Just a quick update – last night I did my first gig since before xmas, and while it’s actually been pretty nice to chill out for a while without having to feed the comedy monkey on my back, it was good to get started again. Even if it was a bit of a trainwreck.
The gig was a bar-show in Wimbledon, with 10-15 minute spots, MC’d by Sam Rhodes. Some of the audience had shown up expecting comedy, some hadn’t, so it was a bit of a mixed bag.
Before the show kicked off, a group of three women who were sitting right in front of the mic got chatting to me and said they were really worried about getting picked on, so I promised them it wouldn’t happen because it wasn’t that kind of show.
When I made that promise, I wasn’t aware that they planned to get absolutely hammered and disrupt the entire first half of the show.
Sam put me on first, so after he’d warmed the crowd up a bit I went up to the mic, and launched into my standard set – I was a little rusty after the xmas break, but felt pretty comfortable with my material. My opener got almost nothing from the audience, but I’ve been there before so I just pushed on with the rest of it and managed to eke out a few laughs from them.
Pretty soon the table of three women got completely out of control, completely ignoring me and talking loudly to each-other, trying to speak to me, derailing my punchlines and generally completely fucking everything up. I tried to take it with good grace and have a bit of fun with them, and the audience seemed to go along with that, but there wasn’t much I could do, they were too drunk to reason with and obviously weren’t going anywhere.
It all fell apart when one of them started having a loud phone conversation halfway through a bit, and everybody just started laughing at the futility of the situation instead of my material. I battled on for a bit longer but gave up before I’d finished all the material I planned to do.
The rest of the first half went pretty much the same way for Sam and the other acts. There were a couple of tables of people who seemed to be interested in the show, but it was hard work to cut through the noise and distraction for them.
The best part of nights like these is the camaraderie with other acts in the face of adversity. There were a couple of acts who also did the scary Croydon gig last year with me, Mara Mainka and Richard Stott, so there was a bit of team spirit. Ginnia Cheng was also there, and I’ve known her for a few years.
I had planned to bale as soon as I finished my set, but it was fun hanging out with everybody and I felt like I had a duty to stick around for the other acts under the circumstances. It’s fine to duck out if the night’s going well for everybody, but when things are rough they need your moral support.
Richard made a heroic effort to do some crowd work with the drunks, to try and scare them into silence, which worked to a degree – about halfway into the second section they decided to leave. (But not before grumbling at me that I’d promise nobody would give them a hard time…)
By this point, Will Hitt (who I’ve rated since I first saw him a few years ago) had psyched himself up to face down the drunks, but since they left he ended up dealing with a much more receptive room than he was expecting. Not wanting to let his energy go to waste, he spent the entire set hurling unnecessarily brutal barbs at undeserving audience members instead – it was the funniest part of the night as far as I was concerned.
The whole thing was a bit of a trainwreck, but still fun, and I’m happy to have blown out the cobwebs. I’ve got a bunch of spots booked over the next month, starting with a ten-spot at Whole Lotta Comedy in Surbiton this Sunday.
The most common fear people have when they’re thinking about trying stand-up comedy is getting heckled. Nobody gets into stand-up because they want to spend every gig dealing with hecklers. It would be great if you could just go up on stage and do your material without any fear of some rowdy audience member giving you a hard time, right?
Unfortunately disruptive audience members are a fact of life and, if you really want to do stand-up, you need to be prepared to deal with hecklers. They often think that heckling is expected at stand-up comedy shows, and feel like they’re contributing to the night, instead of just disrupting your flow and making it harder for you to deliver your material.
The good news is that hecklers are rare, especially at the kind of open mic nights where most stand-up comedians learn their craft, because a lot of the time most of the audience is made up of other acts who aren’t there to give you a hard time. And even if the open mic does have a real audience, they’re usually politely warned by the MC that the acts are all new (or trying out new material) and it’s bad form to heckle them.
Once you start doing more serious gigs with genuine audiences, then hecklers become a little more likely, but even then it’s still a rarity – unless you’re doing rowdy town-centre comedy clubs full of stag-parties. But you won’t be getting those kinds of gigs unless you’ve proven your ability to handle tough crowds, so you can cross that bridge when you come to it.
The big fear most new acts have is that they’ll get into a confrontation with an audience member who will destroy them with a razor-sharp put-down which they can’t recover from, leaving them to shuffle from the stage in shame.
While that’s been known to happen, it’s such an extreme rarity that you can safely assume it’s never going to happen to you.
Types of Hecklers
In reality, you’ll be dealing with hecklers who are disruptive in different ways:
Drunken garble: absolutely hammered audience member, usually a bloke, shouts out something completely incomprehensible. No point engaging with them, they’re too drunk and you won’t get any sense from them. You can try to appeal to their friends to keep them under control, they’ll usually be embarrassed about the situation.
Unfunny banter: usually good natured, they think they’re adding to the show by attempting to shout out their own punchlines, but not only are they not funny, they’re stopping you from being funny by derailing your material. You kind of need to treat them with kid-gloves, because the audience won’t like you being too hard on them, but you need to acknowledge them and try to persuade them that the show will be better if they stop interrupting you. I usually try self-deprecation, saying something like “I’ve got a shit memory, and whenever you talk to me I completely forget my material, so please, do me a favour and just let me get this stuff out while I can still remember it.”
Chatters: a similar situation to the above. They’re not being obnoxious, but they think they’re at the show to have a conversation with you instead of listening to your material. Halfway through your setup they’ll start chatting to you about what you’re saying. Usually an older person who doesn’t get out much and doesn’t know how stand-up shows are supposed to work. As above, you just need to keep it friendly, but persuade them to keep quiet.
Attention seekers: usually a certain type of slightly drunk younger woman who doesn’t like being in a situation where she’s not the centre of attention. Sometimes she’ll pretend to be offended by your material, sometimes she’ll just shout out random stuff, anything to get the room to focus on her instead of the person on stage. Tread carefully with this one – there’s a risk of it escalating if they feel aggrieved. Acknowledge them, let them have their moment, give them the opportunity to feel like they’ve made their point and had their win and hopefully that will end it.
