As I gig so prolifically, other comedians were always surprised to hear that I’d never played the Frog and Bucket clubs, which are North West England comedy institutions. Others on the circuit have told me the Manchester club is the crème de la crème of UK comedy venues, and there is no finer room a comedian can play. I still have high hopes of getting a gig there soon, but yesterday I managed to snag an opportunity to perform at her sister venue in Preston.
Beat The Frog is their famous “Gong Show” – simply put, three audience members are given an oversized playing card, which they hold aloft to express displeasure at any acts they don’t enjoy. Three cards in the air and you hear the music play, which signifies you’ve failed to win over the audience.
Yesterday’s Preston show had a late dropout and I responded very quickly to the email the club sent out asking for a volunteer to fill the space. Within minutes I was confirmed as the replacement and immediately started making travel arrangements and ruminating about which routine I should perform.
Generally, northern audiences are more accepting and enthusiastic about my material than the punters down south. So I was hopeful I could last the full five minutes and make it to the final – a metaphorical badge of honour I see many circuit comedians wearing very publicly.
The journey north wasn’t too bad as I was driving up with a couple of local comedians (Ste and Jason) on these (now) regular Comedy Road TripsTM to far flung places across the UK. When alone, I often silently go through my material in my head which, according to many old hands, is the best strategy for ensuring you deliver a good performance. Yesterday, time flew by so quickly I had no opportunity to make a mental plan of action on the way there.
As a result, I arrived very nervous indeed and with no clue what material I was going to use. My nervousness must have been visibly palpable as more than one fellow comic told me to “relax” and stop pacing around the backstage area of the venue. The Gong Show was split into two sections with an even cohort of five comedians in each. I was scheduled for the second half, which has both advantages and disadvantages in comedy competitions.
Being on in the first section, you’ll usually find the judging is more forgiving and you can make it through to the final without being particularly impressive. However, you have to be pretty memorable to actually win. As there are so many acts coming on after you it’s very easy to end up forgotten when it’s time to make the final judgement. Acts performing in the second section face the contrary, as the judges will likely be drunker, and therefore harsher, but if you get through to the final you’re more likely to be remembered as you performed to them more recently. In addition, you have the advantage of watching the other performers, and of gauging the mood of the room in advance.
That’s all good theory. Reality always confounds expectations at the strangest of times! The first half saw some pretty harsh judgment, with only one comedian making the final, and he barely scraped through.
I needed to come up with some strategies and QUICKLY as I was kicking off the second half. I assessed the room carefully. Following a recent bitter experience where I “won” a competition, only to have one dissenting old bitch cajole the crowd into voting for someone else, I’d learned a very important lesson. NEVER underestimate the power of peer pressure in a Gong Show environment. I had noticed that two of the judges were women sitting with their female friends. If I could convince them (and their mates) to like me enough to keep those cards in their laps then I had a good shot of making it. Secondly, from the first half, I could see this was a crowd that enjoyed punchlines, and if you kept them coming thick and fast they would respond positively. During the interval I was re-writing my act on-the-fly, in my head, to please this particular set of punters.
Before I knew it, my time had come and I was summoned on stage to pop my Frog and Bucket cherry. On the journey up I had planned to roll out some of my race related routines and it was too late to switch now. But I could certainly tweak. I realised I needed to set the crowd up for the controversy that was about to be thrown their way, and made sure they knew this was going to be an uncomfortable few minutes. I also decided to begin with some remarks about how women in Preston are the most beautiful in the country, and how envious I was of the local men. No big laughs from that, but it did get a reaction and brought at least two of the judges – and their peer groups – on-side. I did some self-deprecating gags about myself and my own inadequacies, which went down well.
Then… the riskiest gambit… the child abuse material. As usual there were groans of horror at the first punchline, but there were also laughs and a round of applause. The first time I’ve had a big positive reaction to it. Time to push forward and unleash the misogynist material. Same response – groans followed by applause. Then the racist stuff… which included a setup with the phrase “Fuck Niggers!” in it. The punchline actually turns the perceived racism on its head. However, they were so shocked by the language of the set-up that very few of them realised what the punchline was in fact implying (i.e. that I’m black myself). Nevertheless, still no cards in the air, so I ploughed on as I estimated I was only 2 minutes into the set and launched into the set-ups for my main conversation about race… and then the music played!
Nope, it wasn’t the “get off the stage” song, but rather the sound that signified I’d made it to the final. I genuinely couldn’t believe it for two reasons. Firstly, it was an inadequate performance in my mind. I was slow in my delivery as I kept forgetting which jokes I’d done and which were still to come. Secondly, I had only gone through half of my planned five-minute set. I was very grateful, however, that I’d “Beat The Frog” by going the distance. Waves of gratitude washed over me as I realised that I could now go home without the indignity of being voted off the stage by a panel of drunk, randomly-selected strangers in a town I’d never visited before.
Of the final section’s comedians only two others made it to the final. Judging, according to those who were watching – as opposed to me who was still in shock – was on the more forgiving side, which again confounds Gong Show expectations. The final four who’d made it through the full five minute ordeal were brought back on stage for a “vote by cheering” decider. To my enormous surprise, I was very obviously the audience favourite and duly crowned winner that night.
I’m told I am now offered the honour of performing a set alongside seasoned professionals at a forthcoming Frog and Bucket show. Can’t wait. 🙂