Thursday, August 20, 2009


Notes on Getting into Open-mike Stand-Up

by Nick Vatterott

Next to skipping penguins like pebbles across a pond, and shot-putting for strippers, stand-up comedy is about the most fun thing I can think of doing on any given night. In some ways stand-up comedy is my dream conversation. I get to do all the talking, nobody else gets to say anything, and I’m hilarious the whole time I’m talking. Or at least in my dreams I am. I love doing sketch and improv just as much, but the problem with those arts is that you have to organize a group, make sure everyone shows up, book a room, get a run, have rehearsals, and go through some sort of involved process for the opportunity to maybe do it once a week. The beauty of stand-up is that on any given night of the week, at 5 o’clock in the evening you can say, “I think I feel like doing stand-up tonight” and there’s generally at least one open mike in the city, where for 3 - 5 minutes you can get up on stage, and do whatever the fuck you want. You can perform any night of the week, sometimes multiple times in a night. If you get an idea for sketch, you may have to wait weeks to test out your bit. In standup, I can think of a joke and have an audience tell me it’s either gold or shit the same day. There are 6,893,499,394,927 types of people in this world. Three of those types are people who have no interest in doing stand-up, people who do stand-up, and then a third group whom this whole thing is written for. Those that have may have tried stand-up a couple times a long time ago and have been meaning to get back into it. Or for those have been meaning to try it, but just haven’t yet for whatever reason. I think about once a week someone who has been thinking about going solo in front of a mike says, ‘Hey Nick, I’d love to sit down with you and talk about stand-up sometime.” I love talking about stand-up. I love getting people to do stand-up. I think everyone should try it once. It’s scary and surreal, but the possible payoff can’t be beat. This piece is made up of conversations I’ve had with people about stand-up, plus things I wish I would have said. If you’re a stand-up veteran, I’m not sure Im going to say anything you don’t already know. If you have no interest in doing stand-up, this thing will probably bore you to tears. But if you’re thinking about doing stand-up, hopefully there are some things you’ll find insightful, that took me hundreds of sets to figure out. More important than anything, fuck everything I say. These definitely aren’t the right and wrong ways to do stand-up. These are just thoughts and opinions I have, things that I think have helped me out. What I think is a lame way to approach stand-up, might totally work for someone else. I’m sure there’s stuff in here that a lot of people may disagree with. And those people might be right. This just something to jump start a pursuit of stand-up, so that someday, you yourself can have thoughts and opinions about stand-up that are also completely wrong.

Section 1: GROW A PAIR

That might be the biggest obstacle keeping people from stand-up. Just get the balls (or sorry ladies, the labias) and just fucking do it. I’ve talked to people who say, “Yeah, I think I’m just about ready to try stand-up, I’ve been practicing in my apartment for a couple months now, and I think I’m about ready.” That blows my mind. First of all just getting up in front of an audience and doing it for the first time will give 10 times the insight into the whole thing than anything I could write. Obviously what keeps people from signing up for that first open mike is the fear of failure. And I won’t sugar coat it, even as many sets as I’ve done, getting in front of an audience and eating shit fucking sucks. But its going to happen. You have to be fine with that. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to ease into stand-up. Go to an open mike and watch one night. You’ll see people do well, and having fun up there, witch will motivate you even more to try it. But also, you’ll see some awful people up there as well. I went to watch an open mike once before I ever tried it, and some of the people there were so bad, it made the whole thing less intimidating. You get the thought, “Wow, I can’t be any worse than that guy.” I have to say that two of the first people to inspire me to do stand-up were Jerry Seinfeild and Margret Chou. Seinfeild, because he killed me and he made it look like something Id want to do. And Chou, because she made me so mad, I thought, “If she has that level of success with that horrible act what am I waiting for” (yes, I think Chou does a racist act that feeds on white people being given permission to laugh at asian stereotypes no less offensive than the notorious cinematically embarrassing scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's decades ago. But that’s for another self indulgent piece). You can practice your act in front of a mirror in you house for years, but you’re never going to get a sense of the material till it’s said on stage. In fact the more you practice it in your apartment, the more weight you’re putting on that first act to go well. When you start stand-up, you really can’t put too much weight on that first set to go well. Sure, that is the goal, and people have great fist sets all the time. But I think a more productive goal is to really give stand-up a shot. Plan on doing several sets, using each set as preparation for the next set, that will lead up to that hot shit set that we’re looking for. The biggest step is just getting that first set out of the way. You’ll have such a better sense of what to expect once that happens. You can go over how to swim in front of your mirror, all you want, but that will only help you so much, you have to get in the pool. (yes I passed on the ‘behind the wheel’ metaphor, and went the equally as tired ‘jump in the water’ metaphor) There’s an article on the wall at Zanie’s in Chicago about Brain Reagan, about how in the beginning he used to sit at his desk and write these jokes that were very clever. Then he would get in front of an audience, and his joke were met with polite smiles from the audience, as if the audience was thinking, ‘yes, that was very clever.’ It wasn’t until he started taking his ideas and exploring them on stage that they finally started really hitting. Plus there is a level of being comfortable on stage that no bathroom mirror in the world can produce. The more sets you do, the more comfortable you are in the incredible awkward situation of being by yourself with a roomful of strangers staring at you expecting you to be funny. You have to let your want to do it, exceed the fear of failure. I know people who went up on stage with good material, but rocked back and forth the whole time, or kept fiddling with the mike stand. Their set doesn’t go well and they think it’s because of the material. Sometimes it’s the material. Sometimes its because you were wetting you pants the whole time you were up there. The audience sees when you wet yourself, or any other nervous tick you don't realize your doing up there, and they aren't so much as listening to the material, as they are watching the comic not be at ease.


