John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

The Open Mikers Versus The Pros

by John Cantu ©

I recently attended two different comedy shows within a forty-eight hour period. I had gone to an open mike to see the debut performance of a promising new comic, Michael Lorton. Two days later, Thursday September 27th, I saw one evening of the 25th San Francisco International Comedy Competition as a competition judge.

The first show I saw was an open mike was at Ireland 32nd Club, on Tuesday September 25th. This is an Irish bar in San Francisco. Not the greatest venue for comedy I will grant you. Michael Lorton made reference to a poster of Bobby Sands, "You don't find many comedy clubs with pictures of IRA members who starved themselves to death in an English prison."

While I was at both shows I did a mental comparison between the two shows. And I observed a fundamental difference between the comedians in each show. Both had about a dozen performers. The Ireland's 32nd Club had two women performers, the competition none.

But here was the major difference between the shows: the open mikers performed about 20 minutes each and The 25th International San Francisco Comedy Competition contestants spoke about seven minutes each. And laugh for laugh, the contestants were three times or more funnier.

Sounds like an anomaly, doesn't it? One third the time in front of an audience, three times as funny?

But it was a perfect example of the difference that stage time makes in one's career. It was not that the experienced pros who had been accepted into the comedy competition were universally funnier than the inexperienced open mikers. It was that each pro's material was ten times tighter.

Some of the open mikers made me laugh out loud. Some had great ideas. Wonderful premises. In fact, some of the open mikers had premises and ideas that were fresher and hipper than some of the pros I saw Thursday. But that was the problem. I think most of them felt their ideas were fresh, funny, and hip. And yes they were that, but they were also, oh, so unpolished. So ragged. As I watched the less experienced comics I kept mentally saying, "edit, edit, edit."

As Don Stevens, our founding essayist (ComedyClubDiaries ezine was started as a forum to give wider exposure to the essays that Stevens was just writing for fun) has mentioned in a previous issue, it is the fundamental mistake beginners make. Their basic idea of performing: "This is funny, the audience should laugh." And then they get up and meander about with their ideas.

The open miker will say something like this:

"I am a comedian and I like to know what's going on in the world so I watch a lot of news shows. I watch NBC, CBS, and ABC. And if you watch a lot of news show, you get a lot of news. But you also get a lot of commercials. And that is so annoying. Because commercials are so dumb. Have you seen that commercial about sanitary napkins. I mean stop and think for a minute. Sanitary napkins. I mean if you were shopping for some would you buy 'Unsanitary' napkins? (LAUGH) . . ."

And newbie comics don't realize THEY have to do the hard work of making their material simple, clear, and easy to understand. They have to clean out the deadwood and cluttered undergrowth so the audience members can appreciate the observations sans the wild foliage.

In the words of the pro the above chunk becomes:

"Commercials. Is it me or have they gotten even dumber? (PAUSE 1-2-3) Or am I stating the obvious? (LAUGH) I mean take the ads for sanitary napkins. Like are there any other kind? (LAUGH) Have you ever found yourself in a store going up and down the aisles frustrated (PAUSE-LAUGH) because you can't find the (EXAGGERATED VOICE) 'Unsanitary' ones? (LAUGH). (DO IN CRANKY ELDERLY MALE GROUCH VOICE) 'Damn Marge, what kind store is this? (LAUGH) One whole aisle - every damn one full of packages of (OVER ARTICULATE) 'sanitary napkins' (LAUGH) - You go up to the store manager, '"Listen bud, this is an outrage! (LAUGH)! I'm never shopping here again (LAUGH) . . .' "

(Now I know that's not the greatest piece of material, but when I wrote it I was ten days past deadline for this ezine issue and that's what popped in my head!)

For the pro's act, their laughs were the results of judicious editing of material and economy of words. (Of course the realization that a $10,000 first prize is at stake for the act with the most laughs, tends to make one quickly edit out fluff and no-purpose stuff.)

And here is a second mistake open mikers make. They often tend to perform as if the set doesn't really matter if the venue is not a mainstream room. They tend to act as if they don't have to be professional if it's a small audience. Too often a comic will go to a club and just hang out with other comics. And then when introduced, get up on stage and do a perfunctory set. Or even worse, cap and rag on the audience for being small.

Is that the height of stupidity? Five or six or seven poor souls take the time and make the effort to come see the comics and how do the comics thank those brave listeners in search of a laugh? Insult them because other people didn't show good sense and come to the club.

And then DUH! Comics wonder why the audiences are always small. Here's a clue for all comics - insulting the people who come is no way to build an audience. Now, not only does that not build an audience in the long run, but it often can cut you off from connecting with someone who might be able to help career wise.

In Back Stage Pass my online "memoir" I have written about seeing Tom Finnigan in a room with just six people - all of who were in the business or dating someone in the business. And how I got him into the "Zoo." Which lead to him writing for Bobby Slayton within a month or so. Which lead to his writing for a local radio talk show on KSFO. Which lead to his getting hired by the Tonight Show as a staff writer.

Read article here:

In my comedy classes when students would ask how they should dress for the stage for their "graduation" performance, I would say, "Dress as if you knew there was a scout from the Tonight Show in the audience." Never dress for a club or perform a set based how few people you expect to be in the audience that night or because of how obscure the club is. You never know who is in the audience. And you never know who or what each audience member knows.

Take the Ireland's 32 Club. I'm sure every comedian got ready for the night and thought, "It's a Tuesday night. There's gonna be maybe 20 people in the room tonight - and 10-15 of them will probably be comics so, it doesn't really mater how I dress or what set I do."

But what they didn't know was that I have friends in Hollywood, who from time to time will call me up and say hey we're looking for such and such a type performer for a television show or movie. Keep your eyes open for us at the SF clubs, okay? And what those Ireland 32nd open mikers also didn't know was at that moment I was trying to find a comic who could do 30 clean minutes for a private party - - - not a big budget just $500-$700 dollars. (That was the budget for the comedian, not for the party!)

So my suggestion is whether you are doing an open mike at the local Borders Book Store or you're performing a the local main comedy room in an out of the way town, always perform as if you are auditioning for a television show or a paid gig... You never know when you actually might being doing just that.

NEXT: Running a Comedy Club It's All in a Night's Work