Bucket lists are great things.
That’s the cue for my Mother to go into a blind panic worrying that I’ve got bad news I’m not telling her. Don’t worry Mum, all is fine! But I do have a bucket list. I know you’re not really supposed to call them that unless you’ve had a pretty naff conversation with your doctor, but I’m being realistic. We’ve lost a few close people to our family in recent times and it’s led me to a simple conclusion. You have to get stuff done or old Father Time himself comes and gives you an unexpected kick up the bum.
There are some bits on my list that I’m not anywhere close to achieving. Unfortunately being launched into space is (at the moment) a little beyond me. I know they’ve worked out how to put a car into orbit, but I doubt that poets are going to be high on the list of people they choose for that first craft to jet into the stratosphere. (I’ll more likely be slotted into the second ship with the TV Producers, hairdressers and insurance salesman). Becoming an Olympian is also becoming a distinct impossibility although from taking in copious amounts of TV coverage from Pyeongchang it does seem that I might have more than a chance to take part in the curling if I wanted. Provided I find myself some stones. And an ice rink. And bundles of time, dedication and effort that it needs to become an elite athlete. And a broom.
These things may be a way off from being ticked off yet.Performing at a comedy club however, is not. This past weekend I managed to put a big old tick in that very big bucket list box.
I have dreamed of performing as a stand up ever since I can remember. As a child I grew up on a varied diet of Ben Elton, Victoria Wood and Billy Connolly on the telly box and I knew from an early age that I was always going to want to get up in crowded rooms and tell stories to people and make them giggle. In later years I’ve become a bit of comedy nerd, watching hours and hours of comedians do their thing; dissecting their sets and reading up on a whole host of theories about ‘what makes stuff funny’. Whether it be the energy and passion of Russell Howard; the acerbic wit of Sarah Millican or just the plain grumpiness of Romesh Ranganathan I have not only enjoyed (nay loved) their work but also admired just how they have crafted their act over the years and I can probably give you a long (and I would expect very boring) rundown of the mechanics of their style; their manner and of course the hilarities of their material. I am a very dedicated student. (Or stalker, take your pick)
But a student of comedy does not a comedian make as we’ve unhappily all seen so many times before – including in my own experience. Ten years ago, I ventured into Manchester’s Comedy Store with dreams of being able to wing it and make the crowd laugh. ‘King Gong’ at the store is a brutal competition where anyone can get up and have a go, trying to make the audience laugh and stop them from ‘red carding’ you and ultimately gonging you off the stage. If you last five minutes, you make the final. If you win the final, you win a ten minute spot at The Store later in the month. It’s the jangling keys to the gates of comedy Eldorado.
I lasted 47 seconds before I was gonged off.
Was I unfunny? Probably. Was I naive? Definitely. Scoot forward ten years and I suddenly find myself making kids aged 5-11 giggle in assemblies up and down the country doing the whole ‘poet guy in a hat’ thing and thinking “Well, I must be doing something right”. Could it be that it wasn’t my delivery or my material that was the problem all those years ago – maybe I just hadn’t found my audience?
Enter the sort of opportunity I’ve always dreamed of. Comedy Club for Kids really is a revolution in the world of funny. Knowing that comedy gigs are usually filled with drunk people later at night who like swearing and talking about wholly inappropriate stuff for tiny ears, they have taken all that stuff away. Shows are held in the afternoon, acts are all family friendly and there is an expectation in the air of heckles being totally expected. Shouting out at weird stuff is after all what kids are totally amazing at.
I was lucky enough to be asked along last weekend to come and do ten minutes of my own at London’s Soho Theatre and spent a good month and a half papping my pants about it. Ten minutes? In comedy terms that’s a lifetime and I’d never been officially billed as a ‘funny man’ during the whole time that I’ve been performing my work – even though there’s a lot of silliness involved. Entertaining kids even for a short time is one of the hardest things to do and I was being introduced as a man that their parents had paid hard earned money to see to make them all laugh. Was I going to sink on swim? Would they throw ice cream at me if I wasn’t funny? Or would they just not let me in their gang anymore and go and hang out on another bit of the playground? The self imposed tension was palpable.
In the end I needn’t have worried. I arrived at the theatre a little early and was able to catch the end of one of the comedy workshops that Comedy Club 4 kids run a couple of hours before the show – allowing young comedians to try out new material of their own. Whether it be sketches, stand up or just the odd one liner here and there – they get a safe environment to workshop new stuff and try to make each other smile. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it missed the mark but it was always delivered with commitment by these fearless wonders. Within ten minutes of entering the theatre, it was settled. There was no way that I was wussing out of this. If the kids could do it, I certainly could.