Yeah, that’s pretty much the whole thing. I know some really funny people that say that want to do stand-up, but say that have a hard time coming up with jokes a stand-up would do. I think that’s the problem. You can’t write with any sort of notion of what a ‘stand-up’ type joke is, or a joke that a traditional thought of stand-up would do. I like to look at stand-up as your own one man show for five minutes. The beauty of stand-up open mikes is that you can go up, and pretty much do whatever you want. You can’t say, “What’s a stand-up type joke?” You have to say, what’s something that I would have a lot of fun doing on stage. What is it about you, that makes you think you should do stand-up? Is it you sitting in your living room cracking up your roommates while you bitch about some new horrible t.v. show, is it telling stories about your awkward boss at work, observations you have everyday riding the bus, doing really funny things at a keg party involving potatoes? Those are the things that make up our material. It’s not all one-liners, set up and punch line. Sure, some people are living sit-com characters, and have witty responses to things people say all day long. If that’s the case you should write everything you say all day long. By the way when you do get your stand-up notebook, don’t get some nice leather bound thick book, that you get because you feel the more money you spend on your notebook, the more seriously your going to take this thing. Get some cheap, piece of shit you can keep in your pocket all times. I don't think you should analyze everything you say all week and think of everything as a possible stage bit, but its good to be aware of something that happens in your week that might be fun to explore on stage. Then when you prepare for your set you have a list of options in your notebook, instead of staring at a wall at a desk saying, “What’s something that’s funny?” Try as many different things on stage as possible. Maybe one night you tell your best story, the next night, do some characters, then maybe have a ‘rant’ night. Early on I did a ‘impression’ set. For days afterwards I was picking corn out of my mouth from all the shit I ate on stage that night.(Not necessary) But the good that came out of that night was that I tried it, and I knew that impressions weren’t my thing. The more things you try, the more you find what works the best, and these are the things that evolve into the ‘voice’ or ‘character’ we hear so much about.


