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Sunday, October 13

It's Not All Showbiz

Writing about my life as a stand-up comedian, I may run the risk of glamourising it. There are two possible ways this might work. If I express my enthusiasm for what I do, why I do it, and how excited I am about the prospects ahead of me, one might assume that I am somehow a successful showman; you can project on such stories all manor of images of VIP rooms, agents, adoring crowds and the like. Conversely, if I somehow appear to be self-deprecating on the subject of how my comedy career is going, you might assume that I'm being modest and that actually there's a Humvee outside waiting to zoom me off to yet another showbiz party.

This is not my life.

I am a comedian. I am earnest in this pursuit. I love making audience laugh, and I know how to do so. I care about the quality of my material - that it's not selling old rope - and I care about what comedy should be. I'm also realistic enough to know that I'm yet to achieve the highest standards that I have set for myself, and that many other comedians are non-plussed by what I do. I don't do it for them. The real pleasure is in the laugh, and if I have to make do with making the laugh by the means I most have at my disposal, then I'd be a fool to wait until I have other means, when the opportunity is already in my hands. Improve from within.

To give a reality check on what a night of my comedy career can be like, I thought I'd share some details from Friday night. Since the baby was born, I do not gig anywhere near as often as I did before she was born. In addition, I only bother doing gigs that are lucrative. This means that I've somewhat polarise the sorts of gigs I do - they're either comedy for a non-comedy crowd, or the occasional delightful independent comedy club who knows and likes me. There's not much in between.

The setup for Friday's gig is pictured. This was my view from the backstage area. I say backstage area, there were some chairs between the place where I set up my microphone/piano/PA/guitar and the area of the bar where the fruit machine was. I was hanging out there so I wasn't in everyone's way. What you can see in the right of this picture is one of the chalkboards used for darts at the social club at which I was performing. I was the comedian provided as entertainment for the darts final.

Let's just let that sink in a little.

Let's also not be ungrateful to the very nice organisers of the event, and the nice people at the venue who did their best to welcome me into their world and even ensured I was paid before I went on stage. Normally, I find this a bit odd, but in this instance I felt it was probably for the best, since we'd not have to worry about whether the organiser felt the night had worked while he was paying me. It hadn't happened yet, and there was all to play for.

The plan for the night was that the darts tournament would have its finals and then, before the prizes were given out, at around 10pm, I would do the first half of my set. Then, after the prizes were given out, I'd come on and do the second half of my set. Despite the lateish start time of the show, I'd been asked to arrive at 7.30 to set up. Part of this would enable the group to use my PA system to announce various aspects of the evening.

Let's skip a bit of the tale now. Assume I arrived on time, set my stuff up, arranged things, briefed people on how best to run the night and that the night went into its own natural full swing. Let's assume it's now 10.15pm, there's no sign of the darts finishing immediately, and I've been sitting "backstage" next to the door that leads to the busy smoking area, next to the fruitmachine that someone's just won money on (£55 - nice!) and that I'm cold (from the smoking area draft), smoky (from the... well you can guess) and tired. Not the perfect set up for a gig.

I had plenty of time to review my situation. I even tweeted about it. I believe I likened the comedian at the darts match to the olive in the CD collection. I tweeted the picture to the left here, since it shows the quandary of being in such a situation - jaunty yet quizzical, raring to go, yet uncertain of where.

I don't want to come across as a prima donna here. Sure, this wasn't a comedy club situation - it was a noisy bar with a darts match in, and not many people sitting near what we might presumptuously term a stage - but I wasn't feeling especially surprised by the situation, nor was I feeling like I'd been treated unfairly. I expected that the gig would be much harder to play as a result of various things I couldn't really change, but I'd signed up to do the gig when offer came through and you have to expect that things are not set up to make your life easy when you do a gig like this.

The simple fact is that I'd been in similar situations before, and I suspect I'll be in one again. I've played much more unplayable rooms than this and I've been treated unfairly.

I think that's one of the things you have to get used to after a while as a comedian like me. You suddenly realise that some sort of odd, weird, unfavourable scenario is, for some reason, normal in your world. The fact that it's normal is, in itself, weird. That's the way this particular biscuit dissolves.

Before I was due to go on, the fruit machine winner, in answer to my question about what he did, then proceeded to give me a full financial breakdown of his earnings. He was attempting to show me how cushy a life he felt he had. I was somewhat mute on the subject. This gig was earning me most of his week's income in one evening. The day rate he had in his job was less than the hourly rate I put down when I do consultancy work. We existed in different worlds, it would appear.

I wouldn't normally talk about money, but he is the one who started it... and I didn't tell him any of this. It just struck me as odd that he was so intent on telling me how well he was doing while I was aghast that my mortgage payment alone is 50% more than his monthly take home pay.

Different worlds.

Yet at some point these worlds had to collide, as I couldn't accept the money for the gig, turn up to set up, and then not go on.

So I went on.

Stuff happened. Songs were sung, laughs came, gaps in the narrative came in place of laughs. It varied. The audience lacked focus. Many of them weren't even in the same room as me. There was background noise, talking, ignoring and some people clearly paying attention. I had to rely heavily on some advice I'd given someone else by email while waiting to go on.

The person I'd been emailing was showing me some material they were writing. They said it's funnier performed. I said to make a recording of the performance so we could have a look at it. They said their heart wouldn't be in it if there was no audience. I pointed out that the material should feel funny even if there's no audience.

I took this advice to heart a few times while performing. I focused on why I find these routines amusing and did them as though I were the sole recipient of the amusement. I performed them as big as I felt the room needed, so that it would fill the space, and I amused myself with all the jokes and songs I could place end to end in the set within the constraints of that audience. I did some stuff with more conviction than someone responding to the audience's "love" so far, might do. I kept the faith.

This is not a bit of advice I've made up myself. It's an answer I've had from a couple of other acts to the question "how do you make it funny when they're not going for it?". It's the single most important bit of advice in comedy. Focus on why you find it funny... if you can't, then you shouldn't even have that bit of material in your set... arguably.

So, how did the gig go? Well, to give a full report would be impossible, since I only have snatches of memory of what happened, and it may fall into the traps I mentioned at the top of this piece - to say it went well or badly might imply something quite different than what occurred. What I remember is that I got some silences that I had to suck up. I also got some laughs, though in some places they were the titter type. There were a few places when I struck a chord (no pun intended) with the audience. I dealt with heckles quite promptly, made up a song on the spot about fruit machine guy in order to shush him, really went for it with a few of my favourite songs, and got called on for an extra song after I'd called the whole performance to a halt.

So it probably went ok...

The person who booked me was somewhat more downbeat. I don't think it bodes well, when the client's main response to you is "Sorry" and "Oooh, tough crowd".

I'll be my own reviewer on this one. It was a long Friday night, a lot of which was energy sapping and demoralising. However, if I asked myself whether I felt like a washed up idiot, or a decent comic doing the job of a comic, I'd definitely give myself the benefit of the doubt.

And THAT is showbiz.

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