It’s very easy to get bored at your local open mic(s) after a few years of the same thing over and over. Instead of being nervous and excited to perform, sometimes it can feel monotonous. It’s even worse if there is little to no crowd to perform to, and you’re stuck listening to the same comics’ acts month after month.
This problem was part of why I slipped into a bad habit in the first few years of my career: performing to the back of the room. Performing to the back of the room means you’re doing jokes or making references that only the other comics will get. As a fellow comic watching the show, these jokes are often entertaining. When I was a doorman, great comics like Dave Attell would slip in a few for the staff, especially during the midnight show. They were some of the the funniest lines we heard all week. The difference is, that’s Dave Attell, and he’s not short on material or skill.
The problem with performing to the back of the room is that it becomes a really bad habit. Sometimes I’d make three or four comments in a five minute set. This detracts from working on actual material, establishing voice/rhythm, and it can lose or confuse what little crowd you have. Another problem is that it can cause tension between comics, so it needs to be done carefully (a female comic almost charged the stage with a pool stick once when I was first starting out). When you or the other comics have been drinking, it’s easy to say/take things the wrong way.
Playing to the back of the room is not to be confused with calling back to a previous comic’s joke–the audience actually understands that. Try that instead without being disrespectful to the previous performer (use good judgment on how far you can take it).
If you realize you’re guilty of back of the room jokes on a regular basis, make a conscious effort to perform as if the rest of the room is filled with strangers and none of them are comics. I still struggle with this some nights. Habits are hard to break.
For more comedy tips, including how to start making money, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage in paperback or any major ebook outlet including iTunes, Nook, and Kindle.