You’re working on perfecting your best 5-minute comedy set. Who knows what’s around the corner when that’s ready — Fame? A Netflix special? A drink ticket?
Here are some things to work on.
Know where you expect the audience to laugh. Often newer comics will do material about an amusing topic and expect that to have the audience cackling. It won’t. You need punchlines to get a response. You should know exactly in your set where the audience will laugh.
It’s also possible they’ll laugh at unexpected parts and won’t laugh where you expect them to. That’s comedy. It’s hard.
But if you think the whole dang bit is hilarious and the audience will be laughing from start to end, odds are they won’t laugh at all.
Extend your punchlines. You have a joke that works and gets consistent laughs. You’re not done yet. What can you do to tag that joke and keep the laughs going? Can you do a callback to it later in your set?
I do a bit about taking my wife to Waffle House when she is expecting a fancy dinner experience. A punchline is “So I took her to Waffle House.” (Laugh) I could quit there. I add, “She experienced three fights in the parking lot.” (Laugh) “She won all 3.” (Laugh). “Two were with me.” (Laugh).
Your jokes should always be a work in progress. Keep tinkering and adding laughs.
Avoid racial jokes. If you have been doing comedy less than three years and have jokes that rely upon, the race, nationality or skin color of someone else, ditch the joke. Wait until you have more experience and hard-won judgment if that’s the direction you want to go.
Keep the audience on your side. Generally, audiences bond with comics who are likable and confident. Among topics that can quickly lose half or more of the audience are political jokes, using the r-word and making jokes at the expense of the homeless.
You can feel the audience pull back when these bits are trotted out. So, unless that’s your goal, be careful with them.
Let the audience know you. Try to write jokes that are true to you and your unique experience. Anyone can tell a joke about dating apps. You can connect better with the audience if they get a sense of you. It will also make it less likely that you wind up with jokes similar to other comics.
Be open to feedback. You may love your joke, but it’s the audience who ultimately decides. When on stage be realistic. Did your punchline get laughs? Or was that really a sneeze? It’s fascinating how so many comics think they crushed when hardly anyone laughed for 5 minutes.
Be open to asking for or accepting suggestions from more experienced comics. Strongly consider doing what they suggest. Or at least thank them for their time.
Get on stage. The best way to get better faster is to get on stage. Take advantage of the open mics and other opportunities to work on your material. You’ll be increasingly more polished, confident and comfortable the more you do it.
You’re performing at an open mic and running through your jokes, but you decide to go off script. Maybe you lost your place, you were distracted, got brave and decided to try crowd work.
It happens, but if you decide to wing it, don’t do these things.
DON’T complain about the crowd not laughing. You tell a joke and there is silence. Just move on. Don’t say something like, “Hey that was funny. What’s wrong with you guys?” Think that’s going to make them laugh at your next joke?
Work on making sure you have jokes that people will laugh at. Leave the crowd alone while on stage. You can complain about the crowd being terrible off stage with the other comics like everyone else.
DON’T do crowd work that goes nowhere. If you ask the couple up in front how long they have been together, they say this is their first date, and you say, “Cool” and move on, that’s not crowd work. It’s just awkward. Leave the audience alone until you are ready with a funny response.
DON’t ask people to repeat what they said. You’re on stage and hear someone in the audience say something. Unless you asked the audience to respond, don’t ask the audience member to repeat what they said. Why would you do that? You don’t want them talking at all. Either ignore them or ask them to keep it down.
DON’T come unprepared. Open mics are a chance to work on your material. And stage time is precous. Have a plan, tell those jokes. Maybe improvise a bit. But don’t go up there trying to wing it off the top of your head, unless that’s your whole zany act.
Also, notes are frowned upon but sometimes necessary. But avoid reading your jokes off your phone while on stage. It just screams you weren’t ready. Don’t do it.
DON’T run the light. It’s bad enough when someone who is doing well goes over their time. But when someone is over their time and still struggling and trying again and again to maybe get a laugh, it’s torture. Cut your losses, get off stage and work on what you can improve next time.
Standup comics are brilliant, wonderful and charming people for the most part. But some continue to do things that are pet peeves of mine and others. Just stop.
Not commiting to a stage name. If you want to go with the stage name of Ruben Sandwich The Comedian, that’s cool. But if you pick a stage name, make it distinctive or at least run with it.
If your real name is Bob Smith and your stage name is Jim, and you have no social media using Jim, what are you doing? Hiding from creditors? As a booker I prefer comics who draw people, not hide from them.
Asking for support. We all want support, but complaining that people don’t support you or that people should come out and support live comedy isn’t the way to go. You want people to come to the show BECAUSE THEY ARE GOING TO HAVE A GOOD TIME.
That’s the vibe you want to sell. Not that your cousin is obligated to sit through dozens of dick jokes.
Being dumb on social media. If you are making foolish choices on social media, that really makes me wonder what you might say live on stage. Think before you post. Delete is your friend. Stupid memes and Facebook fights are not.
Puzzling email names. So many times I get requests for stage time from an email like JulieJones@gmail.com asking for a spot for Jon Doe. Why is the email different? Is your mom reaching out for you? Is this a stage name? Don’t be confusing.
Stop with all the murdering and crushing. Super. You had a good show. But when you boast on social media that everyone on the show killed, crushed and murdered, it makes me wonder if that’s really true and if there were any survivors (or audience members).
It’s OK to just have a great show. Do you see many people that do comedy for a living boast about crushing and killing?
Racial stereotype jokes. If you are not a member of that minority group and you are doing jokes about that minority group that just play on stereotypes, it better be a damn good joke. If you’re newer to comedy, I can assure you it’s not a damn good joke.
Uncool Randy won the Funniest Person In Louisville contest in large part because in the finals he started what seemed to be a racial stereotype joke then turned it completely around. The audience was relieved and delighted.