Before The Gig
I spent the day working on some new material. I say that - I actually spent a lot of the day playing Angry Birds on my computer and wishing I could just get through the next level, so I could get back to writing the material I was meant to be writing. When I finally did get onto the material construction - a sound-editing job, coupled with the script for interacting with fragments of songs to create a dialogue, I had a very nice time and prepared the results for performing that night, even though the material would best fit my show The Seven Deadly Sings which I'm bringing back, with edits, in only a few weeks.
Full of the joys of spring, I picked up my fiancée from work and set about the voyage to London, via Membury - the official service station of gig evening food. We had a fairly eventless car journey, though I insisted on showing my long-suffering other half a mini preview of this new 3 minutes of material, which I whipped through while playing the sound cues, rather poorly, on the car stereo.
You have to understand that there are 4 categories of material (this is not true, there are limitless categories, but I'm claiming 4 for now). It a grid where on one axis you've got "makes the audience laugh" and "doesn't make the audience laugh", and on the other axis you've got "I wrote this with a straight face" and "I was laughing when I wrote this". Generally, so long as you're in the "audience laughs" half of the grid, it doesn't matter whether you were laughing when you wrote it, though it SHOULD matter and you SHOULD write stuff that makes you laugh, otherwise why should you expect an audience to find it funny, and how will you show it's funny if they're not quite getting it?
My biggest fear, when I previewed the material in the car, hoping to do it that night, was that I was in the worst square of the comedy grid, the one which was "made me laugh until the milk was running out of my nose, but doesn't make the audience even smile". I had been roaring with laughter during my writing. Luckily, she-who-shall-be-marrying-me was also amused - or at least faked it well.
At the Gig
I'm going to describe what happened. I'm not going to name names, but I am going to be honest about how I saw things. The reason I feel objective enough to do this will be clear by the end, and if you're reading this, and are one of the people I've described below, then I'm going to assume that you CAN handle my opinion, otherwise you wouldn't have sought to find out what I had to say at this point in the long narrative that this blog entry has become.
I'll try to be nice, as well as blunt.
We arrived at about 8.20 and from the look of things I would have expected the gig to be cancelled, as there was no audience to speak of, and only few people in the pub. I pretty much gave up the idea of there being a try out of the new material, reasoning that the gig would probably be pulled.
However, as I was about to ask the organiser when she was going to pull the plug on proceedings, a handful of audience (4) arrived and took their seats and I was told that the stag night from downstairs would also be coming up. I was also told that there were 9 acts (NINE! ACTS!?) on the bill, and that, owing to the fact that we were running late, as the audience had taken their time to assemble, we'd be doing the show in two sections.
Nine new acts in front of a bunch of drunken stags, doing a series of 5/7 minute sets... what could possibly go wrong?
Well, the sound could go wrong for a start. I'd not realised, when I was on the stage during the sound check, that the sound was lovely on the stage, but rubbish and underpowered in the rest of the room. For sound engineering buffs out there this is what happens when the small speakers (monitors) at the foot of the stage, facing the act's ears, ARE working, when all the other aren't. It didn't help.
The compere got some attention from the crowd and then brought on the first act. She'd been worrying that her material wouldn't suit the audience, and I did my best to cheer her up by doing my ET impression, which involves a pocket torch and the tip of my finger. I know - it sounds rubbish, and it was pretty much the first time I'd ever tried it. Still, it amused us, as we waited to see whether taking to the stage in front of a drunken bunch of stags, who weren't exactly proving to be the sort who sit and listen, would amount to certain death.
In the end, the act raised her game, bantered with the crowd, got some laughs and generally tried a style that was more suited to a hard-work room. Sadly, her gear change into off-beat material about ladybirds was less effective with the audience we had. This is, by the way, the point. You must always play the audience you have. This can mean adapting your material, or it can mean adapting your style. Ultimately, it's chemistry - will you have enough to work with with this audience? If not, then it's just the game. Jim Davidson would not go down well with a bunch of Guardian readers, and I'm pretty sure that Robin Ince, might avoid playing a bunch of Daily Sport readers. Each to their own.
