Wednesday, 29 July 2009

How to measure a great comedian

There are many times that I wish to express my opinions in text regarding a certain style, technique or even performer but I find myself hesistant to do so. This is not due to a lack of conviction or a fear of reprisal but, rather, because of the slippery nature of the beast that is comedy. The question is, how can one make a valid appraisal of anything in stand-up when it seems implicit that it is all completely subjective? Is there any one criteria that can be used to measure the merits of a comedian or the techniques they use?

It would be valuable to consider a few possible candidates, namely originality, conviction, laughter and popularity.

Originality - Most particularly among comedians, originality is a most frequently used yardstick. This method of measure is also frequently used by reviewers, the general public and makes an appearance on the score-cards at every comedy competition. The problem with originality is it is both situational and non-qualitative. What seems original in one room in one town may appear completely derivative in another and by the time we find something that is completely original in all domains we are most likely to discover that it's obscurity should probably be maintained for the benefit of crowds everywhere. This brings up the obvious fact that originality can come in the broadest measures of quality - some is inspiring and hilarious while a large measure of originality could better be labeled as oblivous self-indulgence.

Conviction - This beast is worthy of consideration but can be dispatched swiftly in our current survey. Conviction both subtle and bombastic can provide the firmest and most genuine footing for a comedic performance but even more than originality it is a breeding ground for the most arrogant and empty of performances as well.

Laughter - Well, this is the one, isn't it? This is what so many people claim is the ultimate arbiter of stand-up. But it's not, and for too many reasons to be covered adequately here but I will take a stab at a few. To begin with, laughter is only one point on the spectrum of enjoyment and amusement that an audience can experience. On a laugh per minute scale the highest scores would be usually be made by impressionists, high energy prop acts, shock comics and the like, none of whom are destined to end up in any kind of pantheon of comedy. Acts such as Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks would be labeled as mediocre on a good day. Also, one has to consider where are we and who is doing the laughing? Certain acts are unbeatable on their own turf in terms of sheer laugh volume but the show doesn't translate past the county line. In addition laughter is a nervous condition that can be induced by many things that don't rank as great humour; shock and the artless violation of taboos are just two such examples.

Popularity Is the customer always right? In short... no. There are many ways to acheive a measure of success in show business and while talent is among them it certainly is far from the only way. If a 3rd rate comedian gets a small but memorable part in a hit movie, they become a headline act overnight. In fact a celebrity with no stage experience or material at all can hire a writer and instantly become a bigger draw than a talented and experienced (and original) comedian.

So what is the answer? Well, the easy answer is that a good comedian provides a balanced mix of all the above factors as well as a few others. There is, I feel, more to it than that. I think there are certain more nebulous criteria that define a truly great comedian and I will leave those for a later date...... I don't want to go over my time.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

the new stand-ups


My apologies for a protracted absence. I will be digging into a series of articles on stand-up and some on humor theory - stay tuned. In the meantime I am interested in finding out who people think the best new stand-up comedian of the past five years is? Please to put a link to video if possible and give some specific reasons for your choice - "they're funny" doesn't count.

'til soon

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

How to begin to promote your act

You've been doing comedy for a few years and have managed to put together a half hour set that seems to succeed more frequently than it fails but how can you get further ahead and move past working at the same venues over and over again? Obviously the answers depend on a few things including what style you are working with and what type of venues you want to play but there are some basics that are useful for almost everyone.

1 - good headshots -- b/w and color --- digital, though a few hardcopy are a good idea as well

2 - a one-page - something with a little bit of design flair that lists the best places you've played, positive quotes about your act, companies you've worked for, and any respected and/or celebrity comedians you may have worked with ---- credits, basically.

3 - an online presence of some kind is useful but not absolutely essential beyond one good Youtube clip

4 - video - film a 1/2 hour set at the best venue you can get --- you don't need to mess around with multi-camera set-ups etc. just get a good venue with a good crowd. You'll want a copy of the full length set for comedy club agents and then edit out the highlights and have a separate demo of them for the others - put the best one or two on youtube. Do as clean a set as is comfortable for you as it gives you more flexibility - unless, of course, edge is the essence of your act.

