Advice for new stand-ups

Competition entrant Peter Merrett shares his experiences

I wrote the following advice for a friend due to do his first stand-up gig at the Laughing Horse new act competition, which I entered two years ago:

If you don't already, watch some of your favourite stand ups, on DVD and live on stage where possible. As well as listening to the material (no pinching!) watch their mannerisms, the way they hold the mic, walk about the stage, change the mic between hands and look at their hands/watches... Picture yourself up there.

Once you have settled on your material, write it onto cards or paper. I prefer cards, as you can jiggle about the routine and change little bits/words or rewrite the whole cards without ruining everything. In Frank Skinner’s first book, he says he handwrites his stand-up material, while using computer for stuff like sitcoms and books.

Get yourself a recording machine and a stopwatch. Record yourself practising your routine in your room, in front of a mirror. Try one fast, and then once slowed down, see what feels right for you, and time both versions. When I entered two years ago, I didn't have the facility to film on my phone, but I do now, so consider that option or minimum a voice recorder.

Listen back to the routine and make any changes, add words you may think make impact, take any away you think are superfluous.

Once you've practised a few more times using your cards or listening/watching your recording, write the subject headers onto your hand and perform the routine without the cards. You’re not a proper new act if you don't write on your hand...

I used to recite my material at least once while jogging round the park. The timing was off but it turned out to be a spur for me as I forced myself to run until I'd finished the material.

I hadn't done many gigs when I competed, (and I didn't qualify) but one of the guys I spoke to on the night, it was his actual first gig. New act competition doesn't mean you should never have performed before!! Ten years ago, Time Out was the London comedy circuit bible and is still useful, but nowadays you of course have infinite more resources on the internet, including Chortle. So scour the listings for some open mic/try out nights.

As your gig is less than a month away, avoid The Comedy Cafe on Wednesday nights, they book around three months ahead as do Downstairs at the Kings Head, but you could try their website. Up The Creek also get four times as many applications as they have spaces.

Of course, the Laughing Horse themselves offer open spots for new acts at their regular nights. It may even be worth going along to the venue where you will perform in the new act heat.

I wouldn't normally recommend doing the Gong Show at the Comedy Store until you’re more established, but if you do it a week before the Laughing Horse heat, treat it separately from the other warm-up gigs. You may not last five minutes as the crowd will be baying for blood and different from most audiences you will encounter early in your career. Have a few heckle putdowns on cards as well that you practise alongside your material – just in case!

I was lucky that I already helped out on the door for a regular night and got two warm up gigs there. Another I picked up was literally at the end of my street and I answered the promoter’s request on Chortle forums for extra chairs (he'd booked Richard Herring, the venue was sparse on chairs and my landlord was throwing two out as he refurbished the flat). I'm sure I would have got a gig with the venue anyway at some point but the chair speeded things up.

You could also offer to flyer for gigs in return for stage time, just an hour or so on the night of a gig. Some more established nights will pay for flyering, but other times you won't get a payment, just stage time and hopefully a pint for your troubles. The bigger crowd the better your material will go down.

If you get some warm-up gigs, record these as well, when you listen back you can note what punchlines are getting laughs and which ones are bombing. Of course, the more gigs the better for you to judge this over.

Should you drink on the night of the gig? I'd say in moderation. One or two for courage, but not too many that you'll forget your routine at this early stage of your career. You might find that you have to wait an hour, then an interval, before you get on, so if you are drinking pace yourself. You maybe asked to turn up at 7pm, but not performing until 10.30pm. That would be tough, but in a competition there is nothing you can do about the running order except hope for the best.

Good luck and don't forget to thank me when you win the first prize in three months time...

Published: 30 Jan 2009

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