These are the most common situations I’ve personally run into, but I’m sure more experienced acts would be able to add plenty more.
Tips for Dealing with Hecklers
You might have seen YouTube videos of pro-comedians “destroying hecklers” which is entertaining (this is my personal favourite, Stewart Lee dealing with a belligerent heckler) but until you’ve got the skill to do that it’s probably not a great idea to go for the jugular every time you get interrupted on stage.
Wherever possible it’s a good idea to just try to de-escalate the situation quickly so you can get on with your set, especially if you’re only doing a 5-10 minute spot and your stage time is precious.
The easiest thing to do is just ignore the interruption at first, there’s a good chance that the audience didn’t hear it and you can just talk over the heckler because you have the microphone on your side. More often than not they’ll just shut up when they don’t get a response.
If it gets to the point where you can’t ignore them, a good tactic is to slowly and clearly repeat back what they’ve said for several reasons:
It makes sure you’re clear what they said – sometimes it’s just a simple misunderstanding.
It makes sure the audience knows what they said, so that your response will make sense.
Most importantly, it gives you time to think of something to say.
If what they said was genuinely funny and got a laugh from the audience, just roll with it – let them enjoy the moment, congratulate them, and move on with your set. If it was really good, take it and work it into your material for future gigs.
If they’re being persistently disruptive and obnoxious, you need to try and shut them down, but don’t go straight off at the deep end – if you lose your composure straight away, the audience will likely turn on you. They’re at the show for a good time, and they want to feel comfortable that you have control of things. If it descends into a shouty argument, they’re not having a good time, they’re going to feel uncomfortable and just want your set to end as soon as possible.
So when you’re dealing with hecklers try to keep it good humoured, appeal to their better nature, make them aware they’re ruining the show for everybody, try to keep the audience on your side. You can try to use peer pressure from the audience with a line like: “give me a cheer if you’d like this guy to be quiet so we can get on with the show!”
But if it gets to the point where you need to do a bit of verbal jousting to regain control of the situation, preparation is your best friend. I saw Al Murray dealing with a heckler at a live gig once, and half way through it he said “The difference between you and me is that I know what I’m going to say next.”
So spend some time writing a few good retorts and put-downs you can keep in the bag for when you need them – and remind yourself regularly of what they are, because if you’re not performing them as part of your material you’ll probably forget them.
Think about some obvious lines of attack that a heckler might use based on your appearance or persona, and be ready for that. For example, I’m bald and there’s a good chance that a drunk heckler might try to use that, so I’ve got some material ready to use in that situation.
If you’ve got a few other acts you’re friendly with, you can practice with them – take it in turns to do your material for a few minutes while the others throw heckles at you, and you figure out how to respond and get your set back on track. It’s a fun exercise and you’ll come up with material that you can use for real-life hecklers.
Some comedy clubs also run nights where heckling is encouraged, usually gong-shows for new acts to prove their mettle (like the Comedy Store’s King-Gong in London). These can be pretty nerve-wracking, and sometimes the heckling is more like a wall of shouting that you’ve got no hope of responding too, but it’s a good way to develop a thick-skin.
The chances are that you’ll rarely have to deal with hecklers, but there are plenty of things you can do to prepare for the situation and feel more confident about smoothly dealing with hecklers.
A lot of people don’t understand that you have to write stand-up comedy. They have the idea that comedians simply go up on stage and make it all up as they go along, because they’re naturally funny people. That’s part of being a great stand-up, the ability to deliver your material in a natural, conversational style, so that it really feels like you’re just chatting to the audience instead of reciting a script.
But if you want to try stand-up comedy, then you’re going to have to write some material. Go to enough open mic nights and you’ll see people trying to make it up on the spot; their friends tell them they’re funny, they should try comedy, so they get it into their heads that they can just go on stage without a plan and be their usual hilarious self.
They learn very quickly that making a room full of strangers laugh at a stand-up comedy night is very different to making a handful of friends laugh in the bar. This is the first big difference between writing stand-up comedy and just being funny in daily life. Your friends, family, and colleagues already know a lot about you, so when you make a joke they have a lot of background context about your life and personality that helps them to understand why what you said is funny. That room full of strangers waiting for you to entertain them, they don’t know a single thing about you, so you’ve got a lot more work to do.
To Write Stand-up Comedy, You Have to Actually Write
This might sound obvious, but not everybody gets it. Unless you’re a super-rare one in a million talent, you’re not going to be able to just walk out onto stage and deliver killer material off-the-cuff, you’re going to have to write some jokes.
Most stand-up comedians know the value of getting as much stage time as possible, but writing is just as important. Writing is like performing; the more you do it, the better you get at it. So write as much as you can, as often as you can and accept that, just like regularly bombing on stage, writing material that turns out to be complete junk is all part of the process.
Try to spend some time writing every day. You can brain dump ideas for new material, or spend some time working on improving older material.
All writers know that most of what they put on the page isn’t great at first, and it’s going to take a lot of editing and re-writing before some of it’s any good – but you need to take that first step of putting something, anything on a blank page. That’s the hardest step, but it’s what gives you the raw material you can shape into killer bits.
A page full of bad ideas might have one glimmer of gold that can, with work, be turned into a great piece of material. But a blank page is worthless. Your first and most important task is to fill that blank page with some ideas, even if they’re all bad.
Fine, But How do I Actually Write Funny Material?
The first thing you need to know about writing stand-up comedy is that there’s no single blueprint for success. If you’ve watched many successful stand-up comics doing their thing, you should have noticed just how many styles and approaches there are, and they all work in different ways.
The kind of material that works for you will depend a lot on your personality, your look, your stage-presence, your delivery, and a lot of other things. For example, simply walking onto stage and saying “Hello” to the audience isn’t really funny, but try to picture a big, weird looking guy, with an expressive, wild-eyed look on his face, crazy hair, and he stumbles onto the stage looking lost and confused, he slowly looks around the audience as though he’s wondering who they all are and why they’re looking at him. Then, with an enthusiastic, friendly voice and a strange accent that nobody can quite place, he says “Hello.”
