In this episode Mouch and I interviewed Ken Grinell, who’s been working his way up the comedy ladder for a few years. I really enjoyed this interview, because although I’d seen Ken at a few gigs I didn’t really know him very well, and he turned out to have a lot of useful advice for people who are new to standup.
In this first episode of the Basic Comedy Podcast, we interview Akin Omobatin about his journey so far in standup comedy, from his very first open mic nights to success in competitions, and taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. Also, barebacking.
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 theKatie 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.
Before the gig I bumped into Michael Eldridge and had a good natter in the bar, and also met Michael Akadiri and Murat Gencoglu, who I know from previous gigs.
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.
It took me a year to get a spot at Angel Comedy Raw last October and it was a really good gig, so I’ve been looking forward to getting back there. It didn’t take so long this time, I applied at the start of December and they came back to me fairly quickly with the offer of a spot in January, last night.
I didn’t really know most of the other acts, probably because most of them seem to be a few rungs above me on the comedy ladder, but it was a nice surprise to bump into Helena Langdon, who I’ve met a few times before at gigs.
We were both on in the middle of the second half, so we lurked at the back of an absolutely packed room to watch the first half. When you’re used to doing gigs where the audience is made up entirely of comedians and the friends they’ve cajoled into coming along, Angel Comedy RAW is a real change of pace – a room full of 80+ genuine audience members who are there of their own free will.
Weird thing though. Even though the room was full and buzzing, the energy just felt low. The MC did a solid job of working the crowd and all the acts in the first half were great (especially Lily Philips), but it just felt like the audience weren’t making it easy for any of them. They laughed at A+ material, but not much else.
Most of them came back for the second half, and after a couple of other acts Helena went up, she did a did a brilliant job and the crowd really bought into her deadpan tales of social awkwardness. I was up next and, just like my last gig, I tried to put a bit of energy into my delivery, knowing the crowd was playing hard to get. This seemed to do the trick and from the outset they responded well to most of my material.
A couple of bits didn’t get as big a laugh as they usually do, but a new one I’ve been trying worked really well, and my closer did the job. I was disappointed that my normally reliable racist baby bit fell flat though. I should have guessed it wouldn’t go well since the audience was almost entirely white, and that kind of material only really works well in mixed rooms.
The headliner was professional act, Archie Maddocks, who knocked it out of the park for the most part, but even he struggled with some bits. After the gig we compared notes on the audience – he told me that some of his bankers just didn’t land either, and he gave me some nice feedback on my material, which is always welcome from a pro. In particular he gave me some ideas about how I could build out the racist baby material into an even bigger bit, which I’ll definitely experiment with.
My main takeaway from the night was that I need to be more ready to adapt my material to the room. I had a good sense that the room wouldn’t go for the racist baby stuff, but I didn’t bother changing it – in future I’ll be ready to replace it with more suitable material.
I’ve got a spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion on Monday – so I’ll use that to test out a few new bits that I can use for the semi-final heat of the Max Turner Prize on Wednesday if it looks like I’ll need alternative material. And on Thursday it’s Beat the Blackout, but I’m not even ready to think about that yet.
The Max Turner Prize is an annual competition run by Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish Arms in Stockwell, one of the most popular and long running comedy open mic nights in London. As well as a bundle of cash, the first prize includes a full year of being able to perform on any night without a bringer – for an upcoming act who wants to get a lot of stage-time in front of a decent audience, that’s huge.
This year I think there are about 230 acts competing in the heats, which are then whittled down to 4 semi-final nights, and then a big final. Last night I was in heat #10.
I got there early to settle into the vibe, grabbed a pizza with the friend who came along, had a chat with a few of the other acts, and was feeling pretty relaxed about the whole thing – right up until the MC (Adrian Tauss) informed me I’d be the first act of the night. I’m still on the fence about whether this is good or bad in terms of how the audience judges you, but either way it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to go up first on any night.
I’m not exactly a high-energy act, I think you could describe my style as conversational, but I felt that being first up required some pace to get the audience on-board, so I tried to open my act with more commitment than usual. Talking louder, leaning into the audience, being a little more enthusiastic – it’s weird doing this because it feels fake and contrived, I’m not trying to do a character act, but it works, especially in a busy room like the Cavendish.