For the local agents/clubs try to drop them off in person and have a coffee with the agent/owner involved - get to know them a little - having a reference/introduction from another comedian always makes things much easier. Lists of agents and clubs across the country are easily available online, send both hardcopy and e-mail to the ones that you think will fit you best. Also, make sure you have a showcase set that you can perform for any agents, managers, festival co-ordinators etc. - a five minute set that can easily be shortened or lengthened and emphasizes originality.

I hope this is helpful let me know if you have any questions ...

thanks Chris

Monday, 27 April 2009

How to get on stage for the first time

When people take my stand-up workshops they often talk about what a great fear they have about doing stand-up. The fear of public speaking and stage-fright in general are broad subjects but in terms of bridging that initial gap and actually putting yourself on stage I would like to provide something of a roadmap to anyone who is interested. The first key to this process is demystifying it; break it down into a few tangible elements. There are three main areas that you can put time and effort into that will ease you into your first stand-up performance that much more comfortably: construction, delivery and situation.

1 – Construction --- Put together your material in advance – you will probably be doing a five minute set so put together the right amount of material and really get to know it. I say get to know it rather than memorize it because the process of word for word memorization can tie people up. If you have a style like Steven Wright you will have to do quite a bit of memorization but most styles are more flexible. In the time immediately before you go on stage refer a list of the subjects you are going to talk about( eg: drinking, Christmas, dieting, Mexico) rather than a total script. Putting together material is too broad a subject for me to cover in detail here but remember:

a - you should be doing material because you think it’s funny, not just because you think a crowd might laugh at it.

b – to go through and edit your material several times – go through it sentence by sentence and determine "is this part essential to understanding the bit?" and " is it funny?" If it is neither…. Get rid of it! Keep things trim.

Once you have put together some material, edited out the non-essential parts and feel you can remember it all you are on the way.

2 – Delivery --- In comedy, how you say things can sometimes be more important than what you are actually saying. Try to take note of what things define the way you speak and what people find amusing. You can work on delivery in casual conversations. If you have a subject you want to do some comedy on, talk with people about it – not necessarily as “a comedy piece” but just as a normal topic of conversation. Get comfortable on the topic, how you like to speak about it and what seems to amuse people. If you are inclined to doing voices, acting things out, telling stories, using facial expressions etc. pay attention to yourself when you are doing them and remember that you will probably have license to really use them on stage. So figure out some of the characteristics that you have and start getting control of them.

3 – Situation --- Take control of the situation that comedy takes place in so it doesn’t take control of you. In a general sense, you should seize any opportunity you have that involves standing up and speaking to a group of people, if there is a microphone and lights involved, even better. This doesn’t have to involve any comedy at all, it is more about being comfortable in front of a group of people, holding their attention, using a microphone, having lights on you etc. etc. In the specific, you should go and see some live comedy shows, figure out which venue you might be able to perform in and get to know it. Get to know the people who organize the comedy show, get to know what type of crowds go there, meet some of the comedians, get to know how they perform and ask their advice, most are happy to give it.

Know what you are going to do, how you are going to do it and the situation that you will be in – it’s that simple. If you pay attention to these things you’ll be far more comfortable on that stage when you finally get there – and, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the process in the meantime – good luck and….. enjoy!!

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Which audience is the most important?

When you are onstage performing there are various audiences to consider. Here are the main ones you have to deal with on a regular basis.

1 - The crowd
2 - Yourself
3 - The owner/manager
4 - The other comedians
5 - The objective third eye

So, who is the most important of these 5? Who should you play to and cater to? As with so many things in stand-up there is no one answer. Many people would reflexively say "the crowd" that's what you are there to do; keep that crowd happy. To my thinking this idea is incorrect at the most fundamental level. A good comedian should predicate their act not on what they think the crowd wants but on making the most of their own approach to comedy. You shouldn't try and find things you think a crowd will like, you should work on what you think is funny and then figure out how to make it work with your crowds. Aside from the root-level problem the crowd is problematic as the ultimate arbiter because one has to play many different types of crowds - sometimes to keep a bunch of small town drunks happy requires that you degrade your own performance and if you do that on a regular basis inevitably your act will suffer over the long haul.

