Personal Stories, Stand-up Comedy

Storytelling in Stand-up Comedy

There’s more to stand-up than just telling jokes. Besides one-liners, the most memorable jokes or sets are usually part of a story. You are always telling a story, no matter how big or small. For example, Russell Peters may have a lot of bits and sets about different people from all over the world. But, he’s basically narrating a really long story about his travels and experiences. The only jokes that don’t need stories and narration are memes and dad jokes. Good luck trying to make a career out of that.

Basic Story Structure

As a professional storyteller, I can’t even remember how many times I’ve heard what I’m about to tell you next: a story is a sequence of events. One thing leads to another. There is always a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can go ahead and exaggerate anything to fit your set, as long as you don’t digress or deviate into a whole different tangent. You’ll know you’ve done that when you suddenly realize you don’t know how to segue back into the original story you were narrating. If the middle of your story is too long and you don’t have a good enough pay-off by the end, you’ll lose your audience.

Specific to stand-up, storytelling might be difficult for someone who is used to writing small observational bits because there’s only so much you can do within the time-frame of the open mic slot. I’ll get to that in a bit.

How Do I Write/Tell A Funny Story?

The short answer is – you don’t. Unless you’re naturally funny, and I mean in conversation, it might be difficult for you to take a serious incident and make it stand-up worthy on your first try. Just like every joke, you have to start with actually writing things down.

When you want to narrate an incident, don’t feel the pressure to be funny just yet. Write your story down – don’t miss any details. Once you’ve written it down exactly as you remember, you can then go about figuring out where you can make it funny. Break it down scene by scene, frame by frame. Look for details to exploit. You can use analogies, puns, one-liners, or just act it out. It will take a while, but your patience will pay off. Just believe that your story is funny, and that’s why you want to tell it so badly.

How Do I Keep The Audience Hooked On?

It is true that quick jokes might seem like they get better response from the audience, compared to long-form jokes; which is why quick punchy bits are great to start your set off, especially if you’re doing anywhere between minimum 10 to 30 minutes. Once you’ve written your story down, figure out where you want to jump into it. You don’t always have to start at the beginning of the story. Unlike fiction, stand-up doesn’t require you to develop every character in your story. Pick the most interesting part of your story and use that as a hook, like “Have you ever…?”, “Has this happened to you?” “Don’t you just hate it when…?” These are just some basic examples, but I’m sure you can come up with your own stuff. Once you have the hook ready, launch into your story. By now, you should know where each punch lands. Make sure you have a good flow so you always keep the audience guessing about what’s going to happen next. Hit them with a misdirection, then land the punch. Ride the laughs and applause, then continue without missing a beat. If you structure your story well, you will be rewarded by the end of the story.

Why Should I Try Stories?

It’s not compulsory if you really don’t want to. But, here’s why you should try it – it’s more personal than observational quick jokes. When you narrate a story, you’re always the center of attention because you’re the storyteller. First person stories, if done right, strike a nerve. If your audience walks out of your show feeling like they know you, it’s the best feeling ever. Storytelling also helps you conserve material. If I’m doing a one hour set (Fizz Out! An Hour of Soda), it would be easier for me to put together a few stories and figure out how to connect them all, instead of going from one joke to another and losing my audience halfway. Yes, that last sentence might have been a shameless ad for my first solo stand-up show premiering in the last week of October.

Stories also have great call-back value. And, if you’ve been doing stand-up long enough, you know the feeling when the audience goes berserk at an unexpected reference to a previous joke.

The Wrap Up

  • Always write your story down, and then look for ways to make it funny
  • Don’t deviate from the story too much. The point is to pepper jokes into a story, not the other way around.
  • Do not abandon it halfway. If you think it’s not working, push through. Get used to telling the story on stage.
  • If you think you don’t have enough time to do the whole story in an open mic, break it into smaller bits that you can try separately. Then put it all together and see how it works.
  • Be patient. Don’t rush through it just to get to the jokes.
  • Beginning, middle, end = hook, set-up, punch (act-out, analogy, exaggeration, call-back)
  • Be open to feedback. Ask fellow comics to figure out if it was convincing enough, whether the jokes were obvious enough, and if they suggest tags, be your own judge.

