At the start of 2020 I joined another of Chris Head’s excellent stand-up comedy courses, hosted at the Old Coffee House in Soho. This one was for new material development for non-beginners (I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an experienced stand-up although several of my course mates were comedians with a lot of gigs behind them).
Little did any of us anticipate what was to come in March 2020.
Fortunately we managed to complete the taught part of the course but the end-of-course showcase was scheduled for 17th March (St. Patrick’s Day) and, in his infinite wisdom, our great leader of a prime-minister decided to tell the whole country the evening before that they should not visit pubs, clubs, restaurants or, in fact, any social gathering due to the spread of Coronavirus. In keeping with his directionless dithering, it wasn’t until the end of that week that the government put any legal direction (requiring compensation for the affected businesses) behind this “advice”.
Nevertheless, the damage was done and the showcase had to be cancelled at very short notice.
In the light of the subsequent pandemic, perhaps the cancellation of our showcase seems like small beer and myself and many of my coursemates thought that it would be a small casualty of the damage that the lockdowns caused to the hospitality and entertainment industry (never mind compared with the cost in human terms of the pandemic). Various of us ended up far from London anyway (Naomi went back to New Zealand, where she’s hopefully avoided the worst of the virus but isn’t likely to be allowed to pop back for a quick trip to England any time soon. Pete was already building Nightingale Hospitals in his day job as an army officer and he was due to be posted up to Catterick, I seem to remember.)
But while we knew Chris was a nice chap, we didn’t expect him to remember the cancelled showcase when things started to get back to some sort of “normal” in mid-2021. Yet he did — and he booked the show at one of London’s best comedy venues, The Bill Murray in Islington. This pub/club is where many of the stars of the comedy world do new material shows and the night after our show, Nina Conti was due to perform.
So six of us from the (ahem) experienced course and six from Chris’s beginners course took to the Bill Murray stage on 18th October 2021 — nineteen months and a day after it was originally scheduled. The overall standard of all the comedians, after such a long hiatus, was amazingly good
I can’t say that my act featured all new material but there’s a few Coronavirus references. It was professionally videoed and you’ve probably already seen it at the top of the post.
So, I managed to do a stand-up slot in the middle of the pandemic in front of a live audience!
I did a relatively topical five minutes with a few reasonably good taste Coronavirus jokes thrown in as well (most thought up on the day of the performance). The Cavendish Arms invested in a lot of hi-tech video equipment to help run remote and socially distanced live-streamed performances and a benefit of this means a very professionally put together video for the performers — with lots of camera angles.
Here it is:
It was a five minute spot on Monday 14th December at the last Comedy Virgins show before the government imposed Tier 3 Coronavirus restrictions on London, thus banning all such live entertainment (and pretty much banning all fun and socialising).
This is terrible news for venues like the Cavendish Arms, which (as can be seen on the below video) has gone to great lengths to ensure a socially distanced, Covid-safe environment. All audience members are kept within a household or bubble and are separated by transparent screens.
Capacity is massively reduced (to about a third) and the audience is instructed not to cheer or shout out (unthinkable for stand-up routines in normal times). The government hasn’t quite managed to stop people laughing yet but the small audience and subdued atmosphere means that laughs are rarer than usual in these venues.
Thanks to Jon for being my bringer and if you want to ensure that stand-up comedy venues like the Cav (as the pub is know for short) are around after the pandemic then please support them. Those who aren’t familiar with the London stand-up scene might not realise what an important role that the Cav has played a huge role in nurturing the early careers of some very famous stand-up comedians. It’s often said (although it’s difficult to find confirmation online) that the likes of Rometh Ranganathan and Rob Beckett were regular performers a few years ago. I was on the same bill as Tez Ilyas when I appeared there a year or two ago — and now he’s on the telly too!
I contributed to the Cav’s crowdfunding appeal in the first lockdown and with government support being particularly spiteful towards pubs, they might need to do similar again.
Two stand-up performers I saw at Edinburgh delivered sets with a theme in common — “escaping” a profoundly working-class background in the geographical backwaters of middle-England to become comedians living (in Kelly’s case at least) in London’s insalubrious neighbourhoods. But it’s London, so it’s relative.
In Tamsyn Kelly’s case, she comes from the nearest council estate to Land’s End — the contrast with the middle-class, Rick Stein postcard fudge-packet version of Cornwall was probably what hooked me when I saw her show recommended in the Evening Standard and I booked it in advance.
Seeing James Meehan was down to serendipity. I’d come out of Monkey Barrel, having seen Olga Koch (of whom more in another post) and walked along Cowgate collecting flyers. I don’t know if it was the person handing out the flyer, the flyer itself or me looking up the show online but I was interested enough to turn around at head back to Cabaret Voltaire — like the Caves an amazing subterranean warren of vaulted brick rooms. (I seem to have picked up he was a fellow Lancastrian somewhere along the way.)
Both shows were predominantly autobiographical — and both dealt with some bleak aspects of growing up in places marginalised and forgotten. Both comedians referenced cruel characters from their upbringing who’d been (possibly) brutalised by their upbringing. Neither did so with sentimentality — James Meehan performed some warts-and-all character sketches of people with indefensible attitudes from his the scene of his Leyland upbringing (framed as the worst online dating videos ever).
Not that either show was depressing or flat — there were plenty of laughs in both. There was a great audience participatory callback in Meehan’s show involving the world’s worst sex toy. Tamsyn Kelly ended her show in a way that was as far from self-pitying as is imaginable.
Both displayed an honest and appealing wit — and first-hand insight — into what divides the country into (some might say) a vibrant London and “the left behind” (if that can be interpreted as unsentimentally as possible. The shows made the point that privilege enjoyed by the likes of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jack Whitehall and a large number of similar others in the creative industries certainly doesn’t extend to any substantial percentage of the British population.
Both stand-ups used material to show that characters from their backgrounds could react to this either in a moronic or actually rather dignified way. Both comedians delivered amusing and though-provoking hours of stand-up with no sense of time-dragging or repetition, using visual aids and innovative changes of structure to vary the pace.
Over the spring I took the brilliant Logan Murray’s stand-up course and met a dozen or so fantastic comedians and made some wonderful friends — and we continue to meet up afterwards.
The course ended with a showcase evening at the excellent Museum of Comedy, which was videoed and very generously shared by Mandy Moore.
Here’s my bit — I’m managing to trim myself down to five minutes a bit better these days. It appeared to go down quite well with the audience on the night. I have to credit the amazingly supportive Logan with quite a few of the jokes, having had a one-to-one session with him in the run-up to the show.
I’d recommend Logan’s course to anyone — and obviously many people have done so as they’re invariably sold out several months ahead. However, he’s hilarious to work with and an irrepressible source of jokes.
Having got a taste for going out on stage in front of a rowdy audience of (almost) complete strangers on Kate Smurthwaite’s City Academy courses, I followed up with another course with renowned stand-up comedy director, Chris Head.
This was at the dedicated comedy pub, The Bill Murray, in Islington — part of the same management as the famous Camden Head. While I was doing the course in the upstairs room some big names in the comedy world (Nish Kumar, Daniel Kitson, etc.) were appearing on the stage in the room below — the stage which I graced myself in our end-of-course gig (see below).
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.
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.
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.
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.