My first stand-up comedy open-mic night

The stand-up course is over and the excitement of showcase night has faded, but a handful of us are keen to make sure we don’t lose momentum so we’ve started investigating London’s open-mic nights. The week after showcase a few of us headed up to Funny Feckers at the Constitution in Camden just to scope it out and get a feel for how an open-mic night works.

In the bar ahead of the show we had a chat with the organiser, Wes Dalton, and learned that the open spots are usually booked a month or two in advance (turns out this is the case with a lot of nights). By coincidence it was Funny Fecker’s first birthday, so there was a really good atmosphere in the club and a decent sized audience.

The mix of experience amongst the 10 acts was varied, some first timers, some veterans, but the audience was friendly and treated all of them well. One act in particular stood out – I forget his name, but his routine was a bit like Data from Star Trek delivering different styles of stand-up in a way that deconstructed familiar comedy tropes. I loved it, but it got a mixed response from the crowd – I hope I bump into the guy again.

I left the night feeling pretty positive and confident that I wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly if I performed alongside a similar line-up.

The following week I went to the Lion’s Den open mic night at a club on Shaftsbury Avenue with a couple of comrades, and queued up early so that we could get spots. This was a different vibe entirely, but still good fun. There were about 20 acts in total, and the quality varied immensely – some were very funny, some showed promise, some were terrible, others seemed to have very real psychological problems.

One youngish guy, who’d done a handful of spots already, had invited a bunch of his mates to watch him perform, but he completely choked on stage and after a minute of fumbling walked off without delivering a single gag. His mates captured the whole thing on their phones for the ages.

The thing about Lion’s Den is that the MC picks the performers at random from a hat, so you never know when it’s your turn to go up, which is nerve wracking when it’s your first open mic. As it turned out I got called up third, completely mentally unprepared.

I had my original set-list from the showcase night and reasoned that if I trimmed the fat and just focused on the main parts of the set I should be able to keep it to five minutes. It went well, I got laughs from beginning to end, and improvised a tag-line for a bit based on something in the news that day which got a big laugh (it helped that the line was in disgustingly poor taste, which I am proud of).

I also got a decent laugh out of a bit that was originally just supposed to be a tag line from a stronger gag, but I’m starting to think it could work as a larger bit because the audience responded so well on both nights I delivered it.

The big fuckup on this night was that when they flashed the light to let me know I only had thirty seconds left I was only about a third of the way through my material, and I panicked because it caught me off guard. I’d just delivered a punchline and got a reasonable laugh, so I could have just smoothly ended it there, but instead I fumbled for a couple of moments trying to work out how I could close before abandoning the idea and then awkwardly thanking the crowd and leaving the stage. It wasn’t awful, but I could have handled it better.

Lessons; Time. My. Fucking. Set. Better. Also, memorise a solid closer that I can always go to if the light comes before I expect it.

A good night though, friendly crowd, supportive MC, my two buddies from the course both did well too. During the half-time break one of the older, more polished acts gave me a nod and thumbs up from across the room – a small gesture, but at this stage I’ll take whatever morsel of encouragement I can get.

If anything, this felt better than showcase night. This was a real open spot, the audience wasn’t friends and family, just other acts and their mates. This felt like a real first step in the direction I want to go.

Showcase night – my first stand-up comedy performance

After six weeks of playing around on the stand-up comedy course every Wednesday evening, suddenly it was time for the showcase night. This was the main reason for me doing the course – I could have just turned up at one of London’s many open mic nights, but I was struggling to take that first step and I felt like this would help me get moving.

The show was in a bona-fide comedy club, downstairs at the Comedy Pub on Oxenden Street (just a few doors down from the Comedy Store – one day, maybe…) and the audience was made up of about 70-80 people invited by everybody on the course. There were 11 of us performing, with the running order chosen by the course tutor, Kate Smurthwaite who also MC’d the evening, and I was chosen to go up second to last.

While everybody sat down to watch the acts, the performers hid at the back of the bar, whispering support to each other and waiting our turns to go up. Everybody went up, nobody choked – the quality was variable but everybody threw themselves into it and got some laughs from the crowd, and one or two people surprised me with how well they did.

I was feeling pretty comfortable about going up. I’d already resigned myself to using a set-list because even though I can remember each of my bits perfectly well, I couldn’t remember which bits I was going to do and in which order. I didn’t care about looking ultra-polished, I just wanted to deliver my material to a crowd and see how it landed.

The thing that threw me off when I got onto the stage was how hard it is to see the audience with stage-lights in your eyes. When I talk at conferences I’m used to being able to see the audience’s faces and gauge how they’re responding, but on stage the only feedback available was the sound of laughter, or silence.