I’ve seen that exact situation, and it got a big laugh. Just from the word “Hello.”
Why did it work? Probably because of the contrast between the way the guy looked (weird, confused, lost, a little creepy even) and the way he introduced himself (endearing, friendly, a kind of innocent enthusiasm). There’s a little tension as he stumbles on stage and the audience wonder what the hell is happening, and then that tension is burst when he introduces himself with a single word.
This building of tension, then bursting it, is a well know element of writing stand-up comedy, and we’ll get into it more later. Also, a large part of this particular situation is that the guy’s voice was kind of unexpected – it didn’t fit with his appearance, and that surprising contrast can also get laughs.
But what works for one act won’t necessarily work for another – everybody’s different. For example, there was a guy I used to see regularly at open mics who tried the same thing; he’d walk slowly up to the mic and then say “hello” in a funny voice and then give a little chuckle as though he’d just said the funniest thing in the world. The audience never laughed.
Why didn’t it work for him?
It was too forced, too fake. His whole black-leather-jacket look was like somebody desperately trying to emulate a bad-ass, edgy alternative comedian. The squeaky voice he used to introduce himself was obviously put-on – he dropped it as soon as he started the rest of his set.
Somebody had obviously told this guy on a stand-up comedy course that the contrast between the way you look and the way you sound can be funny, so he tried to force it, and it didn’t work for him because there was zero authenticity.
What’s going to work for you? The lesson here is to try to write material that’s authentic to you, because people can tell when you’re faking it, and that kills the funny.
You need a lot of self-awareness, to know how other people perceive you (both in terms of your appearance and your personality) which will help you understand what kind of material you should write.
There’s no point me, a middle-aged married dad, trying to write stand-up comedy material about Tinder dates, house-sharing, or clubbing – the audience can clearly see that’s not the world I inhabit, so it’s going to be hard to make them come along with me on those topics. Equally, I’ve seen young, fresh faced acts trying to put on embittered, world-weary stage personas, which just doesn’t work when you’re barely out of school and the world hasn’t had time to grind you down yet.
The Rules of Writing Stand-up Comedy
Writing comedy is an art, not a science. It’s not the same as writing computer software, where you can always achieve a specific objective by following a set of rules. Material sometimes works for strange, magical reasons that nobody understands, and sometimes it doesn’t work when on paper it looks good.
All that said, there are common ideas that can help you write stand-up comedy. We can call them “rules” if you like, but the best comedians break these rules all the time. Still, it’s a good starting point, and once you understand the rules, writing stand-up material will be a lot easier, even if you choose to completely disregard them.
Setup – Punchline – Tag
Most jokes follow a simple format:
Setup – this is where you explain the background story, or context of your joke, what does the audience need to understand for it to make sense.
Punchline – this is the funny part of the joke, the thing you expect the audience to laugh at.
Tag – this is an optional extra punchline, that builds on the previous one and gets another laugh.
Let’s look at a simple example of this structure in Romesh Ranganathan’s 2016 Live at the Apollo set – specifically the opening bit during the first 60 seconds:
Setup: He wishes the audience a merry Christmas, explains that he is Hindu, and wonders how he managed to get such a prestigious gig…
Punchline: “I just wanna thank diversity quotas.”
Tag: “You’re getting two for one with me, because I’ve got a lazy eye.”
Not all stand-up comedy follows this format, but if you watch enough comedians doing their thing you’ll see that a lot of their jokes do, whether they’re pun-slingers, story-tellers or observational acts, they frequently use that exact structure.
The difference between somebody who can make their friends laugh, and somebody who can make an audience laugh lies in understanding how to write setups and punchlines.
When you make your friends laugh, you’re probably going straight to the punchline, because the setup has already been established through your relationship – you have a shared history, you know the same people, the same stories, and in-jokes. So when they laugh at something you say, it’s because they already have enough information to know why it’s funny.
Think of a time you said something that made your friends laugh. What background information did they have that made them understand why your comment was funny? Can you use that background information to create a short, punchy setup that can easily be understood by complete strangers, so that if you said the exact same thing to them, they’d laugh too?
But why is a punchline funny? How does a punchline turn a setup from a story into a joke? Again, there are lots of different reasons, but one of the most commonly used tools of writing stand-up comedy material is the broken assumption.
When you are explaining your setup to an audience, they will make all kinds of assumptions about the scenario you’re describing – they have to, we all do it every day, because the alternative is that we’d have to explain everything in an exhausting amount of detail to remove all possible ambiguity.
Comedy lies in shattering those assumptions.
The oldest example of this is “I just flew in tonight…”
Most people assume the comedian flew on an airline to the city where they are performing. But the assumption is broken by the punchline “…and boy are my arms tired.”
You’ll see new stand-up comedians often using punchlines like:
“…and then I got off the bus.”
“…and that’s how I got banned from the library.”
Where the setup involves them doing something that would be perfectly fine in the privacy of their own home, but not in a public place. The assumption is that the scenario described in the setup was taking place in private, but that’s broken when the punchline reveals it happened in a public place.
Another common example is a setup that involves an awkward encounter with a weird or rude person, who is assumed to be a stranger, and the punchline is usually something like:
“So I said go home dad, you’re drunk.”
“That’s the last time I invite my mum.”
These are simple examples, and if you go to enough open mic nights you’ll see them hundreds of times.
This joke format is also called a “pull-back and reveal” which simply means that you use the punchline to reveal some missing information that makes the situation funny. It’s a very common joke structure used to write stand-up comedy. An example of the pull-back and reveal is this old joke (attributed to the American comedian, Jack Handey) “[setup] I’d like to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did, [punchline] not screaming in terror like his passengers.”
