So, you’ve got material (hopefully); now you just need a place to begin your newfound career, hobby, or impending disaster (if you’re seriously considering trying comedy, you’ve no doubt imagined all three scenarios repeatedly). There are a number of different places for new comedians to try out their material; this article will discuss the basics of where to find them, and how you act once you get there.
Comedy Club Open Mike Nights
Many comedy clubs around the country offer open mike nights. The best Internet listing I know of is at Chucklemonkey (www.chucklemonkey.com); be sure to check the website of your local club (or give them a call), because some of Chucklemonkey’s information is outdated. Some clubs offer a weekly open mike; others monthly or bi-monthly. Some clubs require that you sign up ahead of time via e-mail or telephone; others offer a sign-up list an hour or two before the show. Bear in mind that, in many cities, there is a great deal of competition for very few spots; if you’re calling ahead, try and give a few weeks’ notice. If you’re signing up at the club, arrive ahead of the posted time for sign-ups – I would recommend you be at least a half an hour early. I once arrived at an open mike at Philadelphia’s Laff House at the posted sign-up time – only to find a line stretched nearly around the corner. I was still able to get a spot – at about 11:20 p.m. after an 8 p.m. start time. It’s hard to get laughs after three hours of open-mic comedians; and anyone who came out to support you will likely, at that point, be bleeding from the ears.
An additional point about these shows: many comedy club open mikes are notoriously “clique-y”. There is likely a solid group of comics who have been there for months – even years – together, and they tend to know the management and the organizer. You may be told you’re next, only to watch someone walk through the door and go up ahead of you. How you choose to handle this is up to you – but, keep in mind, you may not want to make a scene if you decide to back again next time. Life isn’t fair, and comedy is even worse – this is just the beginning.
Neighborhood Open Mike Nights
There are open mikes all across this great land of ours – in coffeehouses, bars, restaurants, and anywhere else with a microphone and a stage, pallet, or cardboard box to stand on. If you’re considering one of these forums for your stand-up act, be forewarned – they may not want you there. Music- and/or poetry-based open mikers often frown upon comedians. There are exceptions to the rule, but you may find a very difficult audience. If you can accept that, more power to you; but if you’re wondering why all the stringy-haired dudes in black T-shirts went to the bathroom en masse during your set, bear in mind it may not be a reflection of your material. (It can also be tough, as I learned, to attempt a three-minute bit on cell phones immediately following a tearful ballad about someone’s sister committing suicide. And, yes, I’m serious.)
That said, one of the most important influences on the early part of my comedy career was a short-lived open mike at the Infrared Lounge in New York City’s East Village. I went the first night it opened, got to know most of the regulars, and it quickly became a spot where I could try any material with an appreciative but fair audience. I was the only comedian, so once it was accepted that I was reasonably funny, I became a break from the music – and even helped the show, by performing while musicians were changing instruments or resetting their equipment. Every joke I wrote in a span of six months, I tried there first. So, keep your mind open, but you might consider asking the organizer whether comedians are just “allowed” or actually enjoyed.
“Bringer” shows began in New York and Los Angeles, but have spread to clubs across the country. “Bringer” shows require comedians to bring a certain number of paying customers in order to perform. (The most common number is five, though I once did a show in New York that required comics to bring fifteen customers at fifteen dollars a head.) Working comics despise bringer shows, although for clubs, they are a quick way to put customers in the seats on days or at times when the club would normally be slow or even closed. (My first bringer show took place at 6:30 on a Sunday night.)
For a comic’s perspective, New York bringers offer a chance to perform in an established club in front of a (relatively) large audience, and sometimes a chance to pad one’s resume; Jim Gaffigan closed one of my first bringer shows, and Jim Norton another. At clubs outside of New York and L.A. that have converted their open mikes to bringers, you may simply have to fulfill the bringer requirement in order to get stage time. In those cases, plan ahead; if you’ve got a number of friends and family who want to come, try and satisfy the minimum requirement. There’s no use bringing seventeen people to a five-person bringer (as I did, my first time out).
The most important thing to remember, particularly with New York bringers, is to not believe the hype. Many bringers are promoted in New York as offering a chance to “get in front of industry” or to “be seen by talent scouts”. Quite simply, it’s just not true. Comedy Central talent bookers are at festivals, and the Saturday late show at Comic Strip Live, not the 6:30 Thursday show at the Chuckle Hut.
Comedy club contests have been the bane of many a comedian’s existence. Subjective, frustrating, and often unfair, contests nevertheless remain an excellent way for new comics to gain valuable stage time. Since comedy is an inherently subjective medium – one man’s favorite comedian can make his best friend change the channel – it follows that the results of comedy contests can provoke a lot of disagreement. Many clubs issue the caveat that audience response is important – a subtle reminder to bring people to the show, preferably with fat wallets.
But, if you can keep your competitive juices down, contests do provide a solid opportunity for stage time. Like bringer shows, they often offer good audiences and an opportunity to meet fellow comics. The added bonus is that the club booker will often be in attendance (and often judging); I finished fourth in a recent contest yet still got work out of it.
At the Club
Once you’ve signed up for your first time, welcome and congratulations. Enjoy it, but remember the following rules:
1. Show up early. You should get there at least half an hour before the club tells you to arrive. This will give you time to settle your nerves, check out the room, and try to relax. It will also give you time to meet club management, other comics, or even friendly customers who now have a personal reason to laugh at your act.
2. Do not, under any circumstances, go long on stage. You will be given a set amount of stage time – do not go past your limit. There is no better way to make a poor, unprofessional impression than to run over your allotted time.
3. Seriously, don’t go long.
4. Watch the show. Don’t wander back and forth, or make calls on your cell phone. You’re young, you’re new, you know nothing. Watch the other comedians – see their styles, their jokes, the audience reaction. Granted, some of the comedy will be interminably bad (possibly including yours). But you can learn much about what not to do as a comedian by watching one, long, painful open mike.
5. Stay after the show, for as long as possible. My first rule of the comedy business is simple: Nothing bad happens to a comedian in a comedy club. Stick around and see what happens. Meet other comedians, club owners, customers, or even attractive waitresses (or waiters – we don’t discriminate here. Just keep in mind my second rule of the comedy business: Don’t date the staff. Ever. Seriously. I’m telling you from personal experience.)
Meet the customers after the show – see what they have to say. Meet other comics or even managers, and ask for feedback. It might be painful, but it will help you learn quicker – and it will plant an image of you as a professional, eager comic.
For earlier articles in the series, please see the following link(s):
This article was originally published on Suite101.com. Subsequent changes have been made.