Tips from a teen: 7 pieces of PURE GOLD ADVICE for teen comics, by teen comics

Being young comes with its own set of challenges. Waiters ask you if you want kids’ menus, you get carded at R-rated movies, and parents just don’t understand. While these situations are frustrating, they also have their upsides (chicken nuggets for dinner, anyone?). And in comedy, where so many things are upside down, that frustratingly unusual perspective is a huge asset for teen comics.

 

Because it’s true. Adults don’t understand — which means kids like us have the comedic chance to explain it all. A lot of our favorite comedians started their careers in their teens, like Tiffany Haddish and Josie Long. And lots of teens are starting out in comedy right now!

 

But howww? I hear you. Well, what do I know? I’m just a teen standup comedian. Here’s how I see it.

 

Get inspired by a role model…

Teen comic and Inspiring Person™ Avery Lender says that her favorite comics are the ones who manage to be funny in ways that she’s not- comics like Dave Chappelle and Donald Glover, who are opposite from her style, but funny nonetheless. However, she loves female comedians best. Mindy Kaling, in particular, is a role model–she is a writer with her own tv show, her own book AND she was on The Office…talk about #goals! Female writers in particular help Avery see how to construct a joke and bring her own personal spin on it. And finding your own mentors will help you, too.

…or, better yet, a mentor

First thing you need is a doorway into that crazy world of comedy. Now more than ever, teens are helping teens get into comedy and slowly taking over, one millennial-run industry at a time! Just kidding. Sort of. Teens are helping each other out: they are even writing books on it, like Young, Funny, and Unbalanced, the book from the Kids ‘N Comedy team. If you don’t want to commit to a whole book about it, check out their blog!

 

Don’t “find” the time … MAKE the time

Finding time to do just about any extracurricular activity is hard. Comics, especially teens, have to be extra dedicated to squeeze it in between sports, college applications, and homework. We don’t recommend it, but Alyssa Stonoha says she even used to do her homework “like, in between classes.” Not great for grades, but potentially great for comedy!

 

Figure out what builds your confidence. Then do that. A lot.

Even if it’s just making your mom laugh, like Avery Lender, finding something that makes you feel funny is a great confidence boost. And that boost will keep you going when things get challenging. We comedians, in particular, are our own biggest critics. Even Mindy Project legend Chris Messina says he doesn’t find himself “particularly funny.” So spend time filling that emotional bucket with self-confidence so you’ll have it when the well runs dry.

 

Negotiate late night gigs with your parents (or find daytime ones). As a certified teen, you probably aren’t allowed in bars yet. Don’t despair! There are other options. Weekends are great, and so are comedy clubs who allow teens to perform (like the Broadway Comedy Club). Also, remember that mentor we mentioned earlier? Introduce this person to your parents. Even if she’s not old enough to be a chaperone, you can invoke the safety of the good old buddy system.

 

Remember who runs the world. But we don’t run comedy … yet. YET.

Being the ‘token girl’ in comedy can be hard. Even Avery says that she doesn’t “think girls are encouraged at all to be funny.” The important thing in comedy, like in life, is to remember to ignore anyone telling you you can’t do it. Sexism can look like a lot of different things, from the classic “women aren’t funny” to eye-rollingly stupid catcalls to even backhanded compliments from other women (see: “you’re so brave to do that” and “I love how you don’t care what anyone else thinks”). When in doubt, gird your emotional loins and prove ‘em wrong. Nevertheless, PERSIST!

 

Write what you know…carefully.
If your comedy is based in your personal life, be aware of how it might affect anyone you talk about. Being funny and being mean aren’t (necessarily) the same. If your jokes are about things like “peanuts and lizards and sexual harassment,” like teen-comic-turned-adult Alyssa Stonoha, keep private things private, or at least change the names to protect the innocent.

Love it!
No one ever said comedy was easy. Remember that you have plenty of funny years ahead of you. Not getting a laugh won’t kill you — but losing your passion might. Stay funny, ladies!

 


 

Gillian Rooney is a teenage American comedian and writer based in Connecticut. She is currently a student of Competitive Swordplay (member of Fairfield High School Fencing Team.) She is also an alumna of GOLD Comedy’s pilot workshop series!

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Mini Q+A with…Jena Friedman

Jena Friedman is a stand up comedian, actor, writer and filmmaker. She is currently a correspondent for National Geographic Explorer and has worked as a field producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and written for Late Show with David Letterman. Her critically acclaimed stand up special, American Cunt, is now available on Amazon. Follow her.

