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
Do you want to make a comedy album? Are you just staring at your computer, microphone, joke book, and list of album titles but have no idea what to do next? Well, I just finished making a comedy album myself. I wrote, recorded, edited, and produced live stand-up as well as “studio” recorded audio sketches. If you’re interested in putting together an album yourself, I think you can do it. Sure producing a show, polishing your material, and editing an album can be intimidating, but let me put you at ease with what I learned.
Now, there’s no one way to make an album. With free audio editing software (Audacity), a little bit of patience as you use Google and YouTube to teach yourself editing, a hundred dollar mic, and someone who knows how to plug a soundboard feed into a laptop, and maybe some blankets to make a home sound booth you could bang out a low-frills album. I made a couple upgrades to that set-up, here are my tips:
1. Decide you want to make a comedy album.
My brain shoots out ideas like buckshot: stand-up bits, sketch ideas, kooky characters. Having done improv, sketch, and stand-up over the last several years, I felt that creatively I had a lot of loose ends. Most creative types I know have a common problem: lack of focus. Grouping everything into one goal was really liberating and made me more relaxed. But maybe you want to make a movie or write a novel.
Here’s why I wanted to make a comedy album out of all my zany ideas:
- I’ve always been a fan of podcasts, audio books, comedy albums, and radio sketches.
- Audio is easy to enjoy, you can do something else while listening (commuting, wasting away the hours at your boring temp job, scouring pots, playing with the cat).
- It’s easier to record yourself playing multiple characters on audio than on video.
- Sound effects are cool.
- Live Stand-Up seems more intimate recorded as audio compared to watching some awkward man walk back and forth on stage.
- Making a movie would take like a year or something (Whoops! That’s how long my album took).
2. Raise support for your project.
Whether just spreading the word to all your friends to gather a little moral support, asking for money, or both–telling people about your project will help define what exactly you want to do.
3. Gather material.
- I put together 45 minutes of stand-up for my “live recordings.” Overall, I had around an hour of stand-up bits (not all of them gems) from doing open mics for around a year and a half. Having more than you need will help you in the editing phase, but don’t overdo it. There’s nothing better than recording a tight set.
- For the “studio recorded sketches,” I went through my files checking out sketches I wrote for old National Sketch Writing Months, sketch writing classes, and old shows/videos. I also wrote a few new ones and improvised a couple while recording.
- Hit the open mics, comedy shows, and whatever other outlet you have. Record your sets. You might notice some sets work better in five minute sets as opposed to part of a 45 minute show. I sure did.
- Don’t think you have enough stage experience to make a comedian album? Neither did Bob Newhart but the Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart was a huge success in the early 1960s.
4. Gather Equipment
Recording live stand-up and making a studio at home to record things requires a few items. Some don’t have much flexibility (microphone) and some you can get a little creative (Sound Booths).
If you’re shopping around and reading reviews of mics, interfaces, recorders, etc. you’ll notice the overall consensus is the more expensive the better the quality. I bought a couple mics on the “low-end” of quality and they each ran about $100-$200. If you record in a space that already has a recording set-up or have a pal, I’d make use of some friendly favors. If you’re new to audio, don’t be intimidated. You might want to start off by noticing the brand-name of mics at open mics and listening to how they sound. For “studio recorded sketches,” you might want to check out some podcasts. If you hear one with a good sound, ask the podcaster about their mic and set up.
Eqipment for Recording Live Stand-Up:
- Stage Mic (I used a Shure SM58 which could also double as a studio mic for the budget conscious). You can probably get a bargain SM58 on Craigslist. I chose the SM58 because I had heard it was a good, durable mic.
- Windscreen/Pop Filter for stage mic to reduce loud popping sounds from plosives (The SM58 has a metal windscreen as part of the mic, but I noticed I was still popping plosives, so I put another screen over it).
- 2 (or more) Mics on the audience. I used a couple of condenser mics.
- Multitrack recorder (I used a BOSS BR-800) to record the stage mic and audience mic as separate tracks. This item is very important, recording the different mics on different tracks will produce a better recording and give you much more flexibility when editing. You may be tempted just to record straight on to your laptop. You could use a line from the soundboard for the stage mic, a USB interface such as the M-Audio Mobilepre hooked up to audience mics, and an audio editing program such as Audacity to record the whole show. But what happens if your computer crashes? What happens if your computer crashes during your best joke? What if you’re only recording one show?! I say use a device dedicated to recording.
- Monitor head phones – Whoever does the actual recording needs to have a decent pair of over the ear headphones. These also come in handy during editing. This is the set I got: Audio-Technica ATH-M30. They work great and are much more comfortable than earbuds.
