I stopped taking part in comedy competitions a few years ago, mainly because I performed terribly at every comedy competition I’d taken part in. They were always dispiriting evenings so I thought I’d strike a match and rid myself of the stench I was frequently responsible for creating.
Even now, almost four years to the day since I first held a microphone, I don’t particularly enjoy the idea of a comedy competition. This is down to bitterness, of course, and some acts I love have thrived in that environment, but the comedy industry itself creates enough competition at all levels of the game without having to create more competitions that label themselves as competitions and making new acts feel as though succeeding in these competitions is the only way to make it.
It doesn’t help that the definition of ‘new act’ has always been loose, at best. Most of these competitions call themselves ‘new act’ competitions but you always end up with a mix of people who’ve only done six gigs and some who’ve been going for years. A few years ago, a chap in his seventh year of comedy won a high profile new act competition. The BBC recently brought back their new act competition and I only just squeaked through their “you can’t have been doing comedy for more than two years” rule when I entered in 2010. I didn’t check the rules this year but, assuming they stayed the same, it was a surprise to see someone in the final who I did a gig with back in June 2009. At a new act competition.
So, a few years after swearing off comedy competitions, and almost four years to the day since I first picked up a microphone, I took part in a ‘new act’ comedy competition. I am a hypocrite.
It was an audition for what used to be known as the Hackney Empire New Act Of The Year. From a comedy competition point-of-view, no one is declared ‘the winner’ on the night. They just choose the best acts from all the auditions and shove them in the final and is, therefore, no more a competition than the industry as a whole. Have I now contributed to making the playing field uneven? Perhaps. I’m not a new act. I am as far as the rules of the competition are concerned, but that’s not enough of a hook to hang my ‘new act’ hat on. I signed up because this competition has history. I’d never entered before, and there’s no way I’d even consider throwing a ‘new act’ hat in the ring after almost five years so this was my last chance. There is no financial reward for reaching the final or even for winning. You’d get a nice gig in a theatre with Arthur Smith compering, but that’s about it. It’s as close to being just another gig as you can get so there we go.
So I did it, and I probably wasn’t good enough to make it to the final, and I’m an awful person for disregarding my own standards in the hope of getting on a nice big stage with Arthur Smith introducing me, but now we’re all agreed that I’m going to hell that’s by the by and we can move on.
I don’t often gig with new acts nowadays. I don’t often gig with anyone nowadays, actually, such is the nature of getting married and having a cat and going back to full time work to save for the Edinburgh Fringe, but it’s the new acts I’m concerned about. Not the ‘new acts’ like me who aren’t new acts, but the new acts who actually are new acts. Jay Cowle is a ‘new act’ like me, and he was there. He was very good. He always is. The guy who was in that competition in 2009 and the BBC final this year? He was there and good too.
I liked two new acts who might actually be new acts: a character duo by the name of Modern Dreams were a pleasant surprise, as was Austrian comic Alice Frick. They were bold and original and memorable and took risks, some of which paid off.
So, that’s four acts who stood out. Out of fifteen. Just three or four years ago, it wasn’t like this. The ratio was better. The ideas were bolder. The acts were more distinctive. Competition nights were dispiriting because I did badly. This time it was dispiriting because out of fifteen acts, only four deserve mention.
What’s happening? Things are different in November 2012, and I can’t quite work out why.
I’m not a professional comedian. I’ve been doing it for four years and if I make a couple of hundred quid every three months, that’s a good financial quarter. I don’t work the circuit, I’ve never won a competition, my best review in Edinburgh gave me three stars, and some people openly and actively dislike me. I don’t know how many new acts will read this. I don’t know if you want to listen to me or if you care what I think or even if what I have to say is of any interest but after sitting through that show, I need to get some things off my chest and offer some unsolicited advice. You’re free to ignore it. But I hope you won’t.
Why does everyone have the same voice? Not in terms of tone, but in terms of message. There is a wealth of experience for you to draw on. The world is big. Massive, in fact. Look outside your little corner of that world or, at least, find something in that corner and look at it differently. Are you going to do a joke about going to the supermarket? Great. Now forget the bit you came up with about self-service checkouts unless you’ve got something new to say. They’re actually incredibly convenient and work brilliantly most of the time.
If you’re going to do a joke about AIDS, you should probably think twice about doing a joke about AIDS. It’s not that AIDS can’t be funny – anything can be funny, with the right spin – but you’re probably going to include the words “hearing” or “bummer” and a million people have done it before you and almost all of those people dropped those jokes when they realised they’re not particularly funny or original.
