I arrived at the gig last night, having driven straight from work (my journey started at 4pm and involved a very very quick toilet/food break). The promoter had contacted me during the journey to make sure I was coming. Given that his is on of the few gigs that I'd gladly travel through 4 hours of rush hour traffic to attend (and I did). I thought that it was decidedly unassuming of him to double check. He is truly a great guy.
So, it was a venue I've played often (and I've always had great gigs there), but it had a couple of changes. Firstly, it had been spruced up. Actually, it's possible that it was spruced up last time, but I just didn't notice, distracted by my own self-absorption, the presence of my cousin, and the obscuring effect on decor caused by there being a huge crowd of students in the place. Sadly, the other change was that the huge crowd of excitable students was somewhat lacking in the important property of its magnitude. It was a crowd, but not a huge one. Couple this with the fact that the mid-20's of January is the most depressing time of the year and the gig was, unusually subdued.
However, subdued at XS Malarkey in Manchester is the equivalent of roof-raising in other gigs. Plus, this was the first time I'd ever been put on the stage there without a strict imperative to keep to time. So, I was intent on having as much fun as I could with the audience. overall, it was a very enjoyable and rewarding gig. I think I had to work a lot harder than I've ever worked on that stage before, and there's no doubt that at least two of the songs I did could have been cut - indeed, cutting them might have contributed to the set, rather than taken away from it. But what the hell. I hardly ever do "Distracting Racists With Board Games" and I thought that a Malarkey crowd might play along. It didn't lose them totally. In addition, "Bridget The Diabetic Midget" is a good student sing-along number, but it failed to hit the spot as it has done on previous occasions.
Keeping control of an approximately 30 minute musical set is a skill. It's something I don't get to do very often, and I was reasonably out of practice. There were a few points where I lost my internal sense of rhythm and started belting along. Had the audience been interrupting me with huge uncontrollable laughter, then that wouldn't have happened - the trick is to be able to keep your own pace when there's no laughter, rather than rush on to the next guaranteed laugh. Overall, I didn't rush it too much, and I felt distinctly confident on the stage. It's hard not to feel safe among an XS Malarkey audience.
One of the things I've been doing more in longer sets is alternating between playing the show tight to the script and loosening up - usually in the links. For me, one of the skills is to make the scripted pieces seem spontaneous in their delivery, or at least not appear to radically be changing gear between making it up and doing something I've done countless times before. Between big hitters, I purposely made myself go off script, if only to make some pleasantries with the audience, or comment on one person who was particularly enjoying it. I even threw in a bit of audience banter. That should be good, right?
Not quite. Audience banter is an artform. There are various tricks you can use. One of these is the loaded question. For example, if you notice someone has a very expensive watch, you can put a question to them thusly: "Oooh, that's an expensive watch - is your daddy loaded? or did you nick it?". This is socially awkward, so when they reply with anything, you can either mock them for being a spoilt-rich-kid or thief - even if they try to deny being either. That's not a great example, but you get the idea. So, I started a conversation with someone who was sitting in the front row and who was the only person to clap a particular part of the set. I said this:
"You're the only one clapping. Thanks for that. Hey, you're balder than I am."
This was not a remarkable observation and it seemed to stun him and the audience to silence. Given that he'd probably just shaved his head, it wasn't too shocking. So, like an idiot, given the opportunity to avoid the slippery slope, or jump headlong down it, I followed with:
"Oooh, you're not undergoing chemotherapy are you?"
Yep. I managed to turn the whole room into a crowd that wanted to know if the big man with the guitar was picking on a guy because he had cancer. I then pushed the point to get an answer and he said that, in fact, he was undergoing chemo.