When you were coming up in comedy, what helped you stick with it?

I wasn’t able to do anything else. It was like an addiction.

What advice do you have for leveling up from open mics to shows?

Start your own weekly or monthly show, hustle to get audiences there, and build your own scene.

Describe your worst gig.

It was when I first started stand up, a guy shouted a really lewd comment at me and I just walked off stage. I’ve gotten better at dealing with hecklers since then.

Favorite response to a heckler or troll now?

“Hi mom.”

How has being funny helped you in your offstage life?

I have found that in almost every situation humor really helps defuse tension and bring people together.

Was there one person who inspired you to become a comedian? 

My college advisor. She encouraged me to write my senior thesis on improv comedy. I don’t think I would have ever realized comedy could be a viable career choice if I hadn’t studied it first.

Favorite response to “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy”?

Better than it ever used to be!

On your deathbed, what transcendent advice would you croak at a young female comedian?

Just do it.

Worst comedy advice you ever got?

To not wear high heels onstage. I don’t usually, but either way, it doesn’t matter.

Best comedy advice you ever got?

A manager once told me to “just do it.” He was probably quoting his sneakers because his company dropped me shortly thereafter, but it still resonates.


Jena Friedman is a stand up comedian, actor, writer and filmmaker. She is currently a correspondent for National Geographic Explorer and has worked as a field producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and written for Late Show with David Letterman. Her critically acclaimed stand up special, American Cunt, is now available on Amazon. Follow her.


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Mini Q+A with Ruby Karp

Ruby Karp is a 17-year-old comedian and journalist living in New York City. She appeared on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls At the Party at the age of 7, and has since written for HelloGiggles, Refinery29, Mashable and the Mindhut. Ruby is the author of EARTH HATES ME. Buy it! You’ll help her pay for college.

Favorite response to a heckler or troll?

I’m a child.

Describe your worst gig. 

I was 12 and my longtime crush was supposed to come to my show.

He bailed 5 minutes before I was supposed to go on.

I had an actual breakdown onstage.

John Mulaney was in the audience.

Best comedy advice you ever got?

You can’t be a comic if you’re a selfish comic.

Worst comedy advice you ever got?

Before an improv scene: “So when we go up there, just let me do all the talking.”

Word that always cracks you up?

Funnel cake.

What advice do you have for how to level up from open mics/bringer shows to actual SPOT-spots?

OWN THE STAGE!

No matter how scared you may be, make everyone in the room feel like they’re in your house. When you’re on stage, it’s your space.

How has being funny helped you in your offstage life?

I am capable of finding the humor in any situation, no matter how brutal. Laughter is one of the only reasons we are able to exist in a somewhat happy society.

Who inspired you to become a comedian?

Shannon O’Neill and every woman I’ve ever met at UCB. Ever since I was a kid, all the women at the theater have encouraged me to constantly be myself and has shown me that I am capable of being funny.

On your deathbed, what transcendent advice would you croak at a teenage female comedian? 

You aren’t a “woman in comedy.” You’re a comedian. No matter what age, gender, race, sexual preference—all comedians are on level playing fields. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

 


Ruby Karp is a 17-year-old comedian and journalist living in New York City. She appeared on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls At the Party at the age of 7, and has written for HelloGiggles, Refinery29, Mashable and the Mindhut. Ruby is the author of EARTH HATES ME, which is out now. Buy it and help her pay for college.

Photo via: Mindy Tucker

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How to level up from mics to shows

As a stand-up comedy newcomer, it can sometimes feel like a gargantuan task to move from open mics to booked shows. What’s more, mics can feel like a masochistic exercise of, “how much of a beating can my self-esteem take before I pull a KONY 2012 meltdown?” After swimming up stream crafting your material, shows are a sought after reward validating your hard work. There’s no linear path towards getting booked, but there are tangible steps you can take to move in that direction.  

 

1.  Be friendly and ‘find your people.’

When you’re starting out, the people who are going to book you on shows are your friends and mentors.

When you’re at open mics, don’t just do your set and skedaddle; hang around and reach out to people. If you like someone’s joke, tell them. If you think someone is funny and/or enjoy being around them, make an effort to see that comic outside of mics.

Many comedy shows are like hangs and everybody wants to spend time with those they love most. Be someone people want to be around. It sounds political, which sometimes it is, but if you make a genuine effort to surround yourself with comedians/comedy you like and treat everyone with kindness and respect, the give and take is all sincere.  

