A busy week for me. I started on Monday with 5 minutes at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion in Shoreditch. It’s a nice, friendly night and always a good place to try out new material, so I had planned to try out a lot of new bits I’ve been working on.
In the bar I got chatting to a couple of other acts I hadn’t met before, as well as the Katie Price, who I’ve bumped into a few times recently. It was shaping up to be a good gig, but with just one or two small problems.
1) At a table right next to the stage where Sam was setting the mic up, a couple were in the middle of a break-up, with all the tears and shouting that usually entails. Fortunately they had the good sense to move their personal crisis to a different venue when the comedy started.
2) At the back of the room was a table full of drunk lads, doing shots and having an animated discussion about The Football. They weren’t being dicks, and pretty much left the acts alone, but they weren’t going to let a bunch of ponces with a microphone and PA system ruin their chat, so they just spent the entire night there and talked through everybody’s set.
All in all the gig was fine, but the banter-table was pretty distracting and everybody had to work a bit harder because of it. I was up late in the night and seeing how all the other acts had battled through the background chatter, I wasn’t really in the mood for testing half-written new material. I threw a couple of new bits in, but mostly ran through my current five minute set, as a rehearsal for my gigs later in the week, and it all went well enough.
This is one of the things I like about Sam Rhode’s gigs – they’re all in public bars, so you get the random element of not knowing what else is going to be happening in the room and you have to learn to adapt to the situation. It’s mostly a supportive environment, with just a tinge of the unexpected to keep you on your toes.
Next up was my Max Turner Prize semi final heat on Wednesday night. I was feeling good about this – I knew a lot of strong acts had gone through and knew I’d be lucky to get into the finals, so went in with low expectations, just planning to do as good a set as I could and treat it like any other gig.
Just as I was getting ready to go to the gig, I got an email from the organisers of Jason Manford’s new act competition, which I’d completely forgotten about entering months ago, to let me know I’d got a place in the heats, on Saturday – the same day as the Max Turner final. So that kind of messed with me a little, because I started worrying about what I should do if I got through.
It turned out to be a pretty busy night, with lots of genuine audience members on top of the friends the acts had brought – the Cavendish does a Groupon deal to get people through the door, and there were a bunch of them in that night so the energy was high. I went up sixth of the night, and felt like I did a pretty average job – not sure why, but the audience didn’t really get on board with some of my stuff.
I’ve messed around with my set a bit recently, adding in a couple of new bits and dropping weaker stuff, so I think I was still a little unsure of it and my delivery wasn’t as confident as it could have been. Either way, I did OK but not great, so it was no big surprise that I didn’t get through to the final, and at least now there’s no conflict on Saturday night for me.
And then there was Thursday at Beat the Blackout, at Up The Creek comedy club in Greenwich. I’ve never been there before, so it was all new to me.
It’s a proper comedy club with a decent sized room – I’d guess over 100 people – and the Beat the Blackout night is essentially a Gong Show with a rowdy bear-pit audience where heckling and shouting is encouraged. Three audience members are given cards to hold up if they don’t like you, and if all three hold their cards up the stage lights go out and your time is up – although to make it fair, you get two minutes grace at the start to try and win the crowd over, before they’re allowed to hold up their cards. The aim for acts is to make it to five minutes without getting voted off – which means you don’t finish on a big punchline, you just keep going until it’s over.
I wasn’t intimidated by the size of the room, or even the blackout element of the night, but I was a little unsure about how I’d handle the heckles because I’ve never had to face that before. Right from the off the crowd was rowdy, and even the experienced MC seemed to struggle keeping them quiet, so I knew it was going to be a struggle.
Murat went up first, but unfortunately the crowd wasn’t very generous with him, and he didn’t last much longer than the two minute grace period. I felt bad for him because I’ve seen him at previous gigs and I know he’s got some good jokes. Next up was Michael Eldridge, and he crushed it – they bought into him right away and despite a few heckles he made it past five minutes and went on to win the entire night.
It was my turn next. Once I was on stage the room felt a lot bigger all of a sudden, and even thought the audience size probably wasn’t much more than Angel Comedy Raw, it felt like a different game entirely. They seemed fairly quiet during my opener, but while I was delivering it I really noticed how long it takes me to get to my first punchline (20-30 seconds). This doesn’t feel like a problem at most nights because the audience is friendly and happy to give you a chance, but I really got the sense that this lot were willing me to get on with it.
When the punchline finally landed, it was glorious. The room is bigger, but so are the laughs, and after that I got into my stride. The next section of my set is punchier, with four or five short, reliable jokes, and each of them landed really well. At some points it felt like the laughs went on for ages. I’ve been told I “tread on my laughs” sometimes, and it’s better to just shut up and let the audience laugh for as long as they want rather than trying to force them onto the next joke, so I was trying to wait, but I was feeling awkward just standing there saying nothing while I waited for them to quiet down.
The only real trouble came after a vegan joke (yeah, I know, sorry) when some angry vegans started shouting at me, but their weak, low-energy voices were drowned out by the laughter and I just steamrollered on.
So far, so good, I’d got past the two minutes grace and they didn’t immediately shut me down. Next I moved onto some slightly longer bits with more punchlines and tags, and this is where it started to get tricky.
There was a woman close to the front who had been shouting random shit out all night – not even heckles that you could respond to, just unintelligible garble, and she always seemed to do it right on the punchlines. At about this point in my set she started up again, and it kind of derailed me a bit, so my delivery was off and these longer bits did OK, but weren’t as smooth as they should have been.
One of these bits has a joke about Tories, which plays well to liberal open mic audiences, but split the room here and got a mixed reception. All the same, I was still on stage and kept going, and moved onto my closing Racist Baby™ material, which is where it all fell apart.
It was a fairly mixed room, and this stuff normally works best in those situations, but I was on the back foot after the middle section got rocky, and I didn’t deliver it well, so the audience shut me down before I could get to the punchline. Fair enough, it’s a sensitive topic and I hadn’t done enough to win their trust so that they’d let me finish it.
I think I got to about 4 minutes, I’m reasonably happy with that and I think I learned more in that one gig than I have in the past six months, so it was a great experience. The main lesson was that stuff that works well in open mic nights full of comedians doesn’t necessarily work with real audiences, and the Racist Baby bit has been troubling me for a while now, so I’m going to shelve it. I’ve been working up some less risky material that I can replace it with.
There was a weather warning and I was worried about getting home in the snow, so I decided to bale out early and said my goodbyes. On the way out of the club I bumped into Michael Akadiri in the bar with some of his friends, who were very kind and helped me do a little post-mortem on what went wrong. But I know the answer, race is a touchy topic that scares audiences, and you’ve really got to earn the right to talk about it on stage – I’ve got a way to go before I’ve got that kind of trust.
So, tomorrow I’m doing my heat of the Manford’s New Act of the Year competition, at the Stage Door in Southampton. The Racist Baby bit is out of the set, and replaced with a few newer, punchier bits, which I’m going to have try and hammer into my brain during the two hour drive to the venue.
Gig Count to Date: 76 – I could have sworn I was already over 80, but I just went through my diary and crunched the numbers.