What comedy courses SHOULD teach you

Says Norman Cho, who graduated from one

There are plenty of gripes about comedy courses. I did one, and while I credit it for giving me the confidence to step up in front of a microphone for the first time, I now realise that in virtually every other respect it was woefully inadequate, especially with regards to how the circuit works. From talking to those who went on other courses, it’s a common complaint.

So here are the things I wish I’d been told:

Professionalism. If you managed to get booked to do a gig, honour the commitment. By giving you the gig, the promoter deprived someone else of the spot. As long as the gig is not pulled, give it your best shot – even if it has such a small audience it turns into what’s effectively a comedy workshop.

Blagging gigs above your ability is a terrible idea. You might pull it off but you probably won’t. What you will end up doing is ruining the gig and damaging the reputation of stand-up comedy. You’ll create an audience who will, in future, run a mile when they hear the two words ‘stand’ and ‘up’ – while you earn a reputation as a deluded fool and word gets around. Be honest with yourself and the promoters. If you do not think you are ready, be up front and say so. There will be other opportunities. Among the biggest mistakes I have made is accepting gigs I lacked the material and experience to do.

Difficulty. I frequently come across comedians stating that once you crack it, it is a very easy job. You get paid a load of dosh for making people laugh for between 25 and 45 minutes. This is like saying that bomber pilots get paid only for the time they are over the target, which could well be seconds. The truth is very different. Expect it to take hundreds if not thousands of gigs to make the breakthrough. In the meantime, you are suffering from sleep deprivation, travelling to and from dodgy pubs and clubs, often at your own expense, and frequently being paid pitiful sums of money. There is no paid holiday. You are working when other people are out having fun. Every now and again, you end up having to deal with twits who somehow think that the particular fiver that they paid to watch the gig entitles them to ruin it for everyone else who also paid a fiver to watch the show. For every successful comic who’s paying the bills, there are vast numbers who are not. Don’t do this for the money because there probably won’t be very much in it. Even Michael McIntyre admits in his autobiography that if he had a talent for anything else, he would not have taken up stand-up.

Forget everything you were ever taught on your comedy course and start again from scratch. This is probably the single most important lesson and one I am only now starting to learn. The only way to succeed is to experiment and you need to be prepared to die hard and often while you are getting your routine together. Going on a comedy course can give you a bit of confidence at the outset but if you make any sort of breakthrough, it will have had nothing to do with the course you attended. I sometimes see comedy courses claiming credit for the successes of their graduates. The question no one seems to ask is not why these handful were successful but why no one else was. At a guess, we would be talking about a success rate of less than one per cent. Not something I would trumpet in any other field. I would suggest that anyone who succeeds does so in spite of having attended a comedy course rather than because of it. All attending a comedy course proves is that you had the money to pay for it and some free evenings that you were prepared to commit to it. It’s just the first step in learning the craft and nothing more than that. You’re not a comedian until you can consistently make audiences laugh over five or more minutes. And I do not mean your friends, family, and fellow open spots. Actual live genuine audiences of complete strangers.

Quality counts. Once I decided that I loved stand-up as an art form and wanted to pursue it seriously, I killed virtually all of my material. Once I culled every single gag that I did not think was a banker, I ended up with exactly three minutes of material. I can do a solid five minute set but I’m still not entirely happy with it. I used to do open spots for Mirth Control. I emailed Geoff Whiting and asked him to take me off the email list as I did not think I was good enough to merit a place on it. He keeps sending them and I keep deleting them. I do not plan to apply for another open 10 unless I am completely sure that I can smash every single gig that I do. The quality of your material and your set determines your rate of progression. It’s that simple. This cannot be rushed.

Never believe the hype. There are two things I have noticed on the open mic circuit. The first is that no one dares to say anything critical. The second is that everyone blows smoke up your backside. Let’s be honest, we’re all afraid of the mentals. The circuit is full of them.

Never expect a promoter to tell you the truth. There are too many crazy people on the circuit for any promoter to risk being totally upfront about what they really think about your set. So best not to ask. The acid test is whether they ask you back. If they do not, you can draw the obvious conclusion.

Watch loads of headliners doing solo shows. Judge yourself by them. It’s pointless to compare yourself with fellow open spots.

You need a thick skin. This is a very tough game.

Let go of your ego and do it for the punters. These days, I concentrate on trying to make sure that for at least five minutes, the audience had a really good time. I leave my ego at home and try to focus on making them laugh. In the past, I was on a bit of a power trip. I admit that I liked to try and see just how far I could push the audience before pulling it back. I did not always succeed. These days, the way I see it, they could have spent their time doing just about anything else. They chose to come watch some live comedy and I have an obligation to do my best to entertain. Not lecture. Not pontificate. Not abuse their goodwill. But to entertain. That’s the nature of the contract.

Storming a new act night does not entitle you to a spot on the main night. This is especially true of good comedy clubs that have taken the promoters years to build up. You might have done well on a new act night but they have seen hundreds of acts and more importantly know their audience better than you do. They might be wrong in your case but they have earned the right to make that judgment call.

Patience matters. I admit that I am fortunate enough to have a job that pays reasonably well. This allows me to take my time working on my material and to gig at my own convenience. Nor am I in this for the money or the kudos, of which there has been precious little. Thing is, I love stand-up and am happy to spend as much time as it takes to get it right. At some point, I hope to become a paid act. If and when that happens, I would like there to be no question that I deserved every penny I was paid.

Published: 22 Dec 2011

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