HOW TO DIE (ON STAGE), AND HOW TO RISE AGAIN BEFORE THE THIRD DAY.
OK this is it.
The MC has called your name. You plaster a smile on your face, take a deep breath and walk onstage. You shake the MC’s hand. You take the mic out of the stand, smile, and hit them with your first joke. Your Banker!
OK. Hit them with your second joke. Wait to take the laugh.
Laugh does not come.
You tap the mic. “This is on, isn’t it”?
The audience start to talk among themselves. Your mouth goes dry, so your words stick in your throat.
Everyone, including you, wants you off that stage now. They are embarrassed, you are gripped by panic. You forget your next line. You’re left floundering for your next joke. Hoping that will save you, but knowing it won’t.
THAT is why most people who want to try stand up don’t try stand up. THAT is why people call you brave. You have died on stage. It has happened to everyone. And anyone who tells you it hasn’t happened to them is a liar or suffers from narcissism to the point of being a psychopath.
Bob Monkhouse claims to have died on stage twice. In that case I have gone one better than Monkhouse in that I have died many times.
People fear public speaking more than they fear death. People really fear ridicule, or failure more than they fear death. This article examines why we die on stage, how we can deal with it, and how we can learn and grow after it. It applies equally to anyone whose plans have to change without warning, or who come to a sudden roadblock. My experience is in standup, so I will stick with what little I know.
WHAT IS “DYING ON STAGE”?
Comics talk of “killing” and “dying” on stage. Neither term is appropriate. Stand up is entertainment, not a hunt. Or a war, for that matter. “Killing” is when your act goes down so well that the audience elects you their king, or queen, for the evening. They may offer you cigars, sexual favours, or the keys to their house. More often, they will tell you they enjoyed it, and that you are very brave. Oh, and here’s one you can use. Of course, you might have to clean it up a bit. And maybe change the paedo’s name ….
Dying on stage is the point where your act is going so badly that the audience feel embarrassed for you, starts talking, walking out or throwing things at you. At best it is soul crushing, at worst it can be physically threatening. In one case I had someone track me down on Facebook to threaten me, Early on in my stand up days I was advised by a punter expecting a stripper not to show my face around that venue again.
SYMPTOMS OF DYING ON STAGE
Most self aware people (and there are fewer of that type in stand up than we’d like) will recognise the symptoms of dying on stage as they occur. For me they include: forgetting the words; a dry mouth; shallow breathing; panic; appearing scared and self loathing. Your mileage may vary.
CAUSE OF DEATH
There are many things which can cause a death on stage. Some of them are in your control, some are not
THINGS WHICH YOU CAN CONTROL INCLUDE:
Being under prepared
You have “tripped yourself up”
You are visibly scared of the audience
Your material is not what the audience wants
Your persona is not what the audience wants
THINGS WHICH ARE BEYOND YOUR CONTROL INCLUDE:
You are performing in a Godawful room
They are not your audience
It’s Christmas, and they are hammered.
There may be more. Feel free to let me know your own.
So let’s take these in order:
YOU ARE UNDER PREPARED
Your material isn’t good enough, or polished enough for an audience yet. The more experienced you become, the more you will know whether a joke or routine “has legs”. I wrote one the other day involving being stuck behind a fairground lorry carrying the Walters. And no matter how much I screamed, it wouldn’t go any faster. I performed it that night knowing they would laugh before the punchline. I was right. That’s the thrill of stand up for me. Launching a newly hatched gag on the public, timing it well — stretching the pause between the set up and punch, then BOOM! Taking the laugh.
If you’re new to stand up, or new to audiences, you won’t have that experience. Everything is a punt based on a hunch.
YOU HAVEN’T TESTED YOUR MATERIAL
You need, and already have, joke guinea pigs, upon which to test your jokes. You. If you don’t make yourself laugh, it’s not going to work. Comics rarely laugh at each others jokes. They are running the premise through their own way of working to see if they could make it funnier. If you don’t laugh the first time, you’re not going to believe in it.