- Extra Cables and adapters – XLR cables for the mics and RCA stereo cables, 1/4 inch stereo cables, and miniplug (3.5 mm) cables and adapters for connecting to pre-amps and multitrack recorder. Possible adapters include miniplug (3.5 mm) to 1/4 inch for headphones to your multitrack recorder, 1/4 inch to RCA stereo plugs for connecting soundboards, pre-amps, and whatever else you got. Figure out the equipment you’re going to use, then get the cables. There’s a million ways to connect everything.
- Mic Stand – Most venues will have one of these and they’re fairly easy to find in stores, on the internet, and even on the curb when people throw away their dreams.
- Bottle of Water – Take a sip of water during your show. I forgot to do this and started to sound like a parched chain smoking Tina Yothers by the end of my set.
- Portable Recorder to record open mic sets and to use in home “studio” recording. I used a Zoom H4N. The Zoom H4N also works as a multitrack recorder. In theory you should be able to hook a mic via a stereo miniplug jack and two xlr-1/4 inch jacks. I couldn’t get the miniplug jack or the 1/4 inch jacks to work right for this purpose. But the Zoom has two great condenser mics that could work if you just plugged the stage mic into one of the XLR jacks (it might be a tight squeeze).
Equipment for Recording ”Studio” Sketches:
- 1 or More Condenser Mics (depending on whether you’ll be recording with other performers)
I mostly used an AT3035 condenser mic but I also got a used AT2020 for back-up (it was missing the shock mount, so I got a Samson SP01 Spider Mount which worked fine for both the AT3035 or AT2020). Eeveryone told me condensers are better for recording the voice. Condensers are very sensitive to ambient sounds and probably won’t be good for live performance and recording out of a sound booth.
- A Sound Booth
- Your booth doesn’t have to eliminate all outside sound, but should eliminate any reverb or any other indicators that your recording in a room. I used two “booths”, Sound Booth 1, a mattress fort, and Sound Booth 2, a closet with a bunch of blankets lining the walls. You’ll find various (many hilarious) tutorials on how to build sound booths on the web. Use your imagination. Couch cushions and blankets might do the job. You probably already have stuff at home that you can repurpose to make the walls a little softer so the sound doesn’t bounce off as hard. The type of sound booth you need might also depend on what kind of microphone you use. Expensive condenser mics can pick up a lot of room noise, whereas dynamic mics like the popular SM58 are a little more focussed.
- Here are the sound booths I made:
- 5 Twin Mattresses/box springs/bed sized pieces of wood or foam
- 4 mattresses/similar items made 4 walls
- Drape a fleece blanket over the top
- Plop the fifth bed shaped item on top as a roof
- Place another blanket on the “roof”
- Hang a comforter or blanket against the “walls”
- Hang a light. I used one of those utility lights with a clamp.
- Fleece Blankets
- Clamps to hold together blankets and mattresses if need be.
- Extension cord
- mic stand
Sound Booth 2
- Find a closet, preferably one in the middle of a floor, not near stairs or windows.
- Hang a a series of blankets until all walls are covered with blankets
- I tied a bunch of extenstion cords around the closet, via coat hangers that were on the wall, and hung the blankets with clothespins and clamps.
- Put a piece of carpeting on the floor
- You might need some kind of soft material dampen reverb from the ceiling. I clamped a stretched out towel overhead, kind of like a second roof.
Other Sound Booth Ideas:
- A closet full of clothes can muffle the reverb of walls as well as dampen any outside noise.
- The inside of a parked car – The soft interior of a car can also make a good sound and keep out unwanted noise.
- Just record from under a blanket – The cheapest and easiest solution, just find a nice fluffy comforter.
- I’ve heard some people like the Port-a-Booth, essentially a box in which you stick your head an microphone.
5. How to record your live Stand-Up Show
- Rent a space to record – I used UNDER St. Marks, a black box theater that was in the basement of a building. For recording a live show you want some ambient sounds to give it that “comedy club” feel, but I was looking for a space without any noise from other shows, loud music next door, and bar patrons playing pool.
- Recruit an audience – When does it get easy? I emailed everyone I knew individually, gave away tickets, free drinks, and flyered on the street. I was skeptical about flyering but it brought in two people who laughed (before they left half way through). I think a shotgun blast of strategies works best for gathering an audience. It probably pays to hire someone to promote your show. And remember you’re not trying to make money from show tickets, you want people laughing on your comedy album.
- Hire a crew – What better way to guarantee an audience than to have a large crew? That was my theory. I had an audio tech to record the show, a stage manager to communicate to me when to start the show, someone working box office, a videographer, and a fire guard (required by the theater).
- Book a host and another act - Not only will having other performers give your show a little polish, maybe they’ll draw an audience. However, don’t let your show go too long. People don’t really laugh as much after 90 minutes.
