Often before open mic night, contests, or opportunities for guest sets, you’ll find comics pacing around nervously out by the bar. Sometimes they’re just excited, but a lot of times it’s easy to see the dread in their face stemming from the upcoming pressure of the set. I thought about the sets that used to give me a sense of dread as they approached. We all like performing. No one’s forcing us. Other than the first timers, what’s the reason for the nervousness and the sometimes crumbling under pressure? It’s simply a lack of confidence. That’s why most professional comics don’t get nervous most of the time. They’re confident enough and have performed countless times, so there’s no need to worry (like a frequent flyer).
That’s not to say that pros don’t get nervous. Talk to a professional comic before a one-nighter that has a few things wrong with the setup. Is the bar going to keep using that loud blender? Is there a spotlight? Is that drunk bachelorette party of twelve really going to get front row seats? Is that your sound system? The MC is going to do what?! There are how many guest sets? There are only how many people in the crowd? One of them is the club-owner’s fourteen year old daughter?
The point is, professional or not, nerves and the pressure getting to you only comes from not being confident in your act. If I knew I was funnier, I would never care about any of the above italicized problems. If you’re having problems with nerves before shows, know that as you improve, they’ll eventually go away. In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I wrote a set of tips/tricks on how to overcome nerves right before going on stage.
There’s one sure way to get over your nerves for 99% of your shows early in your career. If you can get in a larger show (I realize that’s not always possible), anything at the open mic level won’t seem like such a big deal anymore. My first paid gig was out of my league; it was a theater of 1500 people. I was terrified (and showed it on stage), but after that, MCing at the Columbus Funnybone didn’t make me nervous anymore.
Eventually you’ll be excited for your spot and instead of counting and dreading the minutes until your set, and you’ll become eager for your chance on stage. If you’re not at this point yet, take comfort in the fact that you’ll eventually get there. If you’re still dreading the moments before you take the stage month after month, perhaps comedy isn’t the right outlet for you and that’s okay to admit to yourself. If you’re just not having fun up there, your set doesn’t have a chance.