The Feeling

Anton Renwick on the fear and elation of a stand-up gig

Light applause as my legs of jelly move nervously forward. Stepping into a light so bright it obscures everything else, although I know what is in the darkness, I slowly shuffle forward to the lone microphone standing naked on the stage, its long cord coiled across the stage like an angry snake waiting to attack.

The applause died out before I took hold of the microphone and was replaced by an expectant silence, a lone cough from the back of the room acting as the only reminder of what was out there on the battlefield. This battle was about to begin, one against forty, the odds were maybe not in my favour yet I still felt there was a chance I could win or at least come out unscathed.

It felt hot in the room as well, maybe the anticipation caused the temperature to rise, or maybe the heat from the light. Whatever caused it was making me sweat and that was never a good look, or a good thing in front of a crowd. This was a sure way of broadcasting that you were nervous, that maybe you didn’t believe in your material or your preparation. This was probably true on both counts, even though I had actually spent the last four months working on this set, writing, re-writing and practising again and again. Several times I had taken walks though parks holding my phone to my ear and pretending to speak to someone while saying the material out loud, so I could practice the different lines, tones and pauses to gauge the right delivery.

I took the microphone from the stand with the most confident look I could muster. This was a man in control, here to entertain you and be unfazed when it didn’t work. This was a man acting his little heart out because the confidence was definitely bravado.

A quick ‘hi’ to the audience and then I turn to put the mic stand behind me, a trick to allows me to listen to how vocal, lively the audience are and gives me pause to get my heartbeat to calm down. Right now it’s beating away like a manic drum and bass track that’s been sped up.

A few people yell welcomes, so maybe this will be good one and they will be on my side. The general belief is that when you meet a new person you make judgements about them within the first thirty seconds, including whether you like them or not.

This belief is not my friend because it means that everyone in the room has made their opinion of me by now and all I have done is pick up a microphone. That’s got to be a hell of a lot of pressure to attach to such a simple action. The mic stand is now firmly in place at the back of the tiny stage, somewhere, hopefully, where I’m not going to trip over it when I get manic.

This is it, big breath and turn because its time to meet the audience. My first joke is a one liner, quick, simple and more importantly, tried and tested. Although due to my nerves I rush it and as I deliver the punch line it takes a while for it to hit the floor with a reaction. But like a good-natured child it doesn’t let me down and laughter begins to cascade around the room.

Next up I go with a put-down about myself, something that tells them that I know how I look and don’t take it too seriously. Draw them onside and show them here’s a guy who can make fun of himself as much as the next man, because shortly one of them could be the next man. This goes well and they seem to find my comments about myself agreeably funny.

Now its time to dip my toe in the water of edgy and see if I sink or swim, by using a newer darker joke to which I am unsure of the reaction. But slipping this in will allow me to make a judgement call on later material. Are they going to be up for following me into darker material or should I play safe and revert to older material?

It seems the pool of edginess is warm tonight though. Especially with a woman at the front who really discovered her laughter at that material, much to the surprise of her boyfriend next to her who is still trying to work it out. Maybe I should go all the way. Or actually, maybe she didn’t laugh at what I said, maybe its something about me, something I just did that set her off.

Paranoia begins to set in.

Have I really got them on side, are they laughing with me or at me? My mind is working overtime to figure it out. But in reality I know that she didn’t start laughing until I finished the punchline, therefore my detective mind comes back with the result that they were laughing with me. Everything is right with the world again. On to a topical gag about a well known ‘celebrity’ who wasn’t actually known until they learned how to take their clothes off in front of the camera.


This bombs.

Looking around I realise I can see several people who fit a similar description to the celebrity I have mocked. It’s a classic error, but an easy one at that. There seems only one way out of this jam and that is to put me centre stage again. Another putdown about myself seems to ease the mood. I’m sill the guy you can trust, I’ll just gently mock your idols but I’m still on your side.

I feel like I’ve been treading the same spot now for a lifetime but reality is that time is playing tricks with my mind, I’ve timed this material so many times that I know exactly which point each joke will fall. The crowd seem OK again since my mistake and happy to follow me with where I’m going.

Now we leap into the unknown, the new material. No one has heard this before, unless they were walking behind me in a park, so as a consequence I don’t know what is going to happen. But this is why I’m here. It must be that I have a desire to face unknown challenges because it is this material that has me the most fired up and as I launch into the material I feel myself coming to life, a buzz is beginning to power through me.

Maybe it is that buzz that is spreading through the crowd, because something is taking hold. I can see the woman on the front row edging forward as she listens intently. Her boyfriend is still puzzled by me or maybe he is still trying to work out my earlier joke. Either way he is clearly not who I should be aiming this material at. Instead I focus on the woman, if I can make her laugh at the end then that might pass around. Laughter is somehow infectious. If you can get one person to laugh and they are in close quarters with other people then they tend to catch on, or fear that they will be the only one not getting it. I’m happy if one person laughs and does the work for me.

By now I am leaping around the incredibly small stage and in danger of leaping too far and landing on someone’s lap. This does not stop me though. I’m in a zone now, I’m on fire, words are flying out of my mouth faster than I can even think of them, but this is all in my head anyway, I’m on autopilot following a script.

People are laughing already, not because they have worked out the ending but because they can sense it building to something, something that they know will be obvious once I have said it, but none the less something that they are busy trying to work out. My trick is misdirection, feed them with too much information, too many details that they are unable to work out the important parts until I’ve said the final line.

Some of the information is important, while other bits are simply to add character, setting and timing. I feel that I have them so geared up on this that I can even take my foot of the break for a second and allow them some catch up time. All the information is out there so now they can have a quick pause to try and work it out….Right, that’s enough time, here’s the punch line.

Another pause.

Has it worked after all? Did I put all the clues out in the correct order or was I just going too fast to check. Or did I over perform the piece, has my acting overshadowed the material.

Suddenly laughter breaks from the dark shadows. It didn’t start with the woman at the front. Instead it came from the back. From a man I had not heard laughing before. However, this time he was taking the lead and approving the joke. His laugh carries like a tidal wave towards me, picking up other stray laughs as it comes, until it reaches the woman at the front who’s laughter almost drowns me as I say goodnight.

This is a good night, one that I can lock away in a chest of courage for next time. I quickly shake the MC’s hand as I leave, he has a look of a condemned man who has the harder job of following a well-received set.

I get a nice pat on the shoulder as I pass one person in the crowd, a simple gesture and yet one that makes all the hard work worth it. Then I beeline toward the bar to see if a couple of pints will help stop the adrenaline charging through my body.   

Published: 9 Jun 2011

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