You’re only as good as your last gig…

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Well, the course is now at an end so it seems like a good idea to think about how useful I’ve found it. At the start of the course I didn’t really know what to expect – I’d heard about it via Jon Bounds and signed up before I had chance to convince myself to back out. It felt quite a scary thing to attempt, but something which would hopefully bring a lot of personal achievement for me.

I’ve written here before that my ambitions for the course didn’t really lie in wanting to become a stand-up comedian – it was more about trying to improve my self-confidence, trying to encourage myself to write more regularly, trying to get some experience of performing and speaking in public, and to a certain extent having a go at something which I write about, since I review comedy gigs and thought maybe it was time I saw what it felt like on the other side of the fence.

I think the most useful parts of the course for me were the exercises and games we did in class, which really helped to lessen some of the inhibitions I feel when faced with having to speak or perform in front of people, especially when it involves doing something a bit silly. To do well on the course I think you need to have an open mind, and be prepared to work hard and practice regularly. But being willing to put yourself in silly situations and not let it faze you is definitely important.

The other thing which has been very important, for me personally, has been the support, feedback and real sense of camaraderie from the other people on the course. This has been vital, and I think everyone genuinely wanted each other to succeed. Everyone was also very kind, especially with their positive feedback and constructive comments. I should also point out that maybe my joke which was most well-received (the Coventry/Primark gag at the top of the set) was originally cut from my act but reinstated due to popular demand, so clearly they know what’s funny.

Also, James Cook has been a very approachable and helpful tutor, both in class and also via email when I’ve wanted his opinion on material I’ve been working on. Reading his feedback on my performance at Saturday’s showcase was pleasing and validated what I’d been trying to achieve (I’m taking the Andy Zaltzman comparison as a compliment because that’s exactly the kind of thing I was going for and I’m a fan). I’m also glad that I was able to put a physical element and some exaggerated actions into the set, as a direct result of how we’d explored in class that bigger performances get bigger reactions, because they’re funnier – if that final part of the set had come earlier, I think I would’ve tried to introduce more of that physicality, and that’s certainly something that could be built up if I decided to do this again. Here’s an alternate recording of my set, made by James.

I think I also had a more developed appreciation of the finer details of performing stand-up – the bit in my set where I fall to my knees was rigorously rehearsed and done in such a way so that I bent into the fall and used my wallet – concealed in my back pocket – to slow down the pace of impact when my knees came into contact with the stage. If a future as a stunt man isn’t quite on the cards, it nevertheless gave me an insight into the kind of attention to detail which professionals will show in every tiny element of their set, doing whatever they can to get laughs and figuring out the best way to be able to achieve that practically.

I don’t think I’ve got into the habit of writing as regularly as I would’ve liked, simply because there were periods of intense creativity and bouts of doing nothing. I need to somehow find a balance so that I’m writing more often. However, I did get into the habit of carrying notebooks around with me and jotting down any kernels of ideas ready for further exploration, and there are quite a few jokes and ideas which have gone as yet unused or unexplored, simply because they didn’t really fit into that particular set. I think I’d be interested in performing stand-up again if I had some ideas and material which lent itself to stand-up rather than another format, but there are other writing projects which I want to try out first – a monologue, I’d like to have a go at writing comic fiction, scripts (across different types of media), possibly a play, and also some children’s fiction; not to mention trying to get Who’s Laughing Now revamped. And I think this course has taught me to think carefully about the best medium for your idea, and how you can make the idea fit that medium as well as how to tailor it to your audience.

The next stand-up comedy course at MAC runs from May through to July, again led by James Cook. For anyone who thinks they’d like to have a go, or just want to try something new, I’d recommend it because it’s been a really fulfilling and enjoyable experience for me. It’s hard work, but great fun too.

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Reflections on a job done good

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Twelve weeks ago I started a stand-up comedy course. The past three months have gone far quicker than I imagined they would – during that time there have been some highs, a few lows, and lots of agonising over whether what I was writing was actually funny. Last night I put it to the test.

If you’d like to stream or download my set, you can do so on Soundcloud. If you’d prefer to read on without knowing the end result, look away now…

As I sat on a bench in Cannon Hill Park a full 90 minutes before the gig was due to start, I could feel the nerves approaching. The material that I’d known inside out the past few days (during my several hours of practice – thank you very much, ‘working from home’) began to disappear from my brain. Slowly, whole chunks of my set became a mystery to me, as though they hadn’t even be written, let alone burned into my consciousness for the past week or more, and my mind wandered back to my practice in Monday’s class when I forgot my lines and froze completely on two occasions.

It was difficult to enjoy the first section of the show, as I sat at the back of the audience becoming ever more anxious. The interval before the second section of the show – I was due to go on stage second in this segment – was painful. I was pacing around the dressing room, looking at my notes and making a last-ditch attempt to try to recall all of those words which I’d spent so long working on, but which seemed to have deserted me in a flash. I’ve never felt as nervous about anything as I did while I stood at the top of the stairs, waiting for Tom to come off stage.The previous most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done was a speech at my sister’s wedding, but at least I had the benefit of notes then. And I didn’t have the added pressure of needing to be funny.

