I want to start off by saying I’m by no means a professional stand-up comedian, but I’ve done a fair share of open mics in different cities, and I’ve had the opportunity to emcee a few shows, so I thought I’d give some tips and insights to people that are curious about the beginning stages of stand-up comedy.
Try to avoid telling stories
The story of how your cousin Rick accidentally painted the side of his house the wrong color is funny to your relatives, but most of the time a story will bomb on stage unless you really work on making each section of the story funny. A lot of what makes stand-up comics so great is their ability to take ordinary things and make them hilarious. Watch some of the pros to get some tips on how to make stories funny in a more stand-up compatible format.
Write everything down
You never know when comedic genius will strike you, or when something you overhear or someone you interact with will lead to a hilarious stand up bit. For example I have over 200 notes saved in my phone with phrases like “savages who change my car lights from automatic to on/off” “dubstep version of the song ‘Shout’” “vacuum-selling woman that came to our house had a vacuum-selling pimp.” Most of these ideas probably won’t make it into a bit, but it’s important to write down something any time you have a moment of inspiration. You’ll be surprised how easily it disappears once it leaves your brain head.
Practice your set out loud
Rehearsing in your head what you’re going to say on stage is surprisingly very different than what you will actually sound like when you rehearse your set out loud. Make sure to be extra prepared, because it’s a lot harder to recite things when those bright lights hit you and you don’t hear laughter at the times you were expecting to hear it.
Be respectful of other comedians
At some point early on you’re going to be at an open mic with an audience full of only other starting comics where no one is paying attention and the general vibe of the room is, “What has my life become? Getting laughs (especially) while starting out is difficult, and it can be discouraging when an audience doesn’t react to something you thought would work. So the least you can do is be an audience member to your other fellow comedians. Don’t just do your time on stage and then proceed to loudly talk to other people when someone else is on stage. Also, when you get the light to get off the stage be sure to wrap up quickly, because there’s nothing worse than someone getting the light, trying to make a joke about the light not being an issue, and then rambling on about their dick for the next five minutes.
Don’t limit yourself to one medium
Especially with the internet, you can get into comedy in a variety of different ways. In my relatively short comedy career I’ve co-hosted a college radio show, performed stand-up, and now write articles online pretty regularly. Use the resources you have to get your stuff out into the world and keep trying to get better each time.
You’re going to bomb at some point
No matter how good you think you are after your first couple of open mics, you are going to bomb on stage at some point. You may be telling the same jokes that destroyed at the last open mic, but eventually you’re going to run into a crowd that has a case of the “I don’t get its” and there’s going to be no way to riff out of it. The important thing is to remember that it happens, (hopefully not on a regular basis) and the sooner you can learn to bounce back from these sets the better and stronger you’ll be next time.
You’ll get paid nothing starting out, and then pretty much nothing
Don’t expect to be cashing checks when you first start performing stand-up comedy (or doing anything comedy related), because, in reality, most of the time you’ll be spending money to perform. You’ll be paying for the travel to get to the club, and sometimes you’ll be asked to try and recruit audience members for stage time in larger cities. Once you actually get an opportunity to emcee at a club, they’ll likely pay you in beer and chicken wings. To me that’s actually a pretty sweet deal, because performing at open mics for four years is still a lot cheaper than paying for four years of college, and in this economy both routes might still just lead you to a career as a server.
You’ll do some shows that are out of the ordinary
The first show I ever got paid to stand-up was at the opening of this new event center in a town with a population of less than 1000 people. The owner had just stumbled upon my clip doing stand-up for the first time on YouTube and asked me if I would like to be an opening comedian. If you’re interested in watching my first time doing stand-up you can do so here.
I was thrilled, but I had only done two five-minute open mics at this point, and I quickly realized that I really didn’t know what I was doing, but still I jumped at the opportunity to perform in front of a full audience. I was nervous to perform with little experience.
I found out later that I’d be opening for a magician. The crowd ended up actually being a good size, but also mainly featured people over the age of 55 who weren’t that familiar with my Facebook references. It was a great lesson where I learned that you can never have “too much” material in your back pocket. Within a year I believe the event center in this tiny town closed down, and I like to think I performed at the first and last show they hosted. Anyways the point is that you’ll get booked for a variety of different events if you start doing well, so it’s important to have material that will work in front of a lot of different audiences.
You’ll hear the same things from people when you first start out (and you’ll think the same things the fourth time you hear them).
You should tell this story in your stand up. (That story you told me about your dad putting on the wrong pair of pants when he went to work is wicked boring, and will make even less sense on stage.)
What kind of stuff do you do in your sets? (Mainly trying-to-make-people-laugh stuff.)
Have you heard this joke? You should do something like that in your stand-up. (No, I shouldn’t. Have you ever seen stand-up?)
I really need to come to a show and check it out (Yeah you should, and no you won’t.)
You just gotta do it
I have a limited amount of experience in comedy compared to most comics, but if I could give anyone trying to get into comedy one piece of advice it would be to stop talking about doing it and do it. Do it in whatever way you can (stand-up, podcasts, YouTube, blogging) and do it in a way that you think is funny because if you don’t think what you’re doing is funny, you’re going to have a hard time convincing everyone else that it’s funny.
“Don’t live everyday like it’s your last… live everyday like it’s today, cause it is.” – Toby Davis
[Photo: Marie C Fields/Shutterstock]