My First Open Mic (2015)

(This post appeared in the 2015 Winter edition of the Van Wyck Gazette and is unedited)

My heart races as I anxiously pace the green stone steps. I’ve walked around the block twice reciting out loud the contents of my set. By any indication I have the appearance of a crazy person. Perhaps that’s exactly what I need to be. The host calls my name and I approach the stage. The light is piercing and I can’t make out the crowd. I keep telling myself to just breathe. I start speaking yet am only vaguely aware of what I say. As I stammer through my jokes, I get this intense feeling of excitement. A blue blinking light signifies my time is up and the host calls me off stage. Unaware if the crowd enjoyed it or even laughed once I knew one thing I was hooked.

These were some of the reactions I had while performing at my first open mic. The Village Lantern on Bleeker Street in New York City’s West Village is home to many a spectacle such as this. It was just over a year ago, and I was enrolled in a class at The Gotham Comedy Club. My instructor explained to us that the best way for us to jump into Stand-Up Comedy was to go to as many open mic’s as we could. The first week of class he encouraged it but by the second it was mandatory. In a place like New York City there were literally dozens to choose from every day. After that first mic everything changed. Stage time suddenly became something that I not only sought after but craved. It was the first time in my life where I was just like “yes, this is it, I’m doing this.” Without contention this was a huge moment in my life.

I grew up in Rockland County in the town of Nyack, NY. Throughout my life, I was never into the performing arts. I loved music and wanted to be in a band but never pulled that off. I always had a passion for comedy however without really realizing. I loved to make people laugh; it was easy for me and became a way to break the ice in social situations. I was pretty nerdy back then and I think I would often catch people off guard. Time and time again I have heard the phrase, “you’re way funnier than I thought.” I watched a ton of stand-up and comedies in my free time but it never dawned on me to pursue it as a career path. Anything else I had done up to then felt forced on me. This was totally my decision and I loved that.

In the past year I have certainly changed a lot as a person. That shy out spoken person I was has become much more comfortable and confident. I’ve moved out of Nyack and am now only minutes outside of the city. I’ve done upwards of 50 shows and 200 open mic’s in the past year. I’ve taken several other Stand-Up and Improv Comedy classes too. I’ve been in a play, been a background extra in television shows and even attempted to sell tickets for a comedy club outside in Times Square. When I was just starting like during the first week I watched this documentary that had a quote that always stuck with me. In the words of the acclaimed sushi chef Jiro from the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi:

Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.

This concept of dedication is very much present in the comedy world. It takes a lot more than just being funny to make it in stand-up comedy. When you’re beginning you have to juggle so many different tasks. To mention a few; you have to network, promote and manage yourself. That’s of course in addition to being extremely disciplined with your writing and getting on stage as much as possible. I aim to write for one hour every day but I know some comics that do much more. These are the guys that are hitting 10-15 mic’s a week and have been doing this for years.

Right now my focus is to keep improving and learning.  Living in New York City is a game of survival and stand-up is no different. I’ve had a lot of positive results in my first year but am still a long ways away from where I want to be. This year has been loaded with up’s and down’s and I am excited to see what year two has in store for me.

Jeremy Cash is a NYC based comedian originally from Nyack, NY. He has performed in many clubs including Levity Live, The Stand and The Gotham Comedy Club. He hosts a bi-weekly open mic at Olive’s in Nyack and produces a monthly show at The Whiskey Kitchen in Valley Cottage, NY.)

The Three Notebooks

The first thing that you should do on your journey to becoming a stand-comedian is to buy a small notebook. Keep this with you at all times and begin writing immediately. It’s important to get in the habit of recording your observations. Don’t worry about writing jokes for now just start paying attention to your surroundings. Do you see anything that doesn’t add up? Something peculiar or strange? Something ironic? An odd pairing? A truth about the world? These are the types of things that you want to start being aware of and writing down. They are telling you something about how you perceive the world and will be helpful when you go back and start writing actual material.

In my opinion you should have three types of notebooks although for now the pocket sized one is just fine. I have my small notebooks I keep on me always that I write down my observations. I have my larger notebooks where I expand on the ideas I have in my smaller notebooks. This notebook is more of a joke notebook but is not just that. It’s really where I expand my ideas an explore them. Sometimes this result in jokes. I think it’s good to write your solid ideas in multiple places. Repetition is the key to memorization and also it’s good to have copies in case you loose your notebooks. Some people like to write on there phones and computers but I recommend writing it out on actual paper with a real pen. I use the digital space to keep files with all my jokes and ideas but in general I think it’s best to put pen to paper.