Playing entirely for yourself also has certain dangers. It is certainly a brave approach and can lead to a more confident and experimental style but treading the line between that and becoming a self-rightous and self-indulgent comic must be done with great caution. It is important to assert yourself and your own style and sometimes that will mean swimming against the current but to make a habit of depriving your act of empathy will serve only to poison your act and yourself. Play to yourself, but don't make a habit of doing it at the expense of your crowd, or you become a risk for any booker to hire

The bookers, agents and other comedians are the very specific audience at the back of the rom and it's tough to ignore them. Sometimes, you don't want to ignore them. In a showcase situation, be aware of what they want to see and try to show them the side of you that fits the bill - another situation where just going for laughs won't always serve you well. When it comes to this particular set of viewers, you can usually score some extra points with a few occasional lines which are designed to please them without alienating the crowd too much - it's fairly easy to do. "Playing to the back of the room" can be fun in bursts but unless you are a well-established headline act it's inadvisable to completely direct your show that way: it's easy for the rebel to become the causeless martyr.

My personal favourite is the third eye. That independant, objective third eye. Imagine that the show you are doing is being recorded and watched far in the future by a wise unbiased judge who is able to simply see how well (or badly) you have constructed and peformed your comedy. How does it stack up in the big picture? Did you lose the crowd part-way through but ultimately deliver a well crafted performance that was a step forward in your own creative evolution? This sounds so perfect, but pandering to perfection can damage your realities. You can entertain that third eye but have the crowd and the bar owner completely turned off, so you have to weigh your options. In the end, it's a mixture of all these audiences that should motivate you and hopefully attempting to achieve a balance is an enjoyable process.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The Comedy Addicts

Comedy is the only profession I know where the work is the easiest part of the job. I don't know any comedians who don't truly enjoy the time they spend on stage. Even the beginners who experience paralysing fear still get more positive than negative from their time behind the microphone. Comedians are quite simply addicted to performing, that is why most major cities have venues with comedy shows where comedians, both amateur and professional, jockey for the glittering prize of being allowed to work without pay beyond a free drink or two. Some are working on new material but others are wearing down old material smoother than river rock. Some are trying to fill a social void, and others are leaving behind frustrated spouses and unfulfilled commitments.

The venues involved in this wholesale giveaway of comedy talent are typically nothing you would expect a performer to covet: sports bars with a hundred flickering televisions or coffee shops where the crowds and the Columbian are equally lukewarm and thin. To be fair there are also well run, ambitious little gigs that boast a heart of regulars and a great space to do seven minutes without the constraints that money gigs can bring. Regardless of the quality of the venue, as long as the management has no complaints and some patient soul remains willing to donate their time and effort into organization the gig will continue. Sometimes long after it should have been allowed to die with dignity.

It is a peculiar mixture of ego, art and adrenaline that keeps the comedian's enthusiasm unbridled and while the public demand for live stand-up will ebb and flow, nothing will, it seems, diminish the supply or the needs of the stand-up comedy addicts.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The book: A place for your comedy material to live

Interestingly enough, writing stand-up comedy involves actually putting pen to paper or, at least, fingers to keyboard. Typing out your material does have certain advantages in terms of organization and editing but using the pen at some point near it's inception is often pretty much essential to capture the idea while it’s still moving. It’s also a good idea to have your material somewhere nearby when you are working so you can refresh your memory, plan your setlist etc. which is generally better done on paper. It is possible to get by with notes written on scraps of paper that you transfer to a book later on but that transfer is key as scraps get lost and often provide an insufficient writing space. Bottom line: GET A BOOK!

To a certain degree the type of book that you use is a matter of personal preference. I tend to use a book that is a few steps up from the average scratch pad or notebook. Something with a hard durable cover that can stand up well to the abuse dished out by the many environments it will likely travel to. It is my experience that if you have a comedy book that you like by itself as “a book” - it not only gives a little more importance to what you put in it but makes it less likely to be thrown away by someone because it looked like a cheap notebook full of scribble. Tiny notebooks are useful because they are back pocket portable, but they are also harder to write in and easier to lose.

