I’ve been trying my hand at stand-up comedy recently. I’m not entirely sure why – since I generally hate being the focus of attention (or is that just something self-concious attention hogs convince themselves of?) I think the main reason is because I saw friends doing it and thought ‘I could never do that!’ and I really hate being confronted by my boundaries. Since there is little chance of literal death like most of the other things I ‘could never do’, I decided to give it a go and it actually been going well.
I’ve done a few gigs now each one is a unique experience and has given me a real insight into the craft of it. The masters of the craft seem to have an effortless ease and it becomes quickly obvious that such comfort is something you have to work very hard to achieve. I also think if people are paying to see you specifically perform, then there is already a room full of goodwill which is the exact opposite of performing as an unknown to a room of strangers.
That is the initial boundary, I’ve found. The first 30 seconds where that bunch of strangers will judge you. I think it’s probably the most important part of the act as the time that follows usually sees you either surfing on the goodwill you’ve generated in that first half minute or desperately trying to compensate for the lack of it. The real pros seem to get in fast with a confident gag which defines them. This can impress and settle an audience. The worst comedians come on and do some kind of sub-Michael Barrymore display of physical comedy – a desperate plea for the audience to like them. The average comedians use a maniuplation technique (which does seem to work) of shouting ‘How are you doing???’ and encouraging cheers ‘Let’s hear it from the students!!’ ‘Who’s drinking???’ I don’t disrespect this technique – it works and encourages an audience to participate and feel embraced by the comic. I don’t like it though. I’ve been experimenting with slow starts. The last few gigs, I’ve purposefully not put anything to laugh about in at least the first 30 seconds – (a couple of weeks ago, I managed to go a minute and a half without offering them a chance to laugh). I do this for three reasons – firstly, it amuses me – I like being obstinate. Secondly it holds the audience’s attention, they like to try to work out what I’m building up to and therefore engage with me rather than sit and judge me. Thirdly, I don’t need their love, I’d rather have their respect. I’ve seen so many fledgling standups who discard every scrap of dignity in a desperate attempt to be liked by a bunch of strangers. I can’t relate to that. I have enough self confidence and arrogance to know that the vast majority of the audience are just a bunch of uninteresting dicks and I will not prostrate myself to them. I tried some self-deprecating material in my first ever set and it went down really well but to have people applauding my insecurities is not an experience I would ever choose to repeat.
Last night’s gig was at Brookes University and it was a unique and unexpectedly eventful night…
There were eight comedians on the bill – each doing a 10 minute set. Most of us naturally convened in a lounge area to the side of the stage. I love watching comedians before the show. Some are utterly relaxed and full of banter, others are nervously writing their entire sets on their hands. I fall between the two, I write usually 5 keywords on my hand of ‘bits’ that I want to use but so far have only ever once had to glance at it. I banter a bit, but find my concentration is on nailing the opening of my set in my head so seem to drift away mid-conversation. I also spend a lot of time looking at the audience and building up a subtle hatred for them. It goes once they start laughing, but I like to take to the stage with an amount of disdain for them.
Alex Clissold-Jones, a very good and relaxed young comedian was compering the evening and worked the crowd nicely. I’m not sure if he plans any of his gags whilst compering but he sparks off the audience very well. I was first on. I was fine with that. It meant I had nothing to follow or live up to and could to a degree set the bar for the evening. I have mixed feelings about my set. I’d planned an opening to challenge the audience a little bit. Based on my discomfort at how a compere whips the audience up into a frenzy of cheers for a performer they’ve never heard of who is then expected to deliver material worthy of such a reception. So, I let the applause die down and stared at the audience looking perturbed and thoughtful for half a minute. Then I asked Alex to return to the stage and confronted him with the source of my unease. I told him he’d created a comedy defecit, putting me in debt before I’d even said a word – essentially putting my act into recession. He rolled with it very well, asking the audience to ‘look uninterested and scrape the feet on the floor’ for me. It was OK. It felt too much like a skit to me and that was a bit awkward.
The rest of my set was based around the stigma of being a Brookes student – which got some good laughs, especially from the other comedians who enjoy seeing a comedian attacking an audience en masse – and a bit I’ve been developing about environmentalism and how the UK seems to focus it’s entire efforts in this area into making the acceptance of a carrier bag in a supermarket a huge social faux-pas. It went well. I think the material suffered by being well written but not a subject I feel passionately about. Comedy without passion becomes limp observational humour. It went well, though. I got good laughs, a couple of jokes got some applause and I got a good vibe from the audience as I left.
Following me was a comedian called Phil. A nice and funny chap whose manner and rapport with the audience covered over a slightly ropey set – the material was actually very funny but he seemed unrehearsed and hesitant, leading to a few pauses, but he went down really well with the crowd and the other comedians. I bet on a good night, he could bring the house down easily.
