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.