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Monday 18 November 2019

Stand-up comedy

Queen of comedy

Misogyny is alive and well on the stand-up circuit. Susie Walker offers some advice on how to survive

By Susie Walker

I decided to become a stand-up comic. I know, right. What is wrong with me? About two years ago, something shifted. I realised I had something to say and felt ready to say it. If you are thinking it was a mid-30s existential crisis you’d be absolutely right. It dawned on me that my jokes were wasted on the work crowd at the weekly operations meeting. It had become too easy for me to bat back heckles from the chief financial officer. I needed to be playing to bigger rooms.

It turns out the grass roots of comedy hasn’t changed in decades. Stand-up remains blissfully unencumbered by the democratising forces of self-publishing that have liberated female writing talent. There is still just the one grim route to making it big in comedy. Metaphorically and literally, it’s a dark path – not just because it takes place mainly underground. At night.

Amateur comedy is still a hostile environment for women. Comedy, like advertising, doesn’t just reflect culture. It shapes it too. Being an amateur female stand-up is like being stuck inside a bad joke.

It is true that women are becoming slowly more visible in comedy. There are more female comedians on television and landing UK tours. I’m thrilled for Aisling Bea, Roisin Conaty and London Hughes, I really am, but the existence of a smattering of visible female comics is scant consolation for a profession stuck in a bygone era. The ubiquitous panel shows (still the entry point to television work) are jam-packed with men. Chortle’s database shows that only 18 per cent of comics working professionally are women.

Susie Walker on stage

Being a female stand-up is brutal. You’re going to have to want it bad: more than getting enough sleep; more than spending time with loved ones; certainly more than only using toilets with soap and a working lock on the door.

And yet, in spite of it all, stand-up has been one of the highlights of my life. So if anyone is still tempted, here is my handy guide to Making It As A Female Stand-up.

When you come out as a stand-up, you’re coming out as a needy clown

 First, you need to have something to say. Doesn’t matter what, or why. Believing you of all people have something to say to Other People is the first step. Accept that you’ll think you’ve gone mad. Telling yourself things are absolutely fine and completely normal when they’re morally dubious and very unusual is part of the comedic life. Then you need to pluck up the courage to do something about it. In my case this took six months. When you come out as a stand-up, you’re coming out as a needy clown. Accept it, own it, move on.

Welcome to comedy. Glamorous isn’t it?

The jury’s out on whether it’s better to be taught or to launch yourself cold into the brutality of the open mic circuit. There’s no way I would have had the confidence to do it without training wheels. Maddie Campion, another gigging stand-up, told me: “I regret not doing a course when I started because I got loads of bad advice from men who ran open mics, which I think meant a lot of people saw me be utter shit in my first year.”

Doing an introduction to stand-up course is a rite of passage. Logan Murray’s, which I did, is regarded as one of if not the best. It has brilliant alumni (Diane Morgan, Greg Davies, Andi Osho, Josh Widdicombe and the 2019 winner of Funny Women, the UK’s only national women-only comedy competition, Laura Smyth) and a menacingly diligent, low-fi approach to marketing that convinced me to cough up the £500 course fee.

Josh Widdicombe performs on the soap box stage during Kendal Calling 2019

The content is a mash-up of how to generate material, improvisation, “the business” and the all-important mic craft. Mic[rophone] craft, which includes how to hold a mic, speak into a mic and move a mic stand and not get tangled up in the wires, is to stand-ups as smoking fags and drinking Jack Daniel’s is to rock stars. Doing it well just makes you seem like you’re legit.

So it was that one rainy Tuesday evening, I went to a run-down university tower block in London Bridge. Welcome to comedy. Glamorous isn’t it?

Everyone seems to be recovering from something

There were 16 people on my course. Most were shifty-looking men. Everyone seemed to be recovering from something: from mental illness to redundancy to divorce. We were like an attention-seekers anonymous group. From the first exercise, the men were more confident, more sure of their material, more comfortable critiquing that of others and offering advice. The women were self-conscious, sometimes cripplingly so. But I felt at home in this crowd of weird, interesting people. I was hooked. I didn’t have to compensate, I could just be myself. Comedy, like all the writing disciplines, is a lonely task but some of the people I met on the course are now good friends.

Comedians can be really weird

The course ends with a “showcase” – your first five-minute set, performed for an invited audience of family and friends. I took the day off work to prepare. I drilled and drilled my material, remembering the notes I’d been given: slow down, listen to the audience, take in the whole room, relax. Relax! Sure, I’ll relax. I mean, OK COOL TOTALLY RELAXED NOW. I was put 13th on a bill of 16. There’s the relaxation right there. Two solid hours of pure torture. I paced around outside the venue in Baltic winds without a coat trying to slow my breathing. Sidebar: one of my coursemates used some of her precious five minutes of stage time to troll me personally. Comedians really can be weird. To my absolute astonishment, my set went brilliantly.


