Where to do your first stand-up comedy open mic spot

I get a lot of messages from people asking my advice on where they should do their first open mic spot in London, and the answer really depends on what you want to get out of the experience.

For most people your first open mic spot is all about just taking that leap and getting over your nerves. You shouldn’t be worrying about how well you remember your material, or if people are laughing at your jokes, you just want to get up on stage and talk in front of a room full of people for five minutes.

Sweet Steve at the Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash (pic by Julie Kertesz )

For my money the best place to do that in London is the Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash. It’s popular with first timers because it’s one of the few places where you can just show up on the night without booking in advance, and there’s a real anything-goes vibe there. It’s not a bringer, so if you don’t want your friends and family to know about what you’re doing just yet (and that’s a common feeling for newbies) it’s ideal.

The important thing is that it’s a low-pressure gig where it’s OK to fail, and that means it’s great for both newbies and more experienced acts trying out risky new material. It doesn’t matter if you forget your material, or it just doesn’t work, or your delivery is terrible, it’s all part of the game, and the MC, Boyce Bailey, is great at keeping the energy upbeat no matter what happens.

They call it the Comedy Car Crash for a reason, and it’s always entertaining, albeit sometimes for entirely the wrong reasons. When most people think of a stand-up comedy open mic night, the Lion’s Den is probably the closest thing in London to what they imagine it would be like. Broadly speaking the audience tends to be mostly made up of other acts hoping for a spot, but I’ve been there on some nights when people have brought along a large group of friends to watch them.

All that said, it’s not for everybody. Maybe you’re feeling confident and want to try performing at a night that feels a bit more like the kind of comedy club where you’ve probably seen professional acts. If that’s you, then Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish Arms is a really good bet.

It’s a bringer night, so you’ll need to take a friend, and you have to register a place about a month in advance. The flipside of that is there’s always a buzzy audience, because every performer brings at least one person, and there are usually at a handful of people who’ve shown up under their own steam.

This can be a positive because it’s easier to make a bigger crowd laugh but, if you really can’t wring any laughs out of them (which is a distinct possibility when you’re brand new) then your five minutes on stage are going to feel like five hours.

Although I recommend these two nights, it really doesn’t matter all that much where you do your first spot. It’s about taking that first step, knowing you’re probably going to eat shit for five minutes but doing it anyway just to pop your cherry. If you’ve decided you want to give stand-up a shot, you’re going to have to get used to performing in all kinds of rooms; busy, empty, buzzing, low energy, whatever, so just find a place you like and get a spot there.

If you’re a little nervous, go along to watch a show one night – you don’t need to book, and most shows are free (although they take voluntary donations at the end of the night). Once you’ve seen how an open-mic night works, you’ll feel more confident about getting up onstage yourself.

Losing at the Comedy Virgins summer competition

I’ve been away on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I’m a bit late writing up my last gig because I couldn’t be arsed doing it before I went away.

The gig was my heat of the Comedy Virgins summer competition, with the first prize being a full year of bringer-less spots at the Cavendish Arms, making it well worth a shot. Ironically, I was struggling to get a bringer for that night so, after scouring the Comedy Performers +1 Exchange Facebook page, I volunteered to help somebody out at G&B Comedy a few days earlier.

G&B is one of those gigs that has been around for a long time and gets mentioned a lot, but I’d never been there before so I was happy to go and check the place out. The venue, Arch1, is a tiny arts space, impressively squeezed into a low railway arch near West Ham and, since I’ve been idly toying with starting a local night in my part of town, this got me thinking about possibilities beyond the usual room-above-a-pub option.

It was a themed night, on the topic of growing old disgracefully, with all acts over the age of 35, so I felt right at home. My bringee was Lorraine Hoodless, trying out some material before she headed to Edinburgh for the Fringe, which seemed to go pretty well for her, and the only act in the room that I’d met before was Dicky Wright and he put in a solid performance too. I’ve never met Emily McQuade, although her name pops up a lot, and she was the highlight of the show for me, so I’m hoping to see her around some more.

So, my heat of the competition went pretty well, even though I wasn’t one of the two acts that went through to the final. The room was busy, with around 15 acts all dragging along at least one bringer, so by the time I went up at the end of the first half, the energy was high.

It was kind of a weird set for me, because I hadn’t gigged for a week and I was feeling a little rusty, so I tripped over a few words and ended up waffling too much, I was fiddling with the mic stand too much, not making enough eye contact with the audience, and generally not as sharp as I know I can be.

Most of all, I really noticed (again) just how slow my opener is, and in those first 30 seconds of my set the room was stone-cold silent. Dropping that first punchline is nerve-wracking, because I’ve made them wait a hell of a long time for it, and if it bombs then there’s no coming back from it. But I didn’t need to worry – the first bit landed really well, got a huge laugh, and then they were on board for the rest of my set.

So while I was on stage I was mentally cataloguing everything that I knew I was doing wrong, but at the same time the audience was really going for it. Every single thing worked well, and my closer rounded the set off nicely. I think if I can just learn to get out of my own way (i.e. stop thinking about what’s going wrong, and work with what’s going right in the moment) I’ll be able to improve my stage-presence a lot.  

During the break and at the end of the night I got a lot of really nice feedback from people, with a few saying that they were surprised I didn’t get through because they felt like I was the strongest act. But I wasn’t too worried about that – the acts who got through were both strong, and competitions which use an audience vote always throw up surprises. I was just happy that, despite my nitpicking, I’d comfortably delivered a really strong five minute set and got a good reaction from the audience.

Where now? I’m back from holiday and don’t have any spots booked, so I need to get on top of that. I’m also going to make time to get some more podcast episodes recorded, because I’m really keen to get that thing off the ground again.

I want to focus on new material too – I want to be able to feel as comfortable delivering a strong ten minutes as I currently do with my five, and I really need to find a punchier opener. At the final We Are Funny gig a few weeks back, Lenny Sherman gave me some nice feedback and suggested I open with some gentler material to really get the audience fully on-side before I dive into my darker stuff. It makes a lot of sense, so that’s something I’m going to work on.