Why do I keep tolerating these nights?

Elliot Wengler on the 'joys' of the open-mic circuit

About 20-25 gigs into the open mic comedy-gigging world is when you realise that you’re an idiot. You’re in some basement in an obscure part of London, listening to a lost American trying to justify giving Aids to people because it’s a hilarious way to make a girl jealous.

You are, well, I am, sat in the back of the room and waiting, because soon, I will get to attempt to impress these 20 or possibly 25 pissed people. These details and concerns are not usually recounted when the anecdote about doing a gig is retold down the pub to my ‘real’ friends and family.

I have done about 20 gigs in this horrifying world of comedy, and for the next few years, I am to be consigned to the open-mic-night comedy scene.

When you tell your friends that you do comedy, they kindly take an interest. I have a variety of friends, from passionate performers to repetitive nerds, but it’s fair to say that although they will never match me in my obsessing over comedy and the industry and the thousands of acts berating audiences with their jokes, they will supportively take an interest.

However, I feel like Jarvis Cocker shouting at the middle classes and their artistic observations of the ‘common people’; stand-up comedy may sound like an interesting and romantic way of entering the categories of ‘artists’, but they will never understand what it’s really like to have the simple joy of laughter haunt one’s mind as if it were a full time job.

Every time I joyfully receive a standard email saying that I can have the gig, I can look forward to zipping slowly across the London Underground to some cramped, (and likely overpriced) bar or pub in Barbican or Charlotte Street (cleverly chosen two places where I have not gigged and thus am not making any specific criticisms or random insults), where I will arrive and negotiate a decent place on the list when I can tell my jokes.

Oh joy.

Planning a trip to a night in London is horrific if you don’t live there. Even getting to my nearest ‘town’, High Wycombe can be tricky to me. But from there I have to get to London and then find a clunky Tube line then follow a dot of myself on Google Maps on my phone over to the place where the big event is happening.

I wait finding the host of the evening. We negotiate how w experienced I am. We have a little ‘um’ and say ‘err’ and eventually agree a place in the schedule suitable for me. I always hope that the other acts are not all friends who run this night together and treasure it like a baby. If this is the case, you’re doomed to be on the sideline.

We sit through the other acts. Perhaps I am among those I refer to as disillusioned, but I am not among the sweary, angry cynics shouting about Aids and getting over drug addictions. But I must remember that to the other acts, I am some ‘other’ act.

Sometimes, the other acts and I have a bit of banter and discuss recent gigs and mutual colleagues, but ultimately are competing. We each want to be the best. Even that stupid bloke who has the tenacity to say ‘someone at the office dared me to so I’m giving it a go tonight’.

Eventually, we wade through the good and bad and make our way towards my own performance. I might be good, I might be bad, it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that I go up and give it my all and obey the five-minute rule as if I were in a totalitarian state.

I spew out my one-liners and buzz around as much as I can with my other material, really hoping that shoving my youthful energy won’t upset the crowd, but actually make them happy to be there. It usually works, but rarely is this remembered hours, let alone weeks later when I return.

And yet, as my friend noted after what I considered to be an unsatisfactory gig, it’s a laugh. Literally. Of the 15 acts throwing their faces behind the mic, a dozen of them are actually decent and have considered their lines. Some of them have themes and ideas and aren’t vomiting out their drug experiences. Some of them aren’t whining about their exes. Some of them are making it fun, like I am.

At the end of the day, or night, when I’ve got a rubbish train out of London Marylebone at about 11pm and cabbed back from Wycombe or Missenden, we have a memory. Not of the acts or even the jokes. But of participating in the part of the comedy world where it all starts, full of what, in the comedy class system, would be Common People, (callback, see). Experiencing these basements and backrooms is rubbish. But the overall experience? Brilliant.

Published: 20 Jun 2012

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