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Taking the Plunge: Your First Stand-Up Set Part 2

July 4, 2011

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?

I was very lucky because my good pal Rob Norman booked me for my first set on his show The Hee Haw Hour (now discontinued), which he co-hosted with the lovely Stephanie Kaliner.

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2011 1:10 am

    What is your opinion on writing jokes to be performed by you in front of a live audience, things like situational comedy, and filming “stand-up” like material with no audience except youtube (like a vlog). Are there significant differences? I’m especially interested in this question as it pertains to the writing process, but things like performance are good too.

    If you actually do a post on this, I would be glad to host it as a guest post on my blog 🙂

    • July 7, 2011 1:11 pm

      Hm I think it is quite different to perform with no audience. Some would even argue that it is no longer stand-up comedy if there is no live audience to give feedback, rather a comedic monologue. The immediate differences in writing is just that you won’t have that immediate feedback of a live audience. Maybe you could try performing the material on a stand-up stage and then use your experience in front of a crowd to modify the writing for a vlog? I enjoyed reading your blog by the way.

  2. Brandon permalink
    July 6, 2011 11:38 pm

    Hi, Joel,

    I really appreciate the articles. What great resources! Thanks again for taking the time to talk about this stuff… it’s much easier to take the plunge and do something once you know what others before you have been through when they were in your shoes. Thanks!

    • July 7, 2011 1:08 pm

      No problem Brandon, glad you got some use out of it, and thanks for contributing to the blog.


  1. Been awhile… « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog

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