It probably seems a little bit rich for someone who hasn't exactly made it as a stand-up (Hyphen? Space? One word? Who knows?) comedian to be blogging about what they think makes a good stand-up and passing judgement on the subject. But never mind...
I started stand-up a few years back now as I was getting frustrated with a lack of opportunity for my sitcom scripts to get seen and thought it might be a good way of getting myself known. Not only that, I felt I was writing stuff that just didn't fit a sitcom and would only work out loud and to an audience. It was funny, but it would seem out of place and I didn't want to crowbar stand-up gags into a script just to get a laugh. Perhaps you've seen Lead Balloon? There's my first dig at the professionals, more of that sort of thing to come.
And so I looked for somewhere to do a gig in my home town. Oxford being Oxford, there was a distinct lack of places where I could have a try out at an open-mic night. Eventually I found a small place called The Old Bookbinders that did open-mic nights for musicians, but they let me have a go at joking anyway. It was quite busy for a Sunday night in this little venue and some of the people in there even paid attention to me. I recall being pleased with an off-the-cuff joke that I made there and then about the fact they had board games in there and that the longer licensing hours were brought in purely so people could actually finish a game of Risk. So impressed was an elderly gent at the bar, he cried "genius" at me as I signed off at the end. But then he probably says that to anyone that can draw a shamrock on the top of a pint of Guinness with the foam. Video evidence of all of this exists but it's staying on my desktop for now. I arrogantly once thought I could include it as an extra on a future DVD. I even had a name for the show 'Lank of England'. Prat.
So I'd done it in a place where no one does it, which I suppose is quite tough, some people paid attention and most of them did actually laugh. That's pretty good then, right? I wanted to do more, but I didn't get this buzz that you hear so much of. Ronnie Barker spoke of the first time he said something on stage that made someone laugh and it made his mind up there and then. He knew from that moment he just wanted to make people laugh. I do too, and I think I can. But right then I just wasn't sure if stand-up was my particular niche - and I still don't...
A second gig was a while in coming, mainly because it's such a great place that you have to book well in advance. But this gig which was at the legendary Downstairs at the King's Head in Crouch End was worth waiting for. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for Jim Bowen to do a set dressed as Caesar and reading jokes older than Julius himself, I finally got to go on. I'm not sure if they were expecting a girl as I'd been advertised on the posters as Joss Thompson, but not to worry. The gig though went really well. They went for it all and despite it being only my second ever performance, it wasn't half bad, even if I do say so myself. If you don't believe me, it's on YouTube. It pains me to watch it back for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the excruciating amount of "Ums" I say. It genuinely is after almost every single word. Somewhat surprisingly, it got noticed by some American fellow who subsequently posted it on his blog. Obviously this means virtually nothing on the grand scheme of things, but it was a little bit exciting at the time. The King's Head were a lovely crowd though and it's a shame I have never returned there. So I'd had a good night at a respected venue, yet there was still no real 'buzz' from all the laughs though. In fact I vomited on the hard shoulder on the way home into a prescription bag which was designed purely to discreetly house nothing more than the pill.
Searching about the internet I still couldn't find that many places that offered open-mic spots, until I spotted something in Derby. Second use of the word 'legendary' coming up as I then got a spot at the Blessington Carriage, at a night run by the legendary Spiky Mike. This was a gong show - where you're rated by a few selected audience members every minute or so, and if they keep liking you, you keep going. Everyone held up green lights all the way through, except for one arsehole, who held up a red light all the way through, but again, not to worry. I kicked his pint over under his chair later on anyway. I was then through to a final which I rather naively hadn't anticipated reaching. My brain scanned through all the half-written and fully-written stuff in my file at home and all I could remember was a largely ill-conceived piece about why women get called birds. Having blundered my way through that, I wasn't surprised not to win and was still pleased to have got that far. I also recall the compere being a lovely and funny chap. I forget his name now - although he did have a splendid afro.
A night then sprang up in Oxford once a month at a bar called Baby Simple and I got myself on there for its opening night. We all went down a storm and a good night was had by all. Thing was, I was only a few gigs in and I was already completely changing my set each time. I was writing so much material that every gig I now performed - usually at Baby Simple - I felt I had to try something new every time. I'm pretty sure this isn't the way to do it. You should probably pick five minutes of stuff and then just do it and do it and do it and do it and do it. In fact I've seen several amateurs a number of times and they have done the same set every time. If I'm being snotty then it's often because they can't write any more material. Or of course they could just be far more wise than I am and are doing what you're supposed to do.
