My Brilliant Stand-Up Career

My First Venture into Stand-Up Comedy, The Comedy Pub, Leicester Square
My First Venture into Stand-Up Comedy, The Comedy Pub, Leicester Square
At the start of this year I did something I thought I’d never do — enrolled on a stand-up comedy course.

And even more daunting than practicing and performing a few attempts at stand-up in a classroom situation in front of a tutor and other students was that the course included a ‘showcase’ performance for all the newbie students to perform their routines. Add into the mix that it was at a “real” comedy venue to a real audience. All this after a whole six weeks of study.

My reasons for taking the course were partly logical and partly just a hell-of-it idea to push myself well out of my normal comfort zone. 

The logical justification was that I’d written short stories that had seemed to get a few decent laughs when performed by professional actors at Liars League. And, in general, my writing often has a habit of veering off in search of the humorous.

So, in theory, it wasn’t a huge leap to try my hand at writing the sort of material that might work in some types of stand-up. 

The big problem was getting up and performing it. 

That’s where the comfort zone thing came in. Talk to most people and they’ll say one of their biggest fears is public speaking. If it’s public speaking without notes to an audience that might include hecklers who expect you to be funny then it’s ten times worse. Many people have told me that having a go at stand-up is their worst nightmare.

In some ways stand-up is the opposite of writing — it’s performed in real-time, often with elements of improvisation, delivered in a uniquely personal style and involves direct interaction with an audience (unlike theatre, there’s no ‘fourth wall’). Writing distances the personality of the author, can be paused and re-read and is a solitary activity for the reader. Unsurprisingly, then, as a means of communication, writing often suits personalities on the introverted end of the scale, probably including me too.

But there are also similarities. Along with attending the course, I’ve read a few books about stand-up technique and by stand-up comedians. Sara Pascoe in her recent book Animal (it defies categorisation as it’s part memoir, part biology/psychology, part humour) makes a perceptive point — both authors and stand-ups effectively tell their audiences/readers to sit down and listen to/read their words for a long period. They’re not conversations. In her words, they’re both about showing off. Both stand-ups and authors of books have a story they ‘re insisting on telling the audience.

And as well as the general principle, many storytelling techniques are common to both genres, etc, etc. 

Well, that was the psychological lifebelt I was clinging to — as the showcase performance at the end of the course started to move closer.

Mike on the Mic
Mike on the Mic
There are many stand-up courses available, taught in contrasting formats. The course I took was with City Academy (who do a lot of other courses in the performing arts, for actors/dancers/etc.) over six Monday nights, with the seventh week being the showcase.

City Academy actually interviewed me about my experiences of the course:

The tutor was (and remains) Kate Smurthwaite. Since doing the course I’ve seen Kate interviewed all over the place, often about gender and feminist issues. She’s been on Sky News and became internationally famous a few weeks ago for showing her unshaven armpits on This Morning. She also even achieved a high accolade from the perspective of some of the posts on this blog — by being a guest on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2.

Besides her punditry in the media, Kate is also a professional comedian, touring her own shows and with writing credits such as Have I Got News For You. I found her a very broad-minded and supportive tutor, generating a rapport with all the students. She offered a good grounding in some of the practical aspects of starting off in stand-up comedy and provided positive, constructive feedback.

The other students were a diverse bunch (in terms of humour, especially) yet it was amazing how quickly we built up a shared sense of camaraderie. Perhaps it was the shared prospect of being thrown to the hecklers in the end-of-course showcase that helped us bond? Or maybe the ‘loosener’ improvisation exercises during the class — after which nobody can remain a shrinking violet.

There were some excellent budding comedians in the class. Each session was as entertaining as turning up to a comedy night in your own exclusive club. 

So how did the showcase night at the Comedy Pub (near Leicester Square) go? Taking myself out the equation, I thought everyone on the bill completely nailed their performances — i was on towards the end and watched with trepidation because everyone else’s practising and adrenaline obviously paid off. 

Coursemates After The Showcase at the Comedy Pub
Relieved Coursemates Celebrating After The Showcase at the Comedy Pub (top row: Adam, Rob, me, Kate; middle: Karolina, Mandy; front: Chantelle, Dave, Ian. Nick was missing from this photo.)
So, how did my career as a stand-up turn out? You can judge for yourself. Virtually all of my performance at the Comedy Pub near Leicester Square was recorded on the video below.  I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again for a week but then I relented and thought it wasn’t too awful — so put it up on YouTube for posterity.

