Note: Embedded Multimedia in this chapter — 2 Audio Files.
In this chapter, my goal is to give you some idea about what to expect when you first start performing. Most newcomers to stand-up comedy simply learn this stuff over time (usually the hard way).
Sometimes they don’t learn this stuff at all — either because they don’t seem to know exactly what to pay attention to or because they give up before the “trial-and-error learning system” provides the information they need to know.
The beginning of your stand-up comedy career can be a very interesting time to say the least. But there’s no reason you should have to go through it completely blind.
Also, keep in mind this one thought:
Everybody started somewhere at sometime.
Yes, even people like Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Dennis Leary, Ray Romano, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, David Brenner, Dennis Miller, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, etc. At one time, they were all new and they all sucked. But you weren’t there to see them when they were brand new and sucked.
All you see now is their brilliance. But they didn’t just fall out of the sky and onto a stage, killing audiences left and right. They all started somewhere, and they all worked their way to where they are now, some faster than others. If you are truly funny, you can too. If you are not truly funny… well, that’s another story.
Everyone seems to have a different experience the first time they set foot on the comedy stage. Normally, one of three things will happen to you on your virgin performance:
• Scenario #1 — You step on stage and just slay the audience. You can’t seem to figure out why you didn’t try this sooner.
• Scenario #2 — You get some laughs on parts of your set. The other parts lay there like a dead fish. You can’t seem to figure out why all your material didn’t work.
• Scenario #3 — You don’t get any laughs. You can’t seem to figure out what made you try this stupid stand-up thing in the first place.
Let’s take the first scenario. This didn’t happen to me but I have seen it happen to new performers. They slay their very first time on stage and make the mistaken assumption that stand-up is just a cakewalk. But that mentality soon goes away on subsequent performances, because they can’t seem to consistently capture what happened during that very first performance. I want to explore possible reasons why this happens.
I think that an individual who kills on stage his very first time does so because he has something to say and has passion about what he has to say. He doesn’t know what he is “supposed” to do, so he resorts to the only thing he knows — being himself. So, why doesn’t he just kill time after time thereafter? There are several key reasons that are discussed in detail throughout this guide.
One reason could be the performer himself. Maybe he tries all new material every time he goes on stage. Maybe he wasn’t really that passionate about the stuff he talked about on the first run and can’t deliver the material with the same level of intensity. Maybe he becomes “self-aware” and starts thinking about what “he should be doing” on stage — then, without realizing it, he starts drifting away from being himself and drifts toward doing his impression of a comedian. Any of these can have an impact on a new comedian’s performances.
There are other factors as well. The audience may have been perfect for that first performance — a stand-up comedy audience, many people in the crowd, attentive, etc. Subsequent audiences may not have quite fallen into this category.
The environment may have been perfectly suited for stand-up comedy on the first try. Subsequent performances may happen in rooms that are not quite as suitable for stand-up comedy as others are.
My point here is that there can be a number or reasons why a performer kills that crowd on his first performance. There are also reasons why that same performer can have a string of performances that don’t meet the same level as the first one.
My first time on stage in 1992 when I finally committed to becoming a comedian fell into the second scenario. I got some laughs, but most of my set stunk.
I think this is probably where a lot of new comedians start. I got just enough response to keep me going but I was frustrated at the overall low level of laughs I was getting. Again, the same factors I described in the first scenario can contribute to this.
The third scenario is, well… ugly to say the least.
In most cases that I have seen, the primary reasons for the third scenario (in addition to the reasons I’ve already mentioned) include:
• The performer was completely unprepared. He had no idea what he was going to say. So, he just rambled on about anything without any structure or point to what he had to say.
• The performer tried jokes he thought should work — but none did.
• The performer had some sort of goofy, made-up persona or character that the audience didn’t buy into or appreciate at all.
• The performer tried to talk with some of the audience members and tried to make something funny happen instead of having an act.