I think the only thing you shouldn’t do is try to create your comedy in a vacuum. If you try to work alone, or be above it all – and you don’t meet or connect with people, I think a lot of people get lost there. You have to find your people. These are the people you’re going to be with for years, it’s like your graduating class, and there’s a bond and a closeness there with the people you did mics with that, for me, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of comedy. Seeing people grow and growing closer with people over the years.” – Marcia Belsky

2.  Have your own show.

DIY, baby! If you do the work to properly promote it, producing your own show is an excellent way to ensure yourself stage time. What’s more, producing your own show can be used as a credit to promote yourself. Plus, you can use it as leverage for spots on another comedian’s show.

3.  Support your friends’ shows.

It’s all about that quid pro quo. The first time I went to a more established friend’s show, I was given a guest spot. I didn’t realize this was common practice amongst comedians, but if you hang around and support your buddies, they’ll sometimes give you that sweet, sweet stage time.

4. Bark.

If you are an introverted sweet pea who’s exhausted by the idea of all of this “friend-making,” barking may be for you! You don’t need to engage with anyone beyond shouting, “Comedy show inside! Five dollar beers! AC! Please love me!”

When you’re starting, barking is one of the easier paths to stage time in front of a room of non-comedians. It can be an unpleasant experience, but worth it if it’s getting you on a quality show.

5.  Bringers.

Do you have rich alcoholic pals that want nothing more than to see YOU tell jokes? Wow, you do? Please, hook me up because your girl is trying to get on a bringer.

As with barking, there’s a stigma attached to Bringers. Mostly because comics are salty about not having several friends who can shell out $40 dollars to see their comedy, but ALSO because some of them are unethical. The booker may not care about the quality of the showcase so it becomes an exploitation newcomers for money. What’s more, many beginners get stuck doing bringers. They’ll go to an open mic, bomb, and run back to the comfort of an easy laugh (because you’re performing for family and friends), never learning how to properly write a joke.

Nevertheless, if you do your homework, some of them are a doorway into clubs. Plus, If you have a 5-7 minute set you’d really like to record, bringers are a great place to acquire a high quality tape.

6.     Make art.

Are you an ARTEEST? Does Michaelangelo swoon 4 u? Did you attend art school, but when you entered the workforce you were like, “nah,” and have yet to use your degree in any meaningful way? Then poster-making is for you.

Comedians all want a super fly poster for their comedy show. However, we’re all poor lil’ babies working with pennies. Notice a show doesn’t have a poster (or if they have one, it’s trash)? Offer up your poster making services for free in exchange for a spot. They get a dope flyer and you get an opportunity to show off your sillies. Everybody wins!

7.  Get credits.

How do you acquire a credit when you’re struggling to get on bar shows? Get creative!

“There are always other avenues to get credits,” says Brandon Scott Wolf. “I was an SNL Weekend Update freelance contributor before moving to New York. Develop a social media presence that’s undeniable, write for a comedy publication like The Onion or Clickhole, or figure out a way to go viral. It’s all about standing out!”

Also, if you have a video you like of your stand-up (or any type of comedy), submit to comedy festivals. Festivals are a great way for newcomers to be seen, legitimized and receive a credit.

8. Ask.

Heck yeah, it’s uncomfortable! But if you send an unassuming message to the producer of a show along with a video, no one will fault you. Your messages will most certainly be ignored, but some of them won’t. Asking for spots is how a lot of comedians get booked. The person who’s booking a show is more likely giving a spot to a friend who has asked, as opposed to someone who has not.

Owner of the world-famous Comedy Cellar in New York, Noam Dworman, told GOLD this exact same thing during a recording of The Comedy Cellar Radio Show.

9. Put in time and be funny.

If you’re not getting booked, there maaaaay be a valid reason why. Maybe you’re just not quiiiiiiite ready. Keep writing, keep going to mics, and reach out to other comedians. As long as you’re funny and not a creepy or mean magoo, it’ll eventually happen.

10.  There’s no “one size fits all” path.

There are no right or wrong way to do comedy. 

I used to always stress about whether or not I was doing enough mics. I’d do two-three a night, four-five times a week and worry it wasn’t enough until a comic I loved told me she would just do one mic, every other night or so, and only do a second set if she felt she really wanted to try something specific again,” Marcia Belsky says. “Otherwise, she’d go home and write. It made me realize that for some comics, you can get distracted by doing so many mics that it almost becomes counterproductive. So, what works for one person might not work for you.”

Know thyself and push forward accordingly.


Blair Dawson is a New York based standup comedian, improvisor, and writer. Working as an ESL teacher in Thailand, she got her start in comedy performing in expat communities across southeast Asia. Blair has studied sketch and improv with the UCB Theater and is a contributing writer for GOLD Comedy. Additionally, she produces and co-hosts a monthly sex-positive storytelling and stand-up show, sponsored by Babeland, entitled, “U Up?” Blair’s comedy explores dark themes of the human condition through a childlike lens of silliness and curiosity. She’s your new best friend and can’t wait to induct you into her cult!

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Mini Q&A with Ophira Eisenberg

 

Ophira Eisenberg is the host of NPR’s and WNYC’s new weekly trivia, puzzle, and game show Ask Me Another. She recently performed on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and her book debut memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy is available everywhere. Check her out this summer at Brooklyn’s Union Hall!

 

Favorite response to a heckler or troll?

What are you my mother?

 

Describe your worst gig.

It was my first paid road gig – at a strip club that was dark on Mondays (like Broadway) so the owner didn’t advertise the show and no one came. To try to save it, he called the strippers and they showed up with their boyfriends and friends. I died pretty hard on that stage, with that audience. But I did get $20.

 

On your deathbed, what transcendent advice would you croak at a young (female/LGBTQI) comedian?

Just. Keep. Going.

 

What’s your first impulse when someone says “women aren’t funny”?

What is this 2004? We’re done with that. Proven it a 1000 times over so step aside and let me do my job, you go back to your shitty life/cave.

 

When you were coming up in comedy, what helped you stick with it?

Delusion.

 

Best comedy advice you ever got?

Wash your hands. Ha. But seriously – meet you audience after the show, shake their hands, but then wash your hands.

 

Worst comedy advice you ever got?

“Your act should be more angry.”

 

Favorite response to “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy”?

Very lucrative.

 

Single word that always cracks you up?

Puke. Sorry. But yup. I’m as low brow as the next person.

 

Was there one person who inspired you to become a comedian? If so, who, why, how?

Sigh, my mom, my brother. And then Carol Burnett.

 

For standups: what advice do you have for how to level up from open mics + bringers to actual spots?

It’s really a game of perseverance and having a consistently good set.

 

Feelings about the word “comedienne”?

I wrote an entire chapter in my book about how much I hate it, but in short, we play the same drunk crowds, we deal with the same bookers. I’m a comic, just like you.

 


Ophira Eisenberg is a Canadian comic, writer, and actress from Calgary, now living in New York City. When she’s not hosting her weekly NPR show, Ask Me Another, you can find her at pretty much any club around New York City, and at exclusive venues and bars when she tours on the road. Her tour schedule can be found here.

Twitter: @OphiraE

Facebook: Ophira Eisenberg

 

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How to make your PowerPoint funnier

 

When it comes to putting people to sleep, not even Ambien can rival the prowess of the PowerPoint. Invented in 1990 by technology and sleep wizard Bill Gates, the PowerPoint has been sedating students, coworkers, and even our loved ones for almost three decades. My grandmother went to a timeshare presentation in April and STILL hasn’t woken up.

 

An obvious solution: make it funny. A Harvard Business School study confirms that humor—when it works—makes people listen more closely and see you as confident and competent.

 

At work and in general—”men are more free to bomb,” says comedian Allison Goldberg, who works with Jen Jamula at GoldJam Creative to bring comedy and creativity into workplaces. “Men are just given a lot more leeway for everything. A guy bombs and people forget it, a woman does and people don’t.”

 

But DO NOT FEAR. The stakes may feel high, but remember: the bar is low. This is your sales meeting, not 2 Dope Queens. “The crowd is not expecting to laugh their asses off,” says Goldberg. Keep in mind that every workplace environment is different. It’s crucial to know your audience and to have a grasp on what they will find both appropriate and funny. 

 

Here are our tips for sprinkling your PowerPoint with comedy gold.

 

1. Unexpected animations

If you took an Intro to Computers class in middle school, you probably learned how to use Animations. They allow text, words, and pictures to have a little bit of motion. And alongside language and sound, motion is a crucial tenet of any comedy. Which is why pet rocks were never that funny.

