10 Minutes of Death

I just did one spot this week, ten minutes at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion. Sam’s been kind enough to give me a few 10 spots this year and I’ve had mixed success with them, sometimes they go ok, but a lot of the time it feels like a massive step back.

This week was a bit of a mix. I did my usual set with extended versions of some bits, a couple of new bits and a few old ones to fill up the time. They laughed at the best stuff, but the new bits faltered, and because I’d restructured it all I struggled to remember the running order and had to keep checking my set list, so it was all a bit awkward and choppy.

It’s easy to beat yourself up when it doesn’t go well, especially since I’d got to a point where my five minute set was pretty reliable, so I’d not bombed for a while. But I just need to remember that this is exactly how it felt when I was struggling to put together a strong five minutes – failure is all part of the process. If you’re not bombing regularly, you’re not trying enough new stuff.

The important thing is to learn from every gig. This week I got some good feedback on an already strong bit that I’m working up into something much bigger, and I worked out that with a bit of shuffling around I can open with a much punchier bit than my usual slow burn opener. The fact that it takes 30 seconds to get to my first punchline has been bugging me, so it’s good to have an alternative option.

The other thing I learned this week is that when material didn’t land well, I couldn’t help trying to address it – Sam was sat up and the front of the audience, near the mic, so I kept joking with him about how badly it was going. As he suggested later, the best thing to do is just style it out – if a punchline doesn’t get a laugh, then you act like it wasn’t a punchline and just part of your buildup to the next bit, instead of floundering and admitting that it flopped.

I’ve got another 10 spot there in a couple of weeks and I’m feeling confident that I can do a better job next time around, and I’m at Comedy Virgins the following night so it’ll be a good warm up.

Some good news this week – it looks like me and Mouch have finally got our shit together and come up with a plan to get the Basic Comedy Podcast back to life. We started the thing with high aspirations but both found ourselves suddenly a lot busier after we did the first handful of episodes, so it kind of fell by the wayside. But we’ve worked out how we can run the thing so that it fits into our schedules, and we should get started again in a couple of weeks.

Where to do your first stand-up comedy open mic spot

I get a lot of messages from people asking my advice on where they should do their first open mic spot in London, and the answer really depends on what you want to get out of the experience.

For most people your first open mic spot is all about just taking that leap and getting over your nerves. You shouldn’t be worrying about how well you remember your material, or if people are laughing at your jokes, you just want to get up on stage and talk in front of a room full of people for five minutes.

Sweet Steve at the Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash (pic by Julie Kertesz )

For my money the best place to do that in London is the Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash. It’s popular with first timers because it’s one of the few places where you can just show up on the night without booking in advance, and there’s a real anything-goes vibe there. It’s not a bringer, so if you don’t want your friends and family to know about what you’re doing just yet (and that’s a common feeling for newbies) it’s ideal.

The important thing is that it’s a low-pressure gig where it’s OK to fail, and that means it’s great for both newbies and more experienced acts trying out risky new material. It doesn’t matter if you forget your material, or it just doesn’t work, or your delivery is terrible, it’s all part of the game, and the MC, Boyce Bailey, is great at keeping the energy upbeat no matter what happens.

They call it the Comedy Car Crash for a reason, and it’s always entertaining, albeit sometimes for entirely the wrong reasons. When most people think of a stand-up comedy open mic night, the Lion’s Den is probably the closest thing in London to what they imagine it would be like. Broadly speaking the audience tends to be mostly made up of other acts hoping for a spot, but I’ve been there on some nights when people have brought along a large group of friends to watch them.

All that said, it’s not for everybody. Maybe you’re feeling confident and want to try performing at a night that feels a bit more like the kind of comedy club where you’ve probably seen professional acts. If that’s you, then Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish Arms is a really good bet.

It’s a bringer night, so you’ll need to take a friend, and you have to register a place about a month in advance. The flipside of that is there’s always a buzzy audience, because every performer brings at least one person, and there are usually at a handful of people who’ve shown up under their own steam.

This can be a positive because it’s easier to make a bigger crowd laugh but, if you really can’t wring any laughs out of them (which is a distinct possibility when you’re brand new) then your five minutes on stage are going to feel like five hours.

