Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion, and my first international gig

A cloudy San Francisco from my hotel room window.

Last week I was in San Francisco for a work trip, so I checked out the open mic scene before I went and planned to do some spots while I was there. In the end I only managed to do one spot – a combination of jet-lag, catching a cold on the way out, and a busy work schedule meant I couldn’t get to as many gigs as I’d hoped.

I landed on Sunday afternoon, checked into my hotel and then went to an open mic night called OMJG, run in a gay nightclub called OMG on Sixth Street close to my hotel. The gig started at 5:30pm so I got there on time to make sure I got a spot, but I didn’t need to be so punctual. In contrast to the way London gigs work, acts just drifted in and out of this place throughout the couple of hours it ran, and nobody had problems getting a spot.

I think the locals must treat it as a warm-up before they go to do other spots later in the evening, and there doesn’t seem to be a problem with acts leaving the gig once they’ve done their spot. At first the place was pretty empty so I thought I’d just be performing to a handful of other acts, but eventually a group of four boisterous gay guys came in and sat in front of the stage, so there was at least a small audience.

To be honest I was so spaced from having only just got off a 13 hour flight that I pretty much gabbled nonsense at them for five minutes. I tried to address the fact that I was a Brit by opening with some stuff about Brexit (“I was going to talk to you guys about Brexit, back home we’ve got a problem with mad old racists taking control of the country and fucking everything up for us, but I suppose Americans wouldn’t find that stuff relatable in any way…”).

It didn’t really get much and I probably should have just gone straight in with a punchy opener instead, but I think they gave me a break because I was obviously out of my element, so they were friendly enough. I fumbled through some of my usual material but did a shitty job of it, got a few laughs and a couple of groans at the nasty bits, but it was undeniably a complete car crash. I think the audience were more impressed with my accent than my material.

The other acts were friendly and I stuck around to the end of the gig, although by that point I was pretty much the only person watching the final spot as everybody else drifted off.

I got out of there at about 7pm, and the next gig was at a nearby Irish bar at 9pm. I didn’t want to sit in a bar by myself for a couple of hours so I went back to my hotel room; a fatal move because once I sat in the armchair I was done for and couldn’t summon the energy to go back out. I told myself I’d do more spots later in the week, but I didn’t get a chance to slip away from work, so that was that. I’m glad I did at least one.

Back in London this week I did my first spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion in Dalston. Unusually for an open mic it takes place in the main bar of a pub on Shoreditch High Street, rather than a side room, which means that even though it’s not a bringer night there’s still a half decent chance of a proper audience showing up.

It’s a nice gig, Sam plays MC and keeps the mood bouncy with his own up-beat material, and the random audience element makes it more fun. The night is split into three sections, and while you know which section you’ll be in beforehand, where you are in the running order for that section is the luck of the draw. I prefer this to the nights where you get called up completely at random, because at least you have a rough idea of when you need to mentally prepare to go up.

I went up towards the end of the middle section and, while I didn’t kill, I did get respectable laughs for most of my stuff, even if my closer flopped a bit. I think I need to do a bit of writing, because I’m getting comfortable with my current chunk of material and I’m starting to sense where it already works well and where it needs to be tightened up. My closer used to get a couple of big reliable laughs, but it’s not working as well these days, maybe because I’m not delivering it with the same gusto.

I was listening to an interesting podcast recently on the topic of commitment in comedy, and how being really committed to a bit can help you make controversial material work, so I think I’m going to try that before I do any major re-writing.

I bumped into a few people I recognise at the gig:

  • The majestic Ruby Carr was aflame, and I both hate and love her for being so good at this.
  • Micah Hall, I’ve seen around quite a bit recently and it’s nice to see how well his act is developing.
  • Ginnia Cheng, we’ve been chummy for a while now and she gets better every time I see her.

Also, Vanessa Hua, introduced herself during one of the breaks because it turns out she’s a reader: *waves* – a few people who read the blog have introduced themselves at gigs and they always start by saying “I know this probably sounds a bit weird, but I read your blog…” Honestly, it’s not weird, I like saying hello to you lot.

