Open Mic: Stand-Up Then and Now

About 18 years ago, I started doing open mic at my local comedy club in Memphis. I got to go up quite regularly because there were only 8 spots and on most Wednesdays there were only 8 of us including the host. If more showed up, we drew numbers for spots but even then I still got pretty lucky and almost always drew a number.

There was always a headliner. The only one I can remember who was well known at the time was Dave Attell. He showed up one week to film his Insomniac TV show for Comedy Central. It was a big deal that night and I remember lots of comics thinking this was going to be their big break. They filmed all of us that night but none of us ended up on the show.

But a big opportunity soon followed for me. I was asked to open for a lesbian comic who was a special guest performer for a gay bowling benefit that was being hosted at the club. Yes, you read that correctly. Gay bowlers! That was a fun night. The host was a drag queen, and I got to do 20 minutes of material instead of the regular 3 minutes on open mic night. It was a packed house with lots of my friends and coworkers who had never seen me perform before.

Downtown Memphis

I left Memphis in 2001, four days after 9/11, to pursue a new job in St. Louis, Missouri. With Memphis, I left behind my short-lived stint as a stand-up comic. That all changed three months ago when a new coworker who does comedy encouraged me to go back up after I told her I used to do stand-up.

I’m not sure why I had not sought out the local mics in St. Louis and tried to get into the scene before now. I moved here for my “career.” I was an “adult” now and put my focus on other priorities. Life caught up with me, or as I like to say, “Life was happening while I was busy doing something else.”

Comedy was never a priority before; it was just something fun to do on Wednesday nights. I liked going to the club early, having a few drinks and dinner, doing my 3 minutes and getting some laughs. I got to listen to lots of other comics and got to laugh too. Once a week that was my happy hour. My escape. It was something I did for me.

Downtown St. Louis

Back in Memphis, the club was always packed even for a Wednesday open mic night. They worked aggressively to get people in the door mostly by giving away free admission and then making money off food and beverage. I remember even “winning” a table one night and free admission for me and twenty friends.

That’s the first thing I noticed after going back up on stage here in St. Louis all these years later. The open mic night crowds are smaller. My favorite spot doesn’t even offer food and they have a two drink minimum on top of a cover charge. I’ve been going almost every week now for three months and the average crowd is about twenty people not including the comics.

Where is everyone??

And then I got to thinking. When I was doing this years ago, we didn’t have to compete with cell phones! Or the internet. There was no Facebook. There was no Twitter. There was no DVR or Netflix or YouTube. I don’t even think I had personal email or a home computer when I first started.

We were also in a pre-9/11 world. People went out. They spent money. They had a good time. They felt safe doing it. And they didn’t care about what TV shows they were missing back home. I miss that stage, and that world, a lot.

Where is everyone?

We get 4 minute spots here instead of 3. That still doesn’t seem like a lot, and I have no idea how I pulled off 3 minutes back then. As anyone who does stand-up will tell you, time is golden. Attention spans are definitely shorter now. I find myself tuning a comic out, and sometimes even looking at my phone instead, if they haven’t made me laugh in the first thirty seconds. And on stage, despite the opening announcement to turn them off, we have to compete with cell phones ringing!

What makes people laugh these days has definitely changed. Online dating. Porn. Our Impatience with the tech-savvy world. Everyone’s joking about Pokemon Go lately! Back then I had a joke about Ricky Martin (before he came out of the closet) that killed! I tried it out a few weeks ago and updated it to reflect Ricky Martin today and the joke barely got any laughs. I had not considered that it’s quite possible some young people in the crowd have not even heard a popular Ricky Martin song of the 90’s, or were too young to remember!

What hasn’t changed for me is that feeling on stage you get when you are performing and you are making people laugh. It’s a rush of adrenaline that can’t be beat. It’s an instant high. I’ve missed that.

It feels like this no matter how big the audience is.

It’s also feeding my creative side. In the past 3 months I’ve written more jokes than I ever did in Memphis. I’m trying out new stuff on stage. I’m working on my delivery, timing, and character. I record my sets with my cell phone and listen to them over and over again, studying what worked and what didn’t. Thanks to technology, I’m also reaching more people. I had someone make a video of me and I shared it on YouTube and Facebook.

I’m taking it more serious than I ever did before. I guess I’m making up for what I’ve missed out on these passed 15 years. I love (and utilize) the support that’s out there. The local scene here has a Facebook group page and a website. There are only two comedy clubs here, but there are open mics available in bars almost every night of the week. There are blogs and books out there all about stand-up, even groups on Reddit devoted to the subject. And here I am now, sharing this blog post about it with the world.

One thing that hasn’t changed is our desire and need to laugh. Sure, there’s more competition these days with the internet and what makes us laugh. Our attention spans are shorter. (Vine videos are only 6 seconds!) But we still like to laugh. And I love having the opportunity to make others laugh. It feels good from both perspectives, and I’m glad at least that hasn’t changed.


Visit me online at or follow me on Twitter at @slyarbrough.