Friday nights are a great night to either A) flop into the sofa with a pizza and a few cans and chill out after a hard weeks work, snuggling into your significant other (if you have one) or yourself (if you don’t), or B) get suited up and head into town with your mates and get either nicely tipsy or totally shitfaced, depending on what your idea of a good night is. But for the amateur comedian, there’s option C; drive a three hour round trip to play a gig in a town you’ve only ever drove past. No prizes for guessing what I chose to do at the start of this month, of course; it was off to Gorey in Co. Wexford to do an open slot between the support-headline combo of Colum McDonnell and Dave O’Doherty.
This is the thing that I find hard to explain to my friends, the concept of an open mic comedian (and open spots would still make up the bulk of the gigs I do). Weekend after weekend, I renege on functions and nights out to go do gigs around the country, and my friends always say wow, you must be getting well paid for all this… you should see their faces when the get told that no, the guy doing the open set usually only gets a very short set, and normally doesn’t get paid a bean. Being an amateur comedian is a costly process, and it’s only after two full years of graft that I’m starting to see a bit of money here and there, and the paying gigs only serve to bankroll travel to the gigs that don’t (and indeed chip away at the mountain of credit card debt that years of travel will rack up). When you put it to people like that, they come to the conclusion that if open spots in comedy clubs don’t pay, then they can’t be that sought-after… LOL. Open slots are like freakin gold dust, and as soon as a new club opens up and an open slot becomes available, every amateur comedian in the country descends upon it like locusts. Shit, I only got the gig in Wexford by e-mailing the promoter asking for it, and when that failed, by finding his number and rininging him night and day until he finally cracked and gave me the gig.
A lot of gigs in the country like the one in Gorey don’t bother with open mics; they just have a headliner and support. Clubs just sometimes throw in a quick ten-minute act before the headliner, as a buffer between acts, or to settle the crowd after the break. The open mic is not an integral part of the night; if I hadn’t been there on Friday, I wouldn’t have been missed. No-one would have went home thinking damn, I wish we’d had just one more short act before the main guy came on. But by and large, promoters will throw on some form of new act, whether it’s a local comedian (who is bound to add a few ticket sales when you count his mates) or an up and coming act who has launched a multimedia bombardment at their Facebook, e-mail and mobile inbox. Basically, the open mic is this; have you ever been at a wedding, where between the soup and the main course, you got served some other starter? Nothing major, perhaps a wee Vol au Vent or something. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t know it was coming, but here it is; a bonus course of food that wasn’t as filling as the soup, and doesn’t leave you too full as to spoil your appetite for the main course. If you liked it, well and good- you might even mention later in the night that hey; the soup and the main course were delicious, but that extra starter wasn’t bad either. However, if you didn’t like it, you might find yourself saying that the soup and the main course were great, but what the FUCK was the deal with that Vol au Vent? They shoulda left that shit in the kitchen.
So all that leaves is for me to go out in front of a crowd of mad-for-laughs comedy fans and knock out a set, right? WRONG. Here’s where experience as a comedian can goose you folks; because the more gigs you do, the longer they get, and before long you’ll find yourself regularly doing a nice round twenty to thirty minute routine. Going back to doing open slots, and your time gets quartered, and now you have to scramble to make up a seven to ten minute set that will still work. How do you take twenty minutes of jokes and routines and squeeze them into ten minutes? This would be easier if I were a joke teller, with a slew of set-up/ punchline gags that I could rattle through, but my set is based on routines; long routines that need to be set up and worked through to conclusion. If you only have time for one routine, which one will it be? What will best suit this audience? What have they been laughing at so far? Sometimes the routine that will suit the crowd is not one that you were prepared to do (or indeed your prefered set). What stays? What goes?
Basically, it comes down to editing. Sometimes I’ll have jokes and bits that I know in my heart are a bit rambling and not as to-the-point as they should be. And yeah, there could be a bit of filler and waffle in there too. But dammit, that’s MY filler and waffle, and I want to share it with all these lovely people. So when I’m finishing a show somewhere and the promoter says yeah, go ahead and do as long as you like, you can be sure that the crowd that night may get the odd wandering story or the occasional new bit that hasn’t been tested and just got thrown in cos I was being indulgent. But when the hammer is on you for ten minutes, all that shit goes out the window. Would I love to have a bit of a chat with the crowd? Sure. Do I have time? Fuck no; so now instead of having a wee craic with the front row as a lead-up to a bit, you gotta just get stuck in. Find a new way to tell your jokes. If it’s taking you six lines to set up a punchline, you gotta now do it in two. If a jokes has five elements in it, then you gotta pick the best three. Yes, you would love to tell all five, but there’s no time. Everything has to be as streamlined as possible, but still hold together. It’s like seeing how many fingers you can cut off but still have a wank.
This is something I’ve gotten used to over the past year (editing, that is, not thumb wanking); when entering competitions and the like, you GOTS to be on time. So when going in for the likes of the Bulmers last year or Tedfest, I had to get chopping. You know what the funny thing is though? After those gigs, or after a high profile open slot, when I had cut strip after strip out of my routine; I never put any of the material back in. I had cut it out, the material still worked, and now the excess that had been trimmed off was just that; excess. Surplus to requirements. When writing new material, it’s so easy to get indulgent, to fill the routine with as many gags as possible. It’s only when you need to pare everything back that you see how much excess there was. Material that you couldn’t bear to be parted from is chopped, and is rarely missed. You found a newer, quicker, better way to tell a joke and now it works better than ever. After a while gigging, you realise that you have to stop being so precious about your jokes and accept that material which doesn’t belong in a ten minute set, doesn’t belong in a twenty-five minute set either. This is why close self-scrutiny and editing is essential, and doing as many open-mic gigs as possible will only prove this time and time again… or failing that, you could just get up and tell all that jokes that you’re convinced are BRILLIANT until you find you’ve run out of time and haven’t connected with or made an impact on the audience at all.
And so it was for me in Gorey; I went down with what I hoped was my best ten, but turned out to have just that bit too much waffle early on, which sent me over time by about two minutes. Looking back at it, there was a good ten minutes and two lame duck non-starter minutes. Next open mic I go to, it’ll be better, and the one after that, better again, hopefully. Going back to my friends at the start who think I’m crazy running round the country doing open mics; they wonder how I can afford to do so many of these gigs if they don’t really pay. Well, the answer isn’t if I can afford to do them, but if I can afford NOT to do them. Every open mic you do, you’re advertising your full set. So it stands to logic that the more you do, the more people see it, the more recognition you get and hopefully as time goes by, the bigger the gigs get. However, with belts being tightened and all that, it’s not EVERY gig I can afford to go to (much as I would love to), so I’m trying hard these days to be smart and do open slots in good, reliable clubs with good headline acts. If I can get out there and do well in front of those crowds, then maybe the cooks in the kitchen will take note. They’ll say hmmm… that Vol au Vent went down alright, didn’t it? People seemed to really like it. Maybe next time, instead of having soup as our starter, we’ll have Vol au Vent instead. And as for the crowd, if they enjoyed the Vol au Vent, and are walking around in town some night and see a restaurant that’s serving Vol au Vent, they’ll be like hey; there’s that Vol au Vent we had at that wedding, remember? Let’s go in and eat it!