You’re excited. It’s Friday night and all week you’ve been looking forward to performing. You booked the gig weeks ago and other comedians who’ve done it tell you the audience is great and you’ll love it. You’ve even pushed yourself a little bit and written a new joke or two, the elation is intoxicating. The whole drive there you’re going over the material in your head, preparing yourself for the inevitable applause breaks from the hundreds of semi sober punters clapping your cleverness.
(No stop come on guys oh go on then just 3 more minutes of applause!)
You pull up to the postcode the promoter has given you. This can’t be right can it? This doesn’t look big enough to house the seething masses you’ve been told attend this venue. You glance across the street hoping to see the neon signs of Geoff’s Comedy Extravaganza but the burnt out husk of a Ford Capri stares at you sadly. Appearances can be deceiving, never judge a book by its cover and all that, inside it could have a specifically designed music hall and multi million pound sound system. You push open the cracked door of The Drum and Dog hoping for a sudden explosion of crowd noise. You’re greeted by a half blind farmer, a barman and two sick greyhounds. The barman says “Hi, I’m Geoff! glad you could make it! We’ve got a much bigger crowd this week Old Terry had to bring his other dog too!”. Disappointment hits you like a Miley Cyrus mounted wrecking ball. You can’t possibly do well at this gig, can you?
(So you want us to stand actually on the snooker table right?)
The answer is you can. When I was starting out I did hundreds of these gigs across the UK, all new comedians do, always for free and always just to get some performance time. It was disheartening because I immediately thought “what’s the point?” but this is a guide for new comedians just to give some tips on how to use small gigs to your advantage.
1. A gig’s a gig – You got booked for a gig, that means other people applied and didn’t get the spot you applied for. It may not seem like much but you should be proud of the fact that someone chose you to perform at their venue. When you think of it like that you’ve already got one audience member you know wants you there.
2. New material – small gigs are the best for improving new material or honing your better set pieces. The setting is so intimate that you can physically see what impact your material is having on the individuals in that audience. So what if there’s only 4 people there? You’ll have to work a bit harder but it’ll feel better when you win them over.
3. Practise MCing – this is an excellent opportunity to practise talking to the audience and using things they say to make up material on the fly. There’s 4 people there you can get through them quickly enough, you may even have material that relates back to what they’re saying. If that’s the case you’ll look like a master comedian and suddenly you’re a hero. When people are so close they can taste your eyes they tend to feel obliged to respond to any questions they get asked.
4. Ask the audience – Be they the bar manager, the promoter or the blind farmer talk to all of them through the night. You don’t know which of them is going to be able to give you an opportunity in the future. The promoter may end up running all of the corporate bookings for Virgin’s Christmas parties, he’ll remember the guy who was friendly and confident when he was starting out. The farmer may be the guy who rents out his fields to a huge festival and one of the caveats is they have to book you to host the comedy stage, all because you told him you hoped his dogs got better. BOOM.
(or got his daughter pregnant by accident. Either way a gig’s a gig)
5. Don’t be lazy – Just because there’s 4 people there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t perform anything but the best. The other guys on the bill are watching your performance too and again you never know when one of them is going to run their own gig or need someone to support them on their first tour.
6. Be enthusiastic – If you’re excited about performing and showing that energy on stage it’ll be infectious. No matter how many people are watching you they’re going to get on board if they think you’re genuinely excited to be there. For them this is their only night out and they’ve got themselves all doled up and got a babysitter so give them the experience they’ve been expecting not a self obsessed ego rant about how small the place is and how you should have stayed at home, remember you’re there doing a job so do it properly.
7. Support the other acts – You love it when you hear people laughing at your stuff and you’re performing so why should that be any different when someone else is on stage. A small gig can seem bigger if all the acts are getting involved too. Laugh loudly, clap at the best bits and reply when the guy on stage asks a question after all it IS a comedy night and why shouldn’t you have some fun too. Same goes for when they come off stage, talk to them about their set, let them know how much you liked it and genuinely enjoy the show.
(No you were funnier! No you were! No you were! Yes actually you’re right I was)
8. Have fun – Sounds stupid but this is your hobby enjoy doing it, be positive about the experience and don’t focus on the negatives. Try things you wouldn’t normally do in other shows like silly voices, character pieces or poems. It’s a perfect time to try something you’ve always wanted to do but never had the opportunity to.
9. Thank them – People aren’t stupid, they can see that 3 guys and a duck isn’t an audience. It’s the setting for a new american sitcom. They’ll appreciate the courtesty if you thank them for the opportunity and thank the audience for taking the time to come out. If those 3 guys tell their friends and bring families next time the gig is going to grow. The duck can fuck off.
10. Be realistic – sometimes a gig just isn’t going to work. I once showed up to a gig with 9 other comics in the middle of the West Midlands and they’d advertised it for a different night. There was literally just the promoter there. In this scenario there’s not much we you can do as a comedian so the lot of us decided to have a bit of a laugh and a workshop. We ended up doing each other’s material and enjoying the night. There are some shows you just can’t perform at and telling the promoter, in a friendly and helpful way, how to improve the gig will probably get you on better terms with him. If you help him make the gig into something bigger and better next time you come back you’ll be playing to a much better room.
There you have it 10 tips for new comics to help do well and enjoy small gigs. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and let me know if it’s helped you with your performance. Don’t tell me if it’s aroused your sexual desire though, there’s somethings I don’t want to know.