bit too far. However, you should be able to avoid putting yourself in that situation by doing a little bit of research before you go see a comedy show. You can usually find out what kind of comedian someone is by reading their biography or reviews of their shows.

By KaBoom — On Aug 25, 2012

I've seen a few stand up comedians at my local comedy club. I usually enjoy myself, but the last time I went the comedian was just far too vulgar. Most of his jokes were sexual or racial in nature, and he went really overboard heckling the audience.

In my opinion, if you have to be inappropriate in order to be funny, you aren't that funny after all! A real comedian can keep their routine clean, and still make people laugh.

By Emilski — On Aug 25, 2012

I was thinking the other day that there don't seem to be any real prop comics around anymore. The article mentioned Gallagher who is probably the most well known prop comic. I was also thinking of guys like Steve Martin and Carrot Top, as well.

It seems counter-intuitive to me that there wouldn't be more prop comics around now. I think a lot of people watch shows and learn about new comics from Comedy Central, and that would be a perfect medium for prop comedy, since it is visible.

The only thing I can really think is that being a prop comic doesn't really allow you to sell comedy albums, because the jokes are lost if people can't see what is going on. I would guess that being able to sell albums is a big part of the income of comedians today. I guess it could just also be that there are prop comics around that never get any recognition for one reason or another. Does anyone have any ideas?

By titans62 — On Aug 24, 2012

@jmc88 - Hmm, I guess I can see where you're coming from. I can't think of any good impressionists off the top of my head that have had hugely successful careers. Frank Caliendo got his start on MadTV, and I think shows like that are usually the best places for impressionists to work. Since the shows mix up their skits, the impressions won't get as stale, since people don't have to listen to the same ones over and over.

Personally, though, my favorite types of comedians are the ones that tell a lot of stories. One of my favorites is Mike Birbiglia. Everyone I have talked to about him seems to have a love or hate feeling towards his comedy. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that he doesn't constantly keep people laughing, but once he gets to the punchline it is worth the build-up.

By jmc88 — On Aug 23, 2012

I think impressionists have the ability to be some of the best and worst types of comedians at the same time. The person I immediately think of is Frank Caliendo. He can impersonate tons of people, and he is really good at it. The only problem is that people get tired of the same routines after a while. For example, his impressions of John Madden and George Bush were always very good, but after you have heard him do the impressions a few times, there is really nothing else to see.

Caliendo even got his own show for a while where he was doing a bunch of impressions. The fact that it didn't last very long I think proves that people get tired of hearing the same person do similar routines over and over.

By stl156 — On Aug 23, 2012

@shell4life - I think that just goes to show how different various comedy mediums can be. I think a lot of the actors from Saturday Night Live could fall into the category of being funny when they are acting but not so much when they are doing stand-up. It is completely different to interact with other people on stage and act funny compared to being able to come up with funny material to make people laugh.

I think if I were a comedian I would have the same problems. I think a lot of people would consider me a pretty funny person, but it's mostly because I am good at telling stories of things that have happened to me. When it comes to telling straight jokes, I am horrible at it.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 22, 2012

@shell4life – I know what you mean! I have watched some comedians whom I loved in skits attempting to be standup comedians, and they were just terrible at it!

That's why I prefer to watch certain comedic actors only when they are playing in funny movies or on funny television shows. I hate seeing them trying to be funny all by themselves and failing, because this makes me look at them in a different light.

By shell4life — On Aug 21, 2012

It's odd that some comedians are hilarious when doing skits in a show with other comedians, but they fall flat when doing standup comedy. I guess the mark of a truly funny comedian is that he can make you laugh in any situation, whether he is acting out a scene or doing standup all by himself.

By Perdido — On Aug 21, 2012

@Kristee – The top comedians really do have something special. People start to laugh and light up as soon as they walk on stage, because these comedians made a lasting impression.

I actually bought a couple of DVDs of my favorite comedians' performances, and I watch them whenever I need a good laugh. I know that a comedian's routine is really good if I can watch it more than once or twice and still experience the same involuntary laughter.

By Kristee — On Aug 20, 2012

Impressionists have to be really good actors for their performances to be effective. A comedian could mimic the way a famous person's voice sounds, but if he didn't have the ability to include the person's expressions and mannerisms, it would not come across as well.

I work at a comedy club, and we always try to book comedians who have both charisma and the ability to write their own funny material. A true comedian really does have to be able to work the crowd, rather than just feed them jokes.

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