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Thoughts on Running an Open Mic

I ran the open mic at my home comedy club for seven years. I learned a few things while I was there. Here’s a few thoughts on running an open mic.

How Long Should the Show Be?

90 minutes, that’s all you need. 90 minutes is enough time for an audience to feel like they got their money’s worth and it’s enough time to not exhaust them. Most open mics are on nights that people have to work the next day and odds are since most shows start at about 8, an audience comes into the show already tired. Mix being tired with alcohol and you can see why you don’t want a show that goes on forever.

An audience can get tired over the course of a show and you can feel it when it happens. Every comic can be having a good set, but little by little the audience reaction starts to wane and you end up with a show that just fizzles out. Instead of ending the show at 90 minutes and having the audience leave wanting more, the show ended up being 120 minutes and they’ve decided to not come back or even worse, they’re done with comedy shows all together. Even sometimes 90 minutes is too much, you have to feel out what’s right for your show.

How Much Time Should Each Comic Get?

There’s no real answer on how much time you should give someone, but I think a good rule is seasoned comics should get more time than first-time/inexperienced comics. To clarify, “seasoned comic” doesn’t mean how many years you’ve been doing comedy, it’s just means skill level—you can do stand up for 5 years and still not be any good. At the same time, being a first-time comedian doesn’t mean you’re not funny, it just means you’re inexperienced. When it comes right down to it, some comedians just have it, and some don’t.

Better comics should get more time because:

  1. They’ve earned it.

  2. You just need good comedians on a show to make people want to come back. They make the show better and they provide a bridge in between less funny comedians.

Inexperienced comedians should get less time because:

  1. They haven’t earned it.

  2. From my experience, one thing that will bring a show to a screeching halt and kill any momentum is an unfunny comedian. The only thing worse than an unfunny comedian is an unfunny comedian that has a lot of time.

For The Love Of God, Light People

I’ve been on many shows where the person running it says, “do whatever time you want.” I usually hate these shows. Most comedians will do a reasonable amount of time but all it takes is a few people to do 15 minutes instead of 5 and all of a sudden your show has been going for 90 minutes. The crowd and waitstaff want to go home and you still have 7 comedians left to go up. It makes for a long night.

Use a phone, a candle, or even a bell, but light people-it can be the difference in getting 15 people on vs. 10 or 11. Also, don’t be afraid to cut the mic or turn off the lights, it’s your show and you’re in control. If someone wants to get mad because they went over on the time you gave them, that’s their problem, not yours.

It’s Ok To Say “No”

When I ran open mic, I had tons of people asking every week for stage time. You want to accommodate everyone and put everyone on every show, but you just can’t. When it comes down to it, there are only so many spots per show and you can’t make everyone happy.

The show I ran was pre-booked, so getting everyone at least one spot a month usually wasn’t a problem, but sometimes people would show up late, special guests drop in, and sometimes people would just ask me for stage time that weren’t on the list. I’d do my best to help everyone out, but sometimes you just have to tell people “no”. It’s a difficult thing to do, but usually it’s what’s best for the show.

I can recall a few occasions when there was a comic who would show up on time and other times he’d show up in the middle of the show. He’d pull me aside and ask if he could go up. I’d say no for any number of reasons…he was late…there were people that were there before him waiting on a spot…the list was already made, etc. A few times he offered me cash to go up and don’t get me wrong, I could’ve used the money but I told him no because it just wasn’t fair for the people that showed up on time and waited for a spot to open up. He was mad of course and he stormed off. You can’t please everyone and that’s ok.

Spots On A Show

The number of spots available on each show depends on how long you want your show to be and how much time you give everyone. There are a few different types of spots on a show. Here’s how I ran mine…

3-5 spots for new people:

New people are the lifeblood of your show because they’re the ones that bring audience members. A comic who has been doing comedy for 5 years may be good, but odds are nobody he knows cares that he does comedy anymore

1-2 spots for out-of-towners

These spots are a chance for your to bring in comics from out of your area which can be a breath of fresh air to your show. It connects you to other scenes and will help you get shows in those areas. It’s kind of a “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kinda thing. Notice there’s only 2 of these spots because it’s not likely someone from two hours away will bring a ton of people to your show.

7-10 spots for non-new comics

These spots are for people that will make your show better. Either they’re the best in your scene, or they’re on their way to being the best. You can also put comics in these spots that aren’t new, but also won’t kill your show.

Flow of the show

Here’s how I tried to book each show…

Host:

Strong comic who is not only funny, but will command the room. The host will also relay any announcements you or the club/venue need delivered.

Flip Flop:

After the host spot, I’d put on a stronger comedian to carry over the momentum the host started. After that, I’d alternate between less strong and strong comedians to avoid having 2-3 below-average comedians going on in a row and killing the momentum of the show.

