Last night I was back at Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion at Maltby St Market, where I closed the show again, and just like last time it went pretty well. I even remembered to film myself this time, so I have an objective record that it was a great set and not just my memory playing it up.
But in between that and my last gig at Malt were four shows that didn’t go so well – ranging from an “ok but not great” 10 minute spot at another bar show, to a grim 5 spot at an open mic with almost no audience, where even my usually reliable bits fell flat.
I’ve been grinding away as a stand-up comedy bottom-feeder for long enough to know that’s just how it goes. Some nights it doesn’t work out for you and there’s no point beating yourself up over it – just dust yourself down and get ready for the next show.
But… There’s no denying that trying to do stand-up can really grind on your soul sometimes.
When it goes well there’s no better feeling than walking off stage to an enthusiastically clapping and cheering crowd, and the congratulatory back slaps as you rejoin the other acts at the back of the room.
On the nights when absolutely nothing works, you get no laughs for your entire set, and then trudge back to your seat with nothing but a smattering of polite applause, it can make you feel like crap. It’s especially bad if you’re at an open mic where other acts have done well, and you feel like just another delusional, unfunny prick who hasn’t got what it takes. They made the audience laugh, why couldn’t you?
The successful acts grab a drink and compare notes after the show, while you skulk out of the door in shame and spend the long journey home doing a post-mortem on your set to figure out what went wrong.
If it happens to you a few too many times in a row, it can be hard to not let it get to you and leave you wondering whether you should just quit.
Firstly I think it’s important to remind yourself of the shows that have gone well. You know that it’s worked before for you, so there’s no reason it can’t work again. And always remember that bombing is just a part of being a stand-up – all the greats have bombed a ton of times, even when they were at the top of their game.
If new material bombs, that’s a learning process – we all know you need to try stuff out a bunch of times to work out if it’s got potential. If tried and tested material bombs, sometimes it’s because of factors outside of your control. Maybe the act before you sucked all the energy out of the room, maybe the audience wasn’t right for you, maybe you just were off your game this night. I’m not saying you should always make excuses for a bad gig, but there’s any number of reasons a show might not have gone well for you.
If you have a lot of gigs where you’re not getting laughs, maybe it’s time to rethink what you’re doing, but one or two bad nights isn’t the end of the world, or even a long run of bombs. If you’ve got faith in the material, and you know it’s worked in the past, just keep grinding on and finding ways to improve your performance.
Ultimately you have to confront yourself with a choice: “Am I going to quit stand-up because of a few bad gigs, or am I going to keep at it until I can make it work?”
I’ve not been gigging as much as I should recently, mostly because of being too lazy to get any spots booked in. I sometimes forget that doing stand-up actually requires a shitload of admin at this level, and unless I’m constantly on the ball with applying for spots then it’s all too easy to find myself without anything booked in my diary.
Sometimes last minute spots can pop up to fill in those gaps, but Sod’s Law dictates that they’re never available when you need them. So it’s been a quiet few weeks – I did a ten spot at We Are Funny Project and another at The Lodge Tavern in Ealing, which is running a Monday night show again.
But the highlight for me was a Friday night spot at the Malt bar in Bermondsey’s Maltby St Market, which is rapidly turning into a great regular gig. I’ve been there a few times before, and on this occasion the promoter (Sam Rhodes) offered me the chance to close the show at the end of the night.
There was a respectable audience in – it’s an intimate venue, but they can easily fit 20-30 people in there, and when it’s full there’s a really nice atmosphere. Sam MC’d, and was joined by Amy Xander, Duffy Connors, Kalid Raheem, Simon Hall, and Richard Stott, who all smashed it.
So by the time it was my turn to go up the audience was way past warmed up, and practically simmering, which made the job a lot easier for me. Although I’ve not been gigging much, I had done the ten spot at WAFP just a few days before so I was feeling well rehearsed and the material flowed naturally, even with a couple of new bits thrown in.
Everything landed well right from the opener and the whole set felt really good. At one point I blanked for a couple of seconds, but managed to cover it up with a call-back to a previous act’s joke, which worked nicely. Even with that slight hiccup it was one of the best sets I’ve done in a long time, and I left the stage feeling pumped up. One of those shows that reminds me I can actually do this.
I’ve been planning to film some sets to get a reel together that I can send to bookers so I can start maybe getting some more open spots in clubs, and I’d even gone to the trouble of taking my camera and tripod along. But at the last minute I decided I couldn’t be arsed setting it up, since I’d had a run of mediocre gigs it probably wouldn’t be worth the hassle, and I’d be better off just mentally preparing myself instead of faffing with a camera. Of course, I now regret that, but at least I got a nice pic from Sam…
That was a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t done any shows since then. Feeling annoyed with myself for losing momentum, so right now I’m making a conscious effort to book gigs in – especially new ones at nights I’ve not done before. Next week I’m doing Rats Open Mic at the Night and Day in Islington – it’s completely new to me, so I’ve got no idea what to expect from it.
I’ve been writing more recently, but only half-arsing it – I’ve got some stuff that I think could work, but haven’t got as far as structuring it into proper bits so I can road test it. Lazy, lazy, lazy. I think I need to be more disciplined and promise myself to try out at least one new bit at every show.
I feel completely stuck in a rut at the moment. I’ve been doing a lot of 10 minute bar shows and, while it’s been great to get those longer sets, they’ve just not been going particularly well.
While I’m always keen to beat myself up over everything I did wrong after a mediocre set, most of the recent ones just seem down to bad luck more than anything else. I recently did a spot at a west London pub on a Friday night, and I was really looking forward to it, expecting a decent crowd to be in. And there was, to begin with.
