Wednesday last saw a journey to Galway for the first of this summers Laughter Lounge gigs, playing support to The Rubber bandits in the Roisin Dubh. The Laughter Lounge in Galway is the only gig I’ve played in that whole city, mainly because there are so few other gigs available there. For a city with such a bohemian vibe about it, you’d think perhaps Galway would be over-run with comedy venues, but apart from a few clubs here and there, this is not the case.
This might suggest that there aren’t that many comedians in Galway, a complete fallacy; there are LOADS of top acts, from established names to up-and-comers. With so few clubs in Galway, getting a gig there can be tricky enough, but the Laughter Lounge is welcoming of new acts and open spots, leaving the waiting list not as long as it may otherwise be. How I came to be playing a support gig was this; it was part of the prize for having won the Tedfest competition (the other part of the prize was granting the winner a reason to drive large portions of the journey back to Dublin with the windows down, honking the horn and yelling victory speeches like an under-14’s GAA team going through their hometown after winning a local tournament named after a beloved parish Priest).
So that left me heading to Galway last week under a certain amount of pressure; having won the competition, I now had to prove it was no fluke. A twenty minute supporting slot, in front of a sell-out crowd of 250+ landing in for the Rubber Bandits, this would be the biggest gig I’d ever done. At a club gig in Dublin or wherever, there’s usually six or more comedians on, if you go up and die on your ringpiece, well, there’s a half-dozen other guys to cushion the blow. Going up when it’s your name on the poster? Not so much. Of all the gigs I’ve done, this is the one that would bite me on the arse if I didn’t knock it out of the park.
As the night began, I started to relax a little bit. Paddy Courtney was MC, and got the crowd very relaxed and in the mood. Dave O’Gorman went up to do his set, and rocked it. There was a break before I went on, and both said there was no problems, the crowd were well up for it, and just go up and have a good time. Even expat comedy stalwart Robbie Bonham offered words of encouragement.
In preparation for the gig, in the days leading up to it, I had wondered as to what material to use. This is always the case, before every gig; never do I ever get up and just wing it. Every segment is timed; from longer bits to linking lines, set-ups, recoveries… I’ve done enough gigs to know how long certain bits are, what kind of reaction certain jokes get… But as always, before any gig, a new joke occurred to me. Coming up with new material if like striking oil; it hits you like a train. Out of no-where, this fully formed (or so you think) new set just manifests. With all new material, I wanted to just get it on stage at the nearest possible gig. This left me with a dilemma; my next gig was Galway, and I didn’t have a gig for AGES after that (read; a few days). Would it be possible, I wondered, to substitute a few jokes and lines from my Galway set, with this all-new material?
Of course it fucking wouldn’t. I’m all for artistic expression, and using stage-time to grow and develop as a performer, but sometimes you just gotta have a bit of sense. The Galway gig was going to be my chance to shine; would I do that with a bunch of new crap that I had never tried out before, or a set that I’ve been fine-tuning for over a year? Rule #2, dance with the girl that brought you; I may be sick of the same routines and punchlines, bu they’re the ones that got me here in the first place. There’s 250 people out there, waiting to be entertained, and that’s what I was hired to do. In a position like that, you have a responsibility to do your most tried and trusted material. Some people may think that this approach is the opposite of what comedy should be; that comedy should be edge-of-your-seat, untried, risky, fresh and new… and that anyone who trots out the greatest hits night after night is just another joke-blower, trying his hardest to be a crowd pleaser. To which I say hey; I work on new material all the time, constantly trying to get a stronger, better set, but there’s a time and a place to do those things. I just don’t believe in taking risks with high-profile gigs, I go out there and do my best to ensure that the nice people who are in no small part financing my holiday to Malta in two weeks get value for their money.
But I’ll tell you this much for trotting out your greatest hits; there is a far greater chance of you rocking the shit out of the gig. I went out on Wednesday last and had probably my greatest gig so far, the kind of gig you dream of having from the first time you ever stood on a stage. It felt like two years of hard work crunched into twenty minutes; routines that were a year old were now as good as I could make them. Recovery lines from known crowd-splitters were as sharp and as funny as possible, and helped to not de-rail the set; I love to set up a poor punchline, watch it die, then hit the audience with a snappy recovery line… although sometimes after the punchline dies, the set dies, and I stand there like an idiot who has just murdered his own set. Not this night. The crowd were fantastic; there to laugh. Halfway through, it felt like I wasn’t really doing anything special; these guys were pissing themselves at practically everything, overly-hyper and giddy for just about every line I came out with. Round about now, I could have gotten too smart and cocky with them, and lost them instantly, but I stayed on course with my set and kept them laughing.
