Going Off The Rails

Every so often I have the following thought:

I know – I’ll take the train, then I’ll get there faster AND I can do something useful on the journey.

I want you to know that I know this is a ludicrous myth, and that I’m an idiot for thinking it, but sometimes necessity provokes me to give it another go.

On Thursday it simply wasn’t possible to do everything I had to do in the day and also drive into London. I had to take the chance of getting the train. It was a mediocre experience at best. It seems that Chiltern Railways, aware as they are of peak train usage, are still insistent on running the smallest train they can get away with between Birmingham and London on the route that runs through Banbury.

On the way out I managed to get some useful time on the laptop while waiting on the platform, and on the train itself I also got a table with power socket.

Great.

I had to share with captain stinky-pits, though. He was a gentleman of a certain nasal aura. He had two mobile phones, fingers that needed nibbling, and armpits that needed showering, disinfecting and spraying with something to manage the bio hazard.

To add insult to injury, I was wearing a mask, which you might think would filter some of the smell, but it was a mask that had been accidentally put through the washing machine in the pocket of my trousers, so it was more of a mildew infuser. Even with the smell of mildew, I still had to work to filter out the unclean gentleman.

Still, I got to my destination at a decent pace and was able to surf Pret A Manger to find refreshment and somewhere to work. It took two. They say in London you’re never more than 7 metres from a Pret, and I’m cool with that.

This Gig Is Deeply Unprofitable

Working the comedy circuit is a funny old thing. Sometimes you need to say no to a low-paid gig. Sometimes it’s a pointless exercise that will cost you more than it earns, and gain you nothing more.

Sometimes you need to take on the free gigs because they’re the right thing to do for artistic reasons – a chance to try stuff out, or a way to network.

Then, there are decent paid gigs, which are not up for discussion.

The ideal is a decent paid gig which also has a lovely audience:

However, there are gigs where the pay is low, and yet they’re hard not to go for. This is because they’re the loss-leaders with a promoter, or they’re diary fillers to keep you match fit, or they’re a test of a certain type of audience.

Thursday’s gig was one of these. The economics of it are shocking:

  • Fee – £50
  • Train – £35
  • Parking – £5
  • Underground – £5
  • Refeshment on the road – £10+ ?
  • Petrol to get to/from the railway station – £5

So, a conservative estimate is that the gig cost me around £10.

So, was it worth it?

Don’t Be That Guy

I’m that guy… Sorry. I talk about the craft of stand-up before, during and after a gig. It fascinates me. I try to be more open minded about it, since any gig can go any way. I also worry about talking forcefully about how comedy is done before then going out and doing badly in front of an audience.

My favourite technique used to be to have a chat with the acts during the gig, not saying too much about comedy, go on and smash it, and then pretend I was more of a newbie that I was. There are two rules about when comedians get together.

Whenever comedians who don’t know each other get together, at some point one will ask the other “So, how long have you been going”.

Or… when comedians who do know get together, then at some point they’ll tell a story about Mac Star.

Anyway, what I used to enjoy doing, with several hundred gigs under my belt, was to either have spoken authoritatively about comedy for a few minutes, or, better still, have gone out and done well on stage, and then be asked the fateful question: “So, how long have you…”.

Then I’d reply: “Actually, this is my first time.”

Hilarity.

A gig where the closing act is paid £50 is going to have fairly new acts on the rest of the bill. We talked about the art/craft of comedy, and I hope I didn’t come across as a “know-all-cock of the highest order”, Chortle Forums 2004.

Anyway, you watch a gig like this and you start to wonder. How’s it really going to go for you?

The Pool Hustler

Without judging anything other than effect, the audience response over the course of the evening was pleasant, but reserved. The MC, a long-standing pro, was doing really well with them, but the acts were being given a little less than perhaps their material deserved. For reasons that are reasonable, but frustrating, the closing slot happens directly after two shorter spots. This means the second half of the show is a good 50+ minutes long, which is a tough thing to keep the energy levels going for.

The first section had gone well, and one of the acts waiting to go on in the second section seemed, to be frank, terrified. Very nervous. Body language quite closed. Frequent trips to the toilet. She was going to be the middle of the three acts in the last section.

I had wondered a couple of things. Firstly, would the audience be luke warm for me in the way they seemed to be for the featured acts? And how would I pick up the energy levels after the two newer acts before me.

This is what I wondered, relatively calmly and unfazed, as the show proceeded. This is nothing like my first rodeo. I would go and do my thing as usual, and work the room as best I could.

It turns out that the nervous act had a secret.

She was really really really funny. When she hit the stage, she opened fire on the audience and took the whole night up a gear. She was really funny. Really. Funny. And I had to follow that.

Moreover, she closed with something honest and positive about her Ukrainian family not having the chances we have to have fun, and how we should celebrate our freedoms.

Tough act to follow.

Bless This MC

The good thing about a seasoned MC is that they know when to draw a line under an act and change the mood before bringing on the next one. I thanked him for doing this after the show. The worst thing he could have done to the emotional applause he went on stage to, after the previous act, would have been to say “Great… now let’s keep that going for… Ashley Frieze”. That would have forced me to address the mood of the room…

No. He did what was necessary to change the chapter of the book from one act to the next, and then I went on.

So, How Did It Go?

Of the gig, and the journey home, I’ll say that the gig was by far the better experience. I stood on a hot sweaty train all the way home to Banbury, putting the stand-up into stand-up comedy, I suppose.

On the stage, however, I found much more of a comfort zone.

Where I’d been standing, I couldn’t really see the performers at all. I could hear them. I could judge their material and the sound of their performance, and I could form an opinion on how the audience reacted to them. But perhaps seeing how they came over on stage would have been more useful.

Other than the penultimate performer, my feeling is that the acts were essentially performing from within a box. The box being the prepared material, the learned mannerisms, the conscious effort to “do it correctly”, the sense of self over the sense of connection with the audience.

What takes time as a comedian is to learn to multi-task two opposing forces. There’s the stage-craft/delivery of honed material, and there’s the spontaneous connection with the audience. The latter breaks you out of the box.

It’s not entirely as simple as that. The room itself can create the box, and this box metaphor soon gets inadequate, but let’s run with it for a few more milliseconds.

So You Were The Best?

Trick question.

I gave a good account of myself, as you might expect of someone in their 20th year of stand-up.

I’m reminded of when, a few years into my comedy “career”, I took part again in the Laughing Horse New Act competition. As it happened, I’d done one of these as my first gig, and then decided to have another go a few years in. I won my heat. I was about to stand up and do some sort of victory speech when I checked myself and looked at a room where virtually nobody had reached gig 10. Of course in that situation I’d do a little better.

Real gigs aren’t a competition. They’re supposed to be about comedy, entertainment, art, and being present.

I was definitely present. It cost me over £10, and a face full of stinky armpits on many more occasions than I’d planned, but it was actually quite a good evening, overall.

About ashleyfrieze

Blogger, stand-up comedian, musician, writer and IT nerd. Technical Editor at www.baeldung.com, Senior Editor at www.funnysfunny.org.uk.
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