Once you get a couple pages and ideas in your notebook for doing stand-up, you now have to put your act together. I say do your strongest joke first. None of this, save it for the end, hit a game winning home run bullshit. Again to reference Brian Reagan, (this whole thing is leading up to an ad for Reagan’s next CD by the way) on his CD he does his ‘You too’ joke up top. That’s no doubt his best joke on a very hilarious album (in stores now only $9.99) His last joke on the album is great, but it’s just as funny as everything else on the album. He starts out with his best joke, it destroys, and how he has the audience. The top of your set is the most important part of your set. The audience is forming an opinion of you the second they see you. To the point that if you trip on your way up, spill your drink, or even stumble over your words at first, they’re already losing faith in you. Your first joke sets up your whole set. Sure, your first joke could bomb and you could win the audience back. Its just much harder to lose an audience after your first joke does well, than to win them back if your first joke tanks. If your first joke does well, often they’ll listen to whatever you say for the next five minutes or at least let you get away with telling a few stinkers afterwards just cause you got them at the top. Why save your best joke for the end, when there’s a chance you’ve already lost them by then? Mic Napier talks about how in sketch comedy, each scene is affected by the residue of all sketches that have already happened leading up to that scene. The same is true in your stand-up set list. If you have a joke that's maybe a little more, dark, blue, offensive, or weird, you might want to save that for the back end of your set. If your whole act, is weird or blue, then obviously this doesn’t really apply. But if most your act is jokes about food, and you got one about 9/11, you might not want to put 9/11 at the top. Win the audience over first, then sneak in the abortion joke, they’ll be a lot more open to it. Do clean stuff joke at the top to prove you don’t have to rely on poo jokes, then do that poo joke you rely on. The first sets you do will be the hardest sets you’ll ever do. You have no idea what bits are your ‘hot shit’ jokes. The first sets really are a series of throwing shit up and seeing what sticks. But after awhile you will have those ‘hot shit’ jokes. You will start to get a sense of what jokes would make good openers. Once you have ‘hot shits’, trying new stuff isn’t as daunting. You can start trying new bits and ‘protecting’ them with ones you know work. In your set list, do a strong joke, then plant a couple new ones in before once again hitting another tried and true. Have a ‘back pocket’ joke. A joke that you don’t plan to do in your set, but is on standby in case things get pretty hairy. I don’t think ‘back pocket’ jokes in an open-mike set are too important, or even that productive. But they’re good to be aware of in case you try a couple of new bits and they tank. Whip out the ‘back pocket’, get the audience back in it, to set yourself up to try a few more new ones.

Possible open-mike set list:
Milk (its a quick joke that's been hitting prettyconsistantlylately)
pajamas (new joke)
whiskey (new joke)
Pirates (a joke I’ve done before but am trying to tighten)
Aquasocks (joke that hit last time I told)
spiders (new joke)
Dollywood (new joke)
AIDS (new joke, its about AIDS, keep it towards the end)
Farting eyeballs (new joke, although pretty sure its been by someone before told before)
back pocket: my observation on observational comedy

Its a setlist that leads the audience into your set, protects the new stuff, sets you up with doing more ‘racy’ (I hate word) stuff towards the end. Sometimes we write that new joke, that we are certain will kill, so we open with it. Go for it, I do it all the time. But I’ve also completely fucked my whole set because I opened with a new joke that I wrote earlier in the day that completely bombed because it consisted of nothing more than a ‘teletubbies’ reference, that was more dated than I realized. The closest thing to a rule in set lists, is just to do a solid joke up top, preferably a shorter than a longer one. After that everything is really up for debate. That’s why at every open mike there’s at least ten guys staring at five words on a piece of paper trying to figure out what order they go. Fuck with, it try different things. Open up with the AIDS joke once and see what happens. Just be aware of the idea that sometimes when a joke in your set doesn't hit, its not so much that that joke is to blame, but the jokes that happened before it.


You got your material, you put together your set list, you grew a pair, now its time to get on stage and find out if your going to be famous or not. These are things that I’ve seen numerous times by first timers at open mikes. The lights on the stage are bright. Often times it’s the equivalent of three mack trucks hanging from the ceiling with their brights aimed directly in your eyes. Don’t comment on it. Everyone comments on it. The audience doesn't care. It doesn’t seem bright to them. If one of the lights honk at you, you might not be at an open mike, you might be laying down on the highway. Quickly finish your act and roll to the shoulder of the road. Quit asking the audience how there doing. They’re doing fine. Sure, say hi, maybe ask how they’re doing once, but get to your act. You only have five minutes. Sometimes a comic will say, “How are you doing?” and is met with mediocre applause. The comic will try it again, “I SAID, HOW ARE YOU FEELING?” What the comic doesn’t realize is that combined with the emcee and the last six comics, chances are the audience has been asked how they are doing, to make some noise, and to give up sixty times in the past twenty minutes. Do your material, and just like my new wife, they’ll give it up when their ready to give it up. (Don Rickles made me write that)
Give your material half a chance. I say video tape yourself if you can. You do things on that stage that you have no idea that your doing. Some of that goes with the being comfortable on stage stuff mentioned earlier. Watch yourself and you may realized that you scratch your head constantly, or you say ‘umm’ an obnoxious amount of times. Stuff the audiences sees and distract them from your act. Plus many times video tape reveals that a joke didn’t work because of how you said it. You realize you were talking way too fast, or kind of mumbled a word that was pretty essential to the punch line. Know your act. Know your jokes. I once saw a guy say, “Every time I think of rush hour traffic, I always think, umm, I always think, um” and then he pulled out his joke notebook to find out what he thinks. Not as a joke, that would have been great. He just couldn’t remember his joke. You’ve lost me. I already don’t believe you, you obviously don’t think of whatever it is you think whenever you think of rush hour traffic, because right now you can’t think of it. A lot of people bring their set lists up on stage with them. I guess it works for some people and helps them. I just feel that stand-up, even open mikes, is still a performance. You are selling your jokes to the audience as well as selling yourself as a comic. Take the time to memorize your setlist. Bringing a set list on stage never adds, and can only take away from your act. I’ve even seen people start looking at their setlist before they’ve even finished the last joke. Really? You’re spend all that time setting it up, before apparently losing interest in your own punch line. Plus if your going to tell a joke, tell it. Don't spend a minute setting up a joke before bailing on it halfway through because the audience isn't reacting to the setup. Silence isn't always bad. At a lot of these open-mikes, silence is better than half the room talking to each other. Sometimes silence means you have the audiences attention. Their silent because they’re listening and waiting for the punch line, or where the joke is going. Don’t trail off, or say the punch line in an apologetic way because you lost faith in your own joke halfway through. Sell the joke. If you sell the joke and the audience still doesn't react, then you have permission to go home and hate yourself. If it’s going bad, don't let the audience know. If a couple jokes in a row tank, or even one for that matter, its hard to not make a joke about it. But keep it on the minimal. Sometimes a comic will be doing ‘ok’, but then start making this big deal about how they’re eating shit up there. A lot of times the audience isn’t thinking that, but you are starting to plant an idea in their head. Open mikes can get pretty ugly, but making constant references to the ’train wreck’ does nothing for the audience. Often at shows that aren’t the best, the audience is still having a good time. If they weren’t, they would leave. Try to keep the fact that you or the shows sucks, a secret from the audience for as long as possible. Sometimes they’ll never find out.


