There is an immediate gut reaction in people to declare “oh, I could never do that” when asked if they would do stand-up. It’s the image of standing alone in the spotlight, feedback echoing across an empty room with a silence-shattering cough in the background that may put people off. But in truth, stand-up comedy is one of the most liberating things you can do.
When someone thinks of stand-up, odds are they’ll think of a mainstream comedy show like Live at the Apollo. Although this does usually contain at least one decent comedian, it is very filtered and does not reflect all the aspects of stand-up.
That’s not to say it provides bad programming, but these shows tend not to fully encapsulate the wider variety of stand-up, mostly relying on whoever’s the hot comedian of the day. Meanwhile, there’s no real alternative stand-up show to run alongside the mainstream, to showcase either up-and-coming traditional stand-ups, or alternative format comedy.
On the flip-side, another perception is that after you’ve done a couple of gigs you’ll immediately become super famous and living off stand-up comedian fame for the rest of your life. The reality is, of course, like any performing art you need to have your break first – and the chances of you having it are the same as anyone else’s (quite slim).
I have known people who have done stand-up for years and years and never gotten their break. Comedy promoters who have brought up huge stars, but still work the same old pubs and cellars. Mostly, people do stand-up just for the pure love of it.
So why do it? It’s just as hard to make a career out of it as any other facet of show business – one of the most inaccessible industries around.
Simply put, it gives you the chance to express thoughts and feelings you wouldn’t normally have the chance to. It gives you the chance to express yourself.
That doesn’t mean to say you can get up on stage with a free pass to start spouting inflammatory and derogatory stuff. Most audiences are not prepared to sit through a diatribe of racist, sexist or homophobic jokes. Indeed misjudge one joke and the entire atmosphere of the room will drop, which for a comedy gig isn’t ideal.
You’re not going to be famous after your first gig and you don’t want to get off to a bad start by having material which is overly-offensive, so start off by having a set which can have a broad appeal and over time you will eventually find a niche that will suit you. It took a lot of time for Frankie Boyle to earn the licence to be controversial – and it still cost him his regular TV gigs.
Speaking of your first set, you will need to find gigs to go to. Thanks to social media, finding a beginners gig is now relatively easy. There are many Facebook groups revolving around stand-up comedy and often post about gigs in and around certain areas. Odds are that there will be an event near you. Keep a lookout for Open Mic nights, where you would be allowed five minutes to try out some material, and these are great chances to practice a set.
Some gigs will ask you to bring people with you to fill out an audience. It’s wise to bring people with you anyway for support, but these types of gigs may ask to contribute to the audience.
On the topic of audiences, be prepared to perform to a small crowd when you do get onto stage – I have been in situations where the number of comedians outnumbers audience members. Although this is hard to stomach at first, one positive is that this is a great chance to get your set workshopped by other comedians – feedback being invaluable to any creative endeavour.
If you are feeling nervous or jittery before a gig, talk to your fellow comedians. In the end, everyone is doing this because they love it and there is no reason why anyone should be negative before a gig, especially if it is your first time. And if that doesn’t work… have a drink at the bar. Although not too much, as being drunk on stage can either go good or very, very, very bad.
Pressure of performing stand-up is understandable. The most important thing to know is that the audience and everyone there is looking to have a laugh and have a good time. I’m not saying hecklers don’t exist or are an old comedians horror story to scare away newbies, as sadly they do pop up from time to time.
But it takes a particular brand of person to heckle at a comedy gig, and it is duty of the host of the night to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s your role to perform the set you have crafted, and for yourself to have a good time too – after all if you don’t have fun doing it, then don’t do it all.
So have fun doing it. There is plenty of material you can do and you can craft your stand-up to suit you. Whether you like sharing anecdotes, expressing your views on a topic, character comedy, physical comedy, puns and one-liners or even comedic poetry, you’re not restricted to follow one path.
When I say to people they should do stand-up comedy, the most popular phrases are “I wouldn’t know what to say” or “I’m not funny”. I used to believe I wasn’t funny, years later I manged to become the President of my university comedy society. The irony wasn’t lost on me, but I realised when I was doing stand-up and comedy in general, it gave me the confidence I needed in everyday life, and making people laugh was a great feeling.
Humour is both specific and broad. Subjective but universal. Everyone has the capacity to create comedy when we interact with people on a daily basis. Humour can be found in the most unlikely of places, and each of us have unique and creative stories, whether it’s working in retail, a call centre, or a school, or it’s living with a crazy family, stand-up comedy is essentially sharing funny stories to an audience.
So, if you have ever wanted to stand-up, to quote the great Shia LeBeouf, “just do it!”
Join a Facebook group, find a gig, share it, get some material where you can, invite your friends, and go to it and have fun. No one is expecting to do more than your best and no one expects you to make a career of it. If you want to do it because you have always wanted, there is no reason to stop you.
Stand-up is meant to be done for a laugh – both for the audience, and for you.