A few more gigs at Baby Simple and changes of material aside, I still got laughs. Hadn't died once yet. I was still utterly terrified before a gig mind you and still didn't feel totally relaxed on stage. Oh and I still didn't have this buzz that I was supposed to get on stage. I then, like all the greats have done before me, died on my arse. I'd somehow managed to blag myself a spot at a place called Fat Lil's in David Cameron's own Witney and having drunk far too much blue WKD, I staggered on and immediately got a weak response from my first gag - a gag that had always got laughs previously. And that really threw me. It affected my confidence and combined with all the units of lightly fruited aftershave I'd been quaffing, I stumbled to an embarrassing end. Not only that, but to add insult to injury - which makes insury surely - it was the one time I had some good friends and my girlfriend's mother there to see me. Great... I've never once even dared watch the recording back. Funnily enough though, some four days later I not only managed to take to the stage again, in front of a load of bevvied up Oxford University students no less, but with the exact same set which went down a storm. I have no video evidence to support this claim however - you'll just have to take my word for it.
A brief hiatus followed after being made redundant from my proper job and sacked from my weekend job. After then having to suffer the indignity of moving home as I couldn't afford my rent anymore, the then love of my life upped and left me - a fortnight before I had for some reason decided to have another bash at stand-up. One might think this would be the worst time to take to the stage but as I watch the footage from Comedy Virgins now, I appear to have a great deal of confidence up there for some bizarre reason. As I rattled through gags about lavatories, Superdrug and a surprisingly unpopular jibe at Jim Davidson, perhaps in the back of my mind and bowels of my heart (eurgh), I only really cared about the love I'd just lost. Comedy didn't matter anymore and if something doesn't matter then you don't worry about it. You relax. So did this mean that the only way I could be confident on stage is if I decide I don't really want to do it anymore?
This was the last gig I should perform until a year later - this year. I happened upon an old birthday card in my loft which amused me no end in all manner of ways. I decided to have it enlarged - something to this day must still baffle the lad at Cherwell Graphics - and having spent the last few months gorging on everything Stewart Lee had ever done in the last few years, I found myself sounding and thinking like a very early Lee as I took to the stage at Comedy Virgins - for the third time, so more of a slag than a virgin now. Here I deconstructed said birthday card to a chorus of decent guffaws. I got through to the final again and with no more material needed thought I'd do OK - especially as all the people that were far better than me had bizarrely not been put through. In the end I lost out to a fat Irish bloke who had bluffed his way through a turgid and largely joke free piece about being a plasterer and Russia in WWII. But despite a long gap since my last gag and an untried routine, I hadn't died that night. Michael Winner had mind you. If you have five minutes to waste, put my name and 'birthday card' into YouTube and judge for yourself...
So months later I now sit with pages and pages of decent enough material and reflect. Pretty much everything I wrote got laughs. Good laughs. Even the occasional round of applause. The last gig with the birthday card was a success and I really believe it needs to be seen by more people, but I have again left things there. I've stopped again. Yet something about it all feel s a bit unfinished. If I'd have died every time then it would make sense to give up. But I didn't. So why can't I press on? Naturally I would say that my stuff is pretty good - I have to, else how can I expect anyone else to think it is? But as I start sounding bitter again, there does seem to be an influx of comedians on TV now who do seem to me at least to be, let's put it politely, 'unremarkable'. Not awful, just no funnier than anyone else you might see out and about on the circuit and with nothing special that marks them out from anyone else - not that I can see anyway. I would argue that the stuff I write is at least as good as anything these people write and in some cases a lot better. I try not to watch Live at the Apollo, but some of the material you see on there is no funnier than something you hear said by the man on the Clapham Omnibus. Yet there they are on TV saying it and getting paid for it. Only difference is they've got the ability to say it on stage. This I think is perhaps the key as to why I can't quite get myself up to proper 'pro' level. Confidence. I do worry less than I used to and it's clear for all to see that I am much more assured on stage now, even though I hardly ever perform, but I do lack this supreme confidence that these really successful types have. I truly believe a lot of them aren't that funny and what they say isn't remotely inspiring, yet they deliver it with such conviction that people find themselves laughing regardless, even thought they really are merely repeating what anyone could have come up with. But not anyone would have the super confidence to say it on stage.
Maybe if I did more I would gain this superiority, who knows, but a real lack of opportunity to perform and hone my craft is the excuse I use mostly and it is a good one. There is cock all for amateurs in Oxford and nothing in any of the surrounding areas. I found one 'event' in Oxford actually, but I should make it clear that it isn't called Mild Friends Comedy. Not only that but I certainly never emailed them asking for a spot, which was subsequently ignored. London and Manchester aside, I can't seem to find anywhere that takes people in my situation now. It just seems a crying shame that I can write all this stuff and it's doing nothing, whilst comedians with prime time shows are resorting to recycling old Peter Kay routines about taping the Top 40 on a Sunday evening.
Still can't remember that compere's name. Was it Andy something?
Anyway, as I conclude this picky piece, I notice that the chair in which I slouch is actually rather comfy. Maybe I should just stay sat down. But then the longer I sit here, the more I begin to ache.