- Get comfortable with your set – Don’t overdo it, but get it on its legs before you record.
- Practice using the microphone that you are planning to record the show(s) – Get a feel for how far you need to hold the mic to get a good sound, if plosives pop, and if the connection goes in and out (as do many old comedy club mics).
- Record more than one show.
- Record in stereo, using a multi-track recorder: use one track for the stage mic, and two tracks on the audience. I mentioned this above but it can really make your recording sound nice if all the mics are on separate tracks and not mixed on the spot.
Stay tuned for part 2 where I reveal my editing secrets and more! Have any questions? Feel free to drop a comment below. If you want to check out my finished album, ALL THAT IS HOLY, check it out here.
With the success of the Avengers taking the country by storm, I thought I’d share the two audition tapes I submitted: one for Dr. Bruce Banner and another for Giant-Man. I guess the Avengers movies was too big for Giant-Man. Perhaps you’ll see me in the sequel?
I’m starting this story in what I hope to be close to the end, but it might also be the middle, or much to my chagrin, nearing the finale of the first chapter.
One day, I checked out kickstarter.com after I kept hearing people talk about how it was a great way to fund projects. There were all the fun things people were raising money to produce. I wanted to make something too! There were a lot of short films, movies, Fringe Festival shows, and novels. I wanted to do something different. I had been doing open mics for around a year or more. I had been doing improv and sketch for quite a bit more than that. I had a bunch of audio equipment that I had been gathering for some sort of unproduced podcast. I thought, I’ve always enjoyed listening to comedy albums, why not make one of my own? I could use some of my stand-up, sketches, and kooky characters.
A year has passed. My Kickstarter campaign* was a success, thanks to a generous conglomerate of friends, parents, and college professors. I have produced two live stand-up shows which were recorded on a multi-track recorder (thanks Bro), capturing both the stage mic and two mics on the audience which creates a cool stereo effect. I’ve also recorded a bunch of sketches, which is basically me talking to myself in a couple of make-shift home studios: one in a mattress fort on Staten Island and the other in a blanket lined closet (it dampens the echo-y sound–or reverb–of the close space) located in sunny Los Angeles. I’ve scoured the internet for low cost sound effects (thanks soundsnap.com) to dress up my sketches in some sort of cinematic soundscape. I’m getting close to completing this thing.
All that remains is the editing. And mixing.
I hate it so.
I’ve been editing and mixing (messing up) the tracks for a while. Maybe since June. In between, recording sketches, and getting adjusted to Los Angeles. I am just now starting over after I realized I didn’t know what I was doing and doing more harm than comedy. It’s not that bad, just time consuming and tedious. Basically, I was overdoing things. Adding too much compression, playing with too many plugins. I noticed this hum in one of the tracks and all my playing around had made things worse. I had meant to go back to my ”source file” which was just an edited version of the tracks before anything was “made amazing” by my self teaching a skill others take years to master. But I realized I had played with the source file I cut the clips out of before I edited them. Furthermore, my “source file” had been corrupted and huge chunks were missing (thanks, Audacity).
So now, its back to the original recordings of the two shows (and maybe the sketches–that is going to be a pain) and re-editing. It’s all part of the learning curve, but its frustrating learning the less you do and more subtly you do it, the better the result. I do think this “second pass” will make the album better. I’m noticing smoother ways to edit things than I did the first time as well as couple “hilarious gems” that I excluded. And I could always take it to a mastering house or some dude, but its fun putting it all together myself.
The big thing I am learning is that you can look at all the settings and set them according to things you read but the main tools you should use when working on audio are your ears. Which seems obvious but when you’re working with a computer screen the whole time you kind of forget which sense should remain in charge. Stay tuned!
*If you have questions on how to run a Kickstarter Campaign, feel free to ask. I’ll give this advice: A lot of people send mass e-mails. I realized that I don’t really read these when people send them to me. So, my strategy was to write up a mass e-mail blurb but I personalized each email with a note. Each email was sent individually with the program Email Merge X which I had hoped made my “campaign” seem less impersonal as 99.5% of my emails seem these days.
1:30pm: I scroll through LACasting.com searching for work. This website offers a number of typically low-budget acting work such as non-union commercials, background (or “extra work”), and independent feature films. I see a posting for a “paid audience members,” fifty bucks in cash to sit and be enthusiastic all day. It doesn’t seem like too far of a stretch from my last job at a New York City hedge fund, only this job sounds like less sitting.
4:45pm: I receive an email from the casting director asking me to confirm a couple details then receive another email telling me to call a voicemail number for instructions.
5:00pm: The secret voicemail message tells me to be in Van Nuys, CA by 8:15am, ready to go. It also tells me to look my best. No t-shirts, no jeans, no “tennis shoes.” I am told that this person doesn’t care what I’ve worn to previous jobs, I’m getting paid to look my best, this means khakis, this means an ironed shirt, this means blazer. I don’t have an iron.
