This weekend, I organised two nights of Leicester Comedy Festival preview shows in Northampton. This included the first full airing of my new show, Tom Young’s Got Issues; I had mixed results...
If you’re not a comedian, it’s really difficult to explain to you all the problems that writing and performing a new show presents, but here’s the main one: confidence.
Typically, one’s first solo show contains all of the material that the comedian has been doing on the circuit, since they first began. You know that material, you’ve tested that material, you know audiences respond to that material, and so the only problem you have is what order to say it in.
Got Issues is my fourth show; I’ve burned my reliable material, and started from scratch. I haven’t built confidence in the new material yet, and the only way to get that confidence is by trying it, but this can create a vicious circle.
As I said in my previous blog, in this show, I want to talk about so-called “Women’s Issues”, and why I think they should just be regarded as “Issues” that affect us all. In order to do so, and still be funny, I have to use jokes that are defended by a shield of irony. But that only works if the audience buy into the premise. They have to trust that I know what I’m doing; they have to trust that I’m not just going to express genuine misogynistic views; they have to trust in my ability as a comedian. How do I get that trust? By displaying confidence in my material. How do I get confidence in my material? By getting decent laughs from the audience. How do I get decent laughs from the audience? By getting them to trust me. Ah, there’s the vicious circle...
At the preview on Saturday, I had an audience that, for the majority, had never seen me before. They didn’t know my tried and tested material; they didn’t know that this was my fourth show. As far as many of them were concerned, I was a fairly new comedian, quivering his way through some socially-dicey material about what’s wrong with women. Seriously, the routine sounds better in context. Really. Trust me.
After the show (which is meant to be an hour, but I did 90 minutes), one woman from the audience said to me, “hey don’t worry, you control the stage really well – you just need some good material and you’ll be away”. I presume that she was oblivious to the fact that I DO HAVE good material in the locker. This, by the way, was the same woman who had come out with a classic post-show-audience-member-comment moments before: if I’m trying new material that’s not going very well, I become very self deprecating, just to ensure that I’m still getting some laughs. This woman said to me “You know, you were far too self-depreciating”. What a fool I’ve been! I thought I was poking fun at my own material, whereas I’d actually been gradually decreasing in value.
It’s worth saying at this point that there was plenty in the 90 minutes that remains usable for the show – it was by no means a disaster; it’s just that, because the “women’s issues” section was at the end, and such a large chunk that never really connected with the audience, the lasting impression I took away was that I’d struggled.
You have to understand, for a comedian, anything other than “sensational” is a failure. Someone coming up to you after the show to say “don’t be so hard on yourself, we enjoyed it”, isn’t enough to convince us. If the audience don’t leave with their face still aching from all the laughter, then there’s room for improvement. I once saw a mate of mine cause a woman to hyperventilate she was laughing so hard – I want to make that happen at every gig.
Part of the reason the “women’s issues” routine failed to connect was because of a factor that I’d forgotten to consider – people get offended on behalf of other people. You hear it all the time: “Don’t use that language in front of my wife!”, “I wouldn’t dream of letting my children watch that!”, and “You can’t say that; it might offend somebody”.
For my thoughts on that, I refer
you to Steve Hughes.
It was really interesting – I was making a point about equality, by ironically suggesting there were flaws in feminism, and who did I lose? The men.
Admittedly, I lost a few of the women as well, but many of them were laughing along. The men, meanwhile, were sitting tight-lipped, refusing to laugh for fear of being guilty-by-association (a few even hid their faces in their partners’ shoulder – it was a staggeringly cartoony portrayal of embarrassment).
It’s entirely possible of course, that I’ve simply written a routine that I don’t yet have the skill to perform. If you’re going to take a risk like this, it requires bravado; you have to approach it at full speed, so that if you do hit a wall, you go crashing straight through it, leaving a comedian-shaped hole behind you – I may be stuck on the cartoon thing...
If you watch the opening six minutes of Louis CK’s special “Chewed Up” (easily locatable on YouTube) you’ll see a white man use the N-Word and the C-Word repeatedly, without being booed off the stage. How? Skill, reputation, and intent. His set up and explanation for the use of these words is flawless, the crowd have prior knowledge of Louis’s on-stage persona, and his intent is not to shock, but to raise the issue of what language means to different people, and the power it can have. Louis also has over 20 years of experience behind him; I have five.
I’m not going to gain reputation before the festival show, so I need to develop my delivery, and ensure that my intent is obvious, so no-one can misinterpret what I’m trying to put across.
So what now? Well, I know there are bits to cut before the final version in Leicester next month; the other problem is order. Until you try new material, you never know what works and what doesn’t, so deciding what order it should be performed in is a nightmare.
Due to a staggeringly low-key start (I just wandered to the stage, moved the furniture, adjusted the microphone, and started with the unconventional opening of “Right then...”), I entirely forgot that my original plan had been to engage in audience banter – an area where I feel confident due to all the compèring I do. If I’d used that to settle my nerves and establish some momentum as planned, then the rest of the show might have appeared more confident.
So, bits to cut, things to rearrange, segments to remember – and I’m feeling oddly optimistic. The crowd in Northampton’s vibe suggested they hadn’t seen many Festival preview shows before, and hadn’t known what to expect. In Leicester, during the festival, the hardcore comedy nerds will be out in full, and that’ll buy me some grace (if I’m lucky, maybe seven minutes of it in all, but that’s enough to work with). If I focus on the stuff that did work, it’ll help build my confidence in the show as a whole. After all, in comedy, confidence is much like sincerity – once you can fake it, you’ve got it made.
Look out Leicester, I’m coming for you!
Tom Young’s Got Issues will
be part of Dave’s Leicester Comedy
Festival, Saturday February 15th, 21:45, at The Criterion Free House.
Tickets are available from www.comedy-festival.co.uk