No matter if you’ve been doing comedy for years or you just started, chances are you attended a comedy open mic. Open mics are places that we consider our comedy gym, where just like in a real gym, people come from different walks of life and have different goals. Some are there for the first time, some are regulars, and some are forced to be there after losing a bet/game and their friends are making them try stand-up (I see you fantasy football bros, I’m glad that our dream is your punishment lol).
In all the years I’ve been hosting open mics I’ve noticed that comedians come with different levels of preparation, or the lack of it. That’s understandable as not everyone is looking to have a career in stand up, they are just there to make some friends and crack jokes, but if you are more serious about building a career in comedy you gotta have some type of plan how you gonna develop your act, the one you can be proud of. Attending open mics play a huge role in that plan but only if you approach them in the right way. Here are a few tips to get you ready for your next open mic.
Before an open mic
Set a goal
Every week I try to set a goal for my open mics. This ranges from trying a new joke or a whole set, test a new punchline/tag to an existing joke, move more on stage, play with a different energy and delivery, try an impression, focus on crowd work, etc. Figure out what is something you see yourself doing. You might be good at playing an instrument, developing a character, singing, etc. Open mics are there to test things and see what sticks so feel free to explore all these possibilities, which will guide you to developing your stage persona. If you are visiting a new city, read the local news for the city where you perform. It will help you create jokes locals are able to relate to and it will bring you close to them.
Be on time and set up your notes and equipment
You want to be at the venue at least 15 minutes before the open mic starts to give yourself time to check in with the host, find a seat, grab a drink and set up your notes and audio/video equipment. I know this is not always easy as you might be rushing from work or the venue is already packed but you made it, you are there for a reason so just do what you can to get comfortable and in the right mindset to perform.
Warm up your vocal cords
Red leather yellow leather, you know the drill. Oftentimes, and especially now that so many of us work from home, you might not have a job where you talk much to people during the day but you are performing at night and since stand-up is a form of public speaking you have to warm up your vocal cords a little bit so you don’t end up on stage just wrestling with vocabulary and lose your thoughts. This is especially crucial if English is your second language, you just KNOW you gotta work double as hard as everyone else to make sure your jokes are heard and understood. Before hitting the stage make sure you practice your set out loud and/or talk with a few comics to warm up your vocal cords and get into a comedy mood so you don’t trip on your words on stage.
During an open mic
Grand opening, grand closing
The general rule of stand-up comedy is to open your set with your second best joke and close the set with your absolute best joke. You are using the opener to set the tone and you finish strong so you leave the audience wanting more. If you’ve been doing comedy for years chances are you have more than one opener and closer. Sometimes the opener is not even your previously written joke but a simple riff of someone else’s closer or addressing an elephant in the room. If you’ve ever been to our Comedians on the loose open mics you know we go HARD when roasting each other, and those are the funniest and most memorable openers and closers. Sometimes it can derail your set but oftentimes you get more than you lose. Feel free to experiment and be opened to surprises, that’s what the mics are for. If you want to incorporate something new in your bit, do it in the beginning. If it doesn't work you can easily use tested material. Before getting rid of a joke, try it in front of different crowds. Be aware of yourself and your audience, they have to FEEL for you. Truth is the best way to connect with them.
On the technical side, if you are not a comic that leaves a microphone in the mic stand during the whole performance, make sure that once you hit the stage and take the mic, you put the mic stand on the side or behind you. This will open you to the audience and not make you look like you are just skipping around the mic stand. If you are dealing with a problematic sound system, talk like you are performing to just one table at the front. Others will shut up cause they wanna hear it too. Same goes for dealing with those loud audience members who like to talk during the show. Play each side of the room, give everyone attention, it will pay off with big rooms. Lastly, make sure you don’t go over your designated stage time, especially if you are at the open mic that has a timer in front of you. This is good training for actual shows where the booker will not be that lenient about you blowing the light and you might jeopardize your future bookings.