Inside your comedy book is your domain – write however you want to write: doodle, draw pictures, write clearly or scribble, as long as you can read it later and get a clear idea of the idea you originally had. Try to ensure that when you come up with an idea you capture enough of it to put the idea across later – few things are more frustrating than seeing a random word or phrase and having no idea what you were thinking of at the time-

I am not the most organizational person but I try to put my new ideas and material in the front of my book and a list of buzzwords for the contents in the back. Having a couple of setlists in the back isn’t a bad idea either if you’re inclined to use setlists.

One of the reasons to buy a good quality book is that you’ll be keeping them around for a while. Try to take a look back at the old ones once in a while to refresh your memory- ideas can get altered, reduced or forgotten. Sometimes, ideas that initially seemed weak can be spun into something great further down the line, used as throwaways, or connected with material written later down the road. Remember to write down your name and contact information in the front of your book preceded by “If found, please return to” – it can save you a lot of hassle one day.

Even though it is a book for comedy material, that doesn’t mean that everything in it has to be comedy material. Material is formed from all types of ideas, observations and attitudes; they don’t all start as actual comedy so fill your book with all kinds of things. Things you find unusual, interesting, character sketches, events, put them all in and see what they eventually turn into. Even if they never make it into they show you still have a large number of things that are interesting to you by definition.


Sunday, 8 March 2009

Differences between U.K. and North American comedy pt. 1

I have bit off more than I can blog with this particular topic, there is simply too much information to cover so I will avoid going into much depth and to repeat points that I have made in other parts of this blog. So in rapid-fire sucession are some of the differences that I feel exist between stand-up in North America and in the UK. These are, of course, wild simplifications designed to make the salient points as visi-bubble as possi-bubble.

1 – One of us vs. one of them

In the U.K. the crowd seems to like to feel that in some way the comedian is “one of us”, a friend of the people, somehow connected to them. The success of Al Murray is a great example of this, and from the little pub shows to the bigger club shows the UK audience seems to relate to the idea of “mateship”. Comedians with that a friendly, accessible quality proliferate here such as Russell Kane and imports Craig Campbell and Steve Hughes.There are other factors at play of course such as the acceptance of the abstract, and a special space for comedians with a type of “rock star” quality like Russell Banks and happily dancing on the middle ground is Mr. Izzard; a happy and talented hybrid.

North Americans also have an appreciation for friendly accessible characters in stand-up, but overall they prefer those who are somehow, in some way larger than life. They demand someone who is not just “one of us” but “one of them”, “them” referring to performers. The rapid-fire multi-voiced Robin Williams, the manic elasticity of Jim Carrey, the fire and brimstone shriek of Sam Kinison; these are not ordinary people, they are performers!

On a practical level what this translated to is a need for a comedian in the UK to perform for and with their audience, at least until they become famous, and hopefully afterwards as well. In North America a comedian is far more likely to perform “at” a crowd rather than with it. The audience can be just as involved but the relationship that brings about the reaction tends to be one that keeps the comedian as a distinctly separate entity.

2 – A sense of the craft

For whatever reasons, and there are many that could be speculated upon, the UK crowd seems, from my minor sampling, to have a greater inherent knowledge of the actual craft of stand-up than their North American counterparts. North American and particularly American crowds will powerfully respond to “what” someone is; “wow, who is this guy?!, he’s crazy”. A UK crowd is far more likely to be really impressed by a comedians skill set – they love the clever. Whether it is the way the words are assembled or the originality of the idea itself, British crowds are impressed when it is done with skill and show their appreciation enthusiastically. This factor also allows the comedian to be quite experimental as the crowd will often respect the novelty, though not necessarily applaud the results. As with the first point, this means that some comedians will experience easy trans-altlantic transition and others will not.

3 – The road warrior

The North American comedian knows the phrase “road warrior” and uses it often. Not all of them are road warriors, some hold down day jobs in cities so they can hone down their set at night, and hopefully one day be discovered but from the corporate comic who lives in airports to the road comic who will often drive more than 7 hours to get to a gig, North American stand-up is as much about travel time as stage time. I will hazard a guess that this results in less bitterness and burn-out in the UK scene. While I was there, I only met one comedian who had more than 20 years of comedy experience, but if he was any example, then this theory is correct. This is no indictment on the comedians or the way the comedy scene is run in North America, it is simply a symptom of geography. In the UK the distances are so small that it is rare that a gig is more than 3 hours away and without the stress of such intense travel and with the ability to spend more time at home the job must have a slightly different nature.

