When you start doing comedy you feel a pressure right from the beginning of doing well, so you can continue to get 4-5 minute spots in the future. This keeps some new comics from doing much new material because they want to hold-on to their open mic spots. My suggestion on this front is to open with something that gets you a laugh then do some new material and then close with your biggest laugh. By opening with something you know works it will get you off to a good start and help you have a frame of reference for your new jokes. If your first established joke gets a tepid response, then it should inform you more about your new jokes. Closing on your biggest laugh leaves you walking off-stage feeling better about your set and more importantly gives a good last impression to the person determining if you are going to get more time at the open mic.
I can remember early in my career driving to the St. Louis Funny Bone to do a showcase set. I had driven about 4 hours and was really hoping to get some work from the club, as they were booking a few other Funny Bone’s at the time. I met the person who would be determining my fate and she was very nice, so that helped my psyche going into it. I had my prepared 7 minutes. The comic who went up before me did 2 bits that had similar subject matter to jokes I was planning on doing. Panic sets in. My brain frantically went through my other stuff looking for backup material. I got up and I bombed. I was so distraught I walked right off-stage and out the door to my car. Didn’t even thank the booker for watching as I knew my first impression had been a total flame-out. Just got in my car, cranked up the Ministry Psalm 69 and burned through the night. What I discovered that night was I wasn’t ready yet to be seen by any major booking agents, as my act wasn’t evolved enough to feature the top clubs in the country. Hard lessons.
At this point of my career I can get on at pretty much any open mic I want to. Seems pretty awesome, huh? Here’s the rub for me. When I get up onstage, I feel like I’m being judged by every open miker. If I don’t do better than everyone else, many are going to be in the back thinking “well that guy isn’t so great. If that guy is a headliner, I should be doing the same.” I understand that feeling. I had some of it when I started. Because of it, I sprinkle a couple established jokes in with the new stuff I’m working on when I do an open mic.
I bring this up to demonstrate, the pressure never ends with this gig. If you work at the bank, there are days where you can phone it in. Not in standup. Not even when you are doing a free show. You read about musicians like Axl Rose hitting the stage 2 hours late and fans put up with it. Not the case in standup. There are stories about Kinison or Hedberg being messed up onstage, but I haven’t heard of any comic since them doing this. Standup is an art form where you need to be on top of your game every night, as there is no rhythm section or guitar solos which can bail you out. The pressure never ends. Frank Sinatra could be a shell of himself at the end, but people accepted it. That is less the case for Don Rickles. If you slip too much, there is very little nostalgia people feel towards comedy. It just seems sad.
So the morale to this piece is if you don’t handle pressure well, find a regular job. It never ends. Every night I hit the stage I feel the need to do well. It’s like being a gymnast. You are always being judged.