I wrote this as a quick manual for fellow comics, because I can see a lot of people experimenting with storytelling. If you think I’ve left something out, or I’ve overlooked anything, feel free to have a conversation about it.

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Offensive Personal Opinions, Stand-up Comedy

Open Mic Etiquette

What’s this about?
This is not an “Open Mic For Dummies” instruction manual. It’s about what you need to know and do if you don’t want to be an open mic dummy.

Who am I?

My name is Sudarsan Ramamurthy. In the Chennai comedy circuit, I’m known as Soda. I’ve been pursuing stand-up comedy for more than two years now. My first open mic was in October 2014. I run Chennai Comedy. You can look it up here.

How do I qualify to talk about open mics?
I wouldn’t be bragging if I said I’ve done the most open mics amongst all the comedians in the Chennai circuit. But, let’s just say that if you’re an open micer/comedian from Chennai, there is no way I haven’t heard of you.

What is the difference between an open micer and a stand-up comedian?
Every stand-up comedian is an open micer. But, every open micer is not a stand-up comedian. Not unless he/she has performed in multiple non-open mic shows (ticketed shows, auditoriums, corporate and private events) without having to blow or kiss someone’s unmentionables.
The most important and obvious difference is: all stand-up comedians are funny; all open micers are not.
It takes anywhere from six months to a year (subject to consistency, perseverance, luck, and size of balls) for an open micer to become a stand-up comedian. Just because you got to perform for five minutes in a ticketed show – even if you’ve done less than five open mics – doesn’t make you a comedian. It just means the scene is growing, there are more shows happening, ergo more slots to fill. Pure and simple.

What is an open mic?
An open mic is an event, usually held in an indoor space where anyone can get on stage and try their luck with whatever talent they possess. In a stand-up comedy open mic, it is strictly for people to test and/or practice their jokes in front of an audience who hasn’t paid too much to watch them and therefore isn’t judging them. Or, that’s what we all think.

Rules of Engagement

⦁ Registration
Anyone who has to perform, must register themselves before the open mic. The registration may be done at the venue right before the open mic, or interested parties may have to call/message to a given number. It is important to find out which one of the aforementioned protocols need to be followed.

⦁ Time Slots and Content Restriction
Each performer is given a maximum of 4-5 minutes of stage time. There’s usually no content restriction, so swearing and offensive language isn’t a problem. But, that doesn’t mean you say “Fuck” for four minutes. It’s also obvious that your material has to be 100% original. If you’re going to come and recite internet jokes, stay home and use those to pick up bots on Tinder. Don’t copy other comedians, either. We will know. We will find you. We will roast you.

Basic Open Mic/Stand-up Comedy Jargon

⦁ Host
A host is the anchor/presenter of the show. But, do not mistake the host for an MC. The host of an open mic or stand-up comedy show is usually a comedian. They keep the night going and perform their jokes to keep the energy up between performers. There are two kinds of hosts: a) ones who are so funny, it doesn’t matter if the other comics aren’t. The crowd already loves the host. b) Ones who are so bad, the audience will definitely find the others funny.

⦁ Slot/Spot
The duration of one’s performance is called a slot. Typically, open mic spots are 4-5 minutes long. A guest spot is usually slightly longer (8-10 minutes). Guest Spot is also code for “You’re not getting paid, but we’ll let you perform in our show.” A headliner spot is at least 25 minutes long.

⦁ Headliner
The headliner is touted to be the main event, the star performer, the guy whose face you put on the poster because you know people will jizz cash to see him on stage. So, if someone says they’ve got multiple headliners in one show, they don’t really know what they’re doing. The headliner must perform last. The main reason is, you don’t want people to leave right after he/she is done performing. There has to be a build up to the final act. You cannot have multiple finishing acts. That’s a premature ejaculator’s excuse.