There ...that's a start. If you have any comments or criticisms of this set of observations please do let me know. More to come soon.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

The post that wasn't too

The speaker blog is now at:

with it's first post "5 reasons why you shouldn't speak like Barack Obama" . I hope to be back with another entry here by the end of the day, Blog willing.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

the post that wasn't

Dearest Blog-folk
My apologies for the lack of a new post, I have been working on numerous other projects including a blog on public speaking skills. The first post on this new blog "5 reasons why you shouldn't speak like Barack Obama" will be up shortly - I will post the details. The next posting on the differences between UK and North American comedy styles will be up shortly. many thx C

Saturday, 28 February 2009

UK Comedy Observations pt.5

For many years I lived on an island; a community where all knew all, and I remember that whenever any musician, artist or performer was reviewed in the local paper it was always in the most glowing terms. This bask in the rays of praise may have given some comfort to the reviewee and have helped to foster some saccharine sense of community but it gave little objective information. Similarly,as a comedian, it is a professionally dubious tactic to roll out aspersive reviews of your fellow comedians and that is why I am so comfortable in writing this.

Firstly, almost a month has passed since these shows so recollections are only in the vaguest sense. There will be no pedantic point picking here. Secondly, I was truly impressed by both acts that weekend so an honest review will float on praise rather than sink under criticism.

Kent Valentine was an unknown commodity to me. An Aussie turned UK resident I believe. A casual, lean and bearded soul, who, like Tom Stade, had a relaxed demeanor that belied the level of craftsmanship behind his comedy. Unassuming in manner, but direct and communicative with the crowd, Kent worked with a range of ideas, some staples, some unique. The humour was clever but very accessible, with some bite and with occasional welcome tinkerings with abstraction. An opening act with all the strength and consistancy of a headline act. I hope I have the good fortune to work with him in the future.

Tom Stade, as was mentioned in an earlier volume of this blog, is a friend of many years standing; an immutable entity who could giggle his way through his own kidnapping. In a show many years ago I clearly remember him being throughly amused because the crowd didn't like him. "This is great, I came here to make you people happy and you fuckin' hate me... right on"
The spark he had led to brighter lights in Toronto, then L.A. and eventually, the UK where he has been very successful. It is a pleasure to see him after so many years, both on and off the stage. His performance has become so comfortable and controlled. With sweetness and savagery, razors and roses, he keeps the level of laughter high throughout his set. He is a true comedian, which means he would be helpless in a world where he had to actually work.

Tom is also the one who warned me the point of frustrating repetition that I should not expect too much, too quickly on my UK trip. "These people are really good over here. Don't do what all these other people do and jump right into a showcase at the Comedy Store or Jongleurs, it'll blow your chances here." So it was particularly rewarding when after the first show he said " That was excellent man, you have to go the Comedy Store, they'll love you."

It did go well. But why? What is it that British crowds really go for that North Americans seem to shower with indifference? Why can some successful comedians play both sides of the Atlantic with ease while other equally talented and accomplished people know better than to even attempt it? After such a limited survey I would be foolish to think I have all the answers but in part 6 I'll take a bit of a run at it - wish me luck.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

UK Comedy Observations pt.4

On to part four. As the symbol for "four" means death in Chinese I shall be careful not to tread on the tiger's tail.

The Comedy Box is located in Bedminster, a southern adjunctive morsel of Bristol. It was a 5 minute walk along Raleigh road past the Tobacco Factory theatre. On the way there Tom had to stop for cigarettes and as we waited in line at the shop we were accosted by dishevellant man we had passed a moment ago outside, crouched in the street , furrow-browed, mumbling summat' about Britney Spears. Soon into his accostations, it became evident that he had been practicing his "crazy man" script when we first passed him by. It was an abstract rambling that related a dream about Britney Spears offering him her shoe. He was exceedingly pleased that I wasn't afraid of him and that I actually volunteered comments - we were privileged to have witnessed one of his first performances. It was a little nervous and wobbly around the edges but he did his best and the end result made me want to pat him encouragingly on the back like a child who'd just scraped out something tolerable on the violin.

