Stand-up Comedy – Writing and Performing at an Open Mic

Ash at open mic

This episode I try stand-up comedy. As a fan and funny person, I figure it can’t be that hard to be funny on stage, a hobby where a lot people experience and think “I could probably do that”.

Links to my sets are at the bottom of this post.

Why Stand-up Comedy

Like a lot of people who think about trying stand-up comedy, I’ve been told I’m funny and should try it. What’s the difference between making a small group of friends laugh and room full of strangers?

Comedy was a big part of my childhood where our family would watch stand-up together. I can vividly remember the first time I saw Eddie Murphy’s Raw and Delirious. I couldn’t believe how he could make thousands laugh effortlessly.

Eddie Murphy in Delirious
Eddie Murphy in Delirious

Fast forward 20 years: I had been to countless large and small shows, including stadiums and the famous Comedy Store in LA. I had seen specials with comedians talking about comedy and what makes good comedy.

I was at a work Christmas party telling a story I’ve been asked to tell again and the table was in tears. I noticed this and thought “I can tell this on stage.”

How did Standup start

Stand-up comedy is a simple form of entertainment: there is you and the audience. You succeed if you can make people laugh. Oh and you shouldn’t be laughing. Those are the only rules.

It can be traced back to the 12th century in Britain, 16th & 17th century in India, and 19th century in the States.

Stand-up comedy as we know it today is a very young art form in that it’s only been around since the 50s in the States and only just becoming popular around the rest of the world in the last 20 years.

The style introduced by Mort Stahl of commenting on current events or observational comedy paved the way for the comedians like Jerry Seinfeld.

In the 50s, Lenny Bruce introduce the rebellious style that addressed prejudices head on and was pushing the boundaries of vulgarity. He threw out any conventions and honed “speaking your mind”. Getting on stage and saying whatever you want within minimal consequences was a significant selling point for the majority of modern comedians.

Then came along self-deprecating humour that consists of jokes about personal experiences. This is the form I gravitate towards.

Standup is a serious business

When I think of stand-up comedy, I either think of a club with up to 50 people in it or stadiums with thousands. It is both local and small and a serious business.

Stand-up comedians are akin to rockstars: they sell out arenas, they go on tours, they are all over audio and video streaming services. About 1/5th of Netflix’s original content is stand-up comedy.

Until COVID, revenue for comedy clubs has grown consistently, partly thanks to the marketing power of social media. It’s easier to sell tickets to shows the better known the comics are.

The 10 highest paid comedians in 2019 brought in more than 270 million dollars combined, with Kevin Hart leading. The majority of the money doesn’t come from movies or Netflix, but touring selling out major sport arenas.

Preparing for my first set

This may be an odd question but how do you prepare for doing a set? If it’s just making people laugh, can’t you just go up there and tell a few jokes or stories?

I figured I’d look for a template or a quick how-to to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

What I found was that stand-up comedy is kind of a dark art with a lot of different camps. There are the:

  • You’re born with it and you just do it camp
  • It’s like any other skill and it takes hundreds and thousands of reps to get good at it
  • You can only learn in front of an audence
  • You can go to a school and learn it

Researching stand-up comedy was like trying to research how to do art. I just had to pick a way and do it.

Jerry Seinfeld describing his process
Jerry Seinfeld describing his process.

Thanks to a short video by Jerry Seinfeld on his technique, I took out a notepad and wrote out some material. I read it and trimmed anything that wasn’t funny or necessary.

What started as a bunch of funny stories turned into a bunch of jokes that told a story.

The hardest part of writing was writing the way I spoke instead of how I wrote. I planned to memorize the set and had to put in a lot of effort to make it sound natural.

I also ended up reordering whole sections and messed with the truthiness of the jokes.

I had signed up for an open mic and was given a slot and strict instructions to stick to 5 minutes.

I recorded myself and set a timer.

I was finally ready

The Open Mic

I get to the show exactly on time. I’m told the instructions again:

You have 5 minutes. Do not go over. Look for the red light to wrap up and get on stage. You can wait in the green room.

I go to the green room. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. There are a couple of comics having a conversation in one corner, another comic preparing her bristle board signs, and another comic scribbling in her notebook.

I sit there rehearsing my set in my head.

I watch them go up one by one. They’re all funny. No one is bombing. What if I’m the only one who bombs.

My name is called.

Uh oh, how do I hold the mic? Where do I put my other hand? I forgot to hold a brush like a mic in the mirror.

I can’t see anything except the front row. I’ll pretend to look at the back row and talk to them too. That’s not the back row, that’s a mirror. I’m looking at myself.

Never mind, I’ll look at the front row.

I haven’t flubbed a line.

It’s got to be five minutes soon, I’m running out of material.

I’m finishing my last joke and the red light is still not lit telling me to wrap it up.

Ash at open mic
Looking for the red light.

Never leave the stage without the MC I remember reading somewhere.

I tell the joke I didn’t think flowed well that I cut out. I remember from high school that saying “thank you” is a better way of ending a presentation than saying “I’m done”.

The MC runs up on stage and I wait and hand him the mic while shaking his hand.

Now what do I do? I go and stand with the other comics. They tell me I did great.

I think I did well but don’t remember the last 10 min. My heart is pounding as fast, if not faster, then when I ran the Spartan Race.

I get home and watch the recording I made. People laughed. It worked. I win.

Overall, it went really well. You can judge for yourself, the recording is up on and on YouTube.

I tried it a year later and it went as well. That recording is up too.

Why did it take me a year to try again and why did I stop?

It’s hard to explain: I’ve tried.

I didn’t feel a lasting rush like I had read about.

It was too easy in a way: I followed a formula when writing the sets and it worked as intended.

I get the same joy making my friends laugh.

I know I can do it and that’s good enough for me.