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
This 10-week class will focus intensely on bringing down a group energy before a show or rehearsal and using the deflated momentum to make people listen to your daily setbacks. Learn how to complain on the exhale, make big stinks about your routine, say “no” in huge ways with extensive tales of trivial woe and superfluous opinions, and set the rehearsal or show off to a late start and hopefully an off-note. All lessons are set to explore and create immediate bitter observations, sarcasm, and disagreement. Surprise, shock, and passive aggressively nudge yourself and take this class. Some classes will simulate an actual three hour warm-up session to show you how exactly to draw out pre-show jib jab until its too late to rehearse.
Pre-requisite: Level Yes But.