We arrive at "the Box" which is located overtop a very casual and inviting student'y pub, the Hen and Chicken, good for a pint and a pizza. We were met by Steve Lount who was very accommodating and had a palpable enthusiasm for comedy, which is always a good sign. The room itself was most certainly a box, p'raps 25' x 55' with comedian’s posters decorating the walls with their blaring sameness. The room also had a moderate ceiling and no pillars so sightlines were perfect and at a glance, the sound system looked more than ample. The bar itself was set like a hole in the wall toward the back of the room and was announced only by those crowded in front. No neon beer signs, no glass-washer, in fact I don't remember even seeing a till. I am writing this several weeks after the event, and at this point I can’t recall the look of the tables and chairs, but I think that is how they would have liked it. The stage was a black ply slab and was backdropped with thick curtains, all that was necessary and nought that was not.

This was my Brit-debut as an m.c. -- also known as a host and, in the UK, a compere, which sounds to my ear, more like a dessert than a ringmaster. The same format I had observed in Norwich was observed here – the bar shut down and the house lights dropped. In fact, as the off-stage intro for the MC was given
all the lights were off and the place was so black I could barely make my way to the stage. The room was ¾ full and the crowd was enthusiastic and attentive. I engaged in some interaction, but mostly worked with material, which was received well. It felt as though the crowd found some of the more animated pieces arresting as well as amusing and there was a pervasive sense of admiration and appreciation that was coupled with the laughter and amusement aspect. If a line was particularly well tailored or clever the crowd would respond to that aspect specifically. I have experienced this in North America but not at such a palpable level. Comedy about history, science and philosophy flew well, but it was certainly not a room with an intellectual air at all, not a monocle to be seen, just 20 – 50 year olds of a relatively informal demeanor who seemed to really appreciate the art of comedy.

One of the best parts of the weekend was who I was working with, but after long and feverish negotiations I have agreed to save them for pt. 5.

UK Comedy Observations pt.4

On to part four. As the symbol for "four" means death in Chinese I shall be careful not to tread on the tiger's tail.

The Comedy Box is located in Bedminster, a southern adjunctive morsel of Bristol. It is a 5 minute walk along Raleigh Rd past the Tobacco Factory theatre. On the way Tom had to stop for cigarettes and as we waited in line in the shop we were accosted by dishevellant man we had passed a moment ago who had been mumbling summat' about Britney Spears. Soon into his accostations, it became evident that he had been practicing his "crazy man" script as he sat by the road. It was an abstract rambling that related a dream of Britney Spears offering him her shoe. He was exceedingly pleased that I wasn't afraid and actually volunteered comments - we were privileged to have witnessed one of his first performances. It was a little staged and ragged around the edges but it made me want to pat him encouragingly on the back like a child who'd just scraped out something on the violin.

We arrive at "the Box" which is located overtop a very casual and inviting student'y pub, the Hen and Chicken, good for a pint and a pizza. We were met by Steve Lount who was very accommodating and had a palpable enthusiasm for comedy, which is always a good sign. The room itself was most certainly a box, p'raps 25' x 55' with comedians posters decorating the walls with their blaring sameness. The room also had a moderate ceiling and no pillars so sightlines were perfect and at a glance, the sound system looked more than ample. The bar itself was set like a hole in the wall toward the back of the room and was announced only by those crowded in front. No neon beer signs, no glass-washer,in fact I don't remember even seeing a till.

This was my Brit-debut as an m.c. -- also known as a host and, in Blighty, a compere, which sounds to my ear, more like a dessert than a ringmaster. The same format I had observed in

Monday, 23 February 2009

UK Comedy Observations pt.3

As promised, on to Bristol.

