At least it's a polite, supportive boys' club...
October 8, 2012 7:16 AM   Subscribe

How do aspiring stand-up comedians who aren't straight white men find success at open mics?

I performed at my first open mic recently and it didn't go well. I got flustered when no one laughed at my opening joke (which I thought was my best), and my delivery went from mediocre to utter crap in the minute that followed. The room was supportive and most other people sucked too so it wasn't a totally horrifying experience, but I'm eager to suck less.

I know: practice. I did, and I will continue to do so. But I suspect that my material would not have connected with the audience no matter how well I presented it. Of ~25 comics, I was the only woman (and probably the only queer person), and my routine revolved around experiences that men don't share and aren't socialized to understand. (My routine was not about anything so edgy as sexual violence, but for an example of the sort of thing I was going for, check out Ever Mainard's Here's Your Rape. Every woman I've shown that to has laughed hysterically, but no man has even chuckled.)

Everyone was very nice, but I only got a couple small laughs. People did, however, laugh at a lot of racist (for the record, I am white, as were all but two people), sexist, and homophobic jokes, though none were so vicious that I felt unsafe. I was actually surprised at how little these jokes upset me—they seemed to be motivated by unexamined privilege and lack of originality rather than meanness, and they were delivered in that same unsure, please-think-this-is-funny way that accompanied most other material, my own included after my opening joke fell flat.

My ultimate goal to be able to effectively deliver socially incisive material to an audience who will appreciate it. I realize now how lofty that goal is. But, even as I understand the odds are against me, I'd like to query the hivemind about the most likely way to get there. Should I try to develop neutral material while I hone my delivery skills as a stepping stone to doing the sort of stuff I really want? Relatively little of the material at that open mic (along with others I've observed) was actually neutral—most revolved around specifically straight male experiences—but some was. Should I seek out specifically women's or queer open mics? I'm in Chicago, if you have suggestions.

I know my delivery sucks and I seriously need to work on my nerves, but I feel that I really do have something valuable and funny to offer in terms of social perspective, and I think my ideas are better suited to stand-up than any other form. And of course I LOVE to make people laugh. But stand-up is a craft, and one that I've seen people never become even mediocre at after years of real trying. Anyone have advice on improvement there? How do you know when to give up?

If you don't feel comfortable posting your advice publicly, you can email me at Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Keep doing it.

Don't be afraid to suck. You're working out material, not every performance will be perfect, not every joke will get a huge reaction.

Your audience will find you.

Is there an open-mic night at a queer-focused venue in your area you could work at? Having a more generally receptive audience might help to build your comfort level on stage.
posted by softlord at 7:29 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you should consider the possibility that your jokes are too specialized to be appreciated outside of the bubble that you normally tell them in.

This is of course only a possibility, and the best way to test it is exactly what you are doing (open-mics) but I don't think it's helpful to blame a bad night (a bad first night at that!) on The Patriarchy.

As far as what to do next, I seems like you've answered your own question: try women's/queer open mics, but also try normal open nights and tweak your material a little. Maybe change that first joke? Maybe practice jumping from first to second without pause for laughter?
posted by sparklemotion at 7:29 AM on October 8, 2012 [8 favorites]

I feel that I really do have something valuable and funny to offer in terms of social perspective

This is the issue. It has little to do with the fact that you are a lesbian, but rather that a trip to the comedy club is not generally motivated by a desire for social perspective or the illumination of unexamined privilege. People want to have their two-drunk minimum (or more) and have some hearty laughs, not a treatise on how they are dropping the ball on social justice or alternatively, knowingly nod in agreement at their own enlightenment.

Sparklemotion's comment about the bubble hits the nail on the head. Are you performing for yourself or the audience?
posted by Tanizaki at 7:35 AM on October 8, 2012 [12 favorites]

Practice. I have several friends (not white guys) who are breaking into the standup comedy business, and until their delivery is rock solid, they struggle for laughs (and this takes at least 2-3 months of going to 1-2 open mikes each week, which is a huge commitment).