The pull-back and reveal is that his grandfather was driving a car when he died – and it’s also an example of broken assumption because when you hear that somebody died peacefully in their sleep, the assumption is that they were in bed at the time.
So, the broken assumption and the pull-back and reveal are very closely related. A successful punchline gives the audience the missing information they need to understand why your story is funny, and it usually works because the missing information breaks an assumption they made during your setup.
A great example of broken assumption is from Jim Jeffries famous bit on gun control in his 2014 special, Bare.
In this bit he’s talking about gun control and explains that there is only one argument for gun ownership. Most people in the audience are likely to assume he’s going to provide a reasonable, serious reason for owning a gun, and then dismantle that argument, but instead he delivers the punchline “Fuck off, I like guns!”
You think you know where he’s going with the bit, but then he subverts your expectation with a petty, childish argument for wanting to own a gun.
If you can master this skill, of getting people to come along with you on a topic, and then completely throwing their expectations you’ll be able to write some great stand-up comedy material.
Another aspect of what’s happening in that set is the use of tension. A lot of comedy is based around the idea of creating tension with the audience, by saying something controversial or talking about a divisive topic, and then bursting that tension with a funny, unexpected punchline.
Comedy audiences are there to have a good time, that’s the point. So when a comedian starts to talk about something that isn’t usually considered a fun topic, the audience gets worried that things are going to be weird and uncomfortable – tension is created in the room. But then the comedian bursts that tension with a punchline that makes everything OK again, and reassure the audience that they are going to have a good time.
This is a tricky skill to master. A lot of new comics try to do it by being edge and talking about highly controversial topics, but if their punchlines aren’t good enough then the tension doesn’t get burst and that can ruin the rest of the set.
When you first start to write stand-up comedy, be aware of the fact that a lot of new acts try to be edgy and dangerous, but they often fail at it because it takes time to build the skills needed to pull off that style of material.
The Rule of Threes
In stand-up comedy writing, the Rule of Threes is simply that grouping three things together can be an effective way to write a joke. You list two things that make sense together, and then the third thing breaks the pattern in a funny way – you can think of it as the simplest form of the setup-punchline format: the first two things are the setup, and the third is the punchline.
Here’s an example of the Rule of Threes: “Have you ever worked in an office? They’re weird places. An office is a big room full of desks, and computers, and arseholes.”
In the setup we’re talking about offices, and we start listing the things that you typically find in an office, desks, computers… and next the audience is expecting to hear something like phones, or photocopiers, but the assumption is broken by the punchline: arseholes, which most office-workers can relate to.
The rule of threes works so well when you’re writing stand-up comedy material because it’s the quickest and most efficient way to establish a pattern for the audience, and then to break that pattern in a surprising way. Again, it’s about broken assumptions –they think they know what to expect from the next thing you’re going to say, but you go off in a different direction and subvert their expectations.
In this joke example we used earlier, did you notice anything missing?
“I’d like to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did, not screaming in terror like his passengers.”
The punchline doesn’t state whether the grandfather was driving a car, or a bus, or flying a passenger jet – because it doesn’t need to. It could have been any of those things and the joke still works, so it’s left to the audience to fill in the blanks with whatever they imagine is the funniest.
This is a good example of another important rule of stand-up comedy writing: word economy.
While being a good story-teller is important, and adding colour and context to a joke might work well for some comedians, it’s also good to learn how to make your jokes as tight and efficient as possible.
When you write a joke that works, think about what parts you can remove without losing any of the impact. What is the absolute minimum you need to say in order for the setup to make sense and the punchline to deliver the laughs?
This is important, especially for a new open-mic level stand-up comedian, because you really want to get as many laughs as possible in the five-minute spots you’ll be doing. More than anything else, people will rate you based on how many laughs you can get from the audience in a short space of time.
Sometimes it won’t work, you might try to cut a joke down to the bare minimum, but for some reason a part of the setup that you didn’t think was critical ends up being the thing that makes it work, so you’ll need to try out different versions of the same joke to figure out just how much you can cut without killing the bit.
Funniest Word at the End
Another thing you might have noticed about the grandfather joke is that the very final word of the punchline is the payoff; passengers. It’s that single word which makes the whole joke make sense; right up until that word is spoken the joke isn’t clear.
Wherever possible you should put the funniest word, or phrase, right at the very end of your punchline because you want the audience to start laughing at the point where you stop speaking. Comedians call it “stepping on your laughs” when you’re still trying to talk while the audience is laughing.
The whole point of stand-up comedy is to make people laugh, so if they’re laughing you need to shut up and just enjoy the glory. They won’t be able to hear what you’re saying anyway.
If you find that audiences are regularly laughing before you finish getting the joke out, you might need to re-write the material. Figure out what’s making them laugh before the end of the joke and make that your first punchline. Whatever part of the joke you wrote after that punchline can be used as a tag to follow up once the laugh has died down.
You will often find that audiences don’t react to your material in the way you expect. A lot of the time they won’t laugh at any of it, but they’ll sometimes laugh at parts of your setups that you never intended to be funny.
Writing Stand-up Comedy on Stage
While it’s important to write stand-up comedy material as much as you can, there’s absolutely no substitute for stage-time. You simply won’t know if your material works until you try it out on a real audience.
They’ll laugh in unexpected places, or not at all, sometimes they’ll clap, sometimes they’ll groan, sometimes they’ll yell out heckles which are actually pretty funny so you can steal them and add them to the material as if you wrote them yourself.
A written joke is a first draft, but the editing takes place on stage. And this is why it’s really important to record your sets. You don’t need to film them, just the audio will do, and you can use a recorder app on your phone or buy a cheap voice-recorder device, whatever works for you.
Listen to the recording soon after the show – maybe not right away, if you can’t handle that, but certainly the next day – and make note of where people laugh, any places where you messed up, or improvised something good, anything that gives you useful information about how to improve the material.
A lot of people find that they don’t remember much about what happened during their set, other than a vague sense of whether it went well or not. Listen back to the recordings and you’ll discover a gold-mine of detail about what actually happened during the show.
