I Was A Stand-Up Comedian & What I Learned Will Change Your Whole View On Comedy
Stand-up comedy is one of those things that people often list as their worst nightmare. As someone who has lived that nightmare, I can confirm that being a stand-up comedian really is about as hard as it looks. The agony you feel when a joke falls flat is gutting as hard as one would expect.
Having your heart fall out of your butt in front of braying masses makes you wonder, "what fresh hell is this and why have I done this to myself?" I'll tell you why: nothing rivals that feeling of elation when people pick up what you've put down. When you bring the house down with one line or a facial expression, it makes it all worthwhile.
People often ask how I got into stand-up comedy or what my personal experience has been. Having started my professional life at a company that specialises in comedy management, I saw a lot of angles of the industry and worked with comedians at different levels of success. Never the traditionalist, my path has been a little different, and I started my career as a stand-up comedian in a more ad hoc fashion. Here's what I've learned along the way — the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
1. Stand-Up Is Not The Only Way To Do Comedy
Initially, I struggled to figure out how to get started. The thought of stand-up appealed to me, but I couldn't get my head around sitting down and writing a set. Around that time, a pub I worked in asked me if I would consider doing my own spin on the traditional pub quiz. Thus began a two-year residency with my very own comedy quiz in Bethnal Green. It was a great way for me to test jokes and considering the pub in question had quite a diverse customer base, I was able to quickly ascertain who found me funny and which types of jokes fell well. I also learned that my strength was more in ad-libbing, as opposed to overly structured sets that didn't allow me to feel out the crowd.
If you think of comedy as a journey, the only rule is there are no rules. Carve your own path and make your own route.
2. Writing Comedy Is Really Hard
Ok y'all, the rumours are true: writing comedy is hell hard. Well, it is for me anyway. Having spent most of my adult life being told that I am funny and that I should try comedy, I thought it would be an absolute breeze. Turns out, making funny comments and pulling silly faces doesn't necessarily translate to successfully writing a set. Also, your private jokes with friends often kind of suck to anybody else.
It's important to find a joke that people can relate to or that you know has a wide reach. Whether that's commenting on the public forum or telling an anecdote that you know always gets a laugh, it's important to remember that you are writing for an audience, as well as yourself and people you know.
3. Female Comics Are Still In The Minority
Traditionally, the world of comedy has been dominated by men. This always made it seem quite daunting to me. However, women have long fought against this domination and proved that despite many thinking otherwise, yes, women really are funny. Comedy heroes like French and Saunders, Gina Yashere, and Jo Brand (to name only a few) have proven that there definitely is a place for women in comedy, so go out there and continue their legacy by showing that female comics do not have to adhere to any rules laid down by men.
4. You Die On Stage A Lot
You know that anxiety-laden feeling you have when you get caught doing something weird, or that feeling of complete mortification when you let off wind at an inopportune moment? Imagine that and multiply it by infinity plus one. That's dying on stage.
What may only be five seconds of radio silence after a punchline can derail your entire set. It's a confidence knock and something you have to experience a whole bunch of times. Professional comedians you see on TV have practiced their set a lot and performed it a lot, to gauge if its funny. They have also died on stage a lot and messed up just as much. So don't be disheartened or put off by dying on stage: it's a vital part of the process.
5. Haters Gonna Hate
Hecklers. Bloody hecklers. I have been at gigs where audience members have clearly come solely to heckle the performer. It is absolutely excruciating to watch and even worse to experience yourself. As a comedian, drunk audience members are what can only be described as your frenemies. Drunk people are often more likely to laugh at your jokes, but drunk people also just love to shout stuff at you. Oh and they will. With gay abandon.
I definitely learned that the best way for me to cope with hecklers is to fight fire with fire, but also get them on my side. Make them think that they have actually enhanced my set. Then, they might shut the heck up.
6. Sadness Is A Double-Edged Sword
Are comedians all depressed, as the stereotype would have you believe? I don't flipping know, ask them. Me? Am I depressed? Well, that I can answer. In short, I have experienced periods of depression and suffer from anxiety day-to-day. Growing up always feeling like the other, or a weirdo, or trying to hide being gay, meant that comedy was a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. Something that made me different in a good way.
Being funny has absolutely been a coping mechanism for me, and according to Gordon Claridge, a former professor of psychology at the University of Oxford, I am not alone. "Comedy may partly be a form of self-medication, something we don't see at all with other artists," he told CNN in 2017. I have definitely met some funny people with very dark sides to them but I think this further proves the importance of comedy in people's lives. As the old maxim says, "if you don't laugh you'll cry," right?
7. You Can't Turn Down A Gig... No Matter How Grim It Is
The phrase "sellout" is a bit grim, and nobody wants to be a sellout, right? But then, one day, you get a call. This call is from somebody who has seen you perform and wants to book you for a corporate gig. You guffaw at such a revolting idea and go to hang up the phone, before you hear how much they are offering to pay you and immediately take the gig. Money talks! That's it. Many comedians take awful corporate gigs because of the guaranteed cash that will keep your rent paid so you can keep on keeping on.
Over the years I have done office Christmas parties, birthday parties, hen parties, and (my personal favourite weird gig) a baby shower in a hospital. Moral of the story? Never turn down a show.
8. Timing Really Is Everything
You think this is going to be all about pausing before a punch line don't you? Timing is much, much, much more than that.
I remember my first ever scripted gig. Nervous as can be, I had learned the set verbatim. No room for any ad libbing or conversation with the room. So much so, that the second I got on stage, I basically babbled away and didn't breathe, let alone leave people a chance to hear the jokes, get the jokes, and (hopefully) laugh at the jokes. Talking slowly is important. It's been suggested by communications consultant Jack Black in CNBC that if you talk slower, people listen more.
I always have to slow myself down and fight my urge to speak a mile a minute. Being a proud Dubliner means I speak as if my tongue is on fire and I have to say everything before it's gone. Add nerves to that, and you end up sounding like the "Crazy Frog." Learning to breathe, speak slowly, and, of course, take relevant comedic pauses, is vital.
10. When People Don't Come To Your Events, It Hurts
There's no two ways about it, if you perform or host an event and nobody shows up, it really, really sucks.
Self-promotion is absolutely vital. If you can get someone to promote your gigs then good on you, but generally, it's plain old hard work on your own behalf that sells you. I have never been good at self-promotion and am always in awe of people who are able to constantly boost themselves via social media, posters, flyering, and of course, schmoozing.
Sometimes you do all the right things and nobody turns up anyway. It is absolutely crushing and mortifying. Especially when you have a venue to answer to and only one team (of your friends) has turned up to this comedy quiz you have promised would make them a fortune.
If you want to put an event on, you have to put a lot of work into getting feet through the door. You also have to produce an event people will want to tell all their mates about, and attend again.
11. Stay True To Yourself & Believe In Yourself
This is my number one point really, but I think the other points need to be heard before you get to the real deal. Your weird is wonderful, so own it. If you decide to take the leap into stand-up comedy, you are going to go through a lot of ups and downs and self-discovery. There is no right or wrong way. Every gig is a learning curve and every day you are growing.
I remember a comedian once telling me that the main thing to remember is that if you are funny, you can do this. That's it. The bits after are discipline, hard work, and eating humble pie.
My personal path has been a bit all over the place and led me to believe that stand-up isn't the only way for me to be funny. In fact, it's definitely now on the back-burner. I still do the occasional gig, but mainly I focus on my writing and moving forward with the skills that I have learned. But the desire to make people laugh? That will always be there.