Ultimately, it's not the audience's fault that they happen to be the audience in front of you... that said, they can choose to be supportive or not, and these stags were on the brink of making the wrong choice for most of the night.
Notwithstanding some of the difficulties, the first act chose her moment to end her set and I think she acquitted herself well. One down, 8 to go.
The second act - a rather arrogant early twenties lad - hit the spot with the stags, as his material seemed largely based on porn, violence towards women and masturbation - in every permutation he could think of. I look at my own material sometimes and wonder what it says about me. In the case of this swaggering youngster, I think his material says that he's got some issues he needs to work through. Like most young-twenties stand-ups, some of his issues seem to be about masturbation guilt. Other quips, suggesting a love of pedophilia and causing pain to others, are probably unlikely to go down well with the majority of intelligent, fun-loving audience members who go to comedy clubs because they like to be entertained.
Act of the night was the third stage-goer, who didn't seem to need adapt her material or style greatly, but simply commanded the room with her dark yet girlish one-liners, deftly told with a winning smile. She was very professional and handled herself well. I've gigged with her before and expected greatness - she was one to watch and I was pleased that she got the cream of the gig.
After three acts, most audiences grow restless, and this audience weren't going to get that rest for some time to come. We had a middle-aged lady who seemed fresh from a comedy course. I may be doing her a disservice, but it seemed like she used training to enter the stage, take the microphone out of the stand and place it exactly to one side. I think this is an important skill, and I'm glad that comedy courses teach it so well. Unfortunately, it appears they also teach a sort of mewling, talking self-effacingly about yourself in a self-conscious manner, using your alleged quirks for joke-fodder. This wasn't the audience to be trying this out with.
Bolder and more brash, the final act of the first section bribed the main stag with a Sambuca and then paraded his own series of pet hates in front of the audience. I disagreed with much of his politics and chose that moment to go and buy a big glass of wine. Perhaps I should have drunk it myself, as the second half was going to be the one when it all happened.
Halfway to paradise
In the interval we fixed the sound system. By fixed, I mean I messed about with it, until I worked out what was wrong and managed to make it feedback brilliantly, thus proving I'd got the main speakers on. This was all under control, and in the end we got it sounding pretty good. My fiancee admitted to me that she found it pleasing that I jumped in and did sound engineering as required; she's most definitely the right girl for me, and I'd marry her sooner if it wasn't for the fact that we've already set a date.
I didn't play with the sound to impress her. I'd be doing it anyway. Still it's good to know that she appreciates it, though, since I'll be tinkering with sound equipment for as long as I can.
In the second section, there were to be 4 acts, including myself. This was trimmed down to 3, as the organiser decided to forego her spot to enable the night to run more to time. This was a selfless act, though it also got her off the hook. This wasn't proving to be the easiest of audiences, mainly a result of alcohol, and the nice non-stags had all left the gig by the time the second section started. The lairiness of the stags, coupled with the outright misogyny of the second act (see, not everyone goes for the sobbing-into-the-pillow-while-being-raped girlfriend material) had seen half the normal audience off, and the interval proved a convenient exit door for the second half.
So it was the stags and us. The "us", in question was pretty much the acts who were still waiting to go on, and perhaps one other. Most acts left as soon as they'd played, not wishing to stay around any longer than they had to. This is a shame as I think one should always stay to the end as you're bound to learn something. It's all very well knowing how YOU would play that audience, but perhaps you should see how the other acts do it. You may discover how it can be made easier... or harder. It's usually edifying in some way. Of course, if the gig's gone badly you may wish to disappear, and this is understandable. You may even have a distance to travel, and need to get on with it - fair enough. In general, though, you'll learn nothing from experiencing only your own set and the waiting to go on before it.
Anyway, all bets were off with this gig, since it was such an unusual situation.
On with the show
The first act of the second section picked up the pace of the staggish frenzy by suggesting the audience drink when he swore and encouraging the stag to down a pint. This caused amusement, though it didn't really help the mood of the gig. The thought of it becoming a bit more sombre and polite had to be dismissed entirely.