Be Real, Be Authentic to Yourself, Be Original
There’s a lot to take in here, but most of it will start to come naturally if you write and perform stand-up comedy regularly. Here are a few closing thoughts to help you on your way:
Be Real – stand-up comedy material doesn’t need to be true, but it needs to be plausible. You’re trying to get the audience to buy into the story or the joke, so make it easy for them to do that. Maybe your style is absurdism, and that’s fine, but if you need the audience to believe the setup to your joke is a real scenario, then you have to make it sound believable.
Be Authentic to Yourself – this is different to being real. What I mean by being authentic to yourself is the audience needs to believe that you believe in what you’re saying – the material you perform needs to match the persona you present to them. People can spot fakers a mile away.
Be Original – give the audience something they haven’t seen before, and they’ll love you for it. There are a lot of stand-up comedians out there, and many of them are churning out very similar material. If you write something and it feels like it’s been done before, throw it away and try again.
Five minutes at We Are Funny Project – it was going OK, and I was scoring laughs, but I tried too much new material in one go and ended my set by completely blanking on the punchline for a new bit.
15 minutes at a Sam Rhode’s pop-up gig in Battersea – unfortunately this happened shortly after Omicron hit, so apart from a table of about 8 teachers on their Christmas piss-up, and a handful of other acts, it was pretty quiet. We still had fun, and I worked in a couple of the new bits I’d tried earlier in the week, which both did OK.
I’m now finished for the rest of the year, and it doesn’t look like people are still running gigs in any case. How long this new shitshow will last is anybody’s guess. Hopefully it’ll blow over soon and we can get back to business as usual, but I’m not taking anything for granted after the past couple of years.
My next booked show January 2nd at Angel Comedy RAW – although I suspect we might be back in lockdown by then.
Under the circumstances I’m fairly happy with how the year went. The situation wasn’t ideal, but I feel like I’ve managed to improve as a stand-up comedian despite doing far fewer spots than I would have liked, and I think that’s largely down to being able to do more 10-15 spots.
That forced me to come up with new material to fill the time, and to memorise it all. The knock-on effect of having a larger repertoire of tested material to pull out of my hat whenever I like is that I’m much more comfortable with improvising and having a bit of fun with the audience, because I know that if things aren’t going well I can always fall back on the good stuff as required.
I’m not saying I’ve got a rock-solid 15 minutes, I know I need to do a lot more work to make it really tight, but I do think I can fill a 10-15 spot without embarrassing myself.
There are three highlights of this year for me:
Beating the Blackout at Up the Creek– this was my first gig after lockdown, I was a bag of nerves, on the verge of just giving up on stand-up, and almost walked out of the club before my spot. But I forced myself onto the stage and it went so well that it put me on a high for weeks and convinced me it was worth carrying on with this nonsense.
Winning the crowd over in Croydon – I’d had a run of gigs that hadn’t gone well, and the buzz of Beating the Blackout had well and truly worn off. Then I found myself at a busy south London bar show with a rowdy, slightly hostile crowd that weren’t getting into the night. The acts before me all struggled, and I wasn’t looking forward to my spot. But in the end it went pretty well for me, they bought into my stuff and I felt like I’d managed to turn things around – that gave me a much needed confidence boost.
Seeing We Are Funny Project rise from the ashes – I’ve had some great nights at WAFP over the years, and spent a lot of time there. It’s been a great place for me to get stage-time in front of a decent audience, without having to organise a bringer. Over the past six months Alfie’s done an amazing job of getting the night up and running again, and bringing in a regular audience of locals who are always up for a good show. Long may it continue.
So I find myself in a weird situation. On the one hand, I’m feeling pretty positive about stand-up from the perspective of whether I still want to do it, and whether I honestly believe I’m capable of doing it well.
On the other hand, I just don’t know if it’s worth persevering with this if covid is going to be around for much longer. The whole enterprise depends on people being up for coming out to small, enclosed spaces with a bunch of others to watch me talk shit on stage while they get drunk. If we’re never going to get that back, then there’s really no point carrying on with it.
I don’t know what the answers are, but I suppose we’ll get a much clearer picture of where things are going over the next few weeks.
It’s been a busy couple of months for me as far as stand-up is concerned, and I feel like I’ve improved in a relatively short space of time, which is exactly the opposite of what I expected so soon after lockdown.
The catalyst has been doing a bunch of Sam Rhode’s pop-up gigs around south and west London, where I’ve had 10-15 minute spots. To begin with this was terrifying, because even five minutes felt like a stretch after getting so little stage time since lockdown began, but I found I was soon able to comfortably fill 10-12 minutes with prepared material and, once I got confident with that stuff, just riffing and improvising for a few minutes became much easier.
The Croydon gig I covered in my previous post really gave me a confidence boost, and since then it’s all felt a lot easier.
Until recently I had to spend a lot of time mentally preparing for shows, figuring out what bits I’m going to do and rehearsing the whole set over and over to try and memorise it. But these days a five-minute spot is a walk in the park, and the longer sets still require a bit of planning and practice, but I no longer go into them feeling on-edge and stressed about remembering all my stuff.
It’s so much more fun this way. Because I’ve got the safety net of 10+ minutes of tested material that I can reel off any time I like, I’m now free to improvise, have some fun with the audience, and generally dick around on stage a bit more.
So long story short, I’m feeling pretty good about it all right now, but I’m still unsure about what to do next other than keep on gigging.
As well as Sam’s gigs, I’m still regularly doing We Are Funny Project in Dalston, which is increasingly bringing in a solid audience most nights and is always a fun show. I’ve also spread my wings a bit and done a few other open mics worth mentioning:
Crack Comedy – these guys run pro comedy nights around SW London, and do a monthly Sunday-night open mic at the Ram Jam club in Kingston, close to where I live. Had a great time here, there was a decent audience for a Sunday night open mic, and the club has a really nice, intimate vibe. It’s only a shame they can’t run it weekly, because I’d go there a lot.
