Lesson 6: Starting your set
Having discussed bespoke material for the gig in the last lesson, I'm going to begin this lesson with the physical practicalities of starting a set and then we'll move onto getting into your material.
First up, come on with pace and energy, so it's clear you want to be up there and you've got things to say. Don't let the applause die away before you reach the mic stand – be near the stage when you are being introduced. If it does start to die away you can either get it going again ("keep it going!") or make a gag out of it when you reach the mic – ideally though, get up there quick so it doesn't happen!
Dealing with the mic stand well is crucial, especially in an open spot setting, to give the audience confidence that you know what you're doing and they can relax with you. (I've known new acts buy a cheap mic and stand to practice with at home.) If you're taking the mic out of the stand, move the stand aside.If you're leaving the mic on the stand, do grab it and adjust it confidently. Hovering away from the mic stand without touching it makes you seem nervous and inexperienced.
It can be effective to take one step forward into the space once you've taken the mic off the stand. It's a small movement, but it looks confident, even if you don't feel it. The opposite is hugging the back wall which looks like you're terrified.
Right at the outset, address the audience directly, make contact with them. Again, this is confident and sets up the feeling that you are speaking to them rather than reciting something. And aim for a laugh within the first 15 seconds. A bespoke comment for that night can be a quick way. See lesson 5. And a natural way to make contact with the audience is simply to ask a question. If you make it a closed question - one with an affirmative or negative answer - you can then prepare responses for both. Here's a simple example:
“Did you have a good weekend?”
IF SOMEONE IS VERY RESPONSIVE: “Of course you did! Look at him, he’s a party animal.”
OR IF THERE IS NO REAL REACTION OR A NEGATIVE: Remind me not to go raving with you guys.
Even better, the question could relate to what you're going to talk about - using the same closed-question-and-prepared-responses approach.
When you start the set proper, beginning with what the audience can see or hear - your appearance or accent for example - is a natural starting point. Yes, I recognise a lot of acts do a gag about their looks or voice at the outset – that’s because it works. So, don’t shun it out of hand because it’s “hack”. If there is something about how you sound or look that's worth doing something with, just try and do it in your own original and inspired way.
Then, once you are into the material itself, I always suggest finding a natural jumping off point to get into your first subject. There are many ways of getting into the topic, and a good rule-of-thumb is to make it current and personal. This approach helps the audience forget that the whole thing is a massive contrivance to make them laugh. It makes it feel more like a natural social interaction, which simply starting on your funniest joke often doesn’t achieve; especially if your funniest joke is more extreme or bizarre in some way.
Think about how your opening communicates your persona and style. Don't start with something radically different from the rest of your set, however hilarious. I remember I worked once with a new act who told me he wanted a killer opening gag. I took on the challenge and after a bit of brainstorming we came up with this misdirection joke. He always wore a hat and he'd come on and ask the audience:
"Do you like my lucky hat?"
Without fail one or more people would say "no!". Then he'd go:
"Well the jokes on you. This isn't my lucky hat. This is."
At which point he'd take off his hat to reveal a tiny hat underneath. (Which he had to pin to his hair!). This brought the house down. It was a huge opening gag. The problem was the rest of his material was a totally different style - there was nothing visual let alone prop based. So this opening got a huge laugh whilst being very hard to follow and creating the wrong impression of the act.
Instead of chasing the big opening laugh, find the personal, chatty, current, natural jumping off points for material. This really engages the audience. A good example came up when I recently worked with a new stand-up who had material about ageing. He would just launch into it at the start of his set, with no reason or context. We reworked it so that, since he was the right age for this to work, he started by saying something like: “I looked in the mirror this morning and discovered my first grey hair.” Now there is a personal and compelling reason for him to be talking about ageing, and so the audience can readily connect with him and engage with his thoughts on the topic.
Next time you have a gig, ask yourself: what would be a natural, chatty, current starting point to get into my first topic. Why am I thinking about this now? You can contrive one of course, but aim for it to seem natural. For instance, in a class, someone had a personification piece about their MacBook Pro and his dysfunctional relationship with it over the years. I suggested he say he’s thinking of buying a new one—which isn’t true, but it makes it seem natural for him to talk about it all.