The audience bought into it and I got some good laughs, but because I was trying a slightly different approach I made a few fuckups – I missed out a couple of small but important details in some of my setups, I fluffed some of my bits so they weren’t as slick as they could be, looked at my watch a couple of times to give me time to think about the next bit, and then as I approached the end of my set I realised I still had about 30 seconds to go and couldn’t work out why. It was only when I got back to my seat I realised I’d completely missed out a part of one of my biggest bits. Weirdly, I did exactly the same thing last year in this competition.
While I was on-stage I was deeply conscious of all these little mistakes, so for the first time in months I was feeling nervous. None of it really seemed to matter though because I was still getting a good reaction from the audience, the over-confidence helped gloss over the cracks in my act, but when it was over I knew that it was a weak performance by my recent standards.
The good thing about being first up was that once my bit was over I could just sit back and enjoy the rest of the night, which wasn’t hard because there were a lot of great acts on. As the night drew on and the quality got higher, I realised I’d be lucky to be one of the six acts to go through to the semi-finals.
It got to the end of the night and everybody shuffled out into the bar to wait for the organisers to announce the semi-finalist. Before the gig my frame of mind was firmly “six people can go through, I’ve been doing pretty well recently, so I’m in with a decent chance” but waiting in the bar I was braced for the oh so familiar sting of rejection.
Sure enough, the MC came out in due course and announced the six semi-finalists, and my name was not on the list. Just as I was about to throw myself onto the floor for a screaming tantrum, one of the other regular MCs, Twix, hopped up onto a stool and told everybody to shut up for a special announcement – there was a tie-break situation in the audience voting, and just for this heat the organisers had agreed to send an extra act through to the semi-finals, and that act was me.
My semi-final heat is on the 30th of January, and false modesty aside, I really will be lucky to get through to the final because the other acts who have made it through are some of the best on the open mic scene. I’ve got a couple of opportunities to practice before then, with gigs at Angel Comedy RAW tomorrow night, Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion on Monday, and if that wasn’t enough I’ve got a Beat the Blackout spot at Up The Creek in Greenwich the day after the competition semi.
That’ll be a total of 8 gigs for January, which isn’t a lot by some people’s standards but until I can convince my wife that I’m getting somewhere with this comedy stuff and it’s not just a midlife crisis, a couple of gigs a week is about as good as it gets for me.
The first half of January has been busy, at least by my standards. To kick the year off I went to watch a Max Turner Prize heat as a bringer for Nicholas Everritt. I’d never met him before, but remember seeing him at one of the first ever open mics I went to watch when I got started, and really liking his act – a kind of left-field, robotic deconstruction of stand-up conventions – so I was glad to finally have a chat with him.
I’ve seen his routine a few times since that first gig, and it often seems to split the room, some people just don’t get it, but it was good to see that the crowd loved him at the Max Turner heat, and he got through to the next round.
My first gig of the year was at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion in Shoreditch. As well as being rusty after taking Christmas off from gigging, it was also my first ever 10 minute spot, so I went into it feeling a little edgy. I shouldn’t have worried – it went well for a first effort at a 10 spot.
I ran through my usual five minute set, but did all the longer versions of the bits with extra tags, and I did both of my bigger closing bits (I usually just choose one depending on the feel of the room). That took me to about seven or eight minutes, and then I filled the remaining time with new stuff that fits thematically with the rest of the material – most of that seemed to work well enough for a first airing, although it needs tightening up. I’m feeling confident I can pull together a solid 10 minutes over the coming months, which was one of my goals for this year.
Later that week I did five minutes at Happy Laughcraft (at the South Kensington Comedy Club). I’d never been to that night before, but lots of people I know seem to rate it as a good gig so I was keen to check it out. It’s a bringer (Nicholas got me back) but it was still pretty quiet – understandable so soon after Christmas, it was only the first week back to work for most people, so I can’t imagine many people were up for comedy. A couple of girls wandered in from the bar, but left almost as soon as Ralph Arscott tried some crowdwork with them. I didn’t know Ralph before, but yakked with him in the breaks, and he stood out as one of the stronger acts of the night.
