Last week, I had one of the best compèring gigs of my career. It was at my own monthly night in Northampton, which, considering it’s August, had an unexpectedly full audience. I always try to do new material at this gig – partially to spare my regular punters from hearing repeats, and partially to force myself to write more. However, due to having focused on other writing projects since the previous gig, I hadn’t come up with anything new and substantial to contribute to this one.
‘Never mind,’ I told myself, ‘you’re a good improviser; you can banter your way through the gig if you have to.’ But even improvisation needs structure, so how best to go about it?
The previous month I had tried some new material about Game of Thrones – which I had just been watching – and I got people to shout out what their family mottos would be if they were on the show, which I then deconstructed. This had gone pretty well, and had been a good opportunity to get the audience involved, but I not wanting to do the same thing two months in a row, what was my next trick to be?
I’d come up with a few scenarios to get the audience involved again (stories of bad dates, etc), but this didn’t have the necessary legs to continue throughout the whole gig (and indeed, having tried it in the first section, I can tell you it barely limped through that). Then, about an hour before leaving for the gig, I had the idea to get the audience to write down questions, put them in a bag, and draw them out one by one, answering them as I went. I grabbed some paper from my printer, and set off for the gig.
It worked brilliantly. The variety of questions alone was incredible, and I managed to do something with every single one. They ranged from “Discuss the merits of Global Quantitive Easing, and its effect in solving the financial crisis – without using the word ‘The’”, to “How does the man in the Skittles advert, who turns everything he touches to Skittles, manage to dress himself?”, to “Favourite Sport – Discus”, to an alarmingly-detailed, yet anatomically-inaccurate drawing of a penis.
I had so much fun dealing with each of these, and the audience were so engaged by my riffing off their suggestions (to the extent that several more questions were added to the bag during each interval) that I must’ve easily done 30-40 minutes of this, spread across the whole night. Fairly impressive for one man with a microphone, no material, and no idea what was coming up, if I do say so myself.
And I do say so myself, because, prior to last week, I wouldn’t have thought myself capable of doing it. Admittedly, I’ve been improvising for longer than I’ve been doing stand up, but usually with improv you’ve got team mates around you to bounce off. Improvised stand up is something that happens very rarely – usually to deal with hecklers, or at improv-specific gigs such as Set List.
So I loved this experience, and it’s something I want to try again in the future; the trouble is, it’s challenged everything I usually think about what I want my stand up to be.
Despite my improv background, I’ve always considered myself to be a writer first and a performer second (which is why my three solo shows have all initially been very well written but not so well performed, prior to my settling into the material). I endeavour for my stand up to be intelligent (or at least, as much so as I can manage) – I like it when I have something to say, even if I’m saying it in a low-brow way; that something can be anything from a big social issue (homophobia, body image, etc), to something personal and reflective (my romantic relationships, or lack thereof). I very rarely do observational or anecdotal material, as I find it far harder to make those styles personal to me and relatable to my audience.
Last night I was watching Simon Amstell’s Numb on BBC2 (having previously seen his Do Nothing DVD), and his work is a prime example of what I’m aiming for. Insightful and considered, personal and intimate, yet brilliantly funny; it’s really surprising to me, but the former-host of Popworld has become one of my favourite stand ups.
And here is the problem with my taking questions from the audience: it’s very funny, but I’m not really saying anything I want to say. Both during and immediately after the gig, I started to wonder whether I could do a whole show by just taking questions from the audience in this way. It would certainly keep things fresh for me, as the show would change every day, and – if last week’s evidence is anything to go by – audiences would certainly enjoy it. But if I’m not actually revealing anything about myself or my attitudes, what’s the point of the show?
For me, the way we measure the artistic merit of comedy is wrong. At present, a comedian is considered good if what he’s saying gets consistent laughs; it doesn’t really matter what he’s saying, so long as the audience are laughing. The trouble is, no other art form works that way.
If a painter has haphazardly slopped some paint onto a canvas, then yes, he has technically produced a painting; but is it a good painting? No. If a musician runs his hands along a piano, blindly hitting the keys without consideration, then yes, he has technically produced music; but is it good music? No. They’ve each achieved the bare minimum for their work to be considered an example of their art, but it is bad art nonetheless. Stand up should be judged in the same way.
If a comedian is getting laughs (regardless of how big), then yes, he is producing comedy, in the same way as the painter has smeared colour across the canvas and the musician has wildly struck the piano keys. If he’s not getting laughs, then it’s not comedy, it’s something else; it’s a blank canvas or a silent piano. Laughter is the minimum requirement of the stand up comedian, but it does not guarantee good art.
For me, stand up needs to be about an idea; something the comedian has thought of, expanded on, and wants to share with the audience. I’m also a big believer in writing for yourself, about what interests you, and finding a way to make it relevant to your audience, regardless of their interests. I started while I was still a student, so I’ve seen a lot of young guys talking about the “student trinity” of sex, facebook, and Jeremy Kyle. Their sexual material (often onanistic) is always crude and general, rather than specific and personal; their facebook material is always reporting something funny said online by someone else (without the necessary deconstruction required to make it their own); and their Jeremy Kyle material (interchangeable with Derek Acorah) only makes an impact with student audiences, who are also at home in the middle of the day to watch such nonsense. Oh, and occasionally someone will do a routine about ridiculous song lyrics.
I tried to avoid all that from an early stage, and thus initially worked with routines about my body image and how people react to my height. More recently I’ve had routines about Superman, fairy tales, Strictly Come Dancing, homophobia, ill-defined feminism, and more; all in a bid to stay as far out of the “young man in a t-shirt noticing stuff” box as possible (further achieved by the way I’ve chosen to dress on stage).
So where to go with my new “answering questions” format (and I say “my” and “new” quite wrongly)? I think, in terms of compèring, it’ll be a useful tool for gigs I’ve done before, but it seems very unlikely – in my head – that I’d be able to base a whole show around it; not least because it would become tedious for the audience after 10-15 minutes. I could, perhaps, use it as a set piece between scripted routines, to break up the heavier chunks of stand up that surround it, but do I then risk losing momentum from the written material?
Further experimentation is clearly required before the next Leicester Comedy Festival in February. It’s something of a creative nightmare, though one which, I suppose, I’m pleased to have.
Tom's next solo show will take place on February 15th, 9:45pm, at The Criterion, as part of Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival 2014.