Make no mistake. Stand-up comedy involves a learning process that requires you to get experience on stage. Period. There is nothing in this guide that can prevent you from meeting the requirement of getting experience on stage. It is a craft, a skill, and an art that must be practiced and honed. But there are many things in this guide that can help you get the most out of each stage experience you have and shorten the path you will need to take to get your act together.
Everybody remembers their first time on stage. Here is an audio clip of a very funny comedian friend of mine, Scott Bowman, telling the story of his first time on stage.
Scott Bowman Interview Clip
√ Do practice your act beforehand. Know what you are going to say and how you are going to say it.
√ Do evaluate your performance afterward — good or bad. You need to rapidly determine what works and what doesn’t. You also need to evaluate your performance in relation to a host of other factors covered in this guide so that you can make an objective determination of your progress.
√ Do know that just getting on stage is an accomplishment by itself! Know that only a very small percentage of the population can get in front of a group of people to speak about anything, much less make them laugh.
√ Do realize that it takes time and effort to get consistently good at stand-up comedy. How long is largely dependent upon you. Make the most of each performance on stage.
√ Do have fun. This may be difficult at first, but let me ask you this: If you are not going to have some fun, what are you doing this for? In the beginning, having fun is all about your attitude. If you think you will have fun, you will. If you think that you won’t, chances are very, very good that you won’t.
⊗ Don’t sweat the load. If you don’t do so hot on your first several performances, don’t worry about it. Comedy careers are not made in a handful of performances. Use the evaluation tools I give you in this guide to improve your act each time you get on stage.
⊗ Don’t get cocky if you do well your first couple of times on stage. There are dozens of different kinds of audiences, environments, and performance situations that you have not been exposed to. Evaluate every success you have on stage. Know what you are doing and always prepare to repeat that success at the next show, wherever or whenever it may be.
⊗ Don’t worry so much about the “script” you have developed for your act. If you stray from it, no biggie. The only person in the room who’s going to know if you miss a word or a line or add words or lines is you. The important thing is to repeat any success you have on stage whether you plan it or it happens by accident.
Most comedians start performing at the beast called the “open mike,” as well as at the monster known as the “hell gig.” Open mikes are shows that let anyone get on stage to perform. Hell gigs are shows in — how shall we say it — less-than-desirable locations, such as biker bars, homeless shelters, and funerals. Both open mikes and hell gigs give the new performer an opportunity to try his or her skills.
Now, sometimes the two are combined; you can have open mikes at hell gigs. But some open mikes are not hell gigs (such as those at established comedy clubs), and not every hell gig is an open mike (some are paying gigs that you stumble upon as you develop and network with other comedians). Still, the point remains: When you first begin your stand-up comedy career, you will mostly be doing open mikes and hell gigs.
Open mikes and hell gigs are not for new comedians only. You will find that seasoned comedians may also use open mikes and hell gigs to try out, test, and hone new material. Also, because there is a fine line between becoming a big star and remaining one of thousands of anonymous, yet very good, comedians around the world, many professional comedians continue to perform at hell gigs just to pay the bills (Stand-up comedy in the comedy club market does not pay as well as it used to.)
I will discuss some of these hell gig locations in this section. I will discuss other shows for seasoned comedians (e.g., colleges, cruise ships) later in this guide.
Before I discuss the different locations for these types of gigs, let me share some generalities about these shows with you…
• The audience in attendance tends to be larger at the beginning of the night and has a tendency to dwindle as the night progresses.
• These audiences can be attentive or inattentive.
• In some cases, the new comedian may be required to bring a certain number of audience members in order to participate in the open mike.
• Most of the time there is a list, which the comedian must get on in order to perform. You should find out ahead of time what the rules are for getting on the list and follow them. Also know that it’s not uncommon for the rules to change frequently and without notice.
• By the time you get to the stage, several really awful new comedians may have just beat the audience down into a non-laughing state. In the movie Punchline, one comedian refuses to trade spots in the lineup with another comedian. Why? Because the spot is right behind a really horrible comedian who always gets the audience “into a fucked up state,” as one of the comedians puts it.
