Obligatory Lockdown Update

Well this is all a bit of a bollocks, isn’t it? I was just starting to feel like I was making a bit of progress in standup and then the whole thing got shut down.

I shouldn’t complain. I have a day job which, for now, seems fairly stable even under lockdown, so I don’t have to worry about paying my bills. Others aren’t so lucky, I know a few pro/semi-pro acts who rely on live comedy to keep a roof over their heads. You might know a few yourself so, if you’re in a position to help out, support them where you can, buy merch, donate to their fundraisers, whatever you can.

Also, stay in touch with people. I know a lot of standup comedians tend to have varying degrees of mental health problems and the current situation won’t be good for them at all; a call or a message can make all the difference. I’m doing fine myself, but it’s still been great to chat when a few people I know from comedy have checked in with me.

I’m not doing any virtual shows, making online content, or even just writing during all of this. I’ve got three kids at home with me and a day-job to hold down, which means I’ve got no free mental bandwidth for anything like that, getting through the day is exhausting enough. For now I’m just keeping my head down and trying to get through this as best I can.

I hope you’re all holding it together. Stay strong, we’ll all be back performing our weak material in half empty rooms before you know it!

The one where I shambolically MC a show at short notice…

I’m in a busy period at work this month, and for another couple of weeks, so apologies if things are a bit quiet round here. The only biggish thing that’s happened recently is I got another shot at MCing We Are Funny Project much earlier than expected, because this week they had to shuffle some things around at the last minute so I took the reins on Monday night.

I wasn’t supposed to MC again until April, so I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for it, but under the circumstances I thought that even if I did a less than ideal job it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

The thing about MCing somebody else’s night is that there’s quite a bit of setup and admin that you need to deal with; getting the venue set up, checking in the acts, organising the running order, dealing with cash, etc. The upshot of this is that you don’t really get to sit around trying to get in the zone before you go on stage – you’re dealing with logistics, and then you need to be ready to go on all of a sudden.

So, this time around I didn’t do a stellar job of all the house-keeping stuff that an MC is supposed to do at the start of the night – how the night’s going to work, when the breaks are, what time we finish, etc. I think I just about covered the basics before doing a few minutes of material to warm the audience up. I didn’t even do the rudimentary crowd-work that’s required of MCs.

In the end, none of that really mattered because for a change there were pretty much no dropouts, so we had a lot of acts to get through and by keeping my waffling to a minimum we were able to make sure that the whole night ran to time. It helped that every single one of the acts was great – even a first-timer (Walter Thomas) smashed it – which meant that I never really needed to bring the energy back up after a bomb.

Was it the smoothest display of MCing prowess in the history of open mic comedy? No, but the energy was great and everybody had a good time. Every now and then I did a quick bit of material in between acts, when I could think of something to build on what they’d talked about, but that was more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.

At the start of the second half I did a couple of minutes of the new stuff I’ve been working on, and that seemed to go pretty well. Depressingly, however, the biggest laugh I got all night was when I tried to discretely wave my phone to give an act the light, but it slipped out of my hand and went flying into the audience.

The headliner was Gerry Bakewell, who was always going to finish the night in style – and I was really pleased that he threw in a few shots at me, call-backs to bits of my material from earlier in the night.

So, I didn’t really do much actual MCing in the end, just calling up a long list of great acts, with occasional bits of my own material thrown in for good measure, and in the end it all worked out fine.

Other than that, I’ve been focusing a lot on writing recently. Now that I’m at a point where I can comfortably trot out five minutes of safe, reliable material, I’m trying to move away from all the jokes about parenting I’ve been relying on. I never really wanted to do so much material about parenting, but inevitably, since it’s such a big part of my life right now, that’s where most of the inspiration came from and it also seems to be the stuff that worked best for me.

But I’m moving on from that now – I want to cover more interesting topics, and put together a strong ten minutes, so that’s my focus for the rest of this year.

