Having a go at stand-up comedy

Ever thought you could have a go at stand-up comedy? Well this guy (who wishes to remain anonymous) actually went ahead and did it. Here he explains why he decided to brave the audiences of Cardiff – and describes the ecstatic highs and excruciating lows he was already experienced in his fledging career…

I would have been about 11 or 12 when I was first taken in by stand-up comedy. Dave Allen – the curmudgeonly Irish story-teller, more sit-down-and-drink than stand-up ­– was on the TV holding forth with his customary misanthropic charm. I remember thinking that his must be just about the coolest occupation in the world, despite the man himself being old, not especially cool and (worst for me) a piss-taker of Catholicism.

Since then, I’ve gradually developed an appreciation of stand-up as one of the purest of art forms. The comic has no-one to rely on for his art but himself (apart from a few stolen lines); no-one to blame but himself if the appreciation runs dry. There’s a kind of existential nakedness about performing stand-up; you have little idea of the value of any of your lines until you deliver them, and you alone can deal with the consequences. (This, by the way, is not an attempt to ward off any critique of my own recent efforts, it’s simply to make you see me as a nobly tragic figure of mythic proportions.)

I love watching comics perform, and one reason for taking up the challenge myself was the feeling that I wanted to channel some small part of the surliness of Dylan Moran, the analytical offensiveness of Stewart Lee, the anger of Bill Hicks, the observations of Ben Elton. Two historical facts clearly mitigated against my success: first, that a similar love for Led Zeppelin had once led to me convincing myself that I could play the guitar; second, that my one previous attempt to write some material had led to six lines sitting in a Word document for nearly a decade. The hilariously prescient highlight: “Even e-mail is junk now!”

As of last November, there was zero chance that I would ever have considered standing in front of a dozen drunk strangers and attempting to amuse them. But then fatherhood heaved itself into view and, as in many others ways, I started seeing things differently. First there was the hilarious awfulness of the birth itself; then a more general sense of the need to see things a bit more in the round. Birth, death, sex, laughter: all the key parts of the human experience, brought into sharper relief by helping bring another life into the world.

I started by writing down the stuff about birth, initially thinking of no more than an extended blog piece about some of the more notable lies that people tell about the beauty of childbirth. This branched into thinking about hippies, hard-line lefties and other people for whom I hold a simultaneous affection and contempt. Then there was my own childhood, my religious upbringing, experiences at school. And my dog. And somewhere along the line, racism, genies and Garry Glitter..

In the course of developing these thoughts into a stand-up routine, I discovered a thing or two. Firstly, the need for a notepad to be within reach wherever you are. There’s no such thing as too much material. Like most writing, comedy requires you to throw down all of your thoughts and then edit mercilessly. Some of what I thought would be my funniest stuff has ended up on the scrapheap. Secondly, that the number of comics who are genuinely ad-libbing, night after night, must be tiny. I must have rewritten my material about twenty times on the way to my first short gig (which was then forcibly cut from ten to five minutes just before I went on stage).  A great deal of the sophisticated off-handedness of modern comedy must be learned, and carefully practiced to get the tone just so.. Genuine improvisational comedy, where it exists, is a seriously impressive thing.

So, my first actual performance took place at a little coffee shop in Cardiff Bay called The Deck, and frankly late halving of my time slot turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I simply had to choose the best bits and get through them quickly, and my audience was warmly appreciative in a way I’d never expected. The feeling of people actually chuckling at a line you’ve written is something you cannot plan for; the purity of that sound of laughter, its sense of communal affection, is what makes this thing addictive. Notoriously, successful comics are essentially lonely people, looking for affirmation and respect from strangers. I’m not naturally like that, but I felt it too.

This unexpected success drove me on to my second gig, at a pub, which you can have a look at below if you like. The spot was given to me by a lovely bloke called Liam, who swore at me at the Deck for being better than he’d expected. I’ve done three further gigs since then (including a ‘family friendly’ one last night, which tested my skills in a very different way). On the fourth gig I finally did something that everybody had told me to expect but which you can’t prepare for: I bombed, utterly. I stood in front of a crowd of 25 and told them things that I’d thought just an hour before constituted my best material yet. Thankfully it was only a five-minute slot.

Dying on stage is, I can assure you, a terrible, lonely experience. You pitch your starting line to the front row and they just stare back. You try your next gag on the people lounging at the sides and  they look away. You are pathetically grateful for the slightest titter. You start feeling embarrassed and angry and this makes it all worse: rather than playing out your punch lines carefully, you start tripping and rushing. Why won’t these bastards laugh? Things got so bad I forgot one of my key links towards the end, and stood for a very long 30 seconds rambling away while I tried to pluck the relevant words from my suddenly rusted memory. The compere made light of it (“Come on everyone, l know it’s a Wednesday but make an effort!”) and I was grateful. But it was an essential learning experience: I realised what had happened with my structure (not enough quick jokes to get going), my choice of material (too edgy for the first slot of the evening) and, simply, my confidence (too much of it, misplaced).

There will be more and better gigs, because you see, I’m addicted already; I keep needing to find that next, better line, that turn of phrase that says something that bit more succinctly and wittily. The actor Paul Reiser said that he never knew comedy was something you could learn to do: “I always thought that some people are born comedians … just like some people are born dentists.” I’m still not sure that isn’t true, but it’s been fun trying to find out.


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2 thoughts on “Having a go at stand-up comedy

  1. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    June 11, 2012 at 07:40

    Awesome start to the week, a great read on a fascinating subject.

    About 4 years ago I went to a 40th birthday party being held in a country house. Everybody there (apart from me) was a successful businessman in their field, including a couple of multimillionaires. However the bloke who commanded the most respect from every man there was the chap who was a stand up comic, all the other guys there were in awe of him. Good hobby to have I reckon!

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