Taking the Plunge: Your First Stand-Up Set Part 2
What’s up, you finks! Welcome back to part 2 of Taking the Plunge: Your First Stand-Up Set Part 2 (Part 1 found here)
Last week I half addressed Brandon Hackett’s suggestion for a theory topic, which was:
[A]s someone who has trouble finding the nerve to even get up and do his first set, I would really appreciate some insight into your early experiences with stand-up. Do you perhaps have any anecdotes about one of your first shows, and when/why you decided to do stand-up comedy? How did you approach joke-writing with your first set? What were some of the challenges you faced?
We’ve discussed motivations for pursuing stand-up comedy as an art form, and heard from a couple of comics about what their first set was like. Today I want to explore the more practical side of things, and also share some personal observations regarding my first stand-up set. Let’s do this thing.
Some Things To Think About When Preparing For Your First Set
1) Finding a Place to Perform
Once you commit to the stand-up lifestyle, you will have plenty of opportunities to tell jokes to three people at a dive bar at 1 in the morning. Do yourself a favour and spoil yourself for your first one, okay? A veteran stand-up comic can pull laughs out of any room, but why not stack the deck in your favour?
It was a perfect first room. Not too big, good sized, good natured crowd, a great line up, (at the time I had no idea how good), and hosts that had my back. I came away from that set with confidence to continue, and feeling good about my decision to move to Toronto and get on this crazy roller coaster. Put some time into finding that kind of first venue experience for yourself. Go to rooms for awhile, feel out the scene. In Toronto, Yuk Yuks and Absolute Comedy have amateur nights, and you might consider comedy competitions like the Toronto Comedy Brawl for your first set, as they tend to be well-attended.
2) Getting Over Fear of Failure
All I’ve got to say is this: failure IS growth. You can’t have one without the other. If you are not constantly failing, you are stagnant. I would much rather be a person who sucks back a failure every day than be complacent and dead inside. If you are worried about people judging you from the audience and sneering at your efforts, just remind yourself how much easier it is to tear down others. Do you respect someone with that attitude enough to give them power over your life? I know I don’t.
3) Knowing the Basics
I’ll never forget walking into a comedy club before I did my first set and in an act of breathtaking hubris, asking for a spot that weekend. The staff member just gave me this look I’ll never forget. Roughly translated, the look said: “I don’t have the words to describe how ignorant you are.”
Just like a boy scout, you should be prepared. There’s so much you can’t know, and can only learn from experience. Learn as much as you can before you take the plunge.
Read books, go to open mikes just to watch, read blogs (ONLY THIS ONE! Jokes jokes, actually there’s a few in my blogroll that are great, look at them too for sure). The more research you do, the more you can focus on learning the stuff books can’t teach you, rather than asking dumb questions and getting “the look.”
Not sure where to start? How about learning the lingo?
4) Writing and Preparing Material
Writing is the one area where you have a lot of control. Pour some time into it.
It’s a a process, not a magic trick. Everyone has their own system, but for your first set, here’s what I would suggest:
- Cultivate ideas in a notebook for a bit, just write down every little thing you think about. Choose three or four of the most promising ones.
- Work out premises for the ideas, then edit them down so they are slim as possible.
- Think of several punchlines for each premise, then keep only the best one. Adapt others for tags if desired.
- Memorize the hell out of that set so you don’t have to worry about flubbing lines onstage and can focus on stage presence.
- Run the material by friends or co-workers (doesn’t have to be a big deal, you can even slip it into conversation). You can edit words on paper, but nothing is better than saying them out loud to a human.
Do all this and you will greatly increase your chances for success. Your material will still probably be noobish and hackey, but at least it will be the best you can produce.
My First Set
Everyone’s been good about sharing their first set experiences, so I will share some thoughts about mine. I considered actually posting the video from my first set, but I don’t think it’s really necessary (and highly embarrassing). It was very scary, very exciting, and after I finished I felt incredible.
Reviewing the video, here are a couple of observations I would offer to my past noob self.
- It’s great to have your first set to look back on. It helps to see where you’ve been when you feel lost.
- I did a lot of act outs in that first set, then promptly wrote material for two years with very little act outs. Act outs are important, but if you’re not the type, it will take work and focus to include them.
- I spoke too fast. This steps on laughs, gives the impression of nervousness. The slower a stand-up delivers material, the more confident they appear.
- I was really fat in 2008. LIKE REALLY FAT, GUYS.
- It really showed that I knew my material inside and out. I look at sets from a couple months later where I didn’t apply that rigid memorization discipline, and the quality of delivery is so much worse.
- Nervous energy can be harnessed to become compelling stage energy. It’s just energy and your choice how it is perceived.
- I was so glad that first set went okay because the next 20 were really disappointing. Having a video to look back on and say “Yes, I did get laughs that time,” was very useful for my damaged ego after bombing.
Thanks for reading, I hope that this article was useful. If you find the courage to attack this amazing, scary and beautiful art form head on, please let me know how it goes.
Come back on Wednesday where we’ll finish off this series with the first time story of this week’s Shout-Out subject, Sharilyn Johnson.
Oh, and welcome to the club. It’s good to push the envelope.