Anybody on the open mic scene in London over recent years will recognise Ross Smith, as a long-standing host of the popular Comedy Virgins night at the Cavendish Arms, as well as Angel Comedy at the Bill Murray Pub.
He’s created two succesful Edinburgh shows, and is a regular face at comedy clubs in London and around the UK.
In this episode, Ross talks about how he got into standup and dealt with his early struggle to work out exactly what kind of comedy he should be doing, and delves into how he writes new material and improves as a comedian.
Just five years into his stand-up career, Eshaan Akbar already has an impressive comedy CV, including three Edinburgh shows, supporting Dane Baptiste and Micky Flanagan on tour, and BBC appearances.
In this episode of the podcast, Eshaan talked to us about his journey from open mic act to full time stand-up comedian. He offered a lot of useful advice, including how he learned to deal with bombing, refining his bits, and the difference between an Edinburgh show and a club set.
I just did one spot this week, ten minutes at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion. Sam’s been kind enough to give me a few 10 spots this year and I’ve had mixed success with them, sometimes they go ok, but a lot of the time it feels like a massive step back.
This week was a bit of a mix. I did my usual set with extended versions of some bits, a couple of new bits and a few old ones to fill up the time. They laughed at the best stuff, but the new bits faltered, and because I’d restructured it all I struggled to remember the running order and had to keep checking my set list, so it was all a bit awkward and choppy.
It’s easy to beat yourself up when it doesn’t go well, especially since I’d got to a point where my five minute set was pretty reliable, so I’d not bombed for a while. But I just need to remember that this is exactly how it felt when I was struggling to put together a strong five minutes – failure is all part of the process. If you’re not bombing regularly, you’re not trying enough new stuff.
The important thing is to learn from every gig. This week I got some good feedback on an already strong bit that I’m working up into something much bigger, and I worked out that with a bit of shuffling around I can open with a much punchier bit than my usual slow burn opener. The fact that it takes 30 seconds to get to my first punchline has been bugging me, so it’s good to have an alternative option.
The other thing I learned this week is that when material didn’t land well, I couldn’t help trying to address it – Sam was sat up and the front of the audience, near the mic, so I kept joking with him about how badly it was going. As he suggested later, the best thing to do is just style it out – if a punchline doesn’t get a laugh, then you act like it wasn’t a punchline and just part of your buildup to the next bit, instead of floundering and admitting that it flopped.
I’ve got another 10 spot there in a couple of weeks and I’m feeling confident that I can do a better job next time around, and I’m at Comedy Virgins the following night so it’ll be a good warm up.
Some good news this week – it looks like me and Mouch have finally got our shit together and come up with a plan to get the Basic Comedy Podcast back to life. We started the thing with high aspirations but both found ourselves suddenly a lot busier after we did the first handful of episodes, so it kind of fell by the wayside. But we’ve worked out how we can run the thing so that it fits into our schedules, and we should get started again in a couple of weeks.
I get a lot of messages from people asking my advice on where they should do their first open mic spot in London, and the answer really depends on what you want to get out of the experience.
For most people your first open mic spot is all about just taking that leap and getting over your nerves. You shouldn’t be worrying about how well you remember your material, or if people are laughing at your jokes, you just want to get up on stage and talk in front of a room full of people for five minutes.
For my money the best place to do that in London is the Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash. It’s popular with first timers because it’s one of the few places where you can just show up on the night without booking in advance, and there’s a real anything-goes vibe there. It’s not a bringer, so if you don’t want your friends and family to know about what you’re doing just yet (and that’s a common feeling for newbies) it’s ideal.
The important thing is that it’s a low-pressure gig where it’s OK to fail, and that means it’s great for both newbies and more experienced acts trying out risky new material. It doesn’t matter if you forget your material, or it just doesn’t work, or your delivery is terrible, it’s all part of the game, and the MC, Boyce Bailey, is great at keeping the energy upbeat no matter what happens.