 

This example below shows how an animation can spice up an otherwise boring presentation about Shia LaBeouf’s mug.

 

 

The Animations tool bar is located on the main toolbar between Transitions and Slideshow. You can give your animations a sudden entrance, an exaggerated emphasis, or even a sudden exit for a quick laugh.

 

2. Silly Acronyms

This is one of my all-time favorite bits. There are a few ways to go about this joke. Some options include the nonsense acronym, the forced acronym, or the impossible to remember acronym. Check out these various examples about how to organize your computer’s desktop.

 

A nonsense acronym creates an acronym that is wholly unhelpful in completing the task.

 

 

The forced acronym uses a lot of roundabout letters to achieve its purpose.

 

And finally, there’s the impossible-to-remember acronym. This acronym actually contains the necessary information but assumes that the audience can remember many jumbled letters.

 

This particular joke is especially effective if you attempt to pronounce the acronym in your presentation. It might even be fun to get your audience to try and pronounce it too!

 

3. Non-sequitur statistics

Paul Rudd perfected this joke in the hit film Anchorman. When describing his cologne “Sex Panther” and its ability to pick up women, Rudd’s character repeatedly cites that “60% of the time, it works every time.” This joke can easily be inserted into any PowerPoint that involves quantifiable statistics.

 

Take this example joke slide that would be perfect for anyone in the kayaking business. (This slide is great because it uses the ‘Rule of Three:’ two real statistics and one silly one.)

 

 

This joke always reminds me of the time my ex-boyfriend said he only “50% cheated on me,” which was his way of saying that he had made out with another guy.

 

4. Punchline-Set up slides

What better way to be funny in a PowerPoint than setting yourself up for a killer punchline? These kinds of jokes are used all the time on Late Night TV shows and on famous segments like SNL’s Weekend Update. Personally, I find these kinds of jokes are most effective when the setup is said verbally (as opposed to on a slide) and the punchline is a simple image or statement on the next slide.

 

Here’s an example:

 

In your speech, create the set-up by saying something in the form of a question. If your presentation were about how to improve the quality of living in your Quebec neighborhood, you’d say something along the lines of, “So how do we reduce widespread noise pollution?”

 

After an appropriate “beat,” or comedic moment of silence, the punchline slide would be revealed:

 

 

Of course, this example takes a strong stance on Canadian rock band Nickelback and may not be appropriate for a pitch with . But hopefully it can inspire you to create the perfect punchline that works for your presentation!

 

5. Random ‘palate cleanser’ slide

Is your presentation droning on and on? Or perhaps you’re giving a presentation about a heavier, more serious topic. Maybe it’s time for a palate cleanser. These random slides can range from silly animals photos, to memes, or even an embarrassing photo from your childhood.

 

During a heavy presentation about sexism and violence against women in media, feminist author and friend of GOLD Comedy Jenn Pozner once employed a palate cleanser by including a slide with “some baby kittens hanging from a few pairs of underpants on a clothesline.” Mid-presentation, she exclaimed, “KITTENS! Deep breath. 1… 2… 3… OK, feel better? Good. Moving on.” This was a great way for Jenn to both make her audience feel more at ease and to add humor to a tense lecture.

 

Take this slide, as another example of a palate cleanser.

 

 

Needless to say, I went to my mom for my Halloween costume the next year.

 

6. End with a Q&A… for the audience

Most presentations conclude with a question and answer section where the audience asks the presenter about what they just heard. Before doing this, I recommend you flip the script and ask the audience questions about your presentation material.

 

 

This is a great time to call people out if you know them by name and/or have a relatively informal relationship with them. People loved being acknowledged during presentations and love being called out for not paying attention even more!

 

Offer candy or other small rewards to people that get questions right. This keeps people engaged and can be a great way to end your presentation!

 

Or your article about making funny PowerPoints!

 

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How to survive your first open mic

 

My first open mic took place in a basement on a Saturday at 4:30 in the afternoon. My topics included being a grimy “cute” girl, Ariana Grande’s donut scandal vs. Bill Cosby’s rape accusations, Oedipus, and incest galore! To my utter disbelief, the comics in the room mustered mild chuckles, which to me, felt like George Carlin performing for an audience of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. Before I knew it, my five minutes were up. The host took the stage after me announcing, “That was your first time? And you went straight into masturbation. Wow.” I was on cloud 9.

I’ve been performing standup for about 13 months now, averaging 12 open mics per week. I can confidently say that I’ve learned a thing or two about how to survive an open mic.

