Won't anyone take my comedy seriously?

Tony Lyall on his first ventures into London open mics

At my high school, the room you were sent to if you played up in class has posters on the walls; each with some nature picture, with a motivational quote superimposed on it. Imagine Barney’s office in How I Met Your Mother if they weren’t taking the piss.

These were no doubt wasted on the sort of characters who were sent to this room, believing they were above this sort of propaganda. I was no different. I mocked the loner penguin that wasn’t standing with the flock. I laughed at the bold typeface suggesting I become an astronaut by trying harder and giving it all I had. Now, seven years later, I find myself thinking about one of the posters, and how it’s relevant in my pursuit to get large groups of people to laugh at my face.

The saying ‘the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step’ was on one of the posters, etched over some runner in the desert.  I have run a few marathons since high school – none in the desert admittedly – and the phrase often finds its way into my thoughts as I pound the pavement.

I also use my time running trying to think up jokes to fuel my other pastime, stand-up comedy. Stand-up is only something I have started in the last year, with only a dozen or so open mic nights and competition spots under my belt.

At the moment though, it’s not the jokes that are the problem, it’s the first step. I come from New Zealand, and back home, as the scene is relatively small, it’s much easier to get a good overview of. Raw comedy runs every Monday night for a few months at a time, with a yearly competition timed to run as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival. I took part in this, did OK for my first foray, and got a feel for the scene. I worked on my material, met a few comics, practiced it at home, got it out in front of a semi decent crowd a couple times a month and repeated. After seven or so months of this, I left NZ for London and thought I would keep doing amateur stand-up, and see where it went from there.

I refer to myself an amateur comic as I do it for fun. I do it to do something different. I do it for the thrill of it. I do it for a laugh. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like to be a full-time stand up comic at some stage. I’m saying that at this point in time, I am not - and hold no illusions to the contrary.

Now, since arriving in London, my first priority has been to find a job. To get those pounds that make the NZ dollar hilarious in comparison. This pursuit can take its toll, but I have been keeping my ears and eyes open for ways to take the first comedic step, too.

I jumped online and had a look at open mic nights. As soon as I began looking I realized what I had started. I was greeted by page after page of potential gigs, advice, people bitching, arguing, and an endless list of comics who had tried it before, and thought it was shit.

To be honest, I was disheartened. I thought that the London open mic scene was strong and that every second corner pub would be bursting at the rafters with comedy gold. The internet said otherwise.

I trawled the pages and tried to sift through the shit. Of course I had no way of knowing which nights were worthy and which weren’t, so I bit the bullet and emailed my contact details out to at least a dozen promoters. One replied to me. I sorted out my two first gigs in London, which I was happy with. A place to start.

I wrote some new, relevant material. I watched YouTube clips of other amateur comics at the same venues to get a feel for the places and crowds. I got nervous, then got over it.

I went to the shows, and was greeted with intimate venues, with crowds mainly made up of the other acts. This I could live with, as they were my first London gigs. The vibe of the shows was fine. No hostility, all support. The quality of the show, to be honest, was average. But it was an open mic night, so I wasn’t expecting Saturday Night Live.

I guess the main question I was left with afterwards was: What’s the next step? I know that two gigs is a tiny drop in the water to what most other comics go through, but I’m trying to figure out a way of getting my material (and me) out there to more than a small crowd of ten other comedians.

These events are great for networking, and I met a couple of really nice people, but I feel like I might be missing another way. For now I will keep trawling the net, looking for open mic nights that seem OK, talking to people, and working on my craft. I’m not afraid of hard work and I guess if I keep at it, my journey will only get shorter. It’s a hard thing to start though, and there seems no clear beginning to what is already a hard enough journey.

The other thing I find difficult about starting out in comedy, is how to talk about it to regular people. To some people the idea of standing up at a pub and talking smack for five minutes on a Monday night is a difficult concept to grasp. The worst bit about it, is when people ask you if you think you are funny.

I never know how to answer this question. As the only real success I have had at stand-up is not getting booed of stage, I have no real grounds to say I am particularly funny.

Personally, I don’t think I am funny ha-ha, but I think I can tell a funny story well with sharp wit, and make it engaging. I know that in these early days, I need to promote shamelessly and try to get everyone I know along to my shows, but people just don’t seem to take it seriously. I know that sounds like an awful attempted joke, but if I was in some play, put on by some society no one had heard of, at least I could rely on that to carry some level of esteem. An open mic night at the local boozer for other amateur stand up comics just doesn’t (for some reason) seem like a legitimate thing to do with my Monday night.

People aren’t nasty towards my ambitions; they just don’t seem to think it’s a normal thing to do. I guess success breed’s success, and the more I do the more I will have done, and before I know it I will have developed some form of legitimacy. My only concern is that in saying things like this to try to convince myself to stick at it, I end up sounding like the posters that I used to think were bullshit back at high school.

I’m not complaining, I’m just contemplating.

Published: 13 Feb 2013

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