They call it the Comedy Car Crash for a reason, and it’s always entertaining, albeit sometimes for entirely the wrong reasons. When most people think of a stand-up comedy open mic night, the Lion’s Den is probably the closest thing in London to what they imagine it would be like. Broadly speaking the audience tends to be mostly made up of other acts hoping for a spot, but I’ve been there on some nights when people have brought along a large group of friends to watch them.
All that said, it’s not for everybody. Maybe you’re feeling confident and want to try performing at a night that feels a bit more like the kind of comedy club where you’ve probably seen professional acts. If that’s you, then Comedy Virgins at the Cavendish Arms is a really good bet.
It’s a bringer night, so you’ll need to take a friend, and you have to register a place about a month in advance. The flipside of that is there’s always a buzzy audience, because every performer brings at least one person, and there are usually at a handful of people who’ve shown up under their own steam.
This can be a positive because it’s easier to make a bigger crowd laugh but, if you really can’t wring any laughs out of them (which is a distinct possibility when you’re brand new) then your five minutes on stage are going to feel like five hours.
Although I recommend these two nights, it really doesn’t matter all that much where you do your first spot. It’s about taking that first step, knowing you’re probably going to eat shit for five minutes but doing it anyway just to pop your cherry. If you’ve decided you want to give stand-up a shot, you’re going to have to get used to performing in all kinds of rooms; busy, empty, buzzing, low energy, whatever, so just find a place you like and get a spot there.
If you’re a little nervous, go along to watch a show one night – you don’t need to book, and most shows are free (although they take voluntary donations at the end of the night). Once you’ve seen how an open-mic night works, you’ll feel more confident about getting up onstage yourself.
I’ve been away on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I’m a
bit late writing up my last gig because I couldn’t be arsed doing it before I
The gig was my heat of the Comedy Virgins summer competition, with the first prize being a full year of bringer-less spots at the Cavendish Arms, making it well worth a shot. Ironically, I was struggling to get a bringer for that night so, after scouring the Comedy Performers +1 Exchange Facebook page, I volunteered to help somebody out at G&B Comedy a few days earlier.
G&B is one of those gigs that has been around for a long
time and gets mentioned a lot, but I’d never been there before so I was happy
to go and check the place out. The venue, Arch1,
is a tiny arts space, impressively squeezed into a low railway arch near West
Ham and, since I’ve been idly toying with starting a local night in my part of
town, this got me thinking about possibilities beyond the usual
It was a themed night, on the topic of growing old
disgracefully, with all acts over the age of 35, so I felt right at home. My
bringee was Lorraine Hoodless,
trying out some material before she headed to Edinburgh for the Fringe, which
seemed to go pretty well for her, and the only act in the room that I’d met
before was Dicky Wright and he
put in a solid performance too. I’ve never met Emily McQuade, although her name pops up
a lot, and she was the highlight of the show for me, so I’m hoping to see her
around some more.
So, my heat of the competition went pretty well, even though
I wasn’t one of the two acts that went through to the final. The room was busy,
with around 15 acts all dragging along at least one bringer, so by the time I
went up at the end of the first half, the energy was high.
It was kind of a weird set for me, because I hadn’t gigged
for a week and I was feeling a little rusty, so I tripped over a few words and
ended up waffling too much, I was fiddling with the mic stand too much, not
making enough eye contact with the audience, and generally not as sharp as I
know I can be.
Most of all, I really noticed (again) just how slow my
opener is, and in those first 30 seconds of my set the room was stone-cold
silent. Dropping that first punchline is nerve-wracking, because I’ve made them
wait a hell of a long time for it, and if it bombs then there’s no coming back
from it. But I didn’t need to worry – the first bit landed really well, got a
huge laugh, and then they were on board for the rest of my set.
So while I was on stage I was mentally cataloguing everything
that I knew I was doing wrong, but at the same time the audience was really
going for it. Every single thing worked well, and my closer rounded the set off
nicely. I think if I can just learn to get out of my own way (i.e. stop
thinking about what’s going wrong, and work with what’s going right in the
moment) I’ll be able to improve my stage-presence a lot.