The third type of notebook I recommend starting is a more traditional journal type. This will probably contain the least of your actual material but I can be useful to see where you were at during different times in your life. This journal type entry can be therapeutic but also help get the creative juices flowing. The most important thing is that you write a lot. Write daily. Write in different styles. Go back and read what you’ve written. Edit it. Maybe the three notebook system isn’t for you but that’s wha works best for me. Bottom line – start recording your observations right now and when in doubt always just write it out.

Approaching A Venue

A couple of days ago I was speaking with a comic friend of mine. He was thinking about starting a show at a restaurant/bar and had never done something like that before. He had some good ideas about how to go about it and I contributed some of my own thoughts as well. I wanted to share some of the tactics we discussed because I think they are useful for people that have never tried to start a show somewhere new.

First of all it’s incredibly advantageous to pick a place that you are familiar with. One where you know the owner, some of the staff and the customer base is ideal. This is not always the case but what you should be initially aiming for. I think it’s best to pick a place that already has live entertainment. Be it music, karaoke, vinyl night – whatever. It shows an openness to embracing a variety of show ideas and also most likely means that the venue will have some of its own equipment, possibly a stage and a sound system all of which will save you a lot of headache. If you do have trouble finding a place that you are familiar with and has the equipment in place that’s ok, there’s ways around that it’s just not ideal.

If you aren’t familiar with the venue and the employees here is my advice to you. Go in to the place once or twice strictly as a customer. Spend some money, be friendly and tip well. Do not announce that you are trying to start a comedy show. As a person that used to do sales this was an important tactic I used. Show the venue that you are a person, get them to like you and go from there. No one wants to feel like they are being pitched a business proposition at their job. Go to the venue, hang out, develop a rapport and then maybe on your third time in the place when you are somewhat recognizable to the bar tender at least casually ask if they have ever done comedy at the bar before and go from there. As previously stated the best nights to pitch a show are probably Monday or Tuesday.

A lot of this may seem like common sense and it probably is. My main point in this post is that if you find a venue that you really like, don’t rush the process. Take your time to develop a rapport and don’t just be some random asking to speak to the owner. Be patient, sincere and genuine and you will find you do just fine in this endeavor.

Producing A Show

Very shortly after I first started I took a seminar on producing your own show. There were pretty much two main reasons you would want to do this; money and stage time. If you were pursuing a career as a stand-up the stage time was much more relevant. Being a producer strictly for money is something people do but you don’t necessarily have to be a stand-up to go about doing it.

Right away I was drawn to the appeal of stage time. When you are just tarting it can be very difficult to actually do shows. There are opportunities for bringer shows and possibly bar shows if you play your cards right, both of which will be discussed later. Producing a show is extremely educational. It gives you insight into many important aspects of the business of comedy. You will learn how to approach venues, promote your show and network with other comedians.

As a new comic I think producing a show is a must. When you have your own show you are right away separating yourself from other comedians. It is a valuable resource that can serve as a bargaining chip in terms of your value as a performer.Because when you are just starting nobody is going to know you and you are probably terrible, producing a show gets your name out there while helping you get better as a comedian.

The best nights to try and produce a show are Monday and Tuesday. These are down nights for the venue and they will be more likely to go for something different. I think for your first show you should approach a bar as opposed to a club. A lot of your early experience is going to be trial and error and failing and it’s better to fail somewhere that doesn’t really matter. As you get better you can approach better venues on busier nights. For now you should just be focusing on getting better at stand-up and learning as much as you can about the business. Producing a show will accomplish both of these.

I learned from the seminar that you should not produce a free show. People subconsciously associate free with being bad. You can play around with this idea but in general it’s good to charge something affordable like $5. This gives you the opportunity to make some money and also allows you to offer comp or discounted tickets. If your show is free there is no incentive from receiving a comp ticket. The show is already comp.

Producing a show gives you an opportunity to try hosting. I think as you go up the rungs of the comedy ladder it makes the most sense to start hosting. You will get to practice crowd work in addition to your material. As a host your job is to keep the show moving, keep the energy up and make sure people know what’s going on. You can do material but it’s not completely necessary. It’s really not a good look when the host goes on stage and kills and then is funnier than all the other comedians on the show. You want to be funny but being like able is more important.

Producing a show also affords you countless opportunities to network and learn other skills. When I first started I was terrible at making posters for my show but now I am quite competent. I’ve also gotten way better at promoting in general. Along the way you will learn a lot of important skills required for being a successful at comedy.

When choosing a venue I think it’s good to find one that you like but more importantly one where management is on board with your idea. It’s very difficult to run a successful show if the management is not having it. If the bar is not that busy the idea of a show is a pretty easy sell. You are providing entertainment and bringing people into the bar. It might take a few tries but eventually you will get the hang of pitching your idea. This is another invaluable skill that producing a show will afford you.

So there you have it. Start your own show. Team up with some people at your level or just do it on your own. Learn from your mistakes and be nice to everyone you meet.

Become A Student Of Comedy

You probably got into comedy because you have enjoyed watching stand-up comedy throughout your life. That’s certainly why I did. I just never considered it being something I could do for work. As someone that does stand-up now I watch a lot of comedy. I think it’s a real valuable tool to improve as a comedian. When I watch these specials on netflix or whatever I watch for enjoyment but I’m also trying to learn as much as possible. A few things to think about right away are; Who are your favorite comedians and what kind of styles do you like? As you continue to write jokes you will write more similar stuff. Stuff that works for your character on stage and that ties in with the rest of your material. Something that is distinct to you as a comic and you as a person. As far as I’m aware this is what is referred to as your “voice.”

Finding your voice takes ages and this is not what this article is about. However, it is good to take note of the type of jokes that work for you. This article is titled ‘becoming a student of comedy.’ I think there is too much emphasis on performing and writing and not enough on learning from others. While performing and writing are absurdly important to your development that is not really my point. I think anytime you are at a comedy show, even an open mic you should be paying attention to what is going on around you. If you’re watching your favorite comedians that is a workshop right there! How do they take the stage, what do they do with the mic, how do they introduce themselves, what kind of jokes are they opening with, what kind of jokes are they closing with. There’s so much.

I think if you want to get anywhere in comedy you have to develop a student mentality. Constantly be looking for ways to learn and improve. Talk to other comics, learn from them, learn from your mistakes, be diligent. You are on stage for like 10 minutes a day maybe slightly more. There’s so much more time in the day to be honing your craft. One area I especially like to focus on is how do comics dig themselves out of a hole. It’s easy to do well when you’re doing well. You have momentum, people are laughing and you’re in the zone. It doesn’t always go that way however. Sometimes you’re bombing and you can either continue doing what you have been doing and most likely keep bombing or try to figure out how to win the room back. This is no easy task but I’ve learned a lot about this from watching other people at mic’s and shows and also reviewing my own sets.

I like to record every time I go on stage. Camera or audio doesn’t really matter just have something to reference later. Sometimes the parts you think are funny don’t hit with the audience. Other times the parts you don’t think are funny do. Why is that? What can you learn from your own recordings? Most of this post is rhetorical. I’m trying to convince you that reflection is very important. There are countless opportunities for improvement off the stage. Get on stage as much as possible but do everything you can do in between as well. Go to shows, watch specials from the perspective of trying to learn something, ask questions, revue your sets, talk to other comics, ask for feedback and you will improve much quicker than by just doing mic’s.

Bringer Shows

When you’ve been doing stand-up for a little while, maybe 6 months to a year you will start to hear a lot of talk about bringer shows. But what are they, should you do them and what are some of the important things to know? Basically a bringer show is a show where you get to perform in exchange for bringing a certain amount of guests. They are mainly offered to newer comics as a way for the club to bring in more guests. In theory they serve as vehicles to give you more stage time at real clubs with actual pro comics, but you have to be careful which ones you select. There are some great opportunities with low bringer requirements that are actually quality shows. There are also bringer shows with outrageous minimums and ticket prices that feature shows that are way too long with nothing but amateur comedians  Sometimes the producers of bringer shows can be very deceptive.  They will make promises that aren’t true like saying you will be seen by the club booker or that industry will be present. Whenever I see someone advertising a show where “industry” will be present I am fairly skeptical.

If you do decide to do a bringer show you should do your research. It is possible to find bringer shows that require 2-3 guests and actually have decent lineups. I would talk to other comedians at your level and slightly above and ask them about their experiences with bringer shows. This way you can start to separate the good from the bad. The first bringer show that I did required I bring 5 people which is not horrendous. Each one of my guests had to pay $25 for tickets and buy two drinks which is a bit pricey. There were 25 comedians on the show and none of them were any good. I believe I went up 22nd. I was so embarrassed. I made my friends and family sit through a three hour awful show to watch me do five minutes of tired comedy. After that you can imagine their hesitancy to come and watch me do another show. You need to be strategic with your friends and invite them to the right shows. They are an important ally and support system to consider when making your initial comedy decisions.

I think when you are new you should at least do one bringer show but do not make a habit of doing them. The club and the producers are trying to make money and will just you as a way to profit off your friends. If you do a bringer show have a reason for doing it. Maybe you’re auditioning for the club at a legitimate place. Maybe you want to get a professional quality tape of your performance and the club is promising that. Maybe you’ve never done a show before and you want to see how you fare with a real audience. Whatever it is have a plan and be skeptical of what the producer is telling you. Again I think it’s really important to talk to other comics that have done the specific bringer show you are considering. This will provide you with valuable information and help you to better navigate the community.  Ideally you want to find a show that your guests will enjoy. They are there to support you but you want them to have a good time as well. It is important not to burn out your friends support.

Overall every comedian has to take their own path. You learn from your mistakes and experiences which is another reason I think you should at least do one bringer show. Make sure you actually meet the requirements that are agreed upon with the club and try to be as professional as possible. Reputation is important in comedy so try to be professional and courteous. In general if a producer is reaching out to you as a completely new comic that should raise some questions. Do you really think that your open mic performance is so good that someone of interest has actually heard of you? In reality it’s much more likely that you are just a number, a cog in some producers well oiled exploiting machine and you are being taken advantage of. Be professional and do your best but don’t be afraid to fail. If you think you are being taken advantage of or you’re on a shit show consider not doing it. No matter what a producer says to you about the show you can always say no. They’re not going to damage your career. If anything doing too many bringer shows will be more damaging.  They may talk a big game but most of the people producing bringer shows are pretty low on the comedy food chain.

The Importance Of 5 Minutes

One of the first things you should do when you start is to write five minutes of material. Most open mic’s run for about this long and it’s really the first amount of time that you will be asked to perform. Five minutes may not sound like much but believe me it is. I’m not talking about any five minutes. I’m talking about a good five minutes, a polished five minutes. One you can feel confident about and consistently get laughs. Anybody can talk into a microphone for an amount of time, that’s not what this five minutes is about.

However if it’s your first time on stage just talking into a microphone for five minutes is an excellent way to begin. Will it go well? Almost definitely not! But that’s alright. The more I do comedy and talk to other comedians that are better than me the more I realize that having a bad set is fine. Stand-up comedy is all about getting better, learning from your mistakes and getting back up again. Nobody is good right away. You learn way more from your bad sets than your good sets. I’m sure you want to do well at some point but it will take time, be patient.

Once you have a good five minutes and you know it backwards and forwards, you can tuck that away. You keep working on new stuff but you always know that anytime you are called upon to deliver you have that set in your back pocket. Normally when I have some new jokes I’m working on I’m excited to try them out. They sound good in my head and I think they are going to work. This is usually not the case. Work shopping your five minutes may take a long time before its actually good and ready for a show. That’s part of the process though and you have got to love the whole process if you’re going to get anywhere.

If I have ten new jokes and nine of them don’t work I’m happy. I just added a new joke. Stand-up comedy is a marathon not a sprint. This shit takes time. Right now it’s January and I’ve been doing all new material. It is not going well. I have probably written fifty or so premises/bits and I think at most three of them are going to make it into my act. It might only be two.

If you’re wondering how to even get started on your first joke that’s a good place to be. Start writing down things you think are funny, stuff you find annoying in the world and things that are reflective of yourself. You decide what is and is not funny. I like to write jokes that are based in truth and tell part of my story. I do a lot of observational humor that I get from walking around a lot. Everyone has a process. Your first joke is probably gonna suck, embrace it! You write a bunch of stuff, you throw most of it away and you repeat the process.

Maybe you have a story you want to start off with. Go for it, see how it goes. Trim the fat. If it’s a long story make sure there are plenty of laughs along the way. This may sound discouraging to you but you gotta fail. You gotta learn from your mistakes. You gotta suck. You gotta improve. You gotta try things. You gotta take risks. You gotta keep going. If this shit was easy, everybody would be doing it.

I find it’s often helpful to break things down into small steps. Your five minutes will take time. Just try to come up with one joke that works. One truth about yourself that is unique. One thing about your life that is interesting and go from there. Write every day, get on stage as much as possible, fail a lot and pretty soon you will have some material that consistently works.

