Well, regular readers will be relieved to hear… read… that I am back on the comedy horse.
After the gig I detailed in my last ‘Sit Down’ post, I decided to radically re-think what I was doing. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother doing comedy again. At that point I hated the audience and hated the promoter and still hadn’t found the material that I felt best suited me. Really all I was enjoying was the camaraderie. Getting to spend some time with the little group I consider my contemporaries. So, essentially, it was like going to the pub with your mates but encouraging everyone else in the building to sit down and judge you for 10 minutes halfway through the evening.
The fall out from the last gig was awful. Despite the guilt and self-loathing, I got blacklisted by two of Oxford’s three comedy promoters and one of them – who had been a good friend for years – decided to end our friendship based not just on my decision to mock her during my disastrous set but because in the blog I wrote I afterwards, I called her shit at promoting. I edited it straight out of there but she decided it was unforgivable. So, since I’m doing the time, I might as well do the crime. So to speak. I shouldn’t have said she was *shit* at promoting -because that is mean and impulsive but there’s a point to be made about how these gigs are put together and the effect they have and although I take full blame for my set having died so miserably, there is something to be said for promoters and comedians working together.
So, I’m hardly a seasoned pro here but let me describe the Open Mic scene I’m coming out of; a promoter books a small venue – a room in a pub or a bar – they let it be known that comedians can come along and do their sets (usually 5 to 15 minutes) and first-timers can just get up and have a go. They charge admission to the audience and usually get the venue for free based on the principle that the customers will spend a bunch at the bar. The promoter has to market the event -although this is increasingly easy through facebook, Twitter and the like. potentially they can make some OK cash and definitely create a great night.
I don’t want to say anything more that could seem pointed at that particular promoter because I will always be extremely thankful to her for giving me my first gigs and actually encouraging me to try stand-up at all. What I will say – generally – is that since the promoter is not paying the comedians or the venue and is taking all of the door money, the one responsibility they have is to promote. Is to work their asses off to get a good crowd – a big crowd, the right crowd. It’s unfair on the comedians who are traveling some distance to the gig or working up material specifically for it to put them in front of a small and random crowd. A comedian should fail or succeed on their act and performing to an empty/disinterested room is incredibly difficult.
My last set died not just because of the tiny crowd but also because I was running before I could walk. the point of the material was valid and it would have been funny if I’d been more experienced at actually performing. Maybe at some point in the future, I’ll look at it again but I’d need to be way longer in the tooth and know I had a sympathetic audience who ‘got’ me already, otherwise it could just be nasty. So, I’ve spent the last month or so developing an entirely new set. I wanted it to contain the same kind of anger my material seems to veer towards but I wanted to be able to deliver it in a more friendly way. Not that I want the audience to like me, I just don’t want them to actually loathe me. The huge decline in quality TV programming has been bothering me increasingly and I thought it’d be good to construct a set around that. I’ve only recently bought a TV after 6 years without and that seemed a good angle to be coming from – someone who hasn’t seen TV in 6 years reacting to what he was faced with. So, it was accessible for an audience – it had pop culture references – and it allowed me to talk honestly and hopefully amusingly about a subject I do actually feel passionately about.
I was very nervous before my gig on Thursday night. Not just because it was 100% new material, but also because it was my first ‘pro’ gig. One of our little stable of local comedians – the stunning Matt Richardson – decided to try his hand at promoting and booked Ava Vidal to headline his first gig, giving support slots to myself and Alex Clissold-Jones and also a ‘circuit’ comedian – meaning he’s won some competitions and can headline small shows.
Matt is an incredible guy. He’s 18 years old and has thrown himself into comedy fearlessly. and I do mean fearlessly, Matt will happily do gong shows, take on rowdy audiences, he seems to gig constantly and he does it joyously. I’ve seen his set go down incredibly well and I’ve seen it go down less well but he never gives it less than 100% He loves hecklers and slams them mercilessly. I mean, he is cold. But he is also the sweetest guy imaginable. He booked me for the gig telling me that he wanted to restore my faith in gigs! And BOY did he do that. The venue he booked was beautiful – the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon, it’s a converted abbey, beautiful medieval building with an Elizabethan style theatre built into it. He sold the gig out. He worked so hard – and this is his first gig and – at the risk of sounding patronising – HE’S 18!!! He sold it out. 80 seats. When I arrived, a guy dashed up to me, asked me if I was Jon and whisked me to the performers’ area. We had our own little cottage with an ice bucket full of bottles of water and the offer of whatever beers we wanted. Alex and I were both nervous – playing on an actual stage to a full house rather than a half-empty pub room is a new dynamic and having an actual pro headliner was a bit intimidating.