⦁ Time Out
A nicer way of saying “You’re done. Get the fuck off the stage.” It may be a light flashing, someone holding their hands up in a T, or just flipping you off until you get the message.
For The Audience
As someone who has come to watch a comedy gig (free or paid entry), there are some things you need to keep in mind, if you don’t want to end up making a fool of yourself.

⦁ Offensive Content
Censorship and stand-up comedy don’t always go together. So, expect to be offended. Accept the fact that this show isn’t about you. Yes, you may have paid for the ticket and therefore might feel entitled. You are entitled to a seat, and some humor. That’s it. Don’t try to call attention to yourself, unless the performer picks (on) you. There will be swearing. Your mother, father, family, relatives living and dead will be referred to. Don’t take it personally. Laugh it off. Go home. Tell you friends about it.
Here’s how a stand-up comedy show’s disclaimer would read:
IF IT’S FUNNY, TAKE IT AND FUCK OFF. IF IT’S NOT FUNNY, TAKE IT AND FUCK OFF ANYWAY.

⦁ Picking On Audience Member(s)
As the phrase goes, “picking on” someone seems to have some negative connotations. That’s not always the case with stand-up comedy. When someone picks on you, it need not be with the express intent of shaming you or making you look stupid in front of a live audience. It could also be just to get to know you better. Yes, some comedians are nice like that. They care about who has paid to watch them and how they can make you come back each time. Bottom-line: The front row isn’t as dangerous as you think it is.

⦁ Heckling
It is important for an audience member to understand the stand-up comedy interpretation of the word “heckling”. It means any verbal interruption that is not part of the script. It doesn’t matter if you’re agreeing to what is being said, or aggressively trying to throw the performer off – you’re heckling. Different comedians have different ways of dealing with hecklers. Some ignore them, some entertain them, and some will slaughter and destroy the very soul of this imbecile mortal who thought they’d get away with a heckle.

⦁ Laugh, Clap, Cheer, Make Some Noise
While there are some ground rules and guidelines to keep in mind, a comedy show is after all about having fun. So, when you are asked to make some noise, don’t fucking raise your hand like someone is taking a roll call. Okay? Good.

⦁ Phones, Chitchat, Babies
Turn them all to silent or vibrate, whatever tickles your fancies. I have had shows where the audience was so enthusiastic, they’d laugh at the first joke, and start discussing it WHILE I’M STILL PERFORMING! Just laugh and/or clap, and we’ll know you’re enjoying the show. Nothing more, nothing less.

For Open Micers

Behave Yourselves

⦁ Before The Open Mic
Be there on time. Register. Take your seat, or walk around, or do whatever it is you do before a show. Don’t stand around in groups and indulge in chitchat like it’s a school reunion – unless there’s no space inside, and you’re going to go in just to perform and get out. If that’s the case, keep your voice low and don’t let the audience feel what’s happening outside is more fun than the actual open mic.

⦁ Preference of Slot
Unless you’re a pro, you don’t get to choose what slot you get. “I’m bringing friends. They are on the way. Please slot me somewhere in the middle.” Fuck you. Your friends should’ve been here. If they’re not, their loss. It’s not a private show where you’re performing just for your friends. Even if there’s no audience at all, perform to the other comics. Respect the stage. Respect the people who will share it with you. Respect the audience.
Even pro comics register in advance and ask nicely. If you’re going to throw your weight around, it means you’re not serious about sticking around for long.

⦁ Heckling
Here’s something that I’ve seen a lot of new guys do. They think just because they’re watching someone else, they can fuck with the performer’s flow. Motherfucker, you just forgot your jokes when you were on stage a minute ago. It’s like whipping your dick out before your balls have even dropped. Don’t heckle someone if you don’t have the skill to back it up. Let’s see how you feel when you’re up there trying out a set for the first time and someone thinks it’s fun to steal the show.
Compete outside, collaborate inside.

