Your five minutes are here! One host tells you how to kill it at a comedy open mic

Let professional open mic host Eric Silver be your open mic spirit manimal.

Let professional open mic host Eric Silver be your comedy spirit manimal. Photo by Joe Stanton.

We all know the scene, either from real life or some of our favorite shows (like in Louie): a dark, sparsely occupied room of people sitting, looking up at the stage as an emcee introduces a name you’re sure no one (including the host) has previously heard of. A lone figure stands before the mic, visibly uncomfortable, and the next few minutes are as suspenseful as entertainment can get: will it be awesome or cringeworthy? I wish I could say open mics are totally not like that, but their rep is pretty well-earned.

But they’re a key part of starting any comedy career. Think of open mics like Rocky training in the harsh Russian winter during Rocky IV: if you can do your material to a totally unresponsive crowd without being fazed, you’ve got the eye of the tiger (Survivor’s, not Katy Perry’s). I’ve been hosting my own open mic, Dear God That’s Stone Cold’s Music! for about two years now, and I’ve been doing stand-up for a couple more years that that. I’ve also gone to open mics to support my friends just getting started, and seen how great and how… not-so-great the talent can be. After yesterday’s part 1 of our series that showed you how to get up the nerve to try it, here are some tips from an actual open mic host on how to crush it once you’re on stage.

First, the basics:

Signing up

All open mics are different. Some use a bowl/bucket and slips of paper to pick the open mic-ers, others have a sign-up sheet, and others ask you to email in advance. Get a sense for how many performers get up for each show, and how many are turned away, so you know where your chances are best. My show only has 4-5 slots, but we also haven’t really turned anyone away. Some open mics will let everyone get up, and some have an established limit.

Is it OK to use notes?

Yes, notes are totally fine. No one is expecting a finished product. And Janeane Garofalo brings her notebook up with her all the time, so you’re good.

How much time do you get?

You typically get three to five minutes (check with each show as it varies). Important: DON’T GO OVER YOUR TIME! It’s disrespectful to the show, the audience, and your fellow performers (which are often the same thing, anyway). Take the extra 15-30 seconds to finish up your point, but don’t be that comic who goes too long. Think of it like presidential debate rules, except follow the rules better than the actual candidates.

Pay attention to The Light!

Shows will cue you when you’ve got about a minute left to your set. They’ll “light” you (either with an actual light or just a cell phone) from wherever they are, usually in as unobtrusive a way as possible. Make sure to figure out where that light is coming from before you get up on stage and keep an eye out for it. Don’t blow past that light, seriously. It only hurts your performance.

The light doesn’t mean you stop mid-story, say, “That’s my time, I guess,” like a high school senior prematurely ejaculating on prom night, and run off the stage. You’ve got a minute to tidy things up, to add one last joke or at least finish up your point. There’s a reason it’s a light and not the orchestra from the Academy Awards.

Now, some pointers: 

FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING TO GET OUT OF THIS

You’ll hear it from someone you just started hooking up with, and now you’re hearing it from me. Everyone wants their first open mic to be successful, but what does that actually mean to you? Sure, you want to kill and get carried out on the shoulders of the audience, but it’ll be helpful (to you and to everyone, especially if they have back issues) to set realistic, attainable goals. Professional comedians don’t go to open mics looking to slay and neither should you.

Open mics are great places to workshop material, which means it’s ok to try your jokes one way and see how they do, or to take chances. It’s a good time to get a sense for both audience reaction and your own level of comfort in your choices. Or a goal can be to just get practice. You’re already getting up on stage, so don’t forget to count that as one in the Win column.

SLOOOOW IT DOWN

If you’ve listened to Bobby’s first-timer tips from yesterday (and you should), you’ve already rehearsed your routine. Yes! Good! Now, do everyone a favor and goooooo slowwwwww. I promise you that even if you think you’re going pretty normal or even at a slow speed, you’re probably still going too fast. It happens to everyone at the beginning, and it’s no cardinal sin if you succumb to it, but you’re also going to be way ahead of the curve if you get your timing down early.

Remember that while these jokes may be old hat to you, your audience is (hopefully) hearing them for the first time. Give them some time to follow what you’re saying and leave room for the laughter. That’s the part you’re hungering for, after all. We’re all tempted to go into speedy “disclaimer at the end of a radio commercial” mode because it’s not normal to hold a room’s attention for more than a minute, and we’re used to someone interrupting with their own story or people changing the subject, but keep telling yourself this is your time.

You’ve got them for three to five minutes, whether they like it or not, so take your time and serve your comedy. I’m sure none of your jokes were conceived to be delivered at 60 mph, and not a lot gets funnier as they’re told faster (except the Micro Machines guy, who always killed). And if someone is interrupting your set, tell them to shut the fuck up, because that’s not cool.

ASK YOURSELF: WHAT’S THE FUNNY THING ABOUT YOU?

Maybe improv humor isn't your thing after all.

Was that improv bit really your strongest opener?

Ok, you’ve always had it in your head to do stand-up. You’ve imagined it, you’re a comedy head with old Emo Philips and Bob Newhart tapes, and you’ve memorized Delirious. That’s all going to inform your comedy, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the form of your comedy. You may love a particular style of comedy, but it may not be a good suit for you. We don’t need thousands more Mitch Hedbergs, especially when we might be missing out on the comedy of You-ie CK.

The most funny thing about you is always going to be your perspective and your unique way of viewing the world (Example: when I learned that Bernie Taupin was the writer for Elton John’s songs, I legitimately imagined them as two guys sleeping and songwriting in bunk beds, passing music to each other. That wasn’t something I purposely imagined to be funny, but I find it pretty funny now). The sooner you can tap into and let people in on the weird thoughts that seem perfectly normal to you, the better your comedy will be. Maybe that will be in the form of a gameshow you create, or a set of meta jokes, or the stories you tell, or a straight set-up with a punchline.

Think about the ways you entertain people in your everyday life, whether it’s quick one-liners or elaborate stories. Those are all totally fair game, and you’ll probably find them easier to perform, since you’ve been practicing for years with your friends. You’re still allowed to craft tighter jokes like you see on late night appearances; just know that you don’t have to.

GET COMEDY CROSSFIT

A pretty small minority of comedians only do stand-up. They’re also writers, improvisers, storytellers and the list goes on. This isn’t just a coincidence; it’s really helpful. Stand-up isn’t my main goal in comedy, but I perform it regularly because it trains my brain, and helps me as a writer and performer. If you’re looking to do stand-up, you’ll be able to benefit from training in areas that share similar skill sets.

Improv helps you learn to be comfortable in front of people. You’ll get over that fear of freezing up and not having anything to say from constant practice in that situation. Storytelling workshops teach you all the elements you’re looking for in a routine: details, painting a picture, good narrative, and hilarity. All the funny things in the world can happen to you, but if you don’t have the skills to compose a good story out of it, it’s like telling people about that dream you had last night.

DON’T BE THE LONE WOLF

Lenny was a lone wolf. Don't be like Lenny.

Lenny was a lone wolf. Don’t be like Lenny.

I know, I know, everyone fantasizes about being the quiet, sulking artist in the corner, who gets up and blows people away, then whisks away into the night. First of all, it’s an open mic, relax. A huge percentage of the audience is going to be other comedians, and they’re all in there to get through their shit and work on their five minutes. Talk to them! Find people whose comedy you enjoy and reach out to them.

Our show, Dear God That’s Stone Cold’s Music!, is an especially great place to do this because it has featured comedians (people we book), followed by the open mic. Lots of those comedians are down to hang out until the end of the show, which is a good way to meet people who’ve gone through this all already. And maybe they have their own shows and they’ll invite you to perform at them. Our show also has a really supportive atmosphere, so we have a few open mic’ers who make repeat appearances month after month to work on their stuff. We love it, and we’ve been known to book people who have done the open mic, after we’ve seen their stuff and we think they can handle a longer set.

You may actually get the kind of feedback you were looking for when you were on stage. You may be surprised to learn in talking with people that a joke you thought didn’t land at all actually resonated with someone who maybe just doesn’t always LOL. At the very least you’ll learn you’ve got something with promise that you can work on for next time, and then you’ll get carried out on everyone’s shoulders.

Don’t miss yesterday’s part one this two-part series, 5 things to know before trying an open mic.

Think you’ve got what it takes? Come out to Bunga’s Den, 137 W 14th St. in Manhattan, tonight (April 29) and throw your name down for open mic at Dear God, That’s Stone Cold’s Music. This month, you’ll share the stage with Jo Firestone, Ben Kissel and me, among others. We’ve got about five slots, but we typically have room for everyone. You don’t have to sign up ahead of time — just talk to one of the hosts by 8pm, and we’ll take it from there.

If you can’t wait to get Eric’s comedy approval, follow him on Twitter: @primesilver.