The ability to make people laugh has always been something that is fairly central to my personality. I’m not entirely sure why, but it wasn’t for cliched make-the-bullies-laugh at school reasons, because I did—and they still hit me.
That was a lot more to do with me being obviously poorer and shyer in a school full of the confident entitled. And a bit of a dick, I’ve always been a bit of a dick.
I’m wary of being seen to be taking anything overly seriously, or being unable to break the tension with a quip. Confrontation so rarely solves anything, so if you can dodge it all the better and that has something to do with it but there’s a streak of performance and the need for validation in there too.
Writing gentle satire, or being amusing around strict parameters is easy—there are hundreds of people doing it fairly competently around the country every day. Creativity is different though, if you have to come up with the ideas rather than react to situations, if you decide that adaption of existing jokes to the situation isn’t what you want to do, if you want to be funny without it relying on reference, then it’s somewhat harder.
I’ve done plenty of compering, quizes, awards, that sort of thing, where a tiny bit of wit will do wonders to prop up the ‘turns’. I’ve also injected the odd bit of humour into the various other bits of public speaking I do as part of ‘work’, that’s easy and really does help get the point across.
What I’ve not done is stand-up comedy.
Well, not until last week. When I, er did.
Stand-up is the purest form of entertainment, it’s just one person talking, and that’s exciting. It’s also quite scary, and difficult. I’ve always thought that I’d like to and would be able to, but have never got round to doing anything.
Part of the reticence has been because no-one is pushing me to do it, I’ve got plenty of creative outlets and it’s just another one. Putting myself forward to do even an open slot somewhere seems boastful somehow, I’d need proof that I could do it. Partly it’s that I want to be great at whatever I try, and as an art form it doesn’t offer many safety features: no-one can really tell how comedy is going to go down, and a silence at a stand-up gig leaves no hiding place.
All of which is why that, despite being bad at learning (or being taught, rather), I signed up for a course in stand-up a couple of months ago. I’d seen James Cook, the tutor, perform: being accomplished, funny, and obviously in control of an audience. There was stuff I could learn there, and I also had a vague feeling that the pressure to produce material might help my other writing.
I can write, I think, it doesn’t usually take me that long to produce something when I sit down to do it—but the time it takes me to actually start is sometimes a problem. I can only work well when inspiration strikes, or when a deadline is looming, and usually manage it by not attempting to work when I don’t feel right. I’m not going to do it, I figure, so I can get on with other stuff until the time comes. It’s a solution, but not a good one, and I thought perhaps that working on stuff across a couple of months could really help.
The other people on the course, run from a windowless but expensively carpeted conference room at mac, were a mixture of those that were thinking of doing it professionally eventually and those that just thought it might be fun. All were obviously comedy fans, which I guess you’d have to be.
Alongside exercises, bits of stuff about things like mic technique, there were a couple of great sessions from comedians Andy White and Gary Delaney where they talked about how they worked and how they got started. The main thread of the sessions, though, was practical: listening to others trying out material and, when I could pluck up the courage, doing a bit myself.
I actually found this much more difficult than the more theoretical stuff. I didn’t want to say anything that would nudge people away from their own paths, I was worried about a homogenising effect with 14-15 would-be stand-ups working on routines in the same environment. It didn’t happen, without too much thought about style people seemed to find their own ways.
By the end-of-term showcase, in front of about 80 people, everyone on the course had enough stuff. Some had way too much and squeezed it into their allotted five minutes. It was an incredibly supportive audience, and each comic went down well.
I did struggle with material, I was after something that was sort of simultaneously clever and accessible and I couldn’t find anything I was happy with. In the end I’m not sure if I didn’t chicken out and go for easy laughs. I’m not sure I respect me as a stand-up, I think I can do it but I’m not sure if I can do it as well as I’d want to. I think I’ll wait for the big idea before having another go.
That’s not the fault of the course, which was really great and runs again in January. You’ll enjoy it if you have a go, I promise.