South of Dublin through mountains, forests and toll bridges, lies County Wicklow, where last Friday I had a gig in the Grand Hotel, Wicklow town. I was doing a ten minute open spot in a club that was packed to the rafters of people there to see PJ Gallagher (or as far as my non-comedy friends and family were concerned, I was supporting PJ Gallagher on tour… hey, you gotta big yourself up every now and then).
This wasn’t the first time I’ve gigged with PJ; I’d done a few open spots around Dublin on nights when he was on, in the International or Capital Comedy, just like we’ve all done with “Household Name Comedians”. Whenever I’m talking to my friends back home, they’ll always want to know what people are like backstage (in a typical Irish desire to believe that everyone that’s gotten ahead in life is a drunk or an arsehole). Most of the big comedians I’ve met have been sound, but PJ is one guy I’ll always champion as being really the most down to earth and friendly, to even the newest comics.
The thing I had heard about PJ, many times, was that despite his experience and standing, he’ll still get a bit nervous before taking to the stage. People would often tell new comedians such as myself when we were shivering with anxiety waiting to be called for the stage, to not worry about it; shit, even PJ Gallagher gets nervous too. And true enough, the first few times I met him in the Ha’penny or the International, if it wasn’t for the fact that I knew who he was, he looked just like another new comic going over his stuff one last time, waiting for his name to be called (albeit a new comic who then went out onstage and made every single person in the venue piss themselves for nearly an hour, a feat which flew in the face of medical knowledge). Knowing that someone that high up the ladder still gets butterflies before performing is comforting to new guys like me; it’s as if you were about to storm the beaches in Normandy and you noticed Tom Hanks is in your boat.
Stage fright is something that has done it’s best to shanghai me since the day I started comedy. Before gigs, I would be a wreck; heart thumping, brain in overload, running to the toilet a dozen times. As the months and years roll on, it’s getting better (insofar as I might only go to the toilet six times before I’m called, and walk up to the stage with the feeling that I could have done with one more poo). In trying to describe what it feels like when waiting to be called onstage, not only in blogs but to anyone who asks, I’ve come up with a few descriptions;
1) It’s like waiting in line for a rollercoaster; you know it’s going to be a good time, but you know it’s going to be as scary as hell. But despite how scary it looks, you know you’re in safe hands and that there’s only going to be a small chance that the carriage will derail and kill you in the most horrific fashion posible.
2) It’s like waiting to be called for an interview; you want this job, you need this job, now all you gotta do is sit face to face with an interviewer, answer whatever they ask, and not fuck things up. This isn’t the first interview you’ve done, you know how they work, but you know when you go through that door, you could get asked ANYTHING and be left siting there looking like a bollox.
2) It’s like waiting to be called for an exam; specifically an oral exam for your Leaving Cert; you’ve practised, you studied, you know you’re going to be asked something from a limited range of questions, and you’ve an answer ready for each one, all you have to do is go in, get stuck in with your answers and talk as much as possible so that the examiner doesn’t get a chance to ask you some bullshit you haven’t studied because you were up all night playing Goldeneye.
Those are the feelings that I get, before every gig. I used to let them get the better of me, to overwhelm me… I’d be damn near ready to puke before a gig, caused by all the old fears of humiliation and ridicule. It wasn’t enough to know that I was going to “do my best”, I wasn’t sure that “my best” was any good. Walking out on stage was like walking out on a tightrope… If I kept my head up and kept going I would be fine, but I was worried about what the hell else could happen to cause me to plummet to a horrible death.
But what really is there to get so worked up about? If you’re going to go out in front of a room full of people to tell them jokes, whats the worst that can happen? Most comics share the same fears and doubts, so if you’re feeling nervous before a gig, it’s probably something to do with one or more of these;
1: I might forget my jokes
This is a genuine fear; that your mind will go blank and everything will just be wiped, leaving you onstage gasping like a goldfish with nothing to say. But really, has this EVER happened to you? That you were left onstage with literally NOTHING to say? The only time it’s happened to me is when I was booked to do 20 minutes, died on my hole to complete silence and as such, blew through my material as fast as I could, leaving me with nothing left to say and 5 minutes still on the clock. What did I do? Got off the stage, of course – if I’ve been dying for 15 minutes, who the fuck would want to listen to another 5? As for forgetting the odd joke here and there, the only person that is going ot be upset about that is yourself; usually, it’s some new bit you wanted to try and it slipped your mind. The audience doesn’t have a copy of your script, they aren’t going to know if you missed a line here and there. As for people who are worried that they honestly will forget all their material, and fluff every line and fuck everything up, well… I hate to be a prick, but maybe you should practice your material and learn it a bit better before you go to try it onstage.
2: I might get heckled
Everyone gets heckled. All the time. Nobody is there to specifically heckle YOU. Nobody sees you take the stage and thinks; I’m going to heckle the fuck out of this lad. Getting heckled isn’t your fault (unless of course your material is the kind of thing that purposely generates audience negativity and draws hecklers upon you, in which case you should expect to be heckled and be ready for it), it’s usually some arsehole in the crowd who has no manners or social skills, or maybe he’s just drunk. I’ll talk more about hecklers in a future blog, but right now all I will say is don’t let some mouthpiece put you off getting onstage. Remember, those that have the balls to do stand up, do stand up. Those that don’t, heckle.
3: My material might be shit and no-one will laugh.
Again, every comedian thinks the same thing (except the up-their-own-holes kinda guys). But surely you wouldn’t have dreamed of getting onstage if you didn’t believe that people would laugh at your jokes. Take strength from that, and go out there and try it. If it doesn’t fly, try it again. If it repeatedly crashes into the mountain, try and see what isn’t working about it. Maybe you’ll go out one night and it’ll do well, and the next night it might die. WELCOME TO COMEDY. It’s not just people that are new, it’s the same for guys that have been doing it for years and are trying new material. It’s not something that you can predict, but if you’ve got the comedy bug, it’s not something that you can ignore; you have GOT to get onstage and knock it out. The only thing that is standing in your way is your doubts as to what a room of people you’ve never met nor will ever see again will think.
Once you get over those, there’s nothing else to worry about (apart from the sound system fucking up, or the building falling down, neither of which will be blamed on you). Whenever I feel the nerves kicking in, all I do is take a look at the crowd… have I played in front of a crowd like this before? What happened that time? If it went bad, why did it go bad? How can I do it differently this time? If it went well, then how can I replicate that? How can I improve, how can I make it better? The more experience you have in comedy, the more you can try to guess how a night will go (but don’t get too cocky thinking “this ones in the bag”). Fretting about things will change nothing except making you appear less confident when you hit the stage, or set you up for a nice big stroke in your fifties.
But getting onstage for me is still a BIG deal. Now before gigs, I’m still as jittery as ever I was, pacing the floor and wringing my hands, but I don’t feel as panicked as I used to, I feel like I just want to get out onstage as fast as possible. I’ve had some great experiences onstage, and for all I know this night could be one of them, so I’m pounding adrenaline, I can’t get on that stage fast enough. I’m giddy, I’m hyper, I want that rush when the MC calls your name, your stomach lurches and the audience cheers as you hit the mic. I can see why people say that even big names like PJ get jitters before going onstage, but I don’t believe it’s nerves, it’s excitement. Taking that as inspiration has left me more enthusiastic about performing than I’ve ever been, just wanting to get out there and feel the adrenaline kick of rocking a room, which is what I did in Wicklow. Of course, that’s all very well and good when you DO go out and rock a room… when you’ve gotten all psyched up and buzzing, there’s nothing worse than dying a death. You’ve gotten yourself all built up for a fantastic gig, and what do you get left with?