Open Mic Comedy – Even Superstars Have To Start Somewhere

comedy microphone

The famous Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu once said that a march of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I don't know if there were comedy clubs around when he was growing up in China, but he could easily have been referring to the process of becoming a professional stand-up comedian. 

That very first step is the hardest. It is the first proper gig onstage and it usually takes place at an open mic night. The typical open mic night takes place in a pub (remember those?) where a basic stage has been constructed in one corner and, if you are lucky, there is a public address system – a PA as they call it in showbusiness – so you won't have to shout to attract the attention of the punters who may have thought they were popping out for a quiet drink only to have someone talking at them and trying to entertain them.

But who knows? Maybe you should pay attention to the person onstage. You might be having that quiet drink in front of someone who may one day be a primetime TV household name who can sell out sports arenas all over the country. Acts at open mic nights don't do long sets because they are starting out and don't have that much material, so you do get to see a lot of acts. It's a bit like playing roulette in an online casino. Sometimes there might be a winner, you just never know.

I've often been asked by friends if I've ever tried stand-up comedy. I haven't. And maybe it's going to open mic nights that has put me off. But in some ways if you can get past the tortuous ordeal of the open mic night then maybe you have a future in comedy. They can certainly be a challenge to play. These try-out gigs are often free and I've found that when an audience hasn't paid for a ticket they feel less of an obligation to pay attention. Or shut up. They may not even feel like they owe you a laugh.

A friend of mine, however, did a comedy course a few years ago and at the end of the course there was what you might call a 'graduation night' when all of the students did the short sets that they had been working on during the term. My friend – lest's call him Gary because, well, because his name is Gary – did what comedy classes advise and drew on his own history for his act.

Gary had previously had a burgeoning career as a teacher, so he donned a mortar board, gown and cane as if he had just come out of Tom Brown's Schooldays. He actually taught at a pretty rough comprehensive school in south London but it was close enough.

It was an interesting idea and actually it went down very well indeed. Maybe because although Gary was not a very experienced comedian he was a very experienced teacher. And that had given him the ability to stand up and hold court in front of a room of people who did not necessarily want to be there. 

For Gary, however, graduating was enough. He'd been through the open mic walking-on-burning-coals ritual and felt that that was enough of an achievement. For others out there thinking about a career in comedy, give the open mic circuit a try. You never know where it might take you. To paraphrase that classic song New York New York, if you can make it in a room of disinterested drinkers on a wet Thursday night, you can make it anywhere.


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