You have your partner — who MAY kill you you, or at least leave you if you try jokes out on them. But having a partner who doesn’t share your sense of humour is a lonely relationship. Leaving you is doing you a favour. Killing you may be doing your audience a favour.
Similarly, your friends and colleagues may hate you. Don’t let that stop you. You may lose a few friends, but in stand up you will gain many new ones.
Social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, are great ways to test out your goodies. You will find that civilian friends, rather than comedy ones, will react more, and more positively. Twitter’s current 140 character rule forces you to distill the joke down to it’s essence. The Twitter joke should be a hard and jagged prime number of a joke. Be prepared to have it stolen, and credited to Tommy Cooper. Don’t fret, write more jokes.
YOU HAVEN’T WORKED OUT HOW TO PERFORM YOUR MATERIAL
Stand up is a spoken medium, not a written one. It is a conversation, not a recitation. Albeit a rather one sided one. I do have a comic friend who uses four notebooks: one for the ideas, one to work them out in rough, one to write them out long hand and one to write his set lists on. I write nothing down. Zip. I find the page kills words unless I have already spoken them.
Say your material out loud, over and over again. Find out which words trip you up, and replace them if necessary. Fluidity and precision in diction count for a lot. They have to hear you, and marvel at your precision.
You also need to work out the best order in which to present your material. A punster or joke teller can get huge belly laughs, but audiences like to have a narrative structure to follow. It gives the gags some context, and also helps you become a real person in their eyes. Who would you warm to most — someone who keeps hitting them on the head with jokes, or someone who is telling a story about themselves?
YOU HAVEN’T LEARNED YOUR MATERIAL
Experienced pros still forget stuff. You will do so more at first. Some jokes may be a call back to an earlier joke. Imagine coming to the end of a set which is a huge reincorporation of earlier jokes, then realising you haven’t done the set up. Not that it has ever happened to me. Ever. Nosir. OK ONCE.It happened once.
Fear will close down your memory. It’s a natural reaction as the Amygdala — which handles flight or fight response in the brain — shuts down unnecessary functions. But it’s harder to forget material if you actually know it well in the first place.
So learn your material. Practice it until you hate it. Say it until you can skate over it like a ballet dancing swan. Or something. You will still forget occasionally, but you will be able to get back on track more easily. This is why story telling is easier to do than joke telling.
YOU HAVEN’T REHEARSED YOUR MATERIAL
You need to find the right intonation, often a little bit exaggerated, for your routine. No audience is going to invest their attention in a frightened monotone recitation. Make it sound like you’re telling a story. Engage. Use your whole body to convey your message — move when a character moves, create instant characters,- stand on the front foot, controlling your audience with your posture. Practice meta stuff — the stuff in your act which isn’t material: how you take the mic out of the stand, your speed of delivery etc.
YOU HAVEN’T PREPARED YOURSELF MENTALLY TO BE ON STAGE AND TO DEAL WITH THE SITUATION
There are whole raft of tricks and hacks to help you cope with stage fright, help you feel in charge of the room and keep you aware of the changing dynamics if the audience whilst your performing. These are the subject of another article. But when you’re new to stand up, preparing yourself mentally is arming yourself mentally. You will see some acts pacing up and down before they go on-stage. Some just play music on headphones. Some are doing Neuro Linguistic Programming hacks. Some are getting drunk and most are just chilled. Whatever helps, do it.
YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE SHOW
If you don’t watch the show, you can’t be aware of the audience dynamic. You don’t know if Pete has a secret crush on Dave, or Sarbjit is an accountant. You also don’t know if someone has done the same joke, or covered the same topic as you. Then you bound on and make a show of your arrogance and ignorance. You expect the audience to watch the shoe, but you can’t be bothered!
It isn’t always possible, if you’re running from an earlier gig somewhere else, or pacing up and down …
YOU HAVE TRIPPED YOURSELF UP
The audience makes its mind up about you in the first few seconds. So show them whose boss — even if you subvert it later. Take your time walking to the stage, check out the audience, making eye contact with a few. Take the mic out of the stand, move it to one side. Stand on your front foot downstage (the front of the stage). Smile, or grimace.