Although I recommend these two nights, it really doesn’t matter all that much where you do your first spot. It’s about taking that first step, knowing you’re probably going to eat shit for five minutes but doing it anyway just to pop your cherry. If you’ve decided you want to give stand-up a shot, you’re going to have to get used to performing in all kinds of rooms; busy, empty, buzzing, low energy, whatever, so just find a place you like and get a spot there.

If you’re a little nervous, go along to watch a show one night – you don’t need to book, and most shows are free (although they take voluntary donations at the end of the night). Once you’ve seen how an open-mic night works, you’ll feel more confident about getting up onstage yourself.

Losing at the Comedy Virgins summer competition

I’ve been away on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I’m a bit late writing up my last gig because I couldn’t be arsed doing it before I went away.

The gig was my heat of the Comedy Virgins summer competition, with the first prize being a full year of bringer-less spots at the Cavendish Arms, making it well worth a shot. Ironically, I was struggling to get a bringer for that night so, after scouring the Comedy Performers +1 Exchange Facebook page, I volunteered to help somebody out at G&B Comedy a few days earlier.

G&B is one of those gigs that has been around for a long time and gets mentioned a lot, but I’d never been there before so I was happy to go and check the place out. The venue, Arch1, is a tiny arts space, impressively squeezed into a low railway arch near West Ham and, since I’ve been idly toying with starting a local night in my part of town, this got me thinking about possibilities beyond the usual room-above-a-pub option.

It was a themed night, on the topic of growing old disgracefully, with all acts over the age of 35, so I felt right at home. My bringee was Lorraine Hoodless, trying out some material before she headed to Edinburgh for the Fringe, which seemed to go pretty well for her, and the only act in the room that I’d met before was Dicky Wright and he put in a solid performance too. I’ve never met Emily McQuade, although her name pops up a lot, and she was the highlight of the show for me, so I’m hoping to see her around some more.

So, my heat of the competition went pretty well, even though I wasn’t one of the two acts that went through to the final. The room was busy, with around 15 acts all dragging along at least one bringer, so by the time I went up at the end of the first half, the energy was high.

It was kind of a weird set for me, because I hadn’t gigged for a week and I was feeling a little rusty, so I tripped over a few words and ended up waffling too much, I was fiddling with the mic stand too much, not making enough eye contact with the audience, and generally not as sharp as I know I can be.

Most of all, I really noticed (again) just how slow my opener is, and in those first 30 seconds of my set the room was stone-cold silent. Dropping that first punchline is nerve-wracking, because I’ve made them wait a hell of a long time for it, and if it bombs then there’s no coming back from it. But I didn’t need to worry – the first bit landed really well, got a huge laugh, and then they were on board for the rest of my set.

So while I was on stage I was mentally cataloguing everything that I knew I was doing wrong, but at the same time the audience was really going for it. Every single thing worked well, and my closer rounded the set off nicely. I think if I can just learn to get out of my own way (i.e. stop thinking about what’s going wrong, and work with what’s going right in the moment) I’ll be able to improve my stage-presence a lot.  

During the break and at the end of the night I got a lot of really nice feedback from people, with a few saying that they were surprised I didn’t get through because they felt like I was the strongest act. But I wasn’t too worried about that – the acts who got through were both strong, and competitions which use an audience vote always throw up surprises. I was just happy that, despite my nitpicking, I’d comfortably delivered a really strong five minute set and got a good reaction from the audience.

Where now? I’m back from holiday and don’t have any spots booked, so I need to get on top of that. I’m also going to make time to get some more podcast episodes recorded, because I’m really keen to get that thing off the ground again.

I want to focus on new material too – I want to be able to feel as comfortable delivering a strong ten minutes as I currently do with my five, and I really need to find a punchier opener. At the final We Are Funny gig a few weeks back, Lenny Sherman gave me some nice feedback and suggested I open with some gentler material to really get the audience fully on-side before I dive into my darker stuff. It makes a lot of sense, so that’s something I’m going to work on.

10 Minutes at Comedy Explosion

I did a ten minute spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion last week, gig number 98 by my reckoning. The weather was hot and I was on at the end of a long night, but despite that most people stuck around, even though the energy was flagging.

