A Comic’s Open Mic Survival Guide in Chicago

Your first stand up open mic is a terrifying experience, no doubt about that. Chin up old chap, because after a while it turns from terrifying to only extremely frightening.

While by no means a professional stand up comedian, I have enough open mic experience in the great city of Chicago to have become extremely bitter and jaded. I even picked up a few things along the way, and I’d like to pass them onto you.

Your First Couple Sets.

I hoping you at least know what a set is, but just in case, it’s the jokes you’ll be doing when you get in front of everyon at the open mic. Eventually, you’ll develop the jokes in your set to flow effortlessly from one to the next, using what people in the biz like to call segues. Don’t worry to much about that now, you probably don’t have enough jokes about one particular subject to do that yet.

Read closely now: Never, EVER, open with new material. New material almost always fails for a number of reasons, from nervousness to sheer unfamiliarity. If you’re going up for the first time, you of course don’t have the option to not do new material. If this is the case, you’re just going to have to suck it up and be bad. Everyone’s bad their first open mic.

You should really plan on doing around four minutes of material, since most open mics won’t give you more time then that. There are a few out there that will give you eight minutes, usually due to a smaller number of comics showing up. Eight minute is a lot of time, a lot more then it sounds. Go stare at your clock for eight minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Do not be afraid to cut you time short. If you get a good laugh a few minutes before your time is up, consider getting the hell out of there before you blow it.

Dispense with niceties, just start telling jokes. People are pretty tired of getting asked “how y’all doing tonight?”, especially if you’re the tenth comic to go up. People will stop paying attention to you real darn quick if they don’t start hearing some jokes.

Joke Structure.

This is pretty basic: Premise + Set Up + Punchline = Joke

Example: Dating is expensive. I took this girl to dinner. She ordered a steak-lobster. (Ha, ha. That joke is mine, don’t even think about using it.)

Like I said, basic. Start watching the other comedians real closely, and you’ll notice when they break this structure, nobody laughs. Funny stories are great, and I’ll bet all your friends laugh when you tell it at a party, but no one wants to hear it when you’re on stage. A friend and fellow comic gave me a good example once (I’m positive he got it out of a book, but I have no idea which one): “Telling a joke is like kissing a girl. You caress her face with your hand, take off her glasses, brush the hair out of her eyes, lean in slowly and then sneeze in her face.” It’s all about misdirection. As soon as the audience sees where you’re headed, you’re doomed.

“Hack” and “Blue” Material.

Hack material is stuff thats done over and over again, like “Airplane food is bad” and “Men and women are different”. You should avoid that stuff like the plague. If you can’t identify it yourself, don’t worry, eventually someone in the audience will yell “Hack!” during the awkward silence.

Blue material is anything raunchy or expletive filled, and you should try and avoid this as much as possible as well. The twenty something crowd won’t be bothered by some cussing, but it won’t fly at a lot of venues you may one day hope to get booked for. I’ll bet you $100 they won’t let you say “Camel toe” on the Tonight Show. Raunchy material is a good way to alienate your audience. Trust me when I say that no one wants to hear about you experiences masturbating, or things leaking out of your butt. At least until you’ve gained their trust…

On a side note, you should avoid doing jokes about things that didn’t actually happen to you. For instance, if you’re you don’t have kids you shouldn’t do jokes about how hard it is to raise kids. Even if the audience doesn’t know you, they can somehow sense that you’re lying. It’s weird.


Everybody is afraid of getting on stage, even all those people that have been doing it for a while. Go rent Comedian, the documentary with Jerry Seinfeld if you don’t believe me. Jerry is practically throwing up before he goes out on stage. The only difference between comedians and everybody else is that they accept the fact that they’re afraid and get up on stage anyway.

Personally, I don’t recommend drinking until after you’ve done your set. A lot of people do it to relax, but even one beer can kill your edge. Plus, you don’t want to become reliant on booze because a lot of open mics take place in coffee shops. Do whatever you have to do before hand to get in the zone, but no booze. I like to pace around by myself and smoke like a chimney (Yes, cigarettes are technically a drug too, but I need them so get off my back.).


Even the best comedians bomb, even with really funny and tested material. Sometimes your timing is off, or the crowd doesn’t like you, or someone sneezed in China. I won’t even bother to tell you not to feel like dirt after you bomb, there’s no stopping it, and the depression will last for at least three days.

On the flip side, when it’s good, it’s really good. You get this sort of amazing high that’ll last for at least a week, and lull you into a false sense of security until the next open mic. During this time, you will truly feel like a rock star, and the opposite sex will start paying a lot more attention to you.

So it gets bad and it gets good, and even if the good outweighs the bad, it won’t seem like it to you. Just remember that you have to keep doing it and doing it if you want to get anywhere. To quote Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Good luck. Oh, and here’s a list of Chicago based open mics:


CosmicCafe 1944 W. Montrose, 773-728-2233
Sign up at 7:15PM, second Sunday of every month is a group dinner at 6:00 PM followed by PG rated material.

Bad Dog Tavern 4535 N. Lincoln, 773-334-4040
Show at 8:30 PM, followed by the open mic. Sign up at 8:30, 21+

Lilly’s Bar 2513 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2422
9:00 PM, 21+


Gunther Murphy’s 1638 W. Belmont, 773-728-0746
8:45 PM, sign up at 8:15 PM

Mix 2843 N. Halstead, 773-528-7569
8:30 PM, sign up at 7:30 PM. 21+


Weeds 1555 N. Dayton, 312-943-7815
9:00 PM, 21+


Hog Head McDunna’s 1505 W. Fullerton, 773-929-0944
9:00 PM, sign up at 8:30.


Pressure Billiards and Cafe 6318 N. Clark, 773-743-7665
8:30 PM

3258 N. Sheffield, 773-281-4989

Many of these open mics have been running for several years, but you should always call ahead before making the trip.

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