Not everyone can make a joke. And not everyone can do stand-up comedy either. But if you’re serious about getting into the stand-up comedy scene, below are a couple of tips to help you tackle your first open mic.
But make no mistake. Stand up is not something you can master overnight. It takes years to find your rhythm and cultivate enough material for a set. But if you stick with it, you will certainly reap the rewards.
You will connect with audiences in a unique way. You will inspire others to find their unique point of view. And most importantly, you will gain a better sense of self.
Any aspiring stand-up comedian will need to keep these notes on hand. So let’s delve into the world of comedy.
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What is stand-up comedy?
Stand-up comedy is a solo comedic performance. Comics deliver a routine chock full of jokes in front of a live audience. And the ultimate goal is to make that audience laugh.
The jokes written are scripted and include setups and punchlines. Average stand-up comedy shows get maybe four to six laughs a minute. So a stand-up comedian also needs to have incredibly tough skin.
Comedic performances go all the way back to ancient times. But most notably, modern stand-up gets its roots from vaudeville.
Vaudeville included live acts with a lot of slapstick comedy. But as comedy grew, jokes and their structures and setups started to change.
The first vaudeville performer to be credited with stand-up was Charley Case. In the 1880s, the African American comic performed monologues for audiences. He did not often use the traditional props of vaudeville.
Instead, he told funny stories about his life. Modern stand-up comedy remains similar to this structure. But the art of comedy writing has become a heralded technique all on its own.
How and where to get started
If you’re sold and ready to dive in, below are some tips to help you further your comedy journey. There are several steps you need to get to before the performance itself. So be prepared to walk before you run.
#1. Take a stand-up comedy class.
Taking a class might not sound like fun. In fact, stand-up seems like the complete opposite of formalized instruction. But that instruction is key to getting you comfortable onstage.
The basics of comedy are always something you can return to. So starting in a class or returning to one can be beneficial for your career.
Taking a class will also get you into a room full of comics. You’ll learn from your peers about how to make a successful set. And you’ll get invaluable feedback on your performance.
Some people also underestimate the severity of stage fright. If you’re ready to jump right into open mics, great! But if you need a trial run, begin by taking a class first.
#2. Perform at open mics.
Open mics can’t be avoided altogether. But if taking a class builds your confidence up, then an open mic will teach you how to own it.
An open mic is a great place to test out new material on a crowd. It’s also the perfect opportunity to watch other comics and how they command the stage.
You can start by googling the venue. Maybe even invite a few friends to help cheer you along. But make sure you prepare as much as possible.
The only way you will grow is if you put in the effort.
#3. Find your comedic voice.
Despite being a lot of jokes and laughs, stand-up can get pretty personal. You’re revealing parts of your life on stage in front of an audience. So finding your voice is the key ingredient to any set.
It’s absolutely important to watch other comedians as an example. But try not to mimic them. What you are drawn to in their performance is their authenticity.
And that cannot be replicated by anyone. So take a moment to think critically about who you are. Try asking yourself the following questions:
- What values did I learn growing up?
- How do I come off to other people?
- What culture defines me?
- What’s funny about my upbringing?
- What is something I always do?
- What’s funny about that?
- And what do I find funny and why?
How to write a stand-up set
Stand-up comedy can almost be divided into two different parts. There’s writing the set, then there’s performing it.
A full set is a prepared routine and includes a beginning, middle, and end. The length of a set can vary. But when you’re just starting out, five minutes can feel like too much time to fill.
#1. Watch and learn from your fellow comics.
You can start by watching the great entertainers. But also be sure to keep an eye on your peers. Observe how they interact with audience members.
Ask yourself what worked and what didn’t. Try breaking down how many bits they had in their set. Observe the audience to see what they responded to most.
Recognize how much time the comedian spent talking. Then reflect on how much of their set was filled with silence. The more you observe, the more you’ll understand what makes a successful set.
#2. Start writing your own jokes.
Once you have a solid idea of what you want to talk about onstage, start writing. See what stories you can incorporate. And keep the audience and room in mind.
Below are the standard elements of any comedy routine. Start by familiarizing yourself with these elements. And use them as a structure to get you started.
Every stand-up set requires an opening. This will often be the very thing that determines the success or failure of the show.
Make sure you start with something especially strong. Get the audience laughing right off the bat. And they’ll trust you for the rest of the set.
You say bits, I say jokes. Either way you say it, bits are the bulk of the set.
Every joke has a setup and a punchline. The setup is where you can introduce and detail characters and situations. And the punchline is the ultimate conclusion.