I’d spent most of the night sitting at the front, so a few acts used me as a crash-dummy for their crowd-work bits, and I tried to riff on some of that stuff at the beginning of my set as a kind of improv/callback/crowd-work thing, playing back to the guys who’d called on me earlier. For example, one act asked me to guess her age and was surprised that I got it right, so I made a crack about me spending a lot of time creeping on her Facebook page – and I think it kind of worked because it seemed clear from our interactions on stage that we both knew eachother, and I’m old enough to be her dad, which made it extra awkward.

None of it was particularly strong, but it got a bit of a reaction from the room even though they were understandably half asleep by that point. I think audiences will generally reward you for trying that kind of thing, and it doesn’t need to be killer material, it just shows that you’re present and paying attention to what’s happening in the room.

That all burned up about a minute or so of my time, and then I reeled off most of my current five minute set, with some new extended bits thrown in. They laughed at some of it, but everybody was hot and tired, and my new bits were very rough around the edges, so it was all really just a bit of a dry run and I couldn’t judge how well the new stuff works.

I think I did considerably less than ten minutes, despite running through much more stuff than usual, because there weren’t exactly a lot of laugh breaks. But I finished on a decent laugh, my current closer seems pretty reliable under most circumstances. Either way, Comedy Explosion is always a fun gig, and there were a lot of acts on that I really like: Steph Aritone, Will Hitt, Ginnia Cheng, Jacob Hatton, the legendary John Sharp, and a great act I’ve never seen before, Steve Vertigo. With a line-up like that, who gives a shit how mediocre my own set was.

I’m at a bit of a loose end until the end of August now – I have a couple of weeks holiday coming up so I’ve held back from booking any gigs, apart from the Comedy Virgins summer competition on Monday 5th (I need a bringer if anybody’s free for that – drink and a pizza on offer).

I’m not going to book any gigs until I get back from holiday, because I plan to spend a bit of time getting some more podcasts recorded, even if it means not performing for a bit, and I want to spend a bit of time writing too. I’ve done a couple of 10 minute spots recent and I’ve been woefully unprepared for both – I know I’ve got plenty of material to build up a solid 10, but I haven’t been disciplined enough to work on it.

A friend offered me some floor space in Edinbugh, if I could get myself up there with a sleeping bag, but much as I’d love to go to the Fringe it’s kind of hard to work around family and the day job. Maybe I’ll go next year, but if I’m going to invest time and money in getting there I want to be on top form to make the most of any gigs I do up there, so I’m not ready yet.

The Final We Are Funny Project Gig

I’ve done three great gigs since my last post, which has left me feeling pretty good about this ridiculous endeavour.

First up Sam Rhodes gave me a 10 minute spot at his Comedy Explosion night. Those nights are run in the public bar area of the Cornershop Bar in Shoreditch, which means you get an interesting mix of people who are there for the comedy and random drinkers.

As it happened, one of those random drinkers was a guy I know through work, who was there with his girlfriend. They were sat fairly close to the mic, so Sam and some of the other acts did a little gentle crowd work with them, to the point that most people in the place were aware of them.

This gifted me an easy opener – I told the room that I was living every open-mic comedian’s worst nightmare, because somebody from work had randomly stumbled into one of my gigs. It wasn’t particularly strong (never mind that most people from work have already been to one of my gigs anyway) but it was a genuine, and funny enough, coincidence to get a good reaction.

This was a couple of weeks ago now and I can’t remember exactly how I filled the ten minutes, other than running through my best five minutes at a more relaxed pace than usual, with extended versions of some bits, and one or two new lines. I deliberately avoided using my two old standby time-fillers (Racist Baby, and Vasectomy) because I’m kind of done with them for now.

It didn’t feel like a struggle filling the ten minutes, soI think I’ve managed to build a half decent chunk of material over recent months without realising how much new stuff I’ve written. I’ve got another 10 spot there next week, so I’m looking forward to doing a more focused set, rather than just rambling through it.

A nice night all round, and it was great to bump into Akin Omobitan, who I haven’t seen for a while.

Next up was a 5 minute spot at Angel Comedy RAW. It was my third time there and I always look forward to the gig because they always manage to fill the room with a real audience, and that makes getting laughs much easier. I ran through my usual set and it went well enough, with good solid laughs all the way through, but I annoyed myself by flubbing some of my bits so they didn’t have the impact that I know they can when I deliver them well.