Then something strange happened. As I stood by the stage door, waiting for James Cook to introduce me, an unbelievable sense of calm took over. What happened in the following five minutes is something of a blur – the set went as smoothly as I could have hoped for, and as soon as I’d started I found that rhythm which I’d been nailing for several hours a day all week, but had been petrified wouldn’t materialise last night. It probably helped that I couldn’t really see anybody in the audience – even most of the front row was obscured, it was basically me in a room full of people I couldn’t see while I stood under a ridiculously bright spotlight. People who know me well will be aware that I do not like being the centre of attention, but it was in that moment that I realised how far I’d come during these twelve weeks. Or maybe I haven’t come that far after all, but it’s taken this to make me realise that actually I could do this performance and not freeze under pressure.

I think I’m probably too close to the material to be able to deconstruct my material and my set. I had a line planned in case people booed my Coventry reference, but nobody did, and since I had twelve friends in the audience that actually got a cheer! So I forgot to do my line about Coventry only being down the A45, or as it’s otherwise known, Birmingham’s cat flap.

I got a lot of comments from friends, people on the course, and the friends/partners of fellow performers, that my material was very intelligent – I’m not sure if it’s particularly cerebral, since it covers two very populist topics, but I wanted to do something vaguely artistic and think (or at least hope) I succeeded in doing this. The fact that it seemed to get some decent laughs made me feel good about it, though I wish I could do something along the lines of the banter-led style that some of the other performers did really naturally. I also wish I could do something which is both funny and personal to me, but that is something I have in mind for a future project – a monologue I’d like to start working on after a much-needed holiday.

I’m glad that I did at least have a go – admittedly in quite a small-scale way – of introducing some physical elements to the set, including various hand gestures as a way of acting out the impassioned ‘speech’, and the stretching bit (which I came up with on Thursday while trying to think of a contingency plan in case I completely dried up on the night. The other was to have a drink from a bottle of water and say that if I was doing that completely authentically, I would’ve sprayed myself in the face with it and then started spitting across the stage. But…you know…health and safety). It might be quite telling that one of the biggest laughs during my set was at the sight of a 6-foot, 15-stone bearded man collapsing to his knees in the midst of an on-stage breakdown (for comedic purposes, honest), which was another attempt to bring something physical into what I understood was quite a wordy set, and simply because 1) exaggerating things is very funny (one of the things the course has helped me with is being a little less reserved about looking silly in front of people, especially if you’re doing something that gets a laugh), and 2) few things are funnier than someone falling over, even if it’s done in a very controlled way and followed by copious ranting. The people who sat in the audience will probably never know how much practice went into trying to fall in the ‘right’ way, so as not to completely destroy my kneecaps in the process…

I’m realistic enough to know that my delivery isn’t as confident, comfortable or natural as I would like, and there were a couple of little slips but nothing big. I also know that I was probably shuffling from foot to foot a little bit, and I think I spent much of my set looking up towards the back of the audience, where I knew all of my friends were sat, rather than trying to look straight to the front. But it was my first performance (no idea if there will be another), so I’ll try not to be too critical of myself. I was disappointed not to be able to do my Silvio Berlusconi bit (this was cut a couple of weeks ago due to time, and also because it didn’t really fit in with the other stuff I ended up talking about). And it surprised me a little to think that my set appeared in almost chronological order – the stuff at the start was written earliest, through to the ending which came last. This certainly wasn’t by design, but it amused me anyway. More importantly, though, I was just glad to be able to come off stage with my head (thankfully) held high and to know that other people enjoyed it. I guess what was even more important, though – contrary to what I was thinking in the dressing room earlier – was that I’d enjoyed the experience too.

I’ll post some more thoughts about the course as a whole after tomorrow night’s final class, but I wanted to share the experience of having performed my material in front of a seemingly appreciative audience. Many thanks to the people who came along to give support – Tracy & Paul Buckley (who recorded the show for me on his iPhone), Caz & Steve Mayne, Ross & Ellena Varney, Darren Hallett & Ruth McDonald, Joe Grassby & Andrea Breau, Matt Stalker and Dan Scaife. Also thanks to those who have given words of encouragement during the course, especially Ashley Robinson, Martha Greengrass, Tom Steward, Lara Page, Darren Durham, Siobhan Reilly, Nick Booth, Ellen Publicover, Kyly Wilson, Jackie & Stephen Buckley, Maries Dellagiovanna, Catherine O’Reilly, Alexandra Ley, Victoria Pearson, Clare Balcarres, Gavin Wray, David Allen, Jon Bounds, Laura Liddington and Gareth Gwynn, as well as other people I might have forgotten (sorry). And thanks to everyone on the course for their feedback and support, especially James Cook.