It seems that the start of Madisyn Simington’s stand-up comedy career would have a pretty interesting back story.
But it doesn’t.
“When I was younger, my dad and I would watch comedy programs together on Netflix and TV and he took me to see some live shows. He told me that he thought I was funny and that I could do stand-up.”
And that was pretty much that.
Of course, Simington, now a junior in the Visual Art Studies program, thought she was pretty funny, too, so in the summer of 2015, when she was 16, she attended a five-day intensive stand-up comedy class at the American Comedy Institute (ACI) in New York City.
During the workshop, Simington met individually with comedy coaches and attended classes and private writing sessions. She learned how to develop her own comedy style and persona, become a better performer, and turn ideas and stories into well-written, funny material.
“It was such a great experience. It taught me more about knowing what will be funny and how to test things on an audience. Having so much one-on-one instruction really helped build my confidence.”
The Institute’s intensive workshop includes the opportunity to perform a live routine at Gotham Comedy Club in the city. This allows aspiring comedians to test their skills in front of a real audience and learn how to use nerves to enhance their performance.
“I was 16 so I was trying to be cool like, ‘whatever, it doesn't matter,’” recalls Simington. “It was pretty packed in there, and it was so bright on the stage. I had my little list of jokes in my pocket just in case, but I didn’t forget anything. It was so much fun, and I loved it.”
Following the show, Stephen Rosenfield, founder of the ACI, approached Simington and asked if she would like to do a one-year comprehensive program offered by the Institute. But because of her age, she had to turn the opportunity down. “I thought it was awesome that he offered that to me, that he thought my show went well, and that I had promise as a comedian.”
After returning home, Simington wanted to continue with her stand-up. Through some local connections, she was able to perform opening routines for comedians at bars and hotels around the area. As she met more people, more opportunities became available. A headline act she met at a gig at the Altoona Grand Hotel asked her to be a guest on his SiriusXM radio show, and she was invited to perform both at restaurants and at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana County.
Simington says those experiences were helpful to her growth as a comedian. “I couldn’t just perform at the same few places locally and keep progressing, so going to different venues broadened the horizon for me and got my set into other places.”
Taking her set on the road also allowed her to hone skills such as interacting with the audience, getting more comfortable on the stage, and changing her material on the fly.
“As a comedian you know certain jokes are going to get a laugh no matter what, but there are some that need to be changed depending on the audience. You just have to be ready to work around your material quickly.”
In December 2019, Simington returned to the ACI for a week of private coaching and help on what she had been writing. “This time around, I wanted to have a theme. So instead of talking about five different subjects in a five-minute set, I picked one subject to build on. I think I was smarter about the way I wrote for my second time at ACI.”
She performed two live shows at Gotham Comedy Club and, having already been through it before, was more comfortable with the setting and what to expect. “I really enjoyed the line-up because several established comedians were working with the ACI who did routines, and I got to meet them. The whole show just flowed, and my jokes went well. People laughed and that's always good. That’s what it’s about.”
Simington continues to work with ACI by sending her writing for review. Once she and the team feel she has enough material, she heads back to the city for another show. As she improves her writing and delivery skills, she’s given more time for her routines, up to 10 minutes.
Types of stand-up comedy range from deadpan to shock, to insult, physical, and satire. Simington feels hers is the observational style, which pokes fun at everyday life and the silliness of things accepted as normal in society.
“If I hear someone say something that's just really off-color or something happens to me, I'll jot it down and then go back later and develop it. I’ll think about why it bothered me or made me mad or why it was funny. That’s a lot of what comedy is, is just finding things in the everyday that everybody relates to.”
Simington thinks what makes her style unique is the way she will break down those ordinary things and explain them in an excruciating amount of detail. “I think when you describe things very specifically, people realize how insane it sounds, and that makes it even funnier.”
That build-up, coupled with her tone and casual delivery, means most of her jokes land successfully. “Some of my topics are pretty dumb, but the way I say them is what makes them work. It's almost like a magic trick.”
Simington says it’s cliché, but what she loves best about stand-up is making people laugh. “When people are laughing, and you’re the reason, it’s instant gratification. It’s honestly the best.”
She also gets a kick out of catching people off guard, seeing their expressions of disbelief and surprise at what she says. Never one to take anything very seriously, no topic is off-limits for her.
“I feel like in everything there can be a joke. Even with hard things that have happened, I mean my mom passed away last year, and I've had jokes about it. Everything can be funny in the right sentence. There's an appropriate way to make an inappropriate joke about something.”
Simington says the uncertainty of stand-up makes her work that much harder for success. She knows she must be a reasonable critic of herself. One joke that bombs doesn’t make all of her material bad. Conversely, one good joke doesn’t mean everything she writes is comedy gold. “I think a lot of it is introspective. You get to know more about yourself and other people through the process of writing for stand-up. It shapes the way you look at life and the world around you.”
Being a practical person, Simington plans to finish her degree at Penn State Altoona and go on to graduate school. She thinks she might like to earn her master’s in studio art or art therapy and one day work in mental health facilities. Having a full-time job to support herself would allow her to pursue comedy on the side and build up her name. She wants to continue doing shows locally and at Gotham Comedy Club but also expand into Pittsburgh or possibly even D.C.
“Obviously if I get to the point where comedy could take up my life, I would let it,” Simington says with a smile. “Just dreaming out loud, becoming a comedy actress like Melissa McCarthy or Kate McKinnon would be my ultimate holy grail. That would be so amazing and fun.”
Until that happens, it would be easy for everyday life to impinge on her stand-up, to crowd out her time and energy toward the art form. But if her mother’s death taught her one thing, Simington says it was to do what you want to be happy and do it now.
“Time is so limited, and no one knows how much they have. When my mom died, I got less patient. I didn’t want to wait around anymore to go after the things I want. People tend to say, ‘Oh, I'll get to that when I'm older,’ or ‘oh, when I retire I'll do the thing.’ No, you have to do it now.”
It's like dipping your toes into a pool or the ocean when just jumping in is the best way to do it.
“Don’t wait. Whatever you want to do, do it. Work as hard as you can at it. It’s either going to work out or it won’t.” Simington pauses, and then in her typical casual manner, “I mean, we are all going to die sooner or later. What are you waiting for?”