OK … here’s what I’ve learned so far about stand-up. It’s f***ing hard. I’d almost given up. I’m probably still giving up. In fact, I’ll probably always, almost be giving up. But I’ve promised to participate at a SUCK event again this coming Saturday in Barcelona, so I can’t give up until at least Sunday.
On the Logan Murray course, we were told that the secret of stand-up comedy is to ‘persevere’ and that ‘if you keep performing, you will get better’. I’m not sure about that second bit. I ‘kept performing’ in New York but the second ‘performance’ was such a nightmare, I didn’t dare try a third. But I guess what they mean is ‘practise makes perfect’. Or the “6 P’s” as Frank Blunt calls it: Perfect Practise Prevents Piss-Poor Performance … or something like that.
But for how long should one keep persevering? That is the question …
Logan said something about the difference between a stand-up comedian and someone who isn’t a stand-up comedian, is that the person who isn’t a stand-up comedian gave up.
Louis C.K., the stand-up star of the moment, is 45. I read a New York Times interview with him the other day in which he said, ‘It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this – and by “new at it”, I mean 15 years in, or even 20 – you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.” That’s Louis C.K., remember, who’s 45, and who’s been doing stand-up for some 28 years.
I am 52 and 364 days old.
I then recently read another interview ‘conversation’ between Steve Martin and David Walliams in the April edition of British GQ. Walliams asks Martin how long it took him to find his own comedy style. ‘At least ten years,’ says Martin. From what age? ‘I would say 18, when I got out of high school. Then I did stand up for 18 years. I’d say that ten of those years were spent learning and four years were spent refining.’ Steve Martin is 67. (I repeat – I am already 52 and 364 days old).
When I was doing an open-mic comedy night in London during February, a girl comedian congratulated me and asked me how long I’d been doing it. I explained it was my 12th attempt. ‘Jeeeeez,’ she said. ‘I’ve been doing it for 5 years. They say we all have to do at least 10 years before we’ll be any good … ’ At the time, I thought she was nuts. But I now understand what she meant.
John Bishop is 46. Born November 1966, he performed stand-up comedy for the first time in October 2000 … so I calculate he would have still been ‘just’ 33. Six years later (let’s say aged 39), he became a full-time comedian. Three years later, 2009 (aged 42) he appeared on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and his career went into the stratosphere. I repeat: I’m 52 and 364 days old, so he already had 10 years on me when his career hit that stratosphere …
So, what am I doing and why? I don’t know, but I enjoy it. I actually see stand-up as an extension of writing – another form of expression – instead of waiting to have something published on paper or electronically, you get the chance to spiel your thoughts out loud (whether anyone laughs or not). I’m learning a lot – about comedy, about myself, about writing, about being patient and impatient, about a lot of stuff. But why I ever thought that stand-up comedy would be easy, or something you could pick up quickly, God only knows. I’ve learned that it is probably the hardest form of ‘entertainment’. I have respect for every single wannabe comedian I have met on the circuit to date – and even more whose careers have already hit the stratosphere (or are well on the ladder to it). And Louis C.K.’s comments (I can hear him saying, ‘What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute’) about young musicians seeking instant fame are spot on. Learning the craft of stand-up has to be the same (if not harder) as any other ‘art’ form: learning the piano, learning to paint, learning to write, learning to sing, dance, act, direct a movie, do sculpture, sketch cartoons, take beautiful photographs … it goes on and on. What right did I have to think it would be any different to any other art form? I’ve been writing since I was 16. It took me 30 years to get a book published. I wrote 4 (unpublished) novels before the age of 23. I have hundreds of rejections. I’ve written 25 drafts of a screenplay that has been ‘in development’ on and off for 8 years. I write something every day. I read. I practise. I re-write. In front of me on my desk where I am writing right now, there is a message that says: ‘Joe Eszterhas wrote Basic Instinct at 48. Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for Gosford Park at 52. Don’t give up.’ Stand-up should be no different … but I admit that I have only just realised that. So, no, I won’t give up. I will give the craft of stand-up the time and the respect that it deserves. My birthday present to myself is to find the time to keep practising, performing and learning (and writing about it – on top of everything else), even though I will probably be senile by the time I finally suss it all out … if I’m not senile already.
Something I want and need to work on quickly, therefore, is how to combine ‘storytelling’ with ‘one-liners’. The reason I need to combine them is because I’m definitely not a one-liner guy … I love stories … but I’ve also learned that telling a story at a dinner party or to mates in the pub is very different to telling it on stage in front of 100 strangers. If they don’t laugh, you’re dead … and it hurts.
To pick up the thread from the last blog, it was Friday Nov 2nd last year, the night before I’d been invited to perform in Barcelona’s SUCK ‘Stand Up Comedy Kills’ at Las Cuevas del Sorte (same place as this Saturday). It would be my 6th attempt at trying stand-up and I’d decided that I had to come up with some new material as I’d already thrashed my bee-sting spiel to death in New York and Barcelona. That same week, I’d been to Paris for my day-job and suffered the worst attack of man-flu on the flight over, whilst squashed between two huge, snoring Spaniards on a Vueling flight. I had no tissues or anything with me … it was hideous … and it all got steadily worse after arriving at Orly airport, too. But I laughed at myself, and thought I could use it for the stand-up on Saturday. I wanted to try and continue to tell true stories, things that had happened or were happening to me. I hadn’t really written or rehearsed anything, though – I just knew what I wanted to relate. That night, though, there were a few of us out for tapas, it turned in to a late night, I met someone (totally gorgeous), we went on to a club, I lost my keys, but I then had to spend the night at a friend’s flat and use his egg-cups as contact lens pots … and I thought, maybe this is even funnier than having man-flu in Paris … (to be continued)