Perhaps a more important question is: why would anyone want to do stand-up comedy in the first place? Apparently, public speaking is the most common fear amongst Americans, ahead of drowning and deadly snakes. While comedians and public speakers do “die” on stage, it’s very rarely literal.
So why do stand-up? Because, like many others, I enjoy making people laugh. When writing my books (the first two, at least) – even though I was proud of the overall accomplishment – there was rarely anything as immediately satisfying as coming up with a good joke. Maybe it’s how a songwriter feels when a song comes together – their own little piece of creative magic popping into the world. As the stand-up comedian, Neal Brennan, says in his excellent Netflix special, 3 mics, “Sometimes the world can feel like a room that’s filling up with water, and for me to be able to think of a joke is like an air bubble.”
How do you get your first gig?
You’ve got two options, the hardcore option is to go to an Open Mic night, get on stage and just tell jokes to an audience. That seems like jumping in at the deep end, which would be like combining public speaking with drowning – the stuff of real nightmares.
The alternative is to sign up to a workshop or course. These are more common than you might imagine. Some run for weeks; I chose a one-day workshop, (it can’t be that hard can it?). Workshops and courses normally put on a night for you to perform, either to family and friends, or a New Acts and New Material night for the general public. Mine was the latter.
The workshop encouraged us to consider different comics and their various styles, in order to think about your stage persona. It’s you, but a clearly identifiable version of you with a distinct, hopefully funny, point of view. Then we went through different laughter triggers, mistakes to avoid, and how to structure a set.
What’s your material?
Typically, you will perform a 5 or 10 minute spot. Your material will depend upon the type of comedian you want to be. You could be a one-liner, observational comic, storyteller or surrealist. This also links back to your persona, and hopefully the two fit together well.
In the workshop we were encouraged to tell a story – something that had happened which was amusing. It was a good device because we got used to being on the mic, with the laughs being somewhat secondary. My story was about a recent bicycling feud.
Knowing that my first gig was a 10 spot, I chose to keep the story about the quarrelsome cyclist and add a beginning about feuds in general. That left about 3-4 minutes to fill. I’d been writing some observational stuff, but one of the key pieces of advice is to try and make people laugh in the first 20-30 seconds. Yes, people’s attention spans are short, and you can’t open with a load of build-up. This is why many comedians open with a joke about their own appearance (e.g. “Yes, I know I look like the love child of Ann Widdecombe and Sideshow Bob”, which would be a heck of a look by the way). Considering that, I went with a one-minute opener which included an impression of an emoji (high brow, I know).
Prep for the night
Many people starting out in stand-up have one particular fear: remembering the set. Even five minutes can seem like a lot.
Since I was using a storytelling style, rather than telling dozens of one liners, I didn’t need to remember every word exactly. So I wasn’t overly concerned, but it didn’t stop me rehearsing it 15 or 20 times.
I practiced out loud and recorded myself on the voice memo app, so I could listen back, which was helpful. This technique also helped me to think about my style and change certain jokes. That said, rehearsing by yourself is only of limited use – as I was about to find out.
On the night
I was fourth on, out of five comedians. As the evening went on, I did start to get nervous. By the comedian before me, I was too nervous to concentrate anymore, but that’s normal, I guess. Besides, nerves = adrenaline, and adrenaline helps performance. And nerves are a lot cheaper than performance-enhancing drugs.
I got on stage, remembering to take the mic out of the stand, then move the stand to the side and start my bit. The start went pretty well, until about my sixth line, when I just blanked. This never normally happened.
I’d stopped concentrating, and was lost, so I skipped forward a bit, but I was kicking myself while trying to deliver the set. It took me until about halfway through the act to slow down, get back on track and enjoy it.
The second half went much better. I told myself to be in the moment and trust the lines would come to me. As I relaxed, I felt the laughs came more easily, and before I knew it, I was done.
A few things which may sound basic. If you ask a question, “Does anyone else in here…?” people will respond out loud, and then you will need to respond, rather than just carry on to the next bit. Obvious as it may seem, even saying “Hello,” at the beginning will get verbal responses. For someone that had done 15-20 practices staring at a wall (OK, a mirror) that threw me a little.
Don’t worry about blanking, pausing for a couple of seconds is totally fine. When I listened to the recording, there was almost no gap at the point I “blanked”. In my mind, I didn’t have the next line immediately so panicked, and skipped a bit. I think I could have paused for a moment, and if I genuinely couldn’t remember, then could have consciously chosen to skip forward.
Enjoy it! The second half (when I stopped kicking myself for missing a few jokes) was a lot more enjoyable than the first.
Until next time!
Gigs done: 1