This is my “Oh christ I’ve not updated the blog for two months” comeback gig

Trying to remember how to “comedy” at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion in early January, after taking most of December off.

Hello darlinks – I know it’s been a while since I updated here, so I’ll try to remember the biggest things that have happened over the past couple of months.

First up, I’ll be getting a little more involved in We Are Funny Project on Monday nights at The Jago in Dalston. Alfie, the guy who set up the night up years ago, is trying to focus on some other stuff and has got a new team to manage the show in his absence, and I’m happy to be a more regular fixture alongside the rest of the crew. I’m going to MC there semi-regularly, and generally be an extra pair of hands on deck.

If you’ve not been to a WAFP show for a while I’d recommend checking it out again because the show has evolved a bit since moving to the new venue and the new team getting stuck in.

Max Turner Prize 2020

I have mixed feelings about doing competitions because I know that I’m not really the kind of act that typically does well in them, but they’re always fun to enter because you’re usually guaranteed a decent audience compared to a typical open mic night. So if you just treat it as any other gig, and don’t focus on the competitive element, they can be great.

The Max Turner Prize at Comedy Virgins is an annual favourite – the venue’s easy for me to get home from at the end of the show, it’s a nice place where I always bump into some friendly faces, and the vibe is just generally great.

I did my first heat towards the end of January and was happy with my set – a mix of newer stuff that’s been working well and nuggets of old gold. I delivered it well, the audience went along with it, I even threw in a bit of off-the-cuff crowd work which went OK, so I walked off the stage feeling like I’d given it a good shot.

But I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get through to the next round because every single act was fantastic. I kind of miss the time when I could go to any open mic night and at least a third of the acts would be terrible, it was good for my ego, but these days everybody seems so much better than a couple of years ago. It was a good night, but my war was over.

Until the next morning, when I got a message telling me I’d been put through to the next round as an MC’s wildcard choice by Twix who is a QUEEN AND A LEGEND AND MY EVERYTHING.

Unfortunately I let her down by completely flubbing my second round performance. I had a good set that I’ve performed a lot recently, so it was fresh in my mind and I knew it was working well, but I did a few things wrong.

  1. I tried to change too many things too late in the day. I already had a half-baked idea to throw in a topical bit about something in the news that day, but hadn’t really thought it through or practiced it properly. Also, I bumped into an act I knew in the bar before the show and had a mild panic that one of my newer bits might be too similar to some stuff I’d seen her do before. Not wanting to risk stitching her up if I went up before her, I did a quick mental re-hash of the bit to make sure it absolutely couldn’t be interpreted as being too similar to her material.
  2. For my bringer I dragged along an old school-mate, so I was kind of obliged to have a beer and a chat with him before the show, which meant that I wasn’t focusing on getting my set right in my head before I went up.
  3. I volunteered to go up first, knowing I was unlikely to go through to the next round I didn’t mind taking the bullet – but it also gave me less time to work out my plan.

In the end I completely shat the bed. I wasn’t as smooth as I’d been at other gigs recently, including the previous heat, I tripped over my words, fluffed the new bits, and once things started to go wrong panic set in and, instead of delivering the decent material I’ve been using recently, I regurgitated a bunch of older stuff that only really won me a few stilted laughs.

I felt annoyed with myself more than anything else – mostly because I knew quite a few of the acts in the room and it felt bad to do such a crappy job in front of my peers. For the past couple of months I really felt like I’d been stepping up a level, so to put in a performance that I would have been embarrassed by even two years ago dragged me right back down to earth with a bump.

But onwards and upwards. Now that I’m at a point where I have 5-10 minutes of mostly good stuff that I can (usually) make work, I’m focusing on building it into a rock-solid 10 minutes (with some backup material in the bag). Last night I was back at WAFP, and I threw in a couple of minutes of new material about my relationship with my dad, which is an area I’ve been wanting to dig into for a while because it’s a bit of a goldmine. It went well for a first outing, and I got good feedback, which I was pleased by because I completely forgot to deliver the main punchline to the new bit, so there’s definitely something to work with there.

