So, you’ve decided to try stand-up comedy.
As you begin to find your feet, you’re sure to be struck by several questions. Why is no one laughing? What does that bright flashing light mean? I got to this open mic four hours early, why am I going up at 3 in the morning?
Navigating your early open mics is a lot like doing heroin: it can be intimidating, the highs can leave you blissful, the lows can be crushing. Also, there’s usually heroin available for purchase (tip your bar staff).
Open mic comedy is a place to fail. Luckily, no one is paying really close attention to you. The failures which seem large to you are usually not memorable for anyone else.
This guide is to help you avoid the other failures, the ones that tend to stick to a comic.
How to not be a gaping butthole at open mics.
It is a near-universal experience for comics.
You’re new to the scene and you want to demonstrate that you’re a hot young go-getter. You arrive at the bar ninety minutes before signup. You pull out your notebook, casual but conspicuous. You make fleeting eye contact with everyone who walks in, hoping for a moment of recognition between comrades. After a while, a harried figure slouches through the door. Other patrons gather around them like ducks looking for a piece of bread. They make their way through the throng and set out that great Doomsday Book of open mic comedy: the list.
You duck and weave to get to the front of the pack, after all, you were before any of them. You even manage to scratch your name high up on the list. Someone borrows your pen. Then someone else. It is no longer your pen. Let it go. If you truly love it, it will return.
The show starts. You know your name is fourth on the list. The second comic is onstage, and the host comes tantalizingly close to your seat before tapping someone else on the shoulder. The show goes on. An hour passes. People you know got here after you are going up. The person who was in your four spot already left. Another thirty minutes goes by. Your water glass sweats. The room is almost empty before the host signals you that you’re up in two. The host never tells you what you did to wrong them. Surely that can be the only explanation for this miscarriage of justice.
Welcome to the first hard thing most comics must learn about open mics.
The order in which you sign up on the list is almost never the order in which you will go up.
I say “almost” because I’ve seen it happen only a couple times. Once when the host had swine flu and another time at a mic so bad I never went back to it.
This is a good place to point out that I’m speaking specifically about Denver here. In the larger scenes—New York, L.A., Chicago—bucket systems or stricter first-come-first-serve systems are more popular. In a mid-size scene like Denver, hosts are left with a difficult balancing act. There are enough comedians that shows can stretch for hours, but the scene is tight enough that hosts are at least familiar with most of the comics on their list. This opens the door for a curated-list system, which, short of limiting who can sign up for an open mic, is the most surefire way of putting together a reasonably watchable show.
On its face, this may seem fundamentally unfair. Like the host is letting their friends have the choice spots at the expense of your fresh new voice. George Carlin (or whoever else you loudly tell your co-workers is the greatest genius of our time) would never have put up with such treatment!
Here are some things you need to understand.
You are not good at comedy.
I’m sorry to be the first to tell you. But, between you and me, you kind of knew it yourself. That’s why you brought every one of your friends to your first shows. Social pressure means they have to laugh at you and tell you how great you were. If you have a friend who refuses to do this for you, they are a sociopath. But you brought them there as a buffer, right? A safety net? Because you know as well as everyone else that you’re not good at this.
And you shouldn’t be! You don’t need to be! You are brand new at this. Who do you think you are that you can just be brilliant at it without ever trying? It sucks to bomb. I know because literally everyone has done it, probably dozens of times.
Since you are not good at comedy, the host of the open mic rightly decided to not put you in the front half of the show.
All comedy shows, to paraphrase my friend Zach Welch, are designed for the venue to sell drinks, food, or loose cigarettes. Yes, yes, comedy is an art and above crass commercial considerations, et cetera. A comedy show on the other hand is a business investment on the part of the venue. They’re betting that they will sell enough drinks to cover for the cost of the show, and maybe tick up their average sales for that time. Comics should buy drinks or food, but they often don’t. This means businesses have to rely on civilians being willing to stick out an open mic comedy show to make up the bulk of that investment.
A good comedy show will always be better for the venue than a bad comedy show.
Those comics taking up the best slots before jetting off to another show? They’re not there because they’re the hosts friends. They’re there because they know what they’re doing. They will keep butts in the seats and at the bar for longer than you could right now.
It may not seem like it if you’re waiting from sunset ‘til midnight for your chance to test your jokes, but this arrangement benefits you too.
In an actual comedy show, you theoretically build up. Each comic better and better until you hit the headliner. At an open mic, it’s sort of reversed. If you have stronger comics, comics more likely to succeed with their new jokes up front, that warms up the crowd. If you had their spot, the crowd would be lost early in the show, and no one after you would even have a chance.
It’s not your spot in the line-up that prevents you from crushing, it’s you.
Yes, usually the crowd is fading by the time you get up anyway. But if things were reversed, you would go up early and bomb (but maybe more mildly than you would otherwise), the crowd would be disappointed and leave, and a more seasoned comic would go up later to a dead, empty room. Literally no one enjoys themselves in this scenario.
Instead, a more seasoned comic (who probably got there well after you) went up and got a decent reaction from a crowd who enjoyed themselves and were therefore more willing to stick around and enjoy more of the show. This gives you a fighting chance to not have a terrible set.
Is it ever appropriate to ask the host when you’re going to be going up? Not really. They have enough on their plate. You will get up eventually. If you have somewhere else to be, plan better. Or go up and offer to take yourself off the list. Usually a host will try to accommodate you or remember you for next week (and appreciate that you were not a dick about it).
If you are so convinced that the open-mic host has done you wrong by making you wait that you feel the urge to complain to the bar staff or manager, you are the whitest person ever.
You would rather risk the possibility of depriving comics of a resource (and a host of income) than wait or go somewhere else? You need to re-evaluate your life more than you need to do comedy.
Also introduce yourself to the host so they know who you are, try to remember that jokes have punchlines, and don’t run the light.
I can’t guarantee you success in comedy. I can only advise on some ways you should behave if you don’t want to be immediately ostracized from the community you hope to dominate be a part of.
The most basic way to succeed at open mics is the most basic way to succeed in every other aspect of your day-to-day life.
Don’t be a gaping butthole.