Personally I don't go support them at every show because I get tired of the racist and sexist jokes, but now that they are getting invited to perform at festivals and to open for bigger names, the jokes in general are much less crass and more fun. The most successful one started out doing improv comedy (and burned out on that after 2-3 yrs), and now about 6months into doing standup has been invited to open for well known comics. YMMV
posted by larthegreat at 7:36 AM on October 8, 2012

I've been observing the reactions of a local group to a comic from an ethnic minority background who uses his background as a source of his humour.

He has some material that riffs around his experience of going for a kebab when he's been dumped. From observation, the material is intrinsically funny to anyone who already shared this experience. But most people in the audience haven't done this and don't see the humour easily. If he wants everyone there to laugh, he has to start by riffing around the white-people-cliche of getting very drunk when dumped. Once he's established the context, he can raise the question of what Muslims might do when they are upset (not drinking alcohol, naturally), and then segue into the kebab material and presto! even the ethnic majority folks now think this is hilarious.

So, if you want to talk about things outside my experience, maybe just take more care to tie them back somehow to things that I am more familiar with.

Also: The only way to perform an excellent standup routine is not to give up while performing your first 200 terrible standup routines.
posted by emilyw at 7:36 AM on October 8, 2012 [19 favorites]

Do you know why most comedians make fun of themselves? Because making fun of the audience is a great way to make them hate you.

Reread what you're saying. You're trying to sell "experiences that men don't share and aren't socialized to understand." In other words, you're trying to get straight white men to re-examine their innate privilege. If it were that easy, somebody would have done it already.

The reason the sexist and homophobic jokes worked - and yours didn't - is not because they were funnier but because they buttressed the existing prejudices that most of the audience members carried. People are inherently horrible: consequently, the most effective way to get somebody to love you in a short period of time is by convincing them that their unconscious prejudices are totally justified. This builds rapport because it resolves their internal mental conflicts and makes them feel like good human beings. Educating and uplifting people to genuinely make them into better people is a thankless job that is rarely appreciated, although in the rare cases that you manage it you'll win a lot of loyalty since you helped change their lives.

My advice to you - assuming you want to be commercially viable - is to either change your material or pick your venues more carefully to have audiences that will be more attuned to you. The best you can achieve with this current selection will be fringe "cult following" status.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:37 AM on October 8, 2012 [8 favorites]

Your audience will find you.

Great way to put it. Also, get all those friends who were laughing when you showed it to them to come out to the club when you are doing it live!

But yeah, there are plenty of women and queer people who would love to go out to hear comedy but hate hearing all the stereotypical stuff so are waiting to find out that there is some variation in the acts performing. Be self-assured that you're offering something different/better - perform for the future fans, so to speak. Imagine you're performing for a camera, maybe. Or better, have a friend tape it so you can watch it later, and actually do perform for the camera...
posted by mdn at 7:38 AM on October 8, 2012

I have no experience doing stand-up on a stage, although I seem to make people laugh a lot in social settings, and I listen to a lot of stand-up on XM.

I think people laugh in public at things that a)they can relate to VERY easily and b)are very, very easy to understand. I'm assuming the audience has some alcohol in their system, and I'm also assuming, from noticing what goes over and doesn't at a comedy club, that they're not exactly looking for social awareness raising. The basic "plot" of a typical comedy routine could usually be summarized either as "I'm an idiot," or "Everyone else is an idiot." Or perhaps both.

Comics, male or female, who talk about things men or women "don't understand" are usually talking about things that we understand all too well from our life experiences. The same idea could also be transposed to talking about race. I think this is why so many routines play the "everyone's an idiot" idea around gender or race differences. Whether it's offensive or not I think depends on the good will the comic can generate, and to what extent he or she has a perceived "license" to screw around with the stereotypes. For example, a black comic can (up to a point) rip on black stereotypes, or rip on white people's supposed prejudices (some of which are stereotypes about stereotypes), but probably not joke about lynchings (I'm aware that some comics have pulled off some jokes about some really horrible things, but I think very few have the skill, and even then they're extremely controversial). Despite the raw language, most comics talk about stuff that's really pretty vanilla in terms of the situation.

On preview, the thing about people wanting to have their prejudices somewhat pandered to is, unfortunately, at least partly true. Certainly the slightest whiff of "lecture" is a deal-killer.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:41 AM on October 8, 2012

I am very much outside the standup comedy world, but I've read enough to know that EVERYBODY BOMBS THEIR FIRST TIME. Everyone. And their second, and third, and fourth....I've read Patton Oswald talk about bombing, I've heard Louis CK talk about silent rooms of doom. It's not just you.

Some random ideas:

-There are queer comedy nights in Chicago; I know there's one at Zanie's my friend runs, Berlin also frequently has comedy nights but it tends to run a little bit more sketch comedy & drag than stand up.

-The Hideout has a number of different nights where writers go up and read pieces out loud; they generally are funny kind of in the way that This American Life is funny but I've heard some hilarious pieces (large-sized woman of color doing a piece about the inhumanity of waxing? YES) and it's a real supportive sweet crowd; Hideout also holds Chances Dances, one of the biggest non-boy's-town hipstery queer dance nights (if not the biggest), you might be familiar with it

-Check out Caroline Contillo - @iamcaroline on Twitter - queer NYC feminist buddhist crone witch, completely hilarious, does improv & stand up

-Speaking of Twitter, running an account that's all one liners and not so much instagrams-of-your-lunch might give you some of the feedback/support you crave. I know in my group of friends surrealist creepy jokes and sarcastic skewering of privilege are prime material for retweets and I can think of a lot of creative people who've slowly built fanbases like that. You can see what works and what doesn't from the privacy of your mobile phone and then you have a dedicated list of people interested in your humor to promote your shows to.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:46 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some years ago, a friend of mine interviewed Whoopi Goldberg, who proceeded to give some amazing advice, and here is a paraphrased version of it: Nothing matters besides whether or not you're funny. If you're a guy, a girl, a dog, a cardboard box with a person's face drawn on it - doesn't matter. What matters is if you're funny or not.

I say this because "funny" is something so very intangible and hard to pin down and also very very relative. What this means is that "I thought the material was funny" doesn't really tell me anything. I could give you a better sense of what went wrong if you could transcribe your opening joke, and probably tell you exactly what the problem was if given video of it.

I mean, I don't know you. For all I know, the problem really was that you were forcing the audience to confront unexamined privilege, but - and this has less to do with you and more to do with observed patterns - my first thought was that the material might just not be as good as you're thinking it is. But without hearing it or at least reading it, I could not possibly tell you.

Comedy can be arduous. There are comedians out there who did manage to challenge the social perspective of a wide-ranging audience, but none of them were able to do so without spending years on the road, learning their craft and reading audiences and figuring out what to do when things don't go as planned. They were able to work the social commentary into a comedic performance flawlessly, and like everyone who does something so tricky so well, they made it look easy. It's not easy. It's incredibly hard, and a novice cannot do it.

People don't go to a comedy club to have their social preconceptions unraveled. They go there to laugh. Learn to sneak the medicine in with the sugar, or jettison the medicine entirely until you've got the fundamentals down: rhythm, delivery, et cetera.

I don't mean to be discouraging - what I'm saying is that this is about par for the course with your first open mic. You bombed. It happens. Get back on the horse and keep trying. While you were performing, did you pay attention to the audience? Do you remember where the few small laughs were? What did those pieces have in common? Would you be able to build those pieces up more and maybe spin them off into something a bit longer?

Do another open mic. Pay attention to what gets laughs.

Relatively little of the material at that open mic (along with others I've observed) was actually neutral—most revolved around specifically straight male experiences

The problem is that "straight white male" is the default value for most venues, or failing that, straight people at the very least. Most audiences would therefore think of that particular configuration as neutral, and everything else as being at least a little bit out of the box. If you want to go over well with the material you're working with now, you'd definitely want to seek out queer open mic nights in your area. See what's what. That would build your confidence and help you figure out what works and what doesn't in terms of delivery.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:51 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm an Asian dude, and I'm no expert, but ...

