So, you've decided you want to try doing stand-up comedy for the first time. Congratulations! You are about to take your first step towards something that could possibly be the most embarrassing mistake you've ever made in your life. If that last sentence didn't make you crap your pants just a little bit, congratulations again! You just made it further in the comedy business than 99.9% of the population.
Open mic nights are where every comic gets their start, and I'm not gonna sugarcoat it: it does have the capacity to completely crush your ego if you let it. Your audience may consist of only a handful of people at times, a good portion of which are the other comics waiting for their turn on stage. But this is where you get your training wheels. It can often seem like a hostile environment because it's purposely designed that way so that you'll learn how to do better next time. Here's how to prepare.
(But before I get into these tips, I feel obligated to remind you that there is still this pesky thing called a global freaking pandemic going on right now. If you're choosing to do an open mic at this time, please do everything you can to ensure the safety of yourself and those around you. Otherwise, maybe hold off for a while until it's deemed safer, because if you're not careful, crossing this item off your bucket list right now might end up being more tragically ironic than you expect. Please, be safe out there.)
Open mic night is its own breed of comedy show because everything about it is unpolished. There's almost an odd beauty to it. You've got complete amateurs who don't know what they're doing, mixed in with comics who take their craft seriously, and others who are just goofing around. Plus, with the audience mostly consisting of friends of those performers, the energy in that room can change from one minute to the next.
If and when you decide to try comedy for the first time, it's always best to get an idea for what you're getting yourself into. Find out when and where open mics are taking place in your area and attend a few of these shows first. This could be your greatest education on what to do and, more importantly, what not to do on stage. It's always easier to learn by watching other people make mistakes rather than making those mistakes yourself.
Plus, by attending these shows you're showing support for the local comedy scene, and those comics will definitely return the favor when you express interest in getting started yourself. They'll not only give you all the information you need on the sign-up procedures, but will also be more likely to give you pointers on making your first time on stage far less stressful.
An added benefit of this is you'll also learn ahead of time the rules of that stage, both written and unwritten. Sure, there are the basics about how much time you get on stage, how they'll flash you a light from the back when they need you to wrap up your set, etc., but a lot of times, there may also be certain language restrictions or taboo topics the showrunners may want you to avoid.
Now, before the comment section starts filling up with long diatribes about how "there shouldn't be any rules in comedy," let me be absolutely clear: there are always rules you're gonna have to follow in comedy. And those rules are there for the same reason every curling iron has a tag on it warning you not to stick it in any bodily orifice ... there's a story behind that warning, and it does not have a happy ending. If you've got a problem with a rule at a comedy show, blame the dumbass that inspired the rule, and not the showrunner for not wanting that headache ever again.
Obviously, if you're wanting to try stand-up, you have a list of comics who have inspired you. Well, you better enjoy watching them one more time before you sign up for your first open mic, because you'll probably never be able to watch them the same way ever again. Learning how to do comedy is like learning how to do magic tricks: once you figure out how one trick is done, in your head you will try to reverse-engineer every other trick you see for the rest of your life.
It can take years for a comic to find their own voice, so it's forgivable for new comics to wear their influences on their sleeve. You might unconsciously adopt elements of their mannerisms, cadence, stride, posture ... which is fine, as long as you don't also adopt their material. So, when you're going up to do your first stand-up set, don't worry too much about whether or not you are acting too much like one of your heroes.
Here's a piece of advice that I wish I had received before I started (instead of five years in): if you find a comedy special you like, or even a stand-up video on YouTube, watch it again on mute. Watch how the comic looks at the audience, how their facial expressions may change when they're about to get to a punchline, how they move around the stage, and what they do with their hands. The audience may be laughing at the jokes, but they're also reacting to their body language. Watch Carlin's eyes and hands; you're seeing body movement as polished as any ballet:
Not to say that when you're putting together your first set you need to obsess over every movement of your body. What is important is to let your body be in the moment. Trying to overcompensate for being nervous will only make you look more nervous. It's OK to be vulnerable in this situation, because anyone in that room who's been on stage before understands your nervousness, and anyone else who's never been on stage admires that you had the balls to get up there in the first place.
Perhaps the most important thing to take note of when watching other comics is how they hold the microphone. For most people, their first time on stage is also the first time they've talked into a mic. They either hold it too close or too far away, and they can't really tell how well their voice is being projected, or how much that mic may be picking up their breathing. For best results, just remember two key things: 1) try to hold the mic about chest high and keep it pointed at your throat and not your mouth, this way your breath goes over the mic instead of directly into it, and 2) if you can hear your voice coming through the speakers just slightly louder than you hear it coming out of your own mouth, you're talking just loud enough for the audience to hear you clearly.
When it comes to writing your first comedy set, don't beat yourself up too much worrying if the audience is gonna think it's funny. As long as the jokes you write are funny to you and not stolen from someone else, that's a good start. That is the whole point of open mic after all: to try out new stuff and see how well it works in front of a crowd. No one is expecting this to be your Netflix special right out of the gate.
You gotta know what you want out of it, though. Whether you're doing this just to challenge yourself, or maybe you want to try this as a hobby, or if you want to try to make a career out of comedy, put your whole heart into it. Believe in what you're saying, or don't bother saying it. This is an opportunity to truly surprise yourself. Commit to that possibility. Even if your jokes don't land the way you hope, even if you forget a joke or flub a line, audiences respond to passion. Your energy feeds their energy, and their energy will feed yours.
And don't be afraid to play to the back of the room where the other comics are hanging out. Comedians are probably the hardest to get a laugh out of, because we are always viewing other people's performances on their technique and their structure. If you can get a good laugh from another comic, believe me, you are onto something.
One important lesson you'll learn when you get up there for the first time is that time does not exist on any measurable plane when you're in front of a crowd. What you practiced off stage to be exactly five minutes of material will not be anywhere close to five minutes on stage. You might nervously speed through your words and run out of material before your time is up, but don't feel like you need to fill that extra time. There's no shame in bailing early.
What can be embarrassing is running out of time and having the host come up to usher you off the stage. This happens a lot and boy, is it aaaaaaawkward. A comic will see the emcee approaching, so they hold onto the mic like grim death, turn away from them and try to rattle off the rest of that joke at lightning speed, as if that will help them stick the landing. If you find yourself running over your time, and you see that host walking up out of the corner of your eye, it's best to just stop right there, in mid-sentence, say "Thank you, that's my time!", and walk off the stage with your dignity intact.
Any decently run open mic will give you a warning light when it's time for you to wrap it up, generally when you have a minute left. They typically do this by shining a flashlight or waving their phone screen from the back of the room. The best advice I have for first timers is to remember where that light will be coming from, and keep glancing over in that area throughout your set. When you see that light, just accept that the joke you're currently telling will most likely be the last joke you have time for. Unless you have one good killer bit up your sleeve you are absolutely sure you can tell in less than less than thirty seconds, it may not be worth the risk of running over your time.
When you decide it's time to take the plunge, invite as many of your friends as you can. That level of emotional support helps a lot. However, it cannot be stressed enough that you make sure your friends understand that your set is just part of the show, it is not the show. I cannot tell you how many times a newbie has packed the house with all of their friends, only to watch those people get up and leave right after their friend's set, leaving nearly no one in the audience for the rest of the show.
That behavior would be considered extremely rude if it didn't happen so often that it's practically a cliche. The other comics watch as all these fresh faces take their seats before the show, and we see them not really paying attention to the first few performers, but when their friend takes the stage they go nuts. The other comics know what's about to happen. It's even worse for the comic slated to go up next, because they're gonna spend the first minute of their set watching over half the room duck out of there like a deadbeat dad at their kids' graduation.
Not to say you shouldn't invite your friends to watch you perform when you're first starting out in comedy. It really does help having them there to cheer you on, but there is a major drawback to it in the long run. The more times you perform, fewer of your friends will come out to see you, and then you start to see just how your material hits with audience members who aren't there to cushion your ego. This is a real sink-or-swim time for new comics; when they first start to question how funny they really are. The good ones get their asses in gear. The bad ones get really bitter.
If you really want to grow as a comic, it's extremely important to get constructive feedback as opposed to having your friends placate you. Making friends with the other comics is perhaps the best way to get good notes on your performance. Having friends with unique experience in other fields such as theater, improv, music, psychology, etc. can also be useful because they're good at spotting things you'd otherwise never notice. My first year in, I invited a friend who was a professional poker player to one of my shows. After the show, he was able to point out every one of my nervous tics, because those are the kinds of tells he's trained to spot in his opponents. His advice was a game-changer for my act, and also the reason I don't play poker anymore.
Perhaps one of the best people capable of telling you what you're doing wrong ... is yourself. You are the only person who knows exactly what was going through your head while you were performing, you saw the looks on the faces in the audience, and you're probably already your own worst critic. Record yourself each time you perform, and review the footage. Being able to watch yourself perform will definitely take some getting used to. There's gonna be a lot of cringing, but each one of those cringes will help you recognize what you're doing wrong, and help you avoid those same mistakes in the future.
What if they don't laugh? What if you choke? What if you embarrass yourself? There are a lot of what-ifs that will go through your head when you try anything new, especially standing in front of an audience and trying to make them laugh. But all of the questions going through your head can all be answered by two simple words: so what?
Yes, there are plenty of valid reasons to be nervous about getting up on that stage, but you must also keep in mind that everyone in that room understands what's going on. You have an audience of people who are there to listen to what you have to say, other comics who have been in your shoes, and maybe a couple jerks who just don't know how to behave in public. Ignore the jerks. They're really not worth your energy. Everyone else is rooting for you.
Plus, even if your set does not go over well, those people's attention will be directed to the next comic coming up on that stage. The show goes on, and no one will dwell on your mistakes but you. On the other hand, if your set goes great, you will have handed that next comic a hot crowd. The best case scenario is you leave that stage triumphant. The worst-case scenario is you leave that stage right back where you started.
Top image: Pdsci, Graphbottles/Shutterstock