How to beat the gong

Simon Caine gives would-be comics tips for the gladiator arena of comedy

This week, I came second at the Comedy Store’s King Gong show, on only the second time I’ve ever taken part. Last month I also beat the dreaded gong, and I’ll be honest, the feeling is much the same: euphoria.

Monday night was brutal. The audience barely gave anyone a chance. Some acts who should have got through and didn’t.

I go, as a punter, almost every month, each time it helps me learn some tiny things about the format that might have helped me complete five minutes without the audience turning on me. I don’t think I’m an expert, but I wanted to put down my bullet points for performing in gong shows, to get my thoughts in order.

1) Start with a joke. Don’t say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ You have a maximum of 300 seconds to perform something. Wasting time with pleasantries is all well and good if it is actually part of your act but for most people it can be ditched and switched with something that makes the audience laugh and like you, which buys you time to try something longer, such as a story. 

2) Don’t say your name. Again, this is filler. The compere has already said it, it’s not needed unless you have a damn good joke about it.

3) Have a tight six-minute set ready. I’ve done some bigger clubs recently and the main thing you notice is that a tight five minute set in a pub will be a tight eight minute set at The Store. This is because the audience is bigger, more ‘up for it’ and so you need longer breaks for laughter. Being ready with a set that is longer than the time limit means you don’t waffle and you don’t worry about forgetting stuff because you’re ready to roll with something else if you forget a joke.

4) Show no fear. Again, unless you have a damn good joke, don’t say ‘this is scary’ or ‘give me a minute’. The audience just want to be entertained. Showing no fear also applies to your material. Far too many acts drop jokes or worry about something being ‘edgy’. Just do what you think is funny.

5) Watch the other acts. If someone has done a joke that’s very close to one of yours, think about dropping it.

6) Don’t be hack. I think that says it all. Aim higher, especially at a world famous venue. Go with the gold of your gold material. Every month there’s at least one act who does a set which has the easiest joke in the world in it. I’ve been that act. But only on the open mic circuit.

7) Don’t ignore the hecklers. If someone yells something, you acknowledge it. You lose the audience’s faith when you don’t. Believe me, you have the mic, anything you say that’s remotely funny will hit bigger than whatever rubbish they drunkenly said. Just have the courage to think on your feet and don’t just say ‘fuck off’ or ‘shut up’ (unless it’s part of your character).

8) Start strong. Go in with your favourite joke. The one that works nine times out of 10. The one that the audience will be thinking: ‘This is what they’re about, this is the standard I can expect for the next couple of minutes.’ This links to points 1) and 2) because by starting with a joke rather than ‘hello’ means you start much stronger. No one remembers if you started with ‘hello’ but everyone remembers the person who (metaphorically) kicked the audience in the dick with an awesome opener.

9) Be different. I gig three to five times a week and get bored / fed up / annoyed with seeing up to ten of the 15 acts doing stuff about clichéd topics. If you do it in a unique way, the subject can be anything. There was one act last night who I loved (his name alludes me) but he did a set about what he hates about his office. Now, I’ve heard at least 200 million acts talk about their job and for the most part I sit there, enjoy it, but wonder why I would pay to listen to it. This guy did it in such a unique way I was entertained, which is key to keeping the audience thinking ‘where’s he going to go next’ rather than ‘can the compere see the red card I am holding up?’

10) Forget the cards. It sounds stupid, but just forget them. If you treat it like a normal gig you’ll enjoy it more but above all you’ll not pander to the three audience members who have the power to tell you to get off the stage. This happens all too often. 

10.1) If a card goes up, don’t give up. Like a driving test, you wouldn’t stop when you get a minor misdemeanor. You truck on and hope you’ll get back to the test centre. This metaphor has broken down, but you get the gist.

11) Don’t encourage applause if you get through to the final ‘clap-off’. This is more a pet peeve of mine. This isn’t Pop Idol or Britain’s Got The X Factor. There are no ‘sob stories’ here. If you get to the end, let them decide from your material if you’re funny enough to win. In both my clap-offs I just stood there and enjoyed the moment where 200+ people were cheering for me. I didn’t feel the need to encourage it, because it only undermines your set and performance which is what you want to be tested on.

Published: 2 May 2012

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