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Monday, July 14, 2014

Alison Does Standup: A Beginner's Guide to Open Mic Comedy. Kind Of.

Posted by Alison Hallett on Mon, Jul 14, 2014 at 3:44 PM

tldr video's after the jump

Last week, Mercury readers voted to send me to perform standup comedy at an open mic.

And I was okay with that! It was easily my top choice from my Worst. Night. Ever. options; it would make the most interesting writeup, and it might give me some fresh insight into a beat I've covered for years. As I watched the votes roll in, I thought: I got this. I've done storytelling shows and readings, and even hosted a show of my own for a few years, so I have plenty of experience talking into a microphone. Plus, I don't actually want to be a comic, so I won't be too invested. It's three minutes. How bad could it be?

Pretty bad, actually. Not so much the performance itself, but the preparation, which ate up far more than three minutes of my weekend and involved a *lot* of lying on the couch moaning "Why do i have to dooooo this."

Screen_Shot_2014-07-14_at_3.00.47_PM.png

I in no way anticipated how much time and effort would actually go into writing, rewriting, and rehearsing my three-minute set, or how incredibly nervous I'd be when it came time to perform.

For the uninitiated: There are comedy open mics in Portland just about every night of the week. These shows offer a place for new comics to gain experience and for experienced comics to try new material that may or may not make it into their final sets. Typically, the audience is made up of other comics waiting for their chance to perform—you’d have to be a pretty diehard comedy fan to go to one of these things just to watch. (That’s not a dig; open mics serve a purpose, and it’s to help comics get good enough that audiences will pay to see ‘em.)

I was assigned to go to the open mic at Curious Comedy on Sunday. At this particular show there are around 25 spots, and comics hoping to perform arrive at least half an hour early to sign up. (The mic starts at 8, and last night the list had filled up by around 7:40 pm.) The comic who's hosting the mic puts together the final list of performers, the order of which is determined by some sort of wizardry I don't presume to understand, though I suspect it favors experienced comics and friends of the host. Each comic gets three minutes to perform and exceeding your allotted time can result in the sound guy cutting off your mic. (Unless you're killing. Then he'll probably let you talk.)

Now, the WNE rules said I had to perform at Curious' open mic, but they didn't specify what I had to do. Suggestions from friends included: Do redneck jokes. Read Laffy Taffy wrappers. Make my boyfriend sit up front and make fun of him for three minutes.

I figured, though, that I should take the assignment seriously—write a set and think about my "comedic voice" and just generally make a good-faith effort to do well. Performing standup isn’t on my secret bucket list or anything, but half-assing it seemed like a waste of an experience.

When I sat down to write, I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to succeed with anything other than story-based jokes. I was not going to be wacky, I was not going to do voices, I was not going to ensnare the room with my staggering personal charisma. Puns and one-liners were out—I’m no good with wordplay—but I felt relatively comfortable with anecdotes and observational comedy. At first I was reluctant to get too personal, so I tried to work on some material about Portland, but all of that seemed to go down a pretty predictable and uninteresting “WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH TOTE BAGS WHY AM I WHITE” kind of path. Ultimately I decided I should try to draw on my own experiences.

After figuring out my general focus, I had coffee with Chris Murray, a Portland actor and occasional standup coach who very kindly offered to help me prepare for Sunday. Chris had tons of great suggestions, and his advice really helped me to think about what I was doing from a structural standpoint.

First of all, he advised me to script an intro and three jokes, but to not feel obligated to make it through all of them, and to feel comfortable going off-book if inspiration struck while I was onstage. He stressed the importance of remaining attentive to the audience, and responding “in the moment” to what was happening in the room."The worst thing you can do," he said, "is not allow yourself to be changed by the audience."

From a writing standpoint, the most useful piece of advice he gave me was that I should try to eliminate expository details, and instead focus on whittling each joke down to the essentials—in a joke about driving a rental car, you don’t need to note the car's make and model. Instead of nitty gritty details, color can come from surprising metaphors—he suggested that childhood and nostalgia can provide great metaphorical touchstones, offering Bri Pruett’s great Duck Tales joke as an example. (see: 5:30.) And in terms of generating ideas, he encouraged me to look for inspiration in things that anger me, things that make me feel guilty, personal relationships, things I like that I feel like I shouldn’t discuss in public... Things that provoke a reaction in me, whether positive or negative, particularly if that reaction is in anyway unusual or controversial.

Chris also convinced me to make use of the fact that I was performing under duress, which I hadn’t planned on. Explaining the backstory on this whole Worst. Night. Ever. thing seemed too complicated for my paltry three minutes, plus it sort of felt like cheating—like a cheap way of getting the audience on my side. After reminding me that manipulating the audience is the point, Chris suggested that in my intro, I highlight the difference between critiquing a form and practicing it. I ended up using that in my set.