Like you, one of the reasons that I wanted to get into comedy was that I wanted to deliver socially incisive material. I made myself a few promises: I don't do the accent, I don't make fun of my parents, and I don't talk about my reproductive anatomy. I've managed to keep those promises, but any one of those could have gotten me really cheap and easy laughs. So don't think you have to do racist, sexist humor to get people to laugh. You don't have to. It's a little more difficult. And also you're going to see a lot more people trying for 'edgy' racist/sexist humor at open mics.

Here's the other thing, though. In my opinion, making the audience laugh comes before delivering a social message. You may think that something is really really important and needs to be said, but if you can't make it funny, comedy is not the way you're going to deliver that particular message, sorry. This might mean you have to tone down your message, sneak it in there, and do jokes about other things to sandwich it.

I would suggest also developing some 'neutral material', just so you have it. It gives you a broader appeal and once the audience trusts you, you can sneak in your other stuff a bit more easily.

And bombing teaches you a lot of things which are useful. Another comic once told me "You seem really comfortable with silences." And, well, I've done really awful rooms: bars where people are talking and there's a TV on, and there are maybe two people watching you. If you can keep doing material even then ...

(And don't give up after just two tries! You're still working it out!)
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:11 AM on October 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

What about your experiences ARE universal? Rework your material to stress these things.

For example, men are aprehensive about approaching women in bars. How does that work in a Lesbian context? What's funny about it? If you can answer all those questions I have, and make me laugh, you'll be successful.

Chris Rock doesn't have Black material, he has funny material, from his viewpoint as a black man.

If you want to see someone doing it right, how about Wanda Sykes (who writes an awful lot of Chris Rock's material) She talks about having children with her wife. Universal. But also queer. She bridges the gap and makes everyone comfortable with the concept.

Food for thought.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:03 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

From a Bar Mitzvah to a senior center to the rudest dive bar, you have to be able to handle pretty much any audience put in front of you. That's part of being funny -- you have to find the humor in a variety of circumstances. Yes, eventually you specialize when you naturally find endless possibilities in certain areas...but you've also got to do "neutral" material as you call it. If your neutral material is not funny, then honestly the humor of your "specialty" is also in question. Even if your neutral material is so-so, if it delivered with appeal and the audience is engaged then they will at least feel entertained.

As for advice, start a journal and write down everything you hear or see that is funny. Work in your perspective once the framework is already hashed out. Practice thinking about how to blur normal things so they can seem absurd. Take something familiar and twist it into something unexpected. Learn how to connect the mundane to the funny with as little exposition as possible.

These are just some ideas!
posted by 99percentfake at 9:09 AM on October 8, 2012

I don't think that comedy has to exclude what you are trying to do. George Carlin used his comedy almost exclusively to discuss social issues. Tig Notaro's routine about her breast cancer diagnosis was, without a doubt, a woman's issue--she also speaks about gender dynamics and her experience as a woman who looks androgynous. Louis CK questions the masculine mystique all of the time.

The hard part of standup isn't sharing your experiences. The hard part is being funny. I would study mainstream comics that you think are good and apply their techniques to your minority perspective. Remember that everybody bombs.

my routine revolved around experiences that men don't share and aren't socialized to understand

So, the way that you play off this is by exaggerating the things that they don't understand. I mean, the confusing parts about life are also the funniest parts. Relate it back to experiences that everybody has had. Maybe if you get a mod to post the jokes that fell flat, we can help you rework them! :)
posted by semaphore at 9:11 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your goal when telling a joke is to express an idea that you find funny in a way that lets the audience understand why you find it funny. If you do this effectively, then they will likely agree with you and laugh.

This may sound simplistic and obvious, but this is the thing that starting-out comedians always seem to miss. You have a communication problem, and it is likely that you aren't fully aware of what you are really saying to your audience.

The problem could be your ideas themselves aren't funny, but much more likely it's the context in which you are your presenting the ideas: your setups and your on-stage persona.

Experienced comics know that you need to adjust your joke setups for different audiences - adding details to add context for an unfamiliar crowd, or streamlining the setup to signal your common background with a friendly crowd.

