24 Things Denmark Taught Me About Being a Comedian

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 – as stand-up is still so new, that 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 30-40 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.

There are very few gigs in Denmark, so you better appreciate your stage time.
There are very few gigs in Denmark, so you better appreciate your stage time.

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 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% 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% of the time? 90% of the time? Aim for the highest possible percentage. Or throw it away – or make it funny.

The Danish comedy club Comedy Zoo. Capacity 150ish people. Mondays and Wednesdays are new material nights for the experienced comics. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday there's professional shows.  New material nights cost around £7-9 to get in and the professional nights are between £15-20.
The Danish comedy club Comedy Zoo. Capacity 150ish people. Mondays and Wednesdays are new material nights for the experienced comics. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday there’s professional shows. New material nights cost around £7-9 to get in and the professional nights are between £15-20.

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 practice 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 advices 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.

This is almost all of the Danish comedians in one picture. Imagine that.
This is almost all of the Danish comedians in one picture. Imagine that.

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. 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.

Myself and comedian Ivan Andersen in front of Den Glade Gris. It's the venue that first had stand-up in 1987. Back then it was called Din's.
Myself and comedian Ivan Andersen in front of Den Glade Gris. It’s the venue that first had stand-up in 1987. Back then it was called Din’s.

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.

The very first Danish comdians, 26 years ago.
The very first Danish comedians, 26 years ago.

16. Kill. When I was about to do my 8th 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.” – and 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.

In Denmark you can't make a living from doing comedy clubs, as there's only one club. So you sometimes have to accept a TV-offer to be able to pay rent. Sometimes the TV show will demand that you get naked and wear a thong. Did I mention that a lot of Danish comedians are quite good-looking - even in thongs? (Especially in thongs)
In Denmark you can’t make a living from doing comedy clubs, as there’s only one club. So you sometimes have to accept a TV-offer to be able to pay rent. Sometimes the TV show will demand that you get naked and wear a thong. Did I mention that a lot of Danish comedians are quite good-looking – even in thongs? (Especially in thongs)

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. 

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21 thoughts on “24 Things Denmark Taught Me About Being a Comedian

  1. 15 Yes it is. People like you and Steve Day always come out with this cliche but torturing yourself because two coked up slags were having a stand up row in the audience and killed the room stone dead is not your fault and while its great to have a strong work ethic trying to pretend you are ALWAYS in control is a bit sad. Do you really actually need to constantly torture yourself to improve or is it just in your imagination? I once booked Steven K Amos and he died the most awful death. Jokes died, banter died. I watched him mentally beating himself up for a minute, smiled and said “It’s not your fault they’re a group booking from the local language school. Come every year. Dont speak a word of English”. Obviously this was his fault. Some people do come to comedy not to laugh – fuck ’em. I’ve had group bookings of people who absolutely hated the gig despite and inspite of the quality of the acts but kept coming back. Some people have no sense of humour but they still like to go to comedy gigs to feel superior.

    21 Only a fool feels responsible for what other people do with their money. Always do something new, even if it is only a 10 second joke. I’ve got my own finances and the audience dont care about that. The feeling is reciprocated. That’s not an argument for ripping people off but it is show business not show social work.

    23 most puns are seen as crap bcause they have no emotional truth underlying them… But not all

    24 I can call myself what I like
    And I can call you what I like too

    1. Hello. Thank you very much for reading this blogpost. And thank you every so much for taking your time to reply as well. I have read your comment and I have approved it, so that other people can see it as well. I still strongly disagree with everything you are saying. Have a nice day. Sofie.

      1. Let’s strongly agree to strongly disagree then. It isn’t that I dont see the value of self analysis I just find it somewhat amusing when people try to analyse things that probably shouldn’t be analysed because they are beyond their control. It might be helpful to you as an artist to blame yourself all the time when things go wrong but it isn’t always reality. You dont control everything. Only what you can control.

        Sitting on the other side of the fence with my promoter rather than act hat on I just dont always think its the acts fault if the do badly (Okay 95% of the time it is …but there’s still the other 5%). Of course everyone’s looking for scapegoats but … Seriously I dont the any sane promoter expect the acts to KILL all the time. I mean it cant hurt but in my opinion any promoter who actually says “You have to kill tonight. I don’t care. You have to. Otherwise, I’ll never put you on another line-up again.” …Well, they’re just a cunt.

        Still doesn’t seem to be doing you any harm this masochistic mindset so I maybe it’s best if you completely ignore what I say. It’s usually bollocks anyway.

      2. Hello again Anthony. I will most definitely not ignore anything that you say. I will however, read it carefully and understand it. Unfortunately I still do have to disagree. But that’s okay. We’re allowed to disagree.

        Have a nice day!

  2. Nice article.
    The long list belongs more to BuzzFeed, but still… 😛
    Seems like Danish people like giving themselves rules
    (Are you familiar with the Dogma manifesto by LFT?)

    I’d like to do one gig where I try to break all these rules.