⦁ First In Last Out
Get to the open mic as early as possible. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first ever. There’s a lot to be learnt. Help the producers set up the sound system. Figure out how a mic works. Do sound checks. Ask questions. That’s how you earn friends. You earn friends, you earn favors. Favors can get you slots. Slots gets you stage time. Stage time is what makes you a comedian. Get on stage as much as possible.
Unless there’s an emergency, or a flight/train/bus to catch, stay until the end. Talk to the comics. Build your network. Be an open mic whore; to the point where your face is cemented in their memory and they feel like something’s off when there’s an open mic and you’re not there. That’s how I’ve started, and I’m still an open mic whore. Maybe an open mic escort, at this point.

⦁ Don’t Hold Grudges
Artists, especially stand-up comedians, aren’t the easiest people to work with. Difference in opinion, perception, and beliefs is the fundamental birthplace of stand-up comedy. Open mics will expose you to all kinds of people – performers and audience alike. If you really want to trash talk about someone, make it funny. That’s how roasts were born.

⦁ You Are Not Entitled
Get it into your head. The open mic is not a stepping stone to get shows. The open mic is where you keep coming back to hone your skill. “Bro, I’ve been doing open mics for five months. I’m not getting any shows. That other guy started after me, he’s done two shows already! Fuck it. I’ll start my own thing, and produce my own shows. One day, I’ll run the scene and show these motherfuckers how it’s done.” If that’s how you’re going to be, then fuck you. You didn’t get shows because you’re not funny yet. That other guy is. Put your head down, get funny, and there’s no reason why you won’t get shows after that.
It’s not a job. It’s a career. You build it in your own time. You are not entitled to anything. Doing a lot of shows isn’t the mark of a comedian. Being funny is. Performing in a show because you’re producing it, is like masturbating – you might have a mind blowing orgasm, but you’re giving it to yourself because no one else will.
⦁ Respect The Venue
Start on time. End on time. Do not give the venue any reason to complain. There is literally no reason why anyone should let you do something as unpredictable as stand-up comedy in their place of business. So, be grateful to that and make sure you give back. Encourage the audience and comics to order food and drinks. Make sure you give them good visibility and branding. These little niceties will go a long way.

⦁ Don’t Piss Off The Audience
Especially at an open mic, it’s important that you don’t scar the audience with something that’s not funny and therefore unnecessary. If you’ve picked on someone, acknowledge that they’ve been a good sport, or speak to them after the show to make sure they didn’t take it the wrong way. These are the same people who might one day buy tickets to your show and make you rich. Don’t fuck with them too much.
The open mic is a great place to watch comedy happen. The expectations are low, so you get to push yourself and experiment as much as you want. You also get to witness so many different styles, so you won’t latch onto one person and end up imitating or emulating them. Always give back to the scene. Remember, you wouldn’t exist if there was no platform to start with.
If you have any more questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to get in touch.

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Stand-up Comedy

Besant Nagar to Bay 146

August 31, 2014: I signed up for a Comedy Writing Workshop at Ashvita Nirvana, Besant Nagar. I didn’t know it was about standup comedy. The writer and the insufferable humorist in me thought this would be something I could try my hand at. The other reason I was here was, I had paid 300 bucks as registration fee. While I was walking into the venue, I saw two gentlemen getting out of a car across the road. One was a lean, lanky lad who looked like he was born to rock the T-shirt and Chino ensemble. The other was a respectable looking elderly. He reminded me of that one relative we all have – he keeps to himself, but when given the opportunity, would drop a pun and watch everyone take the Lord’s name in vain (ranging from Ayyo (said to be wife of Yama) to Eeshvara, Bahavaane, Narayana, and anyone else available on call). He had the perfect balding head to match with the masculine moustache that rendered him incapable of any evil. Until, of course, the puns came out.

I went into Ashvita Nirvana, and the guys at the desk directed me upstairs. I walked into a space that could inhabit a nuclear family in Mumbai, and a joint family in Kolkata. A Chennai resident would call it a furnished kitchenette. There, I saw a shorter dude with shiny shoes and half bleached hair. I began to wonder if he was Toni or Guy. I later found out he was neither.

There were a few others with me. They had also signed up for the workshop, and looked almost as clueless as me. Cluelessness is always a good way to start any workshop, or any work for that matter.

