I don’t know much about stand-up comedy, but I’ve been circling open-mics long enough to offer anyone interested some tips for beginners.
First of all, if you’re reading this. I bet you’re wondering if you should sign up for a stand-up comedy class. My advice? Don’t. Save your money for recording your first album, taking a bus to your first gig, or eating a decent meal and just go to open mics.
First of all if you don’t know what an open mic is: An open mic is a comedy show where comedians sign up and perform. Usually everyone has around five minutes. They’re usually at bars, restaurants, odd hours at comedy clubs, coffee houses, and sometimes black box theaters. Open mics can come in many flavors: open mics for comedians, open mics for poets, open mics for musicians, or a mixture of all three. Each one is run differently in terms of getting on the list to perform. Some open mics you can show up 90 minutes, an hour, or a half hour ahead of time to get on a list. Generally, the more popular an open mic, the earlier you have to arrive to sign up for a “decent” spot. Some open mics you can just email to get on the list. And there are open mics where you show up fifteen minutes early and put your name into a lottery to perform, not knowing when or even if you’ll hit the stage. Sometimes you’ll have to pay a cover charge (something like $5) to perform at an open mic, sometimes you’ll have to pay a cover charge and be required to buy a drink, sometimes you’ll just have to buy a drink (water, soda, beer–all usually around $5), and sometimes it’ll be completely free.
A note about drink prices: A lot of restaurants and bars have open mics to drum up business and the 1 drink minimum just makes it worthwhile for the establishment to have a comedy night. While the beer prices might be on the reasonable side ($4-5), if you order a soda or bottle of water don’t be surprised to also be paying $4-5. I’d advise against complaining about these high drink prices because it’s also buying stage time, it’s cheaper than a comedy class, and its the only reason the place is open to having you perform. Plus, it’s never good to be on a bartender’s bad side. I’ve never seen an argument over drink prices end well. And also, it’s general practice to tip the bartender a dollar for any drink. Hey. who knows, get in good enough with a bartender maybe he or she will let you use the space for a comedy show of your own.
New York vs. Los Angeles
In New York most of the open mics I went to charged both the cover charge and a drink. Often times part of the cover charge went to a raffle (something like 1 prize of $40 and 1 prize of $20) to keep comedians around for the whole show. I thought this worked well, but also meant each open mic could put you back $10. I also noticed the trend in New York was to email ahead of time to get on the list. Then a couple days before the show, the list would be emailed out. Most places also had a couple stand-by spots that you could sign up for right before the show, but they weren’t guarantees. This wasn’t the case for all open mics in NYC, but to me it seemed to be the trend when I was there (back in the day).
In Los Angeles, a lot of the mics tend to involve either signing up an hour (or more) ahead of time or adding your name into a lottery a half hour or fifteen minutes ahead of time. I haven’t seen that many cover charges and usually just have to buy a drink (or other item depending on the menu). I have to confess I tend to only frequent open mics at The Hollywood Hotel, just because I can take the L.A. Subway and don’t have to worry about parking (and it’s a fun place). There’s a lot more out there, so my knowledge of the L.A. scene is limited.
Where do I find a list of open mics?
Badslava.com has an extensive list of open mics for both comedians and musicians all around the country. I find the reviews to be helpful, but aren’t 100% accurate. One bad night can result in quite an animated review.
In Los Angeles, I find this site offers a helpful list of open mics: www.thecomedybureau.com although Badslava also works well for L.A.
What should I prepare for an open-mic?
You should prepare around five minutes of material. For me, I notice this generally works out to 4 or 5 bits. If you don’t know what a bit is, it’s like a group of jokes on a similar theme, funny story, impression, or brief character. Sometimes bits can be longer than five minutes, although starting out for me they usually run 1-2 minutes. Some examples of famous bits include Jeff Foxworthy’s ‘You Might Be A Redneck’ jokes, Jerry Seinfeld comparing a job interview to a blind date, or Lewis Black talking about the weather in Minnesota.
