Breaking My Cherry

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I started the Virgin Standup project right after my second comedy gig. By fluke I’d had both of my first gigs filmed; already I was addicted to performing and unhealthy fixated on becoming the best standup I could be. I set out to rigorously analyse each show, to learn as much from my mistakes as my successes. This was easy at first, a real thrill, as beginners luck & nervous energy meant it was quite a while before I faced a genuinely tough room. Cringing as I watched over each set was excellent motivation to improve, and helped me hone in on elements of my stage persona that needed most work. However, as time went by on I got lax. Starting with a run of bad gigs in October I became more and more reluctant to commit to the hard work of reviewing these shows. As a result I’ve written less material than I otherwise would have, and made a couple of mistakes that I didn’t need to. I hereby resolve not to let this happen again. Join me as I watch over all my gigs, and catch up with the crits on the ones I’ve been to terrified to review.

First couple of gigs I coasted on nervous energy, twitching about the stage like a mannequin with burning strings, and speaking faster than an torrents patient watching the Wire. My nervousness made the audience sympathetic, but increased their anxiety in turn. I didn’t wait for laughs and spoke so unclearly that I now can’t make out half my sets. Still they’re much less terrible than I remembered. What a harsh judge I was, like a teenager discovering his parents infidelity, my lack of experience made me the arch pedantic critic.

Perhaps I’ve just gotten to a point (thanks to a couple of horrific gigs) where I don’t necessarily judge the success of my material based on audience reaction. If the medium is the message, then delivery is content- the route to engaging the audience, setting the tone and mood and building character, setting and ultimately humour on stage.

Something as simple as speaking slowly, clearly and with emotion makes a world of difference.

I need to decide this year whether or not to drop the ‘Professor Byron Frump’ accent. It’s been good to me, and saved me the trouble of writing good introductory material. But it’s become a a crutch, and although it sets me apart on the Irish scene as a ‘character comedian’, it also directs the tone of my material toward dark perversity.

Gig of the year

I had some great gigs this year, many of them with the always generous crowd at Comedy Dublin, but gig of year year has to go to my 6th show. Exchange Words is a monthly night I established to showcase the best of Irish spoken word entertainment, from standup comedy to storytelling, theatre and poetry. Working with a crew of amazingly talented young people we put together three great shows, but Exchange Words 1 will always be my favourite. It was the first gig of any kind I’d ever organised, and after a hectic few weeks sorting out performers, seating, lighting and sound, it came together magically on the night. The audience, a combination of friends and alternative kids was so welcoming that even my monstrously offensive ‘Maddie’ routine went down well.

Since then Exchange Words has played host to Gordon Rochford, Ronan Grace and Enda Muldoon, and all three have gone down a storm; proving that an alcohol free venue is no impediment to a successful set. Actually I’ve found the opposite is true, the drunker the audience the more difficult they are to engage.

MCs of the Year

I’ve become convinced of the importance of a good MC. Watching my first gig I’m blown away all over again by how well the audience reacted to my (poorly rehearsed) set. A great MC doesn’t have to be funny, or witty, or famous or even use any ‘material’ at all (although all these things have their place). A great MC is one who prepares the audience for the comedians they’re about to see, excites them, makes an event of the evening, and makes the acts feel like the stars of the night. Two comedians stand out for me at the moment, knowing that the audience (however large or small) will be most attentive, tolerant and game for a laugh when they run the night- Aidan Killian & Kieran Lawless.

Comedians of the year

So I’ve performed at 19 gigs so far, and probably attended ten more. Although I’ve plenty of standup’s still to see, I’ve been surprised at the narrowness of the Irish scene. There’s very little ‘theatrical’ humour going on, very few female or ethnic minority comedians, and what masquerades as satire is usually an ossicle shattering Bill Hicks impersonation. That said, there are some excellent comedians performing in Ireland right now. Comedians that like as not you haven’t heard of. The ones that stand out off the top of my head, in no particular order are Gordon Rochford, Steven Elliot, and Enda Muldoon. If you get a chance to see any of these guys, and they all tour regularly, go.

Material & Delivery

I’m proud I tried lots of different material- at least a couple of new minutes most nights. Even where it didn’t work it expanded my range, and my understanding of what does work. Learning to improvise, slow down and let the night choose my direction are things I need to focus on in the new year.

I’ve gotten tired of being the ‘dark comedian’. While there’s a certain thrill to be had having seasoned veterans shake their heads and tell me I’m ‘not right’, the pitch black stuff is getting monotonous. This year I want to focus on writing more surreal scenes, more audience participation bits and brief ‘openers’. Watching over my old videos I keep seeing how important it is to have a great kick off. You can lose an audience and win them back, but if you don’t have them from the start, getting them to laugh at all is a herculean task. Herculean, but not literally impossible. At my ninth gig I lost the audience at the starting line, then made it worse by running my most offensive material, but I managed to get them back with my first rollout of my ‘Noshing on one another’s Periwinkles’ bit. The trick I think was standing still, holding my ‘frame’, and carrying on regardless. Tough to do when your facing a silent room.

I need to increase my on stage energy while keeping down my pace (and shoutyness). I also need to focus on varying my emotional tone- sadness, joy, hilarity, the gamut of bountiful human experience are all to play for darling.

Just as I need to drop some material… I could do worse than reworking some old material- I can definitely pull something useful from the ‘Life is absolutely filthy’, and ‘blasphemy’ bits, now that Dermot Ahern’s disastrous defamation bill has finally gone into law.

The Audience

I’ve learned something this year about the individuality of comic tastes. Techniques are either successful or unsuccessful, delivery is either good or bad, but different audiences have distinct preferences. Women can feel understandably alienated by comedy that targets them for abuse. City audiences (and educated folks generally), don’t want to encounter racist or homophobic bits, even if they’re ‘meant well’. Audiences from more deprived socioeconomic groups have a much lower tolerance for grotesque / sexual humour, preferring bawdy end-of-pier ‘cabaret’ comedy.

Students and young people generally are my natural audience. With a high tolerance for surrealism and perversity they fit my material and inclinations. But it would stand me in good stead to be able to succeed better with a wider variety of audiences- especially the typical Irish drunken office worker crowd. To be honest, right now if given the opportunity, I couldn’t do a televisible act, and that’s a bad thing.

Thanks

I owe a lot of people a lorra’ love for the help and advice they’ve given me getting my start in standup. Aidan Killian gets props for giving me my first gig. Margo & Gabby are legends for putting me on unannounced (and at my absolute filthiest) in Comedy Dublin. Ditto Edwin & Jonathan & Gary on various occasions, at this point a good third of my gigs have been dropped in my lap after I walked in the door and was cheeky enough to ask for them. Thanks also need to go to everyone who came along to the weekly Comedians Anonymous material workshops we held this year at Exchange Dublin. The advice and reactions of the folks involved- like Mark Cahill, Lisa Joyce, Ian Perth (whose career seems to be strapped to a rocket right now) and Gordon Rochford, was invaluable. But I owe most of all to the absolute star Gary Lynch, who’s been a kind of mentor this past few months. In addition to being a talented standup, Gary runs the Underground Comedy club in Thomas Reeds, and is a font of advice and support for new comedians. Gary also did an excellent job MCing our first Exchange Words event, and has helped me out behind the scenes in innumerable ways. Lest I forget I shall continue to steal material throughout 2010 from my friend and occasional writing partner, the outstandingly hilarious Andrew Booth.

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