Male comedians: why do you hate your wives and girlfriends so much? They have to put up with your bullshit delusional dreams of making it as a comedian, so the least you could do is not call them a “fat bitch.” Half of most comedy audiences are women. Think hard about what you’re saying. At the gig in question, a young guy decided to talk about losing his virginity to a middle-aged woman “with hanging tits and nipples that looked like biros.” He chose to direct this tidbit of material to the left-hand-side of the well-lit room, directly to four middle-aged women who just so happened to be judges. Regardless of the setting, that joke had no purpose. What is it for? Who is it for? Why is it relevant? Consider all of these points before you say something. There’s a joy to be had in free association and improvisation but you still have to take responsibility for every word that comes out of your mouth, and if you don’t, you’re a fucking prick.
Female comedians: if you start your set by saying “I know what you’re thinking: I’m one of those female comedians but don’t worry, I’m not going to be shit,” you’re reinforcing what should be a non-issue and it helps no one. Especially if you are then pretty shit. By saying something like that, you’re actively encouraging people who’ve never considered the possibility that women aren’t funny to think of women as not being funny. Women are funny! There are lots of funny women! Some people think there are no funny women, but those people are dickholes and the way to change the way they think is to be funny, not by saying “I’m one of those female comedians but not shit” and then being shit.
Stop using the stereotypical voice of young urban black men. Especially if your ‘twist’ is that the person with that voice you’re impersonating was actually white.
Stop talking about the Olympics or the Diamond Jubilee or London riots unless you’ve got something good to say. The comedy world moves quickly nowadays and almost every joke you’ve thought of was done on Twitter or in clubs at the time. You don’t have to be topical but JESUS CHRIST you’d better have something interesting to talk about if you’re going to dive into a topic like that. When most major DVD releases this Christmas contain Olympic/Jubilee/riot jokes and are getting torn apart in reviews for that very reason, you know you need to think of something else. Doing so is difficult and frustrating but that’s part of the fun.
Go and watch more comedy before you dive head first into gigging. People will often tell you that any stage time is good. That’s not true. You’ll often learn more from watching working comics than you will from peddling your same old five minutes. Watching other acts at new act/open mic nights doesn’t count unless they’ve got a good number of decent, established acts trying new material. This, I think, is perhaps the biggest problem with comedy at the moment – specifically in London. Because pro nights won’t shove open spots into their line ups, new acts are forced to work on their very own circuit that has almost no crossover with the real one. The only comedians they’re watching are other comedians in that same pool, and ‘real’ audience numbers are at a low so they’re performing to audiences full of new acts. No thinking, feeling human beings. Just other acts. Comedians think differently to normal people. They laugh at different things. They aren’t to be used as a true barometer of quality, especially not at that level, and especially if those new acts are all doing the same old shit and not going to watch professional comedy as regularly as they should. It’s easy to feel comfortable as a big fish in a small pond, but some time or other you’re going to be flushed down the toilet into the shit-filled sewer of frequent despair that is Real Life In The Comedy World Where You Never Get An Agent And No One Gives You A Paid Slot Unless You Can Drive The Headliner And Russell Kane Still Insists He’s In His Early Thirties When He Has Been In His Early Thirties For Many Years Now.
If you aren’t very good and no one is laughing and no one has ever laughed and you’re not enjoying yourself, stop. You probably won’t get better. There is no timeframe on this. You’ll know when because the world will tell you and you should listen, even if ‘that audience just wasn’t for you.’
Punch up. Don’t punch down. No one wants to hear your ‘chav’ voice. No one wants to hear your fabulously witty fake ‘chav’ baby names. Also, do you know we’re in a recession? Do you know that thousands of people every day discover they can no longer afford to feed their children? Do you appreciate that as we all get poorer – while a select few get richer – we’re all closer to being ‘chavs’ than ever before and your use of that word seems like a relic from a bygone age?
Stop talking about rape. Unless you have something to bring to the table that isn’t some ridiculous pull-back where, shock horror, you were the hilarious rapist doing some funny raping after all! Haha! You legend! Let’s be friends now!
We know what you mean. Stop asking.
The more you tell us you’re telling a true story or that something genuinely happened or that a thing was literally the best thing of that thing you’ve ever seen or done or heard, the less I believe you’re telling a true story or that something genuinely happened or that that thing was literally the best thing of that thing you’ve ever seen or done or heard. Just tell your story. We’re less likely to question it.
I don’t want to hear about your trip to Amsterdam. I have heard about lots of trips to Amsterdam over the years. Have you heard of Phil Nichol? He’s excellent. His was the best.
Aim higher. This is different to punching up. This isn’t about choosing targets, but about choosing who you want to be and what you want to say. Just… aim higher.
Caster Semenya jokes. Really? Come on. She didn’t really deserve it back in 2009. She certainly doesn’t deserve it now.
I’m glad you went on a comedy course and I’m sure it gave you a lot of confidence and the skills you need to construct a set with an opening and callbacks and ending on your best joke which is great and I’m really happy for you so thanks so much for giving me absolutely no sense whatsoever of who you are or what you actually think beyond your robotic adherence to a structure and form that doesn’t really need to be observed (which you’d know if you ever watched some more interesting comedy). There is a whole world of chuckles out there, but if you stick to watching new acts (most of whom also went on your course) and the guys at the top with slick sets on Live At The Apollo you’re missing out on SO MUCH. Learn the rules, then teach yourself to break them.