5:05pm: I imagine what sort of person still uses the phrase “tennis shoes.”
5:20pm: I finally figure out where Van Nuys is. It will take an hour and fifteen to get there. Or 22 minutes by car, Google Maps tells me this will turn into 50 minutes in traffic. The voicemail instructions say that only street parking is available, which possibly means parking meters, which means at least $6 in quarters and a parking ticket if the show goes longer than expected. 50 minutes in stop and go traffic, having to find a spot on the street, and stress over parking tickets? I decide to take the train and two buses. An hour and fifteen commute doesn’t bother me after commuting from Staten Island to Manhattan for a year.
10:00pm: I go to bed to wake up at 5:00am to leave by 6:30am.
5:30am: I get up and hang my clothes in the bathroom so the steam from the shower can take out any wrinkles.
6:45am: I leave my apartment and head out for the Los Angeles Metro. Unlike New York City where you get a free transfer from bus to bus or train to bus, in Los Angeles you have to pay a fare for each transfer, $1.50. Well, you’re supposed to, it is incredibly easy to dodge paying a fair, the system involves either swiping a turnstile with your “tapcard” or holding on to a paper ticket to show the marshals who patrol the transit system. But the turnstiles will open up for you if you don’t tap (to allow people with paper tickets entry). With buses, you have to pay your fair or tap your tapcard when you enter. Since it’s a $1.50 for each leg of my trip, I buy a day pass which is $6.00, otherwise I’d pay $4.50 each way.
7:04am: My train arrives to take me to North Hollywood.
7:07am: I realize I am on the wrong train.
7:14am: I am on the correct train.
7:30am: I arrive in North Hollywood and transfer to the Orange Line. The Orange Line is my favorite public transportation line in Los Angeles so far. It’s a bus that has its own roads, like a makeshift trolley.
7:50am: I think I’m in Encino. I transfer to the final bus.
8:11am: I arrive at the studio. All the other “extras” are waiting outside in the drizzling rain. I don’t think most Angelinos own umbrellas. We stand in line and fill out our soggy paperwork.
8:12am: There are no parking meters on the street! I could have taken the car.
8:15am: People keep talking about how they thought the weather would be different in the valley.
8:30am: We are examined by security and told to leave our cell phones in our cars. My car is two buses and a train away. I tell the security I took the train.
“No trains stop out here!”
“I took the bus, the 236 bus.”
“I took the Red Line to the Orange Line to the bus on the corner over there.”
“OK, I just wanted to make sure, remove the battery from your phone. please.”
8:40am: We take our seats. The show, which I don’t think I’m allowed to name is a dating game type show. There’s a warm-up comedian who’s in charge of the audience. He keeps us occupied with jokes, games, his ipod, and free candy. It looks like a fun job. He orchestrates us with broad facial expressions, expressive hand gestures, and initiatory laughs. We are instructed to clap with our faces as well as our hands.
9:00am: The host of the show enters. He’s a pretty recognizable dude. Applause and cheers! As he gets ready, his assistant rushes to the stage with an opened can of diet soda. He takes one sip and returns the can to the assistant. She runs off. He is now ready.
9:05am: An assistant with a big solo cup walks around making everyone in the audience spit their gum in it.
9:15am: OK, when the host is speaking we can applaud enthusiastically but we can not make “Woo!” sounds, only after he finishes speaking. Are we cool?
9:30am: I notice that the host is reading lines off a teleprompter and can see the text. But I also notice that the jokes and asides he’s making aren’t in the script. If he’s just making these little bits of commentary up on the spot, he’s pretty funny.
10:00am: A woman in the audience falls asleep. The warm-up comedian employs olympic class miming to try to get her to hold her head up.
10:45am: The first episode has completed taping. A woman comes out and says she saw some of us yawning and putting our heads down. She’s going to let it go this once but if it happens again, she’s going to have to get nasty.
11:00am: We are allowed a bathroom break, but told only if its an emergency. The bathrooms are fancy portable johns in the parking lot. They have electricity and the finest plastic seats.
11:05am: When we return to our seats, the producers are shifting audience members around. Some audience are being questioned, they have been spotted talking on a cell phone and have two choices: surrender the cell phone or leave.
11:30am: I notice that when the contestants say something funny (offensive) or long winded, production stops and a producer rushes out and coaches them on what to say with whispers and broad gestures. If the audience is laughing before a take and the contestant doesn’t look too serious, the director comes on the studio mic to say, “Quiet everyone, now big ‘reality’ moment.”