During the break and at the end of the night I got a lot of really nice feedback from people, with a few saying that they were surprised I didn’t get through because they felt like I was the strongest act. But I wasn’t too worried about that – the acts who got through were both strong, and competitions which use an audience vote always throw up surprises. I was just happy that, despite my nitpicking, I’d comfortably delivered a really strong five minute set and got a good reaction from the audience.
Where now? I’m back from holiday and don’t have any spots booked, so I
need to get on top of that. I’m also going to make time to get some more
podcast episodes recorded, because I’m really keen to get that thing off the
I want to focus on new material too – I want to be able to feel as comfortable delivering a strong ten minutes as I currently do with my five, and I really need to find a punchier opener. At the final We Are Funny gig a few weeks back, Lenny Sherman gave me some nice feedback and suggested I open with some gentler material to really get the audience fully on-side before I dive into my darker stuff. It makes a lot of sense, so that’s something I’m going to work on.
I did a ten minute spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion last week, gig number 98 by my reckoning. The weather was hot and I was on at the end of a long night, but despite that most people stuck around, even though the energy was flagging.
I’d spent most of the night sitting at the front, so a few acts used me as a crash-dummy for their crowd-work bits, and I tried to riff on some of that stuff at the beginning of my set as a kind of improv/callback/crowd-work thing, playing back to the guys who’d called on me earlier. For example, one act asked me to guess her age and was surprised that I got it right, so I made a crack about me spending a lot of time creeping on her Facebook page – and I think it kind of worked because it seemed clear from our interactions on stage that we both knew eachother, and I’m old enough to be her dad, which made it extra awkward.
None of it was particularly strong, but it got a bit of a reaction from the room even though they were understandably half asleep by that point. I think audiences will generally reward you for trying that kind of thing, and it doesn’t need to be killer material, it just shows that you’re present and paying attention to what’s happening in the room.
That all burned up about a minute or so of my time, and then I reeled off most of my current five minute set, with some new extended bits thrown in. They laughed at some of it, but everybody was hot and tired, and my new bits were very rough around the edges, so it was all really just a bit of a dry run and I couldn’t judge how well the new stuff works.
I think I did considerably less than ten minutes, despite running through much more stuff than usual, because there weren’t exactly a lot of laugh breaks. But I finished on a decent laugh, my current closer seems pretty reliable under most circumstances. Either way, Comedy Explosion is always a fun gig, and there were a lot of acts on that I really like: Steph Aritone, Will Hitt, Ginnia Cheng, Jacob Hatton, the legendary John Sharp, and a great act I’ve never seen before, Steve Vertigo. With a line-up like that, who gives a shit how mediocre my own set was.
I’m at a bit of a loose end until the end of August now – I have a couple of weeks holiday coming up so I’ve held back from booking any gigs, apart from the Comedy Virgins summer competition on Monday 5th (I need a bringer if anybody’s free for that – drink and a pizza on offer).
I’m not going to book any gigs until I get back from holiday, because I plan to spend a bit of time getting some more podcasts recorded, even if it means not performing for a bit, and I want to spend a bit of time writing too. I’ve done a couple of 10 minute spots recent and I’ve been woefully unprepared for both – I know I’ve got plenty of material to build up a solid 10, but I haven’t been disciplined enough to work on it.
A friend offered me some floor space in Edinbugh, if I could get myself up there with a sleeping bag, but much as I’d love to go to the Fringe it’s kind of hard to work around family and the day job. Maybe I’ll go next year, but if I’m going to invest time and money in getting there I want to be on top form to make the most of any gigs I do up there, so I’m not ready yet.
I’ve done three great gigs since my last post, which has left me feeling pretty good about this ridiculous endeavour.
First up Sam Rhodes gave me a 10 minute spot at his Comedy Explosion night. Those nights are run in the public bar area of the Cornershop Bar in Shoreditch, which means you get an interesting mix of people who are there for the comedy and random drinkers.
As it happened, one of those random drinkers was a guy I know through work, who was there with his girlfriend. They were sat fairly close to the mic, so Sam and some of the other acts did a little gentle crowd work with them, to the point that most people in the place were aware of them.