The next act was to be the last one before I went on. I told his girlfriend, as he took to the stage, that nothing in this room really counted for much - if he got a laugh, it was a win, as it was a tough room (but not representative of what an average audience would be like) and if he got nothing, then it didn't count. I could point out that he got a couple of laughs, which tailed off as he switched from stand-up to just monologuing his material to an increasingly inattentive room. That would sound overly critical. To be honest, it's pretty much exactly what happened, but is only to be expected for a newcomer to comedy, taking on an audience that's really not going to give them any room to learn the craft. It was a do or die gig, and the audience's chatter signalled that the time had come for this act to make a closing remark and leave the stage.
The act chose to take on the loudest-mouthed stag by shouting at him to "Shut the fuck up". This got his attention alright, and I watched the face of the act to see if he would use the moment to create a laugh, or make a friendly connection, or otherwise bring the gig into order. What I saw was an angry and frustrated individual getting himself into the start of an argument. The argument soon proceeded to cries of "I was just talking" and "I'm trying to work here" and "You're not funny" and "I'd be funny if you just listened" and "No, you're not funny" - the things that will never end well.
It was at this point that I got under the table. I slid from the sofa until I was lying with my legs under the table, pretty much trapped there. I then feigned the need for assistance to get up - making my fiancee wonder whether her capable sound engineer of a man was also a wounded deer in his spare time. I wasn't really trapped and I stood myself up and went to the corner of the room to await my call to the stage.
Remember - those acts who had left early had missed the opportunity to learn something. I was learning something. I was learning that I really had no clear battle plan for what I'd do when I hit the stage. I assumed I'd think of something. I'd prepared myself a bit for the gig, even switching my rugby top for a nice button-down shirt, though I did that mainly for my own comfort, rather than to look good for the stags.
Anyway, having gotten out from under the table, I then stood in the corner of the room and giggled quite uproariously to myself. "I've never been brought on to a fight before," I considered, as I watched the act leave the stage, the argument raging around him, and saw the MC try to reason with the crowd to bring them back into order. I could even imagine accidentally being seen as an aggressor, as I took to the stage, and having to fend off a stag, who seeing a big feller walking at him, might assume that this verbal battle needed to be taken to a more physical one.
The outgoing act left with his other half (I wonder if they had an argument that night, as she saw a rather hot-headed aggressive side to his personality), amid a bit of continued shouting from the stags, and I readied myself for the bit where the compere would say my name and I'd go on. I also half-imagined that he'd fail to make the crowd listen and just whisper something like "Now you're all warmed up, here's your fantastic headliner, Ashley Frieze" - a sort of parody of the way someone might bring an act on - then I'd have to walk through no applause to the stage and see whether I couldn't make my mark.
But this night hadn't finished all of its surprise-giving.
What Katy Did Next
Failing to regain control of the room, and misunderstanding the organiser's signals to "just get on with it" as "stop the show", the compere then told the audience that the show was over and said goodbye. That was it. I didn't perform.
As it happened, I rather had a good time that night. I shared some banter with most of the acts and, as I'm now able to offer the benefit of my 8 years experience to some newer acts, who seem to be interested in my thoughts on the subject, I think I was able to give some reasonable advice to some of them (which they asked for) and cheer them up a bit as they contemplated the artistic suicide that seemed to be that stage. As far as camaraderie goes, it will make a nice gig story, and I got on well with many of the people who performed that night.
Some of them may stop getting on with me after they recognise themselves in my review of what happened, but I hope not. I speak as I find, and everyone gives unique performances at each gig, and will change as they develop the craft. Nothing's set in stone.
What of the hiding under the table and the giggling to myself. Well, it's the final thing I learned that night. When I'm under pressure at a gig that's potentially going to hell in a handcart, I generally look for ways to entertain myself and the people around me. Silly ET impressions, sliding under a table, laughing off the insanity of trying to do comedy in a bar-fight - they're all tricks I employed to keep it funny for myself.
I've never had a gig cancelled on me while I was waiting to close the very show that had been running for a couple of hours. I've never seen an act/audience interaction go so horribly wrong as it did.
Though some parts of the night seemed to be obviously and inevitably doomed to failure, like watching a slow motion car crash that's already started, it was a load of fun and I can't wait to go back to learn some more.