Don’t use ‘gay’ or ‘retarded’ as pejorative terms. It makes you look like an idiot and I will hate you for not growing up.
Brilliant! I love Stewart Lee too! Let’s move on.
Brilliant! I love Nick Helm too! Let’s move on.
Stop putting ‘stand up comedian’ in your employment section on Facebook. Stop creating Facebook pages. Stop choosing Twitter account names with your real name then ‘comedy’ on the end. Earn it.
If you’re going to do badly at a gig – a New Act Of The Year audition, for example, like the gig I was at, for example – and one of the judges calls you out on a poorly-judged rape joke, don’t go on Facebook and refer to the judges as “Middle Aged feminazis Germain Greer, miss marple, Jessica fletcher” [sic]. Not only is that sentence awfully composed, it also completely ignores the actual issue (that you weren’t very good and couldn’t justify your material) and attributes blame to the wrong people.
We all make mistakes. I made a lot of these ones when I was new, and I’ll make different ones going forward. The trick is to learn from those mistakes. The current open mic set-up doesn’t allow for that, so it’s more important than ever that new acts occasionally step outside of their comfort zone. Try it, fail, get better. Actually better, not open mic better. There’s a big wide world of comedy out there and there is (arguably) space for everything and everyone, but we/you need to think harder about what you’re doing, new acts. In those days before your fifth spot, don’t fret over whether this will be the night you get heckled or if your hand will shake or if you’ll forget that bit in your second set-up. Instead, think about why you’re doing this, what you want to say, and what you want to achieve. Take responsibility. Have fun. Experiment. Be bold. Be different, but justifiably so.
Aim higher. Please.
I might update this with other stuff once my friend Jack De’Ath emails me like he promised he would but hasn’t yet because apparently he has “other more important things to concentrate on at the moment, if you wouldn’t mind waiting for a little while, thank you very much.”
Jack has now emailed me. He is a very impressive new-ish act who often finds himself at new act/open mic nights, so he’s well-placed to comment on this stuff. He also runs lovely gigs you should attend and yes, Jack, my diary is pretty empty next year, thanks for asking.
Here is Jack’s email:
Here is a list of annoying traits that open mic / new acts do. I have probably committed most of them myself. Well, not the bits about rape and sexism… and twitter and supermarket self-checkout machines.
Jokes about rape, incest and paedophilia, all told, lack any subtlety and nuance. They are only there in because they get a shock reaction.
Sex can be very funny (see Thom Tuck’s routine about oral sex with a grape) but it is also a hot bed for lazy puns and stories that give us no insight into the person telling the joke. This is particularly true of wordplay using “Cum” / “Come”.
Telling the audience to be sympathetic
Comic: “I’ve recently broken up with my girlfriend” (comic makes a gesture to audience)
I’ll awww when I want to awww, stop telling me to feel sympathy for you.
I have genuinely seen an act finish a gig “If I’ve offended any birds in the audience then I’m sorry… But who cares what you think you’re just a woman”. The audience laughed their heads off. I went on and did a bit about kingfishers. They did not like me.
Supermarket self-check out machines
If hear the punchline “The checkout goes ‘approval needed’… you think you need approval?!” I’m going to eat my fist.
Non-topical topical material
If you need to remind an audience of the context of you topical joke – “do you remember the London riots when people where robbing Lidl?” – then your joke is not topical. Unless it’s attached to a personal story of some kind that weaves into a full routine, drop it.
Inadvertently doing Tim Vine’s jokes
I’ve heard the joke about “crime in multi-storey car parks … it’s wrong on so many levels” so many times. If you do puns please google each one to make sure Tim Vine or Milton Jones hasn’t done it before.
Giving out twitter address at the end of a set
Stop it. Just stop it.
I think a lot of these habits boil down to a lack of confidence, which is understandable. This is my theory as to why open mic / new comics tend to do these things.
New acts are too scared of silence. So afraid of not getting a laugh for a joke they make the punchline as obvious as possible so everyone gets it. Unfortunately that means you can see the joke coming a mile off. It’s so frustrating to know the end of a joke before the comic has finished it. There is a complete lack of surprise.
Sara Pascoe explains it better in this joke on this episode of Stuart Goldsmith’s Comedian’s Comedian podcast: “Flying with Ryanair is like Marmite… very cheap.” (This occurs around 31.25)
The audience is expecting the traditional tagline of “You love it or hate it”, so when Sara says “very cheap” there is a release of tension resulting in laughter.
New comics can be so worried that their joke won’t get a laugh that they shoot straight for the obvious. Anyway that’s my theory. Maybe they are just crap. Of course this improves with time and as their writing improves.