Your First Mic

I remember my first open mic very well. It was a 4:00 afternoon mic at what was then known as The Village Lantern in Greenwich Village NYC. I remember being nervous. I remember most of the people that were at that mic also. Most of them are still doing comedy. There is a constant ebb and flow of people that start and quit the comedy scene but in general, the people doing afternoon mic’s are pretty committed. Afternoon mic’s are usually just the first stop of the day.

My first mic went ok. The biggest hurdle is getting on stage and staying there for the full five minutes. A lot of the fear is from never being on stage before and just having done it is a huge mental victory. Anytime that you take a hiatus from comedy the hardest part is getting back up on stage. Since you’ve never been on stage before, the fear and sense of unknown is probably at an all time high. The great thing about your first mic is pretty much regardless of how it goes, you now know you are capable of getting up there and that’s a very important step.

I think it’s good to go on stage with a plan if it’s your first time. You should have a joke or a story or at least a subject you want to talk about. These are not absolutely necessary. It’s totally fine to just go on stage and talk about your day or yourself or something that bothers you. In the beginning taking risks and having no plan is probably to be avoided but these are not set in stone rules. As you get better and more experienced the opposite becomes true. You learn way more from failing then you will from doing well and this is an important thing to consider and appreciate especially in the beginning. I really believe that the most important thing about your first open mic is just getting on stage.

At the time of my first mic I had one joke that I liked. I lead with that which was a good instinct. I didn’t use any notes which I think is the way to go. You learn more from trying to make something happen than from just reading half baked ideas from your notebook. Even if you have no joke to say you can just talk about what you’re experiencing in the moment. This on its own can generate a laugh and at the very least will comes across as relatable, logical and should resonate with the other comedians. Anytime I’ve seen or been myself bombing on stage the worst thing you can do is to not address it. If you just keep plowing through your material nothing will change. Your best bet is to address what is happening. Throw in a “I thought this would go better,” or “This was gonna be so different in my head.” Something that shows you’re aware of what is going on in the room and that it’s affecting you as a human being.

When I first started I had a system I used when I went to open mic’s. A lot of what I talk about with this early stuff is going to be recalling what I used to do. It might not be what I do now but I will try to remember what my approach was then. What I used to do was remind myself of four things; remember your first joke, remember your joke order, speak slowly and don’t forget to breathe. I think this is still fine advice. I think for your first open mic having a joke you can fall back on is a good idea as well.  This is something you can use if you forget what you wanted to say next or if you have extra time. It is good to finish strong however. A lot of new comics think that stories are the easy way to be funny on stage. In generally the comics at open mic’s are not really listening and a long story is just going to be confusing. Stories have to be relatable and funny quickly or else people will just not pay attention, especially at an open mic. You should try different things though and what works for me and my observations may be very different than yours. A lot of your early stage time will just be coming to your own realizations about what works for you and what works for others.

You will see a lot of people leave after their sets. I don’t recommend this as a policy. Maybe once you have been around a bit and you are going to another mic or something you might want to leave after your set but I think you lose too much by always doing this. When you are new you can learn almost as much about stand-up from watching other people. It’s no substitute for your own stage time but there’s really no reason not to watch other people. It’s supportive and will help you learn as well. I think a lot of comics develop this selfish me first attitude which eventually comes back to bite them. You may think that stand-up comedians are mean or unpleasant but in my experience this is untrue. A lot of us are introverted but we also seek a sort of sub culture community in our pursuit of stand-up comedy, at least I definitely do. After the mic you can talk to other comics, introduce yourself and familiarize yourself with the scene. In the long run this will pay off in many different ways. When you are new it is very hard to come by genuine stage time. Find out who is running their own shows, talk to them and go support their show.  Your efforts will not go unnoticed.

As I said throughout this post the most important thing about your first open mic is that you go. It is almost irrelevant how you do. Just get up, see how it feels, see what works, see what doesn’t work and go from there. At some point you definitely want to record yourself on stage. I waited a year or two before this became a habit with every set I did but there’s no harm in starting on day one. It’s a powerful tool that will only help you. It will also show your peers that you are serious about what you are doing. When I was first started this comic that had been around for a while told me the best thing you can do is bomb. When he told me this I scoffed at it. I was like no way. I’m gonna kill it every time. I’m gonna always do good. Yea right. That dude was spot on. Stand-up is all about failing, improving and getting back up again. I truly believe that.