The Hippo


May 25, 2020








Five minutes of funny
How to do open mike comedy

By Kelly Sennott

“I tell people, the minute they get up and do their 5-minute set at an open mike, they have done something that thousands of people would love to do and don’t have the guts to do,” comedian Dave Rattigan said. “If they do it well, it will be one of the greatest experiences of their lives. If it goes badly, they still have an experience that thousands of people won’t and wish they did.”

If you know the New Hampshire comedy scene, you may know Rattigan; his company, Scamps Company, owns the Hampton Beach Comedy Festival (with Jimmy Dunn), and he performs regularly through the Dreams Heard Foundation, the Nashua Chamber of Commerce, the Plaistow Lions, New Hampshire Hockey East and the Salem Animal Rescue League. He shared a few tips with the Hippo for how to do open mike comedy.
First, he laid out the terminology. A comedy set is what you’ll perform at an open mike. Each set is made up of bits (whenever you spend time on one topic) and each bit is made up of jokes. The standard formula for a 5-minute set is five bits (topics), 20 punchlines. Time the set when you’re practicing to be 4:30, because to go long is a “cardinal sin” (and hopefully that 4:30 will expand with laughs). Practice in front of a mirror, in the car — whatever it takes.
“I think it’s a good idea to listen to [your set] on tape and hear what the words sound like. Sometimes a sentence sounds fine in your head, but when you actually speak it aloud, you realize it’s awkward,” Rattigan said. “I’ve had people who told me they’re going to wing it, and it’s like watching a person drown.”
There’s a formula to each individual joke, too.
“The structure of a joke is made up of a short, clear setup, which is called the reality, followed by the twist on reality, which is the punchline,” Rattigan said. “The setup has to be clear and short. The biggest mistake comedians make is they spend too much time in setups.”
To find the best punchline for each joke, he recommends you try out 12.
“Write as many punchlines as you can. Take out the terrible ones. Most comedians will stop when they get to the first funny thing they can think of. But if you keep going, that’s when the real gems will come out,” he said.
How you plan your set is determined by the content — is there a narrative or reason why one bit would go before another? One school of thought, he said, is to put the funniest bit last, the second-funniest first, but he recommends comedians do whatever makes the most sense.
It also never hurts to come out with some self-deprecating humor.
“I usually recommend you have an opener that reveals something about who you are and shows you have a sense of humor about yourself. Sometimes that deals with physical appearance, sometimes that deals with who you are as a character,” Rattigan said. “It breaks the ice and shows the audience that you can laugh at yourself. It also establishes the type of sense of humor you have — sarcastic, dry, venting, etc.”
Nervous? Look at the light. It will cause you to see spots, and as a result, you’ll miss the audience staring up at you. Most important: be yourself. Don’t deliver a joke because you think audiences will laugh. Deliver it because you think it’s funny.
“You don’t deliver the line to get the laugh. You deliver the line to take this very funny thing and tell it in the most effective manner. The laughter is just a residual effect,” he said. “Once you get that first laugh, it’s awesome.” 
As seen in the April 2, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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