A series of articles giving an insight to why I decided to try stand-up and looking back at early performances.
Originally published: Jan 17th 2012 @
I awoke on November 18th 2010 a new man. One full of hope, confidence, and above all else pride. Through a combination of hard-work on my own behalf and help from those around me (whether they knew it or not) I’d achieved a long-term dream that up until a few weeks previously had been nothing more.
Even my dad instantly noticed a buoyant spring as I stepped down stairs and he asked what activities his son had been up to. With a voice steeped in excitement I told him and for the first time was met by the question that has since been asked by a thousand different people: “tell us a joke then.”
As anyone who watched the video posted last week will tell you, I’m not a joke-teller but more of an anecdotist. Furthermore, I am shy and avoid intimacy at any cost. I’m happy to go on stage and bare all, but if confronted on a one-to-one basis then my mind simply freezes. Oh, and to make matters worse this was my own father asking the question.
I made my excuses and left. It was months before he finally came across the YouTube recording but, alas, now they’ve made Internet browsing so easy that even an utter technophobe can work it out. There was a lot of explaining to do once the video had been discovered and my mum was still yet to see it!
For now, at least, I was free from all that. I’d deluded myself into thinking I was brilliant after one, relatively successful gig and convinced myself that the world of comedy was mine for the taking. All this newfound confidence was overshadowed by another equally harrowing quality: naivety.
At that moment, my head was embedded in the clouds. It wouldn’t be long before I came crashing down to earth.
A second gig was booked for three weeks later which approached so rapidly that when it arrived I was still on a massive high from my inaugural performance. I’ve never dabbled in drugs or even smoked a cigarette, but I fully expect that the euphoric sensation of hearing strangers laugh at an idea you’ve conceived mirrors that of how a crack-head feels when taking his (or her) latest hit of smack. In a sense, I am a stand-up junkie.
Throughout the capital, the cold was biting on this mid-December night. Inside the venue there was no heating due to a technical fault and we were basically stood in a giant freezer. Coats stayed on as the audience gathered. The only thing keeping me warm, mentally as well as physically, was the thought of stepping into that spotlight once more.
I was on ninth and sitting through the previous eight acts was hell…minus the heat. In general the material was fine, at least as good as it had been at Dirty Dick’s, but the laughs just weren’t flowing. It was too cold. The audience was made up almost entirely of acts and were all unified by the desire to be tucked up in bed. Nobody really wanted to be there but we all stuck it out for those five minutes of fame, an inducement to how much this means to us. Dedication.
As I say, not one of the eight acts before me stormed it. How could anybody be on fire in this cold? Nonetheless I was certain that I’d change all that. Well, the material had worked well last time so what could go wrong? Right?
As the MC introduced me to the stage he made a comment about this being my second gig. For that split second, a brainstorm decided that using it within my opening joke would be genius. The top comedians do it, and as proved three weeks previously I was capable of joking them. Or not. I cannot remember the joke, and thankfully that gig wasn’t filmed, but I recall realising halfway through it that it was bloody awful. This was vindicated by the audience.
From then on it was an uphill battle with a mountain I wasn’t ready to conquer. I died. Tragically. The occasional token laugh of sympathy was about as good as it got and for at least half of my set there was total silence. Last week, I didn’t go into much detail about my first gig because it was a blur of ecstasy. This was the total opposite and even now every last second is as memorable as the last. A slow and painful death where I could feel my muscles coiling at the horror. I’d not been this embarrassed since being pushed into the girls’ changing rooms in year eight.
Head hanged in shame I shuffled my way into obscurity. The pats on the shoulder, which last time had been congratulatory, had now turned into a gesture of consolation. All comedians express it at some time or another and it is comforting to know that the others literally have your back. However, at that moment I’d have rather crawled into the shadows.
“It’s impossible to do well in these conditions!” I consoled myself. Naturally, the next act went and stormed it.
That had been the worst night of my life and it certainly wasn’t one I was in a hurry to return to, but something inside me had changed. I was still essentially a timid, shy character who feared rejection more than anything. However, for the first time in my life, I was prepared to bounce back from the disappointment and come back even stronger. If ever proof was needed that this was my fantasy, this was it.
It was the final term at University, the repercussion of which was that I simply couldn’t afford to build my stage time as much as I’d have liked. However I was yearning to show my improved sense of character and get back on the proverbial horse so saddled up once a month until my exams were over. Within these six gigs were two I considered strong performances, three average, and one I’d rather not talk about. The hard work ahead had become evident, but I’d shown to myself that my first success wasn’t just a case of beginner’s luck.
My ninth gig would be the biggest by a country mile. I was booked in for King Gong at The Comedy Store. This is the sort of venue every comic aspires to play. It is world famous for holding great events showcasing the very finest talent and has been the location for a number of sets filmed for TV. The prospect of performing there, albeit at their monthly open-mic event, was both thrilling and daunting.
In addition to being able to say, “I’ve played at The Comedy Store” it also offers the chance to perform in front of a real audience, an almost unrivaled opportunity for new faces on the scene of comedy. That is not to take anything away from, or tarnish in any way, the brilliance of open-mic nights; they not only offer a platform for an act to build their persona and learn the trade, but they also regularly provide top class entertainment for next to nothing – in many cases, actually free. However, King Gong draws in four hundred paying members of the public and, as a result, enables new acts to try out their material in front of an audience that is as close to the professional game as you can get.
It’s a privilege yes, but an extremely scary one. It doesn’t half get your heart pumping.
Being a ‘gong show’ means that, essentially, each act has the opportunity to perform five minutes of their best material. The twist is that if you don’t win the crowd over, you’re not going to last it. With three judges planted in the audience, the paying audience are encouraged to boo any act they feel is underachieving. Three red cards and it’s all over.
Of thirty acts, only five or six are expected to finish their full set. The audience can be brutal as I found out when acts were being gonged off less than 90 seconds in! Later on in the night, one guy was brilliant before being gonged off with less than ten seconds to go. Soul crushing.
I was the third act of the second half and could feel my heart skip a beat as the guy before me was gonged after two minutes odd. As a hypocritical Atheist, I prayed whilst jogging up to the stage. Having never even been to watch this event, I felt completely out of my depth and begged that God wouldn’t let this be a complete humiliation.