One of my goals for this year, other than doing more MCing, is to spread my wings a bit further and do some spots outside of London. I live near Epsom, so getting out into Surrey and Sussex is easy for me, and there are a bunch of places out there where I can get spots, so I’m starting this week at Stand Up Horsham.

Sam Rhodes Birthday Bash

I did a spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion this week; it also happened to be Sam’s birthday, so the mood was high, everybody was drinking more than usual (I was, at any rate) and all in all it was much more fun than a Monday night has any right to be.

As we’re sliding toward the end of the year I’ve been thinking a lot about what my next steps should be. I’ve spent most of this year grinding out variations of the same five minute set to try and get it as strong as possible, and that’s been at the expense of both new material, and other stuff that I’ve written.

Doing the We Are Funny Project challenge show the other week really reminded me what I got into this for – I never wanted to churn out jokes about being a dad every gig, that was only ever supposed to be my easy, safe material to fall back on when I need it. So I’ve decided to shelve that set for now, and focus on putting together another strong five minutes.

My intro at the WAFP “Problems at Work” Challenge Show

For this week’s spot I threw together a mix of stuff I used for the challenge show last week, a couple of old bits of sleaze and filth that I haven’t used since last year, a bit from the set I’ve been doing this year, and one completely new bit.

As it happened Ginnia Cheng, who I’ve known for a couple of years, was up before me and when she spotted me in the crowd she decided to include me in a bit of crowd-work. This was a solid gold gift, because I opened with a half-decent call-back to the interaction which got a good laugh. Unfortunately, it was one of the worst lines I’ve ever said on stage and not the kind of thing you can safely repeat outside the context of a comedy night, so it’s lost to the ages.

Still, the point is that one of the most common bits of advice people give newbie stand-ups is to “be present in the room” and I think this is exactly what they’re talking about. Pay attention to the room, to the other acts, to the audience, and think about how you can use any of it because, even if you come up with something mediocre, it will often get just as good a laugh as any of your polished material. Audiences love it when they see you thinking on your feet.

The rest of the set went well, it was all material I’ve done plenty of times before so I felt comfortable delivering it, and they were some of my best bits from the past couple of years so they all landed nicely. Except the brand new bit, which got absolutely nothing. This surprised me because I thought it was pretty good, but it didn’t even get a murmur of disapproval, just stone cold silence like they were still waiting for the punchline. I didn’t record the set so I don’t know if I screwed the bit up or something, but I’ll try it again a couple of times before I write it off.

I haven’t got any spots booked for the rest of the year, because it’s all a bit complicated planning things around various end of year piss-ups, but I’ll be trying to grab at least a couple more walk-in spots before Christmas.

Five minutes of brand new material at a challenge show

This week I did one of the We Are Funny Project challenge shows, which involves writing and performing a completely new five minute set based on a topic that they give you. Under normal circumstances that would be the full story, but there was a bit more to it this time because the theme was “things going wrong at work”.

The reason this topic was chosen is that Alfie, who runs WAFP, has recently set up a new business selling standup comedy skills workshops for business, and he wanted some video clips of comedians doing relatable workplace material that could be used to promote the business on LinkedIn. This meant that the night was being professionally filmed, and the stakes were a little higher because I knew he wanted to get some usable clips, so I had to aim for at least two or three of my bits to work pretty well, and I had to keep the material reasonably work-safe.

I’d known about this gig for a while so I put some effort into writing some workplace related material, but I’d only had a couple of opportunities to try the stuff out beforehand and it was all still very rough. I had some idea of which bits I could rely on to work, but most of the set was still an unknown quantity and its success would really depend on the energy in the room.

The bigger problem was that I hadn’t practiced the material well enough to remember the running order, so I went on stage with a set-list scribbled on the back of my hand.