Some people like to perform their material fresh on the stage, but I’d recommend rehearsing a couple times so you won’t be at a loss for words, although you can sometimes come up with some gems when you’re speechless. Don’t worry about bringing notes or a “set list” (a list of titles of your jokes) with you onstage. At open mics, that’s allowed and very common. Although, I tend to feel more confident and perform better if I don’t bring any notes with me. I think communication skills are enhanced when retrieving information from your brain as opposed to a piece of paper.
Should I try a joke I just thought of right before I go onstage?
Yes. These are often my best jokes. That’s what open mics are for, trying new material and polishing old material.
Are there crazy people at open mics?
Yes. But take a look in the mirror. Seriously, this seems to be a big fear. But I wouldn’t sweat it. Most people go to open mics to work on performing stand-up, those who use it as therapy or an outlet for whatever storms rip apart their souls are in the minority.
Wait open mics sound like just audiences of comedians, will they laugh at me?
Comedians seem to a lot tougher than performing for an audience of “normal” people, but they will laugh. Some people think if you can make an audience of comedians laugh than you have a solid bit. But sometimes comedians laugh at things other audiences would be offended by. Each open mic audience is different. Sometimes “normal” people show up. You’ll be held in high esteem if you set relatively close to the stage and laugh at others.
How do I know when to stop talking on stage?
Usually a minute before your time is up the host will flash a light at you. In today’s day and age, the light usually comes in the form of an iPhone being waved. If you continue longer than anticipated, the host will keep waving the phone and slowly approach the stage. Since there are 20 or more people waiting to perform, it’s best to stick to the time guidelines.
What bad things can happen at an open mic?
- People will talk during your set. Don’t be offended. Remember the audience is mostly comedians, many who spend a lot of time at these things and see this as an opportunity to socialize, critique sets, or chat with the bartender. If people are talking really loud, the host usually says something. But if it doesn’t stop, it’s good practice to work on performing through a distraction.
- Nobody will laugh. It seemed funny when you rehearsed in the bathroom, what the hell happened? Be prepared to get no reaction whatsoever. If you think performing over people talking is rough, try performing over silence. It’s extremely distracting and can cause you to forget jokes, falling into a pit of stammering apologies. But, hey, at least people are paying attention. You know why people are afraid of public speaking? This is it, this is bombing. Getting used to bombing will definitely help you get over any fears of performing comedy. It might help to look at it this way, everyone at an open mic has bombed or else they wouldn’t be at an open mic. Welcome to the club. Just keep your cool, stick to your act, and the five minutes will soon be over.
- You’ll be in the bathroom when you’re name is called. Or they just skipped your name on the list. Whoops! Just quietly approach the host and politely inform them what happened. Most people will be cool with popping you back in the list.
- You’ll forget your jokes. Bring your notes onstage. Write your set list on your hand. Ask the audience questions. Sometimes there’s a reason you forgot a joke.
- The mic stand will break. This happens all the time. Just hold on to the mic and if you don’t know where to put it when you’re done, wait for the host to get to the stage. If it breaks during your set, make a joke about it or at least acknowledge it. From the audience’s perspective if something goes wrong and the person onstage doesn’t address the dilemma, the dilemma becomes more distracting.
- The mic will stop working. A lot of these old microphones have connections that are a little on the loose side. Sometimes you just need to push the wire back into the microphone. If the mic goes out and there’s no solution in sight, ask the host or anyone for help. Maybe the space is small enough for you to just project your voice. Either way, just address the problem and the audience will go along with you.
- None of the other comedians will talk to you. This might not be a bad thing. I generally have a hard time socializing at open mics and think this is a real weakness of mine. First, don’t be offended if people don’t approach you. It’s not a dance. While many comedians are never short of words on stage, some of them are quite shy off stage. If you want to connect with other comedians, be proactive: congratulate them on their sets “great set, man!” or ask them what other open mics they go to and if they have any shows coming up. Then do what I do, friend them on Facebook and never acknowledge them again. You could also bring a pal or two with you.
