Unpolished and unpredictable: The Joy of Open Mics

“Welcome to an Open Mic. This is ground zero. This is the pulse. Anything can happen here” I said.

Last year I had the pleasure of being MC at one of these and told the crowd that I believe Open Mics are the most vibrant and exciting thing in the world of comedy. Now, with the luxury of a little more time, I can tell you too, and explain why.

What's an “Open Mic” anyway? They're events where anybody is welcome to take the stage for five minutes and have a go.

The performers will be a mix of absolute beginners giving it a try for the first time, new comics who don't yet have the clout to get booked on programmed shows and experienced comics working out new material to audiences who'll be more forgiving than ones who expect to see their established act. That right: some inexperienced comedians have stories of when comic titans like Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK and Chris Rock made unexpected appearances at Open Mics in small clubs doing jokes nobody ever heard from them before.

There are no guarantees at an Open Mic – they're just not planned like other comedy events. They're the “lucky dip” of live comedy and you never know exactly what kind of night you'll have. Because of the inclusive nature, Open Mics are informal and supportive. Most of the performers are apprentices who lack experience but sincerely want to entertain us, so mean-spirited heckling is generally not well-regarded.

That said, I once saw a new comic who struggling (doing pretty badly, to tell the truth) get heckled by his own mother in the audience. A public exchange ensued that was as hilarious as it was uncomfortable. Maybe you had to be there, but it really was funny! If you saw it anywhere else, it would be scripted and fake. It's the kind of rare, bizarre occurrence that can only happen at an Open Mic.

Sean Cooper entertains at Comedy at the Centens Open Mic Night

Aeons ago in my youth I was a musician and we all knew a secret that most radio-listeners didn't: that the freshest and most exciting sounds were made in small clubs by bands you didn't know well, or at all. It took ages for an act to get the attention of big labels and lots of enthusiasm got lost along the way; any inspiration left gets drained off when the producers and marketing guys do their thing. We knew that people like expensively-produced mainstream music... But we also knew record execs are years behind what's really going on - the most adventurous and innovative experiences are happening just down the street.

That's how I feel about comedy. Most people's experience of comedy these days is watching Netflix comedy specials. I love these too, and I've probably seen as many of them as you have, but we only get to see a certain kind of comedy that way. When we watch one of these specials, we're seeing a seasoned entertainer presenting jokes that he or she has been practising for at least a year – jokes that have made it through the filters of the Network and test audiences and teams of lawyers, all polished and dry-cleaned for reliable safe prime-time viewing. We're watching a performance in a controlled environment that's composed and choreographed, protected from any unexpected event. It's not just scripted, it's edited too: smoothed until seamless. You might see a live audience, but what you're watching is the opposite of “live”.

When we watch one of these specials, we're seeing a seasoned entertainer presenting jokes that he or she has been practising for at least a year

By contrast the Open Mic environment is often ramshackle, happening in a place that's probably not designed or optimised for comedy performances. Any schedule has probably been made minutes beforehand and keeps getting adjusted throughout the show. You'll see varied styles, skill levels and points of view.

You might hear people say that you could see the next Jerry Seinfeld at an Open Mic, and it's technically possible although it's not as likely as the words might imply. It's true that all the greats did start at Open Mics but we're even more likely to see someones' only performance ever, and that's great too.. You might see triumphant wins and you might see spectacular fails, but it's all heartfelt.

When you go to an Open Mic the only guarantee is the performers' sincere desire to entertain you.

The Open Mic is the raw exciting and unpredictable laughter arena where players bring their most creative ideas. It's as far as you can get from scripted and contrived presentation, and it's as close as you'll ever be to the inception of exciting ideas. When you go to an Open Mic you're not just supporting live comedy - you actually become part of the glorious and messy process. Get down to one - Roll up your sleeves, open your mind and your heart, and prepare for anything while undiscovered enthusiasts do their best to make you smile

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