You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Stand-up comedy’ tag.

This is an occasional series, the Comedy Book Reviews, in which I’ll look at various books and tell you how useful I think they are to the budding comedy writer, or writer-performer.

Standup Comedy: The Book by Judy Carter

Opening this book is like stepping back into the late 1980s. From the drop shadows on the geometric shapes that litter the pages, serving as – I can only guess – graphic design, to the choice of comics used as examples, to the description of the industry, this book is clearly 20 years out of date. Which is unsurprising, as it was first published in 1989.

What is surprising is that it is still in print. How can a book written before the Berlin Wall fell, before 9/11, before Jack Whitehall was even born possibly be of any relevance today?

Well, it is. Although the industry it describes isn’t a huge amount like the one that will face a comic in the UK, it’s fun to wallow in the world Bill Hicks described as his ‘flying saucer’ tour, one where there are actually clubs called things like ‘The Laugh-Inn’, and where Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Roseanne Barr are still working comics rather than bloated, corporate comedy brands. The industry may have changed, however, but the job hasn’t.

There’s a reason that this book is still in print (and pretty readily available) more than two decades after it was published. It gives a really good grounding in how to write and perform a particular kind of standup act. Admittedly, it’s standup of the confessional kind, the autobiographical kind, and the observational kind, but all of those styles are still relevant and popular today.

The joke-writing and material-generating techniques are still solid, and should enable anyone to craft a couple of minutes of decent gags about themselves, their situations, and the things they have noticed about the world. If that’s the style of comedy you’re interested in performing, then this is a good introduction.

Even if it isn’t, there are things to be gleaned in terms of structuring a set, setup and punch, and general rules about how to handle an audience and prepare for a gig. The section that deals with the more alternative forms of comedy: topical gags, character comedy, musical comedy or prop comedy is a little perfunctory, and this book is much more helpful for people who want to do straight standup.

This is a good basic primer I would recommend to all comics who are preparing an act to get up on a stage. The appendices and actual club and industry information are obviously of little use now, but the principles and ideas for material, how to generate and structure it, remain as true today as they were back when there was a Tory government, regular riots in London, IRA activity, and Libya was always in the news. Oh.

Tapley, Wallis, and Amused Bystander

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, famous alumnus. And, in all fairness, he was reasonably famous before we started.

I’ve been teaching Nick Wallis, Breakfast presenter for BBC Surrey, how to do standup comedy, in aid of Comic Relief for the last few weeks. Summaries of bits of our lessons can be found here, here, here, here, & here.

Having exposed himself to the hecklers and monsters of Reigate a couple of Fridays ago, last week Nick had to go and perform for a minute in front of Jo Brand, Jon Culshaw, Hugh Dennis and Emma Freud last week. He had to do actual standup in front of actual standups. You can read all the details, including how Nick felt he was going to be ‘sick on the spot,’ and watch a video of his performance here.

Teaching standup is an odd thing. One week you may be fearing for your students’ safety, the next wiping a tear from your eye as the knob gag that you helped them work up from a weak pun is rapturously received by an audience of… tens, usually.

Still, doing this with Nick has been especially gratifying. Not only has it been heartening to see him take to comedy so easily, but it’s also been a way of raising money for Comic Relief. It’s rare that a a profession so mired in (and fuelled by) cynicism and bitterness gives you an opportunity to do something so utterly wholesome.

What was particularly encouraging was the way in which the judges said that Nick was “most like an actual standup”, “comfortable”, and “so good looking”. I am going to take credit for all of those things…

My notes would be: if you’re going to do an improvised bit, Nick, make sure you’ve got a punchline to end it with, and a way of getting back to the material you’ve prepared. And, stop putting in extra words again, you’re swamping your punchlines with verbiage! But I shall berate you thoroughly for all that next time I see you.

Well done. Next stop: the Komedia on March 17th!

If you’d like the same sort of comedy tuition that Nick Wallis has been receiving, why not drop me an email about one-to-one lessons, or look at the Courses page?

Portrait of The Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingha...

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Nick,

The most important thing to remember when you are on stage is that it is you who is on stage.

You may find it difficult to forget, of course. You might find yourself gazing out over patient rows of expectant faces, your bowels curdling under the lights as the gags you expected would bring the house down drift aimlessly across the room only to sputter against the far wall like disappointed farts in a week-old balloon. At that point you might find it quite difficult to forget that it is you who is on stage.

No matter what happens, remember that you have a right to be there, people have come to see you, you have the microphone. From the moment you walk on the stage – even if you are playing a meek and nervous character – you must own the space. It’s yours. Look at home in it. Try not to apologise for your presence.

Nothing is more uncomfortable for an audience than watching an act who isn’t convinced that they should be up onstage. From the apologetic way in which they handle the microphone, to the sympathetic ear they lend hecklers, to the self-pitying murmurs of “This isn’t going well” when it isn’t going well, if the audience don’t feel that the person on the stage is in control of the situation it panics them.

And rightly so. It would be like sitting down before your long-haul flight to hear across the tannoy: “Good afternoon, everyone, this is your 1430 hours departure for New York. The temperature at JFK is a balmy… I’m not sure I can do this. I practised for ages, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going very well. Is it going very well? Don’t know why I’m asking you lot, you don’t cre, you vultures. Now, which of these buttons makes it go up?”

