Standup comedy is a strange and wonderful art form, full of interesting illusions and flashes of genius. It is hard to look at someone like Chris Rock or Louie CK and not imagine that they were delivered to the Earth by some otherworldly kingmaker-stork ready to entertain us. How does such a person come into being? How can anybody even begin to build the proper resume for that kind of a job?
By going to open-mics. Every hero, every household name, from Robin Williams to Rodney Dangerfield to Dane Cook, got their start at an open mic. Every comedian remembers their first time. Some memories are warm, some are less so. But it is a common experience that every professional comedian shares.
Finding a Mic
Depending upon where you live, there are probably between two and twenty open-mics available to you every week. If you live in a major city, the website www.badslava.com will be helpful to you - Badslava provides regional calendars for comedy as well as music-based open mics across the country.
If you don't live in a city, a Google search will probably yield the best results.
If there is a major comedy club nearby that hosts an open-mic, that should be your first choice. Setting is enormously important for the quality of any comedy performance and amateur night is no different. You want the conditions to be as favorable for laughter as possible - that means a dark room, low or no ambient noise, a good sound system, a spotlight, a stage, low ceilings and a crowd. Comedy clubs are (mostly) built with these factors in mind, and the ambiance will motivate you to do your best.
If you can't find a club, you will probably be performing in a bar. Do some research and find out as much as you can about each open mic - try to find the one that is most positively reviewed, gets the biggest crowd and that is attended by the most comedians.
Before I went onstage for the first time, I spent three months preparing five minutes of material. If I felt like flattering myself I would say it was because I was spending so much time working and refining, but really it was because I was scared to pull the trigger. Learn from my mistake and get going as soon as possible.
Before I ever actually performed, I would go to watch open mics a lot. This can be good, because you will start to get a feel for how broad the range of skill level is, which is a polite way of saying that open mic comedy is almost universally awful and you will feel an instant, visceral desire to do it better. But don't spend too much time in the observation phase. I was given a wonderful piece of advice from a host at The Comedy Store in La Jolla - "If you're thinking about starting, start now. I waited two years to actually do it, and at this point I would be two years better if I had just gotten on with it."
Prepare material before you perform the first time. The standard timeslot for an open mic is five minutes, but it's a good idea to overprepare a bit and have seven or eight minutes. There is no hard rule for how to translate the amount of text you write to a time measurement, so when you feel like you have enough, record yourself saying it out loud to see if you're over or under.
In terms of the actual material, keep it simple, and memorize every word. Being funny in conversation is very different than being funny onstage, and the less room you leave for improvisation onstage, the better off you will be. Short jokes are probably best; if you can build five minutes of one-liners, do it, because the amount of time you have to spend suffering in silence if they don't work is way shorter than if you're telling a story that's losing people's attention or if you're trying to riff (the industry term for being extemporaneously funny).
Tell no one.
Seriously. Don't tell anybody that you're going to do an open mic, at least not for your first time. Most people will be supportive, but if even one person raises their eyebrows at you, or does anything to talk you out of it or make you feel unqualified, it could very easily throw off the knife-edge pH balance in your emotional fishtank and send your ambition floating belly-up to the surface. You may also have friends or family ask to attend the open mic, which will add even more pressure to an already frightening scenario.
Think about how much more impressive it will be if you can tell people that you did it, instead of soliciting support from them for something you secretly believe you may not follow through on?
Show up early. Different open mics have different signup methodologies, but regardless of how the order of comics is written up, it behooves you to be there early to get dibs on a spot.
I've consistently found that it is best to go on early in the show. My ideal is #3, but anywhere from 2 to 7 is fine. You want to avoid going first, because being the icebreaker is a challenge. And you don't want to go on late, because the audience's attention drops off rapidly, especially if people are bombing. Go early; you'll have the best chance of people listening and being quiet, and you can get it out of the way so you're not developing ulcers in the dark for three hours.
My instinct when I started performing at open-mics was to remain anonymous. I would sit at a table or at the bar alone, poring over my material, fidgeting, and looking at the group of comedians socializing in the back as if they were an impenetrable clique of veterans. When I think about this now, it makes me laugh. If you can start making friends right away, do it. Anybody who is performing on the open-mic level, even if they've been doing it for longer than you, is not going to look down on you for being a newcomer or for not having total confidence in your credentials, and if they do, chances are nobody else likes them either. Comedians are, despite, the reputation, a very friendly and accepting group of people.
The host notifies you that you're up next. Your heart is probably racing. You walk onstage, grab the mic and look out into the darkness. And then you forget everything you intended to say.
This is a very common problem, and you should be prepared for it. Write down a "setlist" on a piece of paper that you keep in a pocket, made up of short phrases or keywords that you can look at in crisis moments to remind you of jokes you wanted to tell, in the order you wanted to tell them.
Do your material. If people don't laugh at a joke, take your licks and move on. NEVER, EVER punish an audience for not laughing at something. Don't imply it was over their heads, don't retell the joke, don't get mad. I see this all the time and it is ALWAYS a bad idea. If they're not laughing, it's almost always because your joke doesn't work, or because you told it wrong. Be gracious and move into the next joke.
Stay away from crowdwork, meaning when comedians engage audience members in direct conversation. Unless you have reason to believe that you're going to be a prodigy at crowdwork, it usually just falls flat on its face and annihilates any momentum you may have had going.
Stick to your time - the host will "light you" when you're reaching the end of your minutes. Running the light will cause the host, and anybody in the know who sees you doing it, to feel tension and frustration with you, especially if people aren't laughing. If you're absolutely killing it, it's sometimes acceptable to go longer, but expect to color in the lines.
You may not remember exactly what happened. For as vivid, thrilling and sometimes agonizing as performing is, you will probably experience a mild amnesia for what exactly transpired while you were up there. For that reason, a lot of comedians take audio recordings of their sets to reference later. You should do it at least for your first time to preserve what will someday be a very interesting artifact.
What Comes Next
Congratulations. You're a comedian now.
I mean it. If you want to keep going to open mics, you will now refer to yourself as "a comedian," and "a comic." With a straight face. If it feels weird coming out of your mouth, fake it. The sooner people start regarding you as serious and committed, the sooner you will start getting booked, and the sooner you will start working harder on your act. There will never be a point when some committee certifies you as a valid comic. It's a title you get to appoint yourself, and nobody has the authority to revoke it from you.
Make as many friends as possible. Begin to network, to build bridges, and to write. Write constantly. And keep going to open mics.
And tip your bar and wait staff.