I was talking to someone about timing the start of an act the other day. I found myself saying that Stewart Lee, with is incredibly long introductory pause, has the same timing as Hitler used in his speeches. Hitler would pause, waiting for the audience to fall silent, take a breath, laden with passion if that’s at all possible, then start slowly. Every eye and ear as upon him. Anticipating.
Screw any of that up and you’ve got to fight a battle to win them over.
YOU ARE VISIBLY SCARED OF THE AUDIENCE
A little nervousness is not a bad thing. It pumps you with adrenaline. Too much adrenaline can ruin your performance. If you have done your homework, and tested, learned and rehearsed, you should be fine. Control the room before you speak, then open with your best joke. Your second joke should also be your best joke — not the same one — just equally as good. Your third? Guess what? That should be your best joke. In a short club set, everything should hit home if at all possible. Everything improves with experience, but do the hard yards BEFORE you hit the stage.
Public speaking IS frightening. I grew up in chapel. We performed in Sunday School from the time we could walk. I have been both Baby Jesus AND Joseph. Although not in the same year. I was born to it. But so were you. You were not born shy and afraid to speak out, You’d have gone hungry if that had been the case.
What’s the worst that can happen? Everyone has a few minutes of awkward silence. When you’re new, audiences tend to give you a sympathetic hearing, and do their best to laugh at your stuff. No one is going to kill you. No one is going to beat you up. You’re going to feel deflated for a while, then drive home to a lovely ready meal and a cup of tea.
YOUR MATERIAL IS NOT WHAT THE AUDIENCE WANTS
It happens. Which is why it helps to watch the show. I’ve done anti UKIP material in what I discovered (too late) was Nigel Farrage’s home town, and to an audience which included members of his security team. Not my finest hour. Mind you I’ve also attacked the Prime Minister in his own constituency. They liked it.
Over time you will develop material to suit different types of audiences. Each time you fail is a learning opportunity. How could I adapt the stuff I have, or write for that audience? It takes a lot of time to encounter every type of audience.
You may choose not to do so. It is a valid choice. You have decided to plot your own course through stand-up, and that means creating a fan base from the minority of people who LOVE what you do. Prepare to die. Learn to enjoy it. But persevere as you WILL find your niche. There’s room for everyone.
Now let’s look at stuff outside your control.
IT’S NOT A COMEDY ROOM
The best set up room for stand up comedy, possibly in the world, is the Comedy Store in London. Hundred of punters, in highly raked theatre seating (no tables), close to a low, brightly lit stage with good amplification. There is no distracting bar noise as the bar is almost in another room.
You won’t be playing there all that often. At least for a while.
Your stage will most likely be a sticky carpet in the corner of a pub, below a giant TV screen showing football. The PA system will be rudimentary at best, and at worst may consist of your ability to project your voice. Similarly the lighting may just be the fear in the eyes of the compere.
Open mic rooms are probably the hardest gigs you will have to play. Everything seems to conspire against you. Sparsely attended, often with a poorly engaged audience — often made up of other acts worrying about their upcoming set. Dying here is easy. This is where you learn your craft. As you move up the ladder you will encounter this sort of room less frequently. And if you can play well in this sort of room, you can handle pretty much anything.
YOUR PERSONA ISN’T WHAT THEY WANT
Do they want a clown? Do they want material about particle physics? Not everyone is going to “get” what you do. Not everyone you ask to sleep with you will sleep with you. Enough will. But that takes time.
What most audiences WILL appreciate, though, even if they don’t laugh at your stuff, is authenticity. If you believe in your character and material enough to at least pretend not to care whether they like it or not, audiences will respect that. It’s easier if your material is personal and truthful. But you could hardly say that about Simon Munnery. He’s doing incredibly well in his niche of fans, who really are the League Against Tedium.
THEY ARE NOT YOUR AUDIENCE
Without realising it. as performers,we develop our own “audience avatar” — our own ideal audience member. Unfortunately audiences are not made up up of people like us. As a fifty year old I find myself playing to groups of twenty year olds, who have never heard of Harold Wilson, or even owned a television. How to I play that room? Well, I become their dad in that instance, and ask them “dad” type questions about their world. It’s not always possible. Sometimes it’s just not going to work out.