- You won’t know where to sign-up. It’s a safe bet you can sign up with the bartender. But otherwise just ask anybody in glasses clutching a spiral notebook.
- Everyone will leave before I get onstage. I notice this more in L.A. where the open mics tend to be longer than NYC. Some comedians will arrive shortly before their slot then leave shortly after. While others are little more generous, hardly anyone besides the host and the bartender stays for all 3 plus hours. In New York, I noticed open mics would do a cash raffle at the end of the show to keep the starving comedians in their seats. I’d say expect at least three people paying attention to you with an equal amount buzzing around during your set. Yes, many times there will be more people, but it’s a game of low expectations. If you find a good open mic you might be performing to a full house.
What should I work at an open mic?
- New material
- Polishing old material
- Getting comfortable (confident) on stage
- Keeping your cool while bombing
- Keeping your cool while being distracted
- Talking with the audience
- Being ‘present’ with your material as opposed to simply reciting it
- Socializing with other comedians
- Developing a solid 5 minute set
- Recording a video of a solid 5 minute set you could show people who book shows
Stand-Up Comedy Classes
If your still set on taking a stand-up comedy class, there are benefits but I’d say the main ones are:
- Being held to a schedule of writing material
- Networking with other students/comedians
- And depending on your teacher, learning a good technique (which may or may not be the best technique for your voice) of generating material
Here are a couple of teaser’s for my upcoming Comedy Album!
I’ll be having another recording of a live Stand-Up Show on Wednesday, 4/20 @ 7pm
Jeremiah’s Comedy Album Live Recording!
UNDER St. Marks
94 St. Marks Place
(between Avenue A and 1st Avenue)
COME ON DOWN!
A reader of my acting tips page writes:
I am 16 and I have decided to go for an audition by an entertainment company. They require both a one minute monologue and an impromptu. As for the monologue, I have chosen a slightly dramatic one that involves a bit of anger and disappointment. Will that be okay? Since you mentioned on your blog that it is not advisable to yell at the cast directors?
Also, given that I have had no prior experience in acting or whatsoever, how do I prepare for an impromptu? I am not sure what to expect though I do know that my audition will be taking place in front of both a panel of judges and other contestants, about 30 or so.
Please write back when you have the chance.
Sorry for the late response! Since I missed the boat, I hope your audition went well enough to encourage you to audition again. And if that is the case, here are my answers to your questions:
Anger! A monologue with anger and disappointment is a great way to show off one’s acting chops. You might want to make sure there’s at least a glimmer of some positive emotions in the piece to show off your acting range. You don’t have to go from happy to sad like Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, but if you throw in just a hint of happiness in a sad or angry monologue then I think it will show off your acting skills a little more than a monologue that is one flavor. When I was discouraging people to not to yell at casting directors, I was just trying to help the actor see the audition process from casting’s point of view. Nobody likes being the recipient of an angry tirade, but if you play around with how anger is expressed I’m sure the casting folks will take notice.
Impromptu! I’m not sure what you mean by impromptu. If you mean reading lines that they give you at the audition with no time to prepare, what the showbiz folks sometimes call a cold reading, then here’s my advice: Have fun with it. On cold readings you don’t have to worry about forgetting a line, so relax and make choices on the text as you go along. Usually with cold readings you’ll get the text at least 15 minutes before you’re auditioning. I’d advise not even trying to memorize the lines, as some folks would suggest. You already proved you could memorize text in your monologue. Why some folks might encourage you to memorize a script for a cold reading is to keep your head up and not buried in the page. Be familiar with the piece, say it aloud a few times, get a sense of what happens. Don’t worry about sounding weird by going over the cold reading aloud in the waiting room if no one else is before the audition. You might feel like you’re being strange talking to yourself, but everyone else will feel strange if they speak the monologue for the first time at the audition. Glance down at the page then look up to deliver your lines. The casting people want to see actors. Don’t take forever but take you’re time. Just glance down as you’re going along. Cold reading is a skill in itself so practice at home with any text you can find: ads in magazines, dialog from novels, articles, etc. Some people hold the page a little bit in front of them to decrease the amount of time (by milliseconds!) it takes to glance at the page. One of the cool things about cold readings is that they can really show a director an actor’s creativity, so keep that in mind. If you are given something to read right on the spot with no time to prepare whatsoever, just relax, take a moment to read through the piece quietly, get an idea of where the character starts and ends, then have fun with it.
