Advice for Open Mic Comedians from a Professional Open Mic Audience Member
I have attended a LOT of open mic comedy over the years. Like, we've been going to open mics for 10 years now- for a lot of that time it was a weekly event. Like now! We're back on that weekly open mic schedule and it's really nice being regulars at a place again.
And, personally, it's really nice being able to watch people work on their words again.
I love open mic comedy. Honestly, I probably enjoy going to open mic shows more than I do polished professional shows.
From an inspiration and creative standpoint, they're just more interesting to me. The regular audience members get to see growth and they're present for those magical times when a first timer gets up on stage and has the *it*. Those are some of the best times.
Yeah, there's a lot of crap to wade through, I know. So many people trying the same sorts of material over and over again to the same results. Over and over and over again, ad nauseum.
They do not understand the point of a open mic, I don't think.
If you're just going up there and telling the same 5 minutes of comedy, the exact same way every time, the purpose of the open mic has not been fulfilled. I don't mean simply toying around with the same concepts every week, I mean doing the exact same set word for word every single week, in and out. It's painful from the perspective of an audience member and I can't imagine it's that much fun for the comic, either.
Especially when they're not getting any laughs.
To me, that's not doing open mic work. That's simply recitation.
Open mics are the place you try out the bits you're not sure will work - that's how you find out. So, like, comedians, I'm speaking to you directly... If there's a joke that crosses your mind and makes you giggle and you wonder, "I wonder if anyone else would laugh at that?" WRITE IT DOWN.
And then spend a little bit of time making it into a preformable bit and see if it gets a laugh. If does, awesome! Add it to your repertoire of jokes, work on it, see how it feels to draw it out and make it a longer joke. Or try the opposite way - try to write/perform the joke in as few words as possible.
You know, play with it. Fuck around with it. Have fun with the words. Try 'em out in different combos!
And if it doesn't get a laugh, no biggie! At least you tried! And now you know how it feels to say the words aloud in front of an audience and how their faces look when they react to it. If it was disgust and horror or, even worse, pure nonchalance and boredom, it's probably best to put that joke away.
Regardless what you choose to do with the jokes that your try at open mics, here is the most important thing:
Do not blame the audience. They are there for you to try out material on, you should treat them with respect not use them as a punching bag.
I'll say it again for the comedians on the patio smoking.
DO NOT BLAME THE AUDIENCE WHEN A JOKE DOESN'T WORK.
Listen to them. Take their reaction to heart. Even if you think it is a venue-specific instance of the joke not working - don't blame the audience. Just take the note and move on.
Oh, and here's another important thing while I have your attention.
Don't bag on the venue.
Seriously. There is a thing called "lowest common denominator comedy" and complaining about the venue you're currently performing in is one of its finest examples.
I mean, RUDE. They are giving you a space and time to perform and you're shitting on them? Why would they want to keep having comedy there, then?
And what's worse - you get only five minutes to perform, to try out material and joke changes at this open mic and instead of doing that, you're just saying stupid things about the venue that aren't funny. What a waste of everyone's time!
Especially yours. You're really doing yourself a disservice if this is how you spend your performance time at an open mic. The audience that's there wants to see your comedy, not your complaints!
Even deeper on this one - don't use your 5 minutes of open mic time to hit on the bartender. If you want to get to know them better, cool. Do it in a less public way that might foster a real connection (if that's what you truly want). Don't put someone who is just trying to their job in an uncomfortable position.. that radiates to every single other person in the room. This happens at least once at most open mics I've been to. Most of the times - more than once, as long as the bartender is a female. Yech.
None of this is to say that I think that comedians shouldn't work on their crowd work during open mics. Quite the opposite in fact. I 100% support comedians devoting a portion of their open mic sets to crowd work. It's a great place to try stuff out.
However, part of working on crowd work is learning how to pick up on cues from audience members. This is important because that will help you figure out who is receptive to being roasted and who is not. Look for signals like avoiding eye contact or crossed arms and maybe don't call them out. Look for someone with open body language who is engaged in your set and use them to work on crowd work. You'll get much better results that you can carry over into your professional gigs.
Also, don't assume that just because someone was open to being roasted or called out one time, that they will be in the same mood the next time. That's why reading body language is so important.
Just the other night we were at an open mic show and I was sitting right near the front, as we do sometimes. I was, of course, roasted by two comedians.
One, I didn't mind at all. He had original thoughts and stood behind his words. He made it a brief moment in his set and then. went back to trying out material. When his set was over, he came over and shook my hand and thanked me and went about his day.
The other one, did not read my turned away and eye avoidant body language and made making generic white lady jokes (like the kind my dead grandpa would send me on via email if he were still alive) in my general direction. And then under his breath said, "I'm just kidding" after every unhurtful and unoriginal insult.
Just a sad display really, so I mostly turned my brain off during the rest of his set. At the end of his set, he turned to me again and said, "What do you have to say to that?" to which I replied, "I have no idea. I was not listening."
That got a bigger laugh from the host than the previous five minutes did.
A lot of magic happens at open mics though and I think more people should go to them. I know the comedians need an engaged audience to perform to and their comedians friends aren't always the best for that. They're focused on their own sets. So, if you're looking for something unusual to do one night, do a quick google to see if there are any open mics happening in your area and go watch 'em work!
My absolute favorite Open Mic Magic is when a comedian tentatively starts a new joke concept and it goes just okay. But then a few weeks later, they're back and they try the same joke again and you can tell they've really been working at it. There are new connections and new punchlines and the audience can really see the growth. It's like being there for the origin of a superhero, but in joke form.
I dunno, I just think that's kinda cool. There is a joke premise from a comedian we see here very week that I'm keeping an eye on. He told it the very first time we saw him and every single time he's gotten on stage since, I wait in anticipation that he'll tell it again.
He has told it again too! Once a couple weeks ago and I was so delighted, because I could hear all the work he'd put into it. It's a weird, out there joke, but it's so fucking funny. With a lot of good beats and punchlines. And I can't wait to hear how it's grown the next time he chooses to perform it.
Ahh, I love comedy.
In conclusion, I know I ain't shit. I'm not up there every week doing the thing, playing with words and silences until five solid minutes of comedy emerges. It's hard, I know. I tried it a couple times and will try it again up here when I get my guts up and feel all comfortable and shit.
I'm obviously much more comfortable writing than I am saying things out loud.
I remember when we three went to the improv group and I was introduced to live comedy :)
You don’t have to be a fabulous comedian yourself to provide meaningful, valuable feedback. It’s like being a program director – I was not a funny morning show person, but I knew where the ‘beats’ were and what works. So I could helpfully critique people and make them better. That is what you’re doing, polishing the dull stone until its shiny :)