Have I got new for you...

Simon O'Keefe on the perils of flagging up new material

As a comedian, one of the biggest thrills I get is when I do something new on stage and it kills. It goes without saying that this does not happen every time – far from it. For every round of applause there's a room of blank expressions, for every mediocre action, there's a mediocre reaction. But for me, it’s one of the most fun but important aspects of an enjoyable job that I take seriously. So why do so many comedians shoot themselves in the foot while they're doing it?

One of my biggest bugbears as a comedian, promoter and comedy-goer is when an act, sometimes at the very start of their set, says. ‘I'm going to try some new stuff…’ Often followed by: ‘So if it doesn't work you know why, and I'll do some old stuff later.’

Most punters know we're doing largely prepared material on stage, but you don't need to tell them. It's like when a girlfriend asks you if her old pair of jeans make her look fat. She knows they make her look fat, she just wants to pretend they don't, and be happy.

You're basically saying to the audience: ‘This new material probably won't be any good, and often I'll be going through the motions with the old material.’

I don't subscribe to the arbitrary comedy law that new equals bad and old equals good. This only pans out when you get your excuses in first and instill a lack of confidence in the audience. But if the audience think it's just something else you happen to be talking about, well then the new material has a fighting chance to flourish.

It would be ludicrous to have a go at comedians doing Edinburgh previews, where you need notes on stage and are obliged to let people know what to expect. Or huge acts like Dylan Moran doing an entire set of new material when they are putting a new tour together. And if you're expecting slick, polished performances at an open mike night then you're missing the point.

But I can never understand why I see so many seasoned comedians at good clubs die on stage because of how they presented their new material. They waste a set, think their new stuff isn't any good and go home grumpy and sick of their older stuff. Maybe it's a fear of failure, maybe it's a lack of confidence that sometimes comes from relying too heavily on an existing set.

Other acts who do a new bit only tell the audience that it was new when it doesn't work. The longer the bit, the bigger the letdown for all when it doesn't hit and the more likely you are to encounter this excuse.

I am as guilty of perpetrating this as anyone. But it's like saying to the audience ‘it's not you, it's me’. I even tried doing a joke about this excuse only being found in comedy, that no other profession, such as surgeons, could even hope to get away with it. It never worked, the only people who ever laughed were the other comedians.

There is also a hazy middle ground, too. A joke does OK and you say, ‘Come see me next week and I'll have that joke perfect’ or a routine does great, but has no ending, in which case making an excuse can often get a decent laugh.

When new stuff works for me I feel brilliant. When it doesn't I feel like an idiot. So why would you stack the odds against you? You wouldn't turn up to a job interview in a Liverpool shirt and flip-flops. Unless you're an idiot.

Published: 5 Jan 2009

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