What It's Like To Be ... An Improv Comedian

More of a calling than a ticket to riches

Dan Fastenberg/AOLBethany Hall is pictured with the microphone.
The odds of making it as a professional comedian are about as good as winning the lottery. But the field's minor leagues -- improv groups located in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles among other sites -- are in fact a collegial workplace, said Bethany Hall, a 30-year old member of the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York.

"You have to be a collaborative person because you are constantly engaging with people," she told AOL Jobs while recently participating in the weekly show, "The Chris Gethard Show." "If you're not a collaborator, I imagine this work would be hard," she added. The classes are open to any and all at theatres like UCB.

The Gethard show dubs itself as "the most bizarre and often saddest talk show in New York City." Every Wednesday evening, its members and their fans gather at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network studios on the west side of Manhattan to produce the show. Fans are asked to contribute via Twitter if they can't make the show.

The segments can all be described as both off-the-wall and fun-loving. The Gethard Show is also not above making jokes about serial killers. (Another segment featured two members who dressed up as a horse and a bee to compete in a massive wordplay competition. At one point "horse" and "bee" discussed the government shutdown, and "bee" referred to the "no child left bee-hind" program.)

Hall, like all her fellow troupe members, receives no pay for her work. And so as she pointed out, being an improv comedian means having two careers. For her part, she works part-time for a simplification firm, which involves gigs like explaining President Obama's health care law to workers of state health departments. She said improv attracts a whole range of people, including graphic designers, lawyers and teachers.

The hope, of course, is to somehow be picked up for a television show or a movie. That path has famously led to very high-paying successful careers. Indeed, countless stars have come up through the improv groups, including Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Chris Farley. But anyone who's ever made others laugh can't help but wonder at some point -- could I really make a living off this?

So why do some actually go for it? "The people who are really pursuing this field, they have an inherent need to do this," Hall explained. "It's not something you stumble upon. But it is the most satisfying gift, giving humor to other people."

The work, Hall said, requires the combination of drive and energy to manage the necessary double-life of the aspiring comedian. And that usually means choosing the work over having social obligations outside of comedy. Hall said she started in the field after moving to New York at 22 when she finished college. And ever since she has devoted four to five nights a week to rehearsals and performances. When a comedian shows up to a theatre like UCB to start enrolling in classes, the participants usually band together to form their troupes. The UCB has six levels for its members.

"It's not just about the classes," Hall said, "it's about the people you meet in the community." And it was while she was attending classes that she caught the eye of comedian Chris Gethard. "I made Gethard laugh when he was my teacher at UCB and he made a comment how I'm really funny when I am not working," she said. And when he asked why, she replied, "I don't know, because I am awesome." The quip helped lead to a steady place on Gethard's show.

Hall has since landed a small acting gig for the now-defunct "30 Rock" in addition to other commercial work. But as she explains, breaking in does not mean you're set for life. "You could get on a tv show, and then never work again," she said.

There is no one path to success. Comedians such as Connor Ratliff take off in a matter of months after showing up to classes. Apart from the obvious requirements of being both funny and driven, are there any other personality traits that are common for comedians? Not so, according to Hall.

"Comedy is like a sport, where it requires a lot of time and work," she said. "Each comedian has to put that effort into different exercises."

And you can't be too old, she said, adding a 60-year old has found a place in the Gethard show. "Life inspires comedy. You need material and experiences to be able to draw from it."

What's the best part of the job?: "You never run out of ideas."

What's the worst part of the job?: "The uncertainty. You don't know if you're being heard."

How much can you expect to be making first year?: "Nothing."

Five years in?: "There is no formula."

The Chris Gethard Show airs Wednesdays at 11 PM Eastern Time. It is performed at Manhattan Neighborhood Network studios.

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