June 2021 Edit: I wrote this when I was very new to doing open mics and didn’t know anything about anything. The short, simple version of how to get started in stand-up is to write as much new material as you can and get as much stage-time as you can, and keep doing it over and over again for as long as it takes to get good or for you to lose interest.
The long version:
I’ll start this post with a big fat caveat; I am still new to stand-up comedy myself, so I’m not pitching this as any kind of expert advice. I’ve been doing the open mic circuit in London for about six months and thought it might be useful to share some of the stuff I wish I’d known before I got started.
One of the best things about stand-up comedy is that it has low barriers to entry, pretty much anybody could give it a go if they wanted – you just go to an open mic night, ask for a spot, and then you get five minutes of stage-time. If you live in a big city like London or New York, you’re going to have lots of choice for comedy open mic nights, whereas your options will be more limited in smaller towns. I found Facebook to be the most useful resource since most open mics have a Facebook page, whereas many of them don’t have standalone web pages and a lot of the information you’ll find on Google is often out of date.
If you do a search in Facebook for open mics in your town, you’ll discover what your options are. You might find some open mics dedicated to comedy, or sometimes you’ll find mixed nights where you’ll be sharing the stage with musicians, poets and other types of acts. Ideally you want a dedicated comedy night, if possible.
Not all open mic nights are the same, and different local scenes have their own norms. A few of the things to bear in mind are:
- Venue: sometimes you’ll find open mics being run in real comedy clubs, although usually on a quiet night like a Monday so that it doesn’t get in the way of their professional nights. In London most of the nights take place in the private rooms of pubs and bars.
- Booking: most of the more popular nights require you to book in advance to reserve your spot and the details of how to do that are usually on their Facebook page. They usually book spots one month beforehand.
- Walk-ins: many of the nights which require bookings also offer a small number of spots to people who just show up on the night, usually to fill the the spaces left by people who chicken out at the last minute. You usually need to arrive earlier in the evening than the booked acts to reserve your spot, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get one. In London, there are few nights which are entirely open to walk-in acts.
- Bringers: a lot of open mics in London are “bringers” which means that you need to bring a +1 with you or you won’t be allowed to perform. Bringer nights ensure that there’s a decent audience for the acts (they also help support the venues by bringing in extra customers to buy drinks). The downside of bringer nights is that it can start to be a problem finding people to come with you if you do a lot of them.
- Pay-to-play: some nights will charge you a fee to perform, although this isn’t common. There’s one open mic in London I know of that charges everybody a £5 entry fee, whether they want to perform or not. Some people dislike this approach, but it’s an easy way to get some stage time without having to book or find a bringer. Most nights are free, although they’ll often ask for a voluntary donation at the end of the show, to help with running costs.
When you find an open mic night to perform at, and you understand the entry rules, you’ll need to think about what you’re actually going to say on stage. You’ll almost always get five minutes of stage-time – so make sure you’ve got about five minutes worth of material.
You get FIVE minutes, no more
It’s hard to gauge the length of your set because you don’t know how much people are going to laugh. Lots of laughter means you’ll have less time to deliver your jokes, no laughter means you’ll probably finish your set early. Finishing early is fine, but you should never go over five minutes because that messes with the MC’s schedule and will piss them off.
Usually at an open mic night they’ll have a way of signalling that you’ve got a minute left – either flashing a light from the back of the room, or discretely waving from the side of the stage. You’ll notice a lot of amateur stand-ups wearing the same Casio digital watches, because they have easy to use stop-watches on them which makes it easy to check exactly how much time you’ve got left.
You won’t get heckled
If you’re worried about getting heckled, don’t be. It almost never happens on the open mic circuit in London – generally speaking the crowd is on your side. Almost everybody at an open mic will be a newish comedian or one of their friends, they’re not going to give you a hard time.
Going alone is OK
You might also be feeling a bit nervous about going to an open mic night alone if you can’t (or don’t want to) bring a friend. Again, don’t be. These nights are full of people who show up by themselves, you’ll often see people sitting around on their own, staring at their phones or their notepads. Once you’ve done a few nights it won’t take you long to start recognising the same faces and making friends.
You will bomb, but that’s fine
What you will have to deal with is bombing, and five minutes can feel like a long time when all the audience is giving you is indifferent silence. No matter how good you are, there will be nights where the audience isn’t into what you’re doing, or you’re performing to a handful of other acts just waiting for their turn to go up. You’re going to bomb, maybe on your first night, maybe on your tenth, be mentally prepared for it so you don’t fall to the urge to quit when it happens.
Stay to the end
It’s always good etiquette to stay for the whole night, even if your spot is early. It sucks for the acts who have to go on late in the evening when everybody else has gone home and they have to perform to a dead room. Sometimes it’s unavoidable but, if you routinely leave open mic nights early, people will notice and you’ll get a reputation as somebody who’s not willing to support fellow acts.
Should you do a stand-up course?
You don’t need to do a comedy course – if you think you can do this, my advice is to visit a couple of open mic nights to check out how they work, and then put your name down for a spot when you’re feeling ready.
However, maybe you’re lacking a bit of confidence and just need an extra push, or you want a bit of help getting started for some reason. There are plenty of successful acts who started by doing a course, so I think it’s really just down to how you want to find the motivation to get started.
The bottom line is that you really don’t need to over-think any of this – there are few rules or expectations at this level of comedy. Find a night, get a spot, do your best to make people laugh for five minutes. If it doesn’t work, have a drink and try again another night.
Some extra thoughts from my comedy buddy, Pauline Stobbs, who started at the same time as me:
Really put some thought into what you want to say before you go on stage. It’s not the same as telling a funny story by the photocopier at work or down the pub with your mates because you have to frame it first before you get to the funnies. Remember, your friends and colleagues probably already have a lot of the backstory and context needed to understand why your joke is funny – an audience won’t have that, so think about what information they need in order to find the punchline funny.
Think about what you want to say, not just the words, but if it’s a point you’re trying to make, whether that’s word play through puns or some infuriating political issue or some curious observation.
A really important thing I would say is there’s a place for everyone in the open mic circuit. The humour is so broad at open mic nights that whatever your gender or background there will be a place for you and your material. Don’t feel like you won’t be welcome, or you won’t fit in – it’s a broad church, and there’s only one rule: be funny.