Comedy Progression and New Materi-Hell

Alfie Noakes

Something unique and fascinating happened at the We Are Funny Project shows this week. Of which I will write more in an appropriately timed future blog. I know, I’m such a tease…

This “happening” threw up a few things that surprised me. It made me recall some notions and facts which are surely worth highlighting to comedians.

One aspect that I need to make a very clear point about, is a result from the gigs this week. There is, in all my years of experience, only one way it is ever OK to literally “drop the mic” on stage. Especially as it is my mic.

I will explain this wild exception in the previously teased future posting.

On with the shows. As ever, I had booked a blend of acts that represented the seasoned, the new, the quality, the weird and the wild. Often more than one of those things at once.

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I write the Running Order (hereafter known as the “RO”) on the night only after everyone has signed in by the given cut-off time. At every single show at least one act signs in and immediately asks if I have their place in the running order yet.

I point out that I can’t write the RO until I am certain that everyone booked is actually in the room.

If I pre-write the RO and there’s a no-show, then it’s simply a waste of time.

Once everyone has signed in, I quickly draft the RO with a certain structure influencing my choices. Details of this critical, inexact and dark science of writing the running order can be found in my online course, How to Be A Brilliant Stand-Up Comedy MC. There is also a free taster video session from the course here.

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I go around the room when I have the completed RO and individually inform each act of when they will be going up on stage. This way, it gives everyone a final chance to let me know anything I need to know. For example, suddenly remembering they are a musical act and realising they need to plug in.

It also means I get an opportunity to warmly check in with an act I am familiar with. Perhaps better know the face of a new performer. The latter could be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Or at very least, while MCing, I have a better chance of recognising if the performer is very slow in getting out of their seat when I have already introduced them.

In such instances, having a face to go with the name, I can be aware that I suddenly need to fill for 15 seconds before they make it to the stage. This type of slow start is not uncommon with newbies. I understand that they can’t fix what they don’t know. If this happens, well, they know for future and can fix the issue.

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I will typically open the show with an act I know to be strong and experienced, get us all off on a solid level. On one show this week I chose an act with over 200 gigs that I have seen do very well, a person that I have always liked.

Some instinct made me, most unusually, ask him “Are you doing new material or tried’n’tested”?

He replied he was planning to do all new material.


I find it remarkable that after so much stage experience, this act had still not figured out that there is almost never any good reason to run all new material in a set. Talk about setting oneself up for a fall.

Even if the new stuff tanks, which it has every chance of doing in its’ first iterations, the set itself can still be rather successful.

The room was absolutely packed. Time was running out before the show was to begin. I simply had to ask him to not do that. If he was to be the first act up, and that was already written, I needed lots of his best stuff. He looked genuinely confounded.

And then he did as I asked. For which I am genuinely grateful. His agreement saved us both a lot of grief.

Which leads me, finally, to my key points. Progression on the circuit. Working in/up the new material.

Here, in the competitive melting pot circuit that is London, England, open mic acts begin with 5-minute spots.

I am aware that this is not a universal scenario but it works perfectly well for the information I wish to share with you.

When brand new to the circuit, all material is new material.

New material is, by definition, undeveloped and untested.

Some jokes won’t work and will need to be cut.

Some jokes need work and may ultimately turn out wonderfully.

Often, it is hard to tell the difference until the joke has been told many times, in different rooms, in various ways.

Almost no joke ever arrives perfectly formed. At best, there’s an editing and polishing process.

Meaning that everything is a work-in-progress during those very first gigs. I’ll draw an arbitrary line of 100 gigs being 2 gigs per week for a year, or 4 gigs a… you can do the maths.

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How does an act with over 200 gigs not realise that running all new material in a set is a recipe for disaster?

After telling a joke/bit many times, honing it to some degree, a fresh-faced stand-up comedian can slowly start considering it more reliable than other gags. The joke may not yet be perfect but it is demonstrably stronger than much of the rest of their evolving set.

When an act has established some solid material they should then pepper new bits into a standing proven set.

I cover this notion extensively within the “3P” framework of my online course which is especially designed for newer comedians, Stepping Into Stand-Up Comedy. There is also a free taster video from the course here.

Prepare. Perform. Polish.

For example. Perhaps a performer can reliably anticipate laughs for the first 2 minutes. Then do a minute of new stuff in the middle. Then wrap up with 2 more minutes of jokes that have worked well before, well, that’s sensible.

Even if the new stuff tanks, which it has every chance of doing in its’ first iterations, the set itself can still be rather successful.