I’ve got a tendency to waffle and meander too much, when I know I can deliver the exact same joke in half the time and make it much punchier. I think I just need to spend more time practicing each of the bits from beginning to end, rather than just memorising the punchlines and taking the long-winded route to get to them.

I had that on my mind when I went to the last ever We Are Funny Project gig, because I only had a three minute spot there, so I knew it would be important to be focused. I did my favourite bits from my best five minutes, with one I’ve not tried before, and I really made a conscious effort to be economical with my words, while at the same time talking more clearly and slowly to give the jokes time to land.

It was an absolutely packed night, with lots of genuine audience as well as friends of Alfie from the comedy scene who were just there to watch his swansong. The atmosphere was great, and by the time I went up (fifth of the night, I think) everybody was already well and truly up for it.

Alfie handed me a gift by letting me go up directly after his 12 year old son did a spot – the last time that happened I improvised an opener about the situation which did brilliantly, so this was a good opportunity to use it again in front of a much bigger audience.

That got me off to a strong start, and things just get better – I walked off the stage feeling like I’d done exactly what I wanted, and got the best reaction I could have hoped for. Watching the video back, I think there are probably some areas that could be improved, but I still think it was one of my best gigs.

Sad to see WAFP finish, but it was a great note to end on. Here’s my full set from the show:

Taking my colleagues to a gig

Feeling a bit more upbeat this week. The other night I did a spot at We Are Funny again, and I was worried about how it would go because, against my better judgement, I’d agreed to take a bunch of colleagues to the gig as they’d been asking about coming to watch me.

I’ve been feeling a bit rusty recently, and you can’t expect much of a turnout to an open-mic night on a warm summer Monday night, so my worry was that I’d end up doing a bad set in a dead room, with a bunch of people from work there to witness the whole train wreck.

As it turned out, the room was packed with a lively audience – really not what you expect at this time of year. The night was kicked off by the fantastic Nick Horseman, and he was followed by a strong line up of acts who kept the energy high, even the one act who was doing her first ever spot.

I was given the first spot of the second half, which is a good place to be when the night is going well – the audience is properly warmed up and feeling good, you don’t have to follow another act, so you can set the tone for the rest of the evening.

I was still a little worried about being rusty, and used the drinks break to hide in a corner and think through my set a few times.

Recently I’ve been sticking with my best five minutes of material, but trying to deliver the material in different ways to see if they work better, and maybe find ways of expanding them by coming at them from a different angle. So it’s not really a problem of remembering the running order of my bits, just what version of the bits I want to do and any extra lines I want to add to them.

By the time I got on stage I was feeling comfortable about it all and I did a by-the-numbers delivery of my strongest five minutes. Everything landed well, the new versions of old bits just felt right, I got solid laughs all the way through and finished on a strong punchline – couldn’t ask for more from a Monday night open-mic. Mostly I was just happy that it was a strong night when I had some people from work along with me.

Sad to think it’ll be my last full set at WAF. I’ll be doing 3 minutes of completely new material (as Alfie requested) on the closing night in a couple of weeks, but after that it’s over.

Next week I’ve got a 10 minute spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion on Monday, and I’ll be doing 5 minutes at Angel Comedy RAW on Wednesday. I’ve been at RAW twice before and had an amazing time on both nights, so I’m feeling pretty good about going back there. Tomorrow I’m heading to Rising Star as a bringer for a friend, but I’ve not been there for ages so it’s going to be good to check the night out again.

We Are Funny is closing, and so is my heart

I’ve not been up to much in terms of stand-up recently – mostly due to a busy period at work, and the ever present struggle of balancing it all with a family. I completely failed to do any spots the whole week I was in New York, but I had a scream there anyway so I’m not going to beat myself up about it.

Since my last post I’ve done two spots at We Are Funny, bringing me up to 93 in total; a poor effort for two years. I’m doing so few gigs recently that whenever I go up I’m rusty, and it’s a struggle to deliver my polished material with any degree of confidence, never mind trying out new stuff.

Things have calmed down at work again, and I should now be able to get back into a rythm of gigging more regularly. I’ve got a lot of ideas for how I can evolve my style and build up my existing material into longer bits, and I’ve got a ton of new stuff to think about as well.

