Mar 24th 2018

Learning To Stand | How To Survive Your First Few Open-Mic Comedy Spots

 

Do it.

And don’t dawdle. You’ll never “be ready”. I’m not “ready” and I do it for a living.

 

Having previously served 10 years in the music biz, I actually decided to “announce” my move into comedy – like the self-important duchess I am – on April 1st (2017)… just for the meta-LOLs. Thing is: just because you wrote it on Facebook, doesn’t make it true. Just because you told your friends, your nan, your cat… you haven’t earned it yet.

The OTHER thing is … I’d actually decided the previous November that I was going to make this crazy jump. But it took me FIVE MONTHS to step onto a stage and DO IT – because that’s how long it took me to get my shit together.

You could stare into the mirror for another week, you can re-watch that Talking Funny video on Youtube as many times as you like. But comedy, like all performances arts, only exists in motion. For it to happen, you have to DO it.

It’s scary. And yes: you might die.

But isn’t that exciting? To rise again, unscathed, like a comic messiah? Or reincarnate with a new perspective. Maybe a new persona? The French have a beautiful expression: l’esprit de l’escalier – loosely translated: “the ghost of things I wish I’d said”. Personally, I’d rather *be* that ghost that be haunted by it.

Your first time will almost surely be an open mic. So chances are the room is going to be somewhere between 50-100% made up of the other comedians that you’re sharing the bill with. Which is actually the kindest audience you’ll ever play to – just not necessarily the most vocally responsive. Comedians tend to smile in recognition of a good bit. Great bits might elicit a hearty chuckle. Bad bits that are getting big laughs will fuck your chances of making friends at the bar. But for the most part, I can’t think of a nicer bunch of people to crash and burn in front of.

I’m still well under 100 shows in. As such, I haven’t earned the right to preach. But for what it’s worth, here’s how I survived those first few shows – and what they taught me:

 

GIG #1 – “Queer As Jokes” @ The Bill Murray Pub

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DISCLAIMER: you may find a little more “work” thrown your way if you’re a member of a racial or LGBT+ minority. These niche nights can be a great chance to find your voice amongst others of your “kind”. They force you not to lean too hard into your own minority material. I once took my tight-five to London’s leading Transgender nightclub and it bombed like Jägermeister addict. As it turned out, many of those clubbers were Thai and didn’t speak a word of the Queen’s – but I still feel like I should’ve had at least ONE airplane security joke up my sleeve instead of nothing but “tits and dick” stuff.

A lot of new comics reach for a bevvy before they step up onto the stage. I can’t imagine it’s all that helpful, particularly in the long run. But everybody’s different. Admittedly, my very first open spot, I was off my little tits on codeine – tits that had just been surgically implanted. Hence the drugs. It was 3 days after my boob job but I wasn’t about to welch on booking. For my own comfort I turned up in a dressing gown, a “breast harness” and commedia dell’arte-esque pantaloons (no shoes).

Turning up and learning that I’d be opening the 2nd half, I sidled up to the host Pauline Eyre during the interval and confessed that this was going to be my “first time”. I asked whether or not she thought it prudent to mention that on stage. Her answer was a definitive “no”. Do not beg for forgiveness before you’ve even begun. Do not preface your work with caveats of mediocrity. I always picture the open-mic singer that doesn’t waste a second announcing they’ve got a cold so “this next song might sound a bit shit (pause for laughter)”.

Oh nice one, mate… looking forward to it!

My five minutes went fine. Not because the material was sizzling but because the crowd had been well-warmed up and the LGBT+ nature of the evening made for a sympathetic incubator. Gigs like these are lovely for trying out new stuff. But you can’t grow in a vacuum. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter if your first time kills or dies. DOING it was the point, to prove to your brain that you could.

It was a comic called Tom Mayhew that had hooked me up with the spot. Tom’s a working-class comedian who has proved to me time and time again that money does not have to be the obstacle we think it is. For further reading, his recent article is a doozy: https://www.comedy.co.uk/live/features/tom_mayhew_working_class_struggle/

LESSONS:

  • Don’t cancel if you can help it.
  • Do not apologize for your act before you’ve started.
  • Nice gigs are nice. But you need nasty gigs to grow.
  • Connect with your fellow comics.

