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Comedy Open Mic Formats & Etiquette

Screw up your material, not your first impression, there's a difference.

Creepy children as a pictorial representation of comedians at the open mic

When you are new to comedy it can be a lot of information to take in and a ton of absolute hot garbage advice will be given so freely.  I'm writing these articles in an attempt to help a new aspiring comedian to hopefully be able to navigate the beginning a little bit easier. A sort of comedy for dummies type guide starting from the ground up.

In my first article I talked about signing up for the open mic and introducing yourself: 

I Want to Try Stand-up Where Do I start?

In this piece, I want to break it down a bit further. When you find that list of open mic's and sign yourself up you can possibly avoid some mistakes. Below is an example of an open mic list from UnsceneComedy.com which is an awesome resource for the Boston area.

Boston, MA

I realize that if you are reading this and not in Boston it does not help locate an open mic, but the examples are still relevant to what you will encounter anywhere in my experience. 

**(Sidenote)*** If you need help finding an open mic in your area please try Badslava (large list of open mic's).

Also, asking people, Googling it, or another form of common sense for finding information in the technology age. ****

Numbers For References

My handwriting looks like a two-year-old having a breakdown, wish I could blame it on the phone

1) It Says Contact For More Info info...Do That

  • Mic's will post that for many reasons, maybe they get packed up quickly, maybe they are trying to get more people, it could also be pre-booked, we don't know so why not send the email. It's a great way to introduce yourself anyways

2) Show and Go/Show Up and Go Up/ SUGU

  • This is most common type of open mic. All you have to do is show up
  • Then look for a bunch of other nerds, misfits, or the occasional "normal" appearing person, holding a notebook, and ask where the list is at
  • Put your name on the list
  • Find the host, and introduce yourself

3) List goes out at 9:15, Show at 9:30

  • Don't show up at 9:45 and wonder why you are #25 on the list. Take your number and sit down, or get there earlier.

Anyone that really knows me would laugh hysterically if I said I was writing a piece on time management or the art of punctuality, especially anyone that has been a former co-worker from the slew of day jobs I've had. It's a good habit to get into to show up early when you care about something. Let's say five months down the road you get a spot on a showcase that starts at 8 PM.

Show up at 7:30. Half hour or more leaves room for error.

**For those of us that are habitually late***

I have no idea if it's because I'm a comic or just wasn't raised on the same clock as society, or ever taught the importance of being punctual, but I had to learn to plan out traveling to an open mic, or show, by messing it up a whole bunch when I started. I once drove to Cape Cod, MA instead of Pawtucket, RI because I figured south is the right direction and didn't pull over to look at a map.

Yes, I'm Just Old Enough to Have Had to Use a Real Paper Map, but as an Example

I know you have probably totally forgotten, and definitely laughed with me about it, but I'm still really sorry Mike Murray.

Thankfully we mostly all have GPS at our fingertips now, or aren't as directionally challenged to start with. Figure out how long it will take to get there ahead of time and attempt to make a realistic expectation of if you need to find parking/make any stops. Is the train going to be overloaded at that time and there's delays? Are you facing rush hour? Does your significant other always seem to need to talk about something for 20 mins before you leave the house? etc.

Leave room for error. I hate rushing around trying to find a place knowing I have to be on stage in a few minutes, it's too much. Make a plan.

BostonComedyShows.com List (link in caption)

1.) Early Signups

Early signups on a website beforehand that you can choose a specific time. Make sure you are there for the time you sign up for. Simple solution, go early.

2.) Pre-booked

Self-explanatory, but if they are booked up for that week, maybe go watch anyways and see what the show is about, how many people are watching, what the stage is like, etc.

3) The Comedy Lottery Style

This is when you show up for sign up time, throw your name in a bucket and hope to get called up on stage. It's typically reserved for a very popular sign-up, mainly at well established comedy venues. If 100 open micers show up and each do five minutes, that's too much for one place or anyones brain to handle, thus the lottery helps it stay fair and manageable. 

Pay to Play Stage Time

From Stand Up NY's website

Pay to go on stage?

Yes. A common practice in cities larger than Boston. Why? Because they can, because you want stage time and so doesn't a billion other people. It does make you really think more about not wasting everyone's time when you go up, you want to get your money's worth too. Also they tend to be held at highly sought after venues. Food for thought.

  • There's plenty of free mic's in those cities as well, but notable to mention that nobody is busting your balls about shelling out a few bucks to go up. It's just how it is some places.

More on Etiquette ....

I'm No Classy Broad

I can't tell you how to meet your partners fancy parents, or land a corporate job based on first impressions or manners. I have neck tattoos and say F*@% a lot in normal conversation.  Thankfully, it doesn't hurt me too much in comedy, but there's still some basic guidelines of etiquette to go by that may seem like common sense, but somehow are not always.

Listen to the Other Comics

Have fun by watching other comedians. You didn't want to start doing stand up because you hate comedy. Listen, watch and learn a bit. See how a joke transforms in a person's set from the first time they told it and how they tell it in a few weeks.

Stop Talking

You see a bunch of your new found comedy buddies at the mic and have a lot to say to each other or maybe you brought a friend from the outside world. The middle of someone's set is not the time to chat. Whisper if you need to communicate something short. Give the same amount of respect to the person on stage as you want when you go up. If you really have to talk, go outside, go to the bathroom, just exit the direct area of the mic. 

Silence Your Phone!

Nobody wants to hear that go off. Also in that vein, social media can take a break. You are in a room trying to do a spoken word thing which is impossible with everyone's face buried in and illuminated by their cell phone the entire time. You don't need to be on it 24/7. 

Your Notes Aren't Going Anywhere

You want to make a few adjustments to your notes or don't want to forget something you just thought of. Cool, write it down. I use my phone for notes, some people use notebooks, but it still should not be the only thing you are paying attention to. Give respect to the person on stage.

Drinking and Smoking Weed

Both are legal and pretty common where I'm from, so I'm talking about it together. A lot of us enjoy this social aspect and open mic's tend to include it. Try to respect the wishes of the establishment and other patrons. Nobody likes a sloppy drunk, especially not one with a microphone. Just be mindful. Although potheads tend to be more giggly and less prone to falls, fights and slurring, I've seen it be an issue with the occasional spot that does not want the giant cloud of weed smoke in front of their restaurant. Just be mindful.

Tip The Staff

This really deserves its own longer separate post, but if you order a drink or fries or whatever, tip the staff. This is also a general life rule, people live off these wages. Being a decent human being aside, please help your open mic scene by buying something on occasion and tipping. I know we all aren't made of money, but buy something on occasion. Mic's tend to be around dinner/drinks time anyways. The manager might not want to continue hosting a comedy night if 20 people show up and only two of them create business for them. I've seen too many open mic's get permanently cancelled and given over to karaoke or trivia because those patrons pay. If an owner then asks the staff how comedy night is going you want them to say good things. You want a place to practice your set, respect the place.

Have Fun

Don't be an a-hole and don't be afraid to fail. You are figuring out your material in a trial by fire. Not everything is going to work, but it'll be a lot easier to figure out what does when people don't mind you being around because you are trying and giving respect to everyone else trying.

Don't Shout Out/Heckle

There will be plenty of time down the road to learn how to deal with hecklers. Start by not being one of them. You are not helping, you are wasting the small amount of time we are given at an open mic.  If someone asks a question that isn't rhetorical.. answer. Other than that stfu. You will be given your time to talk.

And as always if you want more articles and pro tips check out fellow comedian Pat Oates' articles.

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