You don't have to be arrogant and bitchy to be a stand-up

...but it helps, says Sean Mason

The other day, my friend Sally said she worried about what becoming a comedian would do to her as a person.

Now I hope she doesn't mind this description, but she is a very loud presence, an extrovert, slightly mad, but people can't help but warm to her instantly. She already has the confidence to succeed as a comedian and I know she will.

But there are things that doing stand-up can do to you.

For one it makes you more arrogant, there's a ‘holier than thou’ attitude that comedians can adopt when referring to the audience, or the punters, or the lesser mortals addled by their alcohol and inferior intelligences. This is a natural development, a thick skin to protect our fragile egos. It's also a psychological demand: the comedian has to present themself as the dominant voice in the room, or people will stop listening and even worse start chattering. Audiences can smell fear.

Also, there's nothing like the buzz of a gig going well – and so what if enjoying your success makes you a little cocky? So long as that cockiness doesn't spread to an assumption that people will instantly find you funny. I remember the first time I had a bad gig after a run of great gigs. It'll knock you on you arse and you'll stay there until you gig again.

The other week at a gig in Manchester, a very drunk and opinionated punter approached us comedians and repeatedly told us how his friends always said he was funny and that’s why he wanted to give comedy a go.

I was very supportive in my advice. But honestly, I wanted him to fail. Because there's a difference between friends thinking you're funny and doing a decent stand up routine.

Comedians don't seem to like the idea that just any fucker can have a go, even though, well, anyone can. But there is a fear of a bad open spot making it onto the scene, no one wants to encourage that. That guy’s first gig – if he ever does it – might go OK, but it would be interesting to see how his second gig goes; the one without all his friends there to make him think he did well.

There it is. There's the arrogance, the assumption that this guy will be shit. For all I know he was just a bit drunk. God, I imagine I was something of a wanker when I started out - because you're trying to develop a presence that matches that of the comedians you're talking to. You want to be seen as one of those people that you look up to.

It's all psychology. It's about trying to fit in, to establish, ‘Yes, I have every right to stand on this stage and make people listen to me’. To say, ‘Yes, I have had a series of successful gigs, I would like to pursue paid work.’ Without it, you'll never progress.

There's also a certain level of bitchiness and cliqueness within stand-up. That's not to say that we're not supportive of each other or that none of us get along. But we have our water cooler moments. Our water cooler is the car home after a gig.

And there is a fine level of backhandedness that goes on about some promoters and acts. Having said that every office has its fair share of tossers to complain about, it’s just that the comedian's office covers the entire country.

I love being a comedian. I love the sense of confidence it gives, even if it sometimes comes across as wankery. I love the camaraderie, despite all the bitching that can go on - some of the best nights out I've had have been drinking with other comics. I love meeting new people, all of whom are slightly mad (you have to be to want to do stand up). And for all my ego I'm still terribly self-aware. The confidence, the self-esteem are both vital to performance, but the ego needs to be tempered.

Stand-up changes you. You have to develop a thicker skin to be able to do it. But it's up to you to decide how you let it change you.

Published: 19 Jun 2009

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