New People

I’d usually save the first-timers and people I knew had a lot of audience members there to see them till close to the end of the show (I’d always ask in the pre-show meeting who had people coming to see them). It’s possible that if you put these people up earlier in the show that their audience members could lose interest in the show or even worse, just leave after their friend’s set. I’ve also seen people hold back their laughter till their friend comes on and this is why whenever I hosted open mics, I told the audience the show wasn’t a contest and they were allowed to laugh at everyone, not just their friend.

Strong Finish

I’d have one of the best comedians on the show go last as to leave the audience with the memory that they had a good time regardless of how bad the worst comedian was.

Content Restrictions?

You have to decide what kind of show you want to run. Content restrictions can probably be decided based on what venue your show is in. For instance, if your open mic is in a coffee shop where somebody might bring their kid in, you probably want to let the comedians know to be on the cleaner side. But if your show is in the basement of a bar, you might not want any restrictions.

Content restrictions are relative to your audience. You don’t want to scare away that dad and his kid from the coffee shop causing the shop itself to lose business. You want to help the venue make money, not lose it. The more money you make them, the more likely they will support your show. Simple as that.

Probably some good rules to follow no matter the venue would be no racist, sexist, or homophonic material. No C-word, no N-word, and little to no F-words (this last one is up for debate).

Promotion

A show is nothing without an audience. You need to get people into seats plain and simple. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, flyers, texts, emails, and podcasts are all ways to promote a show. I’d choose 3 or 4 of those ways and require the people on your show to do those, otherwise; they don’t get to perform. It takes very little effort to post on social media about a show and even if they don’t bring anyone, it might inspire someone to try stand up for the first time and then they’d bring a new audience to the show.

A generic flyer with all the show info (showtime, cost, address, etc) is an easy way to make sure everyone has the same information and it gives performers no excuse as to why they didn’t promote the show. A generic flyer is easy because you just have to do the work once and you can send it out very week as opposed to spending hours on customized flyers.

A good part of promotion is just having a good show and leaving people wanting to come back. Promoting doesn’t stop once the show starts, it keeps going after the audience has left. If people had a good time, they’ll tell their friends and then they’ll come to a show. Likewise, if they had a bad experience, they’ll discourage people from coming out.

Having a venue help promote a show is key. Often times, a venue will have a good amount of social media followers they can send a show flyer out to. Also, having flyers in house helps a great deal. People are more likely to come back to a place they’re already at. Plus, letting people know when comedy night is will keep away the people that don’t want to be there. There’s nothing worse than people talking throughout the whole show because this is their Thursday-night destination. Promotion helps bring people to a show, but it also helps weed out the ones you don’t want there.

Choosing A Venue

If you’re looking for a venue to start a show here are a few things to think about

  1. Lights/sound/stage: Does the venue have these and if not, are you willing to bring your own every week?

  2. Intimate space: Is the space where your show will be intimate and conducive to comedy? Low ceilings and having the audience as close to the stage as possible makes for a better show. Remember, it’s much easier to fill 25 seats than it is to fill 50. 50 seats sure looks empty when there’s only 15 people in the audience.

  3. Separate room: Having a separate room devoted to comedy helps minimize distractions and you get a lot less people just wondering in off the street that had no idea there was a show. Audience members sitting in a separate room means they want to be there for the show as opposed to a couple guys sitting at the bar talking the whole night while there’s a show going on. Separate rooms aren’t necessary, but they certainly do help the quality of a show.

  4. Support from the venue: Does the venue seem genuinely interested in having comedy and is it willing to do its fair share of the work? Will the bar turn off the TVs during the show, will they hang flyers, will they be friendly toward the comedians?

If the venue you’re looking at doesn’t meet most of the requirements, I’d find another place. If you try a show and it doesn’t look like you’ll have enough of an audience for a weekly show, think about a bi-weekly show or maybe once a month. Sometimes having a show too often will cause comedy to lose it’s allure and audiences will dwindle. It’s better to have one great show every month than it is to have 1 subpar show every week.

If you tried your best at having a show somewhere and it’s just unsuccessful, maybe it’s time to pull the plug on it. Think about it this way, if someone attends your show or just happens to be in the bar when your show is going on, and it’s a bad show, then that person could just right off comedy shows altogether. They could think, “well, comedy shows just aren’t for me,” or “comedy is only good when it’s at the big theater downtown,” when really what they mean is, “this particular show isn’t for me.” Sometimes you have to do what’s best for a comedy scene and stop doing a show so you don’t sour a whole group of people on comedy in general.

It’s A Thankless Job

Finally, running a show is a thankless job. As I said before, you can’t please everyone when running a show. You could give someone a spot but then they could get mad because they’re only doing 3 minutes instead of 5 (really happened). Or some people might notice how you arrive early and leave late, but they won’t realize the hours you spent at home answering emails and making flyers.

You’ll have to tell people “no’ and you’ll have to cut people’s mic, but it’s all part of putting on a good show. Running an open mic is a thankless job at times, but when everything goes right and you’re able to put on a good show, help someone have a good show, and have a good show yourself, it’s all worth it and you’ll become a better comic because of it.

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