This week, on a drizzly Thursday night, I took to the microphone for the first time.
This started weeks ago. My friends and I had performed in school plays and such in high school, and this experience had imprinted each of us with the unjustifiable confidence that all high school success stories do. Although we had lived our entire adult lives (now 28), without ever going on stage again, I was sure, not only that I could do it, but that I could do it pretty well.
That was then.
We’d tried and failed to get on what passed for an open mic circuit in our small town, (Bedford REPRESENT), one pub nearby hosted stand up comedy four times a year (“Sorry mate, no room for first timers”) and about an hour away there was another pub that hosted open mics (“Fully booked for the next six months mate”). Undeterred, and nourished by the Do-it-yourselfism inherent in podcasts and certain overly positive corners on Twitter, we set out to run our own night.
Firstly, let me be clear to all first time stand up comics, and all who are looking for a stage, this is not the ideal path.
“Sure!” Grinned the bartender, wrong footing us completely. “I say you guys in high school!”. And so the waves of panic slowly burst their banks. “You’ll be great!”
And so we found ourselves, under prepared, the audience, underwhelmed, the stakes, sky high. We’d nurtured our slightly delusional confidence primarily by never ever putting ourselves in a situation where we would have to justify it. The bubble was dangerously close to being burst.
As I strode up to the stage, to deliver the first gag of the evening (not strictly speaking true, I had thrown up in the bathroom earlier), the audience quietened to a low hum, and we kicked off.
Advice to stand up comics? Know your set. Know your set, because you’re going to miss bits, you’re going to forget, drop a set up or fluff a punch line, and when that happens, you’ll need to know whether you can scrap it, loop back to it, or re-work it to fit. Without my ever supportive fiance allowing me to run routine after routine by her at home, we would have been stranded up there.
Know the PA system. Know how to lower the mic. When you’re up there, you’re brain will be too busy screaming and firing on all cylinders around the audience and the material to be concerned with finding the camouflaged screw on the side of the mic stand.
Meet your fellow comedians. There’s only two groups of people that can help you get better, the audience, and other comedians who listen to your set. And believe me, it’s easier to hear a fellow comedian say “tighten this little bit up” than it is to hear the audience say absolutely nothing at all.
Work up some “spontaneous” lines. the audience needs to have confidence in your work, they need to feel safe with you steering the ship for 15 minutes or however long. If something happens, someone drops a drink, a heckle, a weird laugh, there is the expectation a comedian should be able to react. Being able to do so will take your act from “pretty sound” to “owning it.”
As for how our set went, I’d like to be able to tell you more. Unfortunately we suffered from the universal comedy phenomenon of “lacking out” during the set from adrenaline. It’s almost impossible to remember how my set went down. Noone dragged me off stage halfway through, so I guess we’ve got that.
Look out for the announcements of our next live show on this very site, and we’ll be posting the sets themselves on the podcast as a special bonus episode soon. So judge for yourselves.
I’m sure I’ve missed some key lessons, let us know if you have any tips we can use to raise our level!