Is this routine lazy? | Ariane Sherine's continuing adventures in stand-up

Is this routine lazy?

Ariane Sherine's continuing adventures in stand-up

This week, I wrote a short routine which I was really happy with. It went:

'My boyfriend said that he found the voice of the supermarket self-checkout lady sexy, so I decided to imitate her during sex. If he took a pause between thrusts, I'd ask 'Do you wish to continue?' And if he put it in the wrong hole, I'd say 'Unexpected item in the shagging area! Please remove this item before continuing.'

Other people liked the routine too - it got over 150 likes on my two Facebook accounts, including around 60 comics. When I wrote the routine, I knew there were lots of people doing this kind of thing, but I didn't think that mattered.

There are a lot of comics talking about sex and relationships - does that mean both topics should be off-limits? No. If you're doing exactly the same material as someone else, and they came up with it first, then yes, you should drop it. But just the same topic? I don't think so, otherwise you would only be able to do esoteric stuff no one else can relate to and which doesn't get laughs.

Unfortunately, there's a comic who really dislikes my stuff, and who has taken it upon himself to tell me I'm either too rude or not original enough, or both. This time, he was the first to post under the joke on my comics' Facebook account 'Been done. A lot.' I asked whether that exact same material had been done, and he said Susan Murray had used pretty much the exact same punchline.

So I wrote to Susan Murray to ask her, and she was absolutely lovely - she said there was no crossover, that I was free to use the material - and that my routine was good! I told the comic that she'd said there was no crossover; but he said it was 'irksome' that I was being 'lazy' when I was capable of better (a post he later deleted).

Now, that really stung, as I work really hard. I write all the time. I gig at weekends and get a babysitter for my five-year-old; I ignore poor long-suffering John Fleming, my best friend in London, so that I can work on my songs or my novel. I'm really dedicated, and just because my stuff is rude or unbroadcastable or people can relate to it, it doesn't make it 'lazy' in any way.

Then a load of other comics joined in, joking on my Facebook wall about other topics they considered hack, like Tinder, online dating and airline food.

The thing is, Michael McIntyre is hilarious and is probably the most successful British stand-up - and yet I'm sure these comics would write his stuff off as hack, because it's full of everyday observations. But most non-comics absolutely love him, and that's made him a millionaire. So what would most comics rather do: play to rooms of seven people with niche material, or make whole arenas full of people laugh with stuff they can relate to?

I have heard more instances of the word 'cunt' since starting comedy again than I had in the previous 13 years. (I also say the word as part of Hitler Moustache, in reference to Nazis.) This, I think, is a good thing: comedy should be rude and edgy and, for the most part, untelevisable - that's what makes it exciting. The atmosphere and dynamic you get inside a comedy club is unlike anything else in life, and it should remain a place where saying the word  'cunt' and being improper is both allowable and encouraged.

Some MCs I'm introduced on stage by are clearly professionals, and some are more amateurish. I've been trying to work out how they differ, and what I'm hopefully going to do as an MC.

As an MC, although you're compering the show, it shouldn't be all about you. The audience are there to see the acts, and your job is to take an interest in both acts and audience, big up the former and warm up the latter. 

So: find out about the audience. Don't just do your set to the exclusion of all the above. A well-timed pre-written line is fine, even expected, as is a general idea of the form the show's going to take. However, I think using big chunks of pre-written material every time can be ill-advised, as the whole point of being a compere is being able to improvise and wing it.

Good comperes should also psych up the audience for the acts, getting them whooping and stamping and applauding. A lot of MCs I see just limply say 'Please welcome to the stage [act's name]!' I get that if an act isn't great, you might want to manage the audience's expectations, but by giving them a crap introduction, you decrease their chances of doing well even further.

Also, don't diss an act when they come off stage, even if it's funny. Don't insult the audience either. The more goodwill you can create in the room, the more relaxed the audience will feel, and the more able they'll feel to laugh.

The highlight of this week was beating The Blackout at legendary Greenwich comedy club Up the Creek. It's a five-minute gong show where three members of the audience are given cards to hold up if they don't like your set, which they are allowed to use after a two-minute grace period. I was the only act to get through in the first half; three more acts got through in the second.

The eventual winner had been going for two years. He looked very polished and professional and had a very easy, natural way with the audience. In contrast, I was a nervous wreck. I don't know why I get so terrified, but I do: the atmosphere is so tense and adversarial it's almost gladiatorial, except our only armour is our jokes. At one stage, I thought I was going to soil my pants. It's a good job I didn't; it's Up the Creek, not Up Shit Creek. I told John Fleming, who said 'The first rule of show business: wear dark trousers.'