Following a horrible comedian, or a string of them, is not a joyful experience and can definitely affect the response you get from a crowd (at least initially when you start your act). However, if you can turn such an audience around, you’ll know that you truly are funny.
• You are given a limited amount of time to perform (usually 3-5 minutes).
• In many cases, your position on the list is directly related to your ability on stage. In other words, the funnier you are, the better your chances of getting a sweeter spot in the lineup. A lot of open mike comedians like to spend all their time complaining about the crappy spots they continuously seem to get (whether that’s the truth or merely their perception of the truth). But if you are not funny, your chances of a bad spot are greater.
Conversely, if you are truly funny, your chances of a good spot are greater. Yes, sometimes internal politics can play a factor in who performs where in the lineup, but more times than not, that’s merely a sad excuse that poor comedians use to explain why they keep getting poor spots in the lineup.
• These shows are usually held on the worst possible night of the week. Comedy clubs usually reserve Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights for their three-person professional shows. And even places such as bars and coffeehouses often keep these prime evenings free for bands or other things.
This means you will find yourself performing on a lot of Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings, when most potential audience members prefer to stay home and watch Dawson’s Creek or other fine quality television.
I guess now would be a good time to talk about one of the countless hell gigs I have had the pleasure of performing at.
I got a call to perform at a bowling alley lounge in Anaheim, California. It was the first time comedy was to be offered in the room. I had no idea what to expect as far as audience turn-out or their interest in comedy. I have had both good and not-so-good experiences in these lavish bowling alley settings.
When I showed up, there were about 20 people in the room. Half were interested in the show, the other half were interested in the TVs that they kept on during the show. (They did turn off the sound.) It was a two-person show. I was headlining the gig after the opener/feature act did her thing.
I stood in the back of the tiny room watching the opening comedian perform. She had a rough start (as could be expected), but she was a good comedian and was starting to get the crowd going. She was about 15 minutes into a 25-minute set when a drunken bowler entered the room. He began talking very loudly to the woman who was managing the door. Suddenly, without warning, he turns to the stage and shouts, “You suck! Get off the stage! Bring up a funny comedian!”
The comedian was a bit stunned and tried to ask the drunken bowler some questions. But right away, the biggest audience member got up from his chair and walked over to the drunken bowler. Apparently, he had been enjoying the show and didn’t appreciate the comments made by the bowler.
No more than 4 feet in front of me, the large man looked down at the bowler and said, “You need to shut up.” The wasted bowler looked up at the gigantic man and shouted, “No, I don’t have to shut up! And you…”
He never got to finish that particular sentence, because he was suddenly busy saying other sentences like “Oh, God” and “Please don’t.”
This is because right in mid-sentence, the huge man picked him up by the neck, pushed him through the door, and began to pummel the bowler severely upon the front of his head in what appeared to be a most aggressive and deliberate manner.
Immediately, the entire audience in the lounge rushed out the door to participate in the festivities. Only a bartender, myself, the other comedian (who was in a state of shock), and the comedy booker were left in the room. Meanwhile, the entire bowling alley outside the door of the lounge erupted into a frenzied mob scene with many people, not to be left out, participating in the unexpected beating festival.
The police came. The ambulances came. My part of the show started about an hour later than it was supposed to with 10 people in the audience who weren’t too bloody and the police in the back of the room taking statements.
That folks, qualifies as a hell gig. But I have to say, this was one of the most exciting to date. Most are just yucky.
Anyone who has been performing stand-up comedy for more than a few months has at least one hell gig story. Here is one from another comedian friend of mine, Tony Calabrese.
Tony Calabrese Interview Clip
Some of these open mike nights and hell gigs can be somewhat discouraging to say the least. There may be fewer than 10 people in the audience. Stand-up comedy is about group dynamics. The larger the audience, the better chance you will have to evaluate your skills accurately on stage. The larger the audience, the better your chances to get the laugh response you want.