The only difference is that the fear your audience will feel will not be that of a fiery, ocean-bound death, but rather of an excruciating five minutes of comedy. All right, so it’s not really the same at all.

But, still, it’s your responsibility to be in charge of the stage. To look like you know what you’re doing, even when you have know idea what you’re going to say next. Like Prince Philip.

When we watched the video back you noticed that your body language changed when you were dealing with the heckler. You physically tried to move away from him and avoid eye contact to defuse the situation. However, comedy is occasionally quite territorial and mammalian. You have to assert your authority over the group using your wit. And the fact that they don’t have a microphone.

You must become a silverback gorilla, throwing the weight of your enormous barrel-chest around, and grunting and hooting your authority to all challengers. Like Prince Philip.

You are the one who is meant to be there. You are the one people are there to see. Bear that in mind and straddle the stage like a smug giant, untroubled by doubt, secure in the knowledge that, undeserved or not, you are in charge of everything you cast your gaze upon.

Exactly like Prince Philip.

Cover of Dungeon of Dread

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Nick,

What you are about to do is not important.

It may feel like a nerve-wracking ordeal devised especially to torment you, but it isn’t. Your every waking moment might be filled with the dread of imminently having to stand on a stage whilst people watch you and laugh at you. Or, even worse, watch you and not laugh at you. But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important.

It is five minutes. In the middle of other people doing their five minutes. Even if it all goes horribly wrong, if the only reactions from the audience are yawns, gasps of horror, or wheezes of despair, it’s not that important.

You won’t be ruining anyone’s life. You probably won’t even be ruining anyone’s evening as there will be lots of other comedy to watch. To you, this is an experience that can consume your every waking moment. To the audience, you’re a brief distraction from the problems in their lives and their own ever-present dread of mortality.

So, relax. Take it easy. I’d suggest that you take a chill pill if it didn’t sound highly illegal, and exactly the sort of thing that caused all that trouble for that nice Dr Shipman.

Relax. Drink the experience in. You don’t get to spend much of your life being silly in front of people. Even if they don’t like it, so what? It’s not like they don’t like you. Unless they do.

And, even then, so what? What does it signify, at the end of the day? That you and some other people met for five minutes, discussed some ideas, and didn’t come to any mutually satisfying conclusions.

Relax. It’s not that important. No one’s life depends on it.

Except in your case, of course, as you’re doing it for charity. The fundees of the Comic Relief charities are directly dependent on your success for life-saving treatments, in some cases.

So don’t relax too much.

Man wearing briefs

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Nick,

Be brief(s).

You talk too much. Too many words drop out of your flapping head, and flounder about on the floor like dying carp. Word after word after word comes out, and it has to stop. Preferably by the Friday after next.

We all talk too much, of course, but it is one of the biggest problems when you’re starting in standup. Every word you use that isn’t a punchline means your audience is waiting longer for their punchline. Every word you use that isn’t setting a punchline up is just wasted.

Although there are many, many ways of doing standup comedy (and I am hardly one to talk about using too many words), to begin with you must master the setup and punchline. For your first set, we will be almost exclusively working on the basis of setup and punch. Any word that is neither setting your joke up (misleading the audience, heightening their expectations, putting them in a mood you are bout to undercut) or paying one off is an unfunny word. It’s a useless, wasted beat in your routine. It is, although it is filled with sound, dead air.

You, I think, may well have to conquer your natural, professional hatred of silence. Silence is your friend. You can use it to intimidate your enemies, sneak a look at the notes written on your hand, or to feign a swoon, and wait for someone to carry you off stage. In comedy extra words are confusing, a distraction from the real job of making your audience laugh.

So, your first job is to think of some jokes. Your next job is to take out every unnecessary syllable. Every one. Evy on. N.

Rick Wakeman in 30. October 2003 in Somerville, MA

Image via Wikipedia

The CRCCISC posts are a series of tips to help Nick Wallis, breakfast presenter for BBC Surrey, prepare for his first standup gig, at The Komedia, on March 17th. There are more details in this post.

Dear Nick,

The second lesson is even easier than the first. It’s simple: be forgiving. Be understanding. When you look at the world and notice its absurdities and ridiculousness, pause for a minute to try and understand why it might have got itself into such an absurd state, before condemning it out of hand.

Admittedly, condemning things out of hand is funny. Anger is funny. Your frustrations are funny. But they’ll only take you so far. About as far as being Rick Wakeman in an episode of Grumpy Old Men. And no one wants that.

Comedy has enough middle-class white men sneering at a world that doesn’t quiet defer to them in the way they’d like. You’ll get laughs pointing out everyone else’s deficiencies, but you may well lose your soul in the process.

Keep your bitterness, your ire, your condemnation as arrows in your comic quiver; they’re all easy ones to fall back on. Spend a day trying to find the other kinds of comedy in world. Glory in silliness; see humankind’s foibles as symptoms of what we’re trying to get right, rather than evidence of all we get wrong; meet the world with an open and generous heart.

Above all, if you go to meet someone to talk about standup and you find they may have been out at the Chortle Awards until incredibly late, doing unmentionable things to the free bar, and that they’re now in no real state to see their own feet, never mind tutor anyone in comedy, be forgiving. Be understanding. Be quiet.

And maybe bring them some paracetamols.

Subscribe with RSS

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 11,988 other followers

Twitter Feed