Bristol was an important show in me 'ed. Not important with any deep and foreboding gravitas, but significant for a number of reasons. This was my reunion with Tom Stade, a fine friend of many years, an immutable character with an appealing blend of good nature and addled clarity. I was fortunate enough to take him on his first road trip and at my wedding he was the m.c. who charmed and challenged the prevailing prim. I had hunted down this gig as it gave me a chance to work a week-end together. Craig Campbell had kindly referred me to Steve Lount at the Comedy Box but had warned me that getting booked in might not be done easily, so when I managed it, I was most pleased.

This was my first
UK gig where there were accommodations provided and a review of them is essential. Comedians, certainly those in Canada, spend more time at their accomodations than at their venues. In addition, the accommodations are not only where you stay, they are where you have been put. They are reflective of how the club or booker sees the performer: as a cog in a show-business wheel he can be shoved into any ill-scented, hobo-ridden cog den, or as a someone who, after cumulative years of a long day's travel would feel truly blessed by the most average of hotel rooms.
My new home in Bristol was a bed and breakfast wedged comfortably in a section of brick row-houses which looked over a pleasant but well littered waterway. While hotels have managers and/or front desk clerks, bed and breakfasts have either home-owners or "hosts" - of the two hosts are usually preferable as they have a degree of seperation that makes things more comfortable. With a home-owner you feel as though they have made a decision to allow you to sleep in their house and your appearance and behaviour are to quote Milligan "scrutinized with an intense scrute". The gods be praised, I am greeted by a host, she is very sweet and, in friendly west-country tones, shows me to my room and lets me know that her family has lived on the same street for generations. Pertinent information is given: time of breakfast, how to acquire soap, and directions to the club. The fact that my floor has two bathrooms on it is evidently a source of no little pride.

I am on the top floor, stairs are wonderfully narrow and floor covering varies from floor to floor. I quite liked my little room, and it was a little room. It was very clean and it had a little bed, a little television, a little wardrobe, a little sink, a little kettle and a massive skylight, which actually opened up to reveal a pigeon point view of the city. How did I reach this skylight, you might ask. This was easily achieved because the ceiling in the room began to taper down from about 5 feet into the room and eventually ended about waist-high. This left me with an ample 6x6 patch to stand upright and roam about in -(I later discovered the bathrooms on my floor were equally roomy). I felt as though in days gone by, when the room was plank-floored and single paned it likely served to house a crippled child who was an embarrassment to the family.

Lemony Snicketisms aside, I was contented in my new nest and looked forward to flying out to do my show that evening.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Pragmatic Interlude (Break break)

As previously promised, I am about to move on to the Bristol experience, but upon reflection there are a few points about Norwich that I failed to cover and I don't want them to come back to haunt me so I am inserting this pragmatic interlude.

I have mentioned that I was very pleased that the crowd was bathed in dark while the performance took place and even more surprising, the bar was closed down. What this inevitably leads to is................ the break. I have spent years fighting the break. Club managers who want to stretch the show longer and pump more drinks into the crowd are always trying to foist the break on me, and I don't want the break! The break destroys the flow, you have to fight to get their attention back. Comedy is like a movie and the break breaks the mood, the break is, well, a break. Snap! crack! smash! break! Why would anyone wish this malevolent fracturance upon a well-meaning comedy show?

The break is wonderful. Watching the lights go up to signal the punters (read patrons) to rush to expel or acquire fluids, and then settle back in to their seats, discussing the show so far and anticipating the upcoming act(s): this is a fine idea. So whyfore this transformation from villian to hero, why was I blind to the beauty of the break? Quite simply, it is the combination of the bar closing and the lights being dropped along with a pinch of familiarity with the format on the part of those attending. The idea of closing down a bar in order to sell more drinks is slightly counter-intuitive but seems to work very well. I would be interested in shifting a regular Canadian comedy room to this format and seeing how sales change, I would venture that, if anything, they would see an increase.

The combination of factors that I saw that night served to make comedy the sole function of the room while it was taking place. To shut down the pool tables and turn off the t.v.'s helps to focus a pub crowd on a show, but to turn off all the house lights and shut down the bar takes it to another level and ... please mum, can I stay at this level for a while? .... it's pretty here.

