When I first told people I'd started doing standup, my friends and family were unfailingly supportive and encouraging, but overwhelmingly their first thought was how brave I must be. Not how funny (or otherwise) they thought I would be, but that I was very very brave.
It felt like a bit of a backhanded compliment, to be honest - less "Wow that's great, you're very funny" and more "Well - you might be awful, but you can handle it champ!"
I've never heard anyone come back from a comedy show and say "Oooh, I went to see Bill Bailey last night, I tell you what he was sooooo brave. I mean, he's brave on the telly and everything, but he's so much braver live. He was so brave, I nearly wet myself."
The main reason everyone thought I was so brave was the prospect of hecklers. It's easy to imagine that the lower rungs of the comedy ladder are comprised of nightmarish gigs where nervous new acts fight to control their bowels and bladders while stuttering through their material under a barrage of abuse and ridicule from a baying crowd.
The truth is rather different. A lot of open mic nights are entirely populated by comedians and people they've dragged along for moral support. At many gigs, there are 12-17 comedians on the bill, each performing for five minutes and they make up half the audience. The other half is made up of the "guests" that the comedians have been required to bring along in order to get on the bill. Neither of those groups are very likely to heckle.
The closest I ever came was a gig in Westminster. It was my 10th. Like most open mic nights, the audience had always been usually quite small, but friendly and supportive. On this occasion, though, one of the acts turned up with about 15 of his work colleagues in tow, who were out for a leaving do.
They were drunk, getting drunker and already pretty rowdy, albeit not in a mean-spirited, aggressive way. They just wanted to join in and have a bit of banter with the comedians - they didn't boo, insult the acts or do anything genuinely aggressive. That's significantly better than actual real scary heckling, but for inexperienced comics like me who are still playing open mic nights it can still be disruptive. Personally, I just want to get up, do my material and get off - I've never seen myself as a comedian who would flourish engaging with a lively crowd. Some acts thrive on it, but I can't see that I ever would.
When my turn came, I took it in good spirits when they tried to join in and I let them. They pointed out my mistakes and by engaging with them in the first few minutes, I got through my prepared material for the last four minutes or so relatively uninterrupted.
Afterwards they were chatty and complimentary - they had been told off by the act who'd brought them along for being disruptive and seemed genuinely horrified to think they'd been a bad audience.
Many MCs at open mic nights are pretty good at setting out "the rules" at the start of the night and will keep control if any audience members do get rowdy. They are usually much more experienced comedians and well-equipped to maintain order if necessary.
So, if you've ever considered trying standup - don't be put off by the prospect of hecklers. The truth is that it simply doesn't happen very often, certainly not at open mic level.
Go along to an open mic night (Time Out has a very handy list of the best in London, if that's any help to you) and see for yourself what the standard and the atmosphere are like. You'll probably be surprised.
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