My First Time as a Stand-Up Comic
By Mame McCutchin
Comedy host walks into a bar.
Bartender says, “Where are the laughs?”
Host says, “it’s open mic night—there are no laughs.”
But seriously, folks.
I know what you’re thinking. What would possess me, an unemployed former TV show host, to grab a microphone and risk being laughed at?
Mainly, I thought doing stand-up would make me feel productive, that it would keep my writing and performance skills nice and sharp. I’ve been curious about it for years, and friends always urged me to give it a shot.
In March, I dared myself. Then I realized that my experience addressing a camera had been limited to 20-second stretches. Five minutes was going to be an eternity, because I wouldn’t have the crutch of an interviewee.
Then I found out I had to vacate my apartment by the end of April. So I told myself: June, and no going back on it.
I scouted out a club. The recon made me anxious, but also relieved that I was finally going to do it. I watched one kid bomb. He left and went to catch another open mic somewhere else. It was an inspiration. He goes up week after week and he does it for himself. He didn’t get a single laugh, but he went on to try again.
I told myself that my attitude alone would get me at least one laugh.
I didn’t work anything out in front of the mirror. That’s just too Raging Bull for me. Instead, I just sat on the subway (now that I live in Harlem, I ride the MTA 6 train so much I should just get my mail delivered there). Sometimes I wrote notes, and sometimes I just thought a set through in my head. When the day came, I was definitely nervous. But I had told so many people, I couldn’t chicken out.
I got to the club, and there was a brutally long list of people waiting to go up on stage. I had to sit and watch and wait 90 minutes before I got called. I guessed I was ready.
Of course I was nervous. It was the day I had my first mammogram, so I wanted to work that in. Problem was, the audience was made up of 22-year old men. When I mentioned the mammogram, I heard crickets and got dead stares. So I reminded them that we were just talking about titty pictures. That got them right back in it with me. I proceeded with my stuff and—joy!— got some decent laughs.
I wasn’t great. I didn’t kill. But it was my first time; I told the crowd that and I told myself that. Now I see that the first time is all about getting up there and surviving those five minutes. Then you can do anything.
New York City offers at least 60 open mic nights in any given week in NYC. They are charted here. Many of them let the audience in for free (on some nights, it could be argued that the audience should be the ones getting paid) but charge the comic $5 or a mandatory drink for five minutes at the mic. You pay five bucks, you get five minutes. You can go up there and take a nap if that’s how you want to spend your five minutes—they’re yours. Some places don’t charge for the time but you have to email or call ahead to reserve a spot.
Now that I’ve done my first open mic, I feel like a seasoned veteran. Here’s a sample of my expertise:
Do Some Recon.
Get a sense of the host and the crowd. If the crowd is under 30 and male, save the menopause jokes for another time, and add a few about internet porn. Or not getting laid, not getting laid enough, or not getting laid by cute-enough girls. Did I mention internet porn?
Do Some Writing.
Write down your jokes or stories and review them a few times prior to game night. If it doesn’t resonate a day or two later, cross it off the list. It hurts, but not as badly as getting the fish-eye when you’re on stage. Sometimes you can shelve it for later improvement.
Pull Yourself Together.
Being a slob doesn’t help the funny factor. Comb, tease, or epoxy your hair, and put on a clean shirt. Go commando, or whatever it takes to get into your mood. I changed into monster heels before going up, because I thought sneakers wouldn’t be slutty enough for my set.
Don’t memorize every word. The audience hears it and it sounds canned. Have the audience clap for the host. Not only does it keep your audience awake, it ingratiates you to your keeper.
Work Off of Others.
Try to make a joke or comment on another comic’s set. It’s like push-ups for your brain. It shows you can think on your feet and it will sharpen your improv skills. Try to do it every time in at least some small way.
Catch Your Crickets.
When a joke bombs, take note, literally. Make a note after the show. Do you toss it altogether? Do you re-work a line or two? Change the punchline? That’s what open mics are for: experimenting with material.
If you slag off your audience, you’re done. If they don’t laugh, it’s your fault, not theirs. Some audiences are tougher than others but if you remember they’re the guests and you’re the entertainer, you won’t insult them and you will do better at making them laugh—even if it’s out of pity. Compliment other comics and thank your audience.
That’s the goal. To kill them. To slay them. Don’t let them breathe! Go for it, and show no mercy.
Okay, thanks, everybody—you’ve been great!
I’d like to say that I’ll be here all week, but I’m not there yet. You can catch me at the NYC Comedy Corner, Wednesdays at 7:00.
Read more about Mame’s New York adventures.