In fact, two things occurred to me simultaneously:
1. I think I've heard talk of a regular at the club who may or may not be disabled, possibly cancer ridden.
2. I don't feel like I care a great deal about this moment - I can talk my way out of it.
So, I pushed the point. I asked him if he was okay, he said he was and I got the crowd to cheer him. Then I feigned embarrassment at the situation I'd caused. While doing this I studied him and noticed that his facial hair was still there, a sure sign that he hasn't got some hairloss disease thing going on. So, I pushed the point with him. Actually, I momentarily debated reasoning with him in front of the audience that he wasn't chemo using this logic, but decided it might be risky. So, I pressured him to admit that he'd been lying. He admitted it. I then was able to break the tension which I'd somehow created.
I've listened to this moment back a couple of times from the recording I took. While there was clearly a tension in the room, there were laughs throughout the banter and the big thing I got wrong was that I didn't really pause between the next bit of the saga. For me, it seemed like 2 or 3 minutes had elapsed when I came out of the moment the other end. In reality it was about 20 seconds of silliness! I learned an important lesson. Don't use "have you got cancer?" as a comedy-loaded-question!
The audience were still laughing in my last song and I left the gig with my head held high. I think.
I look forward to playing that venue again. It was definitely worth the drive.
In a change to the planned itinerary. I drove to my girlfriend's parents' house to stay the night, despite having planned to spend the night at my new place in Farnborough. So, I had to make a quick trip to the house in Farnborough to get a change of clothes before work. The things I'll do to avoid making a bed!...
Finding your voice
I was reading in another comedian's blog something about finding one's comedic voice. He somewhat pooh-poohed the idea of a voice as being some americanised inanity (I'm paraphrasing). In fact, the "voice" or "persona" or "mojo" or whatever you want to call it, are vital in being funny on stage. It's now three years into my time as a stand-up comedian, and I know that I'm still finding my limitations and my strengths on stage. I think there was a time when making the transition to "performing mode" from being me was a big thing (the wind-up and wind-down from a gig were huge and I didn't quite feel natural when on stage). Now, I transition between the two easily, and there's some of my stage-persona in my daily interpersonal behaviour and vice-versa. However, my behaviour on stage is very particularly different to my behaviour off it.
I was going to post about this on the comedian's blog (mentioned above) but the comments screen went wrong. So, I'll write about it here. There is a story that illustrates this. It happened back in November when I arrived at a Friday evening gig in Manchester after a horrendous car journey - Friday on the M6 is never fun. I was stressed and tired and due to go on first at a tough gig. I moaned at the nearest person, who happened to be the promoter. He said - "Yeah, but once you're on stage, you'll turn on the energy and cheer". I imagine that he may well have been suggesting this partly as coercion on one of his acts to go up there and BE FUNNY. However, he was also observing the fact that when you take to the stage you're there to do your act and not reflect too much on your mood. Being funny involves using a stylised way of behaving to communicate with an entire room full of people (or in the case of this gig, a room, one-third-full-of-disinterested-people).
So, one's comic voice probably starts with the persona. To be funny in company requires a certain way of behaving which would probably not work if you did it exactly like that on a stage in a big room. By exaggerating the things which make you funny and making them as big as the room, perhaps using them to signpost things in your material which are meant to be funny, you can make a room full of people laugh. Being funny partly comes from within, and is partly a straightforward skill of audience-coercion. Finding a comic persona is the junction of these two things.
Once you know who you are on stage, you have to make sure that you deliver your material in character. As such, some material simply cannot work for you and some of it comes very naturally. For me, singing self-deprecating, rude, or wordplay intensive songs seems to work quite well, where biting political satire never truly fits me. I can learn to adapt to other areas, and my persona will expand. Somewhere, though, after gigs and gigs worth of experience, a particular sort of behaviour and a particular branch of comedy will shine out as the most comfortable for me, and the most entertaining for audiences. That's what it means by finding a comedy voice.
I think I know who I am on stage at the moment.
I also think I'm enjoying it.
I hope to do more gigs and make the most of it. I won't be young and energetic enough to be able to cope with 7 or 8 hours in the car after a day's work forever!