This Comedienne Says It’s Good to Get Laughed At… One Joke at a Time
When I first moved to Los Angeles for film school in 2013, I didn’t have any friends, or any transportation to get around for all the fun that LA has to offer. The other obstacle was that I was a broke student, so that significantly cut the amount of things I could get into, in the City of Angels. Because of this, the world of stand up comics became my savior.
After attending a birthday party at the world famous Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, I became a regular patron. Each week, I enjoyed watching newbie comedians take to the same iconic stage that had once debuted every stand up comic legend from Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Mooney to the late great comedy gods Richard Pryor and George Carlin.
Recently, another name has been added to the world famous Comedy Store “wall of fame”. This comedienne is a hugely funny comedy chameleon, and each week she showcases her ability to perform hilarious, biting and smartly constructed stand up comic sets for every audience and every town in America.
Her name is Alycia Cooper and her Comedy Store ceremony is a pretty big deal because it’s the Comedy Store’s way of spotlighting a comedienne who has put in the work as a full-time, professional comedienne and has now earned their rite of passage onto the big stage of stand up comics.
Alycia Cooper is more than ready.
From dimly lit comedy clubs, to appearing on TV shows like The Parkers, Grounded For Life, and NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Alycia has truly paid her dues and shown her versatility. Alycia has also had the challenging, but extremely rewarding job of performing in front of our troops on global USO tours.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alycia, and we covered a lot of ground in the world of stand up comics. Alycia gives real, uncensored, and helpful tips on how to make it as a professional comedian. Did we also mention that she’s a member of the Director’s Guild of America, plus a producer and writer for top-tier networks?
From honing your craft and standing out in the comedy crowd to “Twitter” comedians and the deliberate theft of material (i.e., joke-jacking), find out what it takes to survive as a woman of color in the male-dominated industry of stand up comics.
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Q&A WITH ALYCIA COOPER ON BEING A STAND UP COMEDIENNE
RB: When did you know that you wanted to be a comedian / comedienne?
AC: I’ve been watching comedy my whole life. My cousin got kicked out of the house when she was 16 for being sassy. I was 9 and I watched everything she watched, from I Love Lucy and Richard Pryor to George Carlin and Redd Foxx, so I was exposed to comedy very early. It wasn’t until I saw HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, where I said let me give this a try. They were all so funny, and I had been told all my life at that point that I was funny.
RB: What comedienne did you grow up idolizing?
AC: I would have to say Marsha Warfield because she was a black woman doing it, and doing it on TV with the Richard Pryor specials. Then she did one of my favorite movies, DC Cab, and I’m from the DC area, so I was hooked after that.
RB: Can you tell us your lowest moment as a young comedienne coming up, where you thought about giving up?
AC: Well I think [about] giving up every week to this day [laughs]. You have your highs and your lows, and every comic thinks about giving up. I don’t think I can’t ever remember saying the words, “I’m quitting,” but I have said to myself, “I’m going to get a full time job and I’m going to my comedy at night.” But I’ve never said I’m going to quit. There was a moment a year and a half ago when my mother died, and I immediately canceled my shows, and I didn’t know when I would return because I just couldn’t find the funny anymore. It took me about a month and a half to get back on stage.
RB: Not everybody has the same sense of humor. How do you know when a joke is good enough to make it into your routine?
AC: In the beginning you’re still trying to figure out what’s funny and what’s not, and you’re still finding your voice. Now I’m at the point where I can tell early on – in a joke – whether or not it’s going to work. When you’re coming up, you go to open mics and try the jokes out, and massage them to see what that crowd thinks of it. Then eventually you say it in front of a real crowd. My rule is that if you do a joke three times and it doesn’t get a laugh, throw it out. I know some people who keep telling the same joke that doesn’t get a laugh for ten years [laughs]. Now I know whether or not a joke is going to work before I even get on stage.
RB: What’s your process for coming up with a routine?
AC: A lot of my routine is current events and politics. I take something current that just happened, and I put my spin on it. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton, I’ll either type the jokes or voice record them but whatever the subject is, it has to make me laugh first, and then I just go from there.
RB: Do you ever cater your routine to the audience you’re performing for?
AC: Not really, I try to write universal, so as long as you live in the U.S. and you speak English, you should be able to get it [laughs].
RB: Do you think that being able to play to any crowd has played a part in your success?
AC: Yes. I can perform in front of an all white Ivy League school, and then later that night, I can go perform in ‘the hood’. I make sure my material works everywhere.
RB: What, if any, challenges have you faced in the industry due to the fact that you’re an African American woman?
AC: [laughs] Man, it’s just so much stuff, we hear the craziest stuff in this industry. You have people tell you that we [African American women] have to be clean. Then you get to the club, and you see the white male comedians cussing their heads off. Then you ask the booking agent, well why do we have to be clean if they don’t, and they tell you, “It just sounds different when y’all say it.” I asked another booking agent, “Why don’t females headline?” He said that the drink sales weren’t as high when women headline the shows. They will tell you anything to justify the ridiculousness.
RB: Are you numb to these injustices by now, or do you still see it as a struggle for your career?
AC: I’m at the point now where my motto is: go where you’re wanted. If I see too much resistance on the left, then I move to the right. I’m not going to keep banging my head up against the same brick wall, because it will make you angry and bitter. I know so many comedians who are angry and bitter, because they feel like they should be further along, or they feel like people who aren’t as talented as them have moved further along. We’re in this age now where you don’t need to be funny: you need Twitter followers. They will book somebody with no routine at all, but they have a huge social media following. That can make you very angry and bitter.
RB: Are you yourself bitter towards the “Twitter comedians”?
AC: I just feel like they’re doing the audience a disservice. They pay good money for these shows and then they sit there all night and don’t laugh. How is that fair? I just hope that these people who ‘cut the line’ – because that’s what they’re doing – get somebody strong booked in front of them, so they can be exposed for the frauds that they are.