I’m still not happy about only doing one gig a week, but life’s changing at the moment – so it might be a bit easier to step up to a couple of gigs every week soon.

I was supposed to be at the Cavendish this Wednesday, but I’ve had to cancel that due to a work thing, so my next gig is back at Comedy Explosion next Monday.

 

 

 

 

 

Going on stage drunk at Battersea Power Comedy

Back to Battersea Power Comedy this week. The gig runs in the upstairs room of the Duchess pub, which does great food, so I’d arranged to meet a friend there for dinner beforehand and ended up getting through a couple of pints and most of  a bottle of wine before it was my turn to go up.

I usually don’t drink much at gigs, especially before I’ve done my set – but I wanted to hang out with my friend, and I was feeling pretty confident so I wasn’t too worried about going on stage a bit pissed. It was mostly OK, but at one point I completely blanked in the middle of a bit and it took me a few seconds of flailing before I got back on track. That doesn’t usually happen to me,  so I have to put it down to the booze.

I think being a little pissed on stage might be a good thing for me, but only if I’m delivering material that I’m very confident and practiced with so there’s no danger of me forgetting bits. Just the right amount of booze might help me to look a bit more relaxed.

I’ve had a few flashes of inspiration recently and written some new bits to add into my main set. Because it’s all loosely on the same topic (parenting) it’s easy throw the  new bits into the mix with more polished material for each gig. I tried out a couple of new bits that I came up with this week and they both worked fairly nicely, so I’ll keep them. I’m reasonably confident that I’ve got enough serviceable material for a 10 minute set, although whether I could remember it all is a different matter.

It was a fairly busy night with 15 acts, and I hadn’t seen a lot of them before – there seemed to be a lot more newbies on the bill than at most of my recent gigs. I did bump into the Italian guy I mentioned in my last post, who did a much stronger set this time.  Vasek Pernikar was there, I’ve seen him a few times now and really like his act – he’s got the market cornered for slightly creepy weirdness. Likewise, I’ve seen Dan Mahony a few times recently and he’s shaping up into a solid act.

Finally, there was an American guy called Brooke Hoerr who I thought was pretty good – although that’s probably because we both cover similar themes in our material.

Everybody stuck around in the bar after the show and it was good to talk to some of the other acts. At most of the gigs I do people tend to disappear as soon as the show ends, so I don’t get much opportunity to compare notes with others.

At one point a woman who was in the audience spotted me propping up the bar and creased up as she walked past, then she came over for a chat. Not gonna lie, that gave my ego a boner.

I’m off to San Francisco for a week now and I’ll be trying to do some open mic nights while I’m there. When I get back I’ve got a couple of spots booked at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion in Dalston – I’ve never done that gig before, but I’ve heard good things so I’m looking forward to it.

 

How do I find a comedy open mic night near me?

One of the most common problems for people starting in standup is finding somewhere to perform. Bigger cities will usually have a lot of comedy open mic nights, but it can be harder to find spots if you don’t live in one of those places.

The first thing I learned was that it’s actually pretty hard to find open mic nights through Google. The reason for this is that the scene in any area will change a lot over time, and keeping an up to date list of nights takes ongoing effort. So if you happen to find a website listing local comedy nights, there’s a good chance it will be hopelessly out of date (although I try to keep an up to date list of London open mics, I’m sure I’ve missed some). Also the people who run the nights often don’t make web pages for them because it takes a lot of effort. So, in this case, Google isn’t your friend.

Facebook is going to be more helpful. The people who run open mic nights are much more likely to create a Facebook page to promote it (because that’s easier than building a web site) and this is usually where you’ll find information about how to get a spot.

You’ll also find that in a lot of areas there will be Facebook groups for local comedians, which will be a good place to find nights. Either that, or more general local groups that have information about all open mic nights in the area including music, poetry, and other bullshit. You might also find anything-goes nights that let comedians, musicians and others perform on the same bill.

So, the short answer to how you find a comedy open mic night near you is to search on Facebook. You’ll find pages for the nights themselves, or local groups that will point you in the right direction.

Another option is to use an online open mic directory. There are a few sites in the UK that can help you find spots around the country – although they don’t always have the most up to date information because the open mic organisers don’t add the details of their own nights.

