Apart from my car crash effort at a South Coast Comedian of the Year heat in September, I haven’t done any standup spots since March 2020. So when I entered Beat the Blackout at Up The Creek in Greenwich this week, it’s fair to say I wasn’t feeling entirely confident, given that I was a year out of practice, the whole world had changed in that time, and I had no idea what the mood in the room was going to be.
First things first – even though social distancing is still in place, Up the Creek put on a decent night. Chairs and tables were spread further apart than usual, so fewer people were in the room, but it still felt lively in there. Who knows how things will unfold over the rest of the year, but if clubs have to run like this for the near future, they’ve shown it’s still possible to run a good comedy night under restricted circumstances.
Beat the Blackout is the club’s weekly gong show. Up to 15 acts get five minutes of stage-time each, and after a two minute grace period members of the audience are allowed to vote you off by holding up red-cards. Three red cards and you’re off. If you survive five minutes, you’ve beaten the blackout.
I did a spot there once in the before-times and made it to about 4 minutes before my racist-baby bit earned me an instant dismissal. It’s a good night, but not ideal for a comeback after over a year off.
My plan for the show was to dust off some of my safest, most tried and tested material, try my best to commit five minutes of it to memory and just play it safe; get back into the swing of it before I start trying to be clever with new material.
I think I did a decent job of memorising a set in the days before the gig, and I spent the hour-long drive to the club just repeating it over and over again to myself. But I still had a few keyword prompts written on my hand, in case I stumbled under pressure.
When I got there it was great to see some old faces, Hubert Mayr, Harry Wright, Michael May – plus Alexandra Haddow, who I’d never met in person but sort of know a bit through social media. There were a few other recognisable faces, whose names have escaped me (sorry!) and an act I’d never met before introduced himself as a reader of the blog (Hussain Olad, I think? Sorry if I got your name wrong!)
So, good vibes all round in the green room, but I started getting really bad nerves – worse than any show I’ve ever done before. Not sure why. I felt comfortable with my material, and I knew it had all worked in the past. I kept doing breathing exercises to calm myself down, and once I’d got control of myself again I’d run through my set in my mind, just to reassure myself I could remember it all.
I went through that process a few times, and was feeling okayish when the show started, but as the host (Michael Legge) went up to announce me (as the final act of the first half) I felt a sudden, strong wave of panic and I swear to god I’ve never been so close to just quitting there and then on the spot. I was a heartbeat away from walking out of the club.
Up until that point all of the acts had been solid and nobody got voted off. I think I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t up to the job, my nerves would show through, and I’d be the only one the audience hated.
But I managed to keep it together long enough for my legs to carry me up to the stage. I have a bad habit of making last minute changes to my set – throwing in new bits that I think will be funny, even though they’re not tested. This time I used a lot of self-discipline to resist that – stick with the plan, stick with the material you trust.
That said… I knew my opener was a bit long winded before it hits the punchline, and it wouldn’t be too much of a problem because of the two-minute grace period but, all the same, it would be nice to have something that could get a really quick laugh so I could start on the front foot.
So I took a gamble, and while I was taking the mic out of the stand I made an off the cuff one-liner addressing something that had been happening in the room all night. Thank fuck it worked – it got a decent laugh, and it was kind of nasty so it set the tone for the rest of my set. That’s the holy grail of openers – quickly show them you’re funny, and give them an idea of who you are.
Once that ripple of laughter started to spread across the room, my nerves evaporated, and I launched into my prepared material. I got into a nice flow, every punchline landed, and it magically felt like I was delivering my stuff in the relaxed, conversation style that I’ve always wanted, instead of woodenly regurgitating a script. I don’t have a video, so I don’t know if that’s what really happened, but that’s how it felt.
Although I didn’t run any new material, I was able to change a few of my setups slightly to tie them into lockdown/covid, so they felt fresher than they really were, but the punchlines were all the same. Again, I’m not sure if this is how it really played out, but in my mind it feels like I didn’t waffle as much as I used to – kept the bits tight, without rambling on unnecessarily. I think I had to look at my hand just once to get a prompt.
The stage lights were bright so I couldn’t see much of the room, and it was hard to tell if anybody held up a card, but it turns out they didn’t. About three quarters of the way through my set the music blared to let me know I’d beaten the clock – and the timing was perfect as I’d just finished delivering a bit that got a decent laugh. It caught me by surprise, so I probably wandered off stage looking a bit dazed and confused.
Despite spending the first half of it in terror, it turned out to be a fantastic night – I had a great time, all of the acts were on fire, seeing some old faces made me really happy, and holy fuck just being in a comedy club full of people enjoying themselves felt so good.
I don’t know where we go from here. I’m doing Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion at the Rocksteady in Dalston next Thursday night (June 10th) but don’t have anything else booked – there still aren’t many nights to get spots.
I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to come back to standup after the past year. Whether I’d still be able to do it, or even if the scene would recover – but I’m feeling very positive now.