Six minutes to live or die

New Zealand-based English comic Diane Spencer offers tips to the rookies

The fat rookie in a custom-built Stormtrooper’s outfit, complete with snug codpiece, strode onstage with about one minute of material and stood there for six, explaining that he did not know what to say. Had the audience been English I fear there would have been blood spilt. The Kiwi audience however, went from amused, to embarrassed, to cringingly awkward, then hysterical as their social restraint and politeness popped out the other side of the collective pressure valve to create laughter, as the theory goes. Six minutes, and he just about got away with it. But what a shoddy way to start.

Watching raw comedy nights it is interesting to note how many rookies do not make the effort to time themselves beforehand. There are levels of anal retentiveness one could reach, speaking ‘a joke’ out loud can take 10 seconds including the laugh, which would equal six jokes in one minutes, or 36 for a six minute spot – the usual time for an open-mic comic here in New Zealand. This is probably extreme, but in case you overrun that’s what the little red light is for (often improvised with a mobile phone for pub gigs).

Some other tips for the rookie: Write your own material. It may seem easier to paraphrase a popular comedian, or deliver some amusing thing you’ve read in an email, but please don’t. If you wish people to laugh at you for that, then entertain your mates at the pub, because if you seriously want to be a stand-up, then you’ll quickly find that not writing your own material means you haven’t got the goods and you can’t sustain yourself in the industry anyway.

Find out now whether you’ve got it or not, but don’t start by cheating yourself and the audience. There are plenty of books available to the budding comedian, which are good from a theory point of view, but don’t get bogged down or follow them verbatim. If something makes you laugh, then take your idea, shape it into something you can communicate to someone else. Buy a dictaphone, listen to yourself, be brutal. Take the six minutes and don’t be afraid of using the same six minutes for six months, whilst you develop your next set.

Structure – try to start with three quick jokes, one-liners if you have them, which don’t take too long to get to the punchline. The structure of a six minute comedy piece varies comedian to comedian but with one liner, one liner, one liner, longer story and repeat, then the over-arching idea that you’re A/B material comes first, then your C material, then ending with A/B material again you can’t go far wrong. The new jokes are peppered lightly in between, theoretically unnoticeable, and in a perfect place to be test driven.

Inside the green room, behaviour by brand new would-be comedians, is often far more hilarious than anything they achieve onstage, but it is the hollow laughter of gallows humour preceding social death.

A drama graduate announced that a television producer was going to spot him doing his comedy ’thang’(oh yes), then he would get a job presenting music TV – at which point he dribbled off into a hazy fantasy of champagne, red carpets, camera flashes and a herd of television producers patting him on the head while his school bullies sat in sackcloths with cancer of the vocal cords. The MC politely pointed out that it may take a while for that to happen, if it ever will in New Zealand, where the comedy ‘circuit’ is more like a garden path with a veggie patch at the end of it. He responded that he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be doing these sorts of unpaid nights very long, and maybe we were all doing something wrong. It’s the syndrome where someone believes they’re living in a house with five dickheads, not realising they are the biggest dick around. Incidentally, he did three minutes and ran off. Haven’t seen him on MTV yet.

Rookie comedians who try to be mysterious, who try to create an atmosphere around them by being condescending to their fellow performers and sometimes, (heaven forbid) the MC who then says ‘here comes a guy who was a complete cock in the green room, I hope he dies on his arse’, only serve to create a stink that no one wants to be near. It’s comedy leprosy.

If two comics backstage are having a particularly amusing conversation, they may be potentially riffing with each other - whipping out your notepad and asking them to repeat themselves is daylight robbery, literally and likely to cause many conversations to happen away from you. Please do not invite your friend, your mother and the person you want to fuck into the green room, just to show them that you can go backstage. It is a place where many people swirl in the darkness of their own paranoia, trying to keep hold of the blinding moments of light that will bring laughter and warmth to 150 strangers. Having you throw your ‘backstage pass’ around will only be a distraction and might cause repercussions if someone really has had a bad day, can’t concentrate and then has a terrible gig.

Don’t worry but you’ll probably shit yourself. There is such a thing as a pre-gig dump. This is a popular action,some sort of fight-or-flight response. Many comedians now know that should a huge grizzly bear rear up to attack them, all they need do is imagine having six hen nights out there, and they’ll have plenty of ammo to fling in said bear’s eyes, then be ultra light for the running part.

Before you actually walk onstage, and you’re waiting for the MC to stop stretching out their material, you may feel like you’re going to vomit, or shit yourself, or wee yourself, or just collapse into a pile of sobbing jelly that has no bones or muscles (even writing this I’m having contractions). It is unlikely any of those things will happen. Post-gig, do not worry, someone will offer their opinion – if you had a blinding gig, try not to ask every single person how it went, somebody will tell you how damn good you were. If you died, don’t be offended if people do not speak to you; they understand your pain but still do not know how to deal with it.

Anyone can try to be a comedian, but just because it is easier to get onto an open mic night than a seven-year doctorate in eyeball surgery, it does not mean you should treat it with any less reverence or sense of achievement once you have accomplished it.

Please, be original with your material; be patient, polite and kind with your fellow comics; and be hilarious with your audience.

Published: 27 Mar 2009

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