You've only got yourself to blame...

Matthew Thomas says bad gigs are always the comic's fault

The other day somebody asked me why I like stand-up comedy. Weirdly enough, considering the amount of time I spend in the company of comedians, it’s a question that I’d never been asked before. Even so, the answer came easily enough: I like stand up because it is, in my opinion, the purest, most straight-forward art-form there is.

Stand-up, by which I mean one person speaking without a overt character, or aided by an instrument, is the only medium I can think of where a person simply presents themselves, using nothing but their personality to create something. This intimacy between the audience and the performer is what makes stand-up such an exhilarating experience when you see it done right, and such a harrowing one when you see it go wrong.

This is also what makes it so much fun to do. The thrill of really storming a gig is only so exhilarating for your ego because it’s entirely down to you, not a song your band wrote, not a play you and your friends performed, just you and your wits.

But what about the other side of that coin? I find many stand-ups are less willing to take responsibility when a gig goes badly. That’s when the familiar laments come out: Saturday night crowds, acoustics, Monday night crowds, table seating, poor lighting, Thursday night crowds, bad compering, the list goes on.

I’m sorry but, to paraphrase Bill Hicks, our denial is beneath us.

Yes, in an ideal world all gigs would take place in low ceilinged rectangular rooms, and have spotlights, first row lighting, forward facing seating, comperes who know what they’re doing, bars in separate rooms, security and a no hen/stag night policy. But this is not an ideal world and no gig is perfect, that’s why accounting for the audience and your surroundings is one of the most important skills to learn.

It’s an understandable impulse of course. I’m yet to do a gig where I couldn’t find something to complain about if I tried, but we really should fight the impulse to do so, not only because it’s dull and sounds ridiculous, but because it actively stops us getting better.

Here’s an example; a couple of months ago I responded to a persistent heckler way too harshly, so much so that I created a bit of an atmosphere and made life very difficult for myself for the remainder of the set. It was a fairly big gig for me so I was really pissed off. I walked around for the next few days harbouring a lot of resentment and generally feeling sorry for myself, until finally I asked myself, what would Patrick Monahan, or Ross Noble or any of the other great crowdwork guys I’ve seen have done?

Certainly not what I did. That’s when I realised that my bad gig was entirely my fault. However much of a berk this woman was being – and she was – there were many better ways to deal with her, which probably wouldn’t have resulted in such a difficult atmosphere. This realisation made me no less angry, but now the anger was constructive and pointed in the right direction, i.e., me. I immediately abandoned my self-pity and began thinking about my plan for the next drunk ‘so and so’. Now when I’m about to go onstage and I think the audience is going to be a little ‘interactive’ I feel prepared and ready.

Poor lighting, moody crowds, and the rest are factors, but they’re also not going anywhere. Letting yourself off the hook and blaming them is comfortable but achieves nothing. Like so much else it’s Darwinian: adapt and survive or, pretty soon your genus will be extinct.

If you really believe that a bad MC let you down, don’t complain, figure out a way to deal with it because it certainly won’t be your last dodgy introduction; if an audience didn’t stop talking, what practical step could you have taken to make them? Do you really think Richard Pryor would have died as hard as you did in the same situation? No? Then there must be a way, man/woman up and figure out what you did wrong.

You may of course reach the conclusion that the price is not worth paying, that what you’d have needed to do to make that gig a success just isn’t you. That’s valid, some clubs and some comedians will never mix, but even then you have to ask yourself the question: ‘What was I doing there in the first place?’.

If the situation really couldn’t have been saved without abandoning your principles, then learn that lesson and try not to do that kind of gig again, but for god’s sake don’t blame the audience, room, compere, etc.

It’s not their fault, it’s yours, but that’s why stand-up is so great.

Published: 21 Oct 2011

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