Some of the UK directories I know of are:

Open Comedy – Focused entirely on stand-up comedy, and not just for open mic nights. Worth signing up if you’re interested in getting involved in the business.

Open Mic Finder – Covers all types of open mic nights, but seems to lean more towards music than comedy.

Spotlz – Seems to be some kind of spot booking service, one or two London nights use it but there’s not a lot of information on the site and it doesn’t seem to be very popular.

Open Comedy is the best of the bunch as far as I can tell, but your mileage may vary.

Gig 50 at the Cavendish Arms

At Battersea Power Comedy last week. Despite appearances, I am not actually punching myself in the face, just gently stroking my beard.

I hit a small milestone this week,  my fiftieth open mic spot, a little over a year since I did my first one. I’d hoped to get closer to 100 by now, but real life gets in the way so I just can’t do as many gigs as I’d like and I’m resigned to the fact that I’m only going to be able to do one spot most weeks.

I was glad to be marking the occasion at Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish Arms, because I’ve had a lot of good nights there since I got started. Last night was no exception, the room was full (thanks in part to Mouch bringing half the audience with him) and almost every act was on form, nobody bombed terribly.

I got called up at the end of the night as the penultimate act. Under normal circumstances the energy would be flagging by this point, especially since Comedy Virgins tends to be a long night, but the room was still buzzing close to the finish line.

The act before me was an Italian guy who had his moments, but he tried to do some crowdwork with me* which just ended up being awkward and went on too long, and he did a couple of slightly  racist bits about gypsies which made the audience uncomfortable.

As it happens, I’ve recently discovered that my dad was of Irish Traveler heritage, and since I was on right after this guy I really felt like I should try to do something with this. So I dropped my planned opener and improvised some stuff about me being a gypsy, and while it wasn’t particularly funny I think the crowd enjoyed the serendipity and the fact that I addressed the issue, and I got a small cheer for my effort.

Last week I promised myself I wasn’t going to use a set list, but I wimped out at the last minute and scribbled just a few words on my hand to remind me of the structure of the middle bit of my set. I didn’t have to look at it much and once I got into my stride I felt a lot more comfortable than I have at recent gigs, and that made my delivery feel more natural too. The audience seemed to go along with me and I got some decent laughs all the way through.

The only problem was that because I improvised my opener my timing was all over the place and I got the one minute warning much sooner than I expected, so instead of wrapping it up with my usual closer I finished on a bit that usually goes in the middle. It’s a perfectly serviceable bit but the premise is better than the punchline, so it’s not strong enough to end a set on.

All the same, I was happy with how well it all went and I left the stage feeling like I’d done a decent job. I really need to ween myself back off hand-notes again though – I think the trick is to use progressively fewer and fewer words each gig until you don’t need anything at all.

I’m on holiday again next week, and then I’ve got spot back at Battersea Power Comedy  on the 6th of September.

 

*Tip for newbies, if you’re going to do crowdwork don’t pick on other comedians, because they’ll just try to be smartarses and derail your set.

7 Minutes at Battersea Power Comedy

I didn’t gig last week because I was in Nice with my trotters up, but this week I had a spot at Battersea Power Comedy. My bringer was Pauline Stobbs, another act I made friends with a year ago when we got started together. She’s currently spending some time in Australia, but was back visiting the UK for a couple of weeks so it was a good opportunity to catch up.

A few of the registered acts dropped out, but it was still a decent night because one guy brought a load of friends and a couple of people wandered in from the bar, so there was a reasonable audience. The night was a mixed bag of experience levels, a few very new acts and a few more polished guys – some of the people who stood out for me were Michael Eldridge, Kazeem Jamal Faturoti-Edwards, and Daniel Mahony.

At the moment I’ve got a good chunk of material (probably close to 10 minutes) loosely around the same theme of being a dad, and before every gig I decide which bits I’m going to use to make up five minutes, usually starting with the same opener and closer but mixing up the middle. Since there were a few dropouts the MC, Zach Dills, wasn’t being too strict with the time-keeping, so instead of sticking to the five minutes worth of bits I’d scribbled into a set-list on the back of my hand, I did as much of the stuff as I could remember. 

