There is a reason that a comedian bidding his or her farewells will usually utter the phrase ‘You’ve been great.’ On the surface, an audience member might think, ‘No, you’ve been great. I’ve just been laughing.’ Any comedian will tell you, audience is everything. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Performing stand-up to an empty room is like having ‘Bring a bottle’ on the bottom of invitations to an AA meeting.
There are many different types of audience, and what type you get depends on how well you do. From the outside it seems pretty simple – you have funny material and are a funny comedian = you get laughs and go down well. It’s not like that. Sometimes comedy is a fight. There’s a reason that all the words describing how well comedy goes on stage (killing is great, bombing is bad) have very violent connotations.
Ever sat at home and watched Have I Got News For You, Mock The Week or Would I Lie To You? all by yourself? I’m guessing either one of two things happened, either you thought it wasn’t the funniest episode by a long shot, or you found it very funny – without actually laughing aloud. The reason for this is because comedy is a social thing, which is surprising considering the fact that most comedy involves a lot of people sitting together, all staring quietly at one person on stage. Not very social at all, it seems.
But, as touched upon in the first article, laughter is one of the defining currencies of our culture, we laugh more in groups. Half of laughter, it seems, is as a way of showing the people around us that we find something amusing – hence the fact that when watching comedy alone we tend not to laugh very much. Who is there to tell? This might seem as though it is veering away from the point of the article, but it is vital to understand that laughter is something that changes depending upon factors. The factor that has just been proved is group size.
Another is attitude. Yes, you can’t simply say ‘this comedian will be the funniest ever and I will laugh twice as hard.’ As Eddie Izzard says at the beginning of one of his DVD’s, ‘This is being filmed, so tonight I’m going to be extra funny for you.’ You can’t tell, is the point. But whilst you cannot make yourself laugh more (but you can hold laughter in if you’re desperate not to find someone amusing), you can decide whether or not you really want to.
I perform at the Late Train Comedy nights at the Railway Inn, Winchester. When I came up to university, desperate to do stand-up, I found there was nowhere to do it, and so gave up. I didn’t have the confidence to really go looking for those opportunities too hard. When James D. Irwin came up to university a year later, he found there was nowhere to do stand up, so a year after that set up his own night. I’ll confess that upon realising that it was something I could have done two years ago and been consistently practicing stand-up all throughout university, there was a certain ‘bugger’ moment.
James has managed to create a night which is all about fun, and entertainment. It’s not a night people come to just to get drunk, it’s a night people come to specifically for comedy. Which is why when I performed a routine there in January which two days earlier hadn’t gone very well in London, it went down a storm, so I am told (but yes, I myself would say it went a lot better than I anticipated). The same routine two weeks later for the Radio Society Fundraiser up at the university again went quite well, although not as well as the Late Train, even though according to the other performers I performed it better.
So how does this work? Out of ten (with ten being my ultimate expectation of how well the gig could have gone, not how funny it could have possibly been), the London gig was a four, The Late Train was a 12, and the fundraiser was an 8. How can it be that the same routine, by the same performer, can go down so differently in three different places?
Firstly, a little about the routine. It was a surrealist ramble, based upon a fiasco I had in McDonalds. I took a real incident (a rather innocuous incident) and added a very strange narrative to it. Suffice to say I ordered two hamburgers, and by the end of the story I was being served them by a pirate who had had to fight a dragon in order to get the beef. Intrigued? The video is on my Facebook page, if you ever feel like checking it out.
The fact it was surreal is one of the things to make note of. It was very Noel Fielding-esque. Noel Fielding is seen as being a non-mainstream comedian, and a lot of people are left bewildered by his routines. Any man who comes on stage and opens with the line ‘Hey lady, you’ve got a face, I’ve got a face; it’s all gonna be alright’, is bound to leave some people wondering exactly what they’ve walked into. Not everyone is comfortable with this style of humour, and in London I believe that is part of the reason for my routine not going very well.
There was something else as well though. Everyone else from The Late Train (there were 6 of us) had a lukewarm response. The guys were still great, but their material, just like mine, wasn’t as well received as I’d have liked. Some of theirs was fairly ‘normal’ as well.
The gig was for a magazine. I got the impression a lot of the people there were only there because they were too polite to say no, something that always happens with gigs. There were a couple of downright miserable looking people in the audience as well. When you get up on stage and the first thing you can see are some people frowning, you know you’re in a bit of trouble. If the audience isn’t there for comedy, then they’re not particularly going to like it. They responded better to the musical act (who was very good, it has to be said) which just goes to show that it wasn’t that they were all bored out of their skulls the whole time.