The problem was that I was opening the second half, which is generally supposed to be a good slot in the line-up. But on this particular night, almost the entire audience decided to go for a smoke, get some drinks in, or whatever else, and didn’t bother coming back to the show until halfway through the next act. There was a solitary elderly lady sitting alone in the front row, and a few blokes at a table too far back to really engage with.
It’s happened a few times recently, just bad timing, with my set coinciding with the exact point at which the audience decides to disengage from the show. That said, a few weeks ago I did a pub show for Comedy Lock-In in Boughton, Kent, which did have a decent audience that were interested and engaged, and on this occasion it was completely my fault. I was feeling confident, but for some reason I completely forgot to do half of my material – I got to the end of my set and realised that I’d only done 7 minutes instead of ten.
Once I got off the mic and thought it all through, I realised that I’d skipped a couple of big bits, which explained the lost time. Fuck knows how I managed to do that, because I’d been churning that set out quite a lot – I can only put it down to the stress of driving to deepest darkest Kent after work on a Thursday night. Either way, I didn’t feel happy about it, even though the material I did manage to deliver worked well. This kind of inconsistency isn’t going to help me progress to doing spots in pro clubs.
On top of all that, I’m very bored with my material right now. On a good night with a busy audience I know that I can do ten minutes of stuff that consistently gets enough laughs for me to feel like I’m doing a decent job. But in all honesty I’m not really happy with any of my stuff, it’s not the kind of material I really got into stand-up to do – I just kind of pulled together any old stuff that seems to work, so I could fill ten minutes.
The end result is a set that I don’t really enjoy delivering any more, even when it goes well. I think my mission for the rest of this year needs to be coming up with a completely new set that I feel good about.
I’m doing two ten-spots next week, so that’s as good a time as any to get started.
I’ve done a few gigs since my last post, but I’ve been lazy about posting, so I’ll try to cover them all in this one.
I’ve been at We Are Funny Project a couple of times. The first spot was just five minutes, and I used it to try polish some newer material I’ve been using in my longer sets. I think I’ve got a pretty decent five minutes, and a very woolly 10-15 minutes – the first five minutes is stuff I’ve been polishing for a long time, while the rest of it is a mixed bag of newer stuff that still needs work.
I was supposed to be doing 10 minutes at my second WAFP gig of the month, but a few hours beforehand the promoter asked me if I could help MC the show because he wasn’t feeling well. I’d do the first half of the night and Luke Terry would cover the second half. I jumped at the chance, even though I was feeling pretty ill myself and had been thinking of flaking out of the gig earlier in the day.
It’s been about two years since I MC’d a show, and I didn’t have a lot of time to mentally prepare myself for it (especially since I’d been focusing on memorising my 10 minute set) so the whole thing was a bit of a train wreck. But it was a fun night all the same and the audience was very forgiving of me flailing around like a complete amateur.
Next up, Sam Rhodes is running a new Comedy Explosion night every Friday at a cool little bar called Malt in Maltby Street Market near Tower Bridge, and I did a 10ish minute spot there. It’s a great little venue, with a proper stage and a nice crowd of locals, but my set was kind of mediocre, I have to admit, because I hadn’t really thought properly about what material I was going to do.
In between each act everybody in the bar would shuffle themselves around a bit – some leaving, some taking their seats, some getting drinks from the bar, and when it was my turn to go up, a large chunk of them left. This meant that I went up to a half empty room, so the energy suddenly dropped a bit, and I wasn’t feeling as confident as I should due to lack of preparation, so it was all a bit awkward.
I limped through with some laughs at my best bits, but it wasn’t my finest hour. Fortunately Nick Everritt (who I’d seen smash a 10 spot at WAFP earlier that week) went up after me as the closer and did an incredible job.
I’m back at Malt next week and I’m feeling better prepared, so hoping to redeem myself. Right now my biggest objective is to be more consistent; I want to be certain that if somebody offers me a spot at a proper gig, I can always deliver the goods, and not be dependent on whether I’m in the right head-space for it on that particular day.
And that brings me onto the most recent spot, five minutes at Angel Comedy RAW in Islington. This is always a great new-act/material night with a decent sized audience. Their room holds about 60 people, and they never seem to have trouble filling it. I’ve been there three times now, and it’s been packed every time; this week was no different.
It wasn’t just a busy audience, they also had a full line up of 10 acts, compared to eight or nine on the previous nights I’ve been at Angel Comedy RAW. I didn’t know any of the other acts, apart from the wonderfully revolting Louise Bastock who I know from bumping into her regularly over the years.
This is one of those gigs where you want to do well, because it’s so hard to get a spot there. My plan was to open with a couple of my very best, punchiest bits, and then roll into some of that newer stuff I mentioned, and I made sure to spend some time practising it all earlier in the day.
So by the time I got to the gig I was feeling confident and well prepared, but on the journey over I suddenly had a bunch of ideas for new bits I could add into that material and I scribbled a couple of notes on my hand to make sure I remembered to do them. This probably wasn’t the best idea, but in the end the whole thing went really well, and everything worked as I’d hoped, even the new stuff.
The only small problem was a disruptive audience member, a drunk woman who wasn’t really heckling, just shouting out random pissed garble. I tried to handle it gracefully, and even got a decent laugh from the first couple of times I responded to her, but she wouldn’t shut up and I started to lose patience because I’d run out of funny things to respond with.
Fortunately the MC quietly dealt with her while I finished my set – I’m not sure if he removed her or just told her to STFU, because I couldn’t see past the stage lights, but I didn’t hear from her again. Her interruptions cost me time though, and I didn’t manage to get through all of my material, but I was able to finish on a solid laugh so I’ll take that as a win.
Right now I’m feeling happier and more confident with my longer set, and I feel like I’m coming up with new ideas again, after a bit of a dry spell.
On Sunday night I did a ten minute spot at Whole Lotta Comedy at the Castle in Surbiton, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite gigs.