I think it ran to about seven minutes and it mostly seemed to go well, although I tried the riskier of my two openers which only seems to work about half of the time, and this was not one of those times. I rearranged my closer a little, because I’ve noticed that part of the story often gets a bigger laugh than the main punchline, and I want it to end on the biggest laugh. It worked well enough, but I should probably try properly rewriting it so that it hangs together a bit better. 

Because there were a few dropouts and the lineup was looking more sausagey than the Chariots Sauna Summer BBQ, Zach offered Pauline a spot. Considering she only had a few minutes notice and hadn’t gigged for over six weeks, she did a solid job of delivering some of her best material from memory. 

This made me realise what a bell-end I am for always relying on a set-list on the back of my hand – sure my brain is old and fucked, but I’ve got enough well-worn material now that I should be able to fill five minutes without needing notes. 

I’m challenging myself not to use notes from now on unless I’m trying out a completely new set. This starts next Wednesday, when I’m on at the Cavendish for my 50th spot.

In other news, I’m going to San Francisco with work for a week in September and I’ll have most of the evenings free, so I’m currently researching open-mic nights in the city with the plan of trying to do as many as I can while I’m there. 

Gig Count: 49

Sometimes the good nights take you by surprise

I had a great night at Battersea Power Comedy last week, against all the odds. It was the hottest day of the year so far, so I was expecting the mood and the turnout to be low, but as it happened there were no dropouts so we had a room full of acts and bringers, and plenty of energy.

I was glad to see a couple of my favourite acts in the bar beforehand – Thea Downey and Hubert Mayr – and a few other faces I recognise showed up too, Sam Dutton, Micah Hall and Ginnia Cheng. I enjoy doing this stuff all the same, but it’s more fun when you start getting to know the other acts and regularly bump into people you like, it really builds a sense of camaraderie.

I went up fourth – I chose a spot close to the beginning because it gave me just enough time to ease into the night, but not so long that I got distracted by the other acts and forgot my material. Another problem I have with going on later in the show is that it gives me too much time to start second guessing myself and mentally reworking my routine, instead of sticking to the plan I prepared and practiced. I like to get it out of the way early on and then enjoy the other acts.

I tried out a mix of old stuff, new versions of old stuff, and completely new stuff, and it all worked pretty well – even with an audience member dropping and breaking a glass halfway through my set I still managed to keep the room on side. I felt pretty good about it all after I got off stage. Most of the other acts did really well too, and hanging out in the bar afterwards there was a really good atmosphere. One of those good nights that took everybody by surprise.

Listening back to the recording I really notice how much I waffle in some of my bits when I could get to the punchline a lot quicker. That said, I’ve tried doing this before and sometimes the bit just doesn’t seem to work as well, even though all of the key elements are still there. Maybe the waffle is all part of the style and storytelling? All the same, I still think I need to find a way of being more economical with words without breaking the material.

There’s not much happening this month because I’m away quite a bit in August. The next gig I’ve got is back at Battersea Power on the 16th, followed by the Cavendish on the 22nd.

Gig Count: 48

I’m not racist but my baby is…

I’ve done a few spots so far this month, a couple at We Are Funny and last night I was at Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish Arms, trying out some new stuff that feels a bit hit and miss.

Most of the material I’ve been using for the past year is based on the theme of parenting . It works well most of the time, but it’s not really what I wanted to do and it’s kind of limited because if I get a younger audience they’re less likely to go along with it.

So I’ve been trying out some different stuff, talking about bigger issues, with mixed success. One of the topics I’ve tried to write about is race; I don’t know why, other than I live in a multi-cultural city and it seems like a good subject to mine for comedy.

For example; when one of my kids was very little we noticed he’d cry whenever a black person picked him up at a social gathering. That, to me, was funny – the idea that an innocent baby could be racist and the social awkwardness of that situation, so I’m trying to work that up into a bit. That’s the kind of angle I’m trying when I do material about race.

The problem is that it’s risky. The audience often gets nervous when it’s a white guy talking about this stuff, even though (I hope) I’m not punching down.