However, I want you to realize that it is the open mike and hell gig that will ultimately bring attention to new comedians and propel them into other work (hopefully paid work). Open mikes and hell gigs are extremely important. If you can make open mike and hell gig audiences laugh, no matter how big or small, you can make any audience laugh.
As a new comedian, the real key to success is to not get discouraged. When you finally get the nerve and are ready to give your first performance, you might just find that there are two people left in the audience. One of them may be asleep. Don’t get discouraged. Every comedian I know has had to deal with this.
Just like virtually every comedian, I started my comedy career in 1992 at an open mike. I vividly remember my first time on stage. I was last in a long list of comedians. I remember watching audience members trickle out of the room as the night progressed.
By the time I got on stage, there was no audience left. So the comedians in the room moved into the seats in front of the stage for my 3 minutes on stage. Needless to say, it was not the most uplifting experience. But I was bound and determined to not let this one performance keep me from my dream of being a stand-up comedian.
My words of advice:
• Develop your act as quickly and as efficiently as you can. The better you are, the less time you will spend doing open mikes and hell gigs.
• Realize that if you can kill at these gigs, you are really approaching invincibility on stage.
Let’s talk a little more about these gigs and why you should look at them in a positive way. That’s right, I said a “positive way.”
As I mentioned before, open mikes and hell gigs can take place in a variety of locations, some of which are mentioned in this section. How do you learn about these shows? Easy. Look in the entertainment section of a local newspaper.
Start with an open mike at a comedy club, coffeehouse, bar, etc. nearest to you. Once you perform at one show, you will meet other comedians, who are usually more than happy to tell you about all of the other hole-in-the-wall gigs in your area.
It may be tempting to look down upon many of these gigs, but these are the shows that are going to help you become a good comedian. They help you get used to performing, and if you can kill at these gigs, you can kill anywhere.
The important thing to realize is that you need all the stage time you can get in order to become a good comedian. That’s why you should do any shows you can find, no matter where they may be.
• Many comedy club managers draw their opening acts from the new comedians who are doing well at the open mikes held at the club. Some comedy clubs will hire new comedians as staff — waitresses, waiters, bartenders, etc. These folks may get more open mike stage time as a result.
Getting the maximum stage time you can, especially in the beginning, is one of the fastest ways to hone your skills, develop your act, and progress as a comedian.
• Some comedy clubs will allow established new talent to watch the regular paid comedy shows for free. This is a great opportunity to watch professionals in action, examine performing styles, and really see how the seasoned professional works his craft. I recommend that you watch professional comedians in person anytime you can.
• More alcohol and regular patrons can mean a higher ratio of drunks in the audience, which means a louder audience with a greater potential for hecklers.
• More alcohol, on the other hand, may also mean that the audience may be happier than other audiences (e.g., coffeehouse audiences, who are drinking outrageously expensive coffee).
• More alcohol means more brain cells have been killed. This means they usually will not get any of your Barbi Benton references. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know who Barbi Benton is.
• There’s a good chance that people may be playing pool, video games, Keno, etc. during the show. These are very talented people.
• Generally, it’s a much quieter crowd. Some of them may even be studying or reading. Watching you may not be their first priority.
• Books and lack of alcohol sometimes means the audience may be “tight,” which is another word comedians use to describe audiences that are accepting of a very narrow spectrum of comedy. This means you may need to watch the content of your material more closely.
• Books and lack of alcohol means more brain cells. Your “intelligent” material, therefore, may have a greater chance of success.
• See story earlier about the brawl.
• Bowling alleys can be similar to bars — lots of noisy, stupid, drunk people. There may be kids in the audience. Anytime you see kids in the audience, it shouldn’t keep you from doing your act. If the parents are foolish enough to bring their children to an adult comedy show, that’s their business.