In addition to Chris' coaching, I asked for advice on Facebook from Portland comics. I got some really good suggestions, ranging from the succinct and practical ("Project your voice and have fun!"—Sean Jordan) to more detailed advice on crafting a set:


“[1] Pick something about the world you actually care about. [2] Tell us how you feel and why. [3] After that's done, exaggerate it in a way that reinforces that you are right to feel the way you do. [4] Repeat. [5] Practice out loud at home. [6] Go to an open mic and put your mouth really fucking close to the microphone. [7] Tell us the thing you practiced.”—Alex Falcone.

Lucia Fasano told me to stay vulnerable and honest (eek!), Andie Main reminded me “not to fiddle around too much,” and Becky Braunstein said: “Don't do what you think other people will think is funny. Do what YOU think is funny. Even if it's really weird.” Bri Pruett made it all sound easy: “Just pay attention this weekend, to the things you say to people that get a laugh. Write down the part that made the people laugh. Boom, jokes.”

You should go read the thread if you're at all interested in performing—there's good stuff in there—but I particularly like Stephanie Purtle's perfectly double-edged observation: "The worst thing that can happen is no one laughs." On one hand: Who cares if no one laughs? Who cares if, on Sunday, July 13 at 8:47 pm, in a room on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Portland, Oregon, 40 adults are not laughing? Could the stakes be any lower?

On the other hand... Oh my god, what if no one laughs.

Which brings us to the one epiphany I had during all of this business: Watching someone else try and fail is more embarrassing than actually trying and failing. My friend calls it “vicarious stage fright,” and I have it, bad—I've always assumed that if I feel embarrassed for a performer, the performer must feel 10 times worse.

Not necessarily the case!

Comic Gabe Dinger, who teaches standup classes at Curious Comedy, said something smart about embarrassment:


"[Being embarrassed] is the number one fear people have. That fear makes stand-up uncomfortable to even watch for some people. It's like watching someone on a tight rope. No one wants to see someone fall. And open mics are a lot of people falling in a row."

And they know they are falling. And for the most part, they’re okay with it. Because they know it’s what they have to do if they want to get good.

I think maybe—maybe—I knew that on an intellectual level before, but it was eye-opening to experience it firsthand. To go into something expecting to fail, expecting to embarrass myself, and knowing that that failure was an essential part of the process.

Which is not to say I wasn’t nervous, by the way. I was terrified. I had no idea I’d be as nervous as I was. I’ve done storytelling shows before, and those are a bit nervewracking, but this was something else entirely. Storytelling shows have a sort of implicit sanction: If it happened to you, it’s interesting. Last night, I wasn’t just relating a personal experiences—I was sharing sentences I constructed in the hopes of to eliciting a specific physical reaction from the crowd. If that reaction didn’t happen—if no one laughed—it would be because I was doing a bad job. Period.

Gabe dedicates an entire class to fear in his standup course. "It's funny how the nerves get to you the night of," he says. "In my class I try to prepare them for the nerves, but it is something that can only be felt in the moment. Ironically, that nervousness is the addictive part of comedy. That's where you get the super powers."

Which brings us to...

Sooooo remember how I said people gave me tons of good advice? Here are a few pieces of good advice that I failed to take:


“Have a strong ending that is ideally a callback to a theme/phrase you've repeated throughout the set. Deliver it with conviction, enjoy the applause, and get off the stage - fast.”—Bill Oakley


“Move the microphone stand when you grab the mic so it's not in front of you”—Andy MacDonald

Watching that video* legitimately surprised me, though, because it’s overall much better than I thought it would be. Other than the fact that I seem to have developed a lisp (do I have a lisp?) and I do some awkward fumbling around with my hoodie pockets, you can’t tell at all that I was nearly hallucinating from nervousness, or that I kind of rambled off script and skipped a few chunks of what I’d prepared to say.

I’m actually kinda proud of myself! I don’t think I’ve discovered my true calling or anything, though—it's worth emphasizing that my experience was not at all typical for a comedy first-timer. In addition to all the advice and coaching, I got cushy treatment on the night of the mic. The show's host, Mercury pal Barbara Holm, gave me a good spot in the lineup—I was seventh, early in the evening, and immediately after our own Alex Falcone, a legit pro who got the crowd nice and warmed up for me. Lots of my friends were in the audience, all the other comics I talked to were super nice and supportive—even Curious' awesome bar staff were encouraging. Had I just wandered in off the street, I likely would've been much closer to the bottom of the list, would've been performing to a considerably colder and less receptive audience, and wouldn't have been able to pull the "I don't want to be here" card. But! Considering the circumstances—that you guys sent me to this because you thought it would be profoundly humiliating—I’m calling this a win.

*big thanks to Ben Coleman for recording!

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