On top of the fact that it’s local to me, and on a really convenient day (Sunday is the one evening when I’m almost always free), and they kindly let me do 10 spots, it’s also just a great night. They get a lot of strong acts coming in from further afield to try out new material or practice Fringe-shows, and there’s always an audience who are up for a good night.
I felt bad this week because I’d got tangled up with some family commitments and ended up arriving 30 minutes late, but just in time to open the second part of the show. It went pretty well, I got a lot of laughs and managed to fill the ten minutes without stumbling too much, although I was still feeling a little out of shape since I’ve only done one other gig so far this year, but I’m getting back into my stride.
I even managed to throw in a couple of bits of new material, with mixed success, but all in all the set went well, certainly better than my previous gig last week.
I’m determined to start cranking out as much new material as I can. I feel like I’ve got to a point now where I’ve got 5-10 minutes of tried and tested material that I can call upon whenever I need to. But it’s all about being a dad and being married, and that’s never really the kind of stuff I wanted to be doing, it’s just what worked for me early on so I stuck with it.
Now that I’ve got the security of being able to use that material if I need it, my plan for this year is to try and build a new repertoire of stuff about completely different topics and evolve my act into something more interesting. I’ve got a spot at Angel Comedy RAW at the end of Feb (they kindly rescheduled my Jan 2nd spot when I got the covid) and I would love to be able to do that show with five minutes of new stuff.
I stuck around for a bit, and watched Toussaint Douglass do a hilarious 20 minute set, which slapped me right back down to earth – even trying out new stuff he was so slick that it just reminded me how much harder I need to work to get anywhere close to that level.
I had planned to stay for some of the other pro acts, including Fiona Ridgewell, but I was exhausted after a big weekend and, seeing that the room was pretty busy so I wouldn’t be missed, I sloped off early to get some sleep. I generally don’t like doing that, you’ve got to support the gig, and I felt pretty bad so to atone for my sins I’ll go back as an audience member one night soon.
I’ve got nothing booked for this week, so I might see if I can grab a dropout spot at Beat the Blackout on Thursday, and then next week I’m doing 5 mins at We Are Funny Project on Tuesday. On Friday next week I’m doing one of Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion’s new pop-up shows at Maltby St in Bermondsey, which should be a lot of fun since I haven’t really done any Friday night gigs before so hopefully there will be a decent crowd.
Just a quick update – last night I did my first gig since before xmas, and while it’s actually been pretty nice to chill out for a while without having to feed the comedy monkey on my back, it was good to get started again. Even if it was a bit of a trainwreck.
The gig was a bar-show in Wimbledon, with 10-15 minute spots, MC’d by Sam Rhodes. Some of the audience had shown up expecting comedy, some hadn’t, so it was a bit of a mixed bag.
Before the show kicked off, a group of three women who were sitting right in front of the mic got chatting to me and said they were really worried about getting picked on, so I promised them it wouldn’t happen because it wasn’t that kind of show.
When I made that promise, I wasn’t aware that they planned to get absolutely hammered and disrupt the entire first half of the show.
Sam put me on first, so after he’d warmed the crowd up a bit I went up to the mic, and launched into my standard set – I was a little rusty after the xmas break, but felt pretty comfortable with my material. My opener got almost nothing from the audience, but I’ve been there before so I just pushed on with the rest of it and managed to eke out a few laughs from them.
Pretty soon the table of three women got completely out of control, completely ignoring me and talking loudly to each-other, trying to speak to me, derailing my punchlines and generally completely fucking everything up. I tried to take it with good grace and have a bit of fun with them, and the audience seemed to go along with that, but there wasn’t much I could do, they were too drunk to reason with and obviously weren’t going anywhere.
It all fell apart when one of them started having a loud phone conversation halfway through a bit, and everybody just started laughing at the futility of the situation instead of my material. I battled on for a bit longer but gave up before I’d finished all the material I planned to do.
The rest of the first half went pretty much the same way for Sam and the other acts. There were a couple of tables of people who seemed to be interested in the show, but it was hard work to cut through the noise and distraction for them.
The best part of nights like these is the camaraderie with other acts in the face of adversity. There were a couple of acts who also did the scary Croydon gig last year with me, Mara Mainka and Richard Stott, so there was a bit of team spirit. Ginnia Cheng was also there, and I’ve known her for a few years.
I had planned to bale as soon as I finished my set, but it was fun hanging out with everybody and I felt like I had a duty to stick around for the other acts under the circumstances. It’s fine to duck out if the night’s going well for everybody, but when things are rough they need your moral support.
Richard made a heroic effort to do some crowd work with the drunks, to try and scare them into silence, which worked to a degree – about halfway into the second section they decided to leave. (But not before grumbling at me that I’d promise nobody would give them a hard time…)
By this point, Will Hitt (who I’ve rated since I first saw him a few years ago) had psyched himself up to face down the drunks, but since they left he ended up dealing with a much more receptive room than he was expecting. Not wanting to let his energy go to waste, he spent the entire set hurling unnecessarily brutal barbs at undeserving audience members instead – it was the funniest part of the night as far as I was concerned.
The whole thing was a bit of a trainwreck, but still fun, and I’m happy to have blown out the cobwebs. I’ve got a bunch of spots booked over the next month, starting with a ten-spot at Whole Lotta Comedy in Surbiton this Sunday.
The most common fear people have when they’re thinking about trying stand-up comedy is getting heckled. Nobody gets into stand-up because they want to spend every gig dealing with hecklers. It would be great if you could just go up on stage and do your material without any fear of some rowdy audience member giving you a hard time, right?
