WHAT (I THINK) I'VE LEARNED ABOUT STANDUP COMEDY FROM MY FIRST 3 WEEKS OF OPEN MICS
I've wanted to be a comedian since I was 13. A few weeks ago, I finally took the plunge and went to my first open mic. What follows is my attempt to summarize what I've learned. I realize a lot of this might be wrong, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know!
- •It's way harder than it looksI've been a listening to a shitton of standup comedy since I was 13 and acting for just as long, so I assumed I would know what I was doing the first time I got up there. OF COURSE NOT! There are so many technical skills I took for granted: holding the mic where it actually picks up sound, talking TO the audience instead of AT them, remaining still and comfortable onstage. Writing is difficult enough as it is, but without these basic skills in place no one will be able to receive your material.
- •You have to do it every chance you can getI had assumed that performing once or twice a week would be practice enough. Again, I was totally wrong. Most comics I've run into so far seem to perform almost every night. The practice is absolutely necessary, since it's such a difficult thing to get good at. Though 1 open mic per week is better than none, I've heard 5 open mics per week is an absolute minimum for most, and 7 is fairly normal.
- •You're not as funny as you think you are1)The jokes that you write KILL in your head because they're appealing to your exact sense of humor. No one else the exact sense of humor you do, so of course your jokes won't be received the way you expect they will. Instead, your job is to translate your sense of humor into something the rest of the audience can relate to. 2) You're never "done" growing as a comedian. You can always be funnier.
- •Just because they're not laughing, that doesn't mean they aren't listeningThis is something I learned as a Neo-Futurist. As a performer, it can be easy to look for the laugh as a measure of approval. As a comedian, this is an especially easy trap to fall into, since your one and only goal is to make the audience laugh. But that mindset can be so limiting! Comedy can take many forms, and it doesn't always require constant feedback. It's much more important to be engaging to watch and listen to than to constantly be searching for a laugh. But do both when you can.
- •Don't get mad at the audienceI've seen so many comics get mad at the audience for not laughing at their jokes. To me, this is a defensive response designed to keep them from confronting the fact that their jokes just weren't very funny. If an audience doesn't laugh, they're giving you very valuable feedback about what does and doesn't work. Use it! The forced laughter that results from a comedian bullying an audience into laughing doesn't feel anywhere near as good as the real thing.
- •It can be soul-crushingly depressingWhen you're in a dimly lit basement at midnight on a Friday and the fourth person in a row has told the six remaining audience members that they want to kill themselves, it's hard to want to keep doing this. This may be optimistic on my part, but I like to believe that for every horrible open mic you endure, you get a decent one. Not a glorious one, but a decent one.
- •Comics are weirdosI think of comics as theatre people who are too socially awkward to be in a rehearsal room. I've found that many come across as mean and reclusive, but that's usually not the case; they're just painfully shy. And nervous. The energy at an open mic is extremely tense, as half the comics pore over their notes and the other half socialize, exacerbating the anxiety of the first half by making them feel out of the loop. The upside of this is that "Hi" goes a long way.
- •Don't wear shorts?Someone said this once and I'm still not sure if it's a real thing. I can see why wearing pants would make a person seem taller and more authoritative onstage; on the other hand, it's 90 degrees outside and fuck you, I'm wearing shorts.
- •When you get onstage, put the mic stand behind you.I'm stealing this from @bjnovak 's list of standup advice. Every time you google "standup advice" or something of the sort you end up with Famous Comic after Famous Comic repeating the mantra of "just keep doing it." This is helpful, but as an actor I like to be given specific directions. It was refreshing to finally see one piece of technical advice, however simple, that actually made a huge difference in my ability to perform.
- •You have to write actual jokes"Really?" is not a punchline, no matter how grotesquely you say it. At the end of the day, all jokes boil down to a setup/punchline structure. If you can't define those two elements of your jokes, then they're not really jokes, and you can't realistically expect people to laugh at them. The audience might chuckle at an odd phrasing or funny voice, but if you're going to spend 3 minutes telling us what a dick your boss is then goddammit, there had better be a payoff.
- •Your audience is *at least* as smart as you are.I first got this piece of advice from David Mamet's Three Uses of the Knife. You cannot underestimate your audience's intelligence. If you think a punchline to a joke is stupid, the audience will too. They may laugh, but they will resent you for it. The worst jokes are the ones where the audience has the punchline figured out before the comedian does. You should always seek to challenge yourself and your audience- even if they don't laugh as loudly, they'll remember you.
- •We're all in this together.Ari Shaffir gave a 4-hour lecture on standup (which can be found here: http://bit.ly/1IzbA80 ) which was incredibly helpful. The main takeaway for me was to help each other. Other comics are not your competition, they're your colleagues. If one of us succeeds, the rest of us succeed. This is a lonely career path, and there's not point in turning each other into enemies.
- •Open mics can be the fucking worst, but it gets betterBack when I tried learning guitar, I read that you should learn to play on the shittiest guitar you could find so that once you got a good one, you could truly appreciate it. I think the same is true for standup. Open mics are cutthroat; everyone is either super critical because they hear this every single day, or so in their head about their own set that they're not even listening. This can only make you better, and when you finally get a "real" audience, you'll be glad you stuck it out.