Sometimes I’ll see an open mic comic have a great set with several good jokes. The next week the same comic has a different five minutes–sometimes better, sometimes worse. The following week, another completely different set. I’ve heard it a lot from the newer guys: “I try and write a new five minutes every week.” Writing and trying out as much material as possible is great, and these comics are probably going to multiple open mic shows per week, but it can be counterproductive. If several of your jokes or bits work well, keep using them. Even if a joke “kills” (or the open mic version of “kills”) on its first try, that doesn’t mean it can’t improve. Yes, sometimes your newest jokes get the best laughs the first time you say them, but let them grow and develop. Building a great act is all about revision and fine-tuning your material. If you keep starting from scratch, you’ll never develop a solid set that gets work.
When you repeat a joke over and over, eventually you’ll develop a punchline in the setup too. You’ll also think of tag lines and transitions into your other jokes. Memorize the wording so that you can say it in your sleep because when the wording no longer takes any thought on your part, you can focus on which words to stress more, eye contact with the crowd, facial expressions, and all of the other elements and details that expert headliners use. You can also develop callbacks with your other bits. This also makes it easier to remember your setlist which is beneficial during a paid show.
I’ve talked to a lot comics about this over the years and they often say, “But I feel like it’s boring for the other comics who have to hear me repeat things.” That shouldn’t matter. It’s your career and if you can get out on the road, you’ll constantly be getting a new audience in a different city. Repeating material doesn’t mean you’re not writing or working to get better. Take the 2 or 3 bits that do the best and work on revising them until they can’t get any better. Keep them in your act and build your first MC set.
Comedy is like other forms of writing whether it be songs, books, or essays. No one produces anything great without revision. To cite an example, Greg Warren has been coming out to open mic on Tuesdays and working through the same bits for the last month or so. He’s not trying to write a new 5 minutes every week, but instead, polishing and perfecting the newer bits in his set.
You still have time to try something new in each set, but build a solid foundation first. Club managers look for consistent audience laughter week after week, not a new five minutes. (And the most common type of revision? Reducing the wording in the setup.)
To summarize: Find your best punchlines and revise those into tight bits. Build on them until you get a 7-10 minute set of them where you don’t need a setlist because you’re so familiar with them, and then you’ll be ready to MC and start getting paid.
For other tips on how to make money in stand-up, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. It’s also available on Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.