Last year I typed an overlong blog on all my thoughts, philosophy and advice on being an MC. It has been shared in a few places, quoted and misquoted in a few others, had over 10,000 hits and inspired two newer acts to email me the same question, "I've never opened a pro gig before, how do I do it?"
Here's my edited (and added to for public consumption) response I sent to both of them.
It depends on the gig. A lot of people think good openers should be high energy, inoffensive, friendly and able to move in and out of their sets like an MC.
I disagree as a) I used to be a decent opener and was none of those things but the last b) it is the collective thoughts of uninspired promoters who think a good opener is an extension of the MC as they book rowdy rooms or MCs they do not trust to do their job properly.
If the MC is good then all you have to do is your best set. No new stuff, nothing you are uncertain of, nothing you know is a risk in the room in front of you. Just your greatest 20 minutes you've worked up over years of being an amateur.
As your job as opener is to get the audience to listen to long periods of scripted monologued material and feel it is worth them doing so. Do your set and wait for the laughs. It might take a longer pause as they get used to the rhythms of a stand up routine or 5 or 10 or 15 minutes of smiles and stares rather than laughter but get them used to listening, waiting and enjoying the punchline. The MC has made them part of the show now you need to panel beat them into focussing on the acts rather than themselves.
So you need at least 20 minutes of working material before you start chasing paid opener slots. And at least is the bare minimum. You should be able to fill the time with quality, not be diluting 12 and a new idea. Also you are feeling this audience out and if you are limited in your repertoire then chances are you are handicapping yourself. Let's say your killer 10 on Super Mario Brothers has not hit home with the audience made up of dinner ladies and OAPs. It's probably best not follow this up with your Sonic the Hedgehog bit - no matter how much it kills elsewhere. Those hundreds, almost thousands of unpaid middles spots and open mic nights should have given you a chance to come up with something, anything that is not 90's gaming console based. Even if its not your usual A game, you should have an excess of bits and routines before you start taking professional's comedians fees.
There's no advice I can give them about what material to do and what type of act to be. To be honest by this juncture - you have made all these decisions over your months and years gigging unpaid. If the promoters has given you the slot based on seeing you in a middle then they must trust what you've done infront of them before and use that as your guideline as to what they hoped they were buying.
Don't be negative with the customers - even if the faces in front of you are stoney cold they might be enjoying but not comfortable enough to laugh yet. Later, they'll laugh more at lesser acts but you "loosened the jam jar lid" (to quote Paul F Taylor) before the middles popped it off. That's why you are paid and they aren't. Often, too often actually, unpaid middle spots email to tell me they got a much better response than my paid opener, expecting no doubt I'm going to cancel all that act's work and pop them into the vacated slots. I've been known to reply "You should email the opener and thank them for priming the audience to enjoy you."
Opening is harder work than going on in the middle as the audience is more inhibited. Some jokes will fall flat or get smiles rather than ovations - accept that is par for the course and don't undermine yourself. So you aren't having the gig of your life in front of the sober people who are a bit self concious? Someone thought you were good enough and your material was good enough to pay to open this room. Don't make them rethink that but saying anything disparaging about yourself or your set unless it leads to an actual punchline. They might not know you aren't having a great one but if you start telling them... they almost definitely will. And once that happens you are wasting words being unfunny devaluing any future chance you have of the rest of your material working.
An opener fills them with confidence that the jokes are worth listening to... not that they've done better rooms and audiences than this before. Every time you are negative about yourself or your room or your audience you are essentially wasting time, time you are being paid for, saying "If I wasn't opening I'd be having a better time". If you can't open without doing that don't take the money, don't risk your reputation, don't start the night on the backfoot for everyone else.
If you are onstage, doing your best stuff and not getting the response you'd know you would get in exactly the same room in the middle section just stay true to yourself on stage. These words of Mel Gibson's should be your internal mantra if you consider throwing yours toys out of your pram http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1NupxasQWs
Be thinking. If I pay you to open I personally want you to stick to material as much as possible... but don't just go on and recite. Alter your pacing if you feel they aren't laughing enough, give them more of a chance to laugh. Use eye contact to bully parts of the room into laughing. You don't have to skip around the stage but be engaging.