I’d already written what I think is a pretty strong opener but, because I’m an idiot, I got cocky and spontaneously opened with a bit about accidental fisting that I’d only just thought of. I fell in love with the opening line of the bit, which certainly got a solid laugh, but I hadn’t had time to work it all through so it meandered on for too long before arriving at a fairly unsatisfying punchline. The punchline worked, but wasn’t strong enough to justify the rambling length of the bit.

I got back on track and delivered the material that I’d actually written – glancing down at my set list every now and then to remind myself of what bit was coming next. I didn’t record the set, so I don’t know exactly what worked and what didn’t, but it felt like I was getting a respectable number of laughs. Sometimes they laughed at the wrong places, and sometimes the punchlines fell flat, but on the whole it seemed to work well.

Getting towards the end of my set I delivered a short line that looked OK to me on paper but even before I’d finished saying the words I could sense that it wasn’t going to work, so out of desperation I improvised a new punchline and almost wet myself when it got a massive laugh. Then I went a bit meta and told the audience that I should end on that laugh, but I had more material to get through, at which point Kate shouted from the side of the stage “Yeah, Lance, you’re already 13 minutes into your 5 minute set, so if you could make it quick…”

This threw me off balance a little. I knew I was over 5 minutes, but 13 seemed a little gratuitous, and at a real-world open-mic going over time is a big faux-pas, so I made a very clumsy link to my closer, delivered it less than smoothly, and got a fairly mediocre laugh for it. Lessons: time my material better and, if I get an opportunity to finish on a big laugh, take it and be grateful.

I got off the stage and watched the final act. When it was over all I really wanted to do was go for a drink and a debrief with the other acts, but we each had our own friends and family waiting to talk to us, and it was already getting close to last-train-home time.

The next morning our WhatsApp group was buzzing with conversation about what to do next, and this made me happy. After getting off stage I knew I wanted to do more, hit some real open mics, try my stuff on tougher audiences, deal with some hecklers, and I was glad that some of the others were up for the same.

Maybe I should have just started going to mics to being with, but the course did what I needed it to – got me over my inertia and gave me a hunger to get on stage again, and it helped me make a handful of friends with the same idea.

Right now my plan is to do at least one open mic spot a week, more if I can – but we’ll see how that works out in practice.

Getting started in stand-up comedy – the course

I’ve always loved stand-up, but for a long time I never imagined it was something I’d be able to do. I know I can write funny material (my first job was as a reviewer for video games magazines, back when the industry had a sense of humour) and I can always make people laugh in the pub or round the poker table but, as a natural introvert, the idea of standing up in front of an audience horrified me.

As I got older I had to do more public speaking in my career and, while I still think of myself as introverted, I’ve learned to be extroverted in short bursts when the situation demands. It takes a lot of mental energy and usually wipes me out for a day or two, but I kind of enjoy doing it, and I eventually started thinking that I might make a passable stand-up comedian.

Why would I even want to be a stand-up? All the usual reasons – if you put together a list of all the cliches about what drives people to stand-up comedy, I would probably tick every one of those boxes.

I’ve been circling around the idea for a few years, but life kept getting in the way and I never got round to starting, so at the beginning of 2017 I promised myself that one way or another I’d get on stage by the end of the year. Spring arrived and I still hadn’t got my shit together enough to do an open-mic night, so I decided to book myself onto a stand-up comedy course.

I didn’t really want to do this, because all the advice for aspiring stand-ups that I read said the best thing to do was just start hitting the open-mics and learn from experience, but I felt like it would give me the momentum I needed to get started. The course, run by City Academy, was the only one I could find that was taught by an established comedian who I’d heard of, Kate Smurthwaite. It ran over six weeks and ended with a showcase night in a real comedy club with an audience guests invited by the students – so it seemed ideal.

I was on the course with 9 other wannabes, and the weekly lessons (held on a Wednesday evening in a studio at the back of a theatre in Soho) were good fun. There was an interesting mix of different ages and motivations amongst the other students, some wanted to be stand-up comedians, some wanted to improve their confidence and public speaking ability, others just thought the class would be fun but had no plans to continue comedy afterwards.

At the risk of sounding like a dick, I’d already spent a couple of years hoovering up books, articles and podcasts about stand-up (not to mention watching a lot of it) so I was already familiar with a lot of the stuff covered by the course, but it was still good to talk it all through with a professional comedian. For me, there were two main things I wanted to get out of the course:

  • The showcase night – to try stand-up in front of a relatively tame-crowd for the first time
  • To meet some like-minded people who would be up for hitting the open mic scene once the course was over

What I liked about the course was how it brought everybody along, regardless of ability. Right from the beginning some of the students were clearly going to be good at this, while I had strong doubts about some of the others. But by the end of it, every single one of them put together a set and performed it in front of a room full of people, and they all got laughs.

For me, it was all about finding a way of getting started instead of just daydreaming about being a stand-up, and it definitely helped with that.