I had another interesting stand up gig last night.
At this point, I’m basically accepting anything I’m offered within Oxford and toying with the idea of giving some open mic slots in London a go. I’m still not sure why I’m doing stand-up. The best answer I can come up with is ‘it’s something to do’. I actually very much enjoy the camaraderie which exists between the small group of local comedians who play these shows which is instantly and warmly extended to any new or visiting comedians too. It’s nice to sit with them and banter and then, one by one, go up to do our separate things with the support of the others despite a palpable feeling of competition to get the best audience reactions of the night.
What I’ve started to notice recently is the audience kind of becomes a single entity with a definable character. As you watch the other acts, and indeed perform yourself, you get to know the audience and by the end of the night, the latter comedians are often confident enough about the audience’s personality to banter, ball bust or berate. This is fast becoming my favourite aspect of the experience. It’s one of the uncontrollable factors which determine whether you’re going to have a good or bad night. It’s essentially the chaos factor. You can have brilliant material, you can be well rehearsed, you can be confident – none of this will necessarily matter. You can be nervous, unrehearsed and empty headed – again, that doesn’t matter. It’s all down to the chemistry of the room – which in itself is subject to ebbs and flows.
First up last night was Izsi Lawrence. Iszi’s one of the more ‘pro’ comics in the area. She’s done some higher profile stuff and performed her own hour-long show before. I kind of know Izsi socially and I think she’s a brilliant person. She’s very sharp and sassy and her warmth comes with a little edge. Last night was the debut for my new short haircut (after many years with very long, thick, curls) and she sat opposite me, ignoring the obvious and when provoked for a response offered ‘I just haven’t decided whether you’re attractive or not’
I detailed the last set of hers I saw in my original post on the subject and last night’s gig felt rather like a continuation of that. I felt that she decided very quickly that the crowd didn’t like her so that became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her material is good and her delivery is excellent and I get the feeling that with an appreciative audience, she would absolutely fly but she made what I considered to be a mistake by identifying members of the audience who were just staring at her and somewhat alienating them by alluding to their aloofness. I think audience response is and should be the elephant in the room, as soon as it’s mentioned there are implications. The comic rightfully feels angry at the audience for being cold and reserved, the audience rightfully feels they were paid to be entertained so will laugh when they damn well choose. Both are justified. Both exacerbate the problem. Iszi cut her own 10 minutes lot in half on the spot and left by telling the audience ‘I have to go, I have another gig to go to’ – which was the wrong thing to say on a number of levels but really not her fault. When faced with a blinding spotlight and the shapes of an unimpressed audience, you’re not always in control of your words or your emotions. She hadn’t bombed at all, some of her material went down very well – getting a round of applause for her self-assessment as having looked like the product of a lesbian fucking a thundercat – but it set a certain tone of hostility between the stage and the crowd that didn’t shift for the rest of the night.
Next up was Mark Diamond who veered so violently between bombing and winning it was like watching a formula one driver having a heart attack. One of my pet hates is prop comedy and he had a full box of laminated fake product logos. The secret to his ultimate success was a very genuine charm and warmth. It can be the worst thing in a world when a comedian acknowledges how badly their set is going but mark seemed to feed off it, his set becoming increasingly manic and surreal which, in turn, became increasingly entertaining and enthralling. He left to good applause but he had really earned it. He had gone to war with that audience – not in an angry way or even by addressing them directly – but he refused to allow them to make him bomb and his perseverance was admirable and successful.
I was due on stage next but thanks to a scheduling mix-up, compere Alex went on and introduced another guy. At first, I was a little relieved but quickly realised due to an empty stage and that other guy stood behind me saying to Alex ‘No, I’m not going on now!’ that my spot was going to be difficult before I even got to the stage. After having whipped the crowd up into applause, Alex had to go back and ask them to do it again but for me. The applause was obviously lesser this time around and I knew that the opening of my act was quite an alienating one anyway. I really didn’t want to take to the stage at that moment. But I did. I like to take a moment to compose myself and begin the slow burn that I’m now developing as the opening to my act. I think the slow burn is probably a minute to a minute and a half long. It’s a story which contains nothing to laugh at and no clue as to what the punchline might be. 90 seconds of silence is not what most comedians ever hope for and is unbelievably stressful to perform as the feeling builds within you that the punchline won’t fire or will get a polite laugh and you’ll be the guy who tells long unfunny jokes. One of the multitude of reasons I will never do one of those ‘gong shows’. I got to the punchline and got a laugh. I immediately inserted a new bit which I had been very uncertain about whilst writing and it got a great laugh and some applause. I was off. I hadn’t rehearsed well and feel that I stumbled through a lot of my material but made it to all of the key laughs and went down fairly well. Halfway through the set, I made the mistake of directly addressing the audience (my last gig was based on audience interaction and I bombed like Hiroshima and vowed never to interact again), my set was about weddings and I asked them how many weddings on average they had been to each year. Silence. ‘Who here has been to a friends’ wedding?’ – two people raise their hands. I realise that this is a predominantly young student crowd. They have no idea what I’m talking about. They’ve never experienced this. I launch into my ‘wedding invitations are like council tax bills’ bit and it hits me that most of these kids have never paid council tax. They probably don’t really know what it is. I knuckled down and got through it. I end the act by reading out a list – it’s a bit of a crutch but it means I have something to aim for and I know it’s a bit that works and I can end well. Which I did. I got good strong applause and cheers.
Next up was my friend Tom Greeves. Tom is just masterful. I love seeing him perform. In person, he is an incredibly sweet, humble and polite man. Sometimes frustratingly so – I often accuse him of laughing politely at comedians who don’t warrant it. He’ll do anything he can to set you at your ease but when he takes to the stage, he shows no mercy. I love that. He’s been watching the crowd all night and he works through them one by one slamming them into the metaphorical wall. To a trendy young guy sat at a table with two girls ‘Look at you, you’re wearing a woolly hat indoors. aren’t you trendy? Either of these your girlfriend? It won’t last. Statistically. You’re young and you look like you might sleep with businessmen for money’ I’m not doing him justice, but it is a joy to watch. He interrogates a medical student and goes off on a riff about the idea of Brookes University offering a medical course – ‘Imagine that; being in an accident and being seen by a man who got two C’s and a D at A-Level’ ‘NURSE, GIVE ME A SCALPEL’ ‘….why, doctor?’ ‘I DON’T KNOW!’ His physical prowess is excellent and I actually genuinely laughed so loud my sides were hurting. Tom’s a comedian’s comedian in how he assassinates the room. We’re not just laughing because he’s funny, we’re laughing because we resent that audience and love to see them get their comeuppance. We know that he’s striking a blow for all of us – but in a charming and very funny way. The audience love it too. But I think we love it best.
First after the break was a young man who looked very ‘hip’. As he took to the stage, Tom told me that I wouldn’t like him – I was intrigued to know why. He set up a camera to film his own performance, then took to the stage with his hoodie hood up over his head. He opened boldly ‘You’re probably wondering about the hoodie – I never know how to wear it. Wear it up, I look like a thug, wear it down, I look like a DICK!’ He was expecting a big laugh, I think, but he got silence. And he gave silence back. An Andy Kaufmanesque period of silence. I was convinced it was part of the act. He launched into his next bit and trailed off mid-sentence. Looking lost and anxious. More silence. He was dying on an epic scale. He looked like a cocksure young man who thought ‘I could do stand-up easily!’ and had taken to the stage with no experience, no material written, no plan and was just caught like a rabbit in the spotlight. After an achingly long silence, he gave it one last shot. ‘Can someone explain homosexuals to me?’ Nervous disbelieving laughter rang out form those of us in the comedians’ corner. He tried to finish his sentence but gave up and left. He slumped at a table next to his girlfriend and held his head in his hands. We all felt awful for him. Tom said he’d seen him a couple of times and he did have an act. Just a bad night.
Alex had to get back out there and save the night. He did triumphantly by interacting with a horrible crusty old drunk in the crowd who thought he was a joker. Alex was quick-witted and deft in his handling of the chap and got the room laughing again.
Next up was Josh Robbins-Cherry. Josh is very new to stand-up, this being, I believe, his third gig. He’s quite a nervous guy anyway but that translates on stage into incredible manic energy. He started into one of his bits and clearly lost confidence in it. He started to bomb. But then he pulled out of it in a stunning way. He threw it back at the audience. He was angry and hurt and pissed off at having his efforts rewarded with indifference and he told them so. It was stunning. He went to the window and looked out at the river. ‘Maybe I should just kill myself, eh? Throw myself in the river? It can’t be as cold as this crowd. In fact, I can’t even be bothered with you, I’m going to perform to these guys, at which point he turned away from the bulk of the audience and did his next planned bit to the raised area where all the other comedians and promoters were. It was great. His material was solid and he’d given the audience a piece of his mind. We lapped it up – so did they. Tom rightly described it as heroic.
The last act up was Matt Richardson. Matt is the guy in our little community who everyone knows is going to be famous. He’s 18 years old but has the confidence, charm and performance skills of a pro. It was the second time I’ve seen his act so it naturally loses a little lustre when you know where the punchlines are but he stormed it. He is at ease in front of an audience and has a huge amount of energy and cheekiness. I could see him on Mock The Week (and Tom, by the way, was born to be a panelist on Have I Got News For You’) I could see him being a figurehead for the next generation. His act is full of facebook references which flow naturally rather than the ‘grumpy old men’ approach the rest of us have when discussing facebook and other ‘new’ technology. Matt grew up with it, it’s natural to him and his generation and for a younger crowd, Matt is a godsend. We chatted afterwards and even he had struggled with the indifference of that audience.
I think we all did rather well, considering.