The tough thing about open mikes, is that all they truly prepare you for, is other open mikes. Open mikes are the best way to prepare for booked gigs or a club. However the audience you get in open mikes, is rarely similar to the ones in real shows. Its just a good thing to be aware of. Open mike audiences are made up largely of the other comics waiting to perform. In theory, what’s funny is funny. But the anti-comedy joke that kills the back of the room at an open mike, might not leave the suburb family at your club showcase in the same stitches. There’s a general Lenny Bruce mentality among comics that says, fuck everything, I’m going to do whatever I want, I’m never changing, adapting or compromising for no one. That’s fine, don’t compromise, but if there is a way to test your material out in front of as many different audiences as possible that's for the best. Maybe hit different open mikes in different parts of town. Some open mikes are total comic rooms. Others might get more tourists, or college kids. The shit that kills the comics, generally lets you know what some of your funniest stuff is. But its also good to know what jokes of yours are the most universal. If you are hitting the same open mikes a lot, and there are genealy the same audience members there every week, be aware of that. I see dudes do a set at an open mike that kills. They then do the same act at the same open mike four weeks in a row. They can’t figure out why the joke isn’t hitting like it used to. It’s cause everyone there has heard that joke four times already. There is nothing wrong with doing a bit in front of an audience that has seen it before, that’s necessary for polishing. But work new stuff in. The whole point of open mikes is to help you work on your act. You got a joke that hits and doesn't need any more work. Great. Keep if for your booked gigs and showcases. In the meantime, use the open mikes to find your next solid joke. Personally I feel the only reason you would ever do a joke you’ve done before at an open mike, is if your working on the bit; (rewriting, tightening, making even the most minute adjustment to it), trying a new running order in your set list or telling a joke you know works to set yourself up for new bits. If you’re spending your whole open-mike time telling jokes you know work, with no rewriting involved with them, how is that going to make you grow as a comic? What are you really accomplishing other than reliving past glories. Showcase and gigs are the times to do your greatest hits. Every open mike set should be used to ‘find out’ something about your set that night. Use open-mikes to tighten material, and to put up new material every week.


