Comedians offer advice on overcoming open mic night jitters

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The lights come up, the audience is buzzing with anticipation, the announcer calls your name and seconds later it’s time to step out from the sidelines for your first open mic night.

Calgary comedian Lori Gibbs remembers how it felt before she stepped up in front of a crowd for the first time.

“I don’t remember being that scared about anything that much in my life,” she says.

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Seasoned comedian Lori Gibbs says practise makes perfect when it comes to stand-up comedy.

Photo by Rachel Kane“I likened it to a huge mountain in front of me. When I finally took the first step and did it, it turned out the mountain had been a mirage the whole time.”

It took Gibbs 20 years to overcome her fear of stepping on stage, but, with some expert help, conquering your own mountain can be made easier.

So, if you’ve ever thought that it’s time for you to stand-up, here are some tips to help you get started.

Find a stage

Stand-up comedian Iliza Shlesinger says the most important tip for any budding performer is to “just go do it.”

“Find an open mic. Find a group. You have to just do it, and that’s all there is to it. The rest will fall into place,” says Shlesinger, who recently performed at Yuk Yuk’s Calgary while on tour.

The workings of stand-up comedy were completely foreign to Shlesinger when she moved to Los Angeles in 2004.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” she says. “All I wanted was stage time.”

Shlesinger started out performing at coffee houses and other smaller venues before she could get into any comedy clubs.

Her grassroots effort soon grew into a Cinderella story after she won Last Comic Standing at age 25 in 2008.

Still, Shlesinger says it’s not always getting to the big stage that’s most important.

“It’s not about getting into a club,” says Shlesinger. “Comics are always like, ‘What do I do to get started?’ Go get some stage time. Go make your own stage. Go trade with another comic. You really have to hustle for it.

“Small shows are great because it’s like weight training,” she says. “You start with little weights and you build.”

Be honest

Chris Gordon, a local comedian with prior experience teaching the basics of stand up, says stepping out on the stage can be difficult, but having a well-practiced, original set makes it much easier.

“You should never look to other comedians or jokes you’ve heard because those aren’t your jokes,” he says.

comedy main2Comedian Iliza Shlesinger loves the feeling of standing on stage and connecting with the audience on a really basic level.

Photo by Rachel KaneSocial observation is a key tool that many comics use to generate new material. Gordon says keeping a book of thoughts is the best way to begin writing your own material.

Looking for the humour in everyday matters is something Shelsinger finds very effective.

“I really like connecting with an audience on really basic social things,” she says. “There’s something very satisfying about sharing something very personal and honest and having them laugh with you and at you.

“As long as they’re laughing, you’re connecting with them.”

Shlesinger explains that making sure you can connect to your material is key, as the audience will see through any pretend personas.

At the end of the day, the material you choose is completely up to you.

Shelsinger explains if you’re talking about your real experiences in a funny, personal way, it won’t matter what you talk about.

“If you want to get up there and tell airline food jokes, and talk about your in-laws, and talk about sex, and being stoned — as tacky as those topics are, if you’re funny, people will love you.”

How to recover

While no one likes the thought of a bad night, Gordon explains that “everybody bombs” in stand-up.

But what happens if they don’t like you, or they don’t laugh at your jokes? What if all you hear are crickets?

“There’s nothing wrong with silence,” says Shelsinger. “Sometimes it can be a beautiful thing. You shouldn’t be afraid of it.

“You’re going to have jokes that don’t work.”

Gibbs emphasizes just how important it is to practice.

“Don’t try to wing it,” says Gibbs. “Even if you see a seasoned comedian and you think they’re winging it, they’re probably not. They’re just very good actors.”

Don’t give up

How to prepare for your first open mic night

  • Keep a book of thoughts
  • Turn them into something you think is funny
  • Try jokes out on family, friends, co-workers or strangers
  • Write what you think will fill your set time (3 min, 5 min, 7 min)
  • Time it
  • Practice a lot
  • Practice in front of a mirror
  • Practice with something that looks like a microphone
  • Mimic the situation to the best of your ability

The reality is that there are going to be days when things go wrong. The most important thing to remember is to get back on the horse, says Shlesinger.

“I firmly believe there is something to be learned from every show, and you leave every show a better comic than when you came in.”

Shlesinger adds that often the need to make people laugh is what draws many people back to the stage, even after a bad night.

“The laughter is like a drug,” says Shelsinger. “It’s like this surge that goes through you. It’s like their way of saying, ‘We like you.’”

If fear is holding you back from trying stand-up, Gordon says to ask yourself: “Do you want to be the person who regretted taking that risk in life? Or do you want to step up to the challenge and realize that you’re trying something new?

“You can tell yourself that no matter how this goes, at least you did something that you were interested in trying.”

Would you ever try stand-up comedy? Tell us why or why not.

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