Darren Maskell's recent Correspondents piece Let's Take Out The Trash asserts that the ‘London open mic circuit is bloated’, and that he'd like to see ‘a list of comics that need to be culled’. Maskell argues that the scene is ‘too supportive’ and has created a glut of untalented, ‘delusional’ performers. Perhaps his diagnosis is true in part, but I must strongly disagree with his prescription.
Comedy is not a skill one learns from a handbook, or a Wikihow tutorial. Like any performing art, it is only learned through trial and error – probably mostly error. Painfully, the only place to gain this experience is on stage, and the first place a comedian takes those baby steps into the spotlight are at open mic nights.
I love London’s open mic community. In fact, I came back to London, one of the world's most expensive, polluted and rainy cities simply to be a part of it. I grew up in Brisbane, Australia, where there were four open mic nights a week, all run by a single club. These were set in pubs where the bar and the stage were in the same room, and the audience did not pay to get in. Often they were not even aware that comedy was going on that night.
Now, does greater quantity translate to greater quality? Not necessarily. But greater quantity does mean greater opportunity. However, this opportunity is open to everyone, no matter what their skill level. The clue's in the title: ‘open’ mic.
This means that there are acts on the circuit that, had they been on a smaller circuit with fewer opportunities, may have given up earlier. There are also open mic acts who may feel that because they are able to get stage time with ease, may feel this validates them and what they do. However, this is not the fault of other acts not going up to them and telling them bluntly what they really think, but rather a problem with their own method of self assessment.
The problem of the incompetent being unaware of their lack of ability is not by any means restricted to the world of comedy. Psychology even has a name for it: the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s quite a fascinating concept, and not one I could adequately unpack here, but the crux of it is this: Those most highly skilled tend to be modest in their evaluation of themselves, while those least competent overestimate their abilities. That is to say, telling a hack that they’e hack will often only make them more stubborn in their denial.
Feedback of any kind, positive or negative, rarely has a lasting effect when it’s unsolicited. If you really want brutal, honest feedback, it’s much better to ask a good friend than to expect it from strangers, who have no vested interest in whether you improve or stagnate. But that's the smaller of the two points I want to make here.
The open mic nights in Brisbane had a very apt name: the Comedy Nursery. Just like you wouldn't go into a pre-school recital and pull a child aside to berate them and ask them to kindly leave performance to their more talented peers, overly harsh criticism will not improve the open mic circuit.
Comedians need time to develop, just like children maturing into adults. They will hopefully learn from their mistakes and those around them, maturing to the next stage in comedy in due course. Or they will stay in nursery forever. Which seems like ample punishment in itself.
To reiterate, I don't think that Maskell is necessarily wrong about the London open mic scene. It is ‘bloated’. It has ‘delusional’ performers. It is extremely positive and supportive, but that's not what’s wrong with the scene.
In the end, if you're funny, you’re funny, and you’ll learn the skills necessary to go to the next level, and it’s none of your business the relative success or failure of others. Perhaps what the open mic circuit needs is not a culling of performers. What we really need is a better dose of self-perspective. After all, for now, we're just kids at play. We can worry about taking out the trash and the other household chores when we grow up.