Friends, family... I don't want to see you

Raphael Perahia would rather perform for strangers

Friends, family, even exes have come to watch my gigs, but while on stage I always prefer the company of strangers. As I strive to become my own favourite comedian, I worry that my honesty may alienate the people I’m closest to.

I started doing stand-up while at university in Atlanta, Georgia and invited friends to open-mic nights and proper gigs when I started getting them. But I soon realised I was overly sensitive to their criticism, or worse, their failed praise.

I know if I’ve had a bad set,and like missing a penalty for England,  no words can console me. I remember my friend’s only words to me after my shambolic first ever gig: ‘That other guy, the guy in the wheelchair, he was funny.’

After university I returned to London and the more I performed, the more I learnt to take the good with the bad, the awkward silence with the laughter, and not let it affect me – well, not quite so much.

A friend from the States came to visit and after seeing my show said: ‘I really liked your set, man, but I kinda preferred the stuff you did in Atlanta.’ Really, dickhead? I’m working harder on this than anything, I’m developing my style and my storytelling, but you thought it was better when I just came on and played: ‘Guess from the name: terrorist or cricket player?’

Trying to be an honest, unfiltered version of me on stage means that every mental trick I have cultivated to hide my inner anger and crazy from girlfriends or family is destroyed in seconds when they see me on stage. I have opened not only my act to their praise or criticism, but also my uncensored self.

My parents are supportive and kind towards my pursuit and none of my material slates them, but the parts of my personality that I hide from them are the ones I emphasise on stage. As much as I want them to hear my funny observations I never wanted my mum to find out how much I love strippers.

A few weeks ago an ex-girlfriend came to see me. We broke up before I started doing comedy and her presence made me more nervous than usual. I held in a lot of anger over our break-up and that anger helped create funny stories.

‘How come you never said anything when we were going out?’ she asked me. It jarred her that I wasn’t the same person on stage in that moment as I was when we were dating. Bitch.

Different comedians thrive at different genres and there is no rule that says comedians must be honest. To be funny they have to be true to their on-stage personality or caricature and often (even though they will bear similarities) the two are not the same.

I am always in awe of Richard Pryor for what he admitted and discussed on stage: drugs, relationships and the death of his monkeys to name a few. Being funny is itself a harsh task, but to shine a light on your secret inner world and still be funny and loveable, that made Pryor a legend.

When people know you they have an idea of your personality and the closer you are the more secure that opinion might be. A first impression created on stage is solely based on your material and delivery, who you are in that moment, this is impossible if the audience already knows you personally. It helps if these particular strangers have a penchant for jokes about dead pop stars molesting children.

  • Raphael Perahia is founder of Funny Flamingo, a monthly comedy night at the Canal Café Theatre, London.

Published: 29 Nov 2011

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