In my experience most acts moving from a 5 to a 10 peter out at about 7 or 8 minutes. Which is absolutely fine.

The crowd are inclined to relax when the first jokes land. This makes them so much more receptive to all that follows. When the set wraps up on more laughter, well, it leaves a sweet taste in their audience brain.

Remarkably, the crowd will often remain unaware there was a stinky 60 seconds in the middle. Yet the act can be entirely focused on precisely that. Then go on to make the necessary decisions and adjustments for running that material in the future.

Act and audience are protected from an awkward and painful stage death. Everyone’s a winner!

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Running 5 minutes of all new material in a 5 minute set is a necessary hazard that is only required of the very newest acts. One might consider it a kind of essential and unavoidable “hazing” process.

Brand new acts are, so much as anything, crossing the psychological rubicon of getting up and doing it in the first place. Building some armour. Hopefully getting their first mega-thrills from delivering jokes that actually get an audience laughing. Even if fleetingly…

It would be a very rare occasion indeed that an audience came specifically to watch a brand-new performer. It would be even more unusual if the act had professional help with their material and also happened to be blessed with good looks and epic charisma. All of these would be a solid boost to such an act.

So, there are some opinions on working in new material.

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Now. Here’s an outline for traditional progression. For there is an overlap.

A key objective of a committed open-miker is to develop a set that is a “Tight 5”. Being a fat-free, laughter-inducing set that runs 5 minutes.

The next challenge is a “Tight 10”.

Next up, a “Tight 20”.

Once an act has something resembling a solid 20 minutes then they can, in broad strokes, realistically look to get frequent unpaid spots in pro rooms, the occasional paid spot, an agent… oh, this will likely take years.

I offer 10 spots at pretty much every gig I run. I make it clear to acts that are applying, these spots fall into 2 different camps.

It may be that an act has a “Tight 5” and is looking to progress to a 10.

It could be that an act has a solid 20, or is hoping to step up to a 20, and is effectively auditioning for a longer future headline spot.

Either way, it keeps the We Are Funny Project offering progression for newer acts and faces fresh to the London circuit.

In my experience most acts moving from 5 to 10 peter out at about 7 or 8 minutes. Which is absolutely fine.

It’s only a disappointment if an act peters out in less than 6 minutes. This highlights that yes, they got a tight 5, but almost nothing else.

I trust you will recall my earlier points about working in new material among the tried’n’tested.

By the time a “Tight 5” is achieved there really should be more than just 5 or 6 minutes of material in their personal stand-up comedy archive. There should be bits that may be used in a set one time and switched up another.

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Please, humour me. Imagine a “Tight 5” is a meal.

When cooking the meal in their home, an open-miker would have more ingredients than for just that single meal. They would have other food products in their fridge and cupboards that could be brought into the mix if they so wished.

Maybe they would wanna add some spice. Perhaps they are avoiding gluten. Could be that they’re trying out a different brand of something.

The whole resource is greater than the sum of one meal/set.

Now, imagine they suddenly having to make all the meals for a single day only from what they had in their kitchen.

The creator would almost certainly be able to provide more than one meal but may fall short of well-balanced nourishment and flavour for the entire 24-hour period.

Some of the food that day is great. Some not so much. But they won’t starve and now have a clearer sense of what else to stock up on before taking the bizarre and entirely unlikely “24-hour food challenge” again. AKA a “10 spot”.

Run this weirdo metaphor again but replace “24 hours” with “one week” and that is some representative notion of stepping up to a 20 from a 10.

To perform, an act needs material.

To progress as an artist. As a “face on the circuit”. As a “talent”. Well, an act needs developed, solid and proven funny material.

To progress further on the circuit… more funny, developed, solid material.

To progress to paying gigs and even professionalism, yup, lots more funny etc. etc.

There is a larger context which I truly hope will provide reassurance. With rare exceptions (the late great George Carlin being one), it typically takes world-class professional stand-up comedians about 2 years to get a brand new rock-solid 1 hour set together.

That is, people who can get on any stage they want. Often for as long as they wish. Who have enough financial freedom to commit to the process on a full-time basis. Oh, and they already have years and years of experience, contacts and proven comedic ability.

Perhaps, as a developing newcomer dripping in self-belief and love for the art of comedy, acts can cut themselves some slack when they realise it’s a marathon and rarely a sprint.

Just be sure that the laces are tied properly when it comes to the trying out of new material. Otherwise, a performer runs every chance of tripping up and falling flat on their face. Which, ironically, would be funny almost anywhere other than a stand-up stage.

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All photos courtesy of Steve Best at
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