During the lockdowns I wrote, presented, edited and produced two online courses especially designed for newer acts.
I have since produced a third course, Stepping Forward in Stand-Up.
This really forced me to focus and drill in on the fundamentals while being sure to avoid the hack stuff I so often see from acts that arrive on my stage, fresh from some 6 week course.
These newbies seem to quite evenly do better, or worse, than those who have never taken a course at all. I wanted my courses to avoid those weary approaches, take a broader perspective and share more effective insights and techniques.
Right from the top, I had to figure out what open mic comedy actually is.
Open Mic Comedy is… for the comedians… a kindergarten, a playground and a gymnasium.
Allow me to elaborate. It would be cruel, and very lazy, to just leave it here.
No comedy platform is ever more free and wild than a well run open mike night. You get deliciously crazy people with elaborate costumes and props. Wild character acts. Fresh faces that don’t yet know you’re not supposed to do that (whatever that is). More seasoned acts who know they ought not do that but are going to do it anyway. They have an avenue to test the boundaries and finesse whatever it is they want to say, and learn how to say it funny.
You see the rawest talent. The hardest falls. The blow-you-away unexpected hitters. The gentle whimsical funny. The occasional famous pro popping in to test some new stuff under the radar. And all in front of an audience that is not very invested.
The lack of investment from the audience is a double-edged sword. They did not pay to get in so they don’t have any rights other than to leave. With no entry fee the crowd won’t be paying as close attention as they would if they had laid down some hard-earned. With a solid MC and some of the ingredients already mentioned, audience attention can be grabbed, and held, for 2 hours or more.
Like Orson Welles once bellowed while directing an uptight actor, “Play. Be a child again!”
There are no agents or show-business movers and shakers to perform to, or to worry about. Boundaries can be pressured, and crossed… with no real repercussions.
How else do we expect our future brilliant stand-ups to learn where to pressure and where to leave alone? Probe what can be better investigated, what resonates, how best to deliver their angle? And on and on…
Kindergarten. 99.9% of stand-ups did their first gig at an open mike. It is where all acts go to “find their feet”. Simply crossing the psychological rubicon of getting up and doing it is a huge step. Regardless of whether laughs are gained or not. There are other new newbies in the room who share your nerves, what an immediate bond. Fast lessons are learned about what topics or style an act wants to play with. Fast lessons.
Playground. This is comedy, after all. Have fun. Like Orson Welles once bellowed while directing an uptight actor, “Play. Be a child again!”
Newer acts with bold ambitions or regular hobbyists fit well in the playground. You’ve found your feet. Got a good few gigs under your belt. Starting to get a sense of pace, editing your words, re-structuring your set. Working in fresh material, toying with moving lots or keeping the mic in the stand. Everything conjurs with your ideas, words and set. Right alongside fellow players. Some are in the kindergarten and will soon join you in the playground (it’s the same space).
he still needs to work out new bits
The playground people are, mostly, very kind to the kindergarteners. After all, it wasn’t that long ago they were the newest newbies. Everyone in this playground has felt the same fears and done it anyway. Died a death. Felt the joy of roaring laughter (or soon will). They are not going to judge (cannot account for woke warriors, sorry). Other acts know this is a first draft of a comedian yet to be revealed. Stage time will be the prover.
Gymnasium. It’s where every act, including professional comedians, can come to work out. Work out their material, that is. In a safe space. If an idea is contentious but potentially brilliant it doesn’t arrive as a fully formed “bit” overnight. It needs to be laid out. Reviewed. Edited. Audience response considered. Worked on until it’s right. This can often take months. These “test drives of material” can rarely be performed at length in front of a paying audience. They expect the tried and tested gold. So good open mike nights offer that special place. With an audience thrilled to see beloved famous comedian xxx pop in to try out a new bit.
This week I was delighted that a brilliant pro act who did many of his earliest gigs with We Are Funny Project, and was a clear authentic talent from the get-go, popped in to try some new stuff. I haven’t seen him for years, fair enough. He’s been busy with his own TV series, performing in front of thousands of people at huge festivals, and generally being a top level act.
Open Mic comedy is all of these things all of the time.
I urge all acts, whatever your level of experience, to play and have fun. Go wild. Push the boundaries. Let the weird run free (for 5 minutes, anyway). There is no more free space anywhere in stand-up comedy than a well run open mic room.
Like all thrilling comedians, he still needs to work out new bits and it was great to see him on my stage once again. Yes, his new stuff was better than anything every other act on the bill delivered. Bar the headliner, who is also a wonderfully talented pro (also working out new stuff alongside the tried and tested).
I squeezed the pro guy in with little or no fanfare, brought him up like any other act. However, I did need to tell 2 acts that they were going to be on 5 minutes later than they expected. The guy who followed the killer pro had only done 4 gigs!
“Mr 4 Gigs” genuinely did very well. Now he has a story for his mates in the pub. And for his new friends in comedy at a slew of his future open mike appearances, no doubt.
Kindergarten. Playground. Gymnasium.