In this first of two articles, our stand-up columnist Si Hawkins explains how preparing for your first comedy gig can really mess with your ego...
"I'm working with this comedy tutor, but he keeps trying to make me put jokes in..."
Doing your debut stand-up gig after writing about just that for over a decade presents a peculiar set of issues. Yes, giving it a go yourself does belatedly counteract the regular - but understandable - rant by embittered comics about journalists passing judgement on their shows despite never having stepped on a stage. But you can also understand why many reviewers never bother, or at least keep their attempts very low-profile: can you still constructively criticise someone's lame set after doing one that's lamer?
It would have been interesting if the offer had come along on a different day, in truth. One evening in late 2012 I'd embarked on a hefty vent at my girlfriend that, 'hey, I'm just not challenging myself enough these days', when what should arrive the next morning but an email from British Comedy Guide's editor, including a half-hearted PS about a stand-up challenge, "just in case you had a yearning to try out the spotlight."
The event is called Turn the Tables, one of the opening shows at the now Dave-sponsored Leicester Comedy Festival, an annual jamboree that I hadn't realised is quite so vast and impressive. Our gig would feature five stand-up virgins from various areas of the media each doing a five minute set, having hooked up for several sessions with a proper comedy tutor in order to learn how to write and tell jokes.
To be honest I went for it without properly looking at the dates, thinking the gig would be aeons away, months after Christmas. Discovering that it was actually in February caused a mighty tea-spit and meant starting the sessions the very next week, and thus sorting out pretty sharpish what sort of comic I was going to be. It's not the simplest question for someone who particularly cherishes the Foots and Fulchers, those that push the artform's envelope without resorting to anything so passé as punchlines.
This becomes more of an issue the next week when I head to Islington's best-named pub, The Famous Cock, and meet Marc Blake (pictured below), a long-time stand-up turned comedy tutor. Feeling a bit awkward about the whole business I actively try to stay off the specifics of my upcoming set for half of our hour-long session, until Marc grasps the nettle and asks who my favourite stand-ups are. I mention a prolific, hugely-respected-within-the-industry act whose live show I'd enjoyed a few days before and whose style I reckon I'd be closest to, only for Marc to announce fairly vehemently that he isn't a fan. 'Ah', I think, 'we may have a problem here'.
We do agree on a general theme for my set though. It's pretty obvious that I'm not going to have the time, experience or - let's face it - balls to do something edgy and experimental, so I lean towards anecdotal, harking back to my early years in journalism where, for some odd reason, I ended up interviewing rappers for a living; the whole fish out of water shtick. Marc seems quite enthused by the idea so he sends me off to write some material. At this point, with the comforting womb of Christmas as a buffer, I'm feeling a tad blasé.
The pain of putting pen to paper
In truth, I'd always secretly longed to make people laugh for a living, but the journalism route meant having to leave the house less, so I did that. Oddly enough though, the concept of writing down a potential stand-up set - which I'd then have to email over to Marc - pains my brain, so I put it off for as long as possible.
Many of these anecdotes I've told before and quite honestly I can't see the point in putting them down on paper, where the lack of energy and inflection leaves them looking about as funny as a dawn visit from Operation Yewtree. But at the last minute I bash a load of stuff down, send it off and arrange to meet Marc to gauge his reactions.
I come away from our second session somewhat dispirited about the whole business. I've come up with a half-formed bit about phoning Snoop Dogg's house, for example, which Marc then dissects, taking out bits I like and shoehorning in punchlines that pain my soul. Writing comedy is very much trial and error, of course, and a crap punchline can often lead to something better, but because I've convinced myself that we're on different wavelengths I just nod along, thinking I'll sort something else out nearer the time. We break for Christmas.
Marc had also given me some invaluable tips about the nuts and bolts of a live gig, mind you, working out the timings and even explaining the whole 'lift-and-separate' technique for handling the microphone stand as you come on: simple-sounding stuff that I was suddenly all-too aware of. Meanwhile I've been interviewing other comics as per usual, but nicking five minutes at the end to ask stand-up advice.
I have a good chat with Glenn Wool about self-deprecation, which he reckons many newer comics actively rail against these days, but which is definitely my chosen demeanour (if I'm going to be a nervous wreck I might as well make the most of it). He also offers some simple but sage advice on stagecraft: if you find yourself looking at your shoes or the microphone, you're really not doing it right.
An Irish comic called Ross Browne also imparts some useful pearls of wisdom, although the nugget that really resonates comes from a chap called Marc Burrows (pictured), who I happen to bump into while on a music-journo junket to Holland. He suggests that I don't really need tutoring, me having seen heaps of comedy over the years, but then also points out a huge flaw in my idea about just getting up and telling old anecdotes. "That's fine," he says. "As long as you put in punchlines every 10 seconds"... I'm clearly being a bit bloody optimistic about how easy storytelling on stage might be.
That trip to Holland is another awkward distraction generally though. With the tax deadline looming alongside several work ones I'm struggling a bit, and have to seriously think about giving up this time-consuming stand-up idea, but eventually drop some paid work to make room. Even if I end up out of pocket and making an underprepared arse of myself up there, it's unlikely that I'll ever try stand-up again if I give up on this.
Indeed, having Marc the tutor nagging at me for material does force me to just sit and write jokes, and - after initially being a bit mortified about putting pen to paper - stuff suddenly starts to spring forth, those anecdotes growing whole unexpected tentacles. Unfortunately, while sometimes quite decent, they do tend to take me a bit off-topic, it turns out.
I realise that my bit about my dealings with Snoop Dogg, for example, which already has a big porn angle, also has a big Disney angle that I hadn't really thought about before: the combination of factors sounds rich in potential to me. At our next session, though, tutor Marc rather pooh-poohs this idea, insisting that it's now not clear who the butt of the joke is: me, Snoop or the woman from Disney. So there can only be one butt? Surely the more butts the merrier? But apparently not.
Always absolutely hopeless at taking criticism (and thus clearly entering the wrong profession here) I spend the rest of that session doing what I've done in most lesson-type scenarios since I started primary school: drifting off and thinking 'Yeah, whatever, I'll worry about this nearer the exam.' It's my time I'm wasting, and so with a couple of weeks left until showtime and after only three of the scheduled six sessions, I give them up. I'm gonna try to land this baby on my own. Well, more or less.