Why The Opening Stand-up Comedy Act Has The Hardest Job

When it comes to learning how to be a comedian…

The opening act in the stand-up comedy environment is arguably the hardest spot in a line up of comedians — particularly from a laughter generation stand point.

It’s often referred to as the “bullet taking” spot.

Here’s why that is, no matter what “level” the comedian is at when performing in that critical opening spot…

In comedy venues that are set-up properly, most individuals are seated closely together with strangers — people they have never met and don’t know.

Instinctively, we are “on guard” around people we don’t know and there’s usually a measure of tension that exists until that tension is released and a feeling of “safety” for a lack of a better term exists (from group laughter).

From the comedian’s perspective, the audience is “cold” at this point.

Enter the opening act.

Their job is to break this tension with laughter — and it can be much more difficult to get going when starting with a “cold” audience.

This is something to recognize when using Comedy Evaluator Pro for performance evaluation because…

A comedian will usually NOT get the same response as an opener as they will performing the exact same material as a middle (feature) act or as a headliner.

The important thing to note here is to be aware of this “cold audience” situation and put into perspective that it’s more difficult to get a “cold” crowd going than to get a “warmed up” crowd going.

When I was working as a comedian for the Coach House chain in the mid 90’s, their stand-up comedy line-up was ALL headliners. Rarely did a middle act get on the show.

I have performed in every spot — opener, middle and headliner. Same material, but almost always slightly different results as an opening act — more so than any other spot in a line up of comedians. Why?

It simply takes more time to get an audience from “cold” to “warm”.

So if you are learning how to be a comedian…

Don’t get discouraged if your stand-up material doesn’t quite get the response you would like in the opening act spot.

You have a tough job there “warming up” the crowd that most comedians that follow you will appreciate.

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9 Replies to “Why The Opening Stand-up Comedy Act Has The Hardest Job”

  1. This is very true. On the other other hand, if you’re a good comedian who has the bad luck to follow someone who’s much funnier (either naturally, or he’s just having a great night for some reason), it can be very tough out there. I’ve seen good comedians bomb when they had to follow a guy who just had the greatest performance of his life.

    I’ve talked to some working comedians and they say this is one of the reasons it’s hard to break in. You generally get your first breaks thru emcee gigs. Of course, if you’re not funny at all, clubs don’t want you, because the whole point of hiring you is to warm up the crowd, as this article describes. But if you’re too funny, the clubs don’t want you either, because a lot of the middle acts out there are pretty weak, and they would bomb if they had to follow an emcee who was hilarious. How true this is, I don’t know, but it’s what I’ve heard from more than one working comedian.

    • Here’s what I know beyond a shadow of a doubt:

      It’s 100% a personal problem if a comedian can’t follow another – no matter what “title” they may hold (or think they hold).

      Talented comedians have NO issue following funny comedians.

      As far as comedy clubs not wanting a comedian because they are “too funny” — that is just complete nonsense, usually generated by less talented comedians who simply can’t cut it.

      Common sense would dictate that ANY comedy club would want the highest quality entertainment product they could bring to the table — again, regardless of a comedian’s so-called “title”. It only helps the comedy club, their reputation and the crowds they can draw for a profit.

      I had a personal rule when I was performing and it was this – I didn’t want ANY comedian to be able to follow me. The truly talented comedians could always follow me and “ride the wave” so to speak. Those who could not…

      Well, they ended up opening for me. 🙂

      • “Common sense would dictate that ANY comedy club would want the highest quality entertainment product they could bring to the table — again, regardless of a comedian’s so-called “title”. It only helps the comedy club, their reputation and the crowds they can draw for a profit.”

        I agree, Steve. But I can see how a club might prefer not to have a hilarious emcee followed by a mediocre middle act. Wouldn’t the audience feel disappointed and sorta ripped off in a case like that? Of course, this shouldn’t happen often, as it’s the rare newbie emcee who’s actually hilarious, and if a middle guy can’t “hang” after a funny emcee he’s probably in the wrong line of work, as you point out.

  2. Good to know. I think I will request this spot from any venue that I go to open mic night. If I can consistently warm the crowd, that will get me noticed all the more sooner.

    Call it my red badge of courage!

    I want stage time ASAP and I will travel wherever to get it.

    Is there a website that lists the most popular clubs around the country so I can start sending out my EPK in hopes of landing gigs?

  3. The first laugh is always the hardest, just like your first kiss, your first date, and ‘What the hell is a hemorrhoid?’. Making people laugh is the vocation regardless of the climate.

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