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There's a million reasons why people want to start doing comedy, and it's hard to figure out where to begin. Big names like Kevin Hart and Sarah Silverman didn't just instantly sell out shows, they weren't immediately cast into movies, or stars of their own TV shows. They started their career where everybody does... the dreaded open mic.
What qualifies me to be able to write on this topic?
I'm not a name. I have been a comedian for almost a decade. I have done shows for everywhere between 5 people to 500 and make a living based off of comedy. It isn't good money, but I'm used to being mostly broke. I have done shows in bars, clubs, colleges theaters and even living rooms. I've been lucky enough to have opened for some comics that are a name.
Shouldn't somebody else be writing this?
Probably, but I'm writing based off my experience in attempt to help out the aspiring new comic.
If you want to do comedy for the money, please quit before you ever start. Stop reading, and never try. Do it because you like to do it. Unless you are some human calculator and truly love being an accountant or whatever those people do, doing what you truly love, typically doesn't pay well. Especially when you start out, thus the term starving artist has been around forever.
Things I always hear people say after stating they want to try comedy:
People have always told me I'm funny
My friends/ family/ co-workers said I should try it
I saw a comedy special on TV and I've thought the exact same thing as that comedian
I have all these ideas, I've written some of them down, what do I do with it?
I don't think "normal"
Maybe some of these sound familiar, maybe it's an entirely different reason, in any case you somehow came across this article wanting to learn how to start doing it. The answer is open mics.
Open mics are just what they sound like... open. Open to everyone to sign up and use the mic.
This is where you will be able to try it out in front of actual people instead of the mirror, or your car while you are stuck in traffic.
Before even signing up for stage time, you want to go in prepared. Most open mics will give you between 3-5 minutes of time to do material. Check with the host of the mic beforehand about the format and time you will be given.
I will post another article that differentiates the different formats and general guidelines/ etiquette.
Let's say you have found a mic that is going to give you 5 minutes. Now you have to write and fill 5 minutes of time. It can sound like a short span, but 5 minutes can feel like an eternity if you are only hearing your own voice. So prepare before you go, don't just expect that something funny is going to come out. Have a good idea about what you want to say. The best comedians make it look and feel like they are just coming up with these ideas on the spot. They're not. They started by writing an idea and working on it, to make it sound right. Then they test it, tweak it, try again until it's right. Then it's part of their act. The best comedians use that tried and true act to get a comedy special, then they start from scratch again too. Make a plan.
Write it out on paper, in your phone, or an email to yourself the jokes you have been thinking about. This can be funny stories, jokes you have been making for years, topics you find amusing, a hilarious thing you witnessed during the day etc.
Do NOT do jokes from any comedian you have seen/ heard, or a meme you read. We have all heard and seen these too. The only time you should do another person's original content is during A) karaoke B) If you are asked to roast them and it would be a great way to make fun of them, or C) you are an Elvis impersonator.
I just flew in, and boy are my arms tired. Then he smashed a watermelon
Using others material is the fastest way for everyone in your local comedy scene to have zero respect for you or anything that comes out of your mouth. You aren't funny because you can quote something. Be original.
After writing down your joke ideas. Read them out loud. Does it read the same way you would say it? If not, re-write it. Read it out loud again.
Sounding better? Great! Read it again and set a timer. How long is your set?
Unless you have a theater background, or are used to public speaking the time usually surprises people.
Aim to have 4 1/2 - 5 mins. Most likely this means you have to write 1 or 2 more jokes to fill the time.
Once you have that time filled. Memorize it. You are going to be telling jokes to a group of people, not doing a book report in class. Don't just read word for word off the paper. Try to remember your punchlines. Try saying it out loud without reading it. Most other comics at the open mics bring notes on stage with them. It it usually a word or 2 to remind them of the joke they want to tell. Comics call this a 'set list'. I included an example below from a mic I attended recently. I had a lot of ideas I wanted to work on that day.
Open Mic Set List. (long terrible version in caption)
Just one or 2 words you can go off of if you get lost. Practice your set this way. Keep repeating it to yourself or your dog/cat until you feel like you can tell that joke in its entirety by just looking at your set list.
You are ready to sign up! Find an open mic, introduce yourself to the host, and don't be shy about saying it is your first time. Everyone loves a virgin that's done a little homework. I pay closer attention to a comic that goes on stage and says they are new. Ask the host how they will let you know when your time is up or ' light you'. (Usually they will give you a 1 minute left warning, then a 'times up' by waving their phone)
Golden rule about doing your time:
*Always better to go way under than way over*
Have a fun night watching other comics at the mic, and ask around about the best places to go during the week for more stage time. You can find info online about other open mics, but the most accurate information is going to come from the people out doing it all the time. Maybe the time changed on the Tuesday mic or there's an email you have to send ahead to the host of the Thursday one. They will know.
Write original material
Create a set list
Don't be a D*@!head ( also generally in life )