The New Testament sums it up neatly:
Some seed fell on stony ground, and was eaten by birds
Some seed fell on Jongleurs Southampton on a Friday night, and was trampled by the stag and hen parties.
Some seed fell on fertile soil, an arts centre, maybe …
IT’S CHRISTMAS, AND THEY ARE HAMMERED.
Christmas gigs have a reputation of being twenty minutes of crowd control. That’s not strictly true. They are quite often just sixteen minutes of crowd control, as you have set you vibrating watch to go off a few minutes early. They are drunk. They want to get more drunk. You are a target. Their inhibitions have been vomited onto the pavement before you open your mouth. They think they’re funnier than you.
Prepare heckler put downs. You will need them. Use them with discretion. Not every heckle is meant maliciously. Mostly they think they are helping. Disarm, rather than humiliate, if you can. And if you have to slaughter them, do it with a notional cheeky wink.
Mostly think of the money. Think of the tax bill in January. There’s no money? Then what the hell are you doing there?
HOW TO DIE WITH DIGNITY
Sometimes you just have to accept that your ship is sinking. Do you scramble over women and children to the lifeboats? Or do you go down with your ship, with a song in your heart and a gin in your tummy?
If you know what is going on, you can bet the audience does as well. If things are going badly, and you can’t turn it around, break the “fourth wall”. Maybe look at your watch and say “only another eight minutes — come on people, we can get through this together”. The chances are that they will appreciate your candour, and start to laugh.
Don’t be afraid to pause, gather yourself and say “I’ll do that bit again. But this time it will be so funny that you will forget to laugh a second time”. While you’re doing this you are re centreing yourself. You are “resetting” — re framing the gig.
When the fear and dry mouth take hold, rather than go into a panic spiral, concentrate on something physical. It could be the feel of the floor against your feet. It could be the smell of the beach. Whatever you choose, it snaps you out of the self defeating tailspin, and puts you back into control.
BLAME THEM, BUT DON’T BLAME THEM
“Blame” the audience, but don’t BLAME the audience. When a couple of jokes bomb consecutively, I raise my status and berate the audience as being unworthy of my mots justes. But I do it in a self mocking way. I’m not attacking them, I’m playing with them. It is often enough to break the tension. Once they’re laughing, you have them. It’s not me, it’s you.
I go the idea from watching an MC struggle in a room above a pub in Soho in front of an audience of non English speaking tourists. He flew into what appeared to be a genuine rage, insulting the audience. It turned the night around for him, but it could have gone really badly. If it gets to this stage, work out what you have to lose before going nuclear.
ONCE YOU REALISE YOU HAVE MISJUDGED THE MOOD OF THE MEETING, GET OFF
Make sure the MC knows you’re about to do a runner. Bring the mic stand back to the middle of the stage, thank the audience for listening. It wasn’t their fault you sucked big time. Even if it was their fault, it wasn’t their fault. Leave the stage. Get yourself a drink.
HOW TO RISE AGAIN
You will feel deflated, shocked, perhaps even angry — at yourself, the PA, the audience, the world. In this situation, Millican’s Law applies. Comedian Sarah Millican has established that it is unhealthy to hold onto your feelings about a gig after 11 am the next day. Whether you have stormed it or died on your aspirations, let those feelings go by the time you have your mid morning cup of milky Maxwell House and digestives.
You can’t control the past. You CAN control how you react to the past. We all ride the Wheel of Fortune, Those who ride high today, will be in the gutter tomorrow. In the scheme of things, a great gig or a pee poor one really don’t matter. You still have your health. For now.
No one knows who you are. A few people have failed to laugh at your jokes and validate your belief in yourself as a stand up comedian ON THIS ONE OCCASION, in a dingy pub, along with a handful of other people, who do not know you, have no investment in you, and probably didn’t really want to be at a gig.
