Having been to several open mic nights, it has become apparent that there is a perception of comedy that it is simply getting up on stage and talking for a bit. It is, in the same way as saying you get a pig and then sausages happen. If comedy is just talking, then art is just putting colours in the right places, dance is just getting your feet in the right position and football is just getting paid a lot of money to do bugger-all.
A lot of people at open mic nights – they tend to be either drunk, or drama type people in my experience – get up to give it a go. Sometimes, people who want to do stand up and have material prepared but don’t have the confidence to get up on stage under the mantle of ‘performer’ will go to open mic nights. That’s how James Irwin, of the Late Train fame, found several of his performers. They did the open mic, and were so good he asked them back. Personally, I just took a deep breath and plunged straight in as an act. Luckily, it worked.
But aspiring comics aside, usually one of two things will happen. The person will either tell some dirty jokes that they didn’t write, or will talk for ages and ages about absolutely nothing, failing to comprehend why it isn’t funny. ‘Look at the way ducks walk,’ they might say. ‘That’s funny, isn’t it? Them walking all funny and that.’ Stand-up is just talking, they seem to think, so why aren’t people laughing when they talk?
Unless you’re Ross Noble, Billy Connolly or one of those extremely lucky buggers, you need to prepare material. This is for two reasons. One is that even though most comedians have fast minds in real life, as soon as you are on stage under pressure to be funny, that wit can suddenly vanish. Like all creativity, comedy is not something that can be forced. The second reason is that most of what makes a joke funny is the way it is told or performed. A great joke can be ruined by terrible delivery, and a terrible joke can be made hilarious by a talented performer. Tim Vine, for example, deals entirely in puns, and yet watching one of his shows is an infinitely funnier experience than sitting around reading hundreds of pieces of paper collected from the inside of Christmas crackers.
Bill Bailey’s three men go into a pub joke is a great example of why performance matters. ‘Three men go into a pub… I say three, it could be four, or five… Five men go into a pub, alright; ten, fifteen… twenty…’ This goes on until Europe goes into a pub. Look it up on Youtube to appreciate it fully. That is a routine that relies entirely on the performance. It is all down to the way Bill Bailey keeps correcting himself. If he did it wrong, the audience might think he actually was forgetting the details of the joke. It is because performance is such a large part of the material that comedians have to practice. Most comedians have a natural instinct for how to deliver a gag effectively, but it can always be improved and honed by running through the routine several times before doing it on stage. It is this lack of preparation that is one of the things that makes people at open mic nights fall flat.
Of course, the above statement is being generous in many ways, and brings me nicely onto the main point of this article. Some people are not funny. There’s no mean-spiritedness in saying that, it’s not a taboo thing to say – I myself will never be good at hammering, making walls or sexism. Some people just cannot tell a joke, even one written by a brilliant comedian, without making it as boring as poking yourself repeatedly in the eye. This is the other reason why people fall flat at open mic nights. Usually a large quantity of alcohol tells them that they are a lot funnier than they actually are, and that stand-up is easy, so they give it a go.
I’ve mentioned in a previous article that stand-up comedy is something that I believe comes from your perspective and outlook on the world. I believe it is the way a performer’s brain works that makes them amusing. Comedy is not some universal checkbox, you’ve either got ‘funnies’ or you haven’t. There are levels, styles, perspectives, genres. Not all comedians who are married make exactly the same marriage jokes. It’s all about perspective.
Which is why I find it strange that there are university degrees and short courses on comedy, and on how to be funny. I firmly believe that you either are, or you aren’t. True, people who are mildly amusing can probably, with practise and study, become a lot funnier. But if you don’t have that spark to begin with, you can’t go from being David Brent to David Mitchell just by doing a degree. You can’t teach someone to change their fundamental outlook on life so effectively that their brain rearranges itself into that of a comedian.
So why are there so many courses, if comedy cannot be taught to people? Well, most importantly I suspect a lot of people disagree with me. Secondly, I expect they are probably more focussed on teaching funny people to be funnier. Thirdly, they are probably a bit like Creative Writing degrees, in that they are not just about being funny, they are about appreciating all forms of comedy and expanding their horizons. When put like that it sounds much more sensible, I completely understand the point in that. But if they are trying to teach people who can’t string together a joke without resorting to toilet humour (although even then several comedians have made very successful careers out of that) then I believe they are wasting their time.
I’m not being elitist – it works in all walks of life. I will never be a mathematician. My brain doesn’t do numbers, which is perhaps why words are my strongpoint. With practice, I can become better at maths, certainly, but I will never be able to grasp it properly. It is the way my brain thinks things through, and this cannot be changed. Neurons are like bypasses in the mind, perhaps, except that even several years of orange cones and diverted electrical signals whilst they reroute it would not make me into a mathematician. Experts believe that (with lessons)anyone can sing to a level that’s nice to hear, it’s just that some people start with a much greater natural ability (others start with autotune).
ITV 2’s Top 100 Stand-Up’s was on television a couple of weeks ago. Most of the comedians interviewed, at some point or another, referred to stand-up comedy as Art. I’m sure you would agree that not everyone is artistic. That’s my point – there are groups of people who specialise in certain things. I’m no artist, or mathematician, or songwriter. On the other hand, not everyone is a stand-up comic, and thank God. If they were, my already tough way to the top would be a lot tougher…