24 things Denmark taught me about being a comedian | Copenhagen-born Sofie Hagen shares her tips

24 things Denmark taught me about being a comedian

Copenhagen-born Sofie Hagen shares her tips

Denmark is paradise, if you want to start doing comedy. Every night you gig with experienced, famous and professional comedians who are eager to teach you everything they know. Becuase stand-up is still so new, it’s in everyone’s best interest that no one sucks at it.

I have attempted to remember every single thing I’ve picked up from the Danish stand-up circuit. You may not agree with them. You may not even recognize them. And sure, since I moved to the UK, I’ve learned other things, that are in direct opposition with some of these rules. But as it is with most rules or pieces of advice: Only listen to the ones that make sense to you.

1. Never say ‘no’ to a gig. In Denmark there are very few gigs. In Copenhagen there is a total of five or six open mics a week and around 30 to 40 people wanting a spot each night. Stage time is precious, so do it whenever you can. And no matter how shitty it seems, you can always learn something from a gig.

2. Taglines, taglines, taglines. I didn’t now how much taglines meant in Denmark, before I moved to the UK. When you watch a Danish stand-up set, it’ll be packed with punchlines followed by several tags. It’s a thing – the comedians watch each others’ sets all the time and offer each other ideas for new taglines. I almost want to say, that in Denmark, if there isn’t a tagline at the end of a punchline, the joke isn’t done.

3. Know the terminology. Punchline, tagline, heckle, callback, callforward, one-liner, pull-back-and-reveal (in Denmark, it’s called a ‘decoy’). Know the basics – why a ‘k’ is funnier than an ‘s’, the rule of three, the rule of no lists, etc. It’s a craft as much as it’s an artform. Read the books, study it.

4. If the joke doesn’t work all the time, make it funny or get rid of it. The actual quote I think was, ‘If the joke doesn’t work the first time, I throw it out, because no matter what, it will never have worked 100 per cent of the times and then it’s not a perfect joke,’ said by a really incredible one-liner comic. It’s quite harsh – and I’m not sure if even he lives by that rule all the time. But the point is strong: How many times does your joke work? 50 per cent of the time? 90 per cent of the time? Aim for the highest possible percentage. Or throw it away – or make it funny.

5. You need to be more than funny. This theory was presented to me by a Danish comedian, who is very geeky and intense when it comes to studying stand-up. It’s his theory, but I agree. It takes 7 things to become a good/successful comedian:

  • Funny bones – You have to be funny. This cannot be learned. You either have it or you don’t.
  • Writing technique – You have to be good at writing jokes. You can learn this by reading the books and doing the studying.
  • Delivery – You have to be able to deliver a joke. You can learn this by gigging loads.
  • Passion – You have to want it. There are loads of people wanting to be comedians. It’s very, very hard getting there. Lots of dying, sweating, tears, time and money. Want it.
  • Originality – You have to be able to bring something to the table, that hasn’t been seen before. Be yourself.
  • Persistence. You have to keep going.
  • Realistic and analysing mindset - You have to be able to look at yourself and your abilities realistically. You have to be able to analyse everything you’re doing with your stand-up – why is it funny, when is it funny, how is it funny? Why are they laughing, which kind of laugh are they laughing?

6. Film all your gigs and practise daily in front of the mirror. I got this advice from a great act who walked out during my set. Afterwards, when I confronted him, he told me that he had to go, because otherwise he’d die of boredom from watching my show. Then he gave me this advice, which is possibly one of the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard.

7. You’ll die the first 10 times you gig. And the next 80. And it’ll never stop. I remember the first time I bombed in Denmark. Like, really fucking crashed and burned. I was sad beyond sad and went and told the other comedians. They all patted my back and congratulated me – because, as they said, for the first time, I was learning. And I was slowly becoming an actual comedian.

8. Just don’t wear the cardigan. It’s a lovely story that I’ve always remembered: Comedian Mikkel Malmberg was just starting out and told much more experienced comedian Thomas Warberg that he felt like he had to wear a cardigan every time he performed, otherwise he wouldn’t be funny. Warberg turned to him and said, ‘Then just don’t wear the cardigan.’ Basically, if you have any weird rules in your head for when you’re going to be funny or not, fuck it. There were lots of rules when I started out: Don’t wear shorts on stage, don’t have your hair down, etc. Kill it. Do it. And be funny anyways.

9. No writing on your hand. No bringing notes. And no water. I would always bring notes and water to the stage, when I was starting out. Until a comedian said to me, ‘You don’t need it. You have to learn how to remember your material. You’re just doing five minutes, you don’t need water. Water shouldn’t be necessary until you’re doing twenty-minute-spots.’ (I’d still do it. Then he started ripping it out of my hands as I was walking to the stage. Turns out I didn’t need it.)

10. Don’t be nervous. He was really nervous. He told me. I said the good ol’ line, ‘It’s good being nervous! It means you care!’ and he stared me down and said, ‘Comedy is the one thing I can do. I can’t be nervous’ and for some reason, that has always helped me in certain situations.

11. Don’t read from a piece of paper. If you’re quoting a list or a newspaper article or a review, or whatever, learn it by heart. Remember it. Reading makes you seem unprepared and lazy.

12. There are different kinds of laugh. Genuine belly-laughs, pity-laughs, wow-this-is-awkward-laughs, laughing-AT-you-laughs, laughing-with-you-laughs. Sometimes it’s not enough that they’re laughing, the laugh has to be right.

