I've only written two proper columns abut the London comedy scene for Londonist, but already I'm getting offers of work from excited parties. For example, the guys at 'What Man?' magazine have asked me to cast a wry eye over the week's men, and I'm particularly excited by an offer from a notable tabloid, to write a column called 'Beef Review'. As the title suggests, it'll be me reviewing bits of beef I find in various London locations, such as Pall Mall, or Dalston Kingsland, and giving them a rating of one to seven, based on consistency, taste and accuracy. As it happens, I utterly detest the taste of le beef, as the French so correctly say. But don't tell Rupert Murdoch - this could be my big break!!
Despite the fact that these offers for work are fictional, it's still nice to know that I'm writing about things that interest people, even if those people are the voices in my head. After all, it can be hard to know what other people want to read, and indeed hear, about. What is it that the average audience want a comedian to say? Straight stand-ups take this question as their starting point, and write material around it. By contrast, most alternative comedians have their own agenda, and it's our job to convince the audience that if they give us a chance, and trust us, they'll like what we have to say. Jongleurs offers the comedy equivalent of lift-music, but you need to actively buy into alternative comedy. The jokes may not be what the average person came out to hear, but if you go with it, you'll be rewarded. And of course, the alternative comedian needs to work hard to convince the audience that giving them a chance is worth their while. If you march straight on and arrogantly plough through your material, assuming that the audience are already willing to give you a chance, it will often fall flat. Of course, some audiences are keen to give anything a chance from the very beginning, but many more need to decide that they like you first. I've learned this the hard way, many times.
This idea has been playing intensely on my mind this weekend, as I was invited with five other comics to play the comedy tent at a music festival in Kent. It was primarily for singer-songwriter indie/folk, with the occasional foray into electronica, post-rock, and crazy women wielding saws like wobble boards. I've never been to a festival before, but it was a lovely introduction, with a mixture of families taking their kids to their first festival, and young, intelligent and thigh-rubbingly gorgeous music fans dancing, boozing, and having fun. The comedy was to be at midnight on Friday and Saturday. The festival itself was held over two fields, and the various music stages dominated the air, so for practicality's sake, the comedy tent opened when all the music had finished.
It was hard to plan what to say ahead of time. What sort of comedy do indie-folk fans like? Do they want political jokes, or do they want jokes about how annoying it is when you get your beard stuck in someone else's cat? Walking around the festival, it was hard to work out what material would be best. As it happened, there was no need to give it too much thought - the audience had already decided for us.
On the first night, the comedy started at 1am; on Saturday, we started just after midnight. If you've ever been to a late show at The Comedy Store, you'll know that the drunks can be rowdy, obnoxious, and sometimes vicious. Well, imagine if that crowd was also primarily made up of drunk sixth form students who had never before been away from home. Are you imagining it? Well, double that pain, then triple it. That's what it was like. The audience weren't there to hear comedy, they were there to make noise. In fact, we could barely finish a sentence before someone tried to heckle. One 17 year old heckler tried his best to ruin everyone's night by shouting the word "heckle" repeatedly over someone's set. I assume that he read about hecking on the internet, but his mum has never let him go to a comedy club, so he didn't quite know how to do it. Or, he just wasn't bright enough to think of something to say. But bless him for trying.
Each night we started with about 40 people in the audience. 15 people were clearly there for comedy, and they walked out after ten minutes, when they realised that the other 25 were just there to sit with their friends, drink, and shout. If they were in a music tent, they wouldn't be able to get away with that sort of behaviour, so they came to us. It's interesting - I can't think of any other art form where people think it's socially acceptable to actually interrupt the performer with insults. Imagine being at a twee acoustic gig, and someone shouting "Heard it!", or being at a poetry reading, and hearing someone shout from the back "Oi, tell us a rhyme!"
Understanding their attitude was the key. On Friday, I tried hard to do material, and it fell flat. So on Saturday, I took the opposite approach, and did no material at all. I just took the mic, and had a conversation. I was no Ross Noble, but I tried to be amiable and kind, and in doing so, I managed to get people on my side, and got them laughing. The malicious heckles on Friday turned into people interrupting me to say things like "I like your boots" or "Your nails are pretty". There's no need to come back with a punchy one-liner from a heckle like that - just say thanks, and then ask them questions. After all, ultimately my function there was to entertain people. It was less of a gig, and more of a large conversation that I was orchestrating. It was a shame, because I was looking forward to doing actual stand-up, but if people are absolutely determined not to give it a chance, the only reasonable thing to do is to talk to them, and make them like you.
The "comedy" may have been shaky, but if I were invited back next year, I'd definitely do it all again. On a personal level, I spent a sunny weekend surrounded by gorgeous scenery and beautiful people; I listened to music which is distinctly different from my usual taste but which was thoroughly enjoyable; and it was a pleasure to spend social time with some of my favourite comedians. Comics don't often meet up socially, because the nature of the job makes it's practically impossible, so it's a rare joy when it happens. Well, I say that - maybe they all do meet socially on their days off, and it's all just a trick to keep obsessive comedy fanboys like me away.
On a professional level, I learned a lot. I learned about crowd control, and I learned a few ways in which I can take a rowdy crowd, and make them like me. I learned a few one-line put-downs which got laughs. And I learned that doing a gig in a comedy club is a whole world apart from doing a gig in a field at midnight. In doing so, more than ever, I want to go into comedy clubs and tell people what I have to say; but now, I'm armed with some more tools to make people like me. And with any luck, I won't need to convince people too hard to give my material a chance, because if they like me, they'll want to hear it.
Image adapted from Chiceaux's Flickr photostream.