How to Earn Respect with Crowds and Comics at Every Mic
Open Mics Can Be Rough for New Comedians
Open mics are the life-blood of up and coming comedians, but they can also be a real pain.
Besides having to wait in line or hope your name gets picked in a lottery, the biggest let down is trying to get respect and laughs from a distracted audience, or an audience that’s made up of mostly other comedians.
Use Reverse Jokes to Get Noticed
So how does a new comedian get respect at an open mic?
One proven technique is performing a tight set of reverse jokes.
A reverse joke starts by leading the audience to expect one outcome, then reverses their expectation for a surprise punchline.
Another thing to consider is that with a tight reverse joke, you don’t need a lot of performance experience to “sell” the joke. The structure of the joke uses psychology to trick the audience.
Example of a Great Reverse Joke
One of my favorite reverse jokes was written by one of my students, Will Hamilton, and it goes like this:
“Got a call from the school today telling me that my son was being bullied. And I gotta tell you that is the single worst way to find out that you’re a dad.”
When the school calls to give Will this message, the premise efficiently creates a very deep assumption within the audience, that Will is a father. Not only that, but using the phrase ‘single worst way’, continues to help the audience lean into that misdirection by heightening the tension.
One of Will’s influences is Anthony Jeselnik, the king of reverses.
Success Story with Reverse Jokes
Will started in one of my 5-day Intensive Programs online a couple years ago, during the pandemic. He found that he had a knack for writing reverses and practices writing them often.
We’d have private coaching sessions to tighten them up, but he creates some really good laugh-out-loud material by focusing on his reverses.
Will got so good at reverses that after a 3-minute audition at a comedy club in D.C., the management asked him to be the house emcee.
Here’s the catch, it was not only Will’s first audition, it was Will's first time on stage doing stand-up.
That’s the kind of respect you can earn from doing good reverses.
Another Reverse Joke Example
Here’s another example of using that same tension-creating misdirection:
I recently dated a model in Hollywood. I took her to an Italian restaurant because she said Italian food was her single most favorite food to throw up.
You can see the similarities between those jokes. They use the same tension building trope that further builds the expectation till the very end.
How to Write Your Own Reverse Jokes
I love the UberEats app. You can reliably order food and it has a map that shows where the driver is. It is the single best way to know exactly when UberEats is going to show up right at your door with the wrong order.
Using that single best way trope really amps up the tension. You can rewrite that single best way line too. I’m just repeating it in this article as an example of heightening the tension and misdirection.
Different variations of “single best way” might include:
Well-crafted reverse jokes demonstrate comedic skill because they subvert assumptions. Even seasoned comedians pay attention when they hear a new comedian execute crisp reversals.
Here’s another approach to writing the reverse:
Has this ever happened to you? I was at the gym, and someone gets on a machine right after me, raises the weight like 75 pounds, then cranked out ten reps like it was nothing. Normally that doesn’t bother me... but that chick was pregnant.
In this case I use a very simple approach to building this joke. You can use the following steps to write your own reverse jokes:
1. Start from the end first
I know that I want to fool the audience into thinking that I’m talking about a man. Then through misdirection I’m going to shatter their expectations and reveal that I’m talking about a woman.
2. Build a Premise That creates an Assumption
In this case the assumption we're building is that we're talking about a man. You can use perceptions or stereotypes to build that male assumption.
Add words like "so" or "but" to indicate a pivot.
4. Reveal the Switch:
Hide the surprise twist for as far to the end of the punchline as possible.
Elements of Story
Every joke is a story. And every story must contain the 5 elements of story which are
When writing a reverse, the two most important elements are Character and Setting. Which boils down to Who are we talking about, and where are we? These are the two most visual elements of the story.
These are also the two easiest ways to start to write a reverse. As the writer you can know that you’re going to change the character or setting.
Character & Setting are Most Important
Once you know how you’re going to fool the audience, you can write the joke backwards.
Change the Expected Character
I remember the first time I ever got in the backseat of a car with a woman. I was sixteen and she was... the gym teacher.
Change the Expected Setting
I remember one time, my daughter was like “Daddy look how I drew this picture in the sand.”
I was like “that’s amazing honey. How did you get the sand to have such detail?”
She was like, “I used this stick.”
I said, “how did you get the sand to be so life-like?”
She said, “I added water.”
I said “how did you get the sand in the living room?”
See how those reverses create a strong surprise ending?
These are only a couple of different ways to write the very effective reverse. I have five different approaches I use to write reverses. I’ve shared two with you.
Learn More in My Comedy Workshops
If you really want to dig in and learn more about writing the reverse and the 13 Major Comedy Structures, attend my 2-day comedy writing workshop or my 5-day Stand-up Intensive, which focuses more on performance but still covers writing concepts.
Remember, a tight three to five minute set with three to five excellent reverse jokes will prove you have strong writing chops. Audiences and fellow comedians appreciate the misdirection and surprise.
Writing these jokes takes practice but the payoff of that big laugh is totally worth it. With skillful reverse jokes as your foundation, you can earn respect, even as an open mic newbie.