Ready to try stand up comedy? Here's a collection of tips and advice that I've put together to help you have a great experience at your very first open mic. This guide will teach you how to prepare your stand up act, tips to get laughs, how to rehearse, iterate and improve your jokes, and most importantly — lists all of the common mistakes open mikers make, allowing YOU to avoid them.
Before we begin, I want you to ask yourself: "Am I funny?"
If the answer isn't an enthusiastic "YES!" then don't try doing stand up. I'm serious.
If you're the class clown, office cut-up, or life of the party then you'll probably enjoy being onstage. If that doesn’t describe you, and you don’t excel at making people laugh in a social setting, then you’ll probably hate trying to make strangers laugh while sweating under a spotlight.
Stand up comedy is an emotional experience. When you get tons of laughs you feel like you're on top of the world. But if you don't get any laughs it's a soul-shredding experience that you'll never forget.
I legally have to warn you about the possibility of bombing and how awful it feels. With that out of the way, let's get started.
Stand up comedy is an art form that can be either very simple, or very complex. Luckily, the basics to stand up are universal. This is going to be an involved guide, but the basic steps are:
1. Collecting Funny Ideas - In order to develop material, you first have to collect all of your funny ideas and save them in one place.
2. Turning Ideas into Jokes - Take your list of funny ideas and start developing them into short jokes with a setup and a punchline.
3. Creating a Set List - Organize your list of jokes into a "set" a prepared list of jokes that can be organized by topic.
4. Rehearsing - Take your set list and perform your set in the car, in the shower, while out walking until you have it memorized.
5. Performing - Hop on stage and perform your rehearsed set.
6. Improving - Fixing what's broken and improving what works for your next set.
Step 1. Collecting Funny Ideas
Funny ideas probably won't come to you all the time, but you'll think of them here or there. Ideas will come to you in the shower, driving in the car, while out walking, or when you're just daydreaming.
In a perfect world, you'd be able to summon funny ideas on demand right when you needed them, but the reality is that you'll probably only have one or two really funny ideas each day.
Start jotting all of these ideas down. You can use the notes app in your phone, or write them in a notebook. Any method is fine, as long as you are saving them somewhere.
Never trust yourself to remember a funny idea to write down later, write it down at that moment. Many a comedian's day has been ruined when they're trying to remember a joke they thought of an hour ago and now can't remember any of it. Write everything down.
A note about notes: Shorthand can work most of the time, but you don't want to wind up in a situation where you have a note about an idea that you can't figure out. Try to write down enough information that you'll understand it later. "Shopping Cart ouch" is a bad note, whereas "Shopping Cart Locking Wheel with Toe Inside" is a great note.
The criteria for collecting funny ideas is pretty simple, if an idea or experience makes you laugh, it could potentially be a part of your stand up. If you think of something that DOESN'T make you laugh, then it's probably no good.
Yes, you could go onstage and try every single idea that you come up with, but the odds are good that if you've already laughed at it, someone else will. If you didn't laugh at it, other people probably won't laugh either.
Examples of ideas:
- I stubbed my toe yesterday and made a sound that woke up my roommate
- Newspapers are like a physical web page that never gets updated
- Prison inmates should be allowed to use DoorDash
- Urinals that generate electricity from your pee
Inspiration for comedy bits can come from anywhere, so it's a good idea to read the news, read books, listen to podcasts, watch movies, listen to stand up comedy, eavesdrop on conversations, and always be on the lookout for your next idea.
What's something you've never heard a comedian talk about? That's a great jumping off point for creating ideas for your own stand up.
Although this is the first step, it’s the most essential, and the one you’ll need to devote the most time to. You may spend weeks piecing together and refining funny ideas into jokes. The writing process is the heart of stand up comedy, and if you focus your effort on the jokes, the rest will come easy.
Your Ideas are Unique to YOU
Half the battle of stand up comedy is getting the audience to pay attention to what you're saying. Open mic audiences get bored when they keep hearing the same types of jokes on the same handful of topics. The best way for you to stand out at an open mic is to be unique.
Don't try to "fit in" or follow popular comedy trends, or sound like a famous comedian. Talk about your own ideas, experiences, and observations -- and present them in your own way.
