[This is not an exact depiction of one night. It is an amalgam of experiences from the past several years. Any resemblance to people or places in real life is, of course, completely coincidental.]
You get to the club an hour early. You're really excited to meet the other comics, be part of the team, and take this next important step in your comedy career. You've prepared your set list and you have it down cold.
The club manager says hello, and gets your name wrong. He gives you a list of announcements that are very, very important to get right. He tells you to be energetic. Really whip up that crowd!
As he wanders away, he tells you the first show tonight is "pretty light" and the second show is known for attracting unruly drunks. He reminds you that you get one half-price drink and no discounts on food.
"Are you ready?" he asks.
"Yeah. Shit, yeah," you reply.
You find the other two comics. They look tired. The headliner asks how long you've been doing comedy. You can see the mental calculations going on behind his eyes as he decides he's not going to bother hitting it off with you this weekend. The feature asks you to bring him up in a certain oddly-specific way that is very, very important to get right.
Three minutes before you go on, a floor manager accosts you. She gets your name wrong. She tells you about a birthday celebration up front and a bachelorette party in the back. You have to give these people a shout-out from the stage, and it's very, very important to get this right. As she walks away, she snaps "don't get drunk before second show."
The music comes on, the lights dim. The crowd does not stop talking. The floor manager reads a list of rules over the PA. She tells the crowd to keep their table talk to a minimum, and their laughter to a maximum, and then she announces you. She gets your name wrong.
You get on stage. People are eating, chewing open-mouthed and staring at you. Others are engrossed in their phones, or in their conversations with each other. The room sounds like a junior high cafeteria.
You try to wedge the announcements in quickly. You get them wrong. You do some of your material, and it feels weird, like these words have never worked right before. You're not quite sure exactly when you started so you don't know how much time you have left. You're aware you're talking too fast. You can't stop talking too fast. You say "fuck" once and wince and hope no one noticed. You're not sure if you're bombing or not.
The light comes on and you're secretly relieved. You bail midway through one of your favorite bits and bring the feature up. You try to rouse the crowd like you're a cheerleader. You get his credits wrong. He mumbles something at you through clenched teeth as he shakes your hand, but you can't make it out.
As you walk off stage, you make eye contact with the birthday guy. You realize you forgot to say anything to him, or about him, or the bachelorette party.
You sit through the feature's set. You're pretty sure your jokes are funnier. You're pretty sure you're looking at this situation objectively.
You get out your phone and 'check in' to the club on social media. Your comic friends from open mic give you shit about how you're big-timing them. Your family members post about how famous you are, and repeat promises to "get out and see one of your skits some time."
The headliner comes over and makes a last-second change to his intro, meticulously stressing some particular credit, then assures you that it doesn't matter either way. Just as the feature thanks the crowd and prepares to walk off, the headliner leans in and mumbles "don't bring me up with that rah-rah, high-energy shit, okay?"
You go back up, and cram in a half-assed shout-out to the birthday party and the bachelorette. Her party stops talking for the first time in the entire show and emits a chorus of "woo" noises, which continue randomly throughout the rest of the show. You get the bachelorette's name wrong.
The headliner's set goes on for roughly six days. You have a couple more drinks, assuring yourself that you're not tipsy. The headliner is doing well among those members of the crowd paying attention. From the back, you see and hear mostly the ones who aren't.
The show finally ends. You go back up. You get the closing announcements wrong. You forget to mention the club's upcoming shows. Your eyes feel heavy and your stomach's roiling a little, and you realize you have to do all of this again before you can go home.
You walk out to the lobby. People are lining up to shake hands with the other two comics. A few of them make the effort to shake your hand, as you awkwardly stand a little ways away from the pros. Other people make weird, baleful eye contact for a second before turning to buy merch or take pictures with the other two. A few of them ask you to hold their purse while they get a photo, or give you their phone and instruct you to take the picture for them.
The second show is more of the same, only drunker. The crowd is half the size, twice as loud, and the headliner winds up in a verbal scuffle with a heckler or two. No one throws the hecklers out.
At the end of the second show, after your awkward hover near the receiving line, you duck into the bathroom and take a shit that seems like a metaphor for the whole evening. When you're done, you open the stall door and make eye contact with a patron who's waiting to use it next.
"Good show tonight," he says, frowning.
"Sorry, man," you reply.
When you come out, the other two comics have left without saying goodbye.
A surly server hands you your tab without a word. It comes out to at least half of what you got paid for tonight's shows. You drive home, borderline impaired, stopping only for gas and Taco Bell to make the night a legitimate financial loss. You replay your sets in your head, over and over, cringing and wondering why you ever thought you could do comedy in the first place.
You come back the next day and do it all again, and then once more on Sunday. When it's all over, the manager hands you a check. They got your name wrong on it. "Good work," he says. "You wanna host again next month?"
"Yeah," you reply. "Shit yeah."
You finally did it -- screwed up your courage, signed up on the list, and took the stage at your local weeknight open mic. Congratulations! Wasn't that fun? You're still coming down off the adrenaline rush, you're proud of yourself, you're replaying that moment where the host said "hey, good job" in your head like it was a scene in your favorite movie.
And you're sure you've found your calling. You wanna do this! More of this! A lot more!
Allow me to welcome you to the standup comedy community. Some of us are doing it for a living, or trying to. Others are simply enjoying open mic as a place to be creative, socialize in the real world and have an excuse to hit the bar on a weeknight. Everyone's at a different skill level and comfort zone. We all have our own goals and reasons for being here.
