When I’d just begun stand up, the excellent Scottish comedian, Matt Winning, told me something along the lines of “You should wait till you’re at fifty gigs before you decide whether you’re funny or not, because by then you will have found your voice a bit more.”
I’ve reached my fiftieth gig, through a mixture of open mics and a few ‘proper’ booked gigs. It’s probably natural then, that I’m returning to Matt’s advice. I’m usually pretty funny. Well, last night I told an extremely unfunny joke about the experimental noise artist Prurient that nobody understood and insulted an Albanian man, but I’m usually pretty funny. I make people laugh on a regular basis. I’m hardly the funniest new comedian around; but I’m not bad.
I’m concerned, though, that I’ve yet to find what my voice actually is. I don’t mean this literally of course, I’m well aware of the fact I have a prominent London middle class accent. I’m not proposing that I begin performing in course Glaswegian tones or the husky growl of Tom Waits, although both of those sound quite funny so I might give them a go.
Most successful stand-up comedians have a distinctive flavour to their comedy. You could identify a Stewart Lee routine by reading it off the page, let alone hearing it spoken. Simon Munnery; Josie Long; Bridget Christie; Tony Law; each one a top stand up and each one totally unique. Even outside of the arty alternative, comedians like Michael McIntyre or Kevin Bridges can arrive on stage to an audience who already know what to expect.
The voice of a comedian is not just the content of their jokes; but their phrasings, rhythms, timings and looks. Different comedians can give the same material have drastically different meanings. Tim Vine and Simon Munnery both often tell neat, clever puns. Tim Vine just tells them like a father who continues to joke at a daughter who is publicly embarrassed by him because he knows she’s secretly enjoying it. Simon Munnery, meanwhile, can make a simple bit of wordplay seem like the arcane wisdom of a wizard whose brain has been fried by powerful magic. Same jokes, vastly different outcomes.
Even the better comedians a newbie like me is able to get on bills with have their own distinct voices. The audience – that’s to say the real, non-comedian audience – will probably have no idea who they are; but, within a minute of their performance, little that follows will be a real tonal shift. The audience will remember their presence, if not necessarily their jokes. Ashley Haden’s air of having uncomfortably trapped you in the corner of a pub to let you know, hilariously, exactly what’s been bothering him. Joseph Murphy’s weary commitment to the telling of his wonderful jokes, as if he’s being forced to continue by a mad king who really loves spooky puns.
I could continue list the styles of my favorites of the comedians I’ve gigged with, but it would be little more than an open-mic masturbatory exercise so I’ll refrain from doing it. They’re all very good though and I love each one of them. Especially you (if you’re a comedian or a loved one).
I’m still not sure where I fit in. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve veered between the personas of a man who hates both his own jokes and the audience, an energetic fun loving hawker of bee puns, and a passionate, smart, political satirist. At present I’m not sure exactly what my persona will be until I actually step onto the stage and begin my first joke. I’m not at the stage where I’m a confident enough performer to be able to deliver my jokes in a certain fashion irrespective of my mood.
Perhaps though, those who have seen me multiple times would have a different opinion. When I saw Daniel Kitson (who is probably the greatest working stand-up and performs like a child who’s just discovered a particularly rude word and is delighted to tell everybody about it) he did an hour long show about how our impressions of our own character are less true than how other people define us. Perhaps stand up is like that. Perhaps I’ll never really understand exactly what my own voice, or style, actually is.
I think it’s probably more important for me, at this early stage, to understand my own weaknesses, limitations and strengths. I know I struggle with crowd interaction, I’m not yet very good at saying something amusing about somebody’s job or telling men that they are less attractive than their girlfriends. My attempts to do looser, stream of consciousness style bits have also all resulted in dismal failure.
I can’t be great at every style of stand-up and, while I probably need to improve the areas in which I’m weakest, it makes sense to focus on honing and exploiting my strengths. The two gigs in which I’ve arguably been at my best, last week, I used an angry, shouting style, hurling words at my audience and barely pausing to allow for laughter. I enjoyed performing like this and I know the audience enjoyed it too (one of the great things about stand up is that you get immediate feedback on your work); but in subsequent gigs I’ve had difficulty maintaining the level of energy required.
As my on stage-character is an ironic figure – a male feminist who doesn’t understand feminism , the worst of middle-class liberalism – I also need to overcome my worry that the audience will genuinely think I’m a dickhead. A friend recently saw me perform and said “if I didn’t know you were genuinely a proper feminist, I’m not sure what I’d conclude about you as a person from what I just saw”. I think it’s something that, as long as I’m being funny, I shouldn’t worry about. Anybody worth talking to will be able to appreciate the satire.
I’m going to perform the same, shouty, set at least eight times over the next 2 weeks. If I can pull it off as I’ve envisaged it I hope I will have found my voice for the time being. Stand up is an evolving medium, and I’m sure I’ll continue to grow and evolve over my ‘career’ but for the time being it’s heartening to be finding myself on the stage.
About the author of this post
Daniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty four year old man and will talk about them at length. He deals primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.