The only problem is getting stage time. We Are Funny Project is a night where I do regular spots as often as I can because it’s close to where I work, there’s usually a half decent audience and, most importantly of all, it’s a non-bringer.

It’s hard for me to do bringer nights these days. My friends are over the novelty of coming to watch me and it’s tough to do reciprocal bringers with other acts when I can only get out of the house one or two nights a week.

So, purely for selfish reasons, I’m really sad that We Are Funny has decided to close down, as I’ve got a significant chunk of my stage-time there, and it’s really helped me to develop and try new things. For that, I’m grateful to Alfie and Alex, who have been supportive while I’ve been finding my stage-feet.

I’m not sure where I go from here. Most of the nights in London are bringers and if I do a Be Your Own Bringer (some nights let you go as an audience member one show, then perform on another) then that means I’m doing one gig per two nights out of the house, which drastically reduces the number of gigs I can manage per month.

Doing just a few gigs a month feels pointless, it makes practicing and developing really hard, realistically I should be trying to do two or three spots most weeks.

I know this sounds like I’m on a downer about comedy, but I’m really not – I just need to figure out a new plan for how I keep doing it. I need to spend some time updating the list of open-mic nights, to see if I can find any other regular non-bringers where I can get spots. Maybe cast my net a bit wider than central London and look at places around Surrey and Sussex – I live near Epsom, so getting out there is easy and I don’t mind driving to gigs.

Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash was a great option for me in the early days because it’s a non-bringer and you don’t have to book ahead, so long as I got there early enough a spot was usually certain – but Tuesday is the one night of the week I can’t gig these days.

Another idea is to set up my own open-mic night closer to home, as I don’t think there are any near where I live. That would be a good way to get regular stage-time, although I don’t doubt it creates a lot of admin headaches too, but there must be a reasonable number of acts who live around SW London (Kingston, Epsom, etc) who would want to jump on a regular local gig.

This would be a last resort – I don’t want to be an MC, and I really don’t want to take on a ton of work, but if it’s the only way I can keep doing comedy regularly then maybe it’s worth considering.

Anyway. I’m doing nothing next week – I was booked on the Monday night heat of the So You Think You’re Funny competition but got bumped off that because apparently you’re not allowed to enter it twice.

So my next booked spot is at We Are Funny on July 1st, then I’m on at Angel Comedy RAW on July 10th – I need to try and get a couple more spots in between otherwise I’ll be very rusty when I do RAW and it’s the kind of night where you want to be on your game. That said, Monday the 8th is the only night I can realistically fit a gig in and I don’t know where I’ll be able to do that – unless I can conjour up a bringer from somewhere and try for a walk-in spot at Comedy Virgins.

Sussex Comedian of the Year

We need to talk about what to wear on stage at some point.

I’ve done a couple of gigs this week, including a heat of the Sussex Comedian of the Year Competition. But before I get into that, on Wednesday I went to Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion for a warm up, as I’m feeling a bit out of practice at the moment.

I managed less than a minute at the King Gong over a week ago, and apart from that I’m just feeling like I’ve not been very focused on my act for the past month or so. Unless I’m doing a couple of spots a week and really thinking about my act a lot, it very quickly gets fuzzy.

Sam’s currently touring the States, so the night was run by Michael Eldridge – a funny guy who I’ve chatted to a few times before at other gigs. I was up fairly early in the night and just planned to run through my usual set to blow out the cobwebs ahead of the competition heat the following night.

I’ve still not managed to find a punchier version of my opener, but I can’t easily replace it with a shorter bit because it sets up the rest of the material, so I’m trying to start each gig by quickly riffing on whatever’s happening in the room before getting into my regular material. This can be fun and when it goes well the audience rewards you for thinking on your feet, but the obvious downside is that sometimes it just doesn’t work.

On this night, Michael had already worked with an audience member who happened to be a researcher on the TV show, Eating With My Ex, so this was an obvious opportunity and I kicked off by making an, admittedly savage, joke about an ex of mine which split the room right down the middle. That set the tone for the rest of my 5 minutes – my gentler gags got light titters from most of the room while my darker bits only got laughs from the same small bunch of guys at the back.

There was a good crowd of acts on for the rest of the night, Gus Singh, Mo Saffaf, Fiona Clift, Will Hitt, all tickled my tits.