He came and sat down to handshakes and nods of approval from the rest of us and the next comedian, Lee, got up to do his set. This guy was a young ‘un – probably just 19 or 20. He’d been quite affable with us, told us he was studying comedy in Southampton – doing a BA in it. None of us had ever heard of such a course and the concept alone seemed a bit sketchy, but fair play to him. He was ‘trendy’ in an awkwardly self-concious way – ovesized woolly had hiding swoopy spiky hair. Jeans positioned halfway down his arse with a huge expanse of white pant on display. Still, it’s of his generation. He took to the stage with the line ‘Don’t worry, I’m normal – not like the rest of those crows over there’ – motioning towards us – we all looked at each other with mild surprise. ‘Frankly, I’ve got more talent in my left nut’ he continued – that was the punchline – he carried on into his set. The audience didn’t laugh and we were frozen in astonished amusement. My friend Tom Greeves who was to perform later in the evening was the first to speak ‘is he actually going to come back and sit with us after that?’. Lee’s act continued with a smattering of polite or drunk laughter from a few people in the audience but here was a general baseline of confusion – made all the more palpable by the joke ‘Do you like my scarf? I stole it off a black man – nice for the shoe to be on the other foot for a change!’ Again, our jaws dropped in blissful astonishment. ‘He didn’t….?’ He finished his set and, indeed, came and sat with us as if nothing had happened.
The next act was a musical one and was too loud for any of us to address Lee about his lack of basic decency for his fellow performers. He packed his back and left. Phil and I had the same thought and jumped up in tandem to follow him out. Tom tagged along because he sensed drama. I don’t think either of us had planned to intimidate him, that was an unfortunate result of us both approaching him at the same time. At first he thought we were congratulating him on his set and offered a proud handshake with a ‘thanks guys’, but then the penny dropped. We weren’t at all nasty or threatening. Just pointed out that it was a dick move to slag off the other acts and that wouldn’t actually win the audience’s favour. He looked panic-stricken and fled with a heartfelt ‘Hey, I’m just a student, guys!’
There was an interval and Tom Greeves was next up. Tom is masterful, he’d done no planning for the set at all and took to the stage with ease, opening with a bit about having anally-raped Lee during the interval. I believe the line was ‘I found the last comedian to be ungenerous to his fellow performers but a surprisingly considerate lover’. The audience lapped it up. Tom spurred with them playfully ‘of course, I didn’t get accepted by Brookes – had to make do with the crappy old medieval university down the road’ and won them over easily. It was clearly the best set of the night.
The next guy was very sweet but a complete car crash. The rest of the comedians found ourselves crying with laughter but not at the intended punchlines. The cackhandedness was almost masterful. He explored the room, asking of an alcove ‘is this where comedians come to fart? I just did!’ Wildly inappropriate and unfunny but that in itself was hysterical. I felt bad that the biggest laughs were coming from the other performers but we couldn’t hold it in he pointed over to us ‘laughing at their own jokes over there!’ he quipped, not for the last time. The heckle of the evening came when he proclaimed ‘I think I’ve been put on some kind of list’ and a voice from the darkness shouted out ‘the sex offenders register?’. I felt bad for the comedian, who was a nice chap but utterly hapless. Although I didn’t hear the feed line, the biggest unintentional laugh of the evening came from the sentence ‘but that’s not the worst thing I’ve seen children do to each other on my tv’. Poor guy.
He was followed by a student comedian who despite seeming awkward had quite good material – it was sharp and well written, if badly delivered. His predecessor sat with us, watching with a look of disgust saying ‘Ed Byrne!’ after each line. I found this odd and amusing and, feeling a giggle fit emerging, tried to ignore it. Eventually Tom asked him ‘excuse me are you accusing him of plagarism or is this some form of Tourettes?’ ‘His entire act is stolen from Ed Byrne – line for line’. An iphone was produced and, indeed, word for word, this guy was doing nothing but a variety of Ed Byrne’s old material. I was utterly intrigued by his motivation. I assumed that this was his first time and he wanted to get a feel for performing, build up some confidence maybe, but the compere regretfully told me that he’d seen the guy perform three times previously – all the same material. Alex hadn’t clocked that it was nicked and felt stupid at the memory that he’d advised the kid to enter into some comedy competitions because although his performance wasn’t great, he could really write. Ugh.
This kid hadn’t been sat with us, so we weren’t going to have to make small talk with him or anything. We just waited for his set to end. Which it did – in spectacular fashion. As he was building up to a punchline, a member of the audience pre-empted it and shouted it out word-for-word. The kid had been rumbled. He was flustered ‘No heckling, I’m the one with the microphone thank you’. The guy in the audience calmly and clearly replied ‘I wasn’t heckling, I was finishing the joke which you stole from Ed Byrne, as you have your ENTIRE set.’ Wow. A moment of electricity and silence. ‘The thing about hecklers…’ starts the kid ‘No, I’m not heckling,’ continues the guy in the audience ‘you’ve plagarised your whole act now the best thing would be if you just go and sit down’. WOW. Another pregnant pause before the promoter steps in and says ‘you’re over-running anyway, let’s just put an end to it’. The kid, red faced and shaking sloped off back to his seat.
The final act was Izsi Lawrence, a fantastic comedian I’ve seen before but coming at the end of a long night after such drama, the crowd just weren’t with her. Her material and delivery were fantastic but the room just felt tired. She tried to energise them but they were resistant to it. It wasn’t their fault, it certainly wasn’t hers, it’s just sometimes the mood of a room is not conducive. It’s a very organic thing. I felt that she ended the evening with class. Had Tom followed that kid, I fear there would have been carnage.
It’s totally a strange thing, stand up – there are so many controlling factors, the material, the delivery, the audience, the venue, the surrounding events, the order of the comedians, the unexpected, the time of the night and sobriety of the participants. It is completely uncontrollable and I think that’s what makes it so exciting and ultimately satisfying or painful. I rather pity the Michael Mcintyres and Lee Evans (not financially, obviously) because to know, night after night, that the audience response is guaranteed unless you fuck up on a hugely monumental and ethical level, must be rather dull.