40 things: talking in front of a paying audience

My 40whilst40 continues apace. Admittedly it’s a fairly glacial pace but there is definite movement.

Last night was Bettakultcha at the Brudenell Social Club, a venue I’ve never been to before. It’s a brilliant venue, a great stashed away stage with an incredible PA, a decent bar, and would make a very interesting venue for theatrical performances.

One of my 40whilst40 list reads:

“Scary stuff: Get up and talk in front of a paying audience (which may or may not be stand-up)”

If I’m honest this had already been planned before writing the list. Ivor spoke to me about it at the tail end of last year, explaining that Bettakultcha was having a bit of an experiment; a themed event about “The Importance of Failure”. I said it was a good idea and would be happy to talk. “About what?” asked Mr Tymchak. I thought for about two seconds; I could talk about the scientific method, why null result experiments are important. Or why if you’ve got decent ingredients it almost doesn’t matter if it all goes wrong in the baking (or performing). The ideas I had were ok, but all of a sudden a memory that I’d half suppressed came up and smacked me in the face.

You know that moment when you remember something from your past and you inwardly groan to yourself about how cringeworthy it was? I do that a lot, and have to work quite hard at not externalising it. This time I externalised it. “I know,” wincing as I said it. “The one and only time I did standup. I could talk about that.” Ivor looked at me.

Anyway, since then I unearthed a bunch of memories and a couple of photographs, came up with a script and some slides, and sent them in. Last night I got up on stage and said something – I’ve no idea whether it was the script or not, it could have been but I won’t know until the video is ready – and tried to exorcise a demon. The script is below. Every word of it is true, and the photo is the one from the day I dyed my hair for the performance.

Feedback has been pretty positive so far, although I’m not doing this for warm fuzzies (it’s for the buzz off the rare times I get to perform, but doing it all the time would kill me). It was pointed out that I’d just done a five minute standup routine about why I don’t do standup (irony!) and I did tell the audience at one point that they were massive pervs for laughing at one particular joke. Here’s the thing, though: I wasn’t sure if they were laughing or not. Couldn’t hear much over my own words, could see very little (certainly couldn’t see the monitor that told me which slide I was on) through the lights. It didn’t help the nerves that the projector had a loose cable and went off during the previous chap’s talk, and we had to have a break before I went on…

It is well known that comedy descends from tragedy. If you’ll allow me an indulgence I will give you a concrete example of this.

My one and only attempt at standup happened in Newcastle, in a comedy club that lay in the shadow of St James’ Park. I’d been invited to appear as part of a competition to find new comedians. I thought that I could have a go, because I’d done lecturing to a few hundred hungover medical students and still made them laugh, although that was usually by making one of them fall over. It was in June of 2003, the day after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released, which I’ve not been able to read since.

Clearly I needed a script, so did a few brief bits of research.

One of the funniest non-spoken gags in TV history is simple; Del falling through a bar top. This is slapstick and people find this hilarious when given context. For the standup I wanted to make my audience laugh by thinking, so I dropped the slapstick idea. Instead I looked at some wordy gags. The funniest four-word gag in TV history is “Don’t tell him, Pike!” but that needs a big setup and hubris can be a bit tricky to pull off. Instead I looked at the longest list of euphemisms for death in comedy, the Dead Parrot sketch, which is really all about the battle against wilful ignorance. I rejected this, and decided to go for the Ronnie Corbett style of long, rambly joke with diversions, because that’s what I like. All of the other – rejected – ideas were about funnies from failure, of sorts.

Let’s recap. Slapstick, hubris and death, three ideas I rejected. I had no real idea what I was doing – at least there was a script – so of course the best thing I could do was dye my hair and go & look at some art instead of prepping.


The audience at the club were there for one person, their mate who’d dragged them along, and they were buggered if they’d give anybody else an easy ride. Most of them really were there for one person and he was on in the first half. The other acts? A bloke doing a manic act about weather, two guys in sheep masks dropping plates on a stage until they ran out of plates, then danced about until they got booed off, some bloke talking about wanking and a GP are the ones that stick in my mind. The wanker got some laughs.

I was first up on the second half. The compere had the same name as me so when I heard him go “welcome, Mike!” I ran onto the stage, only what I’d done was crashed his opening gag about his first time on stage. I slunk off, then he cut his gag to call me back out and I bounded up the steps onto the stage and slipped on the top step, nearly landing on my face.

I looked out across the audience. Two thirds of them had left because their mates had already done their bits, the rest were heading back to their seats from the bar. I made a quick adlib about being a scouser in Newcastle and forgot my actual opening line. Stood there trying to think of something to say, and just couldn’t, I swear I heard a hyena howling. Ten, twenty years later I remembered something and launched into my spiel, but by that point I’d lost the audience.

The main point of the joke was about bukkake – if you don’t know what it is really don’t google it – and how it could look on a book cover if you didn’t know what it was, like a book about cake if it were poorly translated, for example. The problem there was this was 2003 and most people didn’t know about Japanese fetishes because the Internet wasn’t everywhere the way it is now. So this long and convoluted joke just died because the punchline, about a fictitious grandmother walking in as I was opening a book that I thought was about cake, was totally meaningless to this drunken, partisan audience who had been there too long already. I finished my routine, got off stage as fast as I possibly could, and tried really hard not to listen to the desultory applause. Because it was terrible. Slapstick – I fell on the steps – Hubris – I didn’t prep – and Death – because I died up there so, so badly. Three ideas I’d rejected but ended up doing anyway.

So the – admittedly pretty specific – take home message from this is: don’t ad lib unless you know what’s coming next, and don’t do standup in Newcastle unless you’re a geordie or talk about wanking. Thanks!

It’s not like I’m going to stop performing now this is out of the way, but I think I can count this item on the list as being done, and done pretty well.

Were you at the gig? What did you think? Let me know in the comments 🙂

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One Response to 40 things: talking in front of a paying audience

  1. I liked the line about going to the art gallery instead of learning your material. It’s funny, because it’s true …

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