Things I wish I'd known when I started stand-up
Dubious advice from a total amateur; updated September 2022
I’ve done over 120 gigs now (as of September 2022), so here’s everything I wish I’d known when I started doing stand-up. Note that these are mainly very basic things, but some of them took me a long time to work out, or I keep doing them out of habit even though I know I shouldn’t.
I keep updating this when I learn something new, so I’d appreciate feedback if you think I’m wrong about any of this.
Record video or audio of every set you do. I learned this from Ed Mulvey. This is for two reasons: first of all, you need to watch it back and see exactly what you said and how much laughter you got. Without a recording you won’t catch that you mumbled a crucial word in the middle of a setup, or that you said ‘y’know’ 58 times. It’s weirdly hard to assess how well a joke does in real time - you can tell if the room is silent, but a polite smattering of laughter feels similar to a big laugh from the whole room (I think this explains how certain terrible acts who’ve been doing it for years are able to kid themselves that they’re funny). Secondly, to get booked at better venues, you need a video of yourself doing well. (They’ll probably only watch the first few minutes, so send them a set that starts with big laughs).
You probably need to learn and rehearse your jokes word for word. When I first did standup, I thought I could just come up with a premise and talk about it on stage. But so much depends on the exact phrasing and timing of what you say that it’s crucial to nail the wording and rehearse it. My best bits are the bits I’ve done two dozen times so they’re stored away in muscle memory, and I’ve learned which are the funniest ways to deliver them from various slight variations and accidents. I know there are some people who can just go up and talk and be funny, but they’re the exception.
Worry less about forgetting your jokes. Once you’ve started a joke that you’ve rehearsed and learned, you’re almost certainly not going to dry up halfway through. You definitely don’t need to be reading from a notebook. The real problem is remembering what joke to do next - the solution is:
Write your set list on your hand using a tattoo marker .Actually it’s better just to learn your set list and don’t rely on notes. Use mnemonic techniques to link bits. If you forget what you intended to do next, time to practice talking about what’s in the room or do crowdwork. If you’ve memorised a load of jokes word for word, one of them will come to you.
Start with tried and tested jokes, not brand new material… I’ve repeatedly fucked up by starting a set with new material. Because:
You have to get a laugh early on or you’ll lose the audience. Being funny in a stand-up set is a weird con game. If you open with a joke that doesn’t work, then go back to a bunch of ‘banker’ material that you know is funny, the chances are that the banker material is now suddenly not funny either. The audience needs to have faith that you’re funny, and if they lose that faith, you won’t be, even if you’re telling funny jokes. Another way I’ve heard this described: you need to let the audience know they’re in safe hands.
Darker jokes are for later in your set. Barry Cryer said that an audience will let you get away with anything if they like you. So do some self-deprecating mainstream material first, then once the audience know that you’re not actually a maniac, do the joke about strangling your wife.
Don’t say the things that everyone else says. I don’t mean in your material. I mean: don’t open by asking “How’s everyone doing?” (unless that’s the setup to something funny). Don’t close your set by saying “That’s my time.” Lots of open mic acts have these tics and it gets boring to hear over and over again over the course of a single evening. Why tell the audience you’re stopping because you ran out of time? Better to remind them of your name, or even plug your social media handle.
Know how long you’ve been up there. Buy a cheap digital watch with a vibrating alarm. Set it to go off after 5 minutes (or however long your slot is). Start it just as you’re being introduced. When the alarm starts vibrating, it’s time to wrap up. It’s cringe to ask the MC how long you have left.
You don’t have to fill every second of your time. There’s no need to run out the clock. If you’re doing 5 minutes and you get a big laugh at 4 minutes 30 seconds, it’s OK to quit while you’re ahead.
Put a pop shield on a bad mic. Early on I struggled with making a lot of pop noises on plosives if I held the mic too close at some gigs, but then I would worry that if I held it further away, nobody could hear me. Later I realised that this is only a problem with low quality mics, and you can completely fix it with a cheap foam mic cover (aka ‘pop shield’). Carry a couple of them with you and ask them to try one when they’re checking the sound. Weirdly, some promoters and MCs will resist this, even if it’s obvious that it makes the mic sound much better.
Gong shows are different from normal standup. You may need to write a different set just for gong shows, because a long digression that could pay off in a normal show is just going to get you gonged off in a gong show. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to do a gong show for one of your first gigs!
An open mic can be harder than a real club night. In most ‘open mic’ nights you’re either playing to a bunch of other open mic acts who aren’t really paying attention, or at best it’s a bringer so you’re playing to those people and some of their friends and family that they dragged along. In a real club you have an MC who will get the crowd laughing and knows what spot to put you in for the kind of act you are; you’re playing to an audience who came to see comedy because they like comedy.
Don’t signal that your last joke is your last joke. Don’t say “I’ll leave you on this” or start putting the mic back in the stand as you’re telling your last joke - that’s setting it up to fail. (Suggested by Ed Mulvey, although he also notes that sometimes telling the audience it’s your last joke can inspire them to summon up the good will they have for you and laugh more.) Apparently putting the mic in the stand can be a signal to the MC that you’re wrapping up, so they should be ready to get back on stage and not worry that you’re going to run the light. My solution is that I do my last joke, then signal I’m done by saying who I am and asking people to subscribe to my Instagram.
Pick one thing to work on improving each gig. (Suggested by Rick Kiesewetter.)
You don’t need to do bringers. It might be worth doing Comedy Virgins once or twice but you don’t need to do it. There are lots of ways to get stage time without the hassle of arranging a bringer. You will likely end up agreeing to be a bringer in return for another act, which means you have to go to two open mic nights to get up for one 5 minute spot. (There’s also a difference between bringer nights that have some quality control and put in some effort to attract a non-bringer audience and will eventually become a normal gig, and those that just rely on being a bringer).
Getting booked for better gigs is often about meeting people and having them see you live. Bookers won’t necessarily pay attention to a video of you killing it until they’ve seen you IRL. Doing a wide variety of different nights helps with this - especially ‘raw’ nights and gong shows at real comedy clubs.
You should rehearse your jokes, not just practice them. Don’t just memorise them and mumble them under your breath. Rehearse at home with a mic and stand (if possible) - the way you walk on stage, the gestures you make, looking at (or away) from the audience.
To the audience, you are a character. If you’re doing jokes about working in IT, don’t wear a suit. You need to dress in line with your comedy persona. (I learned this from G&B Comedy’s Everything But the Gag course).
Stand still. Or move deliberately. Don’t rock or shuffle in place, it’s distracting. I still make this mistake and then cringe when I watch back the video.
Move the mic stand out of the way. Don’t stand behind it. The audience can still see you, but it’s a bit distracting. I still forget to do this sometimes.
Refer to something that recently happened in the room. Do a callback to something the MC said or an earlier act’s set if you can. Or comment on the decor. If you can say something mildy witty off the cuff, it seems ten times funnier. Then the audience is more receptive to your actual material.
If an interruption or distraction happens, only address it if you think most of the audience is aware of it. If someone drops a plate in the middle of a punchline, you’ve got to acknowledge it and address it. But don’t comment about a weird mural in the back of the room that only you can see.
You don’t need to put up with abusive promoters, especially if there’s no chance of progression. Unless there’s a really good reason, if an event organiser is rude or unreasonable, just don’t work with them. You’re doing open mics, there’s dozens of them in London. The promoters with untreated Narcissistic Personality Disorder aren’t running the big clubs.
Don’t get drunk before going on for ‘courage’. Should go without saying, but I’ve seen a few beginner acts make this mistake. I used to think that a pint made me more verbally fluent but after looking at the video evidence, I try to avoid drinking anything more than a unit of alcohol before going up.
Don’t do ambush gigs. An ambush gig is a gig where the audience weren’t expecting to see stand-up comedy. Often this is in a pub where they put on stand-up comedy in the same room as the main bar. If there isn’t a separate room (separate enough that the music and noise from the main venue won’t leak in), don’t bother going.
Identify the gigs with progression to real spots. There are some open mic gigs that take place in a comedy club with actual paying customers on weekends, and if you do well enough as an open spot, you can get a real spot. Gong shows and contests are other routes to progression. There are other open mic gigs that exist only so that the promoter can harvest donations from you and your bringers. Don’t do the progression gigs or enter contests until you’re actually ready, though - some contests only let you enter once. And obviously any playable gig is going to help you get practice and get better so you’re good enough to beat a gong or impress at a real club.
Don’t try to have sex with other comedians. Actually this is more of a guideline than a rule.
Before you pay money for a course, find a video of the teacher doing comedy. Are they actually a professional stand-up? Are they funny (to you)? If not, don’t do the course.
Bombing makes you a better comic. In particular, you need to learn to stay calm and win the crowd back if a bit doesn’t work. (Here’s a YouTube clip of Louis CK talking about bombing). On the other hand, if all you’re ever doing is bombing and the only laughs you get are recovery lines like “well, I won’t be doing that joke again!!”, then maybe have a think about whether comedy is right for you.
You can just walk out. Professionalism cuts both ways. If you’re getting paid for a gig then it’s reasonable to expect you to be professional and do everything you can to get there on time, struggle through equipment failures, and generally take a ‘the show must go on’ attitude. But you’re a (probably) unpaid amateur. If you’re not being treated with the basic respect due to a professional, you don’t have to act like one. The ‘promoter’ doesn’t know how to work the PA and asks you to set it up? Just walk out. The venue is unplayable because they won’t turn off the music? Just walk out. Chances are if the promoter or venue doesn’t respect acts enough to do the basics, they don’t command the respect of the people who run real comedy clubs, so there’s a very limited chance of repercussions. Remember, by working for free, you’re doing the promoter a favour. You can withdraw your labour at any time you choose. This goes double if the gig organiser is getting paid, but you’re not. Boss needs you, you don’t need the boss.
Consider doing Roast Battle if you can stomach mean-spirited insult comedy. It’s a good joke-writing exercise, it helps you practice performing under pressure and being spontaneous in replying to roasts, and it’s a chance to show the judges (who are mainly pro-level comics) that you’re funny.
Get your own audio even if the venue is recording video. Many venues that will send you a video record the audio through the mic only. This makes the crowd laughter sound really quiet compared to your voice. If you want to use the clip to send to bookers, you can fix this by recording audio from the audience using your phone and then swapping out the audio track. (I keep forgetting to do this).
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