The monthly King Gong show at London’s Comedy Store is the city’s biggest open mic night in terms of audience size. If you’re an aspiring standup, the show offers a rare opportunity to perform at a famous venue in front of hundreds of people, but it comes at a cost.
Unlike most open mics, which are friendly supportive gigs, the audience at the King Gong is encouraged to yell, heckle, and crush the spirit of performing acts. Three audience members are given red cards, and if all three cards are held up then the MC hits a gong and your time on stage is over. If the audience don’t like your act they’ll boo and jeer, and encourage the card-holders to get you off the stage.
Your goal is to survive five minutes – if you do that, you get to perform another 1 minute at the end of the show, and then they pick a winner who’s invited back to do a spot on a pro night.
I’ve been trying to get onto the show for a while – there’s a big waiting list and you’re only allowed to do it once every six months, but I finally got a spot on the 29th of April. It did not go well.
I was on halfway through the second section of the night, the crowd was worked up and restless – they’d already booed off a few acts who barely managed 30 seconds on stage. I lasted 37 seconds, but it was my own fault.
The opener I’m currently using is a bit long winded, and takes 20-30 seconds to get to the laugh. It normally works and the payoff is big enough to justify the long buildup. I knew it wouldn’t work for the King Gong, I knew I’d need to start strong with a few punchy heavy hitters before I could try longer bits.
I’d planned to rework my set, but real life got in the way and I didn’t find the time to do it. So in the end I just went up and tried to do my usual material. Inevitably, it didn’t work – by the time I finished my opener they were already shouting so loud that nobody heard the punchline. Two red cards went up, I’d already lost the crowd, so I turned to the third card holder and told him to put the card up because I wanted to get home in time for Game of Thrones, and he obliged.
If anything I’m just annoyed at myself for wasting the opportunity. I knew what I had to do to be in with a chance at this show, but I didn’t find the time to do it, and now I won’t be able to get another spot there for six months at least.
Some of the other acts did better. Micah Hall beat the gong – I’ve seen him around since he got started a year or so ago and it’s been good to watch him get better. Martin Graham almost got to 5 minutes (mostly by intimidating the card-holders) but got sent off with just a few seconds left on the clock.
I didn’t stick around to find out who won the night – you can’t let this kind of thing wind you up, but I couldn’t help feeling a little embarassed about doing so poorly, so I grabbed my coat and sloped off early. Despite everything it’s still good experience to try and retain some degree of composure in front of a baying crowd.
I wouldn’t say I learned much about crowd control, because it wasn’t like there were one or two hecklers I could work on – a large chunk of the audience turned on me pretty quickly and there was nothing much I could do except try to get my material out over the noise. I suppose if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that you should have a plan for when the whole audience is confrontational. Bill Burr’s legendary Philadelphia Incident is a masterclass in this, he spends 12 minutes abusing an aggressive crowd, although of course he had the benefit of being able to stay on stage for as long as he wanted.
The week before I did a spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion, which is always good fun, and that brings me up to 89 gigs. I’ve got no gigs on this week because of more real life stuff, but next week I’m at Sam Rhodes on Wednesday before doing the Sussex Comedian of the Year competition heat on Thursday. I don’t even remember applying for that, but somehow I’ve got a spot, and it’s in a tiny village in deepest darkest Sussex, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of audience it gets.
Onwards and (ever so slightly) upwards.