As people who perform to a group of forty or so students as our main audience, forty or so ‘adults’ were obviously a different ball game for us. I think that people expect you to talk about what you primarily are – male comics talk about manly things, female comics talk about feminine things. Old comics talk about getting old and young comics talk about being young. Everyone talks about sex and marriage, but from their respective viewpoints. When you have a group of young comics, most of them not talking about being young (instead delivering nonsensical rants about McDonalds), it can throw an older audience.
I feel you may be wanting to point something out. Surely, I am overlooking the probability that perhaps we weren’t very good? Perhaps the reason my routine didn’t go down very well was because it was new, and so unpolished, I didn’t perform it very well, and maybe it just wasn’t funny.
I struggled with this notion myself, and it is what leads me onto the second part of this article – how can you ever truly say for certain whether or not you are a good stand-up comic?
The problem I had was that two days after the London gig was another Late Train. Considering I’d planned to use the same routine for both gigs, when it didn’t go too well at the first one, my immediate thought was that I needed to drop it and think of something else. After two days agonising over the decision, I decided that I should do the same routine at the Late Train, for three reasons.
Firstly, the London audience wasn’t the kind of audience we are all used to, and the fact that we all fared worse than usual suggested that it wasn’t just my material being rubbish (which was my main fear).
Secondly, I knew that comedy was subjective. I didn’t want to throw away material just because it only did ok at a gig. What if I was throwing away my best routine to date (this was more true than I could have realised at the time)?
And thirdly, as I have to tell myself a thousand times to try and calm my nerves whenever I’m due to go on stage – even though it never works – there must be some part of me deep down that believes that I’m funny as a person and my material is good, or I would never go anywhere near the stage. If I thought, deep down, that the McDonald’s routine was good enough to perform in London (we were treating it as a special gig) then there must have been a reason for that. It must have been good.
The differences in reception, then are due to the audience. I remained the same, and so did the routine. A couple of extra jokes were thrown in, but the whole routine remained pretty much the same. I took nothing out, which is important, as it could have been an early joke or line up in London which grated the audience and turned them against me. In London, the audience didn’t want comedy; that was obvious, and so they didn’t laugh. At the Late Train they did, and were our age, and had been there before, so could remember that the last time I performed (my debut) I did well. This tiny fact, that last time I was funny, lodged in the very backs of their minds, could have made all the difference. At the radio society fundraiser, the audience weren’t sure what to expect, having never been to the Late Train, and were bombarded by seven or eight comedians with various styles. They were probably a bit confused, and feeling a bit out of their depth. Add on top of that the fact that the Vault, where the gig was held, was full of tiered seating whereas the Railway was a much more relaxed environment, meant that the gig had a more formal feel to it.
Comedy is a strange thing. Because it’s the thoughts, opinions and general perceptions of the comedian, that makes it very personal. Go to watch stand-up comedy, and you’re getting a little insight into how the comedian’s mind works. Because it is so personal, not everyone will like it, or agree. There is a reason there are so many makes of car, or flavours of ice-cream, or religions. Because of this, comedians have a problem. Similarly to writing, how do you know when to give up?
It is common knowledge that J.K Rowling was rejected by dozens of publishers before finally being accepted. As far as the comparison works, I’d say that if you perform stand up dozens of times and each one goes terribly, I’d say it’s safe to admit that you’re terrible and should give it up. But at what ratio of good to bad gigs should you start thinking ‘maybe I’ve got something here’? One in ten good gigs, I’d say that was a fluke, or you’re a comic genius whose had the misfortune to play to exactly the wrong sort of audience for your comedy at almost every single gig.
Fifty-fifty I’d say means that you’ve got something. You’ll probably never make it as a pro, never get famous, but you’ve got some kind of spark. If half the time, you’re gigs are going well, it probably means that the other times they aren’t is down to you as a performer, not a comedian. With practice, you could probably make yourself a lot better, narrow those percentages down a lot.
No one gets 100%. One of the things that has always kept me away from doing stand-up is that every famous comedian has stories about bad gigs. Not just bad ones, terrible ones. Dying on stage. That’s what it feels like if you’re material isn’t funny. You might as well be dying. Comedy isn’t, as it might appear on the surface, about simply being naturally funny. It’s about working at it. Michael McIntyre is always writing. Bob Monkhouse famously had ledgers filled with jokes, indexed and alphabetized for when he needed one for a specific occasion.
This is something I’ve only just learned. I get very down when a gig doesn’t go at least as well as I wanted it to. But I’m starting to realise there’s only two things to do about that. Practice and prepare more, and grow a thicker skin. Without the risk of failure, there would be no success, and if I work at it hard enough, you mark my words, I hope to succeed.