11:35am: I start to wonder if the audience is fake, what’s real about the rest of the show? Are these contestants just actors trying to make a car payment? I ask the guy next to me about this, he assures me, “It’s just a show! If love happens, love happens. They check to see if they’re married or have a boyfriend or girlfriend.”
12:00pm: The host makes a joke in reference about him considering botox: “I have more lines in my face than I have in this show!”
12:30pm: We are excused for an hour. The warm-up comedian says that they have “Lunchables” for all of us, then admits he’s joking. I find a lot of my fellow castmates are heading across the street to Del Taco, which is like a cross between Taco Bell and Dairy Queen. I see a lot of people getting meals for $7-$8 which seems like a feast compared compared to how much we’re being paid and that we’re just going to be sitting all day. I splurge and get two “fat tacos” and a bottle of water for $5. The cashier goes away for five minutes to find me a bottle of water. The fat tacos are delicious.
1:30pm: We have to go through security again. I meet another dude who has his battery removed from his cell phone. I ask him if he also took the bus. He does not want to talk about it too loudly but eventually tells me that I live in a very hip part of town.
1:40pm: New seats. New episode. New hope.
3:15pm: Taping has finished.
3:30pm: We are paid in cash.
3:50pm: The bus finally arrives.
4:20pm: On the Orange Line, my theory that the most interesting things in Los Angeles happen on the bus is proven again, as I eavesdrop on a conversation about a guy from African talking about his studying for the bar. He’s a lawyer in an African country but wants to work in the U.S. He’s talking about Miranda rights, how they came from Miranda vs. Arizona. He then mentions that Arizona doesn’t like people’s rights. This peaks the interest of another guy on the bus. “Arizona? What about California? There are 33 prisons in California…” Then the conversation is alive, people started talking about police brutality, how the Hispanic and Black communities are in conflict, “If they join together, who knows what we could do?” The “33 prisons” Guy then says he had a friend who fled from police when they asked for his ID and was shot in the back. The bus then detours into Conspiracy-Land, with people accusing police of staging drive-by’s and other shenanigan’s to fuel hatred between and amongst the communities. Then a woman says we have to deal with ourselves before we confront people about outside influence.
5:00pm: I blow my salary at Ralph’s on fruit and potato chips.
Ever start an improv scene where you and your scene partner don’t quite connect and you both start a scene talking over each other? You both say something that’s totally different and you have no idea what to do next? Do you feel bad about yourself because you broke some improv rule and destroyed a scene? Don’t. Come on. There are no rules in improv. It’s making stuff up. Second, a scene that seems hopeless can always be saved with a simple solution. In this case, you can pretend that you were just talking on your cell phone, apologize to your scene partner, and ask them to repeat themselves. Boom.
Don’t forget to end the cell phone conversation.
I noticed a lot of people find my blog looking for improv tips. So, I thought I’d give a little tip here and there.
If you’re scared of having to say something in an imrpov scene… If you feel on the spot, speechless, or worried that once you open your mouth without a script it won’t close, embrace your hesitation. Don’t say anything. Experience being in a scene without saying a word and exploring other options for communication. Perhaps the other person is speaking and you’re not, how do you respond? How many times in life do you have scenes with people that don’t involve words? We spend a lot of time waiting around these days: waiting in line, waiting for the work day to end, waiting for what’s next, etc. How often do you talk when you’re waiting? How do you interact with others when you wait? If you’re not talking what are you doing? How can you establish who you are without speaking?
Enjoy the silence.
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’ve lived in New York City for over ten years and I’ve come across all sorts of scams. If you’re new to the city or planning on visiting soon (or have any scams to share), I thought I’d help you out by listing all the schemes I’ve encountered in the Big Apple.
When dealing with suspected scam artists, I suggest: be polite, firm, and remove yourself quickly. The scammer figures if they can have your attention, your money is soon to follow. I learned this selling luggage in the 90s.
Above all, if a gun is ever involved, hand over the money. Sadly, since I’ve lived in New York City I can recall two news stories where someone at gunpoint challenged a thief, probably trying to break the tension by saying “What are you going to do, shoot me?” In both of these situations the victim was shot.
The Broken Bottle of Champagne
Here’s how this one works: Someone stumbling down the street bumps into your arm, breaks a bottle of champagne (wine, their glasses, etc.) blames you and demands payment. I fell for this gem late one night when I was 20 and was out $5 for a broken bottle of pink champagne.
Don’t even wait for the scammer to whine about what you just broke, just keep walking. It might seem rude, but the scammers prey on your guilt and hesitation. I’m pretty sure I knocked some innocent’s lunch on the ground while walking down Broadway once but just kept walking because I’m a jaded New Yorker and calculated it had a 50% chance of being a scam. Note: Sometimes this scam has an accomplice involved that may be a few steps ahead of you on the street. Again, if you get in any situation that you can’t escape just give the thief the money.