 

1.    Attend an open mic to watch.

“Auditing” a mic will help you get a feel for the expectations. You’ll see each comic going up one after the other, casually listing off their jokes from notebooks. If you’re like me, you’ll think, “I can do that! I’m much funnier than guy A, guy B, and ESPECIALLY guy C. I can do it!” It’ll give you the deranged self-confidence necessary to be just as unfunny as everyone else.

 

2.     Prepare your jokes.

Many people attend open mics thinking they’ll speak off the cuff, which is a mistake. Perhaps you’re quick witted, but wit runs out of gas real fast when there is no arc to what you’re saying. Additionally, if you’re new to public speaking, you don’t know how you’ll react speaking in front of a room of strangers, especially if your joke bombs. To avoid freezing up, it’s best to prepare material.

Don’t know where to start? Free write and pick a few ideas to hone in on. For my first time, I found it helpful to bounce my ideas off of other people. If your closest friends look at you like an extraterrestrial creature, it might not connect with a room full of strangers.

Remember, you can bring your notes on stage. Whenever I’m working out new material, I’ll bring up a set list of keywords. The words jog my memory so I don’t end up reading my jokes off the page and disengaging from the room.

 

3.     Find out how the mic runs.

Do you need to sign up in advance? If so, when does the sign up period begin? Does the mic cap the amount of performers? Do you need to pay to perform? How many minutes will you get? At what point will the host light you (letting you know how much time you have left) and from where in the room?

 

I once tried to get on an open mic in Australia, but when I got there 40 minutes early, they told me I had to sign up a week in advance. This is abnormal for New York, but it might be how it’s done in your city.

 

You can find open mics in your city via badslava or freemics.

 

4.     Record yourself.

It won’t help you get through your first open mic, but it’ll serve as a memento and a reminder of how much you’ve grown (down the line). Moving forward, it’s important to record your sets in order to understand where your jokes went right or wrong and what you can improve upon. Like many comedians, I record every set on the voice memos app on my phone.  

 

5.     Move the mic stand.

If you choose to take the mic out of the stand, it’s best to move it to the side or behind you. To see a mic stand in front of a performer is a barrier and a distraction. Not only does it serve as a visual irritant to onlookers, but it makes you, the performer, seem cagey. The stand prevents you from physically engaging with the room.

 

If you’re a real silly billy, you’ll leave the mic in the stand and pick the whole damn thing up because you’re a rebel and no one can tell you what to do!

 

6.   Keep the mic at your chin.

When I first started, I had a bad habit of waving the mic around as I was speaking. If you’re waving the mic around, no one can hear your funnies, and more importantly, no one will laugh. Keep the mic at chin level and a few inches away from your face. If you’re yelling, pull that mic away so that everyone in the room doesn’t hate you from permanently damaging their eardrums…unless you’re a cool bad boy/girl who’s into that sort of thing, in which case, do you.

 

7.   Tell everyone it’s your first open mic.

Most open mic-ers tune out if they don’t recognize you. For the sake of your self-esteem, you’re going to want people to look up from their phones and listen. When you mention it’s your first time, people will be generally supportive, curious, and excited to hear what you have to say. Why? Because everybody remembers their own first time.

 

8.     Know it’s normal to be afraid.

It took me TWO years to find the courage to attend my first open mic. At 21, I drunkenly announced my big dreams of being the next Chelsea Peretti to a working stand-up comedian (I have no regrets), but it took some growing up for me to overcome my most paralyzing fear: public speaking. The fear never went away. In fact, I had nervous diarrhea leading up to my first open mic and spent the following twenty to forty mics dry-heaving and hiding in the bathroom until they called my name. What changed at 23, as opposed to 21, was that I decided I wasn’t going to let phobias dictate my life choices. Don’t let them dictate yours!

 

9. SURPRISE, none of my advice matters.

At the end of the day, no tips or tricks about how to perform will guarantee 100% success. What’s most important is getting on stage and speaking, over and over again, no matter what. That is how you become a comedian.

So go forth! Be funny!

