So you wanna be a comedian? Whether you’ve hopes of being the next Stewart Lee, Pappy’s Fun Club or Coco the Clown, your first steps will most likely be taken on the UK’s merciless, unforgiving and weirdly giddy open-mic circuit.
I’ve done it so you don’t have to. And here’s what I learnt.
1) Just do it
Performing stand-up comedy for the first time is very much like losing your virginity. The nerves, the sweaty palms, the lack of talent, the fumbling, the disappointment for all parties, the debilitating performance anxiety, the nudity, the shame, the sympathetic noises, the forced laughter, the dozen other people in the room staring at you. Yes, performing comedy is just like sex – the first time is rubbish.
No matter how many books you’ve read, how many videos you’ve exhaustively studied, how much you’ve practised your ‘technique’ in the mirror, your first time will lead to nothing more than an awkward silence and slow, sad head-shakes.
So quit honing your material and get on stage. In fact, get on stage when you’ve little or no material. It’ll be horrible, so why subject your precious ‘good’ material to this treatment? Be brave, young ‘un, grasp the nettle.
2) Don’t rely on your ‘good’ material
Great comedy writers don’t necessarily make great comedy performers. In a nutshell, if you’re not funny, it doesn’t matter if your material is. When I was doing stand-up I spent weeks perfecting what I thought was a near-genius set about the various illnesses of Sir Steve Redgrave (comedy gold).
The first time I performed it, it got one laugh. And that was when I said, accidentally, the word ‘Guildford’. The crowd loved that, the weird people. The second time I performed it, it got one laugh. And that was when I said ‘the audience last night didn’t like that bit either, until I said Guildford’. The crowd loved that. I had no idea what was going on.
The third time I performed it, it got no laughs, even though I had deliberately and self-consciously inserted the word ‘Guildford’. Crowd didn’t care. It turns out that neither I nor Guildford are naturally funny. On paper, that material was dynamite.
3) Be nice
Your act can be the most unpleasant, misanthropic ne’er-do-well but that’s no excuse not to be nice. To the audience (unless it’s part of the act), to the MC, to your fellow comedians. Sadly there is more ego, haughtiness and sense of entitlement on the open mic circuit than your average cabinet meeting.
Comedy is awash with insecurity, crippling self-doubt and neediness. Merrily this often translates into a game of quintuple-bluff with the audience and all other comedians, and you end up trying to be pseudo-ironically quasi-arrogant (and coming across as a bit of a tosser).
At one particularly excruciating gig, during which the MC subjected the only two genuine audience members to a torrent of weird abuse (‘do you guys hate jokes or something?’- they didn’t), I left appalled by the attitude of my fellow open-mic comedians. The lazy, studied disdain when other comedians were onstage, the laconic barely-audible applause, the ‘yeah whatever’ air of insouciance. It made for a sour atmosphere and no one won.
Do as you would be done by.
4) Record yourself
S’what I told the missus, fnar fnar (sex joke!). Although in all seriousness, when you do tape yourself, it’s horrific to watch the tape back of a time when you thought you did really well and see all the horrible faces you pulled and the stupid poses you threw yourself into and realise that you were nowhere near as good as you thought you were and the response you got was a lot quieter than you imagined it was at the time (am I talking about comedy or sex? Who knows?! That’s the joke! Hahaha).
But seriously, tape yourself. Listen back. Rubbish, wasn’t it? Try harder.
5) Have skin so thick you could cover a car in it and confidently drive it up Route Irish
The open-mic circuit doesn’t care about you. The audience, the organisers, the other comedians. You’re a tiny plankton in the great ocean of comedy being swallowed whole by the open-mic whale. You’ll look out, night after night, across a sea of bemused, sympathetic, patronising, hostile, upset, bored faces as you desperately try anything to make the bastards laugh.
And that’s the good nights. The rest of the time there’s no audience.
6) Gig til you can gig no more
Can’t stress this enough. You cannot have a social life, partner or sleep. The guys I met on the circuit who were doing well were banging out 6-10 gigs a week and their skin had the pallor of a thin crisp.
Comedy is like sport – you only get better by doing it. If you do one gig a week, bully for you. But the others are doing a lot more. And they’re getting better than you.
7) Imitation, imitation, imitation
And finally, here’s a tip you won’t get from anyone else – copy. Don’t, for heaven’s sake, steal material or parrot an Eddie Izzard set word for word (saw this happen). But remember that you’re an amateur and there’s nothing wrong with having heroes and nothing wrong with learning from them. Great artists steal, as Picasso said. Even The Beatles began life as a rubbish Lonnie Donegan tribute act.
So your delivery naturally leans towards Jimmy Carr-esque dryness? So your comedy sketches have all the hallmarks of Monty Python? So your farce is essentially an Alan Ayckbourn knock-off? Great. Keep going.
Don’t let anyone tell you that what you’re doing is wrong. As long as you’re doing it, you’ll get better. Eventually, hey, you’ll develop your own style. Don’t try and re-invent the wheel. At least, not until you’ve learned what a wheel is supposed to look like in the first place.