However, other audience members might be sensitive to the fact that kids are present and may not appreciate it if you are not sensitive to it too. So, you may need to watch what material you do. That’s one of several reasons why I encourage comedians to try to develop acts that are as clean as possible.
• Hospital crowds can be great because they’re starved for entertainment besides just peeing in bed. In the movie Punchline, Tom Hanks’ character performs at a hospital hell gig, which goes extremely well. He spends some of his time just riffing (talking to the audience and improvising), which can be a good idea with small crowds at hell gigs.
• People in hospitals tend to be sick. Just make sure you’re sensitive to the fact that some of them may have cancer, etc. You won’t want to include your “I think cancer is okay” material.
• Also, you may have kids again. Kids with cancer and hemorrhoids and stuff. You can either be a hero to these people, or you can be the devil. If you’re smart about it, it’s not hard to be the hero.
OLD FOLKS HOMES
• Older people tend to be more conservative. This affects the type of material you can do and still have success.
• Older people are old. They may not be able to hear you, understand you, or know where they are.
• They can be a very friendly crowd, but may be “tight” and nervous about what you’ll say. This is just one more example where you need to keep your act clean.
HOMELESS SHELTERS/HALFWAY HOUSES
• They can be great crowds. They like to laugh as much as anybody but often don’t have as much reason to.
• Keep in mind that if you’re doing a show for people recovering from drug addiction, etc., then material about how much fun cocaine is might not go over so well.
• You’ll be performing outside, which will greatly affect the laughter from the crowd. There are no walls for the laughter to bounce off of; the laughter just disappears somewhere out over the jungle gym.
• There will likely be kids and families. You will probably need to watch the kind of material you do.
• It depends on the restaurant. You might be in a separate room within the restaurant, which can be fine. Or you might be right out there for everyone to see (kids, families, etc.). Again, you might need to exercise discretion on the material you do.
COMEDY TRAFFIC SCHOOL
• This can be an excellent place to hone your skills. It’s where I got started. (However, not every state has this thing called traffic school.) You will have the opportunity to talk in front of people for hours and hours. You won’t get that chance early on at any comedy show.
• You’re actually supposed to teach people about traffic laws and crap, but you can work in material in between, or just get used to being your natural funny self in front of strangers.
• People who are in traffic school are not happy to be in traffic school. It’s not like they’re out for a good time learning about stuff they already know. Just keep in mind that your audience may be crabby.
• You’ll have people from all walks of life sitting before you. Stupid driving knows no racial, social, or age barriers. Because of the mix, discretion is necessary not to tick off the more conservative, religious, or sense-of-humor-challenged folks who may be present.
This is not a complete list of the many kinds of places you may be performing at early in your career. I just wanted to give you an idea of the wide variety of locations where you may be able to perform stand-up comedy.
Now let’s look at some of the things you should and should not be doing when you are performing at open mikes and hell gigs. When you are performing at open mikes and hell gigs, it is extremely important that you get as much out of them as you can each time you are on stage.
√ Do give the same performance you would if there were 100 people in the room. Even if there are only 6 people left in the audience, they still expect a show. The size of the audience left when you get on stage should have no bearing on the effort you give to your performance.
√ Do record each and every performance. Get everything you can out of each time you are on stage, regardless of audience size. I will talk more about the value of recording your sets later.
√ Do network with other comedians. This is the best way to find out where all the local open mikes are happening in your area. Also, you may find a new comedy buddy; you can bounce your material off each other.
√ Do know it’s more difficult to follow really bad acts. The audience will probably be harder to bring around and get going at the beginning of your set if you follow a horrible comedian or a string of them.But on the brighter side, if you can follow a string of shitty comedians and turn the audience around, it’s a very positive sign of success.
√ Do be persistent! In the beginning, you may find it difficult to get on every open mike every time. As your comedy skills improve and your ability to make the audience laugh increases, your difficulty in getting on at open mikes will decrease.