 

 

Blair Dawson is a New York based standup comedian and improvisor. Working as an ESL teacher in Thailand, she got her start in comedy performing in expat communities across southeast Asia. Blair has studied with the UCB Theater and is a contributing writer for GOLD ComedyTM. Additionally, she produces and co-hosts a monthly sex-positive storytelling and stand-up show, sponsored by Babeland, entitled, “U Up?” Blair’s comedy explores dark themes of the human condition through a childlike lens of silliness and curiosity. She’s your new best friend and can’t wait to induct you into her cult! www.Blair-Dawson.com @UrGirlBlair

 

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How to “open with a joke” that’s actually funny

They always tell you to open with a joke. They never tell you how to open with a joke. They certainly never tell you how to open with a good joke.

 

So I’ll open with a joke…that bombed. Remember the scene in Say Anything where Diane (Ione Skye) opens her valedictorian speech with a joke? She’d workshopped it (good call) on the way over with her adoring dad, who guffawed. But at GO time, it’s CRICKETS.

 

GUH. No wonder public speaking is the number one most-cited phobia. (Well, not for me. I’m a middle child; I’ll take a mic at a funeral.) How to do better? For an expert take, I interviewed the fabulously-named Vinca LaFleur, a speechwriter for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and now a partner at speechwriting and media training firm West Wing Writers.

 

First, I made her watch Diane’s speech. “Ouch,” she said. “But you know what? That line—or the concept—worked elsewhere.” She noted a celebrated speech by the writer Russell Baker, who said, “The best advice I can give about going out into the world is this: Don’t do it. I have been out there. It is a mess.” He nailed it. What makes the difference?

 

Sell it.

“Whatever you do, sell your joke,” LaFleur said. “A lot of humor is the delivery. And a lot of a speech is performance. That’s what makes it different from an article or a blog post: The audience experiences it in real time, and you have this message and moment together.” There are standup comics whose jokes are not funny, or that were already as stale as matzo when they were told during the Exodus. But they tell them with the rhythm of a joke, they deliver the punchline with confidence, and they pause for a laugh—which they nearly always get. You learn this skill on the road. In the absence of actual humor, it works.

Follow joke structure.

Setup…punch. Expectation…whuh? The key here—and to almost any joke—is surprise. Write and sell THAT. It’s not all buh-DUM-bump. You can give advice from an unexpected source, like SpongeBob Squarepants (always funny), and give that unexpected source an equally unexpected title, like “The great philosopher [setup]…Miss Piggy [punch].”

Also tried and true: what GOLD ComedyTM calls “triple”—and what what LaFleur, fancily, calls “the triad formulation.” Her beginner example: “…three strategies for getting ahead at school or work: “Hard work, persistence, and chocolate.” (Look, we’re not trying to make everyone pee their pants here. We’re just trying to kick off a speech with a chuckle.)

 

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Know your audience.

“Think not only about your message, but also about your audience and what matters to them,” says LaFleur. Your best line about YikYak, for one, will bomb at the senior center. This is also why an opening joke you found on Google will likely fizzle: it was written in a vacuum. Pro tip: research and refer to something specific about the audience: their biggest sports rival, the fact that they serve waffles the first Wednesday of the month. Drop a reference to that—especially one that’s appreciative and complimentary of your crowd—and they’ll love you all speech long.

Limit self-deprecation.

Normally, LaFleur might tell a client that making fun of herself is a great way to “win people to your side: It humanizes you. George W. Bush would get a lot of mileage out of what a bad student he was at Yale,” she says. BUT! “I would not encourage a woman to do that,” she adds. “Because there are fewer women in leadership roles, we have the extra burden of making sure we don’t undermine our own credibility.” It’ll change, she says. But right now, that’s the deal.

Unless! You’re in the right room. Like when Arianna Huffington gave a TED talk on the importance of getting enough rest at night and said this was the way for women to (literally) sleep their way to the top. Result: raucous laughter, in a roomful of women who’d gotten to the top the Peggy way, not the Joan way. It was a double entendre of singular proportions. In other words, self-deprecation is an advanced move. Don’t try it without a spotter.

Relax! They want to like you.

The best advice I ever got for auditioning was this: Remember that the casting director wants you to be the right person for this role. She’s hoping you’ll do well. She’s not there to be critical or awful; she is as full of hope, as you walk through that door, as you are. Same with your audience. So if your joke tanks, smile and—in the words of the great philosophers ABBA, “Move on.”

 

About the author

Amy Keyishian (@madfoot) has done standup comedy, written a jillion articles (for places like Cosmopolitan and Maxim and who knows where else) plus a bunch of young-adult novels, and hung out with Big Bird. She moved to San Francisco but left her heart in Brooklyn. That’s super backwards, right?

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