Stand-Up Virgin By Stuart Smith
A friend once said to me: “You’re really funny. You should be a stand-up comedian.” Many of us have had the experience of making a group of friends laugh down the pub. Or, if you’re middle-aged like me, at a friend’s house for a dinner party – where laughter can become infectious, particularly if the red wine is flowing. It’s one thing having a laugh with your friends but making a group of complete strangers laugh for five minutes is another matter entirely...
I have always been fascinated by comedy. I grew up watching Tommy Cooper, Spike Milligan and Les Dawson. The more ridiculous they were, the more I laughed – children laugh around three times more often than adults. I loved silly jokes like “I went to my doctor and asked for something for persistent wind. He gave me a kite” (Les Dawson).
I run my own brand and graphic design business, so I’m no stranger to being creative and presenting my ideas to clients. I have, on occasion, also led services in my church. But I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and see if I could do what my childhood heroes did. I was about to find out.
Rhod Gilbert, Greg Davies and me
After searching online, I found the ten-week Logan Murray Comedy Course (loganmurray.com) that ends with a showcase in front of family and friends. The course has been running for more than 15 years, and has seen hundreds of budding comics tread its boards. Logan Murray has more than 35 years’ experience in comedy, TV and directing – and is acknowledged as one of the best comedy tutors in the country. After a bit more research I discovered that previous students of the course include Rhod Gilbert and Greg Davies. I’m not Welsh, but I am more than 6’5” tall, so surely I was half way to stardom already.
I paid my money and, two weeks later, found myself in a small rehearsal room near London Bridge with 14 other terrified would-be comics. From photographers and NHS staff through to a YouTuber and an opera singer, we quickly got to know each other in a series of improvisation games that were both challenging and hilarious.
At the end of the first three-hour session, every person on the course had made me laugh. I came away hoping they were thinking the same about me.
The following weeks became even more enjoyable as our group began to really gel. I couldn’t wait for Wednesday evenings. Thanks to Logan, the environment was really positive and I felt very comfortable being creative, taking risks and playing the fool.
Sex, racism and polite applause
To prepare myself mentally for what I was going to do, I thought it would be a good idea to go along to an open mic night. This is where any budding comedian can sign up beforehand or even on the door. There’s no shortage of venues for amateur comedians to perform their set, particularly where I live near London.
I’d heard about a club called the Lion’s Den on Shaftesbury Avenue. In the dark basement bar, chairs had been placed in rows facing a single microphone and a black curtain that had seen better days. The format was simple, each act has no more than five minutes and are called out at random.
I grabbed a beer and sat down in the back row (I’m a Christian and I know better than to sit anywhere near the front). It soon became apparent that I was one of only a handful who weren’t performing. This gave the evening a slightly awkward atmosphere, much like bus drivers talking about their busman’s holiday to a group of bus drivers on a bus – more like a therapy group than a show. As each person was introduced enthusiastically by the compère, there was polite applause but with a subtle undercurrent of ‘I hope you die…’
The following hour and a half – which felt longer – consisted of a very narrow range of topics, namely relationships, sex and God with two of the acts being extremely racist. It certainly was an eye-opener – a glimpse into contemporary culture and the topics that consume people. It’s a window that needed looking through, but one I wanted to quickly pull the curtains on at the same time.
Homework, finding my voice and my first gig
Back in the rehearsal space on Wednesday evenings, I was gradually becoming more confident in what I was writing. It certainly wasn’t polished, but I could see what it might become with more tuition. As Logan says, “There’s no such thing as a bad joke, just an underdeveloped one.” The weekly homework we were set included creating thank you notes, deliberately pretentious poems and even a vlog desperately selling ourselves for an imaginary dating website.
The homework began to absorb my days (and sometimes nights) and my brain constantly whirred with ideas. I found myself tuning into people’s conversations on the train, in cafés and in church. I couldn’t switch off.
Through this mixture of listening, writing and performance I began to see a style appear. It was definitely me but, inevitably at this stage, I guess, influenced by the comedy that I really like now. With the dry conversational style of Stewart Lee, the surrealism of Harry Hill and with a light sprinkle of the dark humour of The League of Gentlemen, my material was loosely based on my experiences but quickly pushed into fictional scenarios.
At the end of the seventh session – after we’d spent the evening learning about microphone technique – the homework set was to book a spot at an open mic night. I knew it would have to happen at some point. You can’t attend a stand-up comedy course and then not actually perform any stand-up, like being taught how to cook but never tasting it.
I had compiled more than five minutes of material from the exercises, but it wasn’t in any semblance of order. I had jokes about prostate checks, epilepsy (a condition I have), taking my wife out to dinner, campsites, showers, even animals wearing hats, and 9/11. A mixed, quirky and potentially controversial bag to say the least. I began to cut, change and add bits, learning it in chunks, standing in front of a mirror in the bedroom holding a hairbrush, like a teenager. And, bit by bit, it began to feel more like me and less like Stewart, Harry and The League.
We decided to book gigs where at least three of us novices could perform on the same evening. That way, each of us would know that at least two people would be laughing, even if only out of politeness.
