So I’m on stage at London’s Comedy Store gong show – about 30 seconds into my act – and it’s going badly.
The drunken, baying mob that constitutes the audience is starting to mumble, with the mumbles gradually turning to boos and the inevitable gong.
And through all this I spot a girl sitting at the front turn to her friend, shake her head, and say the word “terrible”. She couldn’t even be bothered to heckle me. How lazy can you get?
The monthly King Gong night is a particularly brutal rite of passage for any budding stand-up. But at least there’s a decent-sized crowd.
When I started performing stand-up comedy a couple of years ago I naively thought I’d be entering a world of well-run clubs, promoters who actually promoted, and rooms full of comedy-hungry punters lapping up your every word.
What I didn’t expect was an open mic circuit awash with grim nights in rooms above pubs, with little or no audience, where the organiser’s idea of “promotion” is putting the event on Facebook so a bunch of their comedian friends – who are only going to turn up if there’s a chance of getting on the bill – can see it.
Maybe it has always been like that, I don’t know.
A handful of open mic nights, however, are pretty damn good. Downstairs at the King’s Head in Crouch End and the new act night at the Comedy Cafe in Hoxton are the plum gigs for new comics, and, therefore, have an inevitable waiting list.
Very few venues now offer new acts a slot on the bill with professionals. Twickenham’s Bearcat is one of these.
The Bearcat is a long-standing well-supported club that attracts big names – Harry Hill, Milton Jones, etc – and yet is still willing to give new comics a chance. And that is to be applauded.
But comedy’s tough. The reason it’s tough is because everybody thinks their sense of humour is the best.
I do, and each member of the audience does. No one leaves a gig saying: “I didn’t laugh once. I really should rethink my sense of humour.”
So, as a performer, you’ve got an added barrier to fight against.
And it’s not brave. Comics get that a lot – being told stand-up is a brave thing to do.
I once had a squaddie who had been injured in Afghanistan come up to me after a gig – and I swear I’m not making this up – to say I was “brave for getting up on stage with just a microphone”. Yeah, I’m still waiting for my VC as we speak.
One thing that bugs most new comics is seeing their act do well one night and die a death on another.
The same material performed in exactly the same way.
I’ll never understand it, but then stand-up isn’t a science.
The simple answer it that, sometimes, the audience immediately decides, en masse, that they don’t like you. That’s it.
I’ve performed to complete silence before. It’s hard to deal with. And the worst nights are the ones where every other performer on the bill goes down well... except you.
You trek home thinking “I should quit”. But then you tell yourself that “When I did that very same act at the Stick Insect and Artichoke in Bethnal Green yesterday they loved it.
Carried me out of the room on a sedan chair feeding me caviar and chateuneuf du pape”.
As opposed to staring at me like a bunch of Scientologists who’ve just been told that Tom Cruise has become a Mormon.
So why do it? Why be a comic? Because I think I’ve got something to say. And when a gig goes well, there’s no better feeling.