You decided you want to try stand-up comedy. Congratulations. Whether it’s a bucket-list goal or you believe you’re the next Dave Chappelle, here are some tips to make your first (or next) time on stage a success.
Gather your jokes
Some people try to go onstage and wing it. Don’t be one of those people. Compile your set of jokes.
Whatever jokes you tell should say something about you. Anyone call tell a joke about the the president. You are the expert on your family, your friends, your life.
Write your ideas down
At first, I wrote down every joke by hand. Now I do a lot of the editing in my head, but I always carry a notebook or something to write down joke ideas.
If writing by hand isn’t your thing, type or dictate them into a phone. Ideas may come to you at any time. A cashier says something funny. You’re helping a friend move. If you have an idea, write it down or record it. If you are certain you’ll remember it later, you will be sorry.
A pretty good way to spot a comic is to find someone scribbling in a well-worn notebook.
Practice your routine
Go over your material. You can do it in front of a mirror, before other comics or in your head. I often go over what I am going to say in my head while I’m taking a walk. It helps to keep you free from distractions.
While reviewing your jokes, always look to get rid of words that aren’t needed to get laughs.
As a new comic, you probably will get 3 to 5 minutes on stage. Comedy clubs are serious about the time allowed. At most places you will get a light alerting you there is a minute left. If you go over your time that is called “running the light” and is frowned upon.
It’s no sin to leave the stage with some time left. It is to go over your time. When timing yourself, leave some room for laughs. But don’t count on laughs, especially your first time.
Cut out wasted words
Your job is to get laughs. Keep the words that are needed to get to the funny and cut the rest. What words could be cut out of this joke, for example?
“Common sense isn’t so common anymore, is it? Yesterday I had to run to Kroger to buy some groceries because we were running low on food and stuff, and the cashier put dryer sheets in the bag with my lunch meat. Now my bologna tastes like Bounce.”
Use original material
It is understood in stand-up comedy that the jokes you are telling on stage are jokes that you’ve written. Sometimes you will hear new comics tell jokes that have been told around the water cooler forever. Those are called “street jokes.” You don’t want to tell them on stage.
If you get successful enough, you can buy jokes from joke writers. For now, concentrate on writing your own material.
Sometimes you hear comics tell jokes that other comics have told. That is called joke theft, and you also don’t want to be known for that.
It’s not unusual for comics to arrive at the same basic joke at the same time. This especially happens if you are writing jokes about current events or common joke topics like online dating. The more original you are, the fewer problems you’ll have telling jokes similar to others.
I would encourage new comics to try clean or PG 13 material for their first times. Comics can get a lot of laughs being dirty and cussing in some places and turn off the audience in others.
See live shows beforehand
If you’re going on stage and you’ve never seen a comedy show outside of Netflix, see some in person. If possible, go to the club or venue where you are going to go up for the first time.
It will help to get more comfortable. You can see where the comics sit, where the list for the order of the performance is kept, who is in charge, what the audience reacts to and what doesn’t work. It will put you way ahead for your big night.
The more shows or open mics you see, the better grasp you will have of what works and what doesn’t. Be aware that all open mics are not equal.
Schedule your open mic
Not all open mics work the same. For a comedy club, you may need to email for a date that could be weeks away. If you email a club about an open mic, tell them your name, where you are from and you can tell them it’s your first time. Clubs like first-timers because they tend to bring audience members.
You don’t have to explain that your friends think you are funny or that you were in your middle-school play. It’s an open mic, so everyone gets the chance on stage.
A Thursday night open mic at a bar may be “show up and sign up” meaning you go and put your name on the list for a spot that night. Some of these types of mics are popular and the list fills up early.
Don’t assume that an open mic means you can show up with no warning with all your friends and get on stage. Do some research.
Be confident or fake it
Confidence is a big factor in successful comedy. Teachers often do well because they are used to talking to a room full of people. You’ve practiced your jokes, you know them by heart, your friends laughed, so get up there confident that the audience will love you.
You’re still going to be scared, but trust yourself. You got this. If you appear overly nervous, people may not laugh because they are worried for you.
It’s tempting to have a few shots of liquid courage before you go onstage. Save it for after your set when you are celebrating.
Remember when you went to the open mic and saw the guy say, “I’m so toasted I can’t remember what I was going to say?” Don’t be that comic.
Tell people it’s your first time
If it’s your first time on stage doing standup, let the host know and let the audience know. If it’s an open mic with mostly comedians, you will have their attention. And audience members are supportive of new comics. You’re doing something most of them couldn’t imagine doing.
Move the mic stand behind you
You’re introduced, and now you’re on stage. The first thing you should do is take the mic out of the stand and move the mic stand behind or beside you. You don’t want it to be in front of you blocking you.
My first time I was afraid I would drop the mic, so I left it in the stand. It’s fine, to leave the mic in the stand, and it frees up your hands. But if you take the mic out, you don’t want an empty mic stand in front of you. It’s a distraction for the audience.
Look at the audience
You are telling your jokes, but where do you look? Look at the audience. Move and turn to address the whole room. Ideally, you look straight at certain audience members if a joke seems to relate to them (you’re telling a joke about dating and a couple is in the front row).
But if this is too much the first time, look slightly over their heads. Don’t put your head down and talk to the floor. The sooner you are able to look at the audience the easier it will be.
Hold the mic near your chin
You’re doing great and have moved the mic stand behind you. Make sure to keep the microphone close to your chin. Sometimes comics wave their arms around and forget they are holding the mic.
Also, don’t scream into the mic. You want everyone to hear you but you don’t want to pay for a new mic. Don’t fiddle with the stand. And definitely don’t drop the mic. It’s not funny and good mics are expensive.
Look for the light
You’re almost done. Keep an eye for the light signaling your time is almost up. It may be a small light from a phone. New comics often are so into the moment they don’t see the light.
You will have no sense of time on stage. Trust me. Your 3 minutes can seem to go by in 3 seconds or 3 hours. But you have practiced and timed yourself so you know that your time is wrapping up just by where you are in your jokes.
The light signaling your time is almost up should not be confused with the spotlights. Don’t stare into them. They may be really bright.
You did it
You’re wrapping up. Put the mic back into the stand and put the stand back in front. It’s a signal that you are done. Thank the crowd and wait for the host to come up on the stage.
Stay for the rest of the show
Unless you were the last comic, don’t leave the show with all the friends and family you brought till it’s over. Nothing kills the vibe of a show like a first-time comic who brought 30 people and who all leave as soon as their friend performs.
Stay till the end. Talk to some other comics afterward. That’s your first step to getting on your next show.
About the authors
Creig Ewing is a comedian, show producer and the person behind Louisville Laughs. He has helped to put on hundreds of open mics, showcases and comedy shows in the Louisville area. He has hosted numerous shows and has featured at The Caravan Comedy Club and Planet of the Tapes in Louisville.
Keith McGill is a comedian who toured internationally working cruise ships and is a much sought-after entertaining for corporate events.