The following night was the Sussex Comedian of the Year Competition, being run for the first time this year. The competition takes place over four heats and a final at different locations throughout Sussex, and the organiser told me that to get an arts grant she had to run one of the heats in a rural venue. So that’s how I found myself performing in a tent next to a country pub in the middle of nowhere (aka Dragons Green, Shipley) on a Thursday night.

In all fairness, it was a nice tent, usually used for music gigs, with a proper stage and sound system, and an audience of around 30 or so paying punters turned up to watch (all sitting on hay bales). A little bit unusual, but a respectable gig by my standards.

There were five acts in total, and I was on last, which was good for me as I had a couple of local friends along so it was nice to be able to hang out with them before the show without worrying about getting my head ready. I usually like 10-15 minutes to think things through before I do a gig, and it’s hard to do that if I have to talk to people, but if I’m just sitting quietly while the other acts are on, that’s fine.

The room was tricky – there was a real mix of different people. A few local pensioners were friendly enough but did the usual thing old people do at comedy shows – not so much heckling, just responding to what you’re saying as if it’s a conversation, but they weren’t loud and it wasn’t too much of a problem.

On top of that there was a real mix of ages, village locals and people who’d driven in from nearby towns, so it was hard to get a feel for what the crowd would go along with. All but one of the acts struggled with this – while they laughed at a lot of stuff, plenty of other bits fell flat too.

We were given up to ten minutes each (it was originally 5-7, but an act dropped out) so I knew I could take my time. I started off by addressing the fact I was performing in what looked like a circus freak-show (“mum was right about how things would turn out for me”) but it didn’t really get much, and then I launched into my set.

I mention Netflix in my opener, so I thought it would be funny to address the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere by throwing in “Do you even get Netflix out here?” – I thought they’d either laugh or boo and I was willing to take the risk, but I wasn’t prepared for half the audience to nod their heads and earnestly reply with a chorus of “oh yes”.

After that I just stuck to the script – some of it worked well enough, some of it didn’t, I don’t feel like anything did brilliantly, although I didn’t record the set so it’s hard to recall how much laughing there actually was. I got to my current closer and it got a small laugh, but not as much as it usually does, so for a moment or two I considered doing an extra bit since I had some time left. I had to do some very quick calculations because I had a few options for bits I could easily reel off:

  1. Racist baby – I wrote that off quickly because I’ve lost confidence in my ability to pull it off reliably.
  2. Porny stuff – I’ve got some porn material that sits together as a workable 60-90 seconds, but it would have been difficult to segue into it from my closer, and I was pretty sure this wasn’t the right place for it.
  3. Vasectomy bit – probably my best option, but if porn was off the table then bloody-semen was equally unlikely to do me any favours.

So, having thought all of that through over the space of a couple of questions, I laughed off the fact that my closer had fizzled, thanked the audience and got off the stage.

Being honest with myself I think it was a pretty mediocre performance, I rambled a bit, occasionally lost my thread, and never really hit my stride. Like I said, I’ve not been focused on this recently, so even with a gig the night before I still struggled to give it my best.

So, I was surprised the judges picked my as a runner up for the heat, which means I’m in with a chance of going to the final in October (there’s some kind of online audience vote which will decide that). The winner was Konstantin Kisin, who clearly outclassed the rest of us, and the other runner up was Michael Akadiri, who did a much better job than me and undoubtedly deserved to get through.

I’ve got a lot of real-life stuff on between now and mid-June, so won’t be gigging much – although I have a couple of We Are Funny spots where I plan to focus on completely new material. For the second week of June I’ll be in New York on a business trip, so I’m hoping to get in a few open mics while I’m there, if I can fit them in around work stuff.

After that, I’m planning to take two or three weeks off gigging completely and spend some time getting the podcast back on track. When I started it with Mouch I had loads of free time, but life quickly took over and it got derailed – I’d really like to get it going again, so I need to find the time to interview some people. Maybe July will be the best time for that – it’s the middle of summer so the comedy clubs will be quiet, and it’ll be easier to persuade people to do it.

First time at the Comedy Store King Gong Show

The monthly King Gong show at London’s Comedy Store is the city’s biggest open mic night in terms of audience size. If you’re an aspiring standup, the show offers a rare opportunity to perform at a famous venue in front of hundreds of people, but it comes at a cost.