What are the least amount of words that I can use to still tell same joke? That’s basically what you have to ask yourself when tightening a bit. How essential to the punch line are all the things mentioned in the setup? When I say, “A couple years ago, when I was in college, I had come into a little money at the time, so I decided to treat myself and go to I an acupuncturist, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do. that's when this happened...” do I need all that for the setup? Or can I just say, “I went to an acupuncturist once, and this happened...” Its easy to get into the romance of telling a joke based in truth, with details that are important to us, but generally extraneous to what's necessary. Tell your joke in as few words as possible, to give yourself room for more jokes in your set. Some people love the style of telling longer stand-ups, that’s more their voice. But ask yourself if your telling a longer joke because that’s your voice, or if the bit could benefit from being whittled down a little. Be ready to kill babies. Those jokes that we love, but never hit as hard as we wanted them to. Sometimes we got to just let them go. There are longer bits we do, that have several jokes in them. If it’s long, ask yourself what are the best parts of this bit? This bit on tollbooths is four minutes long. One minute is real hot, and the other three are good but not great. Be fine with cutting a four minute bit down to just that one hot minute. Not kidding, I once had a ten minute piece on jewelry that I turned into a one liner. It took me forever to give up all the other stuff, but eventually I said, “this line I say half way through the bit, is the funniest line of the whole piece, and I bet could set it up with only one sentence”. Sometimes we got that joke with that extra tag at the very end. The extra tag has gotten a good response a couple times, but most of the time it gets nothing. We keep it because the rest of the joke is great, and we just kind of got used to saying that last part. Give it up. Realize what parts of your jokes are essential, what parts hit hard, and what parts we say only out of habit of saying them.

Section 7 WHERE DO I GO?

In Chicago, the best bet is to grab a Chicago Reader and look under the comedy sections for open mikes. Right now, the best open mike in the city is a Schubus on Sunday nights at Belmont and Southport. From there talk to comics to find out where some of the better open-mikes are. You should definely check out a showcase show in town (non-open mike) to see what comics in the scene are doing. Chicago has a bunch of really great shows in town. but my personal favorite, probably cause its the show I helped start, Chicago Underground Comedy at the Beat Kitchen on Belmont on Tuesday nights. I’m probably biased, but I think its one of the best places to check out the Chicago Stand-up scene. There’s a Chicago stand-up chat room, comics there are really great about letting people know what’s going on in the city that night, and talking shit about each other. But whatever city your in, generally if you interweb whatever city your in and ‘stand-up open mike’ you’ll find some sort of web site that lists the trenches of comedy.

Section 8 WHAT DO I WEAR?

Whatever Paula Poundstone would wear.

Again, this whole thing is to aimed at helping people out who are thinking about doing stand-up. The biggest thing is just to get up and do it. It also helps to have sort of substance addiction and an underlying sadness you keep hidden from the world. The bad news is that while you can teach people to tell jokes, you can’t teach sadness.




  1. "That tag" is "I'm not the SHIFT MANAGER at Boston Market... yet!" if I'm not mistaken.

    Gonna check out the open mic here in town tonight for the first time, now that the softball season's over and there's no conflict.

    Maybe I'll get up and describe in gory detail how I got all the scars on my body just to get one out of the way.

  2. Regarding the beginning of Section 3 ("Open with your strongest joke"):

    A great piece of advice I was given when I was just starting out was "Open up with your strongest joke... then close with a joke that's even stronger."

    As George Wallace sagely noted in "Comic Insights," the last thing you do is the thing your audience will most remember. Wallace compared doing poorly at the beginning of your set, then winning the crowd over and ending strong to doing really well at the beginning of your set, then losing the crowd by the end. The former is much more desirable than the latter, mostly because the audience walks away from the former thinking much more highly of you as a comedian than the latter. In this comparison, having a stronger final joke was much more important than having a stronger opening joke. (Keeping in mind that the IDEAL situation is to do really well at the beginning and ending well, so you should have opening, middle, and closing jokes that are all extremely strong - in this situation, having a strong opening and having a strong closing joke are both important.)

    Chris Rock also spoke about certain jokes needing to go in certain parts of your set (you mention that, too, in your section on set lists). Sometimes your best joke/the joke that gets the strongest, most consistent reaction doesn't belong at the top of your set. Or, that joke only gets that really strong and consistent reaction when it's in the middle. Careful attention must be paid to the context in which a joke sits.

    I think if we're speaking about your opening joke, the most important characteristic to consider is not necessarily its strength (although carefully consideration still should be paid to that, of course) but that it sets up your character quickly. The opening joke is the way you make your first impression, so it should get across who you are in addition to how good you are.

    Lewis Black, for example, opens up "Red, White, and Screwed" with a line about the amount of applause he's just gotten (it's too much pressure to live up to, he jokes, so he might as well just stop now). It perfectly sets up who he is and his attitude towards his audience and towards life. Is it his strongest bit? That's for each audience member to decide. But more importantly, it's a great first impression. All great stand-ups have a unique persona and point of view; great opening jokes communicate that persona and point of view quickly, efficiently, and hilariously.