In walked the lean and lanky lad, and pun uncle. They introduced themselves as Deepu and Praveen Kumar, respectively. My confusion with Toni or Guy was also cleared. His name was Ash. He had neither cap, nor Pikachu.

The workshop started with some awkward silence. Each of us began delivering brief, concise, short, introductions of ourselves. Yes, I know I used three words that mean the same thing in place of just one. That was exactly how our introductions were – verbose, and sometimes so roundabout that the Kathipara flyover would have taken offense. We were all seated in a somewhat circular pattern, and Deepu took the opportunity to break the ice with “It’s like we’re having an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, man! Yeah? Yeah?”

In my later interactions with Deepu, I would learn that “Yeah? Yeah?” was his own patented punctuation. If you wanted to wait until he was done talking because you don’t want to interrupt him, listen for the double yeahs.

The moment Ash said his first words, it was a culture shock. Imagine a shorter, thinner version of Sanjay Dutt, with the voice and poise of Salman Khan (minus the road rage, of course), speaking with a British-American accent. If you could racially profile this guy, you could work for the United Nations; because, here’s the catch, he’s from MRC Nagar.

Deepu, Ash, and a couple of others by the name of Aamer and Suraj formed the Burma Bazaar Conspiracy – BBC for short. I’m sure the guys thought this name out knowing such questions like “What? BBC is doing stand-up comedy ah?” would be thrown around. BBC was running open mics at the Ashvita Bistro in Alwarpet every second Tuesday of the month at the time. The workshop was not only to introduce people to stand-up comedy, but also to get them to come and try their jokes at the open mics.

Once the workshop started, there was a PowerPoint presentation on the basics of comedy, or joke writing, if you will. This is when I realized something as abstract as stand-up comedy could be approached from a scientific angle. I was quick to take pictures and notes which are still with me to this day, thanks to Google Keep. About a half hour later, another figure walked in and grabbed a seat. As soon as he walked in, Deepu and Ash showed signs of recognition in the form of “Eyy, Baggy!” If you haven’t met Bhargav Ramakrishnan, you may wonder why his name is Baggy. If you have met him, you will notice he does not have any bags on him. In his introduction, he also mentioned he works for Evam, and manages comedians.

The last session of the workshop involved each of us writing a short set and performing it in front of the others. Let’s just say all of us were doing it for the first time, and you don’t really want to know how it went. Deepu made an announcement that Praveen Kumar’s solo “The Tickle Minded” was happening that night and he had two couple passes for whoever was interested. Just before shuffling out of the kitchenette, I met Lakshman Balaji – a fast talking dentist in the making, who would later become my first open mic buddy. He would also go on to become a great sketch artist, and once in a while incorporate my humble puns in his cartoons.

After the workshop, I began visiting the open mics. The first time I was at Ashvita Bistro, I was merely scoping out the audience, and didn’t really go up and grab the mic. The second time, I signed up and hence began my journey as a comedian. I would regularly run into a few of the people I met at the workshop, and even had the chance to have a few words with Praveen Kumar when he visited the open mic once (right after finishing a Ted Talk and before getting on a night bus back to Bangalore). Deepu has always been a ready mentor, and the one time I won a stand-up comedy contest, Ash was there to present me with the prize.

April 16, 2016: 1 year, 7 months, and 16 days later, I’m going to be sharing the stage with Praveen Kumar and Baggy at Bay 146 on April 17, 2016 (Sunday) as part of Praveen Kumar’s second special Kancheepuram to Koramangala (BookMyShow link here: http://bit.ly/1SIrsu4)

Looking back, I constantly remind myself how I went from inadvertently stumbling onto stand-up comedy, to being an open mic whore, to managing the open mics themselves. Somewhere in the middle, Sudarsan Ramamurthy became Soda. This journey has been Soda-mn great (come on, you really thought I wouldn’t go for it?) and there’s only more to experience, accomplish, and most importantly – learn.

This was totally not meant as a plug-in for the show tomorrow. On a completely unrelated note, open mics happen in Chennai every week. Follow Chennai Comedy on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on the scene.

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