In the last couple of days, I have been bombarded with messages from friends, many of whom are comedians, asking if I am OK.
They have been enquiring about what I make of being the centre of a prank video that was the top trending video on YouTube. A film that garnered more than half a million views in the first 24 hours of release. Topping a million views in just 4 days.
I’ll come to answer those questions. First, for those who have not seen it, well, the video to which I refer is here. You may want to check it out before reading on. For spoilers are most definitely coming.
Some time ago, I was asked to accommodate the filming with Niko Omilana. A man with something in the region of 7 million YouTube Subscribers. It was explained to me that the idea was for Niko to perform his first ever stand-up gig at one of my open mic comedy shows.
Then, having popped his chuckle-cherry, would be privately coached by a professional funny person. The challenge would be for him to return the following day, for his second gig, and demonstrate how incredibly improved he could be.
It was always clear that the mission was for Niko to have the “best ever second gig”.
I’m a former TV Producer/Director and I am highly aware of the power to “stitch them up in the edit”
As it turned out, not in the way that I expected. If you skipped the video, then I’ll explain. The twist is that Niko brought in 100 “ringers”, actors who downplayed their laughs for everyone bar Niko.
Indeed, they were directed to laugh madly at everything he did. All in a bid to win my admiration and approval as the fastest improving new comedian I have ever seen.
Let me be clear. I had no idea this was the true agenda until the video dropped.
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My first instinct was to refuse the request to film at my show. I have little interest in being in-front of the camera. Also, I’m a former TV Producer/Director and I am highly aware of the power to “stitch them up in the edit”.
While my speciality was cinema programming, essentially a film journo, it was a freelance world and sometimes you take a job when you need the pay-day. I have been a producer on a hidden-camera prank show. I had co-directed an entire series featuring nothing but wind-up comedy challenges starring members of the public. I was even a Producer on the Russell Brand hosted Big Brother spin-off.
I know the power of the edit. Saying “No” would be easier and safer.
Two elements led me to say “Yes”.
My son had previously shown me, with glee, some of the videos that Niko had made. I thought they were great. I was especially taken by his Going Undercover as a Racist video and was thoroughly entertained by his run to be London Mayor.
Niko, therefore, was one of the very few YouTubers that I knew and rated. More than anything, this was a chance to get some “cool Dad points”.
So, having mentioned the prospect to my entirely enthusiastic son, I gave the go-ahead.
I was always aware that there would be competing agendas. My first responsibility, as always, was to the show itself. My show. The acts and audience.
Niko and his talented director, George, would be primarily focused on getting footage to create the final video, as per their vision.
“(Alfie has) probably seen more comedians bomb than any other person on this planet”
Having invited Niko and his crew in, I wanted to accommodate them as completely as possible. I’m of the conviction that if you say “Yes” to something, then act accordingly.
This was very easy for me on account of Niko being entirely charming, friendly and professional.
Nonetheless, at one point I did have to refuse a request regarding their filming wishes. I was quietly entertained as I observed Niko shift modes and attempt to move me into giving him what he wanted.
For the fact is, I had been in his position so many times when I was a director. Trying to convince someone to act against their own standards or interests, for the vision of the show you are trying to create. It’s part of the job for a certain type of creator.
The first night of filming went well, it was a fun show. I thought Niko delivered his first-ever set with a confidence and charisma I have rarely seen (and I have closely observed more than five hundred people perform their first ever stand-up set).
Even the gag that is a renowned kids classic, 7 Ate 9, was delivered with aplomb. All the same, it was obviously not an original joke.
Alas, the morning of the second day of filming, I awoke feeling very ill. Under normal circumstances, I would have taken myself off the gig.
I was sweating like an accused fat kid in a sauna. It totally felt like something was going wrong
I am a firm believer in “the show must go on”. However, on this occasion, I couldn’t bring in another MC. You know, continuity. It had to be me.
I dragged myself to the club. Another inflexible incentive was the fact that I had arranged for my son to come down and meet Niko. No way I was going to miss out on those “reflected cool” points.
I was stunned by the number of people arriving. Many times, my gig has been “standing room only”, yet this was another level. I just could not figure out why people were willing to stand on the stairs from where they could not even see the stage,
I just assumed that word had gotten out that Niko was gigging with me, and thus we had drawn several of his committed fans. Which turned out to be pretty well on-point.
The show kicked off and I naturally felt pressure to be an especially entertaining MC. Because of the filming, the huge crowd, and well, my son being in the audience. Daddy has professional pride.
Jeez, it was hard work. Most of the crowd gave me nothing. Tried-and-tested comedy techniques were barely gaining a murmur of laughter. I brought up a range of comedians, many of whom are proven funny people with solid jokes. Crickets.
Big crowd. Little love.
I was ill and exhausted. I was sweating like an accused fat kid in a sauna. It totally felt like something was going wrong. I just could not figure out what or why.
“Big up Alfie and big up the We Are Funny Project. They do great work for all comedians and Alfie is a proper great guy”
Now, I had intentionally placed Niko in what I considered to be the safest/strongest place on the bill for what I thought were his needs. Penultimate act in the first half.
This would allow ample time to heat up the room, and if/when he died a death on stage, there’s still a quality proven comedian to move the show forward and raise the mood as we go into the break.
Niko took the stage, and the audience went wild. His smallest gesture, never mind an actual joke, had them roaring.
Initially, my attention was laser-focused on the stage. Not only because Niko was up, but because I was surprised that he had invited someone on stage with him. That person was my teenage son.
Before the show, Niko had been delightful with my kid. He was very generous with his time, posing for masses of photos and showing genuine interest in my lad.