Now, if by Impromptu you mean an improvised piece, an instance where you’re not given any script but merely some type of suggestion to which they want to see a monologue you make up on the spot, then like above, relax and have fun. Don’t be afraid to move around the stage. A standard trap in improvising (and acting in general) is to stay in one place and just talk. Pretend to react with some sort of environment, dance around. You don’t have to be ridiculous (although everyone likes a laugh) you can just move around like a normal person. However there are some gestures to stay away from, such as the classic “flailing hand.” This trap is when actors repeatedly wave one hand around, usually pointing, to emphasize what they are saying. A lot of (bad) politicians do this. It looks cliche. If you’re afraid of coming up blank, just remember nothing comes from nothing. So don’t feel bad on basing an improvised monologue from something. Do an impression of a teacher, give a voice to an animal, or have fun with saying what you want to your best friend but due to manners have never been given the chance.
Thanks again for your question. A good book about auditions you might enjoy is Audition by Michael Shurtleff. Break a leg!
If any readers want to check out more acting-type questions I’ve answered, check out my old Acting Q&A blog: http://actingquestions.blogspot.com/
I saw some of President Obama’s recent roast of the Republican Party and thought he came off as a seasoned Insult Comic. Here’s my impression.
Here’s a second draft of my soon to be classic Job Interview Stand-Up Bit.
Here’s some choice segments from a standup set I tried at SuperEgo’s December 24th open mic at Broadway Comedy Club. I have deleted out for my benefit and yours my constant checking of my notes as well as other elements which may have cast me in a bad light.
I really enjoy doing standup and I think it’s one of those things that take a lot of time of actually doing it as opposed to studying how to do it. It’s such a brief art form and reliant on the audience that I I just have to do it. Over and over again. The open mics can be painful when you forget what you say or don’t get laughs but these failures–I HOPE–help me develop a thicker skin as well as a technique.
I’ve found out that I have more fun developing an “idea” of what I want to do as opposed to a script. The “idea” has to be detailed and rehearsed a few times, but I find if I try to memorize jokes, I get on stage and just recite jokes. It looks and feels stiff. if I go up there with a little bit of danger and room to breath I can “be in the moment.” I can think while I’m performing as opposed to just remembering. But this also gives me a larger chance of having nothing to say once I’m in front of people. It’s like life.
Wow, this youtube video description is really pompous.
In this set at SuperEgo hosted by Michelle Dobrawsky and Dale Sorenson last night, I continue my comedic crusade against campaign flyers which continue to cram my mailbox. I guess what ticks me off about these things is the overkill, the unimpressive boasting, endorsements by relatively unknown entities, and lack of information about the office for the which the candidates are running as well as negligible amount of specific plans to better the city. And let’s face it, all a politician has to do to get votes in New York is promise lower rents and cheaper commuting–yet no one seems capable of promising such things so instead we are bombarded with flyers. And on top of that, everyone seems to be for better schools, yet around 90% of all flyers contain gross grammatical errors and/or poor sentence structure. Perhaps, the bogus reading and writing tests we subject our students too should also be applied to our local elected officials.
And despite the mad dash to the post office the Democratic primary voter turnout was the lowest yet.
Dear Acting Diary,
Above please check out a video of me at an open mic last night at The New York Comedy Club with SuperEgo Comedy. I had a lot of fun. I was pretty nervous, a lot more than when I when I’m usually on stage. I noticed being nervous made me hunch a little and wave my arm around a lot. Maybe I’ll be known as that “Stand-Up Who Waves His One Arm Around.”