Keep stirring the pot - if you've watched the MC interact with people (and you should have watched the MC interact with people) you should have a few characters to bounce material off of. Don't worry about asking them questions, just lead into material by addressing it at the most appropriate person the MC met in the first 10 but keep your foot on the pedal so it doesn't turn into a conversation.
Here's some examples of prefixes that show how in half a dozen words you can relate your next bit of script and make it seem a bit more like you are telling it uniquely to this room:
"Larry is a ladies' man... [insert routine about internet dating / sexual failure / being married here]"
"Rhonda likes a drink... [insert story about drinking / going out / doing something embarrassing here]"
"Mildred will remember this [insert routine about white dog poo / dial up / finding porn in bushes here]"
This'll make your script feel more in the moment and spontaneous without you having to write a custom built 20 for each gig.
All the above assumes you are walking onto a well MC'd audience.
Now if the MC has lost the room, or never found it in the first place, you have a tougher job. Going on and sticking to script might anger them further, going on and rehashing what hasn't worked for the MC will be even worse. If you really think the MC has put you in a position where you'll die doing material straight off the bat in front of this audience just go on a chat to them in character. Literally just a minute of Hellos / here's something weird about this room I've noticed / the worse gig I did was [punchline]. Ease them in before forcing them to make a decision as to whether something deserves laughter or not. Then hopefully if you have re-engaged them and let them know you are a human who wants them to enjoy the comedy they might listen and laugh along to your 20. Don't be mean about the MC though unless they've been purposefully nasty and unprofessional. MCing is tough and that poor schmuck has not only died but has to keep going on.
Stick to time. You've earned the audiences trust and laughter, doing a longer amount of stagetime than you are probably used to... SO... Don't get greedy. When you reach the end of your planned 20, or your vibrating watch buzzes or the lighting flashes you off... just wrap up and get off. For you, overrunning is the most obvious route to not ending on a high. For everyone else, your selfish extra few minutes are the butterfly wings that cause the rest of the night to spiral into chaos. It encourages the newer guys in the middle to overrun too as they take their cue from the paid act. Once everyone starts adding an extra few minutes to their allocated stagetime it eventually makes for a restless audience who feel the sections are too long and do not remain patient and stay seated until the break. Just 15 additional minutes of collective runtime to the gig means couples with babysitters or people who travelled and have a last train or booked cab might not even stay around for the headliner. And not to belittle your sterling work as Opening 20 but the headliner is how us promoters get audiences in, and the high they leave the room on is how we get people to come back. By overrunning and inspiring everyone else to overrun you have had a palpable negative effect on the repeat business of the gig.
I'm typing this thinking "I'm probably putting stand ups off of opening" but you have to improve as a comedian and once you are funny and have enough material you can't hide in the middles forever. Sofie Hagen wrote in a blog earlier this year "Always open. The story goes like this: Anders Matthesen (probably the biggest comedian in Denmark) would always show up at open mics and demand to open the gig. The room is cold, in Denmark especially, as there will always be people in who’ve never seen stand-up before. So he’d open and take the punches and get really good. I’m not sure if it’s still like this – but when I did the open mic circuit in Denmark, when the MC asked, “Who wants to open?” everyone better fucking put their hands up, otherwise you’d get a dirty, dirty look, saying “Oh. You don’t want to be good? You just want it easy? Fine.”and you could expect to be offered fewer spots from then on."
I agree with Sofie. Once you are good enough to regularly rock an open mic you should be asking to go on first. There's no money in being the biggest fish in the small pond of new act nights, so use them to become an act who can confidently open as that's your next most obvious step up in the industry. Unpaid slots should be as much about building your sea-legs and skillset to be a paid act as much as to try new material.
The thing to remember that comedy is a constantly evolving biosphere. You are improving but sometimes to grow you need to move up to harsher environment. If all the above does not illustrate things are not as easy opening as they were being the new guy then doing it a few times will. You'll find out bits that worked at 9.20 in the evening do not work at 8.15 - edit them out or tweak them for your new role. Just because you are now in harsher terrain does not mean you are not doing things right, it just means more is expected of you so evolve with that. Once you start doing regular paid opening slots at smaller gigs and for promoters who have championed you early on that 5 at The Store or 10 at the Glee will seem like child's play. The only thing better than your first paid 20 is walking onto a room that may have once terrified you, knowing you have it easy tonight as another act has been paid to open.