13. If you do material about a certain group of people, but you can’t do it in front of them, don’t do it at all. Comedy in Denmark is only 26 years old, meaning that there are a lot of, uhm, let’s say, inappropriate jokes going around. You know, casual misogyny and ironic racism thrives. So it quickly became a saying. If you edit out a joke because there’s someone in the crowd you’re scared of offending, you shouldn’t do the joke.

14. Do your material again and again and again… I was recently criticised by a British open mic’er for ‘always doing the same set’ I realised it was another thing, I’ve picked up in Denmark, but I have no idea exactly where it came from. All I know is that a joke is never finished. It can always get better. Not just the words – but the way you say it. You change as a person as well and so your material will have to change with you. I never ‘just do the same joke again and again’ – without always trying to push myself to think of new taglines, new ways of saying it or new intros, endings or angles. Actually, a British agent once told me that what he did, when finding out if he wanted to sign someone, he always asked them how long it took them to write their best jokes. He said he’d only sign people who said, ‘years’.

15. It’s never the audience’s fault. It’s just not. Never. Ever. You just weren’t funny enough. Don’t you dare trying to place the responsibility on anyone or anything but yourself and your lack of talent, hard work or skills.

16. Kill. When I was about to do my eigth ever gig, the MC said to me, ‘You have to kill tonight.’ and I panicked and tried to explain to him that I couldn’t – I was nowhere near good enough. He said, ‘I don’t care. You have to. Otherwise, I’ll never put you on another line-up again.’ I ended up approaching the gig with a mindset of ‘I have to kill, so I will kill’ and that made what seemed to be a horrible threat be a really, really good lesson learned. No excuses. Always aim to be the very best. Better than you think you are.

17… But killing is hard. In Denmark, killing means that at no point during your time on stage, did the audience stop laughing and applauding. At no point. You have to think it’s slightly annoying that you cannot get to your punchlines, because the audience are making too much noise. If they ‘just’ laugh at all of your punchlines, that’s ‘just’ a good show. You were great. Awesome. But it wasn’t killing. Killing means that no one can follow you. That the audience were crying with laughter. You don’t throw the sentence ‘I killed’ around loosely in Denmark.

18. Always open. The story goes like this: Anders Matthesen (probably the biggest comedian in Denmark) would always show up at open mics and demand to open the gig. The room is cold, in Denmark especially, as there will always be people in who’ve never seen stand-up before. So he’d open and take the punches and get really good. I’m not sure if it’s still like this – but when I did the open mic circuit in Denmark, when the MC asked, ‘Who wants to open?’ everyone better fucking put their hands up, otherwise you’d get a dirty, dirty look, saying ‘Oh. You don’t want to be good? You just want it easy? Fine’ and you could expect to be offered fewer spots from then on.

19. If you take a break from comedy, you can just give up completely. I know the attitude to this has changed a lot and that a lot of people disagree, but when I started out, the comedians I listened to had the rule: If you are capable of taking a break from comedy, that means you are not taking it seriously enough. It means you don’t want it enough. It means you don’t need it, like so many others do.

20. Open with B, put C in the middle and close with A. I get the feeling it’s the same in the UK. Close with your best joke, open with your second-best joke and put the rest in the middle. Another comedian gave me this recipe: Open with something about yourself, put the dirty/edgy stuff in the middle and close on something nice.

21. Don’t do new material to people who have paid to come to a professional comedy show. Open mics are for new material. Pro nights are for tested material. There will be people in the audience who have a busy daytime job and four kids and they only have a budget for ONE night a month to go out and have fun. They’ve paid £20 (Welcome to Denmark…) to go to a comedy club and even more money on the dinner beforehand and the babysitter had to be paid as well. Then how dare you show up with your notes and untested jokes? It’s not only disrespectful to the audience, it’s also rude to the comedian who has to follow you and to the booker who has booked you.

22. Don’t do TV before you’re ready. It’s an actual scare in Denmark. There are so few comedians and stand-up is still booming, so within the first years of performing, you’ll most likely be offered some kind of TV and it will most likely be too soon.

23. Puns suck! It’s probably the thing I love the most about Denmark. Puns are evil and cringeworthy and will only be accepted if it’s done extremely well and by someone who’s already respected and established – and even then, it’ll probably be delivered very sarcastically. It’s considered too easy and lame.

24. You’re not a comedian. There are different definitions, depending on who you ask, but the the most popular rule seems to be that you are not a comedian, before your main income comes from comedy. You are not allowed to call yourself ‘comedian’. You are, however, allowed to say that you “do comedy”.

It’s important to point out that not all Danish comedians will agree with all of these points. Some of them will probably never have heard of most of it. It sounds like I am making a generalisation, so consider this a disclaimer: I do not speak on the behalf of the Danish stand-up circuit. I have merely gathered all the rules I try to live by in comedy and I’m pretty sure Denmark was the place, where I picked all of them up. Either from a loose backstage-chat or from one comedian in particular or maybe just from experience. Also, some of these rules are probably taken from comedy books or autobiographies. I’m not saying we invented rules.

Oh, and I am also not saying that I follow all of these rules always – but I do feel guilty, when I don’t. If I write my set on my hand, if I feel like it’s the audience’s fault or when I get really nervous before a gig, for example.

Basically, the best advice I have ever heard, I’ve heard from both Danish and British comedians and it’s very, very simple: Don’t take anyone's advice.

• This was originally posted on sofiehagen.wordpress.com. Follow Sofie Hagen at @SofieHagen.

Published: 2 Apr 2014

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