Non-comedians rarely go to most open mics as a source of entertainment. There is a reason for this. Open mics are the fucking pits. Here are the top seven things I hate most about comedy open mics.
6. You're The Host, Not The Headliner. Shut The Fuck Up.
Question: how many shitty comedians start an open mic thinking, “Man, it sure is hard to get stage time. Wait, I know! I'll just host an open mic and do every joke I can think of between each of the comics?”
Answer: Almost all of them.
And even when the host is funny, this is still an inexcusable pace killer. I've seen open mics go twice as long as they should have because the host felt the need to throw in his two cents between each comic. He adds a minute here, two minutes there, and a little crowd work over there; pretty soon the sun is coming up and we're only halfway through the fucking list.
And I know some hosts out there might be reading this and thinking, “I do that . . . but fuck him. Why else would I host if I don't get more stage time than everyone else?” Yes, exactly. Hosting is a shitty, thankless job. You have to open the show, keep it rolling, and take the heat from the venue whenever there is a problem. Hosting sucks. Anyone who has done it for a while can attest to that. But you do it because it must be done and you're the only one around good enough to make sure it's done right. It's a big responsibility. Don't let down the people who trust you with their night by being selfish.
Maybe you can take turns hosting with someone else throughout the night or on a bi-weekly basis. Maybe you can ask the venue for a cut of the bar or try to get a sponsor so that you're not doing it for free. But if that's too much work, if you'd rather just get paid with stage time (that you are essentially stealing from other comics) then you will absolutely deserve all the animosity everyone throws your way. You are a dick.
Which leads me to my next topic...
5. Stop Being A Dick
No matter how brash or irreverent or sarcastic or awkward or wacky your stage persona might be, do your best to be a human when you're off stage. Stop trying to prove you're the funniest person in the room. Take a break from telling jokes and just have an honest conversation. Stop worrying about your career and just try to enjoy the company of whomever you are with. Be a human fucking being.
Be inclusive, not exclusive. If you see a new comic, go over and talk to them. Make them feel welcome. If you see someone struggle through a set, instead of delighting in their failure because you see it as a sign of your superiority, go over and offer to have them join a writer's circle before the show, where all the comics go around telling the bits they're working on and help each other come up with new punchlines. If they decline, at least you offered. Still be nice to them. Just because you don't like someone's material does not mean you can't at the very least be on civil terms with them.
Never talk shit about any individual or allow anyone to talk shit about another individual around you. That's the petty shit that ruins what could be a fun and productive experience for everyone. If you find out that someone was talking shit about you, let it slide. Know that in ten years, none of it will matter anyway.
Don't think of other comics as your competition, even when it is a “competition.” Think of them instead as your colleagues, your brothers and sisters in arms. Be protective of one another. You're all in this thing together. If the night fails, you all fail together. If the night succeeds, you succeed together.
If all comics were more supportive and less insecure, it wouldn't be so miserable to perform just for other comics. It would just go from an open mic to hanging out with your friends.
But, while we are on the subject of small audiences...
4. Stop Shitting On The Audience
If only a few people came to the open mic, don't shit on the people who did come for not bringing more of their friends. They don't care that they are the only ones who showed up. They still want to have a good time. They are not getting on stage, so they aren't as insecure about having a small turn out as you are. If you're funny, they'll laugh. If you're not, they won't. It might be lower energy than you would have hoped. You might get a chuckle instead of a huge guffaw. But fuck you. That's what you get for putting on a show that either A.) Few people know about, or B.) Few people care to go see.
Maybe instead of a straight up open mic, you turn it into a kind of competition open mic that's decided by audience applause at the end so that comics have an incentive to bring their friends? Maybe you book a bigger comic to headline at the end of the night to draw a crowd? Maybe you get real fucking creative and bill it as a special event with raffles and lip singing drag queens and whatever the fuck else you need to do to get people in the door? Whatever it ends up being, it's not the audience's responsibility to get people to come out to your shitty show. It's yours. And if you keep calling attention to the fact that “nobody” ever shows up to the show, then guess what, nobody really will make the mistake of ever showing up again. You'll deserve to be ignored.
3. Don't Ask For Applause.
I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a comedian bomb at an open mic and then still ask for a round of applause afterwards because, “Stand up is really hard and I deserve some respect for even trying it out.”
If I were the heckling type, I would shout, “No, you don’t! There are plenty of attention whores in the world who would love to be on that stage right now. Having the 'courage' (if that's what you want to call it) to get on stage does not make you special. If pity laughs and pity applause makes you feel better, then you are a pitiful person. If you think stand up is really hard and you don’t know how to get better, do yourself and everyone else a favor and fucking quit!”
What possible benefit could come from reminding the audience that stand up is hard? Will they understand what you’re really going through? No. They don’t care, they just want to be entertained. Will it make them feel sorry for you? No. You made the decision to do this, so why should they feel sorry for you? Will it make them start enjoying the show? Absolutely not. It’s bad enough they have to watch you fail, now they have to watch you make excuses for why you’re failing, and give you encouragement so you can feel good about continuing to fail more in the future? The only thing that saying, “This is hard” does accomplish is that it makes you look completely incompetent, which you fucking are.
This is supposed to be hard. If it weren’t hard, anyone could do it. And they would. Don't you think telling jokes to a bunch of people for money is better than whatever shit job they do? Of course it is. But there's a catch; they can't do it. They lack the skills and the drive it takes to get good enough to be a professional. You should celebrate the fact that it's hard. You should revel in the idea that you are building a skill-set that most people do not have. That's the difference between a valuable member of society and just another jagoff taking up space. But if you also can’t rise to that challenge, get off the stage and find something else to do with your life.