Three Card Monty
I saw this oldie on the Subway not too long ago. Three Card Monty is a betting game where someone has three cards and if the player correctly guesses where a specific card is after the three cards have been shuffled around, the player wins a nice pile of cash. If you see a game, you’ll probably see a crowd around it. You’ll also probably see someone win the game (a plant). And you’ll definitely see someone lose money. This sleight of hand trick is usually carried out by a whole team of scammers to convince you that there’s a real element of chance involved. Don’t be fooled.
Charities Collecting Money on The Subway or My Basketball Team is Having a Raffle or I’m Selling Candy for My Class Trip
I’ve had kids come up to me on the subway, at Central Park, and in fast food restaurants. They sell candy and claim its for school or a basketball team. It might be legit, but doesn’t feel right. There’s also older kids selling candy on the subway who don’t claim to be selling it for any charity. Fair enough, everyone enjoys a snack on the train. The candy is usually something like $2 for a candybar. Not the steepest scam, if it is a scam, but I thought I’d throw it out there.
Also keep in mind, that it’s illegal to ask for money on the train. I’m sure some of the folks begging on the subway really need the money and I’ve seen some really great musical talent that warrants donations. However, scammers will sometimes ask for money on a train by claiming they are with a charity to give food to the homeless. Because of the panhandling laws I would be highly suspicious of any “legitimate” charity asking for money on the subway.
Can I Ask You A Question?
I know I should give folks the benefit of the doubt but whenever I’ve been approached by someone on the street who’s first line is “Can I ask you a question?” I usually get asked for money after listening to some (lengthy) sad story. Nowadays, when someone on the street says “Can I ask you a question?” I automatically (rudely) reply “I don’t have any money.” Then the person yells at me “I wasn’t going to ask you for money!” I admit this is a nasty habit that I don’t encourage. But I’ve never been asked “Can I ask you a question?” and not been asked for money.
One time I was waiting in a restaurant for a takeout order and a gentleman came in and asked me if he could ask me a question. I said I didn’t have any money. He said he’d take anything, a quarter, etc. I said I didn’t have anything. He then yelled at me for assuming he was going to ask me for money.
Variations on “Can I Ask You A Question?” can be “do you have the time?” or a plea for directions which can lead to…
The Long, Sad, and Very Detailed Story
The Long, Sad, and Very Detailed Story sometimes will be prefaced with the above mentioned “Can I ask you a question?” But sometimes, you just get the story after someone dramatically flags you down on the street or ambushes you as you’re enjoying your lunch in the park. The story varies, and who knows, it might be true, I’ve had bad days that can’t be expressed in a couple sentences.
Once the scammer stops you, they might try to disarm you with “I’m not asking for money.” But pretty soon he or she are going to launch into a story with all sorts of plot points, unnecessary details, displays of helplessness that after a while you might want to give the scammer some cash just to leave you alone.
I was once enjoying my lunch in Riverside Park where some dude started asking me for directions somewhere to somewhere I wasn’t familiar. He then sat down next to me and started saying all sorts of stuff about how he had to leave Miami because his sister was raped, his brother in Newark broke his arm, his mother in Cleveland didn’t like him anymore, and all sorts of other things. He was sitting down next to me in the park, there weren’t that many people around, and I started sensing some trouble may be brewing, so I gave him five bucks. But he didn’t leave, he kept talking about how different things were in Florida until I gave the rest of what I had, which was $4. Then he left.
If someone joins you on a bench. I say just politely leave. If they follow you, go to a public place and if you think the person won’t stop following you, call the police. If you ever think you’re being followed do not head home. That happened to a woman in my neighborhood and the thief followed her home and forced his way into the apartment. Her boyfriend was shot by the thief and luckily survived.
I remember there was a woman near my apartment who would freak out on the corner and try to flag down passersby. She would engage you in some story about just being released from the hospital and show you her hospital tags. She was asking for money to get in touch with her sister or something. I heard a coworker offered to let her use her cell and the woman said she couldn’t touch cell phone buttons. She dodged every offer for help that wasn’t cash. A couple days later she tried the same story on me. And I saw her a couple weeks later on the same street corner, doing the same performance.
Another time a young woman asked me for money in exchange for some random sad story. I had a couple bucks and thought it was always good to give the benefit of the doubt. As I reached in and pulled out a dollar or two, a police car rolled by. The woman urged me to hide the money, the police could pick us both up for prostitution charges and to just pretend we were talking. After the cop car vanished I gave her a couple bucks even though the whole prostitution thing didn’t mesh with her story.
I think there’s no sin or stupidity in giving someone in need a hand. Unfortunately, I believe some folks take advantage of Good Samaritans.
