When I began my journey into live comedy my life was pretty much a mess. And about to get a whole lot more messy. Stand-up carried me through. I know that I am far from alone in experiencing the healing power of laughter.
It was in the aftermath of the 2008 global banking crisis that I was first ever involved in running an open mic. I was also living, like so many others in those days, under the restricting dark cloud of a recent bankruptcy. It turned out that Summer 2007 was not a good time to change careers and launch a new business.
In the beginning I was co-running a gig, with my role more towards organising than being on stage. While being a life-long aficionado of stand-up, I had never actually done anything about my hidden desire to “give it a go”. On the very first gig I promoted I caught 3 people stealing jokes. I was able to say “Hey, that’s a bit by (name the famous comedian), you can’t do that…”, which reassured me that I did in fact know something.
Oh, and then a bar brawl broke out, reminiscent of so many of those 1970s’ Burt Reynolds films that my dad liked so much.
Since then, I have caught a good few joke thieves, touch wood, that remains the only bar fight, thus far. Perhaps it was an omen…?
I quit a successful career directing documentaries and producing TV shows to launch an eco-business. It was galling that the machinations of the banking industry destroyed my beautiful enterprise. And nearly took me with it.
In short order I suffered serious illnesses and was even in intensive care at one point. Then a chronic injury. Lost the decade long relationship with the mother of my child. Found myself dragged into a brutal child custody battle. I lost my wealth, health and many of my friends and family. It was the very toughest of times.
God, how I needed a laugh. Laughs. Anything to break up the relentless waves of pain, despair and misery. I say all this as a credentialled optimist.
cat-herder, it’s an unfortunate truth that I have often had to be my own doorman/bouncer
The “hobby” of running the amateur comedy nights brought me into a weird and wonderful world of people. Meeting folk that I would unlikely have encountered in any other way. The shows, and this extraordinary clan, gave me focus, laughter and distraction when most urgently needed.
The tale of finally getting up on stage as an open-miker (at my own gig) and then traversing into MCing is best told another time. However, it needs to be understood that I did indeed make that journey. The odyssey continued when I split with the guy I started the original nights with. I went solo. I rebranded, expanded and became a professional in an amateur world.
The journey was from one show a fortnight to 6 shows per week. The We Are Funny Project was soon offering more than 350 “spots” per month. I began introducing workshops and… but this is not the point.
It’s said that, “If you can get paid for what you already love, you’ll never work a day in your life”.
That’s not exactly true. It was an epic amount of work and exhausting at times. Yet I did just about always love it.
Given my legal troubles, personal issues, these gigs and the people in them proved to be just the tonic. My days were spent organising shows, alongside managing my woes. My evenings were at the events, getting ever stronger as an MC and laughing my arse off at many of the performers.
While on stage it was impossible for me to concern myself with any of my other problems. This gave me space to feel alive, to be connected with the audience, to share post-show drinks with new friends. Some of these friends became colleagues. They helped me run more and more shows. We introduced bizarre new formats. The Project soon maximized opportunities for acts across London.
As time went on, it became less about escaping my own issues and more about addressing the travails of other folk in my rooms. People make all sorts of flippant comments about performers. They suggest that comedians are actually all depressives. That they have “daddy issues” or are narcissistic attention junkies, etc.
In broad strokes, I have staged spots for well over 10,000 people. Encountered very many. Signed them in and watched them perform at least. Often chatting after the show or seeing them return time and again. I have to disagree with such characterizations.
Those negative traits are not a requirement to be a comedian, though it’s true, they can sometimes help a career. I have met thousands of performers who seem to evade any of these, or similar, descriptions. Yet at the same time, sure, I have encountered these traits in heaps of people on the scene. I’m sure I would have found a percentage in any group of 10,000+ people. I am convinced these traits are a bug and not a feature.
Nonetheless, The Project has always had “regulars” and some of these men and women have been deeply troubled. Some of them you could tell something was up just by engaging with them. Some vibe, mannerism or comment proving to be distressingly revealing. While others had their wounds a little more concealed, more a slow reveal in some instances. There was often a fragility, sometimes a vulnerability that needed protection.
The expression “safe space” has become a much more common term in recent years, but in the early 2010's it wasn’t really a thing. All the same, I tried my best to create a “safe space” for the acts. And quite frankly, the audiences.
First of all, while being an MC, promoter and general cat-herder, it’s an unfortunate truth that I have often had to be my own doorman/bouncer. This means I have a responsibility to prevent the worst elements entering the room. If they make it into the room and behave too egregiously, it’s often been down to me to get them out.
The former is easier than the latter. In the earlier days I detested how, for example, some of the vaguely more experienced acts lorded it over the very newest performers as though they were Billy Big Bollocks.
An act with four gigs doesn’t yet know that an act with sixty gigs really isn’t that far ahead of them in experience. This is especially true when “Mr 60 Gigs” puts it as “Yeah, I’ve been going about 3 years now…”.
I swiftly stopped booking those types, and other dreadful people. Many of them then swiftly became vocal critics of my shows. Enraged that they were excluded and largely self-deluded as to the reasons. They often caused considerable problems. Yet I kept them out and the shows persevered. Indeed, without these most toxic types, they flourished...
undertaking of vulnerability
I’m not a big bloke. Hardly an intimidating spectre. I have had to endure a drunken audience member spitting in my face. I have been followed to my motorbike after the show by a failed drunken headliner wanting a fight (thank goodness for heavy bike lock chains). These, and other incidents, have all been a grim part of the job. It’s a miracle I haven’t had the crap kicked out of me yet (and many have tried).
After a little time, the wankers petered out. The room became even better and the acts sensed it, taking on a new lease of life. Some began to really swing for the fences with their comedy. Publicly getting whatever irked them, off their minds.
Audience members could pop in and watch a show after a tough day at work. Let the laughter out and the endorphins play. The fact that a bar is always nearby helps, I am sure. Though I am convinced the laughs beat the liquor in terms of healing whatever ails. And that’s just the audience…
It has always amazed me how few people in open mic are big drinkers or druggies. There are some, but probably more who used to be one of those things and have seemingly found a way of filling out their lives by performing comedy.
Comedy is jokes. Jokes are premises. Premises are ideas, emotions and observations. Of course comedians use their performances as a kind of therapy. They seek to connect with a crowd. Often look to replace an old vice with this new artistic pursuit.
The very act of getting on stage is an undertaking of vulnerability. Comedians offer themselves up to a room full of strangers and seek reward and validation in the form of communal laughter. It’s a strange and wonderful hobby. It’s not golf.
Some come to watch and wipