If I was a sitcom, last night’s gig would have been billed as the “100 episode extravanganza” or a “centenary special”. But as I’m a low-level comedian, it was just another show, albeit with a significance that a few in the audience and I were vaguely aware of. (Ending with a preposition, Jay? Euch!)
Almost six months ago, I went to the Edinburgh Festival with one comedy gig tentatively booked, and essentially it was a “pay to play” deal – bundled into a “comedy course” package. My twelve day trip to the world’s biggest arts festival changed my life beyond recognition. It kickstarted a new career for me – a career I’d always dreamed about but didn’t have the courage to pursue before – and introduced me to some wonderful new friends.
Yesterday, a mere five months and three weeks later, I performed my one hundredth gig. And, appropriately enough, it took place at probably the best open mic venue in the Midlands. The legendary Holly Bush, in Cradley Heath, has been welcoming newbies and experienced acts alike to a regular comedy show since 2006. Some big name celebrities have stood in front of that famous Holly Bush purple curtain, pulled that taped up disfigured microphone out of the battered mic stand and ejaculated forth genius/gibberish for the delectation of the loyal regulars who attend every week.
But let’s rewind a little. The previous day – Wednesday – I performed my ninety-ninth gig as an open spot at Preston’s Frog and Bucket. I’ve really come to love that venue. The staff are brilliant and they’re proper comedy fans, which I can relate to having worked in a comedy club myself for several years when I was younger. Even more importantly, the punters – including many regulars – are comedy connoisseurs. They’re kind, but not patronizing, and love to laugh. It’s a venue and crowd I’ve grown to adore.
At the time I had no idea it was going to be my 99th show. I’d expected my 99th and 100th gigs to be the following week, because I’d forgotten I’d added a few extra shows to my January 2014 schedule since I last did the personal gig count.
For the first few months of 2014, I’ve been offered (and accepted) five open spots by the Frog. Wednesday night was my second of the five, and given that I’d rolled out the reliable Bambam Shaikh character act for the first one, to a very warm reception, I didn’t really want to repeat the feat, as it would feel like I was cheating the regulars. (Many of whom have come up to me before shows and mentioned the several different characters and routines I’ve performed there in the past.)
So my plan was to inaugurate a new character act at the Frog. The genesis of it happened during a performance at the Birmingham Roadhouse open mic a few weeks ago. I did my usual pro-/anti-racism routine, where I get the crowd to shout out “racist” words. No-one was willing to do it. No-one, that is, except a French girl who obviously wasn’t paralysed by the politically correct paradigm that infects the hearts and minds of the (well-meaning) British middle class.
What struck me was how every word – even the controversial and supposedly offensive words – she said sounded so damned sexy. Which got me thinking. What are considered the least sexy words, topics and activities in our culture? And could a French accent somehow imbue them with a sheen of glamour and attractiveness? And what’s the ideal type of character to test the theory with?
From that kernel of enquiry was born Michel de Fromage – an arrogant, insensitive, science fiction fan from suburban Paris. Reviled in his own country, but in the English-speaking world he’s gifted with a charisma appended to him by the exoticness of his accent.
So I’d spent the last three days writing a six-minute routine. Or rather, I was trying to write a routine, but very little was coming to mind. I’d decided he was going to be in love with Star Wars, and there’s plenty of potential for mispronouncing character names – albeit sexily. He would also lecture the British on why the French are superior to them in every imaginable way, with a particularly sexist emphasis on the physical differences between French ladies and their British counterparts. However, I would start the set with a ballsy attempt to get the crowd to sing the French national anthem with Michel. Then proceed to deliver an angry rant at the perceived insult when they refused to do it, as he didn’t consider the possibility Brits might not know the words.
I did have a very solid opening gag which could really set the mood just right. It would be along the lines of: “When a Frenchman eez invited to a show called Beat ze Frog… he’s naturally apprehensive…” – a pretty much guaranteed laugh. (And special thanks to Bury Bob for pointing out the Frog = Frenchman line of thought I’d totally missed!)
When I arrived at the Preston Frog two days ago, I knew I had five solid gags in a six minute routine. I hoped I might be able to squeeze a few more laughs out of the crowd through frustrated facial expressions and smutty innuendos. But, when I looked into the room, I immediately knew it was wrong to inflict Michel on them.
“This is the Frog and Bucket, not some open mic night in the backroom of a pub!” I told myself.
The audience expected, and indeed deserved, more than a half-baked, barely coherent set from what they were told would be a competent and relatively experienced comedian. I ruminated about it for the next ten minutes, but the answer was always going to be the same. I had a duty to give them a tried and tested comedy routine. It’s what they deserved, and as a comedian it’s my job to deliver it. So I did. And it was the right decision. The audience got a solid eight minutes of laughs and I even got to test out some new material, which seemed to go exceptionally well. Mission accomplished!
So the next day – yesterday – I was (according to my diary) booked to perform for Teknicolour Smoof at a small venue in Newport, Shropshire. However, looking at the calendar I suddenly got a vague feeling that I’d heard the venue had been dropped from the promoter’s schedule. (Which made sense as the last time I performed there it was a painful experience to say the least.) A few text messages later and it was confirmed: the gig was cancelled and definitely wasn’t going ahead.
With it being a Thursday, and me being in the Midlands, it made sense to head over to the Holly Bush for the weekly comedy show. And seeing as I was going anyway, it was worth checking if they’d had any dropouts. They had. In fact, they’d had several. So I booked myself onto the show and prepared to finally give Michel de Fromage the debut I’d postponed from yesterday. Thanks to the usual chaos with running orders, and proprietor Dave Francis’ undeserved faith in my abilities, I ended up being asked to close the night. Not the ideal placement on the bill for absolutely brand new material.
Admittedly, part of the shtick with the Michel character is that he is terrible. He’s an unpleasant, tactless man with poor English and little grasp of social niceties. So… I got away with it. However, I came away from yesterday knowing which bits of the routine really need a polish, and which parts are simply a complete write-off. And that’s what the Holly Bush is really about… getting better.
The best moment, for me, though was watching the famed Kiddi-monsters – regulars from Kidderminster who visit every week – refuse to stand up and salute for the French national anthem. They promptly sat down in disgust as the opening bars of La Marseillaise filled the air! You could have predicted that really. Vive La Bush!! 😛
So what’s next for me? Reaching 100 gigs is considered something of a milestone for new comedians. You probably can’t even refer to yourself as “new” anymore. However, the next big round numbers that matter to me will be:
1. Doing 200 gigs in my first year and, hopefully
2. Getting to 500 gigs within 2 years.
Both of which are eminently achievable. As long as “life” doesn’t intervene…