Whole Lotta Comedy – another local comedy promoter which runs pro gigs around SW London. They host an open mic every Sunday night at The Castle in Surbiton, which attracts acts from all over London, and usually seems to draw in a reasonable audience. It’s a fun, laid back night. I’ve been there twice recently, and will hopefully show my face a bit more often since it’s so close to where I live.
Comedy Cabin RAW – despite the fact that this night has been running for years in Hoxton, close to where I worked before lockdown, somehow I never got around to asking for a spot there. I remedied that recently and was very pleased to see Ania Magliano hosting, who I remember seeing at the Cav back in my earliest days. It’s a really small venue, but they managed to squeeze a decent audience in there, and although I was worried the young urbanite crowd might not be into my material, it seemed to go down well and I had a great night.
I haven’t got much booked for the rest of December, apart from one spot at We Are Funny Project – so I’m hoping one or two last minute spots materialise on Facebook on nights that I can do, otherwise I’m not going to be gigging regularly again until January.
Since I posted about my mediocre performance at We Are Funny a few weeks ago things have been a bit of a rollercoaster. But one of those small, underwhelming rollercoasters you get in old seaside towns.
The night after that WAF gig, I had a 15 minute spot at a pop-up pub gig in Wimbledon, which didn’t go well at all. I came down with that bastard of a cold that’s been going around, and I had a few things going on with work and home life that were taking up a lot of my attention, so I was feeling shitty and not really finding a lot of time to focus on standup.
It was mostly a younger twenty-something crowd, and it was a bit of an odd setup because although there was a section of the bar set aside for the show with rows of audience seating, there were also a lot of people just drinking in the rest of the pub and only half paying attention. There were some good acts on the bill who I’ve met a few times over the few years (James Meakin and Ginnia Cheng, notably) so more than anything I didn’t want to fail in front of them. I don’t know if it’s just me, I don’t mind bombing in front of audiences so much, but I kind of want my peers to know I’m OK at this.
But fail I did. I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind for performing (especially since my gig the night before hadn’t gone well) and certainly wasn’t as practiced as I should have been. I bumbled through my set, got a few laughs for some of it, but the audience was largely disinterested, so as soon as I finished I skulked off home in disgrace, and snot.
Feeling grotty and stressed out with life I spent the next couple of nights unable to sleep, staring at the bedroom ceiling wondering whether I should sack comedy off and just do something else with my spare time.
The following week I had another spot at We Are Funny and it was one of those nights with a low turnout and low expectations, but it actually ended up being a pretty decent comedy show. I felt like I needed a win, so I stuck with my tried and tested five minutes, and focused on delivering it with confidence.
I didn’t try anything new or clever, except at the very start when I improvised a quick bit to address something in the room. I try to do this whenever I can, the crowd usually rewards you for thinking on your feet and it’s a good way to build up some new material, and if it doesn’t work you can just dive into your usual opener. In this case it worked well enough, and the rest of the set was fine, with all the punchlines delivering as expected, even with a small audience.
It was a low-key night, but just what I needed to reset my head.
A couple of day later I journeyed to deepest darkest Croydon for another of Sam Rhode’s pop-up bar shows. It was in the dining room of the pub, packed out with locals who’d paid to watch us, with a large contingent of proper south-London geezers, lads on the lash, and families celebrating birthdays. Right from the kickoff we could tell it was going to be a boisterous, maybe even combative crowd.
Weirdly, I didn’t feel anywhere near as nervous as I had done before recent shows despite the crowd being a bit intimidating. Not sure why. Maybe it was just a matter of feeling little better prepared and confident in my material, having a decent gig earlier in the week.
The show was split into three sections. Sam opened each one with some of his own material, followed by two other acts – I was up first in the second.
All of the acts struggled to hold the crowd’s attention, to varying degrees. There were too many people on nights out with their friends and family, so if they lost interest for just a moment they’d start talking amongst themselves. All you can really do in that situation is be loud and talk over them. Throughout the night some of the acts tried to address it by talking to them and asking them to be quiet, but it usually just turned into a stand-off with the audience giving the acts grief (“you’re talking too fast/you’re not funny/do some jokes/we can’t understand your accent”) and at one point it felt like one of the acts completely lost control of the crowd, although he managed to reassert himself well enough to carry on with his set.
During the first break I overheard one of the groups of lads complaining about the show – all the usual shit; comedians are too PC these days, they’re scared of offending people, why don’t they do proper jokes, women aren’t funny, our banter is better than this.
Soon enough it was my turn to go up. I couldn’t think of anything to improvise as an opener, so I just went into my standard routine of parenting, marriage, life and whatnot, and it all seemed to work. Some areas of the room drifted in and out, but mostly I managed to get decent enough laughs, as well as a few big ones. I noticed after a few bits landed well that people around the room were asking their friends to repeat my punchlines because they’d missed them and wanted to know what everybody else was laughing at.
The only bit I consciously left out was a joke about dead Tories, which usually does well in central London but I was 100% sure would go down like a lead balloon in the suburbs. I didn’t fancy having the ‘who’s too easily offended now?’ argument with the audience.
I didn’t time it, but it felt somewhere between 10-15 minutes. I finished on a big laugh, walked off to applause and got a few nods and back-slaps as I made my way to the back of the room where the acts were hanging out. It felt like a win, and christ I needed one.
A few more nights like this and I think I’ll be ready to start applying for open spots/middle-tens in pro-clubs outside of London. On top of everything else, I can call this my first paid-gig. I’ve done a bucket-split before when I’ve MC’d We Are Funny, but this was the first show where I’ve been paid cash-money to just go up and perform my set.
The best part of the night was the sense of cameraderie with the other acts in the face of a rowdy and sometimes outright hostile crowd. Love it, can’t wait to do it again.
I’m slowly building up some momentum again now that live comedy in London has bounced back, but I’ve not done a huge amount recently. I did lots of family stuff during the school holidays, so only really had time to do one gig at a pop-up comedy night organised by Sam Rhodes in a bar in Battersea towards the end of August.
It was a fun night, with some good acts on. As well as Sam himself, these included Victoria Melody, who I’ve met a few times now, Kallis Kyriacou (another Comedy Explosion regular), and Joshua Massen (who I’ve not really spoken to before but sort of know a bit on social media), Matt Smith, and Peter Hose.
Each of us was doing a 10-15 minute spot, which was definitely a stretch for me. Before lockdown I was just starting to do occasional 10 spots but certainly didn’t have anything close to a solid ten minute set.
So at the gig I did my best five minute set with a bunch of other older bits thrown in, and tried to improvise a little, which filled around 10-11 minutes reasonably well. It was sloppy, but it worked well enough for me not to feel like I’d fucked it up, and I had the good sense to finish early on a big laugh instead of ploughing on with weak material to fill the time.
All the way through the night the acts were getting interrupted by a middle aged guy sitting on the front row. He wasn’t really heckling or being obnoxious, but he obviously thought the point of the evening was to have a bit of a chat with us, so he kept interjecting with comments and observations, and that kept throwing us all off our rhythm.
It was a tricky situation to deal with, because he was perfectly friendly and good humoured, so you couldn’t just shut him down, but at the same time it was disruptive and made it difficult to get through our material. I just tried to talk over him and not let it derail my set too badly, but probably didn’t do a great job.
One of the other acts handled it much better by giving him the nickname of Muttley, because he sounded like the cartoon character, and every time he chipped in she’d ask “What’s that Muttley?” and he got the message quickly. A great, simple way of asserting her status and letting him know she was in control, without having to be too brutal about it.
All in all a decent night which left me feeling like I could step up to 10 minutes or more with a bit of practice.
…and then I left it four weeks before doing another spot, and it kind of went a bit shit.
Last night I was on at the newly relaunched We Are Funny Project, back at it’s recently refurbished spiritual home of Farr’s School of Dancing in Dalston. I was looking forward to it because it’s always been a great night (no bringer, decent audience, well organized, always a solid headline act to close the show) and it just so happened that some work-friends wanted to come along to watch the show as well, so it was good to catch up with them in person after working from home for so long.
Problem #1 – I’m doing another 10-15 spot tonight, so I really wanted to use last night’s show to run through some of my newer, less-practiced material before that. Doing new material is always a bit of a gamble, that’s the whole point.
Problem #2 – Due to a combination of work and home life being a bit full on recently, I hadn’t found the time to properly prepare and rehearse the five minutes I wanted to do – I just haphazardly pulled together a few bits at the last minute and scribbled a set-list on the back of my hand.
Problem #3 – I ended up leaving late for the gig, got stuck in traffic, so arrived late and stressed out, without spending the journey thinking through my set like I normally do.
Alfie put me on at the start of the second half and my colleagues made a lot of noise as I walked on, so I made a couple of quick gags about work to acknowledge that, which went down well enough. But then I moved onto the main set and it all fell apart. I started with a bit that I’ve actually done a few times, but never as an opener, and somehow I completely fucked up the setup so the punchline fell flat and didn’t get much of a response.
That put me on the back foot, and once I got stuck into the completely new material, I was all over the place. With my confidence collapsing, I made more mistakes, flubbed a lot of my lines, let my body-language go to shit, and felt like a newbie doing his first ever open mic.
I got some laughs, but I knew it was a mess and I didn’t feel at all good about the set. And I know that the whole point of open mics is to test stuff out, and failure is part of the process, but it’s still not a great feeling.
Compare with my spot at Beat the Blackout a few months ago, where I was so nervous about my first gig back that I spent a lot of time running through the set in my head in the week before the gig, and that paid off. It’s a simple lesson – find the time to prepare properly before a gig, or it’s going to be messy. Obviously not getting a lot of stage-time recently is a big problem, but that’s all changing now as I’m booking up spots for the next couple of months and should get back to doing one or two a week as a minimum.
Apart from my own mini-disaster, the rest of the gig was great. Archie Maddocks headlined in style, Lincoln Van Der Westhuizen did a really strong 10 spot to close the first half, John Sharp was John Sharp. My friend Pauline Hedge really seem to hit her stride and did one of the best sets I’ve seen from her. One new name that really stood out was Alex Mandel-Dallal, who won the room over with effortless charm and did a much better job of recovering from fudged punchlines than I did.
The promoter of this event asked me to share the following. Not a paid endorsement or anything, just sharing out of the love of standup and the goodness of my heart. Although, FWIW Kuan-wen Huang is a stone cold killer: “Comic and TV regular Zoe Lyons has teamed up with Craft beer Fourpure for ‘Fourpure Presents…Four Funny People’ On Wednesday 18 August there will be a fantastic line-up of stand-up comedy talent with headliner Zoe Lyons and Fourpure’s very own comedy troupe. The “four funny people” are up-and-coming stars personally selected by Zoe: Priya Hall, Stephen Buchanan, Andy field and Kuan-wen Huang to give them the opportunity to get their voices heard via PAID gigs for the rest of 2021. The gig will be held at Fourpure’s Taproom in Bermondsey and will start from 7pm. Tickets are £10 and can be purchased here: https://www.designmynight.com/london/whats-on/comedy/stand-up-for-beer-fourpure-comedy-night
The week after my last spot at Beat the Blackout I did another one at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion, which was back for a one-off trial at its old venue at The Rocksteady in Dalston.
Comedy Explosion is a good old fashioned bar-show, which means Sam hijacks a section of a public bar for a night and runs an open mic for the benefit of whoever’s in the place. So as well as the usual crowd of acts and their friends, you get a random audience of punters who are in the bar and didn’t flee at the first mention of “free comedy”.
It was a fun night, with everybody in celebratory mood and happy to be back on the mic, and it was good to bump into a few old faces, as well as Sam himself. I ran through the same set as I did the week before, as I’m nowhere near ready to try new material – at this stage I’m just trying to get back into the swing of performing tried and tested stuff.