Things started well enough, I opened with a bit that had worked both times I tried it before, and I’d remembered at least the first few bits of material, so for the first couple of minutes I was able to deliver it all with confidence. But then I started to stumble a little – the mic cable was loose and I had to pause to figure out what the problem was, which put me on the back foot, and once I started having to check my set list after every bit it all started to feel very clunky and awkward. During one bit I tripped over my tongue and said “shat down” instead of “sat down” which got a much bigger laugh than the actual punchline, and probably the rest of my entire set.

It felt like a lot of it just wasn’t working very well and when I left the stage I was really unhappy with my performance. After having such a great time MCing there a week earlier, it felt like a massive crash back down to earth.

I tried not to beat myself up too badly – it was a completely new five minutes of largely untested material, so it was never going to be amazing, and the whole point of the exercise was for Alfie to get one or two usable clips of bits landing well, which I think I accomplished.  

I went up towards the end of the first half, and in the break a few people told me that they thought I did pretty well, but I respectfully disagree. I’m looking forward to getting hold of the video at some point so I can objectively assess how it went.

On the plus side, it felt great to put together so much completely new material after spending so much of this year just trying to polish the same old stuff. I feel like I’ve probably got at least a minute or two of good stuff out of it, and I think for the immediate future I’m going to focus on building that up into a strong five that stands on its own.

That said, other than next Monday at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion, I’ve currently got no other spots booked for the rest of the year, so I need to get on that…

My first go at MCing a gig

I’ve done a few spots since my last update, three at Sam Rhodes (including a weird night where I got “called out” by another act who was offended by one of my bits) and one at Comedy Virgins, where I was pleased to see Steph Aritone has taken on regular Monday MC duties. 

But the main thing I want to talk about is my first go at MCing a night myself. I won’t bore you with the long-winded back-story, but Alfie from We Are Funny Project recently offered me the opportunity to MC one of the rebooted Monday night shows at the new venue, The Jago, in Dalston.

I wasn’t keen on the idea to begin with, because I always felt like I just wanted to focus on doing my own set and wouldn’t be interested in (or good at) all the other stuff an MC has to do to run a night well. But Alfie persuaded me that I should give it a go, and gave me plenty of advice on how to do a decent job of it.

He’s handed the night over to a new team to run, including Spen Cockerell, Brandon Palmer, and Rob Mayhem – a nice bunch who I’ve got to know a bit better recently, and they were all there on Monday the 11th when I was at the helm for the night. I knew a lot of the acts on the line-up, so I was confident it would be a strong show regardless of how badly I floundered as an MC, especially with Mad Ron headlining

I wasn’t exactly feeling nervous about it, but I knew that my first attempt was always going to be patchy, and I was keen not to fuck things up too badly because it’s somebody else’s night. 

Things got off to a slightly weird start with some random nutter showing up unannounced and demanding to be given stage-time. The team tried to politely explain that it’s not that kind of night, and he’d need to book in advance for a spot, but he decided to be a dick about it and things got a bit tense, but in the end he agreed to just sit down and watch the show. I could tell he had the potential to derail the night, so I made a mental note to be ready for him. 

Hecklers are very rare at this level of stand-up – you get the occasional mental-case like this guy, or the odd loud drunk, but it’s really not the problem that most new comics imagine. Ultimately, you’re the one with the mic, and the audience is on your side, as long as you’ve got a couple of good lines in your back pocket you’re always going to come out on top. 

To kick things off I had to introduce the night, explain the house-keeping rules to the audience, and then warm them up with some polished material for 5-10 minutes. I tried a bit of crowd-work, but it’s not really my strong point and it fell a bit flat, although I specifically made a point of speaking to the nutter, just to let him know he was on my radar. He shut up after that and slinked out of the show early on. 