I Can Prove I’m Honest, I Have Papers
Sometimes during a long sad story, someone who has approached you on the street may wave some kind of documents to prove they are sincere in asking for money. I tend to think of these as props in a little play the person performs for you.
One time it was a young guy in the subway who said he’d just been released from Ryker’s and needed bus fare.* He had some papers to show he was discharged. I hear people are released from Ryker’s the city gives them a Metrocard, so I’m not sure why someone would need bus fare.
One time it was a mother with a child who said she needed money to get her child food for the day and wanted to show me she was getting welfare but the checks hadn’t started yet. I gave them ten dollars because the child did look hungry.
One night, around 10pm by Columbus Circle, a guy stopped me and started telling me he was a crane operator or something and hurt his back. He said he needed money because he was out of work. He tried to show me some kind of paperwork, a building ID or something, explaining his situation. I didn’t believe him because who wanders around Columbus Circle at 10pm looking for disability insurance benefits?
As a performer, I’ve learned if you want to tell a good story, you need good details, and everytime someone tries to prove, with props, that they are in an unfortunate situation, my suspicions arise.
Splitting The Tab at a Restaurant
When I first moved to the city I loathed birthday parties at restaurants and that’s what everyone did because no one lives in a space that’s centrally located that can host more than three and a half people. I’d go to these things broke, order a salad, while everyone else ordered three course meals, 20 drinks, and dessert. I always went to these things thinking I would just pay what I owe and maybe a couple bucks extra. No, the person who ordered the most always loudly proclaimed that we’re all splitting the bill. At first you put in what you think you owe but the check is always short $100, people start fighting, and you put in four times what you expected just to stop the yelling.
Not only that but some young affluent New Yorkers will insist on putting meals on their parents’ credit card then collect cash from everyone. Lowest of the low.
There’s no real solution to this dinner party money trap, unless you just prove to people what you owe which is no fun at the end of a party.
This situation also applies to Karoake Bar room rentals. Beware!
New York City Rents
If I’m doing a survey of scams in New York City, I can’t overlook the biggest one of them all: New York City Real Estate. It’s not unusual for folks to spend half to three quarters of their income to live in Manhattan. Is it worth it? Maybe for six months, but you can get into a trap where you have a boring office job that makes you too tired to do anything else except go home to your 10′ x 12′ basement studio on Central Park West and stare at the dirty dishes stacked up on top of your 1970s era stove because you can’t afford a place with a counter.
Most Manhattan apartments are ridiculously small, have substandard appliances, unreliable plumbing, no thermostat, and history of some kind of vermin (mice, roaches, bedbugs, fleas, ants, and/or waterbugs). If I had to vote on which vermin was the least bothersome, I’d have to pick mice.
What are the remedies for this scam?
Finding a Cheap Place
If you want to live on Manhattan, check areas north of Harlem. Or just live in a borough, Jersey, or Long Island. Will the commute be a pain? Yes. Are you closer to things when you live in Manhattan? Yes. I highly recommend moving around the city to find a spot that works for you.
Challenging Your Rent
Is it possible that you live in a rent-stabilized apartment and your landlord is charging more than legally possible? Yep. There’s all sorts of rules on what a landlord can charge for rent in New York City. If you have a lease and have been a resident for a little while you may be able to request a history of your apartment’s rent to see if your rent is within its legal limits. I found this link that may help you: http://www.housingnyc.com/html/resources/attygenguide.html
There’s this nasty trick of “Preferential Rent” in New York City. For rent stabilized apartments, there’s a legal rent for your apartment specified on your lease and your landlord can charge you less and call it “preferential rent.” In the old days the landlord could only raise your rent based on what you actually paid. So say the legal rent to you basement studio was $1150. Your landlord would realize the apartment was a hole and offer you $800 rent as “preferrential rent.” When your lease would come up for renewal your landlord could only charge the legal rent increase based on the $800 a month you paid. Well, recently the stupid law changed. The landlord can now raise your rent based on the legal rent. So if you pay $800 one year, on the next lease the landlord can jack it up to the legal rent, $1150 plus the stupid percentage they’re allowed to increase the legal rent.
When I signed the lease for my old apartment I was charged a “key fee” of $500. $500 for the damn keys. I rationalized the steep fee by thinking I was getting a decent rent and not paying a broker’s fee that most people pay to find a decent place in NYC (which is usually one month’s rent–which I think is a scam in itself). But Key Fees are illegal and a scam, but if you find a place with a decent rent without a broker, it’s not likely your mentioning the law will help you get the apartment.
