Blood, sweat and jokes

A few nights ago I went along to The London Open Mic Comedy Night to support my friend and aspiring standup comedian Tom Elliott. He did very well and I was very impressed with high standard of everyone who performed.

Standup comedy is a very pure form of public speaking. No safety net of a set of PowerPoint slides, and no expectation that the audience will tolerate bland material. As a first timer, putting yourself in that kind of situation must be such a breach of comfort zones. Anyone who has done that has my highest respect.

Comedy is difficult. I tried to put jokes into my last two speeches and found out how hard it is to be genuinely funny. However I am convinced that being ”naturally funny” isn’t a necessary requirement for writing jokes.

When reading about standup comedians it becomes clear that the most successful are the ones who work the hardest. Creating funny material is a long, rigorous process of creating, testing and refining. When you watch a standup comedy set you are watching the product of hours of work.

Lifehacker pointed out that Jerry Seinfeld writes every day, tracking his progress on a wall calendar. The film Comedian documents his progress as he gradually refines his act by continuously performing material, beginning with an abysmal first night and ending with a great performance on Letterman.

Frank Skinner, in his autobiography, compares writing a standup tour to writing a Ph.D. describing a long systematic process of material creation and incorporating audience feedback.

[A] funny gag is a funny gag and they all get in on that merit. Not that it’s my choice. I have the most reliable editor in the world, the audience. When I’m preparing for a tour, I write about twenty-five minutes of new stuff a week, a target I’ve stuck to since the days of the Pie Factory. Naturally, some of this will be shit. I have to find out which and get rid of it. If they shit jokes offendeth thee pluck them out. So, I’ll do a couple of circuit gigs a week to try out my new twenty-five minutes and then depending on the response I’ll split the stuff into three categories.

Firstly, God willing, there will be some jokes that get some good laughs. These go into the draw marked “In”. Secondly, there will be some jokes that go quite well but not great. These go into the draw marked ‘Potential’. As I’ve said before, my jokes are like children to me., I want to give them a fair chance. This is why I try virtually all of the new stuff at least twice. Maybe I delivered a new gag badly and didn’t do it credit; or maybe it’s not right in its present form, but it could be slightly re-written into a better gag. If one of these methods works, the gag gets transferred into the ‘In’ draw. Thirdly there are the gags that die on their arse. I mourn them briefly, and then bury them in the draw marked ‘Shit’. [...]

[E]ventually, the ‘In’ draw fills to the top, and then I go on tour.

- Frank Skinner by Frank Skinner, 2001

Thanks again to Tom for inviting me along, and I can highly recommend the London Open Mic Comedy Night.

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