After I did some of this stuff last night (without much success, to a largely white room) the MC, Twix, hit the nail right on the head when she said to the audience “I feel like you were all looking at me while he was saying that stuff, to check whether it was OK.”

This is what I’ve come to realise about this topic. Whenever I’ve done material about race and it’s gone well, it’s always in front of a mixed audience. When it’s gone badly (and it has gone so badly on some nights) it’s been in front of a mostly white audience. It’s as if white audiences feel like they need permission from people of colour to laugh at this stuff – when the room is more balance, it somehow feels OK for them.

I already know where this is leading to – it’s just one of those skills I need to learn, read the room, understand the audience, adjust the material.

It feels fucking awful when this stuff goes badly. Bombing is one thing, but bombing because the audience thinks you’re a racist hack takes you to new depths of self-loathing.

But it’s worth it. When it’s gone well, it feels amazing – you’ve tackled a sensitive topic that a lot of other acts are scared to touch, and won over the entire room. The few nights when I’ve managed to do that gave me a tiny glimpse of greatness – and I want more of that, no matter how many times I have to bomb to get there.

Gig Count: 47

Flinging Shit at the Wall at We Are Funny Project

I was supposed to be doing a spot at Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish Arms last night, but my bringer dropped out at the last minute and I couldn’t rustle up a replacement, so I had to cancel. I managed to get a walk-in spot at We Are Funny Project instead, but it did get me thinking about how tough the London open mic circuit is.

If you talk to acts from other cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Melbourne, they’re amazed at how the London scene works. In those places you rarely have to book a spot at an open mic night or bring an audience member, you just turn up on the night put your name down and take your chances. And the hard workers can do two or three spots a night by jumping to different gigs, because it’s no big deal if you leave a gig before the end.

London works differently and, to be fair, nights like Comedy Virgins, Battersea Power Comedy, and Funny Feckers are brilliant – but I wish there were a few more nights that didn’t require bringers and booking in advance. Having to plan spots a month or so ahead, and then leave yourself at the mercy of your bringers makes the whole thing a precarious balancing act. And if, like me, you’re limited in the number of nights you can do gigs (because of kids, day-jobs or whatever else) it just makes it even more tricky to get as much stage time as you’d like.

But enough whinging. I always enjoy doing the Cavendish, but WAFP is a good night too and I was lucky to get a walk-in spot so I’m not complaining.

I’d been looking forward to trying new material now that the competitions are all done with, but I’d forgotten how traumatic the process is for your ego. When you’ve been focusing on polishing your tried and tested material, you get used to going on stage with the confidence of knowing that it mostly works and you’re going to get laughs all the way through. But with new material you fumble your way through unfinished jokes, not knowing if any of it is really funny at all, and fairly certain you’re going to spend most of the five minutes looking like a twat while the audience stares blankly at you. The only way to survive is to embrace failure and accept that it’s going to be a car crash.

I’d got five minutes of new stuff split into two sections covering racism and porn respectively, and I was gunning for it all to be a bit contentious.

Some of the racism stuff worked OK and the whole audience bought into bits of it, but for most of my set I was only getting solid laughs from a clique of three or four blokes in the middle row. I know I need to try it out in a few different rooms before I burn any of the bits, but my gut feeling is that I can probably keep about a minute of the racism stuff and maybe a couple of one liners from the porn material at best.

I had a chat with the MC, Alfie (who also runs the night), afterwards and he gave me some constructive feedback – a couple of the bits were funny, a lot of it obviously didn’t work, and the stuff that did work needed a bit of editing down, which is all fair comment.

He advised me to soften the audience up a bit before dropping in some of my harsher material, which makes sense, and also pointed out that most of the time women won’t laugh at porn jokes (at least not from a male comic) and that means their boyfriends won’t laugh at them either. I think he’s right, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow because porn’s an easy topic to mine for jokes – although that’s a good reason not to go there too, it’s a bit too obvious, so I think I’ll probably stay away from the subject unless I can think of a better way to do it.

I’m back at WAFP with a booked spot on Monday, and I’m planning to do a tightened up version of the racism material, and whatever other new stuff I can think of between now and then.

Myself aside, there were a bunch of great acts on – although the only two names that stuck in my mind were Adam Flood and Jerry Bakewell (Britain’s least successful wrestler).

Gigs: 44

So You Think You’re Funny?

This week I finally got to enter my heat of the So You Think You’re Funny competition,  upstairs at the Signal Pub in Forest Hill. It’s a nice venue with a room that lends itself reasonably well to standup; they run regular pro nights there but I’m not sure if they also do an open mic.

Considering it was a hot summer Monday evening, they were charging £6 for tickets, and it was England’s first World Cup match, the room was surprisingly full. I had a couple of friends with me, but one of the acts (the lovely Indi Madray) brought a small army along for moral support. So against the odds there was a decent energy in the room.

The line-up was fairly mixed in terms of experience, mostly younger acts in their early twenties, and chatting to them in the bar I learned that a lot of them were very new, with fewer than 10 gigs under their belts. I recognised one of the more experienced acts, Bijan Barekat, from a few nights at We Are Funny, and Sam Eley had been on at Battersea Power Comedy the same night as me earlier in the week, and you could really spot the difference in class.

Acts I’d never seen before, but really liked, included Cydney Wood, and Jessie Nixon.

I was feeling comfortable about doing my set, having had the opportunity to practice the full seven minutes earlier in the week. I ended up scribbling just a few words on the back of my hand to remember the middle part of my set list, but I think my delivery was reasonably smooth.

At one point it felt like I was too far into my set for the time I’d spent on stage, and I realised that I’d skipped over chunky part of bit because I’d added some topical material to it at the last minute (wasn’t worth it, only about a quarter of the room laughed). But because the whole of my set is loosely based on the same theme it was easy to just drop in the joke later on in the set.

The audience seemed to buy into most of what I was doing. It felt like I was getting laughs all the way through, whereas some of the really new acts were telling rambling stories to silence. My closer didn’t exactly kill the room but it got a strong enough reaction, and I think I hit seven minutes almost exactly when I left the stage. I got some good feedback from audience members and a couple of other acts in the bar afterwards, so I’ll take it as a win.

I’ll find out if I’ve made it through to the next round in July, but I’m not pinning any hopes on it. I know there have been a lot of strong acts in the other heats, and I’m fairly certain that I’m not really what the competition organisers are looking for (i.e. another middle aged, white, hetero, man). But that’s all cool – I entered for the experience and I enjoyed it.

More than anything I’m glad to have finished with competitions for the time being. I’m bored of doing this material, but I’ve had to spend every gig working on it for the competitions, and now that’s over I can just move on and try other stuff.

Next week I’m at the Cavendish on Tuesday, and then We Are Funny Project the week after.

Gigs: 43

Seven Minutes

I did a spot at Battersea Power Comedy on Thursday, which I think was the third or fourth time I’ve been there. I really like the night because it’s a nice venue, the guys who run it are cool, and it’s easy for me to get home from, which is always a winner.

I was chatting with the MC in the bar ahead of the gig and mentioned I’ve got a competition coming up next week, so he kindly agreed to let me do seven minutes, which is the first time I’ve done more than five. I think I have seven minutes worth of material that all hangs together around a common theme, but I’d never tried it out all in one go before.

The whole set ran to pretty much seven minutes on the nose, and the audience laughed in all the right parts, including a brand new bit that worked better than expected.  I needed to rely on a set list on the back of my hand – just a few single words to remind me of the running order of my bits, but I’ll be happier when I can do without it entirely. I can remember my opener and closer, but the middle section of the set is still a jumble.

I was the penultimate spot of the night, followed by professional act, Caroline Mabey, trying out some new stuff – I had a bunch of friends with me at the gig and they all thought she was fantastic. The quality from the other open mic acts was also high, but I didn’t manage to remember any of their names (apart from Amy Xander, who was great as ever).

I’m feeling in pretty good shape for the competition heat tomorrow – I’ll practice my set a few times during the day to see if I can get the whole seven minutes committed to memory, but I’m not too worried if I need a couple of words scribbled in my hand.  Looking forward to getting it over with so I can shelve this material for a while and try out some other stuff.

Gigs: 42