There are two basic types of open-mics: ones with “civilians” in attendance, and ones that only have other comedians. For the purposes of this post, I’m just speaking about the ones with other comedians, as there isn’t much difference between an open mic with civilians and a regular show.
The purpose of an open-mic is two-fold. Mainly, we go to learn and to get better. But there is always an element of showing other comedians that you are improving, networking, etc. The trick is balancing them both.
1) Come ready to work on something. Don’t just think comedy is magically going to appear in your brain. Write out your ideas ahead of time. Have more to work on than your time allows, in case you decide to abandon an idea in the middle. You do NOT want to be the “soooooooo….what else?” comedian.
2) Bad open mics are utterly useless. If there is a negative vibe in the room, comics not paying attention, etc – you’re better off just reciting your act to a wall at home. That way you’re saying it outloud but at least you’re not doubting yourself and hating comedy. Bitterness doesn’t make you a better comedian. Avoid it at all costs.
3) Don’t keep working on the same set in the same place. Your audience is fellow regulars of the same open mic. Rotate the stuff you’re working on at different mics around the city. It will help with both accurate feedback, and in looking professional. There are few things sadder than someone who has been doing the same 5 minutes at mics over and over and over again.
4) Be prepared, but be in the moment. Don’t force yourself to stick to the script. Part of being a comedian is learning how to bob and weave – and open mics are wonderful places to do that. If something strange happens, address it. Learn to trust your instincts of what is and isn’t funny. Open mics are there for you to experiment, and part of experimentation isn’t just about material.
5) Don’t play to “the back of the room.” Many comics who come up on the open mic scene become shock jocks, relying on “can you top this?” material. But this isn’t the 1950s. We’ve heard everything there is to hear already. Shock jock material is no longer shocking, it’s just racist and sexist and gross. If you want to impress the good comics in the room, clever is much more impressive than shock.
6) If part of why you’re there is to network, watch other people and be a good audience member. If you constantly leave right after your set, you will look selfish. Even if you have another mic to go to, watch at least ONE person after you. And watching what they do right (and wrong) can help you as a comedian.
7) Introduce yourself. This is a community, and those you come up with will be your best allies. Most of the time, people aren’t going to start the conversation, so take it upon yourself to do so. Don’t just sit in the corner feeling left out – that is your choice. We’re all there for the same reason, so say hi, ask where someone is from, and start talking.
8) Know that there will always be an element of crazy at an open mic. Be polite to it, but don’t get cornered by it. You can always excuse yourself to work on your set. Even crazy understands that.