Record your sets
Recorded sets are a great tool to track your progress and examine where you need to improve. Just like professional athletes watch their own games you should watch and/or listen and evaluate your sets each time. I get it, it can be draining listening to your own voice over and over again, not to mention if you are someone who's very critical of yourself in general, but by recording yourself you’ll be able to see where your weaknesses are and what to do about them: cut on “ohm’s” and “I’m like, she’s like”, endless F-bombs, your composure and mannerism, rushing through the set and being afraid of a silence between bits. On top of that, having videos of your sets can help you with creating content for your social media. Just be aware of what you decide to post as once it’s online it’s open for everyone to see it and criticize it. If you are publishing an unfinished joke it can discourage you to post more in the future to avoid criticism. No need to create your own obstacles but feel free to post anything you are comfortable with, even if it’s just to show people your growth.
Observe other comedians
Watching acts before you can help you see what the audience is responding to and can help you adjust yourself before hitting the stage, but not too much since you already have a set goal in mind. It’s not unusual for some comedians to leave the venue right after they do their set. What’s fair and what’s not is open for discussion, but my goal is to try and watch as many comedians as I possibly can. Truthfully, when you are hosting an open mic you are kind of forced to, but somehow I always get something out of it. I like to watch how people build their sets, their approach to callbacks, crowd work skills, handling hecklers, their delivery, vocabulary, authenticity and stage presence. Sometimes they would talk about the topic that reminds me of my own joke I have somewhere in the vault and it inspires me to revisit my old material and give it a new life. If you've been doing comedy for years you’ll notice that some jokes are never done and that you can always add more. Just make sure the tags and punchlines are your own and not taken from other comedians, unless they actually offer you those. Be prepared to hear the similar if not the same punchline to jokes you have. That means that the joke is either a hack and/or so common to the comedic brain that it is necessary to get rid of or put a new spin to it to remain authenthic. It’s called killing your babies and it’s a part of the job.
After the open mic
Networking can be helpful in the sense of meeting new people and connecting with those that run their own shows and can potentially book you, or you might meet a writing partner, someone you can collaborate with, etc. Networking after the open mic is very common depending on the hours of the day and everyone’s responsibility the next morning. Sometimes it’s hard to stay late at night and connect with your peers especially after a full day of responsibilities. Just hanging out it’s great too, but personally, I like to value my time and choose quality over quantity. Networking can also be done online, you can always reach out to people over social media and take it from there.
Be mindful of your comedy circle. New friends can be great but you can easily get lost in the hanging out territory that really does nothing for your actual career. Recognize the line between friendships and professional networking and what degree of mixing the two works best for you, personally and on a career level.
It’s always a good practice to listen to your recorded set right after the open mic and take notes of what worked and what needs improvement. It really doesn’t need to be something time consuming and you can listen to your set on your ride home. The important thing is to get one step ahead from where you are right now and give attention to those parts of your performance that need to improve the most. Pay attention to the jokes that always kill, cause they are the ones that are forming your stage persona the most and you should guide your writing in that direction. Another thing is inspiration. I know some people will think this is crazy but I can be hosting 4-5 hours of open mics and come home after midnight and I would then continue to write. Sometimes just for 15 minutes, sometimes for an hour, but I always get something from every mic and the adrenaline keeps me up for a while. Sometimes the inspiration comes when you are on a different schedule and that comes with territory of being a good comedian. If you can, capitalize on it and write a joke the moment you think of it. You can, and should, always edit it another day.
We are all aware that comedians in general can be judgemental. When your profession requires you to constantly observe the world around you and form opinions it’s kind of given. Comedians are also very critical of themselves, even the most egotistical among us doubt themselves often and hard. Open mics can sometimes leave you feeling like you were the worst comedian that night, the weakest link and you just can’t get out of that funk. We’ve all been there, even the comedians with now very successful careers. What’s important to remember is to give yourself room to be bad and to be wrong. You are not gonna get everything right every time, nobody does, even the seasoned comedians get a lot of slack on a daily basis for things they say, try and risk in the name of comedy. Don’t be afraid to expand your comfort zone. Yes, you’ll have bad nights and bad jokes but that doesn’t mean you need to also have a bad attitude. Take a moment to appreciate the fact that you are doing something that so many people in this world would never even dare to try, so give yourself some credit.
Pull your pants up, collect your thoughts and create a goal for your next open mic. Rinse and repeat honey, I’ll see you in the gym.
Got questions or something to add? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!