The starting point for most people getting into performing stand up comedy is the Open Mic circuit. Now before I started doing stand-up comedy I had no idea that such a thing as an open mic circuit even existed. Yet, much like my wife’s affair it’s apparently been going on quite happily without my knowledge for many years (my wife would like me to point out that this is just a joke and she has not had an affair – although thinking about it that’s exactly the kind of thing someone who was having an affair would say isn’t it?).
On any given night all across London there will be back rooms of pubs containing 10-15 comedians all of varying degrees of quality and experience – for some it will be their first or second gig and they’ll be trying out completely new material whereas others will be more experienced or even professional comics using it as a chance to fine tune more polished material (then pretending it was new material if no-one laughs).
Before I performed at an open mic for the first time, I went down to a couple of them as an audience member and this is probably a good idea for anyone starting out. You can get a feel for the night and how things work, plus you’ll get to see the varying standards of comics. I’m always amazed by the high standard at most open mic nights and it’s fascinating to see the myriad ways people can approach comedy.
It’s good to see people crash and burn as well – not from a gloating perspective obviously but just to see objectively how a set can go wrong and realise that no matter how bad it probably feels from the stage it’s never as bad from the audience perspective. I’ve seen some people who thought a set was going badly but actually from the audience side I thought it was going pretty well.
Not all open mic nights are the same – there are some really professional ones with great MCs where you may even perform in front of an actual real audience. There are others however where it will be you and 10 other comedians who are all simply waiting for the opportunity to do their own material before heading off home. I think the phrase for those is ‘character building’ – if the character you’re aiming for is that of a jaded and embittered sociopath.
Heckling (and how to deal with it) is something that I think worries a lot of people starting out but generally this isn’t an issue at open mic nights – most people who go to these nights understand (and will usually be reminded by the MC) that it’s for new comics starting out. Obviously if you invite heckling or audience interaction then that’s different – in which case fair game.
You can find out about most open mic nights through various forums like the Comedy Collective on Facebook. A friend of mine, who’d been a heroin addict for many years, before getting clean once said that, were he to relapse, he would be able to find drugs anywhere within 5 mins, as he knew the subtle signals to look out for which would go unnoticed by anyone else – a certain edginess in a person, a particular gait, etc. I now feel the same about open mics – I could probably find one in London within a few minutes although the signals would be a white guy in glasses drinking a pint of water with notes scribbled in biro on the back of his hand.
I’ve genuinely enjoyed (and learned something) from all the open mic nights I’ve done so far even the one where a women punched someone in the throat during my set and had to be carried out of the pub by 4 people. As bad as that one was, I got an anecdote out of it to use at the next few gigs.
Which is all you want sometimes.