RB: Is that your experience in watching these Internet comedians? Do they bomb?
AC: Yes, they crash and burn. When people pay good money to see a headliner, you’re supposed to get 45 minutes. What they do with these shams is they let them do 20 minutes and then make all the other comedians work harder for less money. All they really have is five minutes and they BS the crowd for fifteen minutes more.
RB: You’ve been on TV shows like “The Parkers” and “Raising Hope”. Is it hard to go from the stage to a scripted format without losing what makes you great as a stand up comic?
AC: Not so much with the comedy stuff, but the challenge is drama. I just got a new manager, and I’m auditioning 3-4 times week and it’s really stressful because I’m working a new muscle. On a recent audition, I had booked for a project being produced by Lee Daniels and Queen Latifah, the character was a black woman who is being abused, and in order to pull it off, you have to dig deep for the emotion. It’s easier if you have those experiences in your background, and I don’t. The women in my family are very strong; we do the abusing so I have to dig beyond myself to somebody I know who has been abused. It’s really challenging; I thought stand up was hard, but auditioning to me is harder. It’s the stress of somebody watching you try to become somebody else.
RB: Can you share how you got into writing and producing in the industry?
AC: When I was in college I had an internship at BET. I met all kinds of celebrities and I had a ton of responsibilities. I enjoyed that internship more than I enjoyed going to school. A year after I graduated I got hired at BET and I stayed in television after that. I left BET in 1998, and I moved to LA and got a job on Magic Johnson’s late night talk show three months after I moved to LA. I stayed in production, and two years after that I started doing stand up. I produced for TV during the day, and I did stand up at night. I did that for about ten years until I got tired of producing and decided to do stand up, but the money was not there.
RB: You’ve also performed for the soldiers on USO tours. How hard is it to make soldiers in combat laugh?
AC: It’s a challenge because there are rules. You cannot curse so you really have to watch what you say. You can’t talk about politics. The president is their Commander In Chief, so you can’t say anything about him when they are risking their lives for their country. One thing about the troops is they’re so appreciative that you’re there. The men are especially appreciative that a woman is there. It’s the one time where being a woman is actually a good thing in this industry. It’s a great experience.
RB: You’ve also done some warm up work for TV audiences. Can you explain what goes into that process for our readers who might not be familiar with it?
AC: Most live productions have a huge audience, and most shows have somebody that they pay as the live entertainment before the show and during the breaks. Your job is to keep their energy up so they don’t get bored. You’re basically an adult babysitter. You’re there to bring your humor, but not to do your act like you’re in a comedy club. It’s like a circus, and you’re the ringmaster.
RB: How prevalent is joke jacking in the industry?
AC: Oh, it’s very prevalent. And the good thing now is that we have the Internet so people can be caught. Now with YouTube, people can splice together videos where they show the original comic doing the joke, and then show you stealing the joke. You never want to get that reputation. There have been comics who have pulled knives out on other comics for stealing their jokes. It gets vicious. It’s personal, that’s stealing someone’s livelihood.
RB: Has anyone ever stolen any of your jokes?
AC: I’ve seen some of my material re-worked. One time it was done by somebody bigger than me, and when it’s a bigger comic you’re supposed to let it go because people will think you’re the one who stole the joke. So yes, people have done variations of my jokes.
RB: Do you feel an obligation as a creator to speak about social issues in your profession?
AC: I don’t feel an obligation but I like to talk about what interest me naturally. Some comedians like to play it safe because they don’t want to screw up their dollars but that’s not me. I don’t worry about losing money or who won’t like it, nobody is going to please everybody, and that shouldn’t even be your goal. Your job is to tell jokes based on how you see the world and let the chips fall where they may. I come from a family of activists; I have pictures of my family members at sit-ins while they were at North Carolina A&T. It’s natural for me to talk about whatever I want to talk about. All I’m risking is a negative tweet.
RB: Have you ever gotten a negative response when talking about a social issue?
AC: I can’t say that I have. People only have a negative response when you say something controversial and it isn’t funny. Luckily for me, my audiences even if they disagree with what I’m saying, are too busy laughing to get an attitude.
RB: What’s the better city to be in as a comedian, New York or LA?
AC: New York. New York is a comedy city because it’s the city that never sleeps. They have some comedy shows that start at 2 AM. It’s a lot of rooms to play and it’s seven days a week. You can do three shows in one night if you want to; it’s just a comedy town. Most of the comics who’ve hit it big like [Jerry] Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle have come out of New York.
RB: Let’s say there is a young comedian reading our interview and he or she has a dream to do stand up for a living… What’s the first thing they should do when they’re done reading this article?
AC: RUN! [laughs] Put on your track shoes and take off running in the opposite direction. When you come back, understand that you need to keep a full time job for years before you let anything go for this industry because it’s very fickle, it’s very shallow, and it’s not loyal. Study your craft, read a bunch of books on the medium, study your favorites, but don’t steal anything, be original. Study a comic and their delivery and their timing. Don’t steal a joke, instead study why it was funny. Truly study the art form, and then find out if it’s something that you want to get into.
RB: So the person reading this article should do stand up for the love and not the money?
AC: No, you don’t want to get into this for the money because the money has gone down considerably. You practically have to be on a Steve Harvey, Kevin Hart level to stay above water. The best thing to do is to do it because you love it, not because you think it’s going to make you rich.
Alycia Cooper graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Radio-TV-Film. She has recorded and released 4 comedy albums and was once heralded by “Essence Magazine” as “one to watch”. She puts her funny where her mouth is and currently offers stand-up workshops and comedy writing classes to help up-and-coming comedians as well as those seeking to hone their public speaking skills.