Competition season is upon us. I’ve already crashed out of two large competitions for new acts, Laughing Horse New Act of the Year and Leicester Square Theatre New Act of the Year. They’re a frustrating experience and I hate them. There’s nothing quite like the imposition of competition to make an activity which I love doing, stand-up, stressful and unpleasant.
I’m not saying this, of course, just because I failed to progress in two of the biggest competitions; but it is a factor. Laughing Horse wasn’t fun, partially because I was so very bad in it. My poor performance can, in part, be explained by a lethargic audience, tired after sitting through fifteen other acts (I was on last), including one who did a good fifteen minutes on stage instead of his allotted four. But I was also lacking in my usual energy, my presence was stilted and I visibly lost faith and interest when my first joke didn’t provoke huge laughter.
Leicester Square Theatre was frustrating for the opposite reason. I was really good and didn’t progress. I was on second and got big laughs from a large crowd. I came off stage delighted, certain that if I wasn’t placing first on the night I’d be given a wild card through to the next round. Three days of nervously checking my emails followed, before all the quarter finals were set in stone without me in them.
I don’t mean this blog to come across as the ravings of a bitter man, although it is by definition. The three acts who progressed through my heat, James Bennison, Red Richardson and Joe Jacobs, are all excellent. I wouldn’t place myself above them in a competition. There is, though, a definite annoyance at being really rather good, being told so by my peers, and then getting nothing from it. I’m insecure and ambitious and these slight failures make me ask questions that I probably needn’t. Are there inherent problems in my act? Am I actually good enough to make it as a comedian? Am I deluded?
All the comedians I’ve talked to about this, and I’ve talked to a good number because I am very insecure, have said similar things. Firstly, competitions don’t matter. They’re an accelerator, helping you get to paid gigs faster, sure, but if you’re actually any good, the recognition that a trophy brings you will come along in time anyway. Secondly, they’re essentially random. Good comedians won’t get through and rubbish ones will. It all depends on the audience, where you’re placed in the running order and a myriad of other factors. You shouldn’t worry so much, you’ll get lucky in time.
I think these are half true. Sure, a good comedian will eventually find success anyway, but I’d rather find it sooner than later. Besides, you get a thousand pounds for winning a big new act competition. I’d quite like a thousand pounds. Secondly, there is a certain element of unfair randomness but generally speaking the people who win competitions are good. There’s always a way I could have been better, without compromising my act, to wow an audience. It’s easy to blame fate, to blame the very nature of the universe. It’s harder to accept the inevitable unfairness and try to do the best with it you can.
So what now? I’m at the point, after six months and a hundred gigs, where I can comfortably do fifteen minutes in front of a packed Saturday night crowd. I’d like to move onto more paid work but there’s no real urgency yet. The mantra, repeated to friends and myself, has become “next year is my year”. I feel I’m growing as a performer all the time, I’m getting significantly better at dealing with troublesome crowds. I’ve got a healthy amount of material. I’m developing an identity. Most importantly though, I’m consistently funny. I’ve actually been paid real money. Twenty whole pounds of it.
“I tried out a joke about Jeremy Corbyn and homoeopathy the other day, and nobody in the audience either knew what Jeremy Corybn or homoeopathy were.”
Aside from the vague objective of ‘improving’ my goal is to have a half hour I’m happy with for the Edinburgh festival next year. With underlying themes and everything. I’m gradually managing to put together something that feels fairly consistent; but it’s difficult finding the time and space to try it out all at once. Most spots I do these days are ten minutes long, and I’m proud that I’ve migrated onto these longer sets from doing just five minutes so quickly, but it’s still barely enough time to lay down anything with a longer, more considered narrative.
I can find spots which are fifteen to twenty minutes long at the club where I’m now a regular: Cafe Mode. However, the audience found there, drunk party goers, aren’t the kind of people who are going to appreciate twenty minutes of satire. I tried out a joke there about Jeremy Corbyn and homoeopathy the other day, and nobody in the audience either knew what Jeremy Corybn or homoeopathy were.
The material will come together in bits then. Grown by a series of amendments to my existing cannon, trying out little new jokes that can be added to what I already have. The occasional longer two to three minute bit. I’m hoping to gain the confidence to perform new material for longer stretches, at the moment I give up at the slightest sign of trouble. Too cowardly to accept anything but instant love from an audience. A brave comic allows themselves to die. I’ve got to learn to commit suicide and come out unscathed. It’s not as dramatic as that really though, it’s just comedy.
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.