Thoughts on Openers
So I'm getting ready to submit to a festival and looking over my tapes over the last year. That's when I come a shocking realization I've been trying to hide from myself.
I'm sick and tired of my opener. Anytime I do a set where I think I need to do really well in I break out the same 2 minutes to start it off. Standups spend years honing their material, so using the same joke over and over again when you're not telling them on TV isn't unheard of. However, you the performer can get tired of it and the audience has a magic way of telling when you're not enthused about a joke any more.
But a good reliable "get you a laugh 99.99999% of the time" opener can be the standup version of a blankie. You're standing in front of an audience of strangers that don't know who you are and sometimes getting the first laugh is more about calming your nerves than it's really about getting the audience on board.
Your opening joke has a lot of pressure on it. It has to introduce you and your voice to the audience and get them to trust that you're funny and interesting. A lot of people (including myself) also put a lot of pressure on it to get laugh as quickly as possible. It makes sense, because you haven't built a rapport/trust that lets the audience know you're going somewhere great yet. But I've seen people, especially those with storytelling experience, able to just keep the audience engaged and that can be enough.
I heard a great piece of advice from Josh Johnson after I had finished bombing at Snubfest that had been handed down to him, "Imagine you're on a bus and starting a conversation with the person in front of you, what would you start off with?". I've been watching a lot of standup focused on how other comics open their sets and wanted to share some of my observations. Mostly as notes for myself because I'm a nerd and dissecting things helps me process them.
Give it up For....
I almost skipped over this because it's so fundamental it doesn't really count as your opener. But sometimes just getting the audience to laugh/clap as soon as you get on stage can be great first step. Getting the audience to clap for the host that brought you up is a super subtle way to get the energy up off the bat. It's also great to actually appreciate the host because it can be a thankless job.
A lot of people go with jokes based off of their appearance. It's the first thing the audience notices about you and its a quick way to connect with them. Also works well if something about your physical appearance separates you from the rest of the audience (you're tall, a different race, etc.)
- "People tell me I look like (insert famous person) but if (insert deprecating remark)".
- "I look like (insert stereotype) but I'm really (subverting stereotype)"
Similar to this is taking advantage of having a name foreign/ethnic to the people in your crowd (my opener).
It's also easy to start off with a joke about the place you're doing comedy in. Whether its the city, region or specific venue, its a quick way to start off with something the audience already cares deeply about. And it also gives the sense that you're making a joke specifically for the people in the room, which is the most powerful thing you can do in stand up. However, the more specific the joke the less well it travels to other areas.
Starting off with statements that everyone in the audience has an opinion about.
It can be contrarian. You can then follow up with a bit about why your position makes sense. I'm linking to Ahmed Bharoocha set on Adam Devine's House Party again because his opener (and entire set) is so good.
Did something ridiculous happen in the room before you? Have a quick riff on a joke from a comic before you? This also plays into the "making stuff up for the people in the room" and something I really like to do. However, it can be a problem when you go early on a show, if you're not comfortable or experienced with off-the-cuff material or you're generally in a situation where crowd-work is problematic (like when your set is being judged for a contest). It can also backfire and dig a hole you have to spend the rest of your set crawling out of, so it's a gamble.
Just Jumping In
This is the approach I see from most established comedians on television/doing their special. If you're coming out to an audience that's paid a good amount of money to see you and you're already a known commodity, you don't need to worry about winning them over. Unfortunately, you don't have all of that working in your favor when you're still at the stage where you're playing the backs of bars. But having quick (15-20 second) battle tested teflon jokes you can fire off right off the top with little to no context can work here too.