    Breaking rules? Now THAT is fun! 😛

    1. Thank you, Alex.

      Most of Lars von Trier’s dogma-rules apply to comedy as well, actually. It’s always on location and there is never use of weapons.

      Before you do a gig where you break the rules, try and do one where you follow all of them. Breaking these rules are easy. It’s not breaking them that’s the challenge.

      Have a wonderful day.

  3. “Unfortunately I still do have to disagree” Everybody says I am a disagreeable man. I cant think why. I do agree very strongly with point 11 though.
    Erm … Tinkerty Tonk.

  4. Good work Sofi…

    My only rule is
    – If everyone else on a gig is having fun then it means I will have to go out and simply tell jokes, with toppers, opening with B and ending with A and have a miserable time while Killing…
    However if everyone else on the bill is turning comedy into a strictly regimented set of rules then I can just go out there and enjoy myself, play with the audience, the room, the notion of comedy and have proper fun – whilst also being the only comedian that they really remember and want to have children with!

    Also I thoroughly agree with 8.

  5. Gloriously clear, rigoured, no-bullshit-but-in-a-comforting-kinda way advice that I’ll be definitely be taking me to my next gig. Find a lot of this tends to apply to spoken-word and acting. 15, 16, 18 and 24 in particular.

  6. I was in my own way agreeing with you ms Sofie
    You know I could not possibly follow your rules. it was of course bullshit about me “simply tell jokes… while Killing” I have tried it and failed miserably so gave up… I would be a terrible ‘proper comedian’ but in order to do what I do I do have to have my own ‘rules’ even if I wouldn’t call them that
    The other day I even saw “the most free-spirited man in comedy” Phil Kay demonstrate he is the same – he chastises himself a little, mid gig, for being negative towards someone in the audience – he normally always exudes positivity and his book is all about positivity being Wholly Viable in comedy and life.
    x

  7. You say “the rule of no lists” as though, like all the other things in that…list, it’s something every comic knows about. What is the rule? Don’t have lists in your jokes? I’ve never heard that before. George Carlin made lots of lists.

    1. Good point. “The rule of no lists” is: Do not LIST things. As soon as you say “Here are three reasons I am too fat, FIRST REASON…” people will know that it’s not the last thing you say, that they should save their laughter.
      Instead, say “I’m too fat because [joke]… and [joke]… and [joke]”.. In that way, instead of the joke being a three-part-joke, it becomes a joke with two taglines, making it technically stronger.

      And just remember what I made very, very clear: These rules are ALL actual rules that EVERYONE HAS to follow as EVERY comedian in the ENTIRE world ALL AGREE. So if George Carlin ever did lists, that means he wasn’t a comedian at all and if he was, he was a SHIT one. #fact

  8. Oh also that dude above is right, sometimes the audience is just garbage. I don’t know how you can disagree with that, it’s a fact. Some crowds simply aren’t going to listen to you, aren’t going to listen to ANYBODY. Sometimes they’re uptight, or there’s a weird chemistry in the room, all sorts of things. You’ve never seen another comic do a fantastic set to the sound of crickets (or, more likely, loud inebriates)? It’s rare that it happens in an actual comedy club with a paying audience, but people do comedy in shitty bars and hookah lounges and fuckin’ laundromats and sometimes it’s truly hopeless. In fact, I can prove it to you: I’ve done sets where the crowd was a bunch of noisy drunken assholes, BUT there was that one beautiful table of people who actually liked comedy and enjoyed the hell out of my set. So either those people are dipshits who laugh at me doing a terrible job, or the crowd was lousy. I get that lots of comics with no self-awareness will blame the crowd inappropriately, but making blanket statements is always dumb (see what I did there?)

    1. Hello Crim.

      I’ll explain this again.

      “It’s never the audience’s fault” isn’t a fact as much as it’s a state of mind. If you always blame yourself, you’ll always look for ways to improve and that’s the main focus: To eventually get better. If you bomb and you think “Oh, it’s because of the room/their ages/the MC/etc” you don’t leave room for the possibility that maybe you DIDN’T do your best either. And basically, it’s not up to you to decide why you went wrong, as you can’t be objective. You’re not going to evolve as a comedian, if you don’t try your absolute best to make them laugh NO MATTER WHAT. Even if they don’t understand your language.

      Or as someone in another thread put it:

      “This is one of those topics that will be debated forever and everyone has their own opinion, and also their own interpretation of what others say.
      I took what Sophie said as, instead of taking the easy way out and blaming the crowd, think what I could have done to make it better and maybe won them over. If I perform to a young crowd, I’m not going to copy the style of a younger comic’s act to fit in. But I will still try to win them.
      I leave blaming the audience to those acts who reference when a gag doesn’t get as much response as they think it deserves. Don’t tell them what to laugh at.
      We’ll always have shit gigs, take a learning from them or accept that you didn’t win them over, but it’s not their fault.”

      I hope this clears it up. But if you’re satisfied with one table liking you instead of the whole room, that is up to you.

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