We chose Comedy Virgins at The Cavendish Arms in Stockwell for our first event. It’s a great room, wide but only five rows deep, with around 60 chairs set out. I let the compère know that I had arrived with my ‘bringer’. A lot of open mic nights are called ‘bringer nights’, meaning that acts can only perform if they bring a friend along. It’s a format that really works, boosting the audience numbers and making the evening more like a gig than a rehearsal.
Immediately, this gig felt very different to the one I’d been to at the Lion’s Den, with the audience providing generous support for everyone. Having been told that I would be on in the second half, I went off to the loo during the interval to reread my notes and write key words on the back of my hand – a safety net of ink. I bought a cola (I didn’t want alcohol to blur my thinking) and went back to my seat while the butterflies in my stomach did their thing.
Three acts after the interval the compère said, “Shall we get our next act out? This is his first time doing stand-up. It’s Stuart Smith.” I jumped up from my seat, onto the stage and promptly knocked the microphone out of the stand – a bit too soon to be dropping the mic. Strangely, this didn’t throw me at all and I launched headfirst into my first joke.
Then the weirdest thing happened, I could hear people laughing! Although I couldn’t see anyone, due to the spotlight, I could hear them. They laughed at the next joke, and the next, and I began confidently ‘selling’ each joke like Logan had told me to. I was really getting into my flow when I saw a flashing red light at the back of the room signifying I had one minute left. My last joke was about how 9/11 reminds us that the world can be full of cowardice but also of great love and courage. And that 9/11 also reminds Americans of the number to call should anything similar happen again. It split the room between those that laughed because they found it funny and those that laughed but didn’t think they should.
I’ve always laughed at dark humour, and as a Christian, I’ve sometimes questioned where that comes from. But I am who I am and it’s more important to me to be authentic than trying to be someone else. Robin Williams once said, “For me, comedy starts as a spew, a kind of explosion, and then you sculpt it from there, if at all. It comes out of a deeper, darker side. Maybe it comes from anger, because I’m outraged by cruel absurdities, the hypocrisy that exists everywhere, even within yourself, where it’s hardest to see.”
I returned the microphone stand to the centre of the stage, shook hands with the compère and sat back down as he was saying “Was there anybody else who, when he said the words ‘9/11’ thought, Oh… let’s see where this goes?”
I was buzzing. It was an incredible feeling to have made total strangers laugh, out loud. I didn’t sleep that night. I relived the evening and replayed my set in my head. I wanted to go and do it again. Two weeks later, I did.
Performing in the final showcase in front of my family and friends was an incredible experience. It was decided that I would be the last act of the evening, and I was ecstatic. My ego saw this gig as mine – in his eyes he was the headliner – and my competitive nature was determined to blow everyone else away.
I couldn’t have been happier with how it went. In less than three months I had gone from watching stand-up comedians to being one myself, albeit for five minutes at a time. I’d learned lots about comedy but the biggest transformation had been in my self-confidence, my posture and how being out of my comfort zone can actually energise me rather than make me freeze. I have more gigs booked, dinner parties included.
Tony Vino gives his top 5 tips for aspiring comedians
- Fake it till you make it
Leading up to and during your first performances you will more than likely suffer from crippling nerves. That overwhelming sense of terror when your mind goes into overdrive imagining in horrific detail all the ways it can go wrong. To perform comedy is to make yourself vulnerable in front of a group of strangers, therefore to feel fear is natural, but to give in to that fear will work against you. There is a feedback loop with audiences such that if you look and act uncomfortable the audience will respond in kind, leading to an inevitable death. Even if you experience crushing performance anxiety, consciously decide to act confident, present confident, and magically once you get laugh after laugh you will feel confident, creating a positive feedback loop. There are simple tricks to doing this, such as using open body language, scanning the audience with your eyes, smiling and being conscious to slow your speech down, ensuring the comedy pauses are in place.
- Take every opportunity
To find your true comedy voice, you will need upwards of 20 hours on stage. Therefore, take every opportunity to perform. Gig constantly at every event possible, whether that be an open mic, a festival, variety show, church service – heck, opening a village fête – it doesn’t matter, get up there and try your material out. If you are struggling to fill the diary with those, then create your own gig; even if it’s in your living room in front of a group of mates you have bribed with a free curry, a gig’s a gig.
- Craft material unique to you
It can be tempting to try to write material on classic comedy tropes such as sex, marriage, air travel, the difference between men and women’s thinking. If you use generalised material it will make what you are saying of more mass appeal. However, your act will be much better if you bring to it those quirky aspects unique to you. If you are a fan of 80s synth punk rock, let’s hear about it; if you have a phobia of Brillo Pads, tell all; we want to know about your eccentric uncle who drank two gallons of water a day because he thought he might internally combust. Subjects only you know about because they are your life will make your set more authentic and mean your jokes can’t be copied.
- Enjoy it
Have fun on stage and writing. Be bold, take risks and continually evolve as a performer. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get it right first time, learn from you mistakes, let each gig build on the last. Know that the bad ones teach you more than the easy ones. A tough audience makes you tougher and your material tighter, an easy audience gives you opportunity to expand upon material.
- Learn the basics
Just like in any industry, art form or career, there is a level of study needed alongside the practice. There are certain quick-win performance techniques and joke constructs that you can get from books on stand-up and by attending a comedy course. Watch as much comedy as you can, then you will begin to pick up on patterns of jokes, reveals and techniques which will aid you immensely in the early days.