Unfortunately disruptive audience members are a fact of life and, if you really want to do stand-up, you need to be prepared to deal with hecklers. They often think that heckling is expected at stand-up comedy shows, and feel like they’re contributing to the night, instead of just disrupting your flow and making it harder for you to deliver your material.
The good news is that hecklers are rare, especially at the kind of open mic nights where most stand-up comedians learn their craft, because a lot of the time most of the audience is made up of other acts who aren’t there to give you a hard time. And even if the open mic does have a real audience, they’re usually politely warned by the MC that the acts are all new (or trying out new material) and it’s bad form to heckle them.
Once you start doing more serious gigs with genuine audiences, then hecklers become a little more likely, but even then it’s still a rarity – unless you’re doing rowdy town-centre comedy clubs full of stag-parties. But you won’t be getting those kinds of gigs unless you’ve proven your ability to handle tough crowds, so you can cross that bridge when you come to it.
The big fear most new acts have is that they’ll get into a confrontation with an audience member who will destroy them with a razor-sharp put-down which they can’t recover from, leaving them to shuffle from the stage in shame.
While that’s been known to happen, it’s such an extreme rarity that you can safely assume it’s never going to happen to you.
Types of Hecklers
In reality, you’ll be dealing with hecklers who are disruptive in different ways:
Drunken garble: absolutely hammered audience member, usually a bloke, shouts out something completely incomprehensible. No point engaging with them, they’re too drunk and you won’t get any sense from them. You can try to appeal to their friends to keep them under control, they’ll usually be embarrassed about the situation.
Unfunny banter: usually good natured, they think they’re adding to the show by attempting to shout out their own punchlines, but not only are they not funny, they’re stopping you from being funny by derailing your material. You kind of need to treat them with kid-gloves, because the audience won’t like you being too hard on them, but you need to acknowledge them and try to persuade them that the show will be better if they stop interrupting you. I usually try self-deprecation, saying something like “I’ve got a shit memory, and whenever you talk to me I completely forget my material, so please, do me a favour and just let me get this stuff out while I can still remember it.”
Chatters: a similar situation to the above. They’re not being obnoxious, but they think they’re at the show to have a conversation with you instead of listening to your material. Halfway through your setup they’ll start chatting to you about what you’re saying. Usually an older person who doesn’t get out much and doesn’t know how stand-up shows are supposed to work. As above, you just need to keep it friendly, but persuade them to keep quiet.
Attention seekers: usually a certain type of slightly drunk younger woman who doesn’t like being in a situation where she’s not the centre of attention. Sometimes she’ll pretend to be offended by your material, sometimes she’ll just shout out random stuff, anything to get the room to focus on her instead of the person on stage. Tread carefully with this one – there’s a risk of it escalating if they feel aggrieved. Acknowledge them, let them have their moment, give them the opportunity to feel like they’ve made their point and had their win and hopefully that will end it.
These are the most common situations I’ve personally run into, but I’m sure more experienced acts would be able to add plenty more.
Tips for Dealing with Hecklers
You might have seen YouTube videos of pro-comedians “destroying hecklers” which is entertaining (this is my personal favourite, Stewart Lee dealing with a belligerent heckler) but until you’ve got the skill to do that it’s probably not a great idea to go for the jugular every time you get interrupted on stage.
Wherever possible it’s a good idea to just try to de-escalate the situation quickly so you can get on with your set, especially if you’re only doing a 5-10 minute spot and your stage time is precious.
The easiest thing to do is just ignore the interruption at first, there’s a good chance that the audience didn’t hear it and you can just talk over the heckler because you have the microphone on your side. More often than not they’ll just shut up when they don’t get a response.
If it gets to the point where you can’t ignore them, a good tactic is to slowly and clearly repeat back what they’ve said for several reasons:
It makes sure you’re clear what they said – sometimes it’s just a simple misunderstanding.
It makes sure the audience knows what they said, so that your response will make sense.
Most importantly, it gives you time to think of something to say.
If what they said was genuinely funny and got a laugh from the audience, just roll with it – let them enjoy the moment, congratulate them, and move on with your set. If it was really good, take it and work it into your material for future gigs.
If they’re being persistently disruptive and obnoxious, you need to try and shut them down, but don’t go straight off at the deep end – if you lose your composure straight away, the audience will likely turn on you. They’re at the show for a good time, and they want to feel comfortable that you have control of things. If it descends into a shouty argument, they’re not having a good time, they’re going to feel uncomfortable and just want your set to end as soon as possible.
So when you’re dealing with hecklers try to keep it good humoured, appeal to their better nature, make them aware they’re ruining the show for everybody, try to keep the audience on your side. You can try to use peer pressure from the audience with a line like: “give me a cheer if you’d like this guy to be quiet so we can get on with the show!”
But if it gets to the point where you need to do a bit of verbal jousting to regain control of the situation, preparation is your best friend. I saw Al Murray dealing with a heckler at a live gig once, and half way through it he said “The difference between you and me is that I know what I’m going to say next.”
So spend some time writing a few good retorts and put-downs you can keep in the bag for when you need them – and remind yourself regularly of what they are, because if you’re not performing them as part of your material you’ll probably forget them.
Think about some obvious lines of attack that a heckler might use based on your appearance or persona, and be ready for that. For example, I’m bald and there’s a good chance that a drunk heckler might try to use that, so I’ve got some material ready to use in that situation.
If you’ve got a few other acts you’re friendly with, you can practice with them – take it in turns to do your material for a few minutes while the others throw heckles at you, and you figure out how to respond and get your set back on track. It’s a fun exercise and you’ll come up with material that you can use for real-life hecklers.
Some comedy clubs also run nights where heckling is encouraged, usually gong-shows for new acts to prove their mettle (like the Comedy Store’s King-Gong in London). These can be pretty nerve-wracking, and sometimes the heckling is more like a wall of shouting that you’ve got no hope of responding too, but it’s a good way to develop a thick-skin.
