It’s been almost ten years since I made my stand-up comedy debut at The Glee Club in Birmingham. Tonight, after a gap of nearly a decade, I shall be making a tragic/triumphant* (delete as applicable) return to the place where it all started for me. I should be excited. I should be elated. I should be gleeful. 🙂
I’m none of these things. Instead, I’m in the middle of, what I’m going to call, “The Funk”. But to explain what that means, I need to take you back in time a few months. I was making my Edinburgh debut earlier in the year, and was performing above a pub called The Meadow Bar every afternoon while I was out there. The show that followed directly afterwards was Lewis Schaffer’s Free Until Famous – an hour of love/hate-filled discourteousness where a semi-jovial host mocked both himself and the crowd before him. (Yes, it was a comedy show, just in case that wasn’t clear.)
I saw Lewis a couple of times at the Edinburgh Fringe and on each occasion he seemed skeptical of his own comedic abilities, questioning out loud whether he was indeed as funny as I (and others) said he was. I assumed that was just part of his shtick. After all, it’s ridiculous to imagine that an experienced and well-regarded comedian with a decades-long track record could ever feel that way. I used to think it was ridiculous. Today I think otherwise.
Lewis, like many others at the Festival, had suffered a couple of difficult shows. Or rather, suffered what he had perceived as unsatisfying performances. He wasn’t alone. During that second half of the fringe I met a lot of performers who were showing signs of “The Funk”. It’s a condition that I’ve discovered the finest, most celebrated of artists can find themselves afflicted with, even those who have very recently tasted admiration and adoration from crowds, critics and peers. And all it takes is a bad couple of gigs.
That’s exactly where I am today. Recently, I’ve won two different comedy competitions – defying all conventions in the process by shouting “racist” words at a bunch of strangers. Promoters, many of whom were skeptical about my ideas and roundly ignored me in the past, are now regularly asking me to perform at their shows. My diary is so full I’m averaging 15-20 performances a month. I have three high-quality, ten-minute sets sitting in my back pocket, ready to be whipped out and performed at a moments’ notice. And tonight I perform a The Glee Club – which is, for me, the most important comedy stage in the country. Three months ago I couldn’t have dreamed of getting so far so fast.
And yet… I’m not happy. And all it took was a few bad gigs and a little misfortune.
One of the occupational hazards of performing comedy today is the uncertain nature of the industry. Comedy clubs – most of them sharing venue space with bars, pubs, nightclubs, arts centres and social clubs – spring up and disappear all the time. Wiser minds than mine will take more educated guesses at why. From my limited understanding, there is a huge problem in the industry with many people choosing to run gigs who are inexperienced in administration, marketing, financial planning and event management. (As I have a successful background in all the aforementioned, please indulge me in a little pontificating here.)
Running any regular event is a difficult endeavor, and even breaking even financially over the longer term is a huge achievement. There are many people organizing gigs regularly in the Midlands, for example, who should be admired and celebrated for their achievements in cultivating loyal audiences of regulars, promoting their shows well and providing a platform for hundreds of talented comedians. The Hollybush in Cradley Heath, The Fat Penguin in Moseley and, of course, the behemoth that is Funhouse Comedy (running shows throughout the middle counties) all deserve honourable mentions.
Then there’s the flip side of that coin. When comedy promoters advertise for comedians to perform at their professional shows the phrase “no chancers” is thrown about like confetti – albeit sometimes ironically. It’s a succinct way of saying “If you’re inexperienced then I don’t want to work with you…. yet. You will ruin my show.” Ironically, there are plenty of “chancers” in comedy promotion itself.
In the last fortnight: I have turned up to two gigs where I didn’t get to perform because the promoter disappeared before I could even get on stage. Six shows where there were less than five actual audience members. One gig, at a HUGE 300-seater venue, that sold zero tickets and had no walk-ups either. And yesterday I was part of a comedy competition with an audience of 80+ who, it seemed, were only there to support their hometown boy and slow hand-clapped a whole load of excellent comedians off the stage. I know there are some brutal “Gong Shows” out there, but their reputation precedes them and you know what to expect before you step into the spotlight i.e. the crowd is willing everyone to fail. And despite its brutality, that’s preferable to a large crowd that is only there to ensure their friend goes home with the prize.
(I should point out here, in the interests of fairness, that yesterday’s show was well-run and that the guy who won was a decent act, but by no means the best one of the night and the organizers knew that. Which is why they kept repeating the audience “clap off” in the vain hope of getting a fairer result, but it was to no avail in the end.)
So here I am. Just hours before I return to my comedic spiritual home. In “The Funk”.
Cyclists have the Tour de France. Tennis players have Wimbledon Centre Court. For me, there will be no more treasured stage than the one at Birmingham’s Glee Club. But if I go on stage tonight with my mind in “The Funk” there’s a danger I will ruin one of the most precious comedy occasions of my life – the opportunity to redeem myself of my cataclysmic failure all those years ago, when I stepped onto a comedy stage for the first time. I have the chance to orchestrate a triumphant return tonight.
To do that, I need to banish “The Funk” and banish it fast.