Fancy interiors are not de rigueur in amateur comedy

If you survive your first gig, you’ve got to face another. And another. There’s 300-400 open mic nights every week in London, so finding a gig to perform at is another world of admin. To help, there are shared Google Maps and spreadsheets, email notification forums, closed Facebook groups and tips from other comedians. My favourite nights are TNT in Kentish Town, organised by the charming Sarma Woolf; the line-up and energy are unfailingly good. G&B, run and MC’d by the brilliant Kyle Wallace, was described to me once as the most “woke” comedy night in London. But my advice is try a few to see where you fit in.

The business model of open mic nights remains a mystery. You won’t get paid, and nobody pays to come and watch you. There’s obviously the bar money, sometimes a raffle, quite often some ropey merch. Can it really all hang on the content of the bucket shaken on the door at the end?

No two gigs have the same booking process. The rules, the rules. There are so many rules. Often a gig will have a set of aggressively specific but wilfully vague and changeable rules. If you don’t follow them you can (and will) be barred from performing. If you have to cancel, you’ll be barred. If you’re late, you’ll be barred. If you don’t follow the rules of how to book a spot in the first place, you’ll be barred. One of the most important rules is that no matter when you perform, you MUST stay at the gig until the final act has performed. If you don’t do this? Sorry, you’re barred.

The majority of gigs are “bringers”. A bringer is a gig where you’re only allowed on stage if you bring someone with you. If you don’t bring someone, you won’t be going on stage. And you might get barred. To get the kind of stage time you need to improve, you need plenty of friends (or a dutiful partner) happy to silently drink themselves through an evening of possibly terrible comedy several times a week.

When you get to the gig, do not expect to find helpful information about, for example, when you might expect to be on stage, how you might find out when you’re required on stage, or how long you might have to be at the venue. Through trial and error, I have developed a cast-iron approach: arrive early and sit quietly.

Oh, and you must not bring your own food or drinks. Seriously. BYO is considered the height of rudeness in amateur comedy, an anarchic move. If you really have to eat, buy crisps.

Julie Grady Thomas performs at G&B Girl Power

Some of the people you’ll meet backstage include the hipster twenty-somethings with a romanticised, faux beatnik notion of the scene. Their material includes talking to their succulents, VEGANISM, being socially awkward and obviously, duh, dating. Then there are those with anxiety and depression (any age), people for whom doing stand-up is wincingly difficult but wildly affirming and cathartic. There are comedians of the school I like to call “European Quirks”, who are having a whale of a time post-Brexit. Their material is based around miscommunication gags, adjusting-to-London-life lolz and how stag-dos are ruining their home towns. You will also meet retired men who do entire sets of cringe-yourself-to-death puns and oblivious 1970s sexism.

Most pubs have a damp, weird, noisy, poorly lit (or eye-wateringly bright) function room tucked away somewhere in which they run one comedy one night a week. Fancy interiors are not de rigueur in amateur comedy. As a wannabe stand-up, you’ll be frequenting venues that may feature some or all of the following crimes against interior design: damp; fluorescent strip lighting or no lighting at all; a tacky floor or a wet floor; yellowing or inexplicably wet walls; boarded-up windows, chicken wire over windows or simply no windows; access routes that wouldn’t withstand a council health and safety inspection; and toilets so cold you have to put your coat back on to use them.

At one gig I was kettled backstage for almost three hours with nine other acts. Backstage was the corridor that joined the hotel kitchen to the upstairs restaurant. I worried about the plates of lasagne and nachos travelling at speed beneath a ceiling caked in black mould.

Comedy is a masochist’s game

Failing, like mindfulness, is very on trend but failing in comedy is nothing other than pain. Awful, excruciating pain. And it will happen to you, over and over. Comedians are odd-shaped people. You have to be comfortable with being extremely vulnerable. You can’t be cocky; you can’t be arrogant; anyone can die (on stage) at any moment. Then you have to be able it back down with a drink after to reflect objectively. It’s a real leveller. You must develop an objective and multidimensional approach to analyse why and how you smashed a gig or totally bombed.

Superstition is your friend if it means you can keep gigging. It’s important to remain on high alert – the tiniest thing can distract you. Being tired, hot, hungry, thirsty, late, receiving an unexpected text message, not knowing the material well enough or knowing it too well can all spell disaster. I threw away a whole outfit following a horrible gig because I decided an aggravating factor was that the sleeves made me feel weird.

And those are just the things you can control. The MC might be terrible. The chair layout might create an unsettling energy. Maybe the act before you was just too brilliant – that’s a dead-cert for bombing. There could be someone in the audience laughing too loud (sounds strange, but this does happen). The audience might be cold. Or there might be no audience at all.

But when you get a gig that goes well, it’s incredible. It’s more than affirming. The adrenalin is extreme. It is a wild privilege to share your take on the world with a group of people who laugh along in recognition.

Doug Stanhope performs onstage at Brixton Academy

Do whatever you need to do to recover. You are taken more seriously when you’ve netted 100 gigs and there’s a trope that if you just keep going you’ll make it after seven years. So after nursing your wounded ego, get back on it. Repeat steps 4-7 up to 500 times until you either give up or make it.

As for me, I’ve now done about 40 gigs. In my first year or so, I made the semi-finals of Amused Moose National New Comic competition and the quarter-finals in Funny Women. I haven’t yet gigged outside London, partly because I don’t have a car and partly because I also have a quite demanding full-time job. Venturing beyond Zone 3 is next on my agenda.

Resigned disappointment and sheer rage

Comedy is the crucible of identity politics and free speech, where raw, ill-advised remarks and clumsy cultural observations bubble in a cauldron of resigned disappointment and sheer rage. The fact that everyone is laughing (on a good day, at least) doesn’t make it any less important.

The demographic at the amateur level is largely millennial white men; between 70-100 per cent of pretty much every gig I’ve ever done or seen. The material ranges from witty takes on modern life to sensitive self-reflection to whole sets of one-liners (really guys?) and tone-deaf anger. I watched one act smash up the mic stand, a chair and a table in a tiny venue with a front row full of women “as an experiment”. Sure.

Turns out misogyny is alive and well on the stand-up circuit. I’ve sat through several “ironic” rape jokes, a call to bring back witch-burning and relentless low-level sexism. It wouldn’t be so bad if this sort of material didn’t go down so well. There are brilliant promoters who have clear guidelines on what material is acceptable, but they are the exception. More often than not, people of colour, LGBTQ+ acts, older people (especially older women) and people with disabilities are massively underrepresented.

It took me longer than it should have done to twig where all the female comics were. They’re conspicuously absent too. They were either never there to begin with or they’ve given up. They’re at work, looking after kids, or battling the Universal Credit labyrinth. Gigging three evenings a week for no money just isn’t feasible for most of us. Many are put off by fears for their personal safety. Nobody covers your travel costs so most have to use public transport. Walking down empty streets in dodgy parts of town at 11.30pm is not safe. In 2018, the Australian comedian Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered on her way home from a gig in Melbourne. There is no comedy union to protect comedians, no code of conduct, no shared information about incidents. According to industry press Chortle, one in four female comedians in the UK has been molested.

I have been the only woman in a 20-person line-up more than once. The gender imbalance in the line-up is reflected in the audience. One begets the other because when you’re playing to a room full of men some jokes just don’t land as well. Edgy and even friendly feminism is met with taut, awkward silence and blank stares. The comedians who “make it” are all pushed through this narrow talent funnel – the people who book you and the people you perform for. I want to smash things up when I see the next hotly tipped female comedian’s material is all dick jokes and watered-down feminism. But I get why it happens.

Hearing a ton of different female perspectives in one night is exhilarating

I feel like a minority doing stand-up. It’s uncomfortable and unnerving to be so outnumbered. And it’s worse for people of colour. There’s a handful of nights that showcase and support working-class comedians, female comedians, LGBTQ+ comedians and comedians of colour but they’re usually only once every few months. Funny Women’s Time of the Month, G&B Girlpower, FOC it Up and Sikisa aka Twix’s Stand Up 4 Women are all great nights to catch a diverse line-up. I’ve had some of my best gigs in women-only line-ups. Hearing a ton of different female perspectives in one night is exhilarating and refreshing. Tear-jerking, even.

London Hughes performs at the Latitude Festival

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty about the circuit that I love. Seeing acts before they’re mainstream is like being let in on a brilliant secret. Watching (or doing) amateur comedy will unceremoniously yank you out of your echo chamber. Truly, I recommend it.

But the game seems rigged at all levels of the industry. Backstage, it’s the dark ages (or at least the late 80s). Which is ironic when the work on stage hinges on being current and vital. I have come to accept and understand that it takes seven years (seven years!) to make it as a comedian. It’s a cryptically complex craft that yields results only from sheer bloody-minded resilience. Can I face seven years of damp basements, late nights and rape jokes to make it? It’s the only way.

Portraits David Bebber for Tortoise, other photographs Getty Images

Further reading

Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks reveals the real craft behind making it as a comedy writer.

Tina Fey’s laugh out loud autobiography Bossy Pants covers everything from backstage shenanigans to the politics of Saturday Night Live.

Published after his death, Last Words by George Carlin is a candid, retrospective account of one of America’s greatest comedians.

Spectacles by Sue Perkins is both a hilarious and moving memoir by the much loved comedian, writer and presenter.

John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway… takes readers from his humble beginnings to his early comedic days at Cambridge University to his worldwide renown.