Stand up comedy is an elevated version of a conversation you might have -- but with all the boring parts cut out. What are the things you are obsessed with, annoyed by, or worried about, and what's a funny way of expressing it?
Here's a list of things that you could make a stand up bit about:
- I grew up poor/I grew up rich
- I spend all of my time with friends/I spend all of my time alone
- I watch way too much TV/I almost never watch TV
- I have a lot of social anxiety/I feel a little too confident around others
- I drive my car too fast/I drive my car too slow
- I have a bad memory/I remember everything
- I love TV theme songs/I can't stand TV theme songs
- I have trouble sleeping/I fall asleep in a split-second
What's something about you or your life that's already a little funny that you can express in an even funnier way? Write a list of topics about your day-to-day life and think of ways to turn them into jokes.
I spend a lot of time alone, and as a result I don't dress up very often. I got invited to a wedding and I showed up in what I thought was a pretty fancy pair of sweatpants. I was like, "What's the matter? I took them to the dry cleaners and got them pressed!"
You might be a little bit of a slob, but no one would think of trying to wear sweatpants to a formal event. Take something you think or experience -- elevate it -- and turn it into a joke.
"I'm so cheap. I saw one of those take-a-penny dishes, and I took the dish!"
Gary Gulman made a great point once; he said that comedians generally just discuss things they HATE. Whereas Gulman himself mostly discusses things he LOVES. He explained that it gave him a much larger area to write material because no one was making fun of all the things they love.
Look for material and jokes that are unique, and will surprise the audience and other comedians. If you say something that gets the audience's attention, and then surprises them, you are two-thirds of the way to getting a laugh.
What is the EXACT PROCESS for Turning Ideas into Stand Up Comedy?There isn't one. Every comedian and every artist comes up with new ideas and develops them in their own unique way. Try a few different things and see what works for you.
Mark Normand has an interesting process for coming up with material. He'll walk around his apartment using a brush for a microphone and pretend that he's talking to the crowd. When he comes up with something funny; he writes it down.
Lots of comedians make the mistake of hearing the process that someone who has been doing stand up for forty years does, and trying to copy that. Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart both use a list of idea bulletpoints and talk about them onstage until they come up with a comedy bit. You won't have that kind of time or freedom at the outset, so you need to have a set that's scripted out that you'll recite.
As you perform stand up comedy your method of creating material will evolve along with you.
How Do You Know if a Joke will Make an Audience Laugh?
Originality is Essential
A crucial aspect of stand up comedy is originality. If anyone could recite a joke they heard on the street, read in a comic strip, or saw on a comedy special, then stand up comedy would get boring fast.
Stand up comedy is always original and (hopefully) different which keeps audiences interested. When you're starting out it's critical to know that you can only perform jokes that you wrote. Anything from Laffy Taffy, or you read on the wall of a bathroom stall is off-limits.
Step 2. Turning Your Ideas into JOKES
In the first stages, you’re really just collecting all of your funny ideas, so you can later write them out as jokes. They don’t have to be anecdotes, they don’t have to be one-liners, they don’t have to be anything. They just have to be little things that make you laugh.
Once you have your list of ideas, pick one idea and write it out in its entirety, just like how you’d explain the entire idea to a friend. Congratulations, you’ve just written a joke.
"If prisons allowed you to get DoorDash, the crime rate would SKYROCKET. Think about it, free rent, free gym membership, AND you get to start your day with Starbucks? Nobody would want to LEAVE!"
Repeat this process of writing out your ideas as an expression of a complete thought (the way you’d tell a friend) until you’ve made every idea on your list into a joke.
I’ve intentionally refrained from explaining how to write a joke, as everyone has their own unique method, and there are no “secrets” or set methods to writing a joke. A joke is anything that strikes you as funny. Figure out what makes you laugh and write it down.
One big mistake comics make is to write jokes that they think other people will find funny, but they don’t think is funny themselves. Do not do this. If you’re not laughing, it’s not funny enough. Keep thinking of ideas until you find ones that you love.
Important Note About Being a Comedian:
A comedian is both a writer and a performer, but ultimately writing is more important. Many comedians start out with an emphasis on performing, and never bother to master writing. Always remember that the writing is what gets laughs, the performance only enhances the laughs your writing is already getting.
2. Organize a Set List
A stand up comedy performance is known as a “set”, and the jokes you plan to tell is your “set list.” The set list helps a comic organize their ideas, and remember what jokes and bits they want to do. Even seasoned comedians use a set list to remind them of all the jokes they want to tell.
The two most important jokes in a set list are the “opener” and the “closer.” The opener is the very first joke you tell, and the closer (wait for it!) is the very last joke you tell. It’s critical that you get a laugh as soon as you start your set, and right as you end it, so those are your most important jokes.
The first joke I ever told was “My father used to beat me — at chess.” It worked, and started off my first set with a small-ish laugh. Getting a laugh at the top of your set is crucial, because once an audience starts laughing, they have a tendency to keep laughing. On the flipside, when an audience isn’t laughing at your jokes, it’s hard to get them to start. This is called “being in a hole.”
Write your set list down on a scrap of paper (or type it into a document on your phone), and hang onto it.
Your set list isn’t every single word of your set typed out as a script. All you need to do is write down a list of just the key parts of the joke, or the first two words that will remind you of what the joke is about. For example, a joke about taking a pizza to your doctor could be listed as “Doctor Pizza.”
A good joke will make you laugh every time you think of it. Don’t try to do stand up until you have a list of jokes that you find very funny.
If you follow these two steps, you WILL be one of the best comics at your open mike. Open mikes are filled with comics telling partially-written jokes that they only sort of remember. You don’t want to be the comic saying “umm” and “ahh” and struggling to remember a punchline.
By preparing, you can be the best comic there.
3. Rehearse (and Revise) Your Set
Take the list of jokes you wrote and say them over and over in the setlist order until you have them memorized. By merely having your act memorized word-for-word, you’ll have a better performance than most comics.
Rehearse your entire set until you know exactly how you’re going to deliver each joke, and approximately how long it takes. Most open mic spots are 5 minutes or less. It takes about 20 seconds to tell a “one-liner” (like the sauna joke from before) so you’ll need fifteen one-liners to perform for five minutes.
Cars are a great place to run through your act, as are showers, and anywhere that you’re alone and people can’t hear you. Rehearsing is not that fun, but it’s a lot better than blanking onstage in front of a crowd.
My rehearsal method has always been to go on a walk, and just tell the entire set over and over. In addition to memorizing it, this even helps you realize what parts of jokes can be improved, or which jokes you don’t even want to bother with. This sort of polishing is uncommon for beginner comics, so if you do it, you’ll have a very tight, well-rehearsed act.
All comedy writing is about iteration. Creating something, improving upon it, and improving it again. Think of rehearsing your act as an additional performance, where you work out the bugs, throw out jokes you no longer like, and come up with new jokes.
This is called “working out” your act, and most comics swear that it has to happen onstage, but those people are WRONG. Instead of telling a joke onstage that bombs ten times before you figure out how to fix it, you’ll have told it thirty times to yourself, and you’ll have already improved it, or thrown it away.
Let’s see if we can’t improve the first draft of that sauna joke we came up with:
“I actually enjoy being stuck in traffic. It’s hot, damp, and I’m completely motionless — it’s like being in a sauna.”
What if instead of “enjoy”, I said “love”? What if I swap out the word “damp” for “sweaty”? What if I write a new punchline entirely?
“I actually love being stuck in traffic — it’s like being in a sauna. I’m hot, sweaty, and completely naked.”
That’s stand up comedy. Come up with a funny idea, write it out as a joke, and keep making it funnier until you can’t find any ways to improve it. Put all of your jokes to the test, and keep hunting for ways to improve them. It’s like running your act through a simulation, so by the time you do your first set, it’ll be like your fiftieth set.
Rehearsing and revising your set will make you one of the most polished comics at your open mike, and give you a huge head start.
4. Find a Comedy Venue
If your town has a comedy club, or bars, or a coffee shop, you can find stage time to do stand up. Google the name of your town and “open mike” or “open mic” and you will find a weeknight show that offers a stage to anyone with a pulse (and that’s exactly who you will see at this show). Find out about the venue’s sign-up process to get a spot. It usually means calling or emailing them and requesting one, or attending the show and asking for a spot on an upcoming date.
And of course, if you can’t find a venue, make one! Find someplace where people gather, (preferably with a mike and sound system) and ask whoever is in charge if you can do stand up there.
5. Get Ready
I recommend that comedians always dress up a bit for a comedy show. Put on a clean outfit, shave, do your hair, or perform whatever gender-specific grooming you normally engage in.
The moment that you step onto the stage the audience is going to size you up, and if they see an unkempt slob, you may have trouble overcoming that negative impression in your quest for laughter. Looking nice will also give you some confidence, which you will desperately need when the show starts.
One of the most important things in comedy is to stand out, and if you’re dressed like all the other open mikers (crummy t-shirt, cargo pants, and a ballcap) you’ll be the same. Differentiate yourself by looking good.
6. Get to the Venue
This is your very first time, so be prompt. These shows are going to be a mess, so get there early, locate the host of the show and find out when you’re slated to go up. Be sure to bring your set list!
There’s going to be some downtime, so read your set list and go over your jokes in your mind until the show is almost ready to begin. You may feel your heart racing as the prospect of doing stand up looms nearer, so be sure to take deep breaths, and try to relax.
Once the show has started, take a seat in the crowd and keep in mind what spot you are performing in. As your spot gets closer, get up and stand somewhere that will allow you to reach the stage easily and in an appropriate amount of time. Struggling to walk past people as your name is repeatedly called by the host is no way to start a set.
When your spot is next, and you watch the comedian before you performing their act, you will be overcome by a wave of terror. You’ll experience dry mouth, runny nose, insistent bladder, sweating, or any number of horrible feelings as you wait to take the stage. You’re panicking, and that’s totally normal. Put on some chapstick, have a sip of water, take some deep breaths and when you hear the MC say your name, stride confidently onstage.
7. Perform Stand Up
stand up comedian Joe Sinclitico
Joe Sinclitico, a stand up comic with a verifiable TV credit
You’re just seconds away from doing stand up — but first — you need to be able to amplify your voice. Reach for the microphone, and remove it from the mic stand. Hold the mic close to your mouth, raise the volume of your voice slightly and speak clearly. Do not gesture with your mic hand, if you do, the audience won’t be able to hear you.
If the mic stand is between you and the audience, move it to the left, or to the right. This may sound like a minor detail, but not being sure what to do with the mic, or performing with the mic stand right in front of you makes you look stupid. Trust me on this one.
Now you have the mic, and the audience’s attention. Do not comment on the mic, do not comment on the lighting, do not comment on the crowd, don’t talk about anything but your set. Every second of your set counts, and if you spend ten seconds making idle observations, that’s ten fewer seconds you have to get through your jokes.
As soon as you have the mic out of the mic stand and up to your mouth, launch into your first joke. There’s no need to say, “I’m Carol and this is my first time doing stand up” or anything. The audience wants to laugh, and you saying your name isn’t funny.
We’ve arrived at the part where all of your rehearsing pays off. Unlike all the other comedians at this show, you have memorized your set perfectly, and now you’re just repeating an act that you’ve told dozens of times, and it may feel like you’re on autopilot.
After you’ve told your first joke, stop for a “beat.” This lets the audience know (for good or ill) that you’ve delivered the punchline, and it’s their turn to laugh. If you hear a laugh, congratulations, you’re a comedian, if not, don’t despair, you still have several other chances to get one.
Bombing on a single joke is not the end of the world. If you tell ten jokes, and get four laughs, you did alright. Don’t give up on the act if the first joke bombs, ignore the audience’s silence and plow right into the next joke. Keep doing this until you’ve told all of your jokes, or until a light or other indication from the host lets you know that your set is over.
If you find that you can’t remember your next joke, reach into your pocket and take a look at your set list. This is not a cardinal sin, and all the audience wants you to do is fill the silence with a joke, so don’t make a big deal out of it.
It’s not uncommon for open mike comedians to not use the entire amount of time allotted for their set, and that’s okay. Whenever you’re done, say goodnight, or thank you, put the mic back in the stand, shake the host’s hand and take your seat back in the crowd.
Congratulations, you did it, and you can now scratch “do stand up comedy” off of your bucket list.
Don't record your set
Don't try to take a joke you heard and change it enough
You're going to be a little hack
The idea of stepping on stage and entertaining a group of strangers can be daunting.
A very common misconception about stand up comedy is that it's improvised. Good stand up comedy doesn't feel scripted, which is part of what makes the artform so entertaining.