Sussex Comedian of the Year

We need to talk about what to wear on stage at some point.

I’ve done a couple of gigs this week, including a heat of the Sussex Comedian of the Year Competition. But before I get into that, on Wednesday I went to Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion for a warm up, as I’m feeling a bit out of practice at the moment.

I managed less than a minute at the King Gong over a week ago, and apart from that I’m just feeling like I’ve not been very focused on my act for the past month or so. Unless I’m doing a couple of spots a week and really thinking about my act a lot, it very quickly gets fuzzy.

Sam’s currently touring the States, so the night was run by Michael Eldridge – a funny guy who I’ve chatted to a few times before at other gigs. I was up fairly early in the night and just planned to run through my usual set to blow out the cobwebs ahead of the competition heat the following night.

I’ve still not managed to find a punchier version of my opener, but I can’t easily replace it with a shorter bit because it sets up the rest of the material, so I’m trying to start each gig by quickly riffing on whatever’s happening in the room before getting into my regular material. This can be fun and when it goes well the audience rewards you for thinking on your feet, but the obvious downside is that sometimes it just doesn’t work.

On this night, Michael had already worked with an audience member who happened to be a researcher on the TV show, Eating With My Ex, so this was an obvious opportunity and I kicked off by making an, admittedly savage, joke about an ex of mine which split the room right down the middle. That set the tone for the rest of my 5 minutes – my gentler gags got light titters from most of the room while my darker bits only got laughs from the same small bunch of guys at the back.

There was a good crowd of acts on for the rest of the night, Gus Singh, Mo Saffaf, Fiona Clift, Will Hitt, all tickled my tits.

The following night was the Sussex Comedian of the Year Competition, being run for the first time this year. The competition takes place over four heats and a final at different locations throughout Sussex, and the organiser told me that to get an arts grant she had to run one of the heats in a rural venue. So that’s how I found myself performing in a tent next to a country pub in the middle of nowhere (aka Dragons Green, Shipley) on a Thursday night.

In all fairness, it was a nice tent, usually used for music gigs, with a proper stage and sound system, and an audience of around 30 or so paying punters turned up to watch (all sitting on hay bales). A little bit unusual, but a respectable gig by my standards.

There were five acts in total, and I was on last, which was good for me as I had a couple of local friends along so it was nice to be able to hang out with them before the show without worrying about getting my head ready. I usually like 10-15 minutes to think things through before I do a gig, and it’s hard to do that if I have to talk to people, but if I’m just sitting quietly while the other acts are on, that’s fine.

The room was tricky – there was a real mix of different people. A few local pensioners were friendly enough but did the usual thing old people do at comedy shows – not so much heckling, just responding to what you’re saying as if it’s a conversation, but they weren’t loud and it wasn’t too much of a problem.

On top of that there was a real mix of ages, village locals and people who’d driven in from nearby towns, so it was hard to get a feel for what the crowd would go along with. All but one of the acts struggled with this – while they laughed at a lot of stuff, plenty of other bits fell flat too.

We were given up to ten minutes each (it was originally 5-7, but an act dropped out) so I knew I could take my time. I started off by addressing the fact I was performing in what looked like a circus freak-show (“mum was right about how things would turn out for me”) but it didn’t really get much, and then I launched into my set.

I mention Netflix in my opener, so I thought it would be funny to address the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere by throwing in “Do you even get Netflix out here?” – I thought they’d either laugh or boo and I was willing to take the risk, but I wasn’t prepared for half the audience to nod their heads and earnestly reply with a chorus of “oh yes”.

After that I just stuck to the script – some of it worked well enough, some of it didn’t, I don’t feel like anything did brilliantly, although I didn’t record the set so it’s hard to recall how much laughing there actually was. I got to my current closer and it got a small laugh, but not as much as it usually does, so for a moment or two I considered doing an extra bit since I had some time left. I had to do some very quick calculations because I had a few options for bits I could easily reel off:

  1. Racist baby – I wrote that off quickly because I’ve lost confidence in my ability to pull it off reliably.
  2. Porny stuff – I’ve got some porn material that sits together as a workable 60-90 seconds, but it would have been difficult to segue into it from my closer, and I was pretty sure this wasn’t the right place for it.
  3. Vasectomy bit – probably my best option, but if porn was off the table then bloody-semen was equally unlikely to do me any favours.

So, having thought all of that through over the space of a couple of questions, I laughed off the fact that my closer had fizzled, thanked the audience and got off the stage.

Being honest with myself I think it was a pretty mediocre performance, I rambled a bit, occasionally lost my thread, and never really hit my stride. Like I said, I’ve not been focused on this recently, so even with a gig the night before I still struggled to give it my best.

So, I was surprised the judges picked my as a runner up for the heat, which means I’m in with a chance of going to the final in October (there’s some kind of online audience vote which will decide that). The winner was Konstantin Kisin, who clearly outclassed the rest of us, and the other runner up was Michael Akadiri, who did a much better job than me and undoubtedly deserved to get through.

I’ve got a lot of real-life stuff on between now and mid-June, so won’t be gigging much – although I have a couple of We Are Funny spots where I plan to focus on completely new material. For the second week of June I’ll be in New York on a business trip, so I’m hoping to get in a few open mics while I’m there, if I can fit them in around work stuff.

After that, I’m planning to take two or three weeks off gigging completely and spend some time getting the podcast back on track. When I started it with Mouch I had loads of free time, but life quickly took over and it got derailed – I’d really like to get it going again, so I need to find the time to interview some people. Maybe July will be the best time for that – it’s the middle of summer so the comedy clubs will be quiet, and it’ll be easier to persuade people to do it.

First time at the Comedy Store King Gong Show

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.

All these people are bastards. All of them.

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.