If you’re looking for a list of open mics in New York, I found this list: http://www.badslava.com/nyc-open-mics.htm
To prepare my set I basically did a mental inventory of things I had been joking about recently in conversations, as well as things I caught myself being afraid to say in public. The set wasn’t totally written out but I mapped out all the jokes and kind of phrased them as I went along. I kind of wish I had written them out. I felt phrasing them on the fly led to some awkward speech and swallowed words.
Dear Acting Diary,
Last week I was excited to have my first modeling job. My girlfriend had sent me an email casting notice for a print job. I submitted myself and a few days later I was on a plane headed towards New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment (and at least 62 cable TV channels). The audition for the job was unlike most auditions that I go on. I just had three snapshots taken of me: one profile, one with a slight smile, and another one just looking at the camera straight on. The room that I had my picture taken seemed dark, the casting people–while nice–didn’t seem too interested in me, and the weather was gloomy so I thought that this audition was another in a long line of ones that I just walk away from and forget.
A few days later the casting folks called me and told me that I was on the "short list" and reconfirmed my schedule. Then I got a call a couple hours later that I was cast and I’d be flying out to New Mexico in a few days. I wasn’t called on the set until Saturday morning so I had Friday afternoon and night all to myself which I spent catching up on sleep, walking along the pedestrian free stretch of highway the Hotel was located, watching the undersecretary of the Treasury testify on C-SPAN, enjoying the complimentary herbal teas in the hotel lobby, using my bed as a table for my meatball sub supper, and perusing the the hotel convenience shop for chapstick and toothpaste.
Saturday morning I was all set for my 7:45am call. I met the other actors/models, crew, and production staff for the day, got fitted for my geek-chic wardrobe, and hung around the set. I was the first model shot for the day. The set was in this huge server room with lots of fans and cool air blowing in to protect the servers. I wasn’t used to print modelling so the photographer had to remind to hold poses, "this is not video." The creative director told me to act "confident" as if I "owned the server room." This direction basically translated into my smirking, folding my arms, and opening my eyes slightly wider than I usually do.
The folding the arms was easy, looking confident with my eyes wasn’t too difficult, but holding a smirk for more than a few seconds is hard. After an all too short while, my cheek started to spasm a little bit. I felt like I couldn’t control my body with my spasming smirk. I guess the secret is to relax the smirk every once in a while and make a new smirk. I asked another one of the actor/models about this and he said he had trouble holding his smirk too, his lips started wiggling.
The other difficulty besides dealing with my low smirk self-esteem was that the server room was so loud from the fans that were blowing that I could barely hear the directions I was given. The photographer was cool though and despite some hand signals that I didn’t understand, things moved along. One of the producers told me that I was doing a good job and seemed like a totally different person on camera. Not too shabby for my first day as a professional model.
Other things I had to do in the shoot: walk back and forth with one of the other actor/models while havin a conversation and pretend to push buttons. Afterall that it was 5:00pm and time to go back to the hotel and enjoy some complimentary herbal tea and that Larry the Cable Guy Health Inspector movie on TV The production company was nice enough to extend my return flight for a couple days and I surprised my Mom and Dad with a visit. I got in some time with the folks and some nice views of beautiful New Mexico.
Things I learned from my first modeling job:
- Holding a pose feels easier if I think of myself as "acting the pose" instead of holding a pose. You know what I mean, models.
- If you have to "pretend to type" actually type something, don’t just hit keys. Write a letter to a friend.
- If you can’t hear your directions tell people, don’t pretend to hear.
- Re-confirm your rate, payment, travel reimbursements, etc. before and during the pre-shoot paperwork. There’s always actors who aren’t quite sure what they’re earning on a project and this awkward situation can be quickly cleared up with just asking the right person. If you have an agent, just ask them. It’s not rude to ask how much you’re earning. If you’re rate is different than what you thought it would be, go back and find the source of your misunderstanding, if the source is something in print like a breakdown notice bring it to the producer’s attention. If you’re getting paid more than you thought you were, just act cool.
- Jobs out of town are fun. But sometimes you need to buddy up with the other folks for stuff to do during your free days and nights.