I’m not sure if the Comedy Explosion is going to be running regularly again in the near future, but I hope it does because London needs more non-bringer open mics.
That week I also went along to Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish, to support a friend who was doing a spot there (she won the clap-off!) Even with social distancing restrictions they’re managing to run a decent night. The bar area is closed but the garden is set up with outside seating and gazebos/tents to keep the rain off, and the theatre has fewer seats to allow for more space between people while they’re watching the show.
Obviously it felt a bit different to the old days when the room used to be packed to the rafters, but all the same there were enough people in for it to feel like a nice lively night. As I’m writing this it sounds like the government is going to lift all restrictions later in July, so maybe we’ll see places like the Cav return to business as usual pretty soon.
This week I spent a little time updating the open-mic listings page, and it looks like a few more nights are starting up again, although I imagine they’re all massively over-subscribed, so good luck getting spots. I expect a lot more will start up again soon now that the restrictions are being lifted. I know that We Are Funny is probably going to start again around autumn.
So it looks like the scene is starting to recover, but live spots are still likely to be hard to book for another month or two.
Apart from my car crash effort at a South Coast Comedian of the Year heat in September, I haven’t done any standup spots since March 2020. So when I entered Beat the Blackout at Up The Creek in Greenwich this week, it’s fair to say I wasn’t feeling entirely confident, given that I was a year out of practice, the whole world had changed in that time, and I had no idea what the mood in the room was going to be.
First things first – even though social distancing is still in place, Up the Creek put on a decent night. Chairs and tables were spread further apart than usual, so fewer people were in the room, but it still felt lively in there. Who knows how things will unfold over the rest of the year, but if clubs have to run like this for the near future, they’ve shown it’s still possible to run a good comedy night under restricted circumstances.
Beat the Blackout is the club’s weekly gong show. Up to 15 acts get five minutes of stage-time each, and after a two minute grace period members of the audience are allowed to vote you off by holding up red-cards. Three red cards and you’re off. If you survive five minutes, you’ve beaten the blackout.
I did a spot there once in the before-times and made it to about 4 minutes before my racist-baby bit earned me an instant dismissal. It’s a good night, but not ideal for a comeback after over a year off.
My plan for the show was to dust off some of my safest, most tried and tested material, try my best to commit five minutes of it to memory and just play it safe; get back into the swing of it before I start trying to be clever with new material.
I think I did a decent job of memorising a set in the days before the gig, and I spent the hour-long drive to the club just repeating it over and over again to myself. But I still had a few keyword prompts written on my hand, in case I stumbled under pressure.
When I got there it was great to see some old faces, Hubert Mayr, Harry Wright, Michael May – plus Alexandra Haddow, who I’d never met in person but sort of know a bit through social media. There were a few other recognisable faces, whose names have escaped me (sorry!) and an act I’d never met before introduced himself as a reader of the blog (Hussain Olad, I think? Sorry if I got your name wrong!)
So, good vibes all round in the green room, but I started getting really bad nerves – worse than any show I’ve ever done before. Not sure why. I felt comfortable with my material, and I knew it had all worked in the past. I kept doing breathing exercises to calm myself down, and once I’d got control of myself again I’d run through my set in my mind, just to reassure myself I could remember it all.
I went through that process a few times, and was feeling okayish when the show started, but as the host (Michael Legge) went up to announce me (as the final act of the first half) I felt a sudden, strong wave of panic and I swear to god I’ve never been so close to just quitting there and then on the spot. I was a heartbeat away from walking out of the club.
Up until that point all of the acts had been solid and nobody got voted off. I think I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t up to the job, my nerves would show through, and I’d be the only one the audience hated.
But I managed to keep it together long enough for my legs to carry me up to the stage. I have a bad habit of making last minute changes to my set – throwing in new bits that I think will be funny, even though they’re not tested. This time I used a lot of self-discipline to resist that – stick with the plan, stick with the material you trust.
That said… I knew my opener was a bit long winded before it hits the punchline, and it wouldn’t be too much of a problem because of the two-minute grace period but, all the same, it would be nice to have something that could get a really quick laugh so I could start on the front foot.
So I took a gamble, and while I was taking the mic out of the stand I made an off the cuff one-liner addressing something that had been happening in the room all night. Thank fuck it worked – it got a decent laugh, and it was kind of nasty so it set the tone for the rest of my set. That’s the holy grail of openers – quickly show them you’re funny, and give them an idea of who you are.
Once that ripple of laughter started to spread across the room, my nerves evaporated, and I launched into my prepared material. I got into a nice flow, every punchline landed, and it magically felt like I was delivering my stuff in the relaxed, conversation style that I’ve always wanted, instead of woodenly regurgitating a script. I don’t have a video, so I don’t know if that’s what really happened, but that’s how it felt.
Although I didn’t run any new material, I was able to change a few of my setups slightly to tie them into lockdown/covid, so they felt fresher than they really were, but the punchlines were all the same. Again, I’m not sure if this is how it really played out, but in my mind it feels like I didn’t waffle as much as I used to – kept the bits tight, without rambling on unnecessarily. I think I had to look at my hand just once to get a prompt.
The stage lights were bright so I couldn’t see much of the room, and it was hard to tell if anybody held up a card, but it turns out they didn’t. About three quarters of the way through my set the music blared to let me know I’d beaten the clock – and the timing was perfect as I’d just finished delivering a bit that got a decent laugh. It caught me by surprise, so I probably wandered off stage looking a bit dazed and confused.
Despite spending the first half of it in terror, it turned out to be a fantastic night – I had a great time, all of the acts were on fire, seeing some old faces made me really happy, and holy fuck just being in a comedy club full of people enjoying themselves felt so good.
I don’t know where we go from here. I’m doing Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion at the Rocksteady in Dalston next Thursday night (June 10th) but don’t have anything else booked – there still aren’t many nights to get spots.
I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to come back to standup after the past year. Whether I’d still be able to do it, or even if the scene would recover – but I’m feeling very positive now.