I bumped into Phil Green in the bar and had a chat with him – I’ve always liked his brand of thoughtful surrealism, but didn’t really know anybody else at the gig. Luke Poulton was on, and I’ve seen him around a lot but never really had a chance to say hello. Other than that, it was all new faces for me.
I was on second to last of the night, and even though the room was clearly drained, I was feeling positive after my strong start to the year. One of the other acts, an older guy in his sixties, had brought along a bunch of his friends who were treating the night as an opportunity for a good old chat. So before the MC called me up he tried to address it nicely and persuade them to pipe down, but the interaction went on a bit too long and created an awkward energy in the room. And then it was my turn to go up…
I tried to kick off with a joke about the MC making it weird just before I went up, but that fell flat and the MC responded by apologising, which made it more weird, so I started on completely the wrong foot. It wasn’t a complete disaster, I slogged through my material, with a couple of the new bits, and got a few laughs, but it was an uphill battle for very little reward. Still, all stage time is good stage time and it was nice to check the gig out.
The night after that gig I swung over to Comedy Moochabout in Vauxhall, purely to take a few photos of the acts for Mouch to put up on the Facebook page. I’ve finally figured out how to take half decent photos in the adverse lighting conditions of comedy clubs so I’m always up for taking a few shots if anybody wants pics of themselves on stage. It was a fun night with some great acts like Hubert Mayr, Ken Grinell, and the headliner, Simon Caine.
Finally, this Monday I did a spot at We Are Funny Project. I was expecting a fairly quiet night and planned to try out a lot of new material, but as it happened a birthday party showed up and there was a lively audience in the room, and Alfie offered to film my set, so I decided to use some of my strongest stuff, with a couple of new bits, to get a video of me FUCKING DESTROYING. I was feeling in the zone and it went really well – I tried to be more energetic on stage, leaned into the audience more, and just work a bit harder than I usually would.
It paid off, the audience liked what I did and there were plenty of laughs all the way through. The only problem was that with the new bits thrown into the mix I hadn’t really timed the set properly, and by the time I got the 30 second light I wasn’t in an ideal place to finish strongly. I was halfway through a new bit which worked well once before, but I kind of fumbled it and finished on a very mediocre laugh. That’s a small gripe though, apart from that the set went well, and one of my new bits in particular just landed perfectly, so that’s already looking like a banker.
It was one of those nice nights where I bumped into quite a few acts I know and had some good chit chat with the people like Luke Chilton, Steph Aritone, Andrew Buchan, and Bijan Barekat – who are all well worth a watch if you get the chance. Elliot Dallas, who I know in passing, was also there and had a spectacular mental breakdown on stage – I remain unclear whether it was an act or a cry for help. We’re all rooting for you Elliot! (Unless you’re found guilty.)
It was the first time I’d seen Alexandria MacLeod and she really impressed, so hopefully we’ll see more of her.
I’m not doing anything else for the rest of the week, but next Monday I’ve got my heat of the Max Turner Prize at the Cavendish Arms (although I’m still trying to pin down a bringer for that), then on Thursday I’ve got a spot at Angel Comedy RAW in Islington, which I’m really looking forward to because that’s a fantastic gig. The following week, I’m at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion on Monday, and then Beat the Blackout at Up The Creek on Thursday, which I’m also very excited about because I’ve never done any kind of gong or blackout show.
I wrapped up my first full year of doing standup (nearly 18 months in total) with a spot at Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish Arms in Stockwell. It’s always a good night, and my set went down well – I got into the clap-off, but was soundly beaten by Luke Chilton who was so on fire he should have been kicked out of the club for violating health and safety regulations.
I was hoping to have reached 100 gigs this year, but I’ve only managed to get to about 70 – although I’m not too disappointed because I feel like I’ve got a lot better and that’s been reflected in feedback I’ve been given from people on the scene.
I think the best thing I’ve done this year has been to stop trying out completely new material and focus on practicing and developing my main five minute set. I’ve cut weak material, improved bits and performed it so many times that I no longer need to psyche myself up before I go up to the mic – it’s seared on my memory, and I know I can deliver it confidently every time.
And that’s not to say I’ve completely abandoned writing new stuff. By focusing on refining that one set, I’ve been able to come up with longer versions of the same bits and added related material, so now I think the whole thing could probably fill about 8 minutes, maybe more. Most of the spots I do are only five minutes, so every gig I try out a slightly different version of the set to make sure all the material stays fresh in my mind.