The chances are that you’ll rarely have to deal with hecklers, but there are plenty of things you can do to prepare for the situation and feel more confident about smoothly dealing with hecklers.
A lot of people don’t understand that you have to write stand-up comedy. They have the idea that comedians simply go up on stage and make it all up as they go along, because they’re naturally funny people. That’s part of being a great stand-up, the ability to deliver your material in a natural, conversational style, so that it really feels like you’re just chatting to the audience instead of reciting a script.
But if you want to try stand-up comedy, then you’re going to have to write some material. Go to enough open mic nights and you’ll see people trying to make it up on the spot; their friends tell them they’re funny, they should try comedy, so they get it into their heads that they can just go on stage without a plan and be their usual hilarious self.
They learn very quickly that making a room full of strangers laugh at a stand-up comedy night is very different to making a handful of friends laugh in the bar. This is the first big difference between writing stand-up comedy and just being funny in daily life. Your friends, family, and colleagues already know a lot about you, so when you make a joke they have a lot of background context about your life and personality that helps them to understand why what you said is funny. That room full of strangers waiting for you to entertain them, they don’t know a single thing about you, so you’ve got a lot more work to do.
Before we crack on, here are a few books about writing stand-up comedy that I recommend:
How I Escaped my Certain Fate – all of Stewart Lee’s books are interesting reading for aspiring comics, but I found this one particularly helpful
To Write Stand-up Comedy, You Have to Actually Write
This might sound obvious, but not everybody gets it. Unless you’re a super-rare one in a million talent, you’re not going to be able to just walk out onto stage and deliver killer material off-the-cuff, you’re going to have to write some jokes.
Most stand-up comedians know the value of getting as much stage time as possible, but writing is just as important. Writing is like performing; the more you do it, the better you get at it. So write as much as you can, as often as you can and accept that, just like regularly bombing on stage, writing material that turns out to be complete junk is all part of the process.
Try to spend some time writing every day. You can brain dump ideas for new material, or spend some time working on improving older material.
All writers know that most of what they put on the page isn’t great at first, and it’s going to take a lot of editing and re-writing before some of it’s any good – but you need to take that first step of putting something, anything, on a blank page. That’s the hardest step, but it’s what gives you the raw material you can shape into killer bits.
A page full of bad ideas might have one glimmer of gold that can, with work, be turned into a great piece of material. But a blank page is worthless. Your first and most important task is to fill that blank page with some ideas, even if they’re all bad.
Fine, But How do I Actually Write Funny Material?
The first thing you need to know about writing stand-up comedy is that there’s no single blueprint for success. If you’ve watched many successful stand-up comics doing their thing, you should have noticed just how many styles and approaches there are, and they all work in different ways.
The kind of material that works for you will depend a lot on your personality, your look, your stage-presence, your delivery, and a lot of other things. For example, simply walking onto stage and saying “Hello” to the audience isn’t really funny, but try to picture a big, weird looking guy, with an expressive, wild-eyed look on his face, crazy hair, and he stumbles onto the stage looking lost and confused, he slowly looks around the audience as though he’s wondering who they all are and why they’re looking at him. Then, with an enthusiastic, friendly voice and a strange accent that nobody can quite place, he says “Hello.”
I’ve seen that exact situation, and it got a big laugh. Just from the word “Hello.”
Why did it work? Probably because of the contrast between the way the guy looked (weird, confused, lost, a little creepy even) and the way he introduced himself (endearing, friendly, a kind of innocent enthusiasm). There’s a little tension as he stumbles on stage and the audience wonder what the hell is happening, and then that tension is burst when he introduces himself with a single word.
This building of tension, then bursting it, is a well know element of writing stand-up comedy, and we’ll get into it more later. Also, a large part of this particular situation is that the guy’s voice was kind of unexpected – it didn’t fit with his appearance, and that surprising contrast can also get laughs.
But what works for one act won’t necessarily work for another – everybody’s different. For example, there was a guy I used to see regularly at open mics who tried the same thing; he’d walk slowly up to the mic and then say “hello” in a funny voice and then give a little chuckle as though he’d just said the funniest thing in the world. The audience never laughed.
Why didn’t it work for him?
It was too forced, too fake. His whole black-leather-jacket look was like somebody desperately trying to emulate a bad-ass, edgy alternative comedian. The squeaky voice he used to introduce himself was obviously put-on – he dropped it as soon as he started the rest of his set.
Somebody had obviously told this guy on a stand-up comedy course that the contrast between the way you look and the way you sound can be funny, so he tried to force it, and it didn’t work for him because there was zero authenticity.
What’s going to work for you? The lesson here is to try to write material that’s authentic to you, because people can tell when you’re faking it, and that kills the funny.
You need a lot of self-awareness, to know how other people perceive you (both in terms of your appearance and your personality) which will help you understand what kind of material you should write.
There’s no point me, a middle-aged married dad, trying to write stand-up comedy material about Tinder dates, house-sharing, or clubbing – the audience can clearly see that’s not the world I inhabit, so it’s going to be hard to make them come along with me on those topics. Equally, I’ve seen young, fresh faced acts trying to put on embittered, world-weary stage personas, which just doesn’t work when you’re barely out of school and the world hasn’t had time to grind you down yet.
The Rules of Writing Stand-up Comedy
Writing comedy is an art, not a science. It’s not the same as writing computer software, where you can always achieve a specific objective by following a set of rules. Material sometimes works for strange, magical reasons that nobody understands, and sometimes it doesn’t work when on paper it looks good.
All that said, there are common ideas that can help you write stand-up comedy. We can call them “rules” if you like, but the best comedians break these rules all the time. Still, it’s a good starting point, and once you understand the rules, writing stand-up material will be a lot easier, even if you choose to completely disregard them.
Setup – Punchline – Tag
Most jokes follow a simple format:
Setup – this is where you explain the background story, or context of your joke, what does the audience need to understand for it to make sense.
Punchline – this is the funny part of the joke, the thing you expect the audience to laugh at.
Tag – this is an optional extra punchline, that builds on the previous one and gets another laugh.
Let’s look at a simple example of this structure in Romesh Ranganathan’s 2016 Live at the Apollo set – specifically the opening bit during the first 60 seconds:
Setup: He wishes the audience a merry Christmas, explains that he is Hindu, and wonders how he managed to get such a prestigious gig…
Punchline: “I just wanna thank diversity quotas.”
Tag: “You’re getting two for one with me, because I’ve got a lazy eye.”
Not all stand-up comedy follows this format, but if you watch enough comedians doing their thing you’ll see that a lot of their jokes do, whether they’re pun-slingers, story-tellers or observational acts, they frequently use that exact structure.
The difference between somebody who can make their friends laugh, and somebody who can make an audience laugh lies in understanding how to write setups and punchlines.
When you make your friends laugh, you’re probably going straight to the punchline, because the setup has already been established through your relationship – you have a shared history, you know the same people, the same stories, and in-jokes. So when they laugh at something you say, it’s because they already have enough information to know why it’s funny.
Think of a time you said something that made your friends laugh. What background information did they have that made them understand why your comment was funny? Can you use that background information to create a short, punchy setup that can easily be understood by complete strangers, so that if you said the exact same thing to them, they’d laugh too?
But why is a punchline funny? How does a punchline turn a setup from a story into a joke? Again, there are lots of different reasons, but one of the most commonly used tools of writing stand-up comedy material is the broken assumption.
When you are explaining your setup to an audience, they will make all kinds of assumptions about the scenario you’re describing – they have to, we all do it every day, because the alternative is that we’d have to explain everything in an exhausting amount of detail to remove all possible ambiguity.
Comedy lies in shattering those assumptions.
The oldest example of this is “I just flew in tonight…”
Most people assume the comedian flew on an airline to the city where they are performing. But the assumption is broken by the punchline “…and boy are my arms tired.”
You’ll see new stand-up comedians often using punchlines like:
“…and then I got off the bus.”
“…and that’s how I got banned from the library.”
Where the setup involves them doing something that would be perfectly fine in the privacy of their own home, but not in a public place. The assumption is that the scenario described in the setup was taking place in private, but that’s broken when the punchline reveals it happened in a public place.
Another common example is a setup that involves an awkward encounter with a weird or rude person, who is assumed to be a stranger, and the punchline is usually something like:
“So I said go home dad, you’re drunk.”
“That’s the last time I invite my mum.”
These are simple examples, and if you go to enough open mic nights you’ll see them hundreds of times.
This joke format is also called a “pull-back and reveal” which simply means that you use the punchline to reveal some missing information that makes the situation funny. It’s a very common joke structure used to write stand-up comedy. An example of the pull-back and reveal is this old joke (attributed to the American comedian, Jack Handey) “[setup] I’d like to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did, [punchline] not screaming in terror like his passengers.”
The pull-back and reveal is that his grandfather was driving a car when he died – and it’s also an example of broken assumption because when you hear that somebody died peacefully in their sleep, the assumption is that they were in bed at the time.
So, the broken assumption and the pull-back and reveal are very closely related. A successful punchline gives the audience the missing information they need to understand why your story is funny, and it usually works because the missing information breaks an assumption they made during your setup.
A great example of broken assumption is from Jim Jeffries famous bit on gun control in his 2014 special, Bare.
In this bit he’s talking about gun control and explains that there is only one argument for gun ownership. Most people in the audience are likely to assume he’s going to provide a reasonable, serious reason for owning a gun, and then dismantle that argument, but instead he delivers the punchline “Fuck off, I like guns!”
You think you know where he’s going with the bit, but then he subverts your expectation with a petty, childish argument for wanting to own a gun.
If you can master this skill, of getting people to come along with you on a topic, and then completely throwing their expectations you’ll be able to write some great stand-up comedy material.
Another aspect of what’s happening in that set is the use of tension. A lot of comedy is based around the idea of creating tension with the audience, by saying something controversial or talking about a divisive topic, and then bursting that tension with a funny, unexpected punchline.
Comedy audiences are there to have a good time, that’s the point. So when a comedian starts to talk about something that isn’t usually considered a fun topic, the audience gets worried that things are going to be weird and uncomfortable – tension is created in the room. But then the comedian bursts that tension with a punchline that makes everything OK again, and reassure the audience that they are going to have a good time.
This is a tricky skill to master. A lot of new comics try to do it by being edgy and talking about highly controversial topics, but if their punchlines aren’t good enough then the tension doesn’t get burst and that can ruin the rest of the set.
When you first start to write stand-up comedy, be aware of the fact that a lot of new acts try to be edgy and dangerous, but they often fail at it because it takes time to build the skills needed to pull off that style of material.
The Rule of Threes
In stand-up comedy writing, the Rule of Threes is simply that grouping three things together can be an effective way to write a joke. You list two things that make sense together, and then the third thing breaks the pattern in a funny way – you can think of it as the simplest form of the setup-punchline format: the first two things are the setup, and the third is the punchline.
Here’s an example of the Rule of Threes: “Have you ever worked in an office? They’re weird places. An office is a big room full of desks, and computers, and arseholes.”
In the setup we’re talking about offices, and we start listing the things that you typically find in an office, desks, computers… and next the audience is expecting to hear something like phones, or photocopiers, but the assumption is broken by the punchline: arseholes, which most office-workers can relate to.