Comedy is like that; you can be rocking a room, say the wrong thing and BAM. They’re gone. There’s been times where I’ve gotten too cheeky; make some smart remark about an audience member, or something awful that happened recently, or just fuck up a punchline; they’ll turn, just like that. I remember one night, when I was rocking the shit out of this gig, when some lady up the front chimed in with a well-intentioned heckle. I made a cheeky quip about her age (she might have been like fifty or so) and them BAM. The room froze. The laughter valve was turned off. Try as I might, I could not get them back, and wrapped up my set to a slow hand-clap. I’m fairly proud of myself for having not done this in Galway… I stayed professional, kept the smart-arse in check, and kept on the right side of the crowd. Nobody heckled. Nobody got upset. At no stage did order break down, leaving me flustered onstage trying desperately to find the correct joke to get everyone back on my side again.
Ah, rocking a venue. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Sure, you might see some money from gigs here and there, but until you start getting higher up the ladder it’s not going to be that much. In times to come, I’m going to need a few extra quid, but I know I won’t get offered it until I can be trusted to go out like I did in Galway, rock the shit out of it, stay on time, keep the audience happy. In the meantime, a rocking performance will suffice. it’s the greatest feeling to look out over a sea of people, cracking up over some random thought that I had on some lazy Tuesday six months ago. I looked out at the crowd last Wednesday… there was a girl crying with laughter, literally crying. There was a guy who laughed so hard that Guinness came out of his nose and he had to wipe it off his face with his shirt sleeve. When I got off stage there was a break, and people came up and shook my hand and told me they’d had a great time. It was the polar opposite of the other end of the comedy spectrum, the side of comedy that I’ve suffered so many time’s, the side that comes for us all every so often…
Death is just around the corner for every comedian. Nothing is certain; you can go out there on a night where the audience is ready to laugh, with a tried-and-trusted set you’ve done thousands of times, and still die a death of ages. there is no comedian with a 100% hit rate. We’ve all died. And the funny thing is, people want to hear more about your deaths than when you rocked. Everybody I’ve ever told that I do comedy, always has this one question; What happens when no-one laughs? It’s never How does it feel to have an audience eating out of your hand, it’s always this morbid fascination about how it feel to be completely lost and embarrassed, swimming in quicksand in front of a large gathering of people. So to all you non-comics out there, I can offer only this analogy as to how it feels like to die on your hole onstage; have you ever been walking down the street, and you see someone walking towards you… they look up, see you, smile at you, and wave hello. You smile back and wave at them, only to realise that they weren’t waving at you, but their friend who was walking behind you. You just waved at a total stranger, who is now looking at you with a strange look on their face, a mix of jesus-I’m-scarlet-for-ya and ha-ha-ya-silly-prick. The feeling that hits you just as they walk by, is the feeling I get when I’m dying onstage. except try to imagine that feeling, over and over again, like it keeps happening, like you walk on down the street and you see someone else waving, and you wave back again, but they’re waving at the friend behind you again, so your embarrassment and humiliation mounts. For twenty minutes. Then you get to the end of your walk, and everyone is standing there, everyone you thought was waving, everyone they were actually waving at. Looking at you, like you’re the dumbest, most pitiful motherfucker to ever shit out of an arsehole. And you say Thank You, Goodnight. That’s what dying feels like, and there’s a risk of it happening every time you stand on stage.
But look, there’s enough good nights to balance out the equation. Just as no-one has a 100% hit-rate, no-one has a 100% fail-rate. No-one is that dumb to keep getting up there, time and time again, getting massacred. They either get enough good nights to keep the dream alive, or they quit. I died on my hole for about 90% of my gigs in my first 18 months, but just had enough victories to make it worth my while, until I finally hit on a set that worked. To anyone out there that struggles, I say keep it up, if you work hard and learn from each gig, you’ll get ahead (but if you’re going to get up there and march out the same unchanged material that has failed you over and over again, you may want to question your motivations a bit). As for myself, I could sit on the twenty minutes I did on Wednesday last. I could do that set, verbatim, forever… but that wouldn’t be what I wanted. The new material I just thought up? I gotta get that on a stage, before my head explodes. This puts me in the firing line, and many people would question after all I’ve written here, as to why I would go out and risk new material when I’ve a bankable set tried and trusted… Well, it’s early days for me as a comedian, and if I want bigger and better gigs, I’m going to need more material.
For all my big gigs for the foreseeable future, you best believe I’m going to be doing my best, tested, tried-and-true twenty minutes, but behind it all, I’m going to be working on new material too, keep everything from getting boring and stale, keep things interesting, keep getting better as a comedian so I can keep getting better gigs. Dying means you don’t get your hand shook by an audience member after the gig, you get to stand there while they congratulate the comedians that did well, and then turn to you with an uncomfortable look on their face that you might get from an ex-girlfriend if she got stuck beside you in a queue for the checkout in Spar. Growing as a comedian means Death is always lurking around the stage, but fuck it; it wouldn’t be fun if it wasn’t a challenge.