Open mics are the great equalizer of stand-up comedy, a place where everyone starts and even once successful professionals occasionally come back. Whether you dream of being on TV or you’re just a hobbyist, open mics are an essential part of a comedian’s life. No one can teach you how to be funny, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you need to know before you get started. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting ready to hit your first mic at a bar in Tennessee or in a basement in New York City, some things are universal. It’s up to you to be funny, but here are some tips to get you started.
Open mics offer a wide range of set times for performers, ranging from as little as a minute to up to ten minutes in scenes without a lot of comics. As you start to perform stand-up comedy more you’ll learn the importance of knowing how much time you have. But when you’re getting started all you need is enough for a five-minute set.
To get ready for your first set sit down and write five jokes. While your instincts might be to emulate your idols and start writing long-form bits, it’s important to remember there’s time for that later. Try to keep each joke to a minute or two when you’re writing and practice them before your first time to see how long they are. This will give you somewhere to go when a joke doesn’t work. Instead of sitting there trying to dig yourself out a hole as a newbie, you’ll be able to just move on to the next joke.
Once you’ve started going to open mics and experienced the often tedious onslaught of baby Stanhopes and Burrs this rule will make more sense. It’s easy to write about shocking topics like abortion, murder, death, and politics when you’re getting started. These topics often get audience responses, and even if that response is just a groan that groan can be a sweet alternative to silence.
But it’s also easy to mistake those groans for laughs, giving yourself counterproductive feedback in the grand scheme of things. Once you understand how to write a joke, then start to explore the darkness of the world. Take the time to learn how to write a joke that gets laughs before you start trying to change the world with your platform. The comics watching your set will thank you.
Every mic is a little different, but one thing stays the same: the light. When you sign up for an open mic the host will let you know how much time your set is. When there is one minute left in your set the host will shine a light at you. The light means you need to wrap up your current joke and get off the stage. It isn’t personal. Well, sometimes it is, but you’ll know when that happens.
Even in those cases, don’t run the damn light. You can be unfunny and still get up at shows, but if you regularly run the light, don’t be surprised to find your name pulled last from the bucket every week.
You get better at comedy by watching comedy, be it live or on TV. But when you’re getting started at open mics watching the show also teaches you a lot about how comedy works. You’ll learn different styles of jokes and setups. Watching the show lets you know which comics you’ll want to be friends with and who to avoid. Most importantly, watching the show lets you know if someone’s already done a joke similar to one you’re planning on doing.
Your first set is exciting, and it’s easy to want to tell all your friends to come see you. But here’s a dirty secret of comedy: you don’t want to burn out your friends before you’ve done your first show. Just because someone loves you don’t mean they’ll want to sit through a two-hour open mic to watch you struggle through five minutes. More importantly, you don’t want to burn them out on comedy. There’s nothing worse than finally getting good and being booked on a show only to discover your friends don’t want to come because they had a weird experience at an open mic.
The exception to this rule is small town comedy scenes. These shows often live and die by bar sales, sometimes acting more like amateur showcases than mics. If the survival of your mic depends on drawing a crowd, invite your circle of friends. Otherwise, save your friends for the first time you’re booked on a proper show.
Telling jokes in front of people is nervewracking, so it’s common to want a little liquid courage or a puff of the devil’s lettuce. Save it for after your set. Especially when you’re starting out you’ll want to be aware of your surroundings. Even a few drinks can dull your reflexes, and when you’re new to telling your jokes you’ll need to be sharp. Get hammered after your set. Try it sober for a while.
Running an open mic is a largely thankless job. Comedians complain about their spots and the venue can get mad because of drunk comics or customers offended by the show. Don’t make the host’s life worse by being an asshole. Don’t drop the mic because you might break it.
Don’t talk during people’s sets because you’ll want them to listen during your set and because people remember the asshole who was talking over the show. Also, don’t insult the crowd. There is nothing more precious than people who willingly come to watch an open mic. Don’t lash out at them just because they don’t like your act. Maybe you’re just not funny yet.
Part of why you shouldn’t invite your friends to shows when you get started is that they’re a distraction for you. Open mics are the best way to meet new comedians when you’re starting out. Watching the show lets you know who you’ll want to be friends with, but hanging out helps facilitate building those friendships. Be brave and introduce yourself. Also, learn to read a room. Not everyone is going to immediately want to be your friend. Don’t push it if some folks are cold at first. Plenty of comics come and go, and some people may wait to see if you’ll be sticking it out for the long run to make nice.
There’s no time in comedy where you have more freedom than when you’re starting out. No one knows who you are right now, so use your anonymity to experiment. Try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, and most importantly have fun. If you’re already miserable six months into doing open mics check yourself. Ask what you can do differently to make it fun again. No one should be miserable telling jokes, especially when they’re starting out.
Some people set the stage on fire from the moment they start telling jokes, but let’s be real. Comedy is a complicated art form and everyone bombs. The important thing is to learn from your bombs. Record your sets, and listen back to them for what the audience did like and learn from what they didn’t. Don’t start complaining to the other comics and don’t cuss out the audience for not appreciating your genius. There’s always the next mic to prove your genius. Go have that beer you skipped earlier.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.