Monday, 16 February 2009

UK Comedy Observations pt.2

With the inconclusive Electric Mouse experience under my belt I moved on to my first proper booked gig in the U.K.. It was at the football ground in Norwich and was booked by Joss Jones at Cosmic, who was quite charming and communicative regarding the booking. I have dealt with dozens, if not hundreds, of agents over the years and have worked as one myself. My dealings with agents in North America usually are reminiscent of an Indiana Jones scene: there are assorted trials and trickeries before the glittering goal (read gig) can be achieved and even then, one is not always certain what has been procured. While this is an exciting aspect to the career that leaves one attuned to both human nature and the consolations of defeat, it can be somewhat wearing over time. I don't mean to say that all the individual bookers in North America are scheming agents of nefarity, but the politics they are woven into makes every move potential for the highlight reel of tragedy. I assume that to some degree I am simply ignorant of the Machiavellian machinations which exist in U.K. comedy booking, but for now, let me breathe that unpolluted air of innocence.

I travelled up to Norwich with James Dowdeswell who was charming, amusing and informative and not put off by the fact that I was drifting off during the journey - (a rude by-product of shifting time-zones). The gig was in a large-ish room with 80% of the crowd of 400 seated to the left and the right (for pedants and the mathematically inclined:160 to the left, 160 to the right and 80 in front). The show was a sell out and the manager of the room, whose name escapes my tiny brain, was very enthusiastic and liberal with food, drinks and positivity. I made a point of going up on stage and looking at the room in advance - both to see and be seen. I also returned a beer coaster to it's original tosser and exchanged some free comedy with the front row in advance - I hoped to have learned something from the chummy-ism of the Electric Mouse and was keen to present a friendly face.

The MC Dan Atkinson did an excellent job with a good dose of interaction, intelligence and elbow. The crowd took a little bit to bring around but were generally very good. I noticed with more than a little surprise that the house lights were dimmed almost to the point of blackness as the show began and (shock!) the bar was actually shut down while the show was on. These two manoevres had the effect of making the show feel like, well, a show! I was brought on after about 15 minutes and started with about 2 minutes of wobbly/waffly meet and greet seasoned delicately with the bitter trepidation. Up to this point I had been unsure how my comedy would translate to a British audience and what alterations in material and delivery would be required and the "Mouse" had given only the wobbliest compass needle.

While waiting to go onstage I had written a line to explain how as a Canadian I was different from Americans: "...if you were to burn my flag next to me, all I would feel would be......warm"
The material was received enthusiastically from the start and some of the more animated story-telling pieces went over very strongly. I could not have asked for a more solid affirmation of what my potential would be over the next two weeks and though I did engage in some banter to connect with the crowd it was evident that material, and in particular, material with some intelligence and involvement, was consumed with relish. I enjoyed watching the other acts: James, and the headiner Tommy Campbell - James was a solid act who writes well and delivers confidently but in a self-effacing manner - a pleasure to watch. Tommy is a much more punchy act - originally Canadian, his style was more familiar, and thus, less interesting to me, but he has his act nailed down and delivers it with a wrenching verve.

Both James and Dan were very accessible on stage - dressed neither shabbily nor stylishly, intelligent but not arrogant they personified another interesting fact about the evening: the intros the comics are given involve no credits. In North America, credits are the backbone of an intro for every comic. Less so in larger centres such as L.A. or New York but in general you let the MC know all the most impressive (to the crowd) things you have done and he bundles them to together to form an intro. This serves to build up enthusiasm and expectation in the crowd. Americans in particular, are very impressed by any brush with celebrity you might have had and mentioning it in advance serves to legitimise you as a performer. I have said before that in America, crowds will laugh for you because they think they saw you on HBO, but in Canada crowds laugh at you because they think they saw you on CBC. While less inclined to worship at the altar of celebrity, Canadians still feel an act is legitimised by their credits. In the UK, not so. We discussed this before the show and I was told that credits are never listed off as it would seem arrogant and/or raise the expectation, which here was seen as a bad thing. This little fact also seem to run in line with what I had already witnessed; that the comic should appear as much as a friend as an entertainer.

After the show the promoter encouraged me to come back for a summer festival (which I am now booked to do) - When work leads to more work, one can only be walking down the right path. Next point on this path ....Bristol.