Jerry Seinfeld once made a joke about how people fear public speaking more than death: “This means to the average person,” he says, “if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” But what does he know? People tell you all the time how funny you are! You should do stand-up comedy! But before you go plotting your own Netflix special, you need to hone your craft at some open mic nights, because, as you’ll soon learn, the act of being funny and the art of being funny aren’t exactly the same thing. Open mics are a necessary step on the road to finding your comedic voice, developing a network of funny friends and refining your material.
This is where I can help. I had long nursed a burning desire to be on the stage, sort of like Lauryn Hill in Sister Act 2, just waiting for a Vegas showgirl turned inner-city parochial school teacher to come give me my big chance. I knew I wanted to try stand-up, but wasn’t sure where to start. A year later, I’m no expert comedian, but I can tell you what I know about getting up there for the first time. So, if you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention. Here are five tips to help get from big-time comedy aspirations to awkward, blinded-by-the-stage-lights reality.
1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
There are tons of open mics all over the city, and you’ll want to know what exactly you’re getting yourself into. You can start by browsing listings on BadSlava or NYCComedyList. Some want you to email in advance, some require you buy a drink and others need you to arrive early to sign up. You’ll have enough on your mind the day of your big debut, so try to get a handle on the logistics ahead of time. Not all mics are created equal either, so if you get the chance to check out a show on a night before you aim to perform, you’ll get a feel for its vibe.
The Venn Diagram of audience members and performers at these things tends to just be one big circle, so don’t be surprised if crowds range mostly from mildly amused to completely disinterested in your set. Finding the right open mic is a little like finding the right barbershop; if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find one that feels like home. For me, it’s this super fun show, Dear God That’s Stone Cold’s Music, hosted by my two comedy dads, Joe Stanton and Brooklyn-based writer-comedian (and Brokelynite) Eric Silver. It’s one of the friendliest shows in the city, and they’ve paired their open mic with a bill full of more established stand-ups, like Jo Firestone and Mike Lawrence, so you’ll actually get an audience there to see some comedy. Plus, they’ve got free beer, thanks to a sponsorship from Magic Hat.
2. WRITE YOUR SET
Yes, you actually need to write a set. It might seem like your favorite comics are getting up there and winging it, but a lot of work goes into even the most effortless looking sets. If you sit down to a blank page to write your stand-up routine, you’ll likely find yourself staring at a blinking cursor, chewing off all your fingernails and rendering yourself incapable of opening the tab on a can of beer for the better part of a week.
Instead, a much easier way to go about it is to keep a notebook/Evernote/Post-it Pad/Memento-esque collection of tattoos where you can mark down inspiration throughout the day. Write down any passing thought, something you said to a co-worker that got a laugh, stray observations. Everything. Then, when you start to work on your actual set, you have an outline of topics to pull from.
3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Hearing your work out loud is really different than reading it. Not to get too Marina Abramovic about it, but you need to find out how the material feels. You know how it should sound in your head, but then you need to farm out the job to your mush mouth and lazy tongue, which is a whole different story. When you rehearse your material out loud, you’ll have a sense where you need to pause, what words you want to emphasize and anything that feels clunky. I’m not saying completely memorize your entire set word-for-word, but rehearsing helps identify the lines you’ll want to be sure to hit, so you can be a bit looser with the rest.
The other benefit of rehearsal is to get a sense of timing. Open mics will typically give you three to five minutes for your set, and you’ll be a dick if you just keep yammering on with no regard for the other folks waiting to get up there. When I got started, I’d prepare a full five minutes of material for a five minute open mic set. What I learned is that you’ll actually be better planning four to four and a half minutes so you can leave some room for laughs or to riff on a bit that’s working well in the moment.
4. GET SOME FEEDBACK
No matter how hilarious you might be, it’s always good to test out some material before taking it to a stage (and you don’t have to live in a Standup Apartment like that video either). Especially early in your fledgling comedy career, it will help give you some confidence before trying it with strangers. You could team up with another amateur stand-up type, but even a comedy neophyte friend will do. Yes, this person will let you know what’s funny, but they can also help you figure out if people will get that reference to The Slenderman or if you need more examples of what the inseam of John Cena’s jorts might smell like.
You’ve made it to the big night, and you’re all signed up to perform. I’m not going to give you any bullshit about imagining the audience in their underwear (and, honestly, these days most of them will just send you a dick pic if you ask nicely). Instead, approach it like getting a tattoo: once you start, you’re committed. No matter what happens, you’re not going to stop or go running off the stage, so give it your all. Even the most hilarious set will be diminished if you’re delivering it like an apology for ejaculating prematurely.
If getting up on the stage (and proving that hack Jerry Seinfeld wrong) is your ultimate goal, then congratulations! You did it! You can die happy now, content that you spent five minutes talking at a room full of strangers who were only sort of listening!
But, if you really want to refine your work, tune in tomorrow for tips about to kill it from actual open mic host, Eric Silver.
Twitter is like an open mic, all the time: @bobbeyonce.