My introduction was pretty choppy, as I was trying to remember all the logistical stuff I needed to talk about, as well as the name of the first act, but after that I started to feel more comfortable with it. After each act I’d either quickly introduce the next one, if the energy was high, or do a quick bit of material riffing on something the previous act had talked about, which gave me plenty of opportunity to try out different material instead of my usual set, including some new stuff and one or two completely off-the-cuff bits. 

By the time we’d finished the first half of the show I felt like I was really getting into my stride. The only real fuck-up was forgetting one of the act’s names, and then fumbling the handshake as he walked on stage, but I made the handshake thing into a running gag for the rest of the night. 

When the second half began I realised that I was supposed to do 5-10 minutes of material to kick things off, but by that point I’d already used most of my stronger bits. I have some dark and sleazy material, but that’s not really ideal for MCing, where you want to keep the mood light so the acts can do their own thing. In the end I cobbled together some new bits I’ve been working on, which worked well enough, and by the time I’d got through all the “welcome back” fluff and spoken to the audience a bit I’d easily filled 10 minutes. 

I felt a lot more relaxed in the second half, and enjoyed it a lot more since the pressure was off – all I really had to do was introduce the acts and ad-lib a little between their sets. Other than that, my final responsibility was to do the Bucket Speech at the end of the night, and then we were done. 

After the show I got some nice feedback from Alfie and a few of the acts, including the headliner, and the whole experience made me realise I’ve been wrong to discount the idea of MCing.In the space of a single gig I got a ton of stage time, tried out loads of old and new material, practiced some crowd work, and did a bit of improv. Doing that once or twice a week would help me develop a lot quicker than grinding out five minute sets. 

That said, there’s still the question of opportunity – it’s not like there are a ton of MC slots available every week, so the only way to do it regularly would be to set up my own gig, with all the associated admin and hassle. Might be a price worth paying. 

If you’re interested in giving MCing a go, We Are Funny Project runs regular workshops to introduce you to the important skills of compering a comedy show. 

Back to Basics Comedy Podcast Episode 9 – Luke Craig

I’ve wanted to get Luke Craig on the podcast for a while, so I’m really pleased we were finally able to persuade him to chat with us. I first saw Luke at the Cavendish Arms about 18 months ago and was immediately impressed with his act – you can get a taste of his material in this five minute set at Up the Creek’s Beat the Blackout night.

In this episode, Luke talks to us about his journey so far, his approach to writing material, and we bitch about our kids quite a lot…

There are more podcast episodes here.

We Are Funny Project Relaunch Show

I didn’t manage to do a gig last week because I had a lot of social stuff on and couldn’t risk the wrath of my wife by adding an extra night out to an already busy week. But on Monday of this week I did a spot at the first of the rebooted We Are Funny Project gigs at the new venue (The Jago, Dalston).

Alfie, the promoter, is handing the night over to a new team to take forward, and wanted the first night to go well, so he asked everybody on the bill to bring a few friends – I casually mentioned it to a work-friend and she ended up bringing half the office (alright, seven people).

So we had a decent sized audience and Alfie had made sure the line-up was strong, with some great up and coming acts, Brandon Palmer on MC duties, and headliner Mark Dolan closing the night brilliantly. Sometimes when pro acts headline open mic nights they tend to phone it in, but Mark was firing on all cylinders and left the room in pieces.

I opened the second half of the evening and I have mixed feelings about it. Objectively, I killed. I’ve watched the video a few times and there’s a lot of loud laughter all the way through my set – and even though some of that is no doubt down to my colleagues being supportive, the whole room was on fire.

That said, I was sloppy. I hadn’t gigged for the best part of two weeks so I was rusty. I was trying out a new, untested opener, and I was focusing too much on how I should deliver it. When I went up to the stage my colleagues went nuts, and that kind of threw me onto the back foot because I’m used to walking on to polite applause, not whooping and cheering. The laughs were bigger than you’d usually get at an open mic, and that put me off my flow.

