Friends... or guinea pigs?

Blake Anderson on testing your new material on mates

It may be possible that in the future, technological advances will have created a machine capable of giving an objective reading of a stand-up routine. Simply enter the material and after a few seconds of computing, out comes the feedback: Good pullback and reveals. Loses a little energy after the rape gag. Needs more dick jokes.

But until then, there is no getting round the necessity of going and testing material in front of a live audience. It’s the best way of finding out whether punchlines land or crash and if there is any extraneous material in need of trimming.

However, there also exists the pre-test test, a way of gauging a reaction before a crowd of strangers passes judgment. This is where a comedian’s mates come in great use. Not only will your friends come along to Blobby Comedy Night at the Dog and Rose on a wet Wednesday or pull you out of the path of oncoming traffic after a bad gig, but they will also give you a good indication of a joke’s worth.

However, there are a few rules by which to do it well and to get the most out of the exchange.

First, be subtle. First up is the ethical issue of using your friends as guinea pigs. These are people you will have known for a long time and put their trust in you. But now they are simply lab rats for jokes about paedophiles. If you’re going to drop a line in, do it carefully and within the framework of any ongoing conversation. Otherwise you will end up look like a bit of a twit when you crash a conversation about the merits of the sweeper system with your riff on Iggy Pop’s insurance ads.

Timing is also important. If your friend has just come in from a hard day’s work, the last thing they want to hear is ‘What’s the deal with people who ring into radio phone-in shows?’ Similarly, funerals and scenes of road traffic accidents are probably not in the place for a series of one-liners, no matter how polished you think they are.

Second, choose your audience carefully. To get the best results, you need the friend whom you would consider to be the most even-tempered. It does not matter if your sense of humour do not mix, a good line or an acute observation will raise a smile whatever kind of comedy people are into. The key is to get a considered reaction to whatever you put out.

Don’t go for the friend who laughs at anything as you won’t get a proper idea of how good a joke is. Similarly, don’t try out material on the friend who is in a perpetual state of depression or who always takes things literally. This will only destroy your confidence.

Lastly, put any feedback in perspective. Any joke made should feel part of a normal conversation. In the same way that if a joke goes badly in a set, it’s never a good idea to dwell on it. When with friends, it’s hard to excuse slamming a table, throwing your arms in the air and exclaiming, ‘What? You didn’t find that funny? But that honestly was the teachers! That was what they were really like!’ Carrying on in this way will quickly leave you with no friends to try stuff out on.

Pick up where they laughed, note the parts that were marked with silence and adjust the material accordingly. Although this sounds like the exact same thing any comedian would do when presenting new material, the benefit of practicing it on a friend means that any flaws or strengths are accentuated.

In addition, there is the benefit of presenting potential jokes to people who have your best interests at heart. These are people who do not want to see you look stupid in front of others. This is why they will tell you things that no crowd will, giving you a word of advice rather than a crowd’s glare of angry silence. Instead of displaying barely concealed outrage, your mates will furrow their brow, grimace slightly and say, ‘You probably shouldn’t say those sorts of things about Anne Frank.’

But also, feel free to ignore all of this and simply say: ‘Brian, I’ve come up with this material, let me know what you think…’

Published: 4 Dec 2009

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