Frankly, he could not have been cooler and as a result my boy was thrilled beyond belief. Good times.
Only in retrospect could I appreciate that George had suggested a specific seat for my lad to sit in. Just for this reason. Class. Acts.
In over 1500 gigs only 2 acts have been so dumb as to literally drop my mic
Very soon into Nikos’ set, another element came into play. A rumbling among the comedians.
Niko was using lines from acts who had already been up. Some of the performers were becoming noisy about their discontent on this matter. In stand-up comedy, joke theft is a sin that ranks somewhere between unilaterally invading a sovereign state and finger-banging a kitten.
I knew each of these comedians. Nor did I disagree with their complaint. However, Niko had just 5 minutes of stage time and any issues could be managed after the key filming was completed.
Once a director, always a… or something like that. The show must go on. Get it in the can.
I managed to tamp down the volume and anger that had been building up from understandably irritated comedians. However, this came at the price of being able to pay close attention to what Niko did in most of his set.
I already knew that the crowd response to Niko was practically irrelevant. In my mind, they were already dismissed as miserable sycophants. They had failed to laugh at some genuinely good comedy already presented to them. However, they were practically wetting themselves at Niko merely raising an eyebrow.
I’m a seasoned enough show-runner to know that sometimes an act is just not getting the love/laughs that they deserve. Maybe for a reason as simple as there being too few audience members. Rarely, if ever, does it go the other way. Comedians seldom get more laughs than they deserve, and certainly not at this uproarious level.
One would have to be a special level of paranoid to have seen through such well-orchestrated subterfuge
Niko wrapped up his set.
My son was glowing. The comedians were glowering.
Literal mic drop.
Normally, if an act has the balls to mess with my expensive kit like that, I would berate them. In over 1500 gigs only 2 acts have been so dumb as to literally drop my mic.
I opted to not berate Niko. Principally because we had agreed in advance, he could do just that. Drop the mic. What better way to visually wrap up a filmed performance such as this one?
I had a spare microphone ready, just in case, and a committed promise from George to buy me a new mic if mine got broken. Indeed, I alluded to just this in an article I wrote soon after Niko filmed, which you can find HERE
Niko left the stage to rapturous applause.
My poorly head was highly aware that my MC outro of Niko was critical to their filming needs.
Long before he even took the stage the night before, Niko had easily established that he has lashings of smarts and charisma. These are great characteristics to have if one wishes to succeed in stand-up. On these matters I had no worries for him.
That kind of ability is enough to make him just about the most desired act on any open mic comedy bill
What I was lacking, as the person who was supposed to adjudge his second ever gig, was having very much insight at all. I was forced to miss most of what he had done and said on stage because… calming angered comedians.
It wasn’t hard to say nice things once our hero stepped off the stage.
All stories can ultimately be divided into two types. Comedy. Or Tragedy.
Comedy has a happy ending. Tragedies are defined by having an unhappy ending.
Unless given an obvious reason, such as a clearly car-crash performance, I was damned if Nikos’ story about my beloved stand-up scene was going to be a tragedy.
Thereafter, it was just a case of my “getting through” the show. I wanted to get home. Snort a Lemsip. Retreat to my bed.
Ultimately, I needed to focus on seeing my son off home. Then attend to some enraged comedians. Only at this point did I hear something about Niko asking permission before using their material. It was all very confusing.
I was fully aware that Niko would need to film with me to get the pay-off in the can. He needed me to comment on whether he had achieved his (stated) goal.
My head was so addled by this point that most of this bit remains a blur.
Curiously, I do recall commenting along the lines of, “Niko, you’ve found a brilliant new way of succeeding at comedy. Bring your own crowd with you. Can’t go wrong”.
Now I have seen the final released video, witnessed Nikos’ “Prestige”, I have to wonder if, in that moment, he thought I’d rumbled him.
The truth is. I most assuredly had not.
Who the hell would gather up 100 people and bring them to an open mic gig to play a bizarre prank? Erm, the answer is Niko Omilana.
I just did not see it. Then again, why would I?
One would have to be a special level of paranoid to have seen through such well-orchestrated subterfuge.
For those who are not regulars in the world of stand-up comedy, allow me to introduce you to the notion of what we call “Bringer” gigs.
While I have never run such a gig, “Bringers” are shows where open mic comedians are required to bring someone with them to flesh out what may otherwise be a rather sparse audience.
Many comedians aren’t fans of “Bringers”. IMHO they have a place. Nonetheless, acts often find they struggle to find a gig because they haven’t got someone to “bring”.
Niko brought 100 people!
That kind of ability is enough to make him just about the most desired act on any open mic comedy bill. It’s just a shame they were primed to diminish the laughter for myself and the other acts.
I found the final cut to be not only a massive surprise, but also very funny and entertaining. Nonetheless, I’m going to clarify, regarding standards in the normal stand-up world:
· Stealing/Borrowing jokes is verboten. It’s just wrong.
· Never drop someone else’s microphone.
· In life, and in stand-up, I think it’s best to never ask anyone to suppress their laughter. For laughter is a life blood.
And so, to the question I have been asked so many times in the last few days. The very question that opened this writing. Am I alright?
Yes. I’m totally fine. More to the point, why wouldn’t I be?
It’s a fun and funny video. Just like Niko himself, it’s clearly good-natured.
If one wants predictability and seriousness, then my choosing a professional life in the world of comedy wouldn’t have been the smart choice. No complaints.
Niko and I are a generation apart, yet we share at least a couple of things in common. We have both killed at We Are Funny Project. We have both committed ourselves to bringing more laughter into the world.
What’s not to like?