MY Comic Life – Breaking in the New

In the run up to Edinburgh, comedians – big name comics and those less well-known souls – are all keen to test run their shows as much as possible. So for comedy lovers in search of a bargain, Edinburgh previews are a great chance to see comedians preview their latest shows at minimal cost.

As by their very nature Edinburgh previews are a work in progress, you never know what you are getting. On the one hand you may be in for a real treat. That was definitely the case when I watched the recent offering by Bridget Christie at Walthamstow’s Red Imp Comedy Club; or you may be in the unfortunate position to hear a comic try out material that will most likely never see the light again. That is after all what trying new material is all about – seeing if the material in your head is as funny as you think/hope/pray it is.

As any comic knows, sometimes you write a joke and it comes out perfectly formed. No tweaks are necessary. Sometimes you know there’s a joke there but the laughs aren’t forthcoming. The set up is too clunky; the set up needs to be built up more; the set up is rubbish; you need to add a pause; you need to add a longer pause; you need to stick it further down your set. It could be a myriad of reasons. Sometimes you simply need to have faith in your writing and in you as a comic, and just sell the joke to the audience.

And if there are comics that you particularly like it is well worth watching one of their earlier Edinburgh previews and then seeing the final show. That’s because it’s always interesting to watch the creative process in action, precisely because no one knows exactly how it works, not even the comic! I remember listening to an old tape of me doing an early version of a standard joke of mine about thwarting unwanted male attention on night buses by pretending to be mad. When I first did the joke, it never did well though I was convinced there was a joke in there. Now when I do the joke, it often gets an applause break. Listening back to the tape, in hindsight I can see why it never used to work. It was just too clunky. How I got from the clunky version on the tape to the version I use now, I couldn’t honestly tell you but it’s often that refining process which comics are trying to fine tune at Edinburgh previews or at new material nights.

And in the run up to Edinburgh, new material nights are often another way of seeing top professional comics do their thing at more intimate nights (promoter speak for small audiences). I remember one self-appointed critic (polite way of saying guy with a blog and time on his hands) chastising a comic for not doing any new material at such a night. However, what was mainly evident from his blog was how little this supposed critic knew about comedy. Firstly, most comics when trying out new stuff will surround it with old stuff, first to reassure the audience they are funny and secondly to see how reactive (or not) the audience are. Moreover, new material may not necessarily mean you’re trying it out for the very first time. You may have written it a while back but you’re still trying to bed it in; you’re still playing around with the wording or god forbid, it’s never got a laugh, but you’re determined to keep trying it out till it does. (Unbelievably, as a plan this sometimes has been known to work). The new material night – which will invariably be a smaller gig – may also be a welcome opportunity to try out stuff you’ve done before but which you’d like to include in your club set but it hasn’t quite got that “it’s a banker” tick next to it. This could be several months down the line depending on the type of gigs you’ve been doing in the meantime. Comics understandably tend to do tried and tested material for the bigger gigs which firstly pay well, and secondly, were hard to get to play in the first place. Last but not least, the gig may be so unplayable you’ve thought to hell with the new stuff and taken the easy option and opted to just do your bankers instead.

Watching people be creative can be a fascinating experience, as was certainly the case watching Bridget Christie the other week.  Admittedly, when it doesn’t work – particularly when it comes to stand up – it can be rather painful. But as an audience member, rest assured, in these situations it’s always more painful for the comic. I remember meeting up with one comic after a particular bad show. “Maureen”, he confided to me, “I knew I was in for a hard time when I looked at my watch and realised I had 59 minutes left!”

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