You may know me. You may not. Or you may be asking “Why the hell should I read an article by Anthony Bonazzo? Who’s he?” That may be precisely why you should.
I'm a comedian. I’ve been around a microphone for a long time. I work hard & I love the Chicago comedy scene but I'm not out every single night performing comedy in the conventional sense.
I am also not a new comic who’s only been doing this for three months, trying to give you unsolicited advice on performing stand-up.
I just like to try and help people if I can. That's really it in a nutshell. Helping people is actually my full time job during the day as a Personal Trainer. Maybe you’ll let this digest, or maybe you’ll pass it off. Either way my intention is for it to be helpful.
For the fist 5 years I was in Chicago I only did improv. Not a unique story for many current stand-up comedians living in Chicago. I did every class you could take at Second City, including the Conservatory, and auditioned for their National Touring Company three times. I had great auditions but never got in. I still love Second City, and I still love improv. But what I discovered was that I could be good in class, and got better, but when it came to real shows with real audiences I wasn’t as good. I was more apprehensive, and learned that you sort of have to play to the audience a little bit and see what they are responding to. It was a different animal all together and I felt unprepared despite all my training. It was something you couldn’t learn in class. I compare just about everything to working out. And being a comedian is no different than having a workout routine. Some weeks you will go hard, and feel exhausted. Some weeks you will go light and your body needs the recovery time. But what you never want to do is just do the same routine over and over again.
I compare going to Open Mics -FOR the sake of going to Open Mics as the same thing as going to
the gym with no plan. It’s like the guy on his iPad on the elliptical. He’s there, but he’s not really doing anything productive. It’s important to have a plan. What’s the long term goal? Is it just to be seen at the gym? Getting you out of the house because you're bored? Or are you really trying to change and grow? I try to set a goal at each mic. That may be not looking at my notes, riffing more, doing all new material, doing old material, or just working on a specific joke. Or it could be going to one new room a month, or going to a familiar room and doing old material to flesh it out more. Whatever it is I think it’s important to have a plan even if it’s a loose one.
After hitting open mics hard for several years and feeling confident to handle just about anything, I was featured at a specific club one weekend last year. I was warned by the club owner that there were some gang members in the audience and who may “come at me” because I am white. I presumed, to heckle me, but was uncomfortable in knowing that just about anything could happen. I went up confident like always and it started out well. Then mid set, one of the people in question began yelling out, not really heckling just trying to intimidate. “What white boy!?” and it continued and I could barely get a word out. It was an awful situation, probably the worst in my entire comedy career to date. It was awkward, but I handled it. However, I didn't handle it like I wanted to be able to handle it. Afterwards I felt bad about it. I expected more from myself, my skill set and experience from all the time spent at open mics to be able to shut him down. I didn't even want to go back for the Saturday shows.
But the fact was that no matter how many open mics I hit, nothing could have ever prepared me for that situation. Only stage time in front of a real audience. Just like no amount of improv classes could prepare me to perform in front of real people. Albeit, my time at open mics properly prepared me to be up there in the first place; the real experience will come from just doing it. And being in a variety of situations in front of paying crowds. And that’s not something you can sign up for at a class or rush. It just takes time, and experience. Just like I can read all about how to help someone with an injury, it’s a lot different when I actually have that particular experience and know how to handle it.
I'm not saying you shouldn't do a lot of open mics. But, perhaps, change your approach with them. Do things that will stretch you. Go to rooms no one knows who you are and try to challenge yourself. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Do something different. (Gasp) take an improv class. Its invaluable in learning to feel comfortable when things don’t go as planned. Perform sketch. Go see a movie and do something totally non comedy related (A rest day). If you are depressed and aren’t working out at all try working out! Mix your comedy up like you mix up your workouts. (if you workout) If you are bored, your body will be bored. And it will show in your comedy. Doing this you will learn to navigate your way around situations of all kinds of varieties and it will help you be multidimensional in your comedy. I recently got back into improv because I enjoy it and I feel it helps me with my stand up. And it’s totally spontaneous and different. And it was one of my original goals was to do it and get paid. So I have re invested my energy and time into it again now that I’ve taken some time away and feel like I am better at it. I took a break. And it was OK.
So as a Trainer I tell my clients always have a plan, and know what your goal is. If it’s to grow as (a performer), do things that are moving you in that direction. Keep track of your progress and see what’s working (sets/jokes). And if it’s not working try eating better, get more sleep, take a break and let your body and mind recover. Try different routines and find what works best for you as an individual. Vary it up from high intensity, (a lot of shows and mics) to low intensity,(less shows) Spend time doing an admin day if you feel stale at open mics and contact bookers or showcases you want to do. Write more. Make sure you see changes, and you are happy with your routine because it’s all about results, and enjoying the routine YOU like .Not what someone else did, or what someone else tells you is the best routine. This is comedy. It should be fun. And if you aren’t seeing the results you want, you should change something. I am out the door most mornings for work when most open mics are ending. So I calculate where I go depending on how early I can get up, and treat it like a gym visit. I want to be in and out in an hour and make the best use of my time. I workout everyday but I don’t go to the gym every time to do it. So if you want to go to an Open mic every night and enjoy it them and feel you are benefitting then do it. But if it’s just to drink, make friends, and hang out at open mics, determine that. As long as you know what your goals are you can’t be disappointed with the outcome.
And if you find yourself online all day on any of the scene pages get off and write. For each minute (argument) you spend online you could be spending that on writing. Or something way more productive - like getting better at comedy.
Anthony Bonazzo is a Personal Trainer and Comedian living in ChicagoHe is a House MC/Feature performer at Zanies, and Jokes and Notes and was a Semi Finalist in the NBC Stand up For Diversity. He performs regularly in videos with The Onion and is a Blog contributor with TimeOut Chicago