For the past 14 years, StandUp NBC has traveled across the U.S. in search of stand-up comedians from what it refers to as “diverse backgrounds” as part of its Talent Infusion Programs. They do so through four open casting calls—this year, they’re being held in Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Philadelphia—where hopefuls have one minute to present their act to NBC representatives like Karen Horne, who oversees the program.
That may not seem like a lot of time to get your flair for carefully constructed observational storytelling across, but Horne—who’s been a part of StandUp NBC for eight years now, and who judges open calls along with a booker for The Tonight Show—tells The A.V. Club, “we can tell if we want to see more from someone, not only from their material, but how they command the stage. There’s a lot of things that I look at, and if someone can make me laugh, that’s it. You can make someone laugh in one minute.” She adds, “sometimes a minute feels like forever.”
More than 100 people lined up, both in Chicago back in June and in San Francisco this past weekend, to audition for StandUpNBC, from complete amateurs to locally known comics recommended by host clubs. For an industry program that’s little known outside of stand-up circles and doesn’t advertise, that’s a pretty significant turnout. Horne attributes StandUpNBC’s increased notoriety in recent years to the success of program alumni, and it is an impressive list: Alums Deon Cole (Black-ish) and LilRel Howery (Get Out) are both having great years, and Ron Funches, Tone Bell, the Lucas Brothers, and Tiffany Haddish all have projects currently in development or about to be released. W. Kamau Bell, another alum, is on his second TV show, United Shades Of America on CNN, and alums Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress…well, you’ve probably heard of them.
All the comedians mentioned above made it at least to the StandUpNBC finals, building from a two-minute callback to a full set at the semi-finals (which are open to the public, by the way) to a final round where they performed in front of casting agents, managers, and and NBC executives. It’s an express lane to performing in front of people who can actually hire you for paying work, basically. One winner is chosen every year who signs a one-year holding deal with NBC that includes a national college tour and meetings with casting agents. Last year’s winner, JR De Guzman, has been performing his act on TV, but Horne says that other StandUp NBC winners have ended up behind the camera. “We’ve found some really great writers,” she says. “For me, the motivation is giving these comedians exposure, even if they don’t end up on our network,” she adds. “The hope is to find people we can work with, someone we can break, if not in front of the camera, behind it.”
For hopefuls looking to present their tight one at upcoming open auditions in Philadelphia (Helium Comedy Club, August 12) and Atlanta (Laughing Skull Lounge in Vortex Bar & Grill, September 23), Horne advises picking a strength and sticking to it. For the first time, this year StandUpNBC is also accepting online submissions for a closed call the day before the public open call; Philly’s online submission deadline has passed, but you can still apply online for auditions in Atlanta. Those who just want to watch can also attend semi-finalist showcases at Helium in Philly on August 13, hosted by Katrina Braxto, or in Atlanta at Laughing Skull on September 24, hosted by Ismael Loutfi. JR De Guzman will headline both shows. You can also see the Second City’s semi-finalists who made it to the next round of Chicago auditions here.