All of this is small, petty stuff that wouldn’t faze a professional comedian. I mean, what kind of comic gets put off by the audience laughing too hard? But all the same, there were a few times in my set where I blanked and had to sneak a look at my set-list to remember what bit to do next.

I styled it out, and the audience was very forgiving (it helps that the material is fairly decent) so no harm no foul. Big laughs all the way through, back-slaps after the show, what more can you ask for? Jerry Bakewell gave me a high-five as I walked off stage, which made me feel cool as fuck. But I’m still annoyed with myself for fumbling, even if the audience didn’t notice or care – I should be able to do that set without missing a beat.

On the plus side, the new opener worked pretty well, so I’m going to work with it and see if I can build it out into a bigger bit. It flows nicely into the rest of my set, and I’m pretty comfortable with most of that stuff now, even if I did trip over it a bit on Monday. I’m reasonably confident that I can get through it all without using a set list again.

I’ve got a couple of spots at Comedy Explosion over the next couple of weeks, and maybe I can squeeze one or two other in during that time as well – I’m going to focus on just practicing the set as it is so I can deliver it smoothly and with confidence, rather than trying out anything new.

I’ve done it before, I can do it again, and this time with better material.

No podcast this week because our guest had to bale and we didn’t have time to organise a replacement, but next week we’re going to be speaking with Luke Craig, who’s been a favourite act of mine since I first saw him at the Cavendish a year or so ago.

In other news, I’m going to have a go at MCing a night in mid-November, but that’s kind of under wraps at the moment and I’ll share more details soon.

Back to Basics Comedy Podcast Episode 8 – Red Richardson

Red Richardson has been described by Chortle as one of the most exciting new comedians in recent years, and you only need to watch him in action to understand why.

In this episode, Red explains how he went from knowing almost nothing about stand-up comedy to becoming a full time comic in under five years.

You can find him on Twitter here.

There are more podcast episodes here.

Stepping up to 10 minutes

Ken Grinell giving Vauxhall Comedy Club a good spanking.

The past few week have been a little busy, so I’ve been slack in posting an update here. If you’ve been paying attention you’ve probably noticed the podcast is back from the dead – we’ve got into a regular weekly cadence and already had a few decent guests on, so hopefully we can build up a bit of momentum with it this time around.

I’ve managed a paltry three gigs since my last post, another 10 minutes at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion, 7 Minutes at Vauxhall Comedy, and 5 at Comedy Virgins. I feel like I’m in a bit of an awkard phase at the moment – I’d got to the point where I was fairly comfortable with my 5 minute set and it worked reliably most of the time, so I was ready to start start trying new stuff and doing longer sets.

The problem is that after you’ve got used to things going well at pretty much every gig, it’s a real kick in the spuds when things stop going as well. I think the mistake I’ve made with longer sets is changing too much – I’ve reorganised my existing bits and added in too many new bits. This means I’m struggling to remember it all, so I have to use notes, which means my delivery is shit and my confidence takes a beating, and the whole this is just crap.

A few more seasoned acts have suggested not trying to do so much – just because I have twice as much time, doesn’t mean I need to do twice as much material. So next time I have a ten spot I’m just going to try doing my best five-minutes of stuff, but taking a more relaxed pace with it instead of trying to hit as many punchlines as possible in the time. And if I still have some time left when I’ve finished, I’ll try out a couple of new bits.

Next week I’m doing a spot at the first of the rebooted We Are Funny gigs in Dalston – as well as a new venue, the night is going to have new people running it and everybody involved is trying to make the first night one to remember, so if you’re at a loose end then your attendance would be greatly appreciated.

After that I’ve got a couple more spots at Sam Rhodes on the 23rd and 28th of this month, but I need to get my shit together and book some more spots because I’ve really taken my foot off the pedal recently.

I’m probably not going to be blogging about every single gig any more, because there’s really not much to say about so many of them. But I’ll write up the ones where something interesting happens, and try to post a bit more useful stuff about what I’m learning along the way.