This gifted me an easy opener – I told the room that I was living every open-mic comedian’s worst nightmare, because somebody from work had randomly stumbled into one of my gigs. It wasn’t particularly strong (never mind that most people from work have already been to one of my gigs anyway) but it was a genuine, and funny enough, coincidence to get a good reaction.
This was a couple of weeks ago now and I can’t remember exactly how I filled the ten minutes, other than running through my best five minutes at a more relaxed pace than usual, with extended versions of some bits, and one or two new lines. I deliberately avoided using my two old standby time-fillers (Racist Baby, and Vasectomy) because I’m kind of done with them for now.
It didn’t feel like a struggle filling the ten minutes, soI think I’ve managed to build a half decent chunk of material over recent months without realising how much new stuff I’ve written. I’ve got another 10 spot there next week, so I’m looking forward to doing a more focused set, rather than just rambling through it.
A nice night all round, and it was great to bump into Akin Omobitan, who I haven’t seen for a while.
Next up was a 5 minute spot at Angel Comedy RAW. It was my third time there and I always look forward to the gig because they always manage to fill the room with a real audience, and that makes getting laughs much easier. I ran through my usual set and it went well enough, with good solid laughs all the way through, but I annoyed myself by flubbing some of my bits so they didn’t have the impact that I know they can when I deliver them well.
I’ve got a tendency to waffle and meander too much, when I know I can deliver the exact same joke in half the time and make it much punchier. I think I just need to spend more time practicing each of the bits from beginning to end, rather than just memorising the punchlines and taking the long-winded route to get to them.
I had that on my mind when I went to the last ever We Are Funny Project gig, because I only had a three minute spot there, so I knew it would be important to be focused. I did my favourite bits from my best five minutes, with one I’ve not tried before, and I really made a conscious effort to be economical with my words, while at the same time talking more clearly and slowly to give the jokes time to land.
It was an absolutely packed night, with lots of genuine audience as well as friends of Alfie from the comedy scene who were just there to watch his swansong. The atmosphere was great, and by the time I went up (fifth of the night, I think) everybody was already well and truly up for it.
Alfie handed me a gift by letting me go up directly after his 12 year old son did a spot – the last time that happened I improvised an opener about the situation which did brilliantly, so this was a good opportunity to use it again in front of a much bigger audience.
That got me off to a strong start, and things just get better – I walked off the stage feeling like I’d done exactly what I wanted, and got the best reaction I could have hoped for. Watching the video back, I think there are probably some areas that could be improved, but I still think it was one of my best gigs.
Sad to see WAFP finish, but it was a great note to end on. Here’s my full set from the show:
Feeling a bit more upbeat this week. The other night I did a spot at We Are Funny again, and I was worried about how it would go because, against my better judgement, I’d agreed to take a bunch of colleagues to the gig as they’d been asking about coming to watch me.
I’ve been feeling a bit rusty recently, and you can’t expect much of a turnout to an open-mic night on a warm summer Monday night, so my worry was that I’d end up doing a bad set in a dead room, with a bunch of people from work there to witness the whole train wreck.
As it turned out, the room was packed with a lively audience – really not what you expect at this time of year. The night was kicked off by the fantastic Nick Horseman, and he was followed by a strong line up of acts who kept the energy high, even the one act who was doing her first ever spot.
I was given the first spot of the second half, which is a good place to be when the night is going well – the audience is properly warmed up and feeling good, you don’t have to follow another act, so you can set the tone for the rest of the evening.
I was still a little worried about being rusty, and used the drinks break to hide in a corner and think through my set a few times.
Recently I’ve been sticking with my best five minutes of material, but trying to deliver the material in different ways to see if they work better, and maybe find ways of expanding them by coming at them from a different angle. So it’s not really a problem of remembering the running order of my bits, just what version of the bits I want to do and any extra lines I want to add to them.
By the time I got on stage I was feeling comfortable about it all and I did a by-the-numbers delivery of my strongest five minutes. Everything landed well, the new versions of old bits just felt right, I got solid laughs all the way through and finished on a strong punchline – couldn’t ask for more from a Monday night open-mic. Mostly I was just happy that it was a strong night when I had some people from work along with me.