You can actually hear the audience laughing — and in mostly the right places. It was a pretty friendly bunch, generally friends and family of the performers (thanks very much for the great turnout from my supporters). If you listen carefully you can hear my heckler (a Chilean woman who was a friend of one of the other students who was apparently joining in because she liked me!). If you have any comments please leave them at the end of the post.

Was that night the beginning and end of my stand-up career?

Surprisingly, no. I know I’m not going to be the next Michael McIntyre, nor do I really have the desire to be (for one thing the slog involved in working ones way round the circuit is equivalent to writing a novel — and with a lot less tea and sitting down). 

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the live performance experience and receiving that instant feedback from the audience , both during the the course and in the showcase itself. 

In fact, I enjoyed it enough so to subject myself to more! 

I joined up on Kate’s City Academy follow-on stand-up course, along with five other of the beginners’ course Monday students and others from the parallel Wednesday course, which Kate also taught. Sadly that course has no performance at the end but it’s meant to get students to a standard where they can venture out into the world of stand-up gigging with a five minute set.

Will that include me? Watch this space!

Come and Listen to My Story at Liars’ League London — 9th February

I have another short story being read at Liars’ League London. Titled Selfie Stick,  it’s part of their Clean and Dirty pre-Valentine’s themed event for February 2016 (guess which of the two it tends towards).

The evening starts at 7.30pm downstairs at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London — near Oxford Circus tube and close to John Lewis.

I believe it’s going to be read by an actor called Lois Tucker. I found myself mentioned in her tweet (pictured below). ‘Fruity’ and ‘SAUCY’ is her verdict!

Selfie Stick -- The Actor's Verdict!
Selfie Stick — The Actor’s Verdict!

No more spoilers — all will be revealed on Tuesday on the night itself.  There should be a video, transcript and podcast to follow provided by those nice folks at the Liars League.

Please come along and join me for what’s always a great evening — only £5 on the door. There are five other stories to enjoy — the website teaser sounds intriguing. for more details.

A Day of Two Halves

I hesitated outside the venue, sweat beading on my brow, nervous about what would await me inside.

I stepped over the threshold, walked into the bar, checking the place out – fairly empty, a mix of tourists and ale drinkers — not the gang I was gunning for. After all, it was a pub that was well known for its beer – but it wasn’t a need for anything alcoholic that I’d made the journey up to London. (If I’d have wanted beer I wouldn’t have passed up the invitation I’d been offered to visit a brewery on this very day. Isn’t that what real men did at the weekend?)  I was looking for novelists – romantic novelists – mean, hard-scribbling people.

They must be upstairs, holed-up in the function room already, the inner sanctum, doing whatever a group of women do in a place where, I guessed, no men dared to tread. I climbed fearfully up the staircase. Would I have to knock or would I stand there in the doorway, faced by heads turning faster and faster revealing stares of incredulity and shock. ‘What is he  doing here?’ 

And then I woke up . It was still Saturday morning. I could change my mind — and go to the brewery visit instead — not the London Chapter of the Romantic Novelists Association as I’d planned. I’ve blogged before (and on the RNA’s own blog) about the perceived gender issues associated with the romantic genre — and how, in reality, I’ve discovered there not to be any problems at all. But it’s one thing sending in a manuscript or e-mailing a blog post remotely and another actually meeting people face-to-face.

So deciding to go along to the London Chapter meeting of the RNA at the end of April did take a bit of courage — and maybe the thought of a little of the Dutch sort was quite appealing as the meeting was held above the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Like most people, I expect most of my trepidation was because I’d be walking into a meeting not knowing anyone while anticipating that everyone else would have been friends for years. But there was still an element of anxiety at being male and walking into what was likely to be an overwhelmingly female meeting, if not exclusively.

But, I rationalise, that’s a good experience for a writer — there must be many occasions when women feel ‘different’ walking into a predominantly male gathering — and the feeling of being ‘other’ must, by definition, be common for people from minority backgrounds.

In the event, I was sweating uncomfortably when I did walk into the room but this was less to do with any nervousness at arriving at the meeting and more connected with having walked all the way from the Euston Road on a humid day.

Needless to say, I was actually made to feel extremely welcome by the organisers and, among the twenty-five or so attendees, there were two other men — one a husband of a member and another a writer. There were also a few other first-timers, including a very pleasant woman writer, whose husband had a job that almost cries out for novel treatment itself. He is Elvis. Or at least an Elvis tribute who is so popular overseas that he takes a whole touring show out to places like China. He apparently started off in a karaoke competition in a pub and it took off to the extent it eclipsed his day job and he went to being Elvis full-time. It shows how careers can grow out of  hobbies.

