Why Don’t My Jokes Work When I MC?

Some comics do very well at various open mics throughout the week. They don’t just make the back of the room laugh, they get the whole crowd. They’re like a spark that keeps the crowd alive and drinking, and even though you’ve seen their set a dozen times you still watch. Word spreads and the comic gets his or her first shot to MC at the local club where a crowd of 30 (most of them got in free) yawns through that comic’s same set. Why does this happen?

  1. Opening a show is the toughest spot there is. The crowd hasn’t heard itself laugh yet, so they’re a little self-conscious. They’re also trying to get seated and order drinks. This isn’t your fault, but it comes with the territory.  Years ago Nick Griffin advised me to open with my best joke. He explained how the crowd is eager to see if you’re funny or not. First impressions are important.
    From my experience, to do this you need to relate to them right away. Bring up something local (that you’ve tested before). That doesn’t mean hacky or stock, but if you have a home club, you should write an opening joke specific to that area. Or use a very quick setup-punchline joke to get that laugh asap. As host you can’t just dive straight into your act, so find a way to get through the mandatory welcoming announcements to get the attention from everyone. This can be as simple as mentioning the headliner’s name and getting one more round of applause for that.
  2. Your open mic jokes won’t always work at a comedy club. The big difference is the crowd. An open mic that starts Tuesday at 10:00 in at artsy neighborhood is going to have a much different taste for what’s funny than a married couple celebrating their 22nd anniversary on a Saturday night at the 7:00 show.  They stopped smoking pot 15 years ago and are freaking out because they suspect their teenage son is now. That hypothetical isn’t true with the entire crowd, but examine your material and see how universal it is to other demographics. Are they jokes you could do in front of people like your parents or 3rd-grade teacher? (Good news, if the club still does late shows your open mic material may work better for those shows, but that’s not what management cares about.)
  3. Adding onto that, you can’t start dirty. People haven’t loosened up yet, so give them some comedy foreplay before going blue or trying anything shocking–and if you’re hosting, odds are the other comics and club prefer you not go blue in the first fifteen minutes of the show anyway.  It’s hard to write clean. I understand that, but if you want to make money and get a lot more stage time hosting at a club you’ll need to abide. Dirtier or edgier jokes are harder to pull off well, and if it’s early in your career, perhaps your joke-writing ability isn’t there yet. Trust me, the dirty stuff I did the first few years of my career was an awful display of joke writing.

The real barometer of comedians is how well they can do in front of a bad crowd. Anyone should be able to kill in a packed room after a few comics have already performed. Experience teaches you how to “wake a crowd up” when the show is starting, or if they’ve been awful for everyone in front of you. Use your judgment on who or what you can throw under the bus if necessary. Whatever you try, do it with confidence that radiates a vibe the crowd trusts.

For more advice on how to make money in stand-up comedy, read my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. It’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, Nook, or at RobDurhamComedy.com (for signed copies).

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About Rob Durham

With an English Degree, three years as a doorman at the Columbus Funnybone, over a decade of stand-up experience, and a recent certification in teaching high school English class, writing a book seemed like the next inevitable step for Rob Durham. The son of a coach, Rob has an excellent ability to teach and explain things in the easiest and most direct way possible. His (often labeled ridiculous) memory allows him to think of every possible situation that a new comic might face because at one point he was there too. Rob gives an inside look at comedy that doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges every performer faces. Without ego and the myth that “anyone can do it” Rob gives the reader a true feel of what living the so-called dream feels like, from preparing for that first open mic night to touring the country. View all posts by Rob Durham

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