Are You Experienced?

I’ve just finished Steve Martin’s book ‘Born Standing Up’, which is something I’ve meant to delve into for some time. Much like the Stewart Lee book I read a few weeks back, it was both hugely inspirational as a stand-up and at the same time reassuring that a lot of the same thoughts and feelings have passed through their heads as have passed through mine. The main element its made me think about loads and be somewhat jealous of, was both Martin and Lee’s abilities to not fear breaking out from the normal. They both reached points in their careers where suddenly they realised they owned the stage and were fully able to experiment with where they could take their acts. I thought about this a lot last night as I drove back from my somewhat odd and mediocre gig in Hawridge. I have, since Edinburgh, truly felt like my act has stepped up a notch, and I say this without meaning to sound arrogant in any way, but in the last year I really feel like I can now deal with pretty much most gigs. Over the years I’ve received amazing advice from other stand-ups, ranging from John Fothergill’s great response to my Comedy Store open spot death some years ago – ‘Well why don’t you just kill yourself then?’, alluding to the fact that a 10 min onstage death is really no way the worst thing in the world, followed him telling me why I really shouldn’t care – to various bits of advice about how comedy isn’t a race against other acts, which is always in the back of my mind. Possibly the most important bit however, was constantly being told by many a more learned act that experience is the most important thing. I shrugged it off as an open spot, assuming there was some quicker way to get better and how boring just having to work for it sounded. But they were right. So very right. Over the seven and a bit years I’ve now been doing stand-up I’ve noticed myself change in terms of material, but also confidence and performance, that I can only put down to slogging away at gigs all over the place and dealing with audiences I would never have been able to simulate in any other way than just gigging to them.

But despite this current state of contentment with getting on any stage to do stand-up, the one area I’m still struggling with is the ability to just go a bit crazy with a gig. To do something unexpected or at least, what you really want to. Last night’s gig was full of smiley, but not laughing country folk who all worked in an odd collection of jobs from lollipop man (‘IT’S SCHOOL CROSSSING PATROL THANK YOU’) to a man who tests fast cars. For the life of me, I couldn’t work them out. There would be a big laugh, swiftly followed by silence. I changed from material to chatting to them back to material again and nothing seemed to ever get them on a roll. I wasn’t too fussed by this. I didn’t walk off feeling like I’d failed, they seemed content enough. What I was sad about is that I’d chickened out from doing the material I wanted to yet again. I’ve written some stuff this week that I’m pleased with all about the horrors of the coalition government’s cuts and Ed Milliband’s speech which I excitedly did in London on Monday and Tuesday. Yet, there, in the home counties white middle class pub of Hawridge, I wussed out. I couldn’t figure out their political stance and feared losing them even more by going into it. Here’s the crux. Is it unprofessional to not care and churn out the material you think they should hear? Or is it best to keep trying to do things you think they might like? Its the constant battle between realising that we, as comedians, have a job to do – entertain the audience – and whether or not you stick to that but ultimately leave frustrated with yourself for not fulfilling what you wanted to do, or do you do what you like at the risk of upsetting a room of people who have paid money to be entertained? Then there is the whole aspect where I was the first act on last night and I worried that by risking ruining things early on I’d make the night shit for everyone else.

I watched in awe at Bestival this year as Andrew Maxwell, off his face, donned a Mexican wrestler’s mask, brought on his friend with a guitar and just got the whole crowd singing songs. His confidence in doing it was such that the whole crowd just went with it and had a great time. I’ve watched several acts throw themselves into the crowd and do all sorts of things based on instinct alone and reading about Steve Martin walking his entire crowd out into the street made me smile in amazement. I’ve never really done this. Its a combination of not feeling brave enough about it, concern for delivering a set that works and also sometimes sheer laziness, knowing I can just plough through my old crap material like a script, pick up my cash and piss off home. At all the student gigs I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been churning out old stuff, knowing that I need to deliver 20 minutes of hard gags to a large crowd who aren’t interested or know about large amounts of life yet. Still as I do it, I feel myself wishing that I had the gall to indulge them in other thoughts I’ve written since. Sitting in late night traffic on the A41 at 10pm, I grumbled to myself many thoughts. One: I wish I’d asked the lollipop man if he ever uses his stick to play long distance ping pong. Two: Not to have backed down and just done the material I’m currently enjoying and want to be telling people about. I couldn’t be angrier about the current state of our government and I’ve finally written some jokes about it that I’m pleased with. Admittedly they’ll stop being topical in two weeks time, but rather than just sitting at home fuming, I’ve made jokes with, I hope, opinions to them. I should think ‘so what’ to the audience’s political views and say how I feel about things. I have the mic. If anything it could change their minds. Or they could just hate me, talk about how the ‘first act was total shit’ and boo me off stage.

Steve Martin writes that it took him 10 years to perfect his act, to really feel like he was ‘funny’. I’ve still got three years till then and maybe it’ll come. I really hope one day I’ll walk on knowing I can do what I want to do, rather than what I should do. Or maybe I’m not that sort of act. Tonight is attempt number two to not be a comedic coward, so we’ll see if I still need those three years or not.

Sorry for a serious one today. It doesn’t help that I was rudely woken up this morning by a plumber bursting into my room without warning, due to a leak I didn’t know we had. I am know playing Super Furry Animals ‘Radiator’ as he bleeds the radiator as an injoke to myself. And only myself. I don’t care about this audience. Although he hasn’t paid a ticket, so I suppose its only fair.

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