While it was a very sociable occasion, I was struck by hard-headed attitude of many of the established writers. This wasn’t a meeting that was the sort of exaggerated stereotype that some might imagine — of sighs over Christian Grey or discussion on Mr Darcy. It was the opposite — it was as business-like as any other conference or trade association meeting I’ve been to. For the more established writers, romantic fiction is a very much a business — one that provides an enjoyable and fulfilling livelihood.

This theme was emphasised by the guest speaker, Victoria Connelly, who gave a fascinating and very informative talk about how she juggles both traditional and self-published routes to market. As Victoria’s website shows, she’s written a very impressive back catalogue of books and her choice in publishing and marketing many of these titles herself (also employing her husband to help her) shows that once an author builds a market and readership then the self-publishing option can be as financially viable as traditional routes and allows much more independence for the author.

After the meeting I felt encouraged and invigorated by spending time with a group of writers who were not only friendly and welcoming but great examples of people who approach writing practically and successfully.

As mentioned in a previous post, I was also in London on that day to hear one of my short stories being read to an audience. Fay and Sabina, organisers of Studio 189′s Spring Ball, had heard Alex Woodhall’s excellent reading of Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? at Liars’ League last year and when they had the idea of ‘something literary’ to entertain their guests on the evening, wondered if a repeat performance could be arranged.

Alex Woodhall Reading Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? at Studio 189's Spring Ball
Alex Woodhall Reading Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? at Studio 189’s Spring Ball

I was flattered to have been asked and fortunately Alex was free to repeat his performance. Studio 189 has a wonderful secluded garden, which where the Spring Ball’s entertainment had been planned — we’d earlier had a spectacular performance from an opera singer. However, the heavens opened and Alex had to do the reading inside. This meant grabbing the attention of the whole party for the duration of the story (there was nowhere to escape but into the rain).

It’s testimony to the effectiveness of Alex’s performance that the audience remained captivated by the reading for the full fifteen minutes or so of the story — with no audible side-conversations or distracted chat. And it was a big audience. Apparently over a hundred guests were at the party. It’s an exhilarating and addictive feeling to hear the words you’ve written providing pleasure and entertainment. Reading the expressions on the audience’s faces is much more immediate feedback on your writing than comments made a reader’s had some time to reflect (as happens with written work).

The Audience Listening to My Story (Me on the Extreme Right Possibly Suffering the Effects of the White Wine)
The Audience Listening to My Story (Me on the Extreme Right Possibly Suffering the Effects of the White Wine)

Oddly enough, it had been well over a year since I’d written the story and, perhaps I’d had too much wine, but I’d forgotten some of the details and some of the writing actually surprised me!

So thanks to Alex (who recently read another Liars’ League story in London) and Fay and Sabina who are organising several other intriguing events at Studio 189 — the latest being a sushi school and a comedy night.

It’s taken me a while to write it up (and apologies for the cryptic placeholder message that’s been on this site for a week or so) but that Saturday in April demonstrated several facets of the writers’ life — that, for most, it’s a business that needs hard work and a commercial focus but that knowing people enjoy something that you’ve created is immensely rewarding and fulfilling in a way that many other professions aren’t.

I’ll be going to the RNA Conference in July and look forward to meeting many other friendly and professionals writers there — and with much less trepidation.

Don’t forget that Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? is still available to download as a Kindle book from Amazon along with three other Liars’ League stories of mine. I’m afraid the free promotional days have been used up for the time being and it’s currently £1.99 — but that’s still less than the price of even a Prêt coffee.

Buy My Book! (Or Download It for Free if You’re Quick)

The Cover of my eBook: Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?
The Cover of my eBook: Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?

As hinted in the previous post, I’ve been dipping my toe in the waters of ebook creation and my first offering is now available for download (free for a limited period until the end of Tuesday 7th April) on Amazon for Kindle readers (and Kindle reader apps).

The ebook features four short stories, all  of which were selected and performed by the Liars’ League.

Read about:

  • Naked photography in a hipster’s  Shoreditch loft kitchen in Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?
  • An intern’s impromptu elevator pitch for the most calamitous disaster movie ever in Elevator Pitch
  • The petrol-headed rage of a spurned, blade-wielding opera singer in The Good Knife
  • Lovesick rapping from the dock by a guilt-ridden, Premier League hard-man in Well Sick for a White Guy.

All are 2,000 words or under so can be read in ten minutes or so.  10-15 minute stories that were memorably read by actors at Liars’ League’s award spoken-word evenings in London, Leicester and Hong Kong. Click on the cover image to download the book.