Sad to think it’ll be my last full set at WAF. I’ll be doing 3 minutes of completely new material (as Alfie requested) on the closing night in a couple of weeks, but after that it’s over.
Next week I’ve got a 10 minute spot at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion on Monday, and I’ll be doing 5 minutes at Angel Comedy RAW on Wednesday. I’ve been at RAW twice before and had an amazing time on both nights, so I’m feeling pretty good about going back there. Tomorrow I’m heading to Rising Star as a bringer for a friend, but I’ve not been there for ages so it’s going to be good to check the night out again.
I’ve not been up to much in terms of stand-up recently – mostly due to a busy period at work, and the ever present struggle of balancing it all with a family. I completely failed to do any spots the whole week I was in New York, but I had a scream there anyway so I’m not going to beat myself up about it.
Since my last post I’ve done two spots at We Are Funny, bringing me up to 93 in total; a poor effort for two years. I’m doing so few gigs recently that whenever I go up I’m rusty, and it’s a struggle to deliver my polished material with any degree of confidence, never mind trying out new stuff.
Things have calmed down at work again, and I should now be able to get back into a rythm of gigging more regularly. I’ve got a lot of ideas for how I can evolve my style and build up my existing material into longer bits, and I’ve got a ton of new stuff to think about as well.
The only problem is getting stage time. We Are Funny Project is a night where I do regular spots as often as I can because it’s close to where I work, there’s usually a half decent audience and, most importantly of all, it’s a non-bringer.
It’s hard for me to do bringer nights these days. My friends are over the novelty of coming to watch me and it’s tough to do reciprocal bringers with other acts when I can only get out of the house one or two nights a week.
So, purely for selfish reasons, I’m really sad that We Are Funny has decided to close down, as I’ve got a significant chunk of my stage-time there, and it’s really helped me to develop and try new things. For that, I’m grateful to Alfie and Alex, who have been supportive while I’ve been finding my stage-feet.
I’m not sure where I go from here. Most of the nights in London are bringers and if I do a Be Your Own Bringer (some nights let you go as an audience member one show, then perform on another) then that means I’m doing one gig per two nights out of the house, which drastically reduces the number of gigs I can manage per month.
Doing just a few gigs a month feels pointless, it makes practicing and developing really hard, realistically I should be trying to do two or three spots most weeks.
I know this sounds like I’m on a downer about comedy, but I’m really not – I just need to figure out a new plan for how I keep doing it. I need to spend some time updating the list of open-mic nights, to see if I can find any other regular non-bringers where I can get spots. Maybe cast my net a bit wider than central London and look at places around Surrey and Sussex – I live near Epsom, so getting out there is easy and I don’t mind driving to gigs.
Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash was a great option for me in the early days because it’s a non-bringer and you don’t have to book ahead, so long as I got there early enough a spot was usually certain – but Tuesday is the one night of the week I can’t gig these days.
Another idea is to set up my own open-mic night closer to home, as I don’t think there are any near where I live. That would be a good way to get regular stage-time, although I don’t doubt it creates a lot of admin headaches too, but there must be a reasonable number of acts who live around SW London (Kingston, Epsom, etc) who would want to jump on a regular local gig.
This would be a last resort – I don’t want to be an MC, and I really don’t want to take on a ton of work, but if it’s the only way I can keep doing comedy regularly then maybe it’s worth considering.
Anyway. I’m doing nothing next week – I was booked on the Monday night heat of the So You Think You’re Funny competition but got bumped off that because apparently you’re not allowed to enter it twice.
So my next booked spot is at We Are Funny on July 1st, then I’m on at Angel Comedy RAW on July 10th – I need to try and get a couple more spots in between otherwise I’ll be very rusty when I do RAW and it’s the kind of night where you want to be on your game. That said, Monday the 8th is the only night I can realistically fit a gig in and I don’t know where I’ll be able to do that – unless I can conjour up a bringer from somewhere and try for a walk-in spot at Comedy Virgins.