√ Do treat others with respect, especially the MC. The MC can have a great impact on the amount of time you’re allowed, or if you get to perform at all. Some MCs relish their position of “power,” letting it go to their head. So it’s not uncommon to have to deal with MCs who are also jerks.
You just have to live with them as peacefully as possible, just like you have to live with other jerks in society. Then again, there are good MCs as well. You never know who you’ll be working with. That goes for gigs now, as well as for gigs far into the future.
√ Do start with a street joke and talk at your normal volume. Comedy clubs or other dedicated comedy venues are usually not the place to do street jokes. However, there are times when street jokes can actually be very valuable to a comedian. This is one of them.
I’m not saying that you should always start out your act at hell gigs with a street joke. It depends on the circumstances. If the crowd is particularly inattentive, a really good street joke may be just the thing to grab their attention in the beginning.In the advanced lesson Street Joke Secrets for Comedians, I discuss every aspect of how to collect, edit, and use street jokes for maximum impact.
Another good trick is to simply talk at your normal volume level (or even lower) if the crowd is very loud and rowdy. You don’t want to get into a screaming contest with your audience. So do the opposite.
If you start telling a street joke at your normal volume level, sometimes a very interesting thing happens. People sense that they’re missing out on something and they’ll shut up to hear you. You may even get some audience members telling other people to shut up so they can hear.
Hey, if it works, great. If it doesn’t, well, they wouldn’t have been listening to you either if you were shouting. Might as well save your voice.
√ Do have fun! Open mikes and hell gigs are the best places to develop your stage comfort. You can’t ruin your comedy career at an open mike or hell gig. Up is the only place to go, unless of course, you are seriously not funny on stage. So relax and have fun. Hollywood doesn’t want you yet!
⊗ Don’t make snotty remarks about how there’s nobody in the audience. The audience that is there, no matter how small, will not appreciate being put into a group labeled as “nobody.” It’s not their fault nobody else came or the rest of the folks already left.
This is a very common mistake I see comedians make time and time again — even so-called “professionals.” I’ve been at many open mikes where just about every single comedian who went on stage spent half their time whining about what a pathetic show it was because only 10 people came.
Don’t be one of those comedians; they’re destined to remain in the ditches of stand-up comedy with their crappy attitudes.
⊗ Don’t make unprofessional comments about the other comedians or the staff members. I’m talking about unwarranted insults that will make you look like a jerk. This is a quick way to make life-long enemies.
The exception to this rule is if somebody is being a real asshole and everyone agrees that this individual really deserves to get whacked. In that case, I think a well-placed remark would fall into the category of justice rather than unprofessionalism.
⊗ Don’t forget to let the MC know you’re there. The MC will most likely be running around like a freak, trying do this or that. And if he doesn’t know you, he has no idea if you’re there and whether to skip you or just blurt out your name, pronouncing it incorrectly and making you look like a schlep.
⊗ Don’t go over your stage time. Know how much stage time you are given and stick to it! New comedians quickly lose favor if they go past their stage time limit. Many places will have a red light or shine a flashlight to indicate you have a minute or two left to perform. If you get the light, go to your closing bit.
⊗ Don’t bug the hell out of management. Pestering those in power to give you more time, a better spot, or the opportunity to be the opener for the upcoming weekend just irritates people.
Guess what? You’re not the only one who wants more time on stage and to be given prime spots. There are 50 others just like you trying to get in good with the guy in charge. Yes, you want this person to notice you and give you opportunities. But being a gnat is not the way to do it.
The way to do it is to have a killer act. Funny can’t hide. If you’re drop-dead funny, management will notice and you’ll get opportunities.
You will see many of these ideas repeated in more detail later in this performing guide. For now, I simply want you to know what to expect when you first start performing on stage. I want you to understand certain things that many comedians don’t come to understand for many years (if at all).
With that in mind, let’s move on to the next chapter. We’ll take a look at the many factors that go into tightening your act when you start performing. There is so much you can do to improve your chances of success on stage…