Links to three of the live performances can be found elsewhere on this blog. The exception is Well Sick For A White Guy, which was performed in September by Liars’ League Leicester. The video for this story hasn’t been made available online and the only place the text can be found is in this ebook (unlike the two Liars League London stories which can be read on the Liars League website).

Well Sick For a White Guy might actually be my favourite story of the four. The reading would certainly have been fun and I’m rather sad that I missed it, although Alex Woodhall and Sarah Feathers’ readings of the first two stories in London were excellent in person and Bhavini Ravel’s great reading of The Good Knife can be viewed below.

I’m not normally a fan of giving away intellectual property for free because of the way it eventually undermines the ability of creative people to get a decent reward for their work. However, it’s the fact that these stories are in the public domain already which has encouraged me to publish them together as an ebook — and people did pay to hear all of them read for each public performance. Therefore I’d have the book on free download indefinitely if it wasn’t for the rather strict promotional rules on Kindle Direct Publishing (only five days in any ninety day period).

When the promotional period is over, the book will revert to the current Amazon Kindle minimum price of £1.99 — which is less than the price of a cappuccino in Pret A Manger or half a pint of beer in most pubs in London (i.e. not much at all compared with the relative effort that goes into the creation of each).

You don’t need a Kindle to download to as Amazon will provide Kindle reading apps for iPhones, iPads, Android devices, PCs and so on.

As well as experimenting with the mechanics of self-publishing, my motivation for publishing it is purely give anyone who’s curious enough a concise taste of my writing and if anyone who downloads it feels kind enough to leave a review then that would be great.

I don’t make any great artistic claims for the cover image above (anyone spot where it is?) but it’s a fact of self-publishing that you need to have one — and not one that rips off anyone else’s image rights (that’s my own photo). The eventual image was voted for overwhelmingly (out of a not-very-inspiring selection) by my Facebook friends!

And my stories are rubbing literary shoulders in exalted company as Liars League is now on Radio 4! A series of three readings — from Hong Kong, New York and London — is currently running on Sunday evenings at 7.45pm. The first story was broadcast yesterday. While my stories have no connection with those broadcast, it’s a fantastic endorsement of overall quality threshold of the Liars’ League events and is a very positive reflection on my fellow LL writer alumni.

Liars' League Listing in the Radio Times, Easter Sunday 2015
Liars’ League Listing in the Radio Times, Easter Sunday 2015

My collection has been put together with the blessing of Liars’ League — Liar Katy Darby helped me pick the title and had a look at an early version of the ebook. I’ve actually been doing Katy’s  highly-recommended Writers’ Workshop short course at City University between January and March this year to help develop ideas for the next novel — keep reading this blog for more news on that over the next few months).

I’ll be looking at other means of distributing the ebook but it needs to be exclusive to Amazon for the next three months so, if you’re interested, download it as soon as possible. Watch the blog or follow me on Twitter for when it goes on free download again.

Incidentally, if you want to watch Alex Woodhall’s superb reading of Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? one more time in person then he’ll be performing it at a special event — the Studio 189 Spring Ball organised by my friends Sabina and Fay on 25th April in north London. It also offers a private viewing of some erotic artworks and an opera singer — all for the bargain price of £30.

Studio 189 Spring Ball
Studio 189 Spring Ball


The Good Knife

My short story, The Good Knife, was performed on 23rd February as part of Liars’ League Hong Kong Hunter and Prey themed evening. The story was read by actor Bhavini Ravel.  

Please do watch and enjoy Bhavini’s performance in the video below – she delivers the story with drama and suspenseful timing and does a great job of getting into the character of the narrator. It was a shame to have missed through being in stuck in the UK  — unfortunately a return plane ticket isn’t part of the deal but it’s a great feeling nevertheless to know your work is being enjoyed half way round the world.

The video lasts just under 10 minutes (1,200 words) it comes in a little shorter than the other videos posted from Liars’ League London last year (Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? and Elevator Pitch.) The sound is a bit indistinct in places but the story’s still audible.

The Good Knife is my fourth story to be read by one of the Liars’ League franchises (I had another read in Leicester in September) and slightly different in tone – being a story of revenge and abandonment although it still has a little of the humour of the London stories (well, the audience laughs in the places I hoped they would, anyway).

As far as I can tell, the text of The Good Knife isn’t on the Liars’ League Hong Kong website (the video is on their Facebook and YouTube pages) but should you want to read the text then watch this space over the next few days for some news about how you might do so.