This weekend marks 100 days to go until the Edinburgh Fringe kicks off, a fact that will be causing an awful lot of stand-up comedians - myself included - to reach for the brown paper bag and try to stop hyperventilating.
Although every form of performance and art eventually needs an audience, stand-up comedy is the only one that requires it right from the very beginning of the creative process. Sculptors, singers, dancers and actors can all sketch, prepare, stretch and rehearse in privacy, sometimes with a director and sometimes collaboratively, as they strive towards their intended goal. Whilst there's always a chance that eventual goal might be a hodge-podge mess scrambled over the line at the wrong end of the pitch, they can at least be safe in the knowledge that they're only putting themselves on the line at the final moment.
Not so with stand-up comedy. Right from the first inception of a daft idea about, for example, Kim Jon-Un's recycling bins (a stupid aside in my new show) audiences will get to see comedians tussle with how to squeeze the funny out of an idea. Any creative person worth their salt - particularly writers - will tell you that the first part of making new work is to vomit out whatever is floating around your mind and then panhandle for the ten per cent of gold somewhere within it that is worth crafting and re-shaping into magic. As a comic discovering new material you have to do this in public and be unafraid of falling flat on your face. Trying out new material is like jumping out of a plane with a sowing kit and hoping you can fashion some sort of parachute before you hit the ground.
If that sounds terrifying, you're right, it is. Most importantly, it's also humbling, as a lot of the time you end up smacking into the ground at terminal velocity and making a big mess everywhere. This is where you find out if you're a stand-up comic or not. Anyone who says "that was horrible, never again" is a perfectly sensible human being and should go back to their happy, well-adjusted life of not looking to strangers for validation. However, if you're the kind of person who says "what a rush, next time I'm coming back with ten new minutes of ideas and that'll get them", congratulations (and commiserations) you're a stand-up comic.
Why do we put ourselves through this torturous process? Stand-up comedy is the only performance type that requires an immediate reaction from the audience - a happy noise through the biggest hole in your face, as the great Ken Dodd called it. However funny you think your new gag or shaggy dog story is, you won't know if it's funny until you've laid it before a live collection of humans. That is the exciting part, because however many times you pull the rip cord and discover that you haven't made a parachute quickly enough (or even worse, you've taken the time to cast a three-ton anvil) when you hit a seam of promising material and start riffing around it, you don't just float down on a parachute, you actually soar. Not only is the adrenaline rush tremendous, but once you start to learn how to steer your thoughts you can end up generating all sorts of new ideas.
If you're reading this thinking "all very well, but I'm never trying stand-up, how's this going to help me?", hold on. Whatever your job, there will be some part of it that benefits from creative thinking. You don't have to get up in front of an audience, but if you're feeling brave grab a pen and paper (or if you're feeling even braver and less self-conscious, your voice and a Dictaphone.) Start writing and talking. For the first page and a half or ten minutes it will probably be rubbish, but as you push through the barrier of awkwardness and search inside you, your stream-of-consciousness will come up with ideas for some part of your life you never expected: a shortcut for some work, an idea for a new painting, a revelation about a loved one, maybe even a funny observation that needs telling... Try doing every day for a month and you'll be amazed what you find inside yourself. If it turns out to be a bunch of gags, then I'll see you hurling yourself into glorious oblivion at a new material night soon!
You can see Ben jump and hopefully find his parachute, along with 8 other comedians, at the FREE '100 Days To Edinburgh' preview festival on April 17th, from 1pm at The Good Ship Comedy Club, 289 Kilburn High Road, NW6 7JR. Click HERE for more information. For more info on Ben go to www.benvandervelde.com