Things that tend to go down well with gong show crowds: confidence, punchy one-liners, putting hecklers firmly back in their place (or totally ignoring interruptions).

Things that go down badly: sick jokes (child molesting/general perversion), long-winded jokes with no apparent punchline, appearing nervous, choking, alluding to how badly your set's going.

I wish I had won the night, then I wouldn't have to do it again. As it stands, I'm going to do it until I win it. Hopefully that won't be too much longer, as I don't think my nerves can take it.

This week, I was told off by a member of the public for telling a joke. This surprised me - as far as stand-up goes, I'm not exactly Anthony Jeselnik. The joke in question was:

'I don't use Tinder, but I can think of lots of guys I'd like to line up and slap left and right.' [Performed live, this is accompanied by a hand swiping/slapping movement.]

I put it on my two Facebook accounts and on Twitter. Predictably, it was on Twitter that a man I'd never heard from before got annoyed.

'How would you feel if a man said there were a few women he'd like to hit?' he asked.

I tried to explain that it's not the same thing at all. Women generally aren't as tall, strong, heavy and intimidating as men. The male to female ratio of violent crimes is more than 4:1, and with murders it's 9:1. Added to which, I'm tiny, so it's not as though I would pose any threat to a man.

My interlocutor wrote back: 'Well, maybe you should set an example. Violence is violence, and gender is irrelevant.'

I replied 'It was a joke. People are allowed to joke about people who are in a more powerful position than them; it's called punching up.' [no pun intended]

He said witheringly, 'Keep making excuses.'

But it wasn't an excuse - I truly believe it. Where comedy's concerned, I think the rule is this: you can make a joke if you're part of a disadvantaged section of society or minority. Black and Asian comics can joke about white people, gay comics can joke about straight people, women can joke about men.

Flip it the other way, and you're kicking down. You can still do this, but it can be extremely uncomfortable and you have to be super-funny and not just unpleasant; the audience will let you know if they think you've fucked up.

I love paid gigs, but not because of the money (it's a bonus, but it usually covers my travel plus a small meal). Part of my love for them is the knowledge that the promoter thinks I'm worth booking to entertain a paying audience, which is the highest accolade, because they're putting their reputation on the line.

But what I like most is the fact that the audience assume you're going to be funny unless you prove them wrong. They give you the benefit of the doubt, and with every paid gig I've performed at so far I've done well.

With non-paying audiences, things couldn't be more different. They often haven't been to a comedy night before, perhaps don't really want to be there and aren't always up for a good time. The standard of the nights is often low, and then the audience see a woman with a musical instrument and assume you're going to be shit, and it's very hard to win them round.

It's possible, but acts rarely storm it at these gigs. The audience just don't seem to value the comedy as much if they haven't paid at least something.

For this reason, I would prefer a non-free venue for my Edinburgh show next year.

I'm not the best at taking criticism. I'm painfully sensitive, which isn't a good trait for a comic, because comedy is the school of hard knocks - and because you have to take advice in order to get better. So with this in mind, last week I went to a comedy workshop with the aim of improving my set for competitions.

The four-and-a-half hour day consisted of 14 comics doing our sets and the two group tutors giving feedback in front of everyone. John Fleming came with me and sat in on the session.

Early on, when giving feedback, one of the tutors said 'I expect we're going to hear a lot of anatomical jokes today. I hope you'll take them out of your sets by the time you come to do competitions.' She said they were a cheap easy laugh.

In the break, I said to John, 'They're going to hate my set, because it's anatomical.' He reassured me that my songs were clever enough for that rule not to apply.

He was wrong. They hated my song Hitler Moustache, on the basis that it was rude and anatomical, but allowed me to do another song. I played Love Song for Jeremy Corbyn, which they liked better, but told me to take out the rude bits.

The thing is, when it comes to competitions, they're probably right, especially when it comes to broadcasters like the BBC. But your standard comedy club audience loves rude songs, and Hitler Moustache is really popular. (If you've yet to see the video of Hitler Moustache starring Charlie Brooker, here it is)

I totally understand that gags about sex (especially wanking and porn), when not cleverly done, can be tiresome and hack. But these subjects should never be off limits, because when the material is original and clever - I'm thinking of Leo Kearse's routine on the female orgasm, or Mike Wilmot's musings on vaginas - it can work brilliantly well.

John texted me after my set: 'Interesting comments. Right in theory about Hitler. Totally different in reality - song is a total banker as are [rude bits of Corbyn]. A lesson in criticism. Always read and listen. But don't necessarily follow the advice.'

* Extracted from Ariane Sherine's weekly Adventures Of A Stand-Up Comic email updates. To sign up, email with 'subscribe' in the subject line.

Published: 5 May 2016

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