 

GIG #2 – Comedy Cirque @ Cirque Bar, Shoreditch

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A colder, less forgiving crowd and I’ll wager not a “comedy-going” crowd either. This was a drop-in night in the basement of a kooky bar on a busy street in Shoreditch. After GIG #1, this was like somebody emptying an ice bucket into my bubble bath.

I’d chosen to wear my dressing gown again, having riffed a joke about it the first time around – it was almost a safety blanket with sleeves at this point. Over time, I would have to learn not to rely on silly outfits and such. But in the beginning, there’s no shame in finding the funny any way you can.

The room was incredibly intimate and didn’t have a raised stage like I was used to (… after one gig). I actually spent most of my five minutes climbing the walls and chairs to deliver my material to the back row. THESE are the gigs that HELP YOU GROW. Everything out of your mouth isn’t gold. You are not special to these people… yet. You have to earn their praise but not before earning their respect, all the while contending with shaky tech and an obstacle course of the front row’s pint glasses.

Hosted by David Gersch and MC Matty – known to me now as the new young princes of Shoreditch – this devil-may-care duo opened the night by pelting the crowd with a sizeable bag of fresh parsley. As a standalone event, one wouldn’t be blamed for writing this night off as a mad shamble of little consequence. But as it turns out, this haphazard little showcase represented only the tip of a long winding tendril… connected to a monstrously successful entertainment company. I still work regularly with those boys today.

LESSONS: 

  • Fear is good, don’t be afraid of it (.. all good comedy advice is paradoxical) 
  • Find the funny any way you can.
  • Every room is different
  • Every night is worth doing… even if it wasn’t. Because it might have been.

 

#3 – G&B Comedy @ Arch One, West Ham

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Having roped my fiancé into filming my first 2 sets and uploading them to social media, I was approached via Messenger for my first ever solicited comedy spot. It’s exciting!

I’d gotten to know my own short set more intimately now, including where the laughs should be. As such, I was able for the very first time to breathe between jokes and really enjoy my time on the stage. Your audience deserves to see you happy.

G&B Comedy has become my go-to spot to try new material and the family I’ve wandered into there will forever hold a truly special place in my slowly-callousing heart. Regularly hosted by Kyle Wallace – a comedian and magician known to the circuit as the dark angel of comedy and self-confessed “loud Scottish queen” – the night has been cultivated, over time, into a supportive and loyal refuge for the chuckling damned. Nights like these are where comedy can truly breed.

LESSONS:

  • Film your sets (at least the early ones)
  • Share your wares
  • Loyalty is a virtue
  • Don’t piss off Kyle Wallace

 

After that, I made the long pilgrimage to Edinburgh Fringe and threw myself into a number of open spots. I took notes, flyered for friends and shadowed Tom Mayhew to see how his show faired and changed over the course of its run.

This year, not 18months later, I’m booked to perform my very own comedy special at the Fringe 2018 — Jordan Gray: People Change @ The Caves, | 2-26th August | 8:45-9:45pm in The Fancy Room).

How??

I just DID IT.

I don’t have a lot of money (even less now that I’m a comic). But funnily enough, hard work does actually sort that part out for you. The DAY I came back from Edinburgh Fringe I took a cleaning job at a local casino. I went from touring Europe to cleaning toilets in the name of comedy. It’s one of very few choices in my life that I’m actively proud of.

I had NEVER, until comedy came along, thrown myself into anything I wasn’t absolutely sure I’d succeed in. “Standup” is aptly named by virtue of life’s relationship with entropy. To stand up is to challenge the ruling of gravity. To stand up and tell jokes to strangers is to challenge the instinct of self-preservation. To over-prepare is both impossible and misguided, serving only to waste a sublime opportunity to suffer, under controlled settings – and gather the precious data therein. To die over and over, folding in on yourself like the blade of a samurai’s katana (no idea if they used katanas… Japanese history buffs, come at me).

Just DO it.

No more excuses – even if they’re actually relevant.

JUST. FUCKING. DO. IT.

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