It’s taken discipline for me to do this, because I really, really want to try out lots of different material (I can honestly write more shit than I’ll ever have enough stage-time to perform) but I realised that I’ll only make progress if I focus on getting good. I could do 5 minutes of mediocre, untested new material every gig, but that would get me nowhere – you need to work on this stuff to make it shine.
My goal for the new year is to build it up into a watertight 10 minute set, and start trying to get some longer spots so I can get used to doing them. I’m also going to try some gong-shows like the The Blackout at Up the Creek, and the King Gong at the Comedy Store, to see how I get on with a more rowdy bear-pit style audience. I’ve already booked a Blackout spot on January 31st, and King Gong is on Monday of that week, so I’ll try to get on there too.
People keep asking me variations of “Where are you going with this?” which I don’t have an answer for. Would I like to go pro eventually? Definitely, but realistically comedy is never going to pay as well as my day job, and so long as I’ve got a mortgage and three kids, I can’t really abandon a stable career to chase my dreams.
I don’t have a real plan. It’s fun, I seem to be OK at it, and I absolutely fucking love doing it, so I’m just going to crack on at my own pace and see where the road takes me.
I keep bumping into more and more of you at gigs (“Hey, are you that basic comedy guy?”) – thanks for reading, I’m glad this stupid little thing I’m doing is in any way helpful or interesting. You’ll always find me at the bar in the break, come and say hello.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted, and since then I’ve done four spots – a couple at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion and one at We Are Funny Project, all in Dalston, and another at Comedy Moochabout in Vauxhall.
It’s getting harder to write individual posts about each gig at the moment, because every night I just grind out the same material, tweak it, and try to get better at delivering it. I’d rather write fewer, more interesting posts, than the same old shit week in week out.
I’ve been getting great feedback recently and it really feels like I’m getting better at this, although I attribute most of that to just hammering the same material over and over so that now I can deliver it without thinking about what I’m going to say next. That gives you a lot more freedom to experiment with different styles and throw a few new bits in, because no matter what happens you know you can always find your way back.
So I’ve been playing around a bit with my delivery and, long story short, leaning into the audience and making eye-contact with a visibly uncomfortable person while I say something offensive seems to do the trick.
I’ve also been working on my current set, trying to tighten it up. To reduce the art and craft of standup comedy to a dreary statistic, I’m currently averaging one big laugh from the audience every 23 seconds – that’s 13 laughs during my five minute set. I think that’s respectable, but I also think I can do better – there are some bits which take too long to set up, so I could probably trim the fat and make room for more punchlines or tags.
This constant repetition can be a bit soul destroying, especially if you’re desperate to show off your bottomless well of creativity to the other acts on the circuit, but it’s worth doing. Being able to confidently deliver a decent set at the drop of a hat without any mental preparation feels pretty good.
Side-note, if you’re not recording your sets, you should. I leave my phone on my seat when I go up, running a voice recorder app, and I listen to it on the way home to get an honest idea of which bits worked well. Doing this has helped me improve, because you can’t hide from the fact that a bit you might love consistently doesn’t get any reaction from the audience. It’s also good to occasionally listen to recordings you made six or 12 months ago to show yourself how much you’ve developed.
Somebody told me this week that my current set would do well in competitions – I’m not so sure, I think there are quite enough heterosexual middle aged white men in standup and the competition judges aren’t really looking for more of us. On the other hand…. maybe I’ll enter a few next year anyway.
In other news, I’ve been working on a podcast about the London grass-roots comedy scene with Mouch, where we interview people from the circuit about what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian at the beginning of their career. We’ve already got a few episodes recorded and more lined up, so it looks like we’ll be ready to launch in January – I’ll keep you posted.
Other than that, not much to report. I’ve started photographing the other acts at open-mic nights, just to make myself useful and maybe get to know a few people. My first efforts were shit, but I got some advice from a friend who regularly shoots rock concerts (similar problem, shitty lighting conditions and an act who just won’t stand still) and I think I’m getting better. I usually throw them up on the Basic Comedy Facebook page and tag the acts when I can remember their names.
People I’ve seen recently who I really liked include: