After six weeks of playing around on the stand-up comedy course every Wednesday evening, suddenly it was time for the showcase night. This was the main reason for me doing the course – I could have just turned up at one of London’s many open mic nights, but I was struggling to take that first step and I felt like this would help me get moving.
The show was in a bona-fide comedy club, downstairs at the Comedy Pub on Oxenden Street (just a few doors down from the Comedy Store – one day, maybe…) and the audience was made up of about 70-80 people invited by everybody on the course. There were 11 of us performing, with the running order chosen by the course tutor, Kate Smurthwaite who also MC’d the evening, and I was chosen to go up second to last.
While everybody sat down to watch the acts, the performers hid at the back of the bar, whispering support to each other and waiting our turns to go up. Everybody went up, nobody choked – the quality was variable but everybody threw themselves into it and got some laughs from the crowd, and one or two people surprised me with how well they did.
I was feeling pretty comfortable about going up. I’d already resigned myself to using a set-list because even though I can remember each of my bits perfectly well, I couldn’t remember which bits I was going to do and in which order. I didn’t care about looking ultra-polished, I just wanted to deliver my material to a crowd and see how it landed.
The thing that threw me off when I got onto the stage was how hard it is to see the audience with stage-lights in your eyes. When I talk at conferences I’m used to being able to see the audience’s faces and gauge how they’re responding, but on stage the only feedback available was the sound of laughter, or silence.
I’d already written what I think is a pretty strong opener but, because I’m an idiot, I got cocky and spontaneously opened with a bit about accidental fisting that I’d only just thought of. I fell in love with the opening line of the bit, which certainly got a solid laugh, but I hadn’t had time to work it all through so it meandered on for too long before arriving at a fairly unsatisfying punchline. The punchline worked, but wasn’t strong enough to justify the rambling length of the bit.
I got back on track and delivered the material that I’d actually written – glancing down at my set list every now and then to remind myself of what bit was coming next. I didn’t record the set, so I don’t know exactly what worked and what didn’t, but it felt like I was getting a respectable number of laughs. Sometimes they laughed at the wrong places, and sometimes the punchlines fell flat, but on the whole it seemed to work well.
Getting towards the end of my set I delivered a short line that looked OK to me on paper but even before I’d finished saying the words I could sense that it wasn’t going to work, so out of desperation I improvised a new punchline and almost wet myself when it got a massive laugh. Then I went a bit meta and told the audience that I should end on that laugh, but I had more material to get through, at which point Kate shouted from the side of the stage “Yeah, Lance, you’re already 13 minutes into your 5 minute set, so if you could make it quick…”
This threw me off balance a little. I knew I was over 5 minutes, but 13 seemed a little gratuitous, and at a real-world open-mic going over time is a big faux-pas, so I made a very clumsy link to my closer, delivered it less than smoothly, and got a fairly mediocre laugh for it. Lessons: time my material better and, if I get an opportunity to finish on a big laugh, take it and be grateful.
I got off the stage and watched the final act. When it was over all I really wanted to do was go for a drink and a debrief with the other acts, but we each had our own friends and family waiting to talk to us, and it was already getting close to last-train-home time.
The next morning our WhatsApp group was buzzing with conversation about what to do next, and this made me happy. After getting off stage I knew I wanted to do more, hit some real open mics, try my stuff on tougher audiences, deal with some hecklers, and I was glad that some of the others were up for the same.
Maybe I should have just started going to mics to being with, but the course did what I needed it to – got me over my inertia and gave me a hunger to get on stage again, and it helped me make a handful of friends with the same idea.
Right now my plan is to do at least one open mic spot a week, more if I can – but we’ll see how that works out in practice.