Punchlines are the funniest part of the bit. And it typically goes against the audience’s expectations. This keeps them on their toes and allows you to remain in control.
Never underestimate a good transition. Hopping from one joke to another, you’ll need a solid bridge. The next time you see a friend doing a set, take note of how they transition throughout.
The closer is the final joke of the set. You might choose to reference an earlier joke or bit. Or you might choose something just as strong.
But just make sure it leaves the audience laughing.
#3. Get your act together!
Once you feel like you have enough jokes, start assembling them into a set. Make sure they flow well into one another. Take the time to consider transitions.
And remember to leave room for laughter. A lot of comedians include too many jokes when they first start performing.
But sometimes, the old adages can prove useful. Less is more. Quality over quantity.
And make sure you include any backup jokes just in case. Sets and performances will not always go your way. But a good comedian knows how to shift directions when they feel they’re losing the audience.
#4. Rehearse in front of your friends and fellow comedians.
Stand-up comedy is a lot of experimentation. And you’ll need an audience to test out jokes on.
Gather your friends, family, or fellow comedians together. Run through the set and see what jokes land.
Your first time performing new material will have you feeling particularly nervous. So make sure you approach it like a fun trial run.
And ask for feedback. Some people might give you too much. But any comic will tell you that some feedback is better than none.
Below are a couple of tips you’ll want to keep in mind.
The quickest way to memorize a set is to perform it multiple times. Getting familiar with the material and on a stage will be integral to your ultimate performance.
Practice runs will help you establish the pace of your set. Pay attention to if you’re speaking too fast. Or see if you can fill up the five minutes or ten minutes time slot comfortably.
Gesticulation and physical presence cannot go unrecognized. Try talking in a relaxed manner. But keep your wits about you to make for an engaging show.
Dry runs are a great place to test out ideas. But sometimes, those ideas will get cut. Don’t get too attached to bits.
The audience will be the ultimate judge. If a joke falls flat, take it out. If the audience thinks it’s funny, keep it in.
How to perform a stand-up set
Now you’ve got a set and an open mic is waiting to host it! Below are some tips for once you get up on the stage to perform.
Bring in big energy
Comedy is energy. Like any great emcee who knows how to win an audience early on, start the show off by bringing in a good and energetic vibe. Even if your material is more casual, make sure it still sparks with the audience.
Focus on the story at hand and make it come alive. Any person can say, “So a guy walks into a…” but how can you make it hit?
Make the audience believe that you are worth their time. Don’t make them wait to fall in love with you. Start the show strong and tell the people why you belong there.
Make the audience feel good
Some comics’ jokes can be a little depressing. But their delivery is never meant to make the audience sad.
If you’re heading into some darker stuff, try your best to still keep it light. Or add a twist to keep the audience on their toes.
The content of your show matters. But the way you tell it matters just as much.
Google the venue before performing to get a feel for the environment. See who else has performed there before. And consider your material in relation to the venue’s predecessors.
Researching beforehand will also help you consider the audience. You might decide that some of the material you write won’t be a good fit for this club. Or maybe some jokes of yours are simply not first-time material for a new place.
But don’t be afraid to test out a new idea. Over time, the audience will help you write the jokes. Observe how and when they laugh and work that into your later shows.
But don’t perform a set of entirely new stuff altogether. Build it joke by joke and let it stand the test of time.
Let it have its first run on the stage. Then decide whether it’s time to keep it or cut it.
Decide how to deal with hecklers
Hecklers happen, unfortunately. So decide beforehand how you are going to deal with them should they criticize or interrupt your set.
Some comedians give hecklers the time of day. They incorporate their negative attitude into the show and turn the tables on the heckler himself.
But other comedians choose to keep it light. You decide whether a heckler has the time to talk. But you also don’t have to play host to their interruption.
You’re the one speaking on stage. You determine the course of the show. You don’t have to let the heckler dismantle your entire performance.
Doing stand-up comedy for the first time is no easy feat. An open mic and writing for the stage are far harder than most give stand-up comedians credit for.
So be sure to incorporate some laughs along the way. Even if that means laughing at yourself.
A crowd filled with friends is always a great way to start. If it’s your first time at the mic, you’ll want to develop your confidence straight away.
You might get a laugh here and there. And you should cherish that. Let that propel you forward into the world of stand-up and keep you motivated.
But always remind yourself that vulnerability requires courage. Your first time at the mic on stage is a big moment.
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Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular virtual comedian, magician, and virtual speakers for hire.