Matt compered the night and did a great job, obviously he had a lot of friends in the audience but he totally owned that room. He was having a great time. The circuit comedian went on first. He was a nice chap. When I first heard he’d been booked, I looked him up on-line, finding a clip of him on youtube which was pretty funny. The clip was 3 years old and he performed a virtually identical set. I can see why people would do that but… well… I can’t see why people would do that. As I see it, half the fun of comedy is the generating of material and – as I found out that night – seeing where the audience takes you. I can’t imagine ever coming up with material that I could or would use 3 years later. I’d be bored of it by then. As it stands, I’ve only ever once repeated material.
The traditional method seems to be that you work up a solid 10 – 15 minute set to try to build a career, as you advance, you build on that and change it. You’ll find that most pros generate a one hour set each year. They test the material at smaller gigs, usually get it ready to premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe, then tour it for a year (with the bigger ones releasing it as a DVD in time for xmas). That makes sense to me. I feel cheated when I see a comedian repeating material from a previous tour, or especially a DVD. The worst offender for this is Omid Djalili who I find very funny but all of his DVDs seem to contain the same material – one of them even has early performance footage from 10 years previous where he is essentially performing the same set.
I was on next. Alex was waiting behind the curtains and was so supportive, knowing that I was bricking it. As Matt was doing his five minutes of material before introducing me, I realised he was telling the audience all about the fat people he’d had confrontations with at gigs. For those of you that don’t know me personally, I’m a big guy – I’m a portly fellow and I was just dreading that he was building up to some kind of ‘fat’ introduction of me. He eventually didn’t, he introduced me as one of his ‘great friends’. I psyched myself up (it’s very different appearing through a curtain rather than just stepping on from the side of the stage), stormed out there and impulsively ad-libbed ‘he calls me a great mate but he introduces me with 5 minutes of fat jokes’ Which went down brilliantly. A big, instant laugh. Still on the Matt subject, I (on his advice, I might add) re-used the one good line from my previous failed set about Matt looking like what would happen if the PG-Tips chimps decided to parody the TV show ‘Skins’ – another good laugh. I liked this audience. I launched into my new set and it went down well. I felt comfortable enough with the audience to tailor it to them, to involve them a bit. I found myself completely ad-libbing a bit of material that I had never even thought about. I had mentioned something which got an audience cheer, so said ‘You people will cheer anything! DERRICK BIRD!’ that got some laughs and some ‘ooooooohs’ ‘OK – Harold Shipman!’ some cheers ‘Fred west?’ some more cheers ‘there we go – the comedy statute of limitations, it’s OK to laugh about them once their victims have been buried!’ I wish I’d finished it off with Myra Hindley ‘no? not until they find the last one?’. I had actually prepared a bit about Derrick Bird which I’d been unsure whether to use and I’m glad I didn’t. It was quite a provincial crowd and I can’t see that it would have been a clever road to go down. I’m so glad i didn’t say ‘cunt’ once – when Ava said it later in the evening, it got gasps. So, yeah, the set went down well, I ended up completely improvising the ending – telling an anecdote about something that had actually happened to me that day and it was good. I got a lovely response and left the stage happy. Alex later told me that he and Matt were stood behind the curtain and were jumping up and down, punching the air for me when I’d opened with three strong laughs.
Alex was next on and was great. I went and watched him from the balcony and he really came into his own. He’s a wonderful compere and that means he’s one of those guys who can very easily get the measure of a crowd and respond appropriately with his material. He was very funny, I laughed a lot.
And then Ava went on and she was fantastic. Talk about handling a crowd, she was so good. I’d say that that was probably not ‘her’ crowd, as I said, they seemed a bit provincial and a strong, black female comedian could have been a bit much for them but she hand them in the palm of her hand. She seemed so comfortable on that stage and her delivery was just effortless, she was really funny. When you actually perform at these gigs, it’s easy to spend the whole thing being nervous or picking apart the other performers and forget that it’s all about entertainment. it was so nice to just sit back and have a really good laugh.
After the show, Alex and I had a really nice chat with Ava and she gave me some great advice. I’ve had some shitty comedians give me arrogant advice before but she was actually apologetic about offering it and it was genuinely helpful. She told me that I should think about not walking about so much and spend more time making actual eye contact with the audience. She said she liked my material but I had to face the crowd and really sell it. That’s the first, simple constructive criticism I’ve ever received and I’m absolutely using it. I’m really excited for my next set now, I want to really work this new material. Especially since the Edinburgh Fringe programme has just been published and our show is in it!
I’m so excited. A ten day run of shows with my best comedy friends – Alex, Tom Greeves and Paul Fung – and young Mat will be there too! I love the idea of being able to perfect it night after night and to just be around so many other people doing the same thing.