DON’T TWEET OR POST ON FACEBOOK ABOUT HOW BADLY YOU DID. THE PROMOTER WON’T THANK YOU
Just as people get fired for posting pictures of their drunken abuses of a frozen chicken, or head of a dead pig, promoters, and audiences, will find that post, and feel that you are somehow blaming them, Or they will see you as a lousy act or whining creep. Failure is harder to track if there’s no on-line audit trail. I was told this after posting about a spectacularly bad gig last year.
Record your gigs, and listen to the recordings. No one does, but everyone should. It’s important to know if there’s anything you could change about your performance or material which could prevent this happening again. It won’t, but it will increase the chances of it happening less frequently in future.
Record your show. Not just to get a demo video. You will probably hate the sound of your voice. You will hate your jokes, or your performance of them. You may well hate yourself at this stage.
Storytelling comedian Matt Price has a great technique to get past this self loathing. Become a comedy pundit. When you’re listening back to the recording, become another character: a comedy expert hired to give an expert opinion on the gig, like on Match of the Day. Refer to yourself in the third person. Even naming yourself. “Jo Bloggs could have said this” or “Jo Bloggs would have done better if …” It will help you to look objectively at your performance and material, and instead of hating yourself, find a way to improve.
DO SOME SELF CARE
Look after yourself. No one else is going to. You’re a great person, partner, team player, mother, son, who has had a bad night. You are not a failure.
Exercise is always better than drink or drugs. I would say that, wouldn’t I? If you have access to some SPECTACULAR drugs, by all means use them. If you don’t want to rely on them to get you on stage, just take a bit of a walk. Have a swim, go for a run. Have a bath if you don’t feel active.
Here’s a meditation technique which might help, and doesn’t involve gong banging, or the sound of one hand clapping — which ironically may have been more hands than clapped you tonight.
As you drift off to sleep, imagine you are walking along a riverbank. In the distance there is a lovely town, There are bright lights there. Your name is in those lights for that town is your future as a stand up. But you’re not there yet. You’re on a lovely path, on a warm, summer’s day. You are surrounded by all the beauty of nature. The bees buzz buzzily.. Butterflies flit from flower to flower. The river, well, more of a brook, really. chuckles, bubblingly. A lark ascends, musically. Plangent, like a Delius tone poem.
All is perfect, except for your burden, And it is a ponderous burden. In each hand you carry a heavy suitcase. It weighs you down. In one suitcase is all the negative feelings you were landed with after the bad gig. In the other suitcase, all your self doubt, your feelings that you are unworthy of this path.
After a long time you come across a small, wooden bridge, crossing the stream. You cross the bridge, but stop half way. You look back at your path. You have come a long way. But you have carried all those negative feelings, and all that doubt. You got here IN SPITE of your heavy baggage. How much faster could you travel without it?
You look ahead. The future looks good. You would be very comfortable in that future. But it is a long way in the distance. And an arduous journey with those suitcases.
You pause. You take a breath. Then you make a decision to drop those two suitcases off the bridge. They make a splash. They are heavy burdens. But they are no longer your burdens as you watch them float downstream, back along the path you have already walked.
Those feelings, those doubts, are now in your past. You don’t need them where you’re going. Now you can walk with energy and purpose towards your future, unburdened by all the needless negativity.
GET BACK ON THE HORSE.
When you only have a few gigs under your belt, and half of them are dire, then you can’t tell how good or bad you are as an act. Leaving aside the steep learning curve every act goes through at the start of their career, you just don’t have enough information.
Imagine each gig as a pixel on a screen, or a brush stroke on a painting. When only a few pixels are lit, or only a few brush strokes applied, it’s impossible to tell what the picture is. The more gigs you do, the more you can see an accurate picture of how you’re doing. The more you can learn and improve.
So get back on the phone (hark at me — Nineties Man!) — email, Facebook, Tweet for more gigs. The more you do the more you’ll get. And in so doing, you’ll soon forget about that night a few people didn’t laugh in a pub.
I’m writing more about my experience and learning curve as a stand up comedian. After eighteen years as a failure, I’ve learned a lot about what not to do! Catch up with me on www.daveparton.co.uk