Why all new comics should be punched in the face...

That would ensure they were on form, says Norman Cho

Learning stand-up is not like doing a university degree. There are no benchmarks you need to achieve nor timeframes in which to achieve them. In stand-up, idiosyncrasy and the unique are things to be treasured, and that the gestation period for a fully-formed comedian to emerge could be five gigs or 500 gigs. No matter what kind of material we come up with, we are really working with stuff that is buried deep within our own psyches and that can take some time to process.

Although I have lived in Britain for 25 years and consider myself pretty much part of the furniture, I cannot escape the fact that I am mostly, but not entirely, Chinese, and grew up in Singapore. When I look back through the gigs that I have done, I realise now how many insecurities and how much cultural baggage I was humping around from gig to gig. It is only now that I realise how much therapy I was doing on stage.

But still a gig can be a wake-up call. For me it came in gig 94, which took place in a South London venue called Chez Manny on a Tuesday night. The problem with the performance was not that I died – we all do – but that I could have prevented it, and I was angry at myself for that.

I have read more than one pro act slating comics on the open mic circuit. Oddly enough, one complaint I have not come across, but probably the most important, is the lack of professionalism. When I was doing a stand-up comedy course, one of the instructors was forever emphasising the importance of using your best material at all times and treating the gigs seriously because you never knew who might be watching. For all you know, the controller of BBC One might be in the audience lapping up your material – or otherwise.

The whole point of comedy at any level, whether it is the humblest new act night or a sold-out stadium is to entertain the audience. Now you would expect more from a hardcore professional on a Saturday night at Wembley Arena than you would from someone doing their very first gig. But the one thing that they should have in common is to have properly prepared for their performances.

I wandered into my 94th gig after a heavy day at work simply because I wanted to add another gig to my tally and have a night out. I somehow believed that the god of comedy would slap me on the arse and turn my meandering set into comedy gold. To the surprise of no one, that failed to happen. I left the venue that night feeling that I had let myself down but most importantly the audience.

New act nights have a variety of legitimate purposes. It is perfectly fine to try new material out on a night like this one. Promoters realise you have to hone you craft somewhere and as long as you start and end with some bankers, your professionalism and stagecraft should still make it an enjoyable experience for the audience.

If you are starting out, then, by definition, everything you do constitutes new material and your responsibility to the audience is simply to be properly rehearsed and prepared. I have, in the past, too often skimped on preparation, just wandered into a gig on the off-chance because I felt like it.  Audiences also know that for £3, you are unlikely to be catching Jimmy Carr on the bill.

This is where I draw the analogy with amateur boxing. I had a mercifully brief career as a boxer. After a couple of pretty serious beatings in the ring I quit, knowing I did not have the strength or the reflexes for it.

But in the run-up to both bouts, I prepared meticulously. I ran for miles every day, watched everything I ate, worked out in the gym, and sparred repeatedly against opponents of all sizes and abilities. Why? Because I knew that I could be badly hurt if I skimped on the preparation. Boxers, pro and amateur, do not just wander into a boxing ring just because they feel like it, because if you do you are likely to end up being punched in the face repeatedly by a better prepared opponent. In a professional fight, you could end up suffering permanent brain damage.

This is the problem with the open mic circuit. There are no minimum entry standards – nor should there be, as how can you tell who will eventually go on to become a brilliant act. But, crucially, there is also no swift and painful retribution for sloppy performances.

Comedy audiences are fickle creatures and what work one night can fall flat on another. Pro acts know better than to turn in a bad performance because they have to pay the bills. Acts still doing the open mic circuit suffer less immediate consequences because we usually hold down day jobs and the most we can realistically expect is a random member of the audience to amble up to us and congratulate us on a job well done.  For this reason, I admit that I have not always taken the gigs as seriously as I should have.  From conversations I have had with other comics, I know that I am not alone in this.

I left gig 94 angry and disappointed with myself. I felt that I had let myself down. More importantly, I felt that I let the audience down. Once money changes hands, once someone agrees to give up their time to watch you perform, there is an obligation on you to prepare properly and do your best. But I just wandered in and attempted to wing it. I died and deserved to die.

I have turned in worse performances than I did that night and felt less bad. This was because I prepared thoroughly, showed up early, and did my level best to entertain the audience.  Sometimes, it just does not go your way and there is no shame in that.

All comics starting out are told to gig as often as possible. But that does not mean stumble in to a gig on the off-chance and busk it. If the consequences of not taking your work seriously meant getting punched in the face repeatedly, there would probably be a much smaller open mic circuit, but a much better one.

I did my first gig for Mirth Control a couple of weeks ago. It was in a theatre in front of an audience of 900. I acquitted myself well. I also prepared carefully and properly. I got to the venue on time and ensured I was in the right frame of mind. When I went on, I was pumped and ready. There might have been fewer people in the audience of gig 94, and they might have paid less, but they had a right to expect a similar standard of professionalism. I let them down. 

Published: 27 Apr 2010

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