The most difficult thing for someone to do is to get on that stage for the first time. While your material will stand on it’s own eventually, it can be hard to know how to arrange it and make it most effective. Below is an outline of how I would suggest you build your first five-minute set to get the most out of your time.

0-5 Seconds: Get the stage in order. Put down your water, adjust the mic or put the stand behind you. Just make sure you are ready to go. Don’t start talking and then try to do those things, you need eye contact with the crowd, not the mic wire.

5-30 Seconds: Get to a joke. Get there quick. The audience is judging you immediately, and you only have a few seconds to put build trust and assure them that you are funny. You should have a great one-liner to open with. If you have an obvious look, address it. Just be sure to keep it short, the longer the wait for them to laugh, the less successful the rest of your set will be.

  • Alternative: As you begin to improve your comedic ability, it is also a good idea to replace the first 30 seconds with an observational joke about the venue (don’t insult them), the area, or a friendly comment on another comic on the show. A lot of pros do this because it does two things: Demonstrates your ability to be funny on your toes, and brings the audience into the moment. They won’t see it as something scripted and will connect better with you.

30-60 Seconds: By now you should have 3 or 4 jokes in. Your jokes should be short to start off with. You want to get as many laughs per minute as possible. Most comics tend to talk about physical appearances or where they are from to start out with. Here is where you establish the tone of the rest of your set. Are you self-deprecating? Are you sarcastic? Are you energetic? Let them know you as a person within the first minute, they have to connect with you or it will be an uphill battle.

1 min-4 min: I won’t tell you exactly what to put here because this is your brand of humor and there is no cookie cutter method to building great material, but I will give you some advice on what structure should be in the middle of your set.

  • First, continue to keep the jokes short. No single joke should be over 30-45 seconds. And if you have a 45 second joke, it should have several punch lines built in as you build up to the final big punch line. The audience is forgiving on short jokes that don’t work, but when you invest their time in a story that doesn’t pay off they will turn on you.
  • Second, your set should flow. Try to have transitions and have one joke lead into the next. It makes your set more memorable to an audience when they can follow along, you stand less risk of losing their attention, and you can begin to build your stage persona by keeping a theme.
  • Third, do not get rattled by jokes that don’t work. if a joke bombs, shake it off and move on. You have to keep the pace and rhythm, and letting a failed joke eat at you will ruin the good jokes.

4 min-5 min: Your last minute should be your best minute. You started this set with your 2nd strongest joke, end with your strongest. Hit them with a few small punch lines and then hit them with the big one right at the end. This is the joke they will remember you for and it can make or break your set, even if the rest of your set was crap. I have seen comics eat it for 4 minutes and close on a hard hitting joke and have audience members praising them on the way out. Now, if the joke doesn’t work it is important that you still end your set. Some comics keep trying to sell a joke or go into another joke and go over time. Don’t be that comic. Also, after your last joke, say your name again. “I’m …. Thank you!” The audience won’t remember your name until they like you, so tell them your name before you leave.

Extra tips:

  • Keep the material personal, but relatable if you can. Jokes that are centered around true events are not only great for connecting with the crowd, they are also easy to remember since they actually happened. Jokes that you are invested in also come off as genuine and usually get a better response.
  • No music cues. These are difficult to time, and you only have 5 minutes. Stay away from them for your first few sets.
  • Steer clear of crowd work. It’s not as easy as you think. It is a craft that is learned over the years, and truthfully most of it is not really in the moment, but more of a controlled joke with audience participation.
  • If you time your set and it is 5 minutes exactly, trim it. If you get laughs, you won’t want to walk over them by beginning a new joke right away, so anticipate a laughter/applause break. If you don’t get any, which is expected on your first try, then you will come up a tad short. But short is always, always, always better than going long. Do NOT go over the light. Ever. Even if you have to drop a joke, get off stage when instructed.
  • Keep it to just material. No merch pitches, no “salute the troops”, no toasts, no self-promotion, just the jokes.
  • If this is a showcase, unless you are the last comic avoid telling the audience to applaud for the host or other comics when you take the stage. The audience gets tired of clapping over and over as every comic that gets on stage bids for cheap applause at the onset. Just go into your material.

Good luck and enjoy building your set. Remember, keep doing your jokes to make them better. You should not be doing a new five minutes each time on stage. Practice, build and refine and you will have a solid five for a tape or audition in no time. Got something to add? Do it in the comments below, and feel free to share!