And speaking of bombing...
2. Quit Bombing And Try, Goddamn It
If the comedians are funny, people are more likely to go to the open mic. Obviously.
The problem is, comedians don't think anyone will come and so they don't try. They rarely memorize their material, and when they do, their material often sucks. But most of the time, when someone really sucks, it's not because they're unfunny, it's because they're lazy. They don't want to put in the effort it takes to construct a solid act, even five measly minutes.
A surprising number of comics lack the work ethic it takes to write one whole joke. They write the set-up only, not the punchline. I guess they think they'll figure that part out once they get on stage. But they never do. THEY NEVER DO. They usually just end up laughing at their set-up and wonder why no one else is laughing with them. Then they call the audience stupid or a bunch of cocksuckers. Then they wonder why they can't get booked anywhere.
Or maybe they do write a punchline, but no one ever laughs at it, and instead of changing it or experimenting with different deliveries, they blame the audience for being “Too stupid” or “Not my type of crowd.” Or maybe it's because the venue sucks or it's too early in the week or too early in the day or the microphone is cursed or whatever asinine excuse they can come up besides obvious reason; the material just wasn't very good.
The point is, if you're going to be a competent comedian (forget brilliant, we're all decades away from that shit. Let's just focus on one thing at a time) you need to constantly write new material and develop older material. You do this by writing every day. No bullshit. Every fucking day. And you have to perform every chance you get and try your goddamn best no matter what the conditions might be. That's how you become a professional.
Why, you ask, should you have to try this hard just to perform at a stupid open mic? Because other comedians are doing just that. They're out there right now, writing every day, constantly coming up with new stuff, working on their sets, being supportive to their fellow comedians, figuring out ways to put on exciting, well-attended shows, and they're the ones audience's want to see. They're the ones who attract the crowds and they're the ones who eventually get specials and sitcoms and movies. But it all starts at the open mic. If you can't put forth that kind of effort, why should you get to perform for anyone other than jaded comics?
Some might say that my expectations for open mics are way too high. Open mics exist, after all, for typically new comedians to work out untested material. It is foolish, some would argue, to go to an open mic expecting anything less than utter crap. And this brings me to the Number 1 thing I hate about comedy open mics.
1. Treat It Like A Show, Not An Open Mic
Obviously an open mic is a place where anyone can sign up and get stage time. That's the difference between an open mic and a showcase. And yes, typically an open mic is going to be lower quality than a showcase. This is all true. But that doesn't mean it has to be that way. There is such a thing as an entertaining open mic. There is such a thing as a well attended open mic that brings in civilians—not just comedians and friends of comedians. There are regular people out there who are fans of comedy, who have run out of TV shows on Hulu and movies on Netflix, and they're looking for a good cheap night out, but most hosts and comedians refuse to do the work it takes to make their open mic a viable option for those people. Lazy comedians assume the mic is going to be bad and that no one will ever want to come and they act accordingly, thereby making their false assumption a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That's why the hosts only complain about not having a crowd instead of doing anything about it. That's why the comedians don't work out their material until it's actually good. That's why so many comedy scenes get hung up on petty jealousies and bullshit instead of cultivating a supportive but demanding environment that raises the bar for everyone. It's because deep down, they believe that it does not matter, that it's all just a waste of time, and they do everything in their power to keep it that way.
In Closing, One Thing I Like About Open Mics
I've talked a lot of shit about what's wrong with comedians and open mics. Perhaps it's fitting to end on a positive note. Here's what I love about them.
I grew up on stand up comedy. I grew up watching Evening at the Improv, Stand Up Spotlight, Premium Blend, and every Comedy Central, HBO, and Showtime special I could get my hands on. Sam Kinison taught me how to go down on women better than my first three girlfriends. George Carlin taught me more about questioning authority and becoming a critical thinker than school ever dared. Chris Rock broadened my perspective on life with every single special he has ever made (Unfortunately, not a lot of black people where I grew up).
Comedy has shaped the person I have become. Watching it, doing it, and being around it has completely altered the way I perceive the world. I don't see a laugh as a simple reaction to a funny noise or a surprising turn of phrase or a silly physical gesture. To me, a laugh signifies that a common ground has been established between the performer and audience. What was once alienating is now universal. What was once embarrassing is now triumphant. What was once frightening is now harmless. Comedy is something that unites us all.
There was one night in particular that comedy rescued me. It was the spring of 2011. Earlier that day, my mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and given only a few months left to live. I don't have to tell you how I felt. I was angry. I was sad. But mostly I was overwhelmed by the absurdity and unfairness of life. There were so many things she wanted to do and places she wanted to see, and none of it was ever going to happen. After crying for hours and feeling helpless and hopeless and utterly defeated, I needed a break from it all. I needed to laugh. I turned on Netflix and watched Bill Burr's special “Let it Go” for the first time. I don't know if I've ever laughed so hard in my entire life. I desperately needed it. That special helped me through one of the darkest nights of my entire life.
To think that something so simple as telling a few jokes can save someone from such a deep depression, even for just one night, is amazing to me. And to think that Bill Burr started as just another face in a sea of aspiring comedians who all went to open mics, who all bombed horribly, who all struggled to find their own voice and to write original jokes and ignore that familiar impulse to quit and get a real job. To think that he overcame all of that to become the talent he is now, and to release yet another special that I just so happened to come across and watch on the worst day of my life, and give me exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it. And to think that every single comedian I admire shares that same journey, and it all starts at an open mic. It makes me think of all the other aspiring comedians out there, right now, who have made the decision to stop fucking around and start taking this shit seriously. Because it deserves to be taken seriously. Because with the right skill, and a little luck, you might really save somebody.