Pick Pockets aren’t just in the movies. I saw a guy on the subway get pick pocketed in front of a crowded train. He had an expensive camera stolen. Here’s how it went down: The train was crowded. The guy with the expensive camera was by the door. The doors were closing. Three guys rushed in. They were loud, jittery, and seemed confused. The way the three thieves were positioned the doors kept trying to close but couldn’t. It was confusing to everyone. Eventually they just left. The doors closed, the train departed the station, and the guy standing next to the door realized his camera was gone.
Walking Sidewalk Merchandise
A couple times, once in the middle of the day, once at around 2am, I have been approached by “wandering salesmen.” One guy offered to sell me a crappy suitcase, the other kept insisting that he had a set of four laundromat quality irons that he’d let me have for $80.
Walking CD Street Sales
I see folks get caught in this trap whenever I walk around Times Square. Here’s the scam: Some guys are on the street promoting and selling their album. They hold out the CD as if they’re giving it away for free, the tourist grabs it, the scammer then sticks to the person like glue telling them all about the album. The scammer then asks the tourist’s name, then autographs the CD to the person, and announces the album’s price. Whoops! The tourist feels obligated to purchase the album now, it has his or her name on it.
Selling Stereo Speakers
When I lived in Queens, I was walking down Steinway and some kids in a van said they had some speakers to sell. They had just made some sort of delivery and had some extra speakers they needed to unload for a deal. As it turns out this is a classic scam: http://www.crimes-of-persuasion.com/Crimes/InPerson/speaker_scams.htm
Subway Fare Evasion Traps
I had a temp job once and worked with a guy who said he was ticketed for evading a subway fare. He said the turnstiles kind of looked blocked and the service gate was open. When he walked through, a police officer came out of hiding and gave my friend a ticket. Typically officers waiting for subway fare violations will be hiding, but to make it look like the turnstiles are out of order so the only way home is through an open service gate–that’s a scam.
Selling MTA Fares
Don’t be surprised if your Metrocard takes a couple swipes to let you through a turnstile. Once it was taking me a couple swipes when someone came up and swiped me through. What a nice man, I thought. I went through and then he asked me for the two dollars I owed him. Now, I was already on the other side of the turnstile and he wasn’t. But I gave him the two bucks anyway. Watch out, selling fares is illegal and if a cop saw what went down both of us could have gotten ticketed.
Help Getting a Cab
The first time I visited New York City when I was 6, my parents and I had just departed Penn Station when some man offered to help us find a cab. He got us right as we exited and asked for money for his “service.” If you have a suitcase and family, all you need is an arm to hail down a cab. Especially by Penn Station. This scam is a pretty good way to take advantage of someone visiting New York City who is overwhelmed by the bustling streets.
The best way to hail a cab, from my experience, is to stand in the middle of the block ahead of the traffic. Stand next to the curb, one the street and stick your arm out. Don’t bother yelling “Taxi!” They can’t hear you.
Are You Lost?
I was looking for someplace around Hell’s Kitchen once and a nice man offered to help. He helped me find the building for which I was looking then asked for payment. I told him that I had no money. He recommended a couple local ATMs. I walked away from him.
*BUS FARE: I’ve gotten a lot of random requests for bus fare. Sometimes its to get home or get to a job. I’m always suspicious of people asking for bus fare, feeling the person needs the money for something they’re embarrassed to admit.
In preparation for the recording of my comedy album, here’s a list of all my characters.
Jeremiah, The Stand-Up
Vice Principal Jones, Half Nazi Robot, Half School Administrator
Eddie McOwskey, Candidate for Every Single Election in the United States
Sealegs McGoo, Old Man and Sea Captain
Professor Bevan Damrosch, The “Cool” English Professor
State Trooper Poop Daniels
News Anchor Shit Whitman
Chuckles the Birthday Bear
Jesus, Humanity’s Savior Who Doesn’t Speak English Very Well
Coach Anton Carmichael, Gym Teacher & Veteran of the following wars: Gulf 1 & 2, Vietnam, Korea, Civil, Spanish-American, and”a bunch of other thankless man made mistakes that never made the news.”
Steven, The Pissy Waiter with Feelings of Entitlement
Chip Connors, former Apollo 19 Astronaut and current Assistant Manager of The Shop N’ Drop Grocery
Doctor Space, The Man Who Dares to Conquer All of Space
Jameson Bartleby, The Town Ghost
The Sad Singing Trashcan
Chuck Norris, Y’all!
Vice President Joseph Biden
Former President George W. Bush
The Night Devil, an Avenger of the Night who Fights White Collar Crime and Falls off of Buildings
Jackie Claus, Santa’s Son and Presidential Hopeful
Bill Clinton/Jimmy Carter
Richard C. Hoagland
Crazy Aunt Sally
Tooth Fairy II
The Italian Man Who’s Cousin, Luciano, Just Got Hit By The Zamboni
The Phone Guy