The rule of threes works so well when you’re writing stand-up comedy material because it’s the quickest and most efficient way to establish a pattern for the audience, and then to break that pattern in a surprising way. Again, it’s about broken assumptions –they think they know what to expect from the next thing you’re going to say, but you go off in a different direction and subvert their expectations.
In this joke example we used earlier, did you notice anything missing?
“I’d like to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did, not screaming in terror like his passengers.”
The punchline doesn’t state whether the grandfather was driving a car, or a bus, or flying a passenger jet – because it doesn’t need to. It could have been any of those things and the joke still works, so it’s left to the audience to fill in the blanks with whatever they imagine is the funniest.
This is a good example of another important rule of stand-up comedy writing: word economy.
While being a good story-teller is important, and adding colour and context to a joke might work well for some comedians, it’s also good to learn how to make your jokes as tight and efficient as possible.
When you write a joke that works, think about what parts you can remove without losing any of the impact. What is the absolute minimum you need to say in order for the setup to make sense and the punchline to deliver the laughs?
This is important, especially for a new open-mic level stand-up comedian, because you really want to get as many laughs as possible in the five-minute spots you’ll be doing. More than anything else, people will rate you based on how many laughs you can get from the audience in a short space of time.
Sometimes it won’t work, you might try to cut a joke down to the bare minimum, but for some reason a part of the setup that you didn’t think was critical ends up being the thing that makes it work, so you’ll need to try out different versions of the same joke to figure out just how much you can cut without killing the bit.
Funniest Word at the End
Another thing you might have noticed about the grandfather joke is that the very final word of the punchline is the payoff; passengers. It’s that single word which makes the whole joke make sense; right up until that word is spoken the joke isn’t clear.
Wherever possible you should put the funniest word, or phrase, right at the very end of your punchline because you want the audience to start laughing at the point where you stop speaking. Comedians call it “stepping on your laughs” when you’re still trying to talk while the audience is laughing.
The whole point of stand-up comedy is to make people laugh, so if they’re laughing you need to shut up and just enjoy the glory. They won’t be able to hear what you’re saying anyway.
If you find that audiences are regularly laughing before you finish getting the joke out, you might need to re-write the material. Figure out what’s making them laugh before the end of the joke and make that your first punchline. Whatever part of the joke you wrote after that punchline can be used as a tag to follow up once the laugh has died down.
You will often find that audiences don’t react to your material in the way you expect. A lot of the time they won’t laugh at any of it, but they’ll sometimes laugh at parts of your setups that you never intended to be funny.
Call-backs – Instant In-Jokes
A call-back is simply a joke that makes a reference to another joke you made earlier in your set. Call-backs often work really well, because they can feel like an in-joke between you and the audience; you’re making a joke about something they remember laughing at earlier.
This isn’t the same as a tag, where you immediately follow the punchline with an extra punchline. A call-back happens later in the set, while you’re talking about a different topic, but find a way to relate it to your earlier material. If you can use a call-back as your closing bit (which should always be one of your very best bits, regardless of whether it’s a call-back or not) you’ll often get a strong reaction from the audience.
Start Strong, Finish Stronger
When you’re working out the order in which to tell your jokes, there’s a simple rule that most stand-up comedians use; start with your second best joke, finish with your best joke.
The reasoning for this is that you always want to finish your set on a strong laugh, so the audience feels like they’ve had a great time, so that’s where you put your very best joke. You start with your second best joke so that the audience very quickly has confidence in your ability, and once you’ve made them laugh for the first time it will be easier for them to laugh at the rest of your material.
If you’ve got new material that you’re still unsure of, make sure it’s always sandwiched between two strong bits.
Writing Stand-up Comedy on Stage
While it’s important to write stand-up comedy material as much as you can, there’s absolutely no substitute for stage-time. You simply won’t know if your material works until you try it out on a real audience.
They’ll laugh in unexpected places, or not at all, sometimes they’ll clap, sometimes they’ll groan, sometimes they’ll yell out heckles which are actually pretty funny so you can steal them and add them to the material as if you wrote them yourself.
A written joke is a first draft, but the editing takes place on stage. And this is why it’s really important to record your sets. You don’t need to film them, just the audio will do, and you can use a recorder app on your phone or buy a cheap voice-recorder device, whatever works for you.
Listen to the recording soon after the show – maybe not right away, if you can’t handle that, but certainly the next day – and make note of where people laugh, any places where you messed up, or improvised something good, anything that gives you useful information about how to improve the material.
A lot of people find that they don’t remember much about what happened during their set, other than a vague sense of whether it went well or not. Listen back to the recordings and you’ll discover a gold-mine of detail about what actually happened during the show.
Be Real, Be Authentic to Yourself, Be Original
There’s a lot to take in here, but most of it will start to come naturally if you write and perform stand-up comedy regularly. Here are a few closing thoughts to help you on your way:
Be Real – stand-up comedy material doesn’t need to be true, but it needs to be plausible. You’re trying to get the audience to buy into the story or the joke, so make it easy for them to do that. Maybe your style is absurdism, and that’s fine, but if you need the audience to believe the setup to your joke is a real scenario, then you have to make it sound believable.
Be Authentic to Yourself – this is different to being real. What I mean by being authentic to yourself is the audience needs to believe that you believe in what you’re saying – the material you perform needs to match the persona you present to them. People can spot fakers a mile away.
Be Original – give the audience something they haven’t seen before, and they’ll love you for it. There are a lot of stand-up comedians out there, and many of them are churning out very similar material. If you write something and it feels like it’s been done before, throw it away and try again.
Five minutes at We Are Funny Project – it was going OK, and I was scoring laughs, but I tried too much new material in one go and ended my set by completely blanking on the punchline for a new bit.
15 minutes at a Sam Rhode’s pop-up gig in Battersea – unfortunately this happened shortly after Omicron hit, so apart from a table of about 8 teachers on their Christmas piss-up, and a handful of other acts, it was pretty quiet. We still had fun, and I worked in a couple of the new bits I’d tried earlier in the week, which both did OK.
I’m now finished for the rest of the year, and it doesn’t look like people are still running gigs in any case. How long this new shitshow will last is anybody’s guess. Hopefully it’ll blow over soon and we can get back to business as usual, but I’m not taking anything for granted after the past couple of years.
My next booked show January 2nd at Angel Comedy RAW – although I suspect we might be back in lockdown by then.
Under the circumstances I’m fairly happy with how the year went. The situation wasn’t ideal, but I feel like I’ve managed to improve as a stand-up comedian despite doing far fewer spots than I would have liked, and I think that’s largely down to being able to do more 10-15 spots.
That forced me to come up with new material to fill the time, and to memorise it all. The knock-on effect of having a larger repertoire of tested material to pull out of my hat whenever I like is that I’m much more comfortable with improvising and having a bit of fun with the audience, because I know that if things aren’t going well I can always fall back on the good stuff as required.
I’m not saying I’ve got a rock-solid 15 minutes, I know I need to do a lot more work to make it really tight, but I do think I can fill a 10-15 spot without embarrassing myself.
There are three highlights of this year for me:
Beating the Blackout at Up the Creek– this was my first gig after lockdown, I was a bag of nerves, on the verge of just giving up on stand-up, and almost walked out of the club before my spot. But I forced myself onto the stage and it went so well that it put me on a high for weeks and convinced me it was worth carrying on with this nonsense.
Winning the crowd over in Croydon – I’d had a run of gigs that hadn’t gone well, and the buzz of Beating the Blackout had well and truly worn off. Then I found myself at a busy south London bar show with a rowdy, slightly hostile crowd that weren’t getting into the night. The acts before me all struggled, and I wasn’t looking forward to my spot. But in the end it went pretty well for me, they bought into my stuff and I felt like I’d managed to turn things around – that gave me a much needed confidence boost.
Seeing We Are Funny Project rise from the ashes – I’ve had some great nights at WAFP over the years, and spent a lot of time there. It’s been a great place for me to get stage-time in front of a decent audience, without having to organise a bringer. Over the past six months Alfie’s done an amazing job of getting the night up and running again, and bringing in a regular audience of locals who are always up for a good show. Long may it continue.
So I find myself in a weird situation. On the one hand, I’m feeling pretty positive about stand-up from the perspective of whether I still want to do it, and whether I honestly believe I’m capable of doing it well.
On the other hand, I just don’t know if it’s worth persevering with this if covid is going to be around for much longer. The whole enterprise depends on people being up for coming out to small, enclosed spaces with a bunch of others to watch me talk shit on stage while they get drunk. If we’re never going to get that back, then there’s really no point carrying on with it.
I don’t know what the answers are, but I suppose we’ll get a much clearer picture of where things are going over the next few weeks.
It’s been a busy couple of months for me as far as stand-up is concerned, and I feel like I’ve improved in a relatively short space of time, which is exactly the opposite of what I expected so soon after lockdown.
The catalyst has been doing a bunch of Sam Rhode’s pop-up gigs around south and west London, where I’ve had 10-15 minute spots. To begin with this was terrifying, because even five minutes felt like a stretch after getting so little stage time since lockdown began, but I found I was soon able to comfortably fill 10-12 minutes with prepared material and, once I got confident with that stuff, just riffing and improvising for a few minutes became much easier.
The Croydon gig I covered in my previous post really gave me a confidence boost, and since then it’s all felt a lot easier.
Until recently I had to spend a lot of time mentally preparing for shows, figuring out what bits I’m going to do and rehearsing the whole set over and over to try and memorise it. But these days a five-minute spot is a walk in the park, and the longer sets still require a bit of planning and practice, but I no longer go into them feeling on-edge and stressed about remembering all my stuff.
It’s so much more fun this way. Because I’ve got the safety net of 10+ minutes of tested material that I can reel off any time I like, I’m now free to improvise, have some fun with the audience, and generally dick around on stage a bit more.
So long story short, I’m feeling pretty good about it all right now, but I’m still unsure about what to do next other than keep on gigging.
As well as Sam’s gigs, I’m still regularly doing We Are Funny Project in Dalston, which is increasingly bringing in a solid audience most nights and is always a fun show. I’ve also spread my wings a bit and done a few other open mics worth mentioning:
Crack Comedy – these guys run pro comedy nights around SW London, and do a monthly Sunday-night open mic at the Ram Jam club in Kingston, close to where I live. Had a great time here, there was a decent audience for a Sunday night open mic, and the club has a really nice, intimate vibe. It’s only a shame they can’t run it weekly, because I’d go there a lot.
Whole Lotta Comedy – another local comedy promoter which runs pro gigs around SW London. They host an open mic every Sunday night at The Castle in Surbiton, which attracts acts from all over London, and usually seems to draw in a reasonable audience. It’s a fun, laid back night. I’ve been there twice recently, and will hopefully show my face a bit more often since it’s so close to where I live.
Comedy Cabin RAW – despite the fact that this night has been running for years in Hoxton, close to where I worked before lockdown, somehow I never got around to asking for a spot there. I remedied that recently and was very pleased to see Ania Magliano hosting, who I remember seeing at the Cav back in my earliest days. It’s a really small venue, but they managed to squeeze a decent audience in there, and although I was worried the young urbanite crowd might not be into my material, it seemed to go down well and I had a great night.
I haven’t got much booked for the rest of December, apart from one spot at We Are Funny Project – so I’m hoping one or two last minute spots materialise on Facebook on nights that I can do, otherwise I’m not going to be gigging regularly again until January.