Yes, a straight white male comedian in his late 20s has a big advantage talking to a crowd of other straight white male comedians, but only in that he will have to say fewer words, and say them less precisely to get his jokes across.

Experienced comics also what kind of context their on-stage persona is framing the joke in. A nervous, uncomfortable comedian can get away with saying things that a confident, swaggering comedian can't, and vice versa. They can still express the same ideas, but the delivery will need to be dramatically different.

I suggest breaking down each of your jokes/bits into painful, unfunny detail, adding all of the context necessary to explain why you think it's funny, and include what you believe your on-stage persona is projecting to the audience. For example, "I am a queer woman who is slightly uncomfortable on stage. Most of you see the world like x, but i see it like y. This is why I find that funny..." Then re-write that into an actual bit, with setup(s) and punchline(s), streamlining it as much as possible. The goal is to keep as much detail as is necessary to make the joke understandable to an unfamiliar audience.

Once you have a better understanding of what you are saying to the audience (rather that what you are TRYING to say) you will have a much better idea of what the audience is actually responding to, and will be able to tweak your material and delivery accordingly.

Good luck
posted by Anoplura at 9:47 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

For me, good comedy is all about versimilitude. It tells truth in a humorous way. If you wanted to make me laugh, it would be profitable to spend some time considering what makes a situation or experience funny, and then get at the core human truth. Sometimes, you might have to worry at the edges of it for a while to develop the the audience's trust, and go on tangents to help other outlying members of the audience acquire the background that will help them understand the core truth, then move on.

The material you linked is, as you suggested, not funny to me. I'm a 6'3" man without that experience. She comes close to providing some context ("never walk alone at night!"), I get that, but it hasn't been built up enough for me. Nor is it tied into any kind of parallel that might help me understand the main point. So this routine might work as long as there aren't many men in the audience. I'll take your word for it that it has versimilitude, but good comedy requires an audience that has been made ready to accept truth.

You need to know your audience and plan material for them. You might skip some things if you suddenly find yourself in an audience of gay women with less need to explain, but how often is that going to happen?

Some people think you can't make fun of your audience. That's just not true. You can do it, but they need to trust you enough to accept the message and the message, again, needs to have some versimilitude. Even (especially) if you're white, Dave Chappelle is the master of this. Watch him expertly handle his San Francisco audience by telling them things they probably feel are true about their city: "I didn't really think it was that gay at first... and then I wandered into that Castro..." or "I went to that Tenderloin. There's nothing tender about that..." Less than five minutes into his hour-long set, he's telling his predominantly white audience that the secret recipe of their happy city is racial segregation and they laugh.

In your case, I want to know about your experiences, but I reject that I can't share or ever be made to understand them. I don't think that's true. If you dig deep enough to understand it yourself, you should be able to explain it to me so I can laugh with you, at you, or at myself--whichever you like.
posted by Hylas at 9:56 AM on October 8, 2012

my routine revolved around experiences that men don't share and aren't socialized to understand.

So what is your rationale for presenting the material? If you know (or believe) that men (who will likely be making up a significant percentage of your audience) won't get it, then why are you presenting it? To educate them? Look, if I wanted to take a class in Gender Studies and Queer Theory then I'd do it. I'm going to open mic night because I want to laugh.

Stand up, as others have said, has to be funny and it has to connect with the audience. Once you have done that you can preach to them or try to open their minds or whatever, but if you aren't trying to connect to the audience and make them laugh as your number one priority then you aren't going to get very far.

I firmly believe that you will be able to educate your audience once you connect with them. But please, for the love of Carlin, connect with them first.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:24 AM on October 8, 2012

Don't be a lesbian comic. Be a comic who happens to be a lesbian.

I incorporate my life experiences into my comedy. Some of those experiences involve my partner. Her gender is incidental when I tell those jokes/stories. Know your audience. If you're in a queer club, queer out, sister! If you're in a mixed club, tell more universal jokes. Practice your jokes on straight friends, male friends. All of my jokes have been told a hundred times to friends or strangers before they make it to the stage.

