Opening strategy

Ant Dewson on going first on a comedy bill

Recently I have been going on first at a lot of gigs. It seems promoters like to get the audience in the mood with a spot of musical comedy. And while it’s flattering to be trusted to get the night off to a good start, if you’re the teeniest bit insecure/jealous/needy (and if you’re not, you have no business being a comedian) it can make for an uncomfortable evening.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you do well. You’ve set the night up perfectly, got some laughs, and generally put the audience in the mood for a great night of comedy. You should go home immediately.

If you are lucky enough to be unencumbered by a piano, come straight off the stage and head straight for the exit, pausing only to receive congratulations/cash from the promoter. Lie about having another gig to go to if necessary. Or better still, actually have another gig to go to.

Do not be tempted to stay and watch the other acts. If you do, nine times out of 10 this is what will happen:

If the acts that follow you are as good or better than you (and I don’t like to disillusion you but these people exist) then they will have a much better gig than you. Very few people have set the world on fire from the opening spot.

Think back on your recent gigs. The ones you remember are the ones when you’ve closed the show to rapturous applause aren’t they? Or been on in the middle and done better than the famous headliner. The ones you can’t forget are the ones where you’ve died on your arse (Surbiton…) and written ten minutes of new material on the tube on the way home, just to show them! But who recalls the gigs where they opened and ‘did a good job’? If you stay and watch the rest of the show you’ll definitely remember it. You’ll remember that everyone else took your nicely warmed up room and tore it apart.

Unless you’re a team player, you’ll have a knot in your stomach that will take about a week to unravel. And again, if you are a team player, you really shouldn’t be a comedian.

So to repeat, get on, get laughs… get in the car and go home. The only other alternative that I’ve found to work is get on, get laughs… get drunk. You become much more charitable when you’re drunk – and you also won’t remember the gig the next day.

There are exceptions to this rule of course. The first one is, if you’re a really good established act, secure in yourself and your abilities, then by all means hang around for a bit. You’ve done enough gigs to know what to expect from the opening spot. You can also afford to be a bit more generous-spirited. But then, you’re probably going on to another gig where you’ll headline, perform brilliantly and go home in the smashmobile!

The second exception is when you’re doing a newer act night, and there aren’t many people in the audience. Then you should stay and support the other acts. They’ve sat through your nonsense, it’s only fair that you should sit through theirs. A promoter friend of mine has a name for people who stay around to support the other acts. He calls them ‘people I will book again.’

And anyway, at a newer act night, at least a few of the acts will be appalling. So your belief in your own enormous talent will be validated. Schadenfreude is a wonderful thing.

The last exception is when your mates are on after you. You want to see your mates to do well, surely. If you don’t, you’ve gone past ‘normal bitter, egotistical comedian’ and moved into the ‘seek professional help’ category.

And note: The rule is doubly true for competitions. If you are on first, pretend you have a pressing engagement and go home after your set. You can assume, if you don’t hear anything, that you didn’t make the next round. This is not because the other acts were better than you. It is because they took the enormous wave of goodwill that you generated and rode it all the way to victory.

  • Ant Dewson is a ‘comedian, mediocre piano player and singer of stupid songs’. He is available for gigs, and is quite happy to go on first.

Published: 14 Mar 2012

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