Unlike most open mics, which are friendly supportive gigs, the audience at the King Gong is encouraged to yell, heckle, and crush the spirit of performing acts. Three audience members are given red cards, and if all three cards are held up then the MC hits a gong and your time on stage is over. If the audience don’t like your act they’ll boo and jeer, and encourage the card-holders to get you off the stage.

Your goal is to survive five minutes – if you do that, you get to perform another 1 minute at the end of the show, and then they pick a winner who’s invited back to do a spot on a pro night.

I’ve been trying to get onto the show for a while – there’s a big waiting list and you’re only allowed to do it once every six months, but I finally got a spot on the 29th of April. It did not go well.

I was on halfway through the second section of the night, the crowd was worked up and restless – they’d already booed off a few acts who barely managed 30 seconds on stage. I lasted 37 seconds, but it was my own fault.

The opener I’m currently using is a bit long winded, and takes 20-30 seconds to get to the laugh. It normally works and the payoff is big enough to justify the long buildup. I knew it wouldn’t work for the King Gong, I knew I’d need to start strong with a few punchy heavy hitters before I could try longer bits.

I’d planned to rework my set, but real life got in the way and I didn’t find the time to do it. So in the end I just went up and tried to do my usual material. Inevitably, it didn’t work – by the time I finished my opener they were already shouting so loud that nobody heard the punchline. Two red cards went up, I’d already lost the crowd, so I turned to the third card holder and told him to put the card up because I wanted to get home in time for Game of Thrones, and he obliged.

All these people are bastards. All of them.

If anything I’m just annoyed at myself for wasting the opportunity. I knew what I had to do to be in with a chance at this show, but I didn’t find the time to do it, and now I won’t be able to get another spot there for six months at least.

Some of the other acts did better. Micah Hall beat the gong – I’ve seen him around since he got started a year or so ago and it’s been good to watch him get better. Martin Graham almost got to 5 minutes (mostly by intimidating the card-holders) but got sent off with just a few seconds left on the clock.

I didn’t stick around to find out who won the night – you can’t let this kind of thing wind you up, but I couldn’t help feeling a little embarassed about doing so poorly, so I grabbed my coat and sloped off early. Despite everything it’s still good experience to try and retain some degree of composure in front of a baying crowd.

I wouldn’t say I learned much about crowd control, because it wasn’t like there were one or two hecklers I could work on – a large chunk of the audience turned on me pretty quickly and there was nothing much I could do except try to get my material out over the noise. I suppose if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that you should have a plan for when the whole audience is confrontational. Bill Burr’s legendary Philadelphia Incident is a masterclass in this, he spends 12 minutes abusing an aggressive crowd, although of course he had the benefit of being able to stay on stage for as long as he wanted.

The week before I did a spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion, which is always good fun, and that brings me up to 89 gigs. I’ve got no gigs on this week because of more real life stuff, but next week I’m at Sam Rhodes on Wednesday before doing the Sussex Comedian of the Year competition heat on Thursday. I don’t even remember applying for that, but somehow I’ve got a spot, and it’s in a tiny village in deepest darkest Sussex, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of audience it gets.

Onwards and (ever so slightly) upwards.

South Coast Comedian of the Year Competition

I’ve done a few gigs since my last post, starting with a triumphant return to the Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash, where I did many of my very early open mic spots. I’ve not been able to do the gig for about a year because of childcare issues, but on this particular night I found myself at a loose end and decided to drop in and was pleased to see that it hasn’t changed a bit.

Lion’s Den is unique on the London scene in that you don’t need to book ahead, you just show up on the night and put your name in the hat to get drawn at random for a five minute spot. You don’t need a bringer either. Because of that it tends to be popular with people who are really new, and you always get a wild mix of potential, delusion, genius, and borderline mental health issues.

Before I started doing standup, this was exactly how I thought all open mics would be, but in London you really only get that at the Lion’s Den – it’s got a genuine “anything goes” vibe, for better or worse.

As I was waiting in the queue I realised I didn’t recognise any of the other acts, which is unusual these days. Eventually Gaëlle Constant (who runs the London Stand Up Comedy Map on Facebook) showed up, I’ve chatted to her a couple of times in the past, so there was at least one friendly face, and we had a good yack in the bar before the show.