Good luck! Have fun up there!
posted by kamikazegopher at 11:32 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have seen gay and lesbian comics absolutely kill in rooms that were very straight and white (albeit probably not as male as the typical open-mic crowd), with plenty of material drawn from gay and lesbian experience. It is doable. People don't want to be lectured, but they don't mind different at all.
posted by MattD at 12:38 PM on October 8, 2012

Of ~25 comics, I was the only woman (and probably the only queer person), and my routine revolved around experiences that men don't share and aren't socialized to understand.

Can you find another venue for your material? Maybe one where the audience is more likely to be specifically interested in what you have to say? I know a lesbian comedian, and her gigs and open mics usually are not at Comedy Store/Dangerfield's/Caroline's type venues but more like locations I'd associate with avant garde art, off-off broadway theatre, and other edgier forms of entertainment. Her tactic seems to be to bring comedy to places where people already want confrontational/"different" art, rather than bringing confrontation and differentness to places where people want comedy.

People did, however, laugh at a lot of racist (for the record, I am white, as were all but two people), sexist, and homophobic jokes, though none were so vicious that I felt unsafe.

Yeah, seriously, my guess is that you were just at the WRONG venue. A big part of being an artist (in any medium) is finding the right place and audience for your work. I know it can be hard, because comedy is such a specific thing and if your city doesn't have a politically charged queer-friendly performance art space, then....? But I trust that you can do this. Also, keep slugging away with the fratboys. You never know, right?
posted by Sara C. at 1:14 PM on October 8, 2012

Check out Caroline Contillo - @iamcaroline on Twitter - queer NYC feminist buddhist crone witch, completely hilarious, does improv & stand up

Holy shit that's my friend I was referring to! I had no idea people knew who she was at all! Go Caroline!
posted by Sara C. at 1:17 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kathy Griffin talked in her book about working with Janeane Garofolo in more monologue-y, spoken word sort of performances that helped her find the style that works for her today.
posted by Several Unnamed Sources at 9:15 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

my routine revolved around experiences that men don't share and aren't socialized to understand.

What do you mean by this? I've seen a stand up who talked about being Zoroastrian, I've seen disabled comics and women who perform from behind a veil, and as others have said, what matters is being funny. While I personally love hearing about things that I wouldn't normally think about and have heard more knob jokes than I really need to hear, many just want an easy night out - there are comedians in the UK like Dara O'Briain who will talk about atheism and how homeopathy is bad, or Stewart Lee who has a very distinct, abrasive style, but the very successful ones tend to be very cozy and mainstream and go for shared experiences. Finding a balance might be a good thing to do to start with. I've been to some dive-like open night places and the biggest laughs come from scatalogical or onanistic humour - it's unfortunate that at the bottom end of the circuit it's a real boyzone, but there are places that are less so if you're in a big enough city. A friend of mine does spoken word nights which appear to be at least feminist friendly and audiences expect something perhaps slightly different. Sad to say, a lot of comedy audiences will think a woman will talk abotu diets and tampons - not that there's anything wrong with that.

I do know that most men and women I know would not be comfortable laughing at jokes about rape or abortion, while many of my female friends make humour out of uncomfortable experiences such as childbirth, periods, female masturbation or going to the gynaecologist purely because it's seen as something only women really understand and is often kept taboo. One of these you will have difficulty with, the other you can (and hey, probably should) turn them into starting points for something funny. See if you can find Jo Brand's early stuff. She was a scruffy, fat woman who was very outspoken and refused to apologise for her weight or appearance, and she's a good example of a female comic who doesn't fit into the stand-up stereotype and doesn't care.
posted by mippy at 4:57 AM on October 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

semaphore writes "I don't think that comedy has to exclude what you are trying to do. George Carlin used his comedy almost exclusively to discuss social issues. "

Early Carlin was at least 50% observational and stereotype humour. Stuff like the Hippy Dippy Weatherman; the importance of "Stuff"; Baseball vs. Football; Have a Nice Day; and of course much of his routine structured around language. Even the famous 7 words bit was funny first and a lampoon of the FCC second. IE: He was funny first and then used that to talk about social issues.
posted by Mitheral at 7:05 PM on October 9, 2012

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