Here's a few tips, offered in the spirit of friendship and with best wishes. It's easy to make early mistakes out of excitement, and not even realize they're mistakes until later. And if you stick around, some of these could come back to bite you in the ass later on, when you know better.
So here are some suggestions:
1. Don't lose your perspective
Your first time on stage was a life-altering experience - for you. For everyone else on the planet, it was Tuesday. Being thrilled about your set is fine, but wearing everyone you know out retelling the jokes, recounting the story and being annoying will tire them all out quickly. If you keep at this, you'll eventually need spouses, relatives, co-workers and friends to come see you perform. Don't make them all sick of you on Day Two of your journey.
2. Don't post your video on YouTube
Again -- you're proud. You should be. But your first set will never be your best set. A year from now, if you've done a hundred more sets and you're getting serious, that debut is going to look like crap compared to your current work. And anyone who sees that video will have that perception of you stuck in their head forever.
On a related note, if someone else offers to record your set and put it up, gently but firmly say no. Even if you lack self-restraint and put your own early vids up, you can take them down later once you know better. If someone else has them on their account, you're at their mercy. They could forget their password, decide they don't feel like honoring your request, or just never check their email, and you're left with that first awkward, stuttering, fast-talking, sweat-drenched performance out there for everyone to see.
(And that is what it looks like. We're sorry. You'll laugh with us about it in a couple years, I promise.)
3. Don't change your Facebook profile name
Yesterday you were mild-mannered Xerxes Muldoon. Today you're COMEDIAN XERXES MULDOON! You're XERXES FUNNYMAN BRINGINTHEHOUSEDOWN MULDOON! Don't do this. Ever. Your friends will roll their eyes and legitimate industry people will avoid you like you have a rash. Comics make fun of the "Comedian Facebook Name" thing all the time. The only exception: when you're trying to differentiate yourself from another person, with the same name, who's also doing high-profile public work. And even then, you're nowhere near ready to do that yet. Settle down.
4. Don't make merchandise
You've seen working comics selling t-shirts or hawking stickers. You want in on THAT gravy train. Absolutely don't. I'm trying to take a friendly tone here, but you need to know this: nothing you write in your first year of comedy is worth putting on a t-shirt. And you aren't performing anywhere where you selling merch is acceptable. Even when you start hosting shows at a legit comedy club, it's a huge no-no. You'll look like a desperate asshole if you try to sell wares during a nine-minute set, or at an open mic. You'll guilt a few friends into buying your crap, sure. But people you don't even know will think you're a chump for years to come. It's not worth it.
5. Don't start a show yet
You got bumped at an open mic, or you didn't like how the guy before you swore too much or used his notes, and you're mad! And you know EXACTLY how to make an open mic better! So you're going to approach a venue about running your own show. This makes as much sense as opening a restaurant after the third time you've assembled a sandwich at home. Stick around, keep your head down, learn more about comedy and comics, before you waste money on sound equipment, burn up your credibility with fellow comedians, and potentially ruin a venue for everyone else by putting on a show ineptly.
6. Don't start asking for real gigs yet
You're not ready. 99 out of 100 times, the booker will know this and you'll look like a fool for asking for paid work, feature gigs, etc. when you're clearly still mastering your first five minute set. And they'll remember you as a fool long after you ARE ready. Even worse, 1 out of 100 times, you'll sneak past the gatekeepers, get yourself on a show, crash and burn, and make yourself look even worse. This will hurt you later on. Accept that this is a process, it takes a while, and focus on short-term goals like perfecting those first five minutes, or writing the next five.
7. Don't write a whole new set for your next mic
Many people don't realize that comics do the same material, show after show. They get so excited that they write more than they need, and don't hone their existing material. The 100th time you tell a joke, it's a much different animal than the first or second time. Constantly diving off a cliff with all-new material robs you of a chance to get truly comfortable with a joke, tweak it, get the cadence just right, and develop it into something you can rely on to get laughs in any situation. You're not only learning to make jokes, you're learning stage presence, diction, mic technique, crowd interaction and projection. You have to be familiar with your material before you can focus on those equally important aspects.
8. Don't spam social media
Think of the world's patience as a bank account. There's a finite amount. If you've put everyone on Instagram on blast about how you're the next Katt Williams or Jim Gaffigan, day after day, they're eventually gonna tune you out. When you actually have something worthy to share with them, they'll be sick of hearing from you. Ideally, by the time people come out specifically to see you perform, you should have been on stage many times and really worked on what you're presenting. Which reminds me...
9. Don't forget that this is work
The job of a great standup comic is to make it look like anyone can do it. It's conversational, it's casual, it's relaxed or animated, but it looks like the most natural thing in the world. It takes years to get that good at it. You wouldn't watch half a football game in the stands, scoff "I can run plays better than THESE jerks," and jog out onto the field in the third quarter, would you?
Almost no one is a natural at standup. And even people predisoposed to be great at it need years of constant writing, performing, and honest self-analysis to get up there and look like they're just winging it. If you assume you'll be amazing on Day One, you're not only delusional, you're not respecting the sacrifice and hard work put in by those before you. And speaking of that...
10. Don't be an asshole
Be nice to the other people you meet. Be civil. Learn that rejection is not a personal affront. Treat venues with respect. Tip the waitstaff and don't hit on them. Don't get blackout drunk at the club. Chip in gas money. Don't become known as an argumentative douche in comedy groups online. Just be a decent person, keep your notebook on you at all times, get all the stage time you can, and approach comedy with a little bit of joy and humility, and it will be one of the coolest things you ever do with your life.
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.