It was a fun gig, lots of randoms, and Boyce Bailey always does a great job of MCing. I churned out my current five minutes to a fairly a mediocre response. A couple of bits got decent laughs, but mostly it was just low-level titters – given the audience was almost entirely made up of other acts, that’s about the best I could hope for.

The following night I did a spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion in Dalston, at the Rocksteady, where I’ve been quite a lot recently because it’s a nice non-bringer gig close to where I work, so it’s very easy for me to do.

Again, I didn’t really do anything different to my current five, because I had a competition coming up and just wanted to practice. The last time I did this gig Sam gave me a ten spot and I kind of fluffed it, but this time around it went much better.

Instead of launching right into my set I started off with a little banter with Sam, and addressed something that was going on in the bar (they were showing Gladiator on a big screen, for some reason). This feels a bit better than just launching straight into my opener, especially since it can take a little too long to get to the first punchline, so I decided to make a conscious effort to do it more often.

The next chance I got was on Monday this week when I did a spot at We Are Funny Project in Dalston – another non-bringer conveniently close to work, which I’ve done a lot recently. I had gone to the gig planning to do a completely new five minutes because I was bored of churning out the same set. But as I was sat in the bar I got chatting to some of the other acts and was struggling to memorise the new stuff, so I wimped out and decided to do my usual shit instead.

The MC, Alfie, handed me a bit of a gift, as he let his 12 year old son do a spot before I went up (and he killed, btw) so when I took the stage I opened with “I wish I could tell you this is the first time I’ve followed a twelve year old boy…” – it was a bit cheap, but it got me one of the longest laughs I’ve ever had at an open mic night, so I’m not sorry.

After that I ploughed on with my usual material, but I tried to restructure my set by moving some of the bits around to make it fit together a little better, and my flow just wasn’t right and my energy was off so, while I got laughs, none of them were big and my closer flopped completely.

All the same, it was a great fun night and I got to spend some time chatting with Gus Singh, Lee Hudson, and Andrew Buchan, who were all firing on all cylinders. In the bar before the show a French guy, Mickael N’dour, introduced himself as a reader, and told me it was his second gig – but did an amazing job. It always depresses me when new acts are so good. I also bumped into another reader, a new act called Stephen Young, who I’ve met a couple of times now and is getting into his stride.

It’s cool to have got to a point with this where most of the time I go to a gig I know a few people and get to compare notes, catch up and generally have a bit of chit chat. Even if this comedy thing doesn’t ever go anywhere for me (and there’s at least an 80% chance of that happening) it’s just good to feel like I’m part of something and hanging out with people who could go onto great things.

Finally, on Wednesday of this week I went to Portsmouth Guildhall for my heat of the South Coast Comedian of the Year Competition. When I got to the venue I met a couple of guys I know from London, Horatio Gould and Jacob Hatton, and I got chatting to some of the local acts too. There was a nice friendly vibe, as there often is at these things, more camaraderie than competition.

There were ten acts in total, and I was up fourth, just before the first break. The venue space was weird, kind of an open hall that had been sectioned off with black drapes and odd lighting. It felt a bit like the kind of place where you might see a live sex show, so I riffed on that as an opener, which worked reasonably well, and then cracked on with my polished material.

There were about 30 paying audience members, and they all seemed pretty receptive to my stuff – and I was getting good solid laughs all the way through. By the time I left the stage I felt like I’d done as good a job as I could with that material.

The top three acts of the night were picked by an audience vote, and even though I don’t generally expect to get anywhere in these things (on account of being yet another middle aged hetero white guy) I half thought I was at least in with a chance this time. It wasnt to be though, and the two acts who went through to the semi finals were Horatio Gould and a great character act called Michael Buttersworth.

I’m ready to start doing some new material now that these competitions are out of the way, although I’ve got a spot at the Comedy Store King Gong show on the 29th so I don’t want try new stuff there, except maybe a punchier opener. Other than that gig, I’m going to focus on trying out new stuff at gigs now, for a while at least.

I can’t believe I’m only on 87 gigs so far, it feels like much more, but at least the psychologically important 100 milestone is within reach.