The microphone and the dark
I have been trawling through my old script notes of material that I haven’t used in the past for sketch and stand-up comedy, and realised that some of it is now too dated to be of use (who’s going to want to hear jokes about Jack Bauer now!). But amongst the stuff I had to discard that was either redundant or simply not funny, there are a few nuggets that I’m putting together with the intention of doing some more stand-up in the future. It’s been a few years since I’ve performed my own comedy into a microphone in front of a roomful of strangers, but I certainly haven’t forgotten the two main emotions that most remind me of the experience: the sheer panic just before going on-stage when I’m thinking what the hell am I doing why am I doing this why am I alive right now, and the pure adrenalin thrill of coming off the stage after having delivered a few funny lines (and not so funny ones too, of course. There are always jokes or sections that don’t get a laugh).
It’s not really possible to separate the two feelings above; I think you need the panic to fuel the adrenaline. Many of my stand-up performances have been at open-mic nights at London pub venues, where it’s important to condense material to a tight, snappy five minutes or so. When you are preparing material, even five minutes can seem like it requires a wealth of comedy gold, but of course five minutes does in reality pass quite quickly (about 300 seconds…) so it’s important to have a good opening line to hook the audience in, and something really funny to finish on. The best two gags need to come first and last.
I’ve come to realise that there are three main qualities to have to ensure a smooth ride for both the performer and the audience:
- Confidence! Nothing makes an audience more uncomfortable than watching someone perform stand-up who looks like they’re going to pass-out at any moment. You have to exude confidence… even if you don’t have complete faith in the material. I would like to think that the audience are there because they want to be entertained, and to find the comedian funny. So I guess it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to presume that they’re on your side.
- Good material! Of course. The material needs to be interesting/funny/thought-provoking and hopefully original. Ultimately everybody finds different things funny however, so there has to be an element of accepting that you may well not be able to make everyone laugh in the room. More established comedians have an advantage here, as it would be sensible to assume that anyone who booked tickets to see a Peter Kay gig would have booked because they find Peter Kay funny. But anyone who sees my name in a comedy listing isn’t going to know whether I’m the sort of comedian who comes on-stage firing heavily-loaded political satire at the audience, or surreal observations on household cutlery, or performs mime in a furry bear costume (the latter is my main forte — it’s hilarious!).
- Good delivery! This is linked to number 2. I could have a superb joke about a squeamish zombie, but if I perform it too incomprehensibly, nervously, or while levitating five inches above the floor, any of those things are going to distract from the gag. It’s a well-known saying of course — “it’s all in the delivery”. But that really is true. A mildly amusing joke performed in a confident, memorable way is going to be more effective than a fantastic joke muttered in a self-doubting tone while eyeing up the exit (although that in itself could of course be quite a funny comedy character).
So if I can achieve the three qualities above, I would like to think that next time I get on-stage in front of a microphone it will be an amazing experience for me and the audience. It’s a truly nerve-wracking thing to do, but one of my favourite quotes about performing stand-up comedy is from Sarah Kendall in the book Be a Great Stand-up which I think encapsulates what this unique form of creativity offers:
“It’s very pure. You can have an idea at 4pm, and then do it on stage that night. There’s nothing else I’ve done that moves that fast, and where you have that much control. You are the writer, director and performer. I think that immediacy is what makes it so creatively attractive.” — Sarah Kendall