14 Nov Stand-up virgin
A friend once said to me “You’re really funny. You should be a stand-up comedian.” Many of us have had the experience of making a group of friends laugh down the pub. Or, if you’re middle-aged like me, at a friend’s house for a dinner party – where laughter can become infectious, particularly if the red wine is flowing. It’s one thing having a laugh with your friends but making a group of complete strangers laugh for five minutes is another matter entirely…
I have always been fascinated by comedy. I grew up watching Tommy Cooper, Spike Milligan and Les Dawson. The more ridiculous they were, the more I laughed – children laugh around three times more often than adults. I loved silly jokes like ‘I went to my doctor and asked for something for persistent wind. He gave me a kite.’ Les Dawson.
I run my own brand and graphic design business, so I’m no stranger to being creative and presenting my ideas to clients. I have, on occasion, also led services in my church. But I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and see if I could do what my childhood heroes did. I was about to find out.
Rhod Gilbert, Greg Davies and me
After searching online, I found the 10-week Logan Murray Comedy Course (loganmurray.com) that ends with a showcase in front of family and friends. The course has been running for more than 15 years, and has seen hundreds of budding comics tread its boards. Logan Murray has over 35 year’s experience in comedy, TV and directing – who is acknowledged as one of the best comedy tutors in the country. After a bit more research I discovered that previous students of the course include Rhod Gilbert and Greg Davies. I’m not Welsh, but I am over 6’ 5” tall, so surely I was halfway to stardom already.
I paid my money and, two weeks later, found myself in a small rehearsal room near London Bridge with fourteen other terrified would-be comics. From photographers and NHS staff through to a YouTuber and an opera singer, we quickly got to know each other in a series of improvisation games that were both challenging and hilarious.
At the end of the first three-hour session, every person on the course had made me laugh. I came away hoping they were thinking the same about me.
The following weeks became even more enjoyable as our group began to really gel. I couldn’t wait for Wednesday evenings. Thanks to Logan, the environment was really positive and I felt very comfortable being creative, taking risks and playing the fool.
I discovered that previous students of the course include Rhod Gilbert and Greg Davies.
To prepare myself mentally for what I was going to do, I thought it would be a good idea to go along to an open mic night. This is where any budding comedian can sign up beforehand or even on the door. There’s no shortage of venues for amateur comedians to perform their set, particularly where I live near London.
I’d heard about a club called The Lion’s Den on Shaftesbury Avenue. In the dark basement bar, chairs had been placed in rows facing a single microphone and a black curtain that had seen better days. The format was simple, each act has no more than five minutes and are called out at random.
I grabbed a beer and sat down in the back row (I’m a Christian and I know better than to sit anywhere near the front). It soon became apparent that I was one of only a handful who weren’t performing. This gave the evening a slightly awkward atmosphere, much like bus drivers talking about their busman’s holiday to a group of bus drivers on a bus – more like a therapy group than a show. As each person was introduced enthusiastically by the compere, there was polite applause but with a subtle undercurrent of ‘I hope you die on your arse’.
The following hour and a half – which felt longer – consisted of a very narrow range of topics, namely relationships, sex and God with two of the acts being extremely racist. It certainly was an eye-opener – a glimpse into contemporary culture and the topics that consume people. It’s a window that needed looking through, but one I wanted to quickly pull the curtains on at the same time.
Homework, finding my voice and my first gig
Back in the rehearsal space on Wednesday evenings, I was gradually becoming more confident in what I was writing. It certainly wasn’t polished, but I could see what it might become with more tuition. As Logan says “There’s no such thing as a bad joke, just an under developed one.” The weekly homework we were set included creating thank you notes, deliberately pretentious poems and even a vlog desperately selling ourselves for an imaginary dating website.
“There’s no such thing as a bad joke, just an under developed one.” Logan Murray.
The homework began to absorb my days (and sometimes nights) and my brain constantly whirred with ideas. I found myself tuning into people’s conversations on the train, in cafés and in church. I couldn’t switch off.
Through this mixture of listening, writing and performance I began to see a style appear. It was definitely me but, inevitably at this stage I guess, influenced by the comedy that I really like now. With the dry conversational style of Stewart Lee, the surrealism of Harry Hill and with a light sprinkle of the dark humour of The League of Gentlemen, my material was loosely based on my experiences but quickly pushed into fictional scenarios.
At the end of the seventh session – after we’d spent the evening learning about microphone technique – the homework set was to book a spot at an open mic night. I knew it would have to happen at some point. You can’t attend a stand-up comedy course and then not actually perform any stand-up, like being taught how to cook but never tasting it.
I had compiled more than five -minutes of material from the exercises, but it wasn’t in any semblance of order. I had jokes about prostate checks, epilepsy (a condition I have), taking my wife out to dinner, campsites, showers and even animals wearing hats. A mixed, quirky and potentially controversial bag to say the least. I began to cut, change and add bits, learning it in chunks, standing in front of a mirror in the bedroom holding a hairbrush like a teenager. And, bit by bit, it began to feel more like me and less like Stewart, Harry and The League.
We decided to book gigs where at least three of us novices could perform on the same evening. That way, each of us would know that at least two people would be laughing, even if only out of politeness.
My first ever gig was a great space, wide but only five rows deep, with around 60 chairs set out. I let the compere know that I had arrived with my ‘bringer’. A lot of open mic nights are called ‘bringer nights’, meaning that acts can only perform if they bring a friend along. It’s a format that really works, boosting the audience numbers and making the evening more like a gig than a rehearsal.
Immediately, this gig felt very different to the one I’d been to at The Lion’s Den, with the audience providing generous support for everyone. Having been told that I would be on in the second half, I went off to the loo during the interval to reread my notes and write key words on the back of my hand – a safety net of ink. I bought a coke (I didn’t want alcohol to blur my thinking) and went back to my seat while the butterflies in my stomach did their thing.
Three acts after the interval the compere said, “Shall we get our next act out? This is his first time doing stand-up. It’s Stuart Smith.” I jumped up from my seat, onto the stage and promptly knocked the microphone out of the stand – a bit too soon to be dropping the mic. Strangely, this didn’t throw me at all and I launched headfirst into my first joke.
Then the weirdest thing happened, I could hear people laughing! Although I couldn’t see anyone due to the spotlight, I could hear them. They laughed at the next joke, and the next, and I began confidently ‘selling’ each joke like Logan had told me to. I was really getting into my flow when I saw a flashing red light at the back of the room signifying I had one-minute left. It had gone so fast!
I was buzzing. It was an incredible feeling to have made total strangers laugh, out loud. I didn’t sleep that night. I relived the evening and replayed my set in my head. I wanted to go and do it again. Two weeks later, I did.
Performing in the final showcase in front of my family and friends was an incredible experience. It was decided that I would be the last act of the evening, and I was ecstatic. My ego saw this gig as mine – in his eyes he was the headliner – and my competitive nature was determined to blow everyone else away. I couldn’t have been happier with how it went. In less than three months I had gone from watching stand-up comedians to being one myself, albeit for five minutes at a time. I’d learned lots about comedy but the biggest transformation had been in my self-confidence, my posture and how being out of my comfort zone can actually energise me rather than make me freeze. I have more gigs booked, dinner parties included.