The Soho Theatre – where all the fun happens
Showtime came around and I sat in the audience, watching an old pro do his thing. Tiernan Douieb, our MC probably won’t appreciate the ‘old’ tag in that sentence bearing in mind he’s at least two years younger than me but he’s most definitely an old hand at this comedy lark. Regularly supporting Frankie Boyle on his tours and generally being a funny bod – he knows what he’s doing and like all good professionals, looks at home with a mic in his hand and makes the stage his own. He expertly handled fifteen minutes of warming up the audience, getting to know them, making them laugh heartily and generally and putting everyone in the house at ease.
When it came to my intro, I rocketed down the stairs (in hindsight that’s kind of dangerous in a darkened theatre Paul, you’d better watch that) and took my place at the mic. I didn’t give people time to throw any ice cream or indeed any other type of food stuff at me. I plunged straight into my first poem – ‘Wibbly Wobbly Words’. They listened – there was rumble of a giggle from somewhere about three rows back but they were still nervous of me. After all, I looked weird in the stupid hat and I was a stranger. Stop frightening the kids Paul – this is not what you’re here for.
I ploughed on, introduced myself properly and talked a bit about why we pull silly faces, which of course required me to pull a silly face. Which made two of the kids I could see on the front row laugh. Properly laugh too. Enough of a laugh that I could acknowledge it and in the process make a few people a little further back giggle. I’m no expert on this but we appeared to be off. Three poems later and we were all having a great time. ‘My Bottom Did A Burp In Class’ got the requisite number of laugh out loud moments – my impressions of eight year olds who don’t like pink shoes caused chortling and we all shared some nerdy moments in our communal love of Lego. (‘Bricks of Doom’ went down a treat)
By the time I left the stage to healthy applause it felt like I’d only manage two minutes. I looked at the stopwatch on my wrist that I’d set as I went on. I’d managed twelve minutes and thirty seven seconds on stage as a stand up comedian and not fallen flat on my backside. I was thoroughly chuffed and I felt the positive vibes from the room running through my veins at a rate of knots. Like all good adrenaline fuelled experiences though, they quickly begin to fade, leaving a happy shaped hole in your life. I had the taste for it now. I wanted more of it! Let me back up there! Sadly, that’s not allowed.
I settled back in my seat and went back to enjoying the show and of course cribbing on the next two acts and what they were doing to tickle the funny bones. First up after me was Mabel, a sensational young lady from the Comedy Academy – one of the very children who were workshopping new material as I came in the door. With a combination of potato props made into exciting everyday objects and an impression of Morissey that the miserable old coot himself would struggle not to giggle at – she showed just what can be achieved when you nurture talent early. Watch out for Mabel – she’s on the way up thats for certain. (She’s going to need to get through High School first though – just think of all that material she’s going to get!)
Last up we had a shift in tone again as we were treated to some Tommy Cooper-esque physical comedy in the form of Otiz Cannelloni. Funny faces; magic tricks which are not magic tricks at all; puns which really belonged in a Christmas cracker and a level of audience participation that wouldn’t have been put of place in a holiday camp in 1976. The audience (and I) loved it. Sometimes its nice to just kick back and enjoy comedy for what it is – just people being funny. Its not my style – I haven’t got the discipline to be that structured with props and visual gags, but it was great to see another seasoned pro in action. As Tiernan drew the show to a close I had time to reflect on what had just happened.
That short twelve minutes has taught me so much about the material I have. First off – it needs introducing. Performance poetry is a little weird at the best of times and just going straight in cold may have been a mistake. Plus I need to slow down – A LOT. I know I didn’t gabble but I have been told on a number of occasions that I’m hard to follow when I really get pumped up on stage. While I was teaching I was often told “Slow down Sir, you’re talking too fast” of which my reposte to the grumpy teenagers I was teaching was inevitably “No, pay attention, you’re listening too slow” but I don’t really want to get into that debate with a paying and possibly braying audience. If I relax into it I may even allow myself to go off piste with the script for a bit and really get to know the people who have come in to have a giggle.
As you can probably tell, I’ve caught the bug. What was originally a ‘tick it off so you can say you’ve definitely done it’ thing has now turned into a ‘I didn’t get eaten alive – maybe I should give this a proper go’ kind of thing. I’ve already begun looking at other ways I can expand the stand up side of my performance including revisiting the Comedy Store next month to check back in at ‘Beat the Gong’. Its a brutal industry to get into and I may not even make it past the 47 seconds I managed before, but if I get anything like the buzz I had when I left the stage last Saturday, then it’ll be worth it.
Watch this space – I’m going to try and fill it with giggles. 🙂