Hey, check me out - I've got my own account for the Londonist blogging software! Look, my name's at the bottom and everything! This level of trust is genuinely almost too much for me to handle. What if I accidentally reveal that the editor's a shoplifter, or I write something that offends all our readers with big, big chins? Also, I'm used to blogging using LiveJournal, a website renowned for angst and misery. So I fully expect to come home one night, drunk as a Lord, declaring on Londonist that no-one understands me, that London is rubbish, and that we should all move to Russia so we can watch bears fight communists.
I fear that my access to Londonist's blogging software will be short lived.
I do love to help with projects like this, though, and I try hard to be proactive about getting involved with anything exciting and interesting. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than the idea of sitting back, waiting for the phone to ring, which is why I will often try to chance a gig on a night where I have none booked. Surprisingly, not many comedians take this approach. I've been going for about eight months, and in that time I've done approximately 80 gigs, started my own club, made a silly comedy magazine, been involved in writing a weekly satirical show, and probably other things that I'm too drunk to remember. So when I meet another comic who says they've been going for a year, I'll always ask how many gigs they've done. If the answer is less than twenty, it takes everything I have to stop myself from shaking them violently by the shoulders, and shouting in their face "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE PLAYING AT?? SORT YOUR COCKING LIFE OUT!!"
There's a tired cliche, wheeled out by comedy journo-hacks, that there's too many new comedians on the circuit, to the point where talented or original acts get lost in the flood. As evidence, they'll point to events such as the Laughing Horse's New Acts competition, which reportedly had 661 acts this year. But that only tells half the story. Of those 661, I'd estimate that about a third will give up stand-up after four months. Also, in my experience, at least two thirds of the total will only leave their house when they have a gig booked, and half of them will only book themselves in for a gig a month. Those 661 comics aren't out gigging every single night. In reality, there are about 150 comedians who, no matter what you think of their material, are solid grafters. They're the names you'll see every week in the listings magazines, and who somehow seem to be at every comedy night in London. Whether you're naturally talented, or if (like me) it's something you have to try particularly hard at, you definitely get noticed if you're willing to put in the hours.
This is my theory as to why I keep seeing the same faces on the huge London scene so frequently. There may be 661 fairly new acts knocking about, but the circuit can feel eerily small sometimes. For example, last week I had a gig in Essex. As I got off the train, I spotted a comedian that I'd gigged alongside the previous Monday, but I couldn't remember her name. I phoned my friend Kate, who had also been at that gig, so she could remind me. I could then cruise up to her and say hi, without looking like an idiot. When I mentioned to Kate where I was, she said "...hold on, you're doing that gig in Essex? I'm just pulling into the station, I'll see you in five minutes." It's either the case that there really aren't all that many active comics at the moment, or I just have dozens of dedicated stalkers.
The gig was in a pub which, for the sake of this article, I will call the Essex Boozer. Except that the initial "E" had fallen off of the sign at the top of the 50 foot high building, so it read "SSEX BOOZER". From the outside, it looked precisely like the sort of place you'd imagine an East End gangland boss would frequent to dish out some nonce-stabbings. So I was surprised when I walked into the main bar to find a gentle old lady with a microphone running a pub quiz. "Question 24: In which English county would one find Barrington Court?"
This relieved me no end, and it was a pleasure to see that the room hosting the comedy was perfectly agreeable. A scarlet curtain hung behind the stage, the lights were low, the stage was large, there was a good sound system, and I was feeling very positive about the whole thing. And then I noticed the audience, and my heart sank. This was to be my first gig... in front of a stag party.
There were about fifteen Proper Lads, all taking up the first two rows, with Average Lads claiming the tables behind. I didn't hold much hope for my contribution, because I was booked in to do some improv, which by its nature is surreal and silly. Lads don't like surreal and silly. They want to be told crass, bigoted generalisations, and this was shown by the one single big laugh of the entire night, which came from a comic saying unspeakably derogatory things about the French. I felt suitably out of place.
Suffice it to say that every single act on the bill had quite a miserable time. Things weren't helped by the compere, who was expertly drained the energy out of the room. He was playing his comedy character, of a stereotypical misogynistic foreigner. As the night wore on, I realised that it wasn't an act. One of his first lines was "We've got a lot of female comics on the bill tonight... but don't worry about it, we'll still have a fun evening." Later on, before one of the acts came on, the compere asked her "Are you a Miss or a Mrs?". I don't think I've ever, in my life, been around a group of people where such a thing matters. I would have been furious at being asked such a question, if I owned a vagina. As it happens, I don't. The compere's approach tainted the whole evening with an undercurrent of awkwardness, hatred and embarrassment, and the audience didn't enjoy a single second of the evening.
We all tried our hardest, but it was futile; the night was doomed from the start. It wasn't our fault, and it wasn't theirs, we're just from two very different worlds. We don't make comedy for lads like them, and they don't come to comedy clubs expecting to have their time wasted by people like us. We asked the lads where they were going afterwards, and they said "probably some rubbish pub round the corner." I felt terribly guilty. I'd played a part in giving the poor chap the most mediocre stag night since that time my mate Barry took a group of mates to that thing last year, where UB40 taught basic farming skills. I didn't think it could get any more mediocre than that, but I've been proven wrong.
On the way home, as a group of us vowed never to return, I wondered to myself whether I should write some material that appeals to lads, just in case I ever have to perform to some again. I dismissed the idea almost immediately. It's good to be a hard worker, but I'd sooner play one gig a month to a crowd full of interesting, intelligent and fun people, than do ten gigs to a load of City Boys, Tough Lads, and Casual Racists.
Luckily, the bad gigs that I've written about so far are very much the exception. Most of the clubs I play are full of wonderful audiences who are liberal, fun and infinitely supportive. London is big enough that there's at least two comedy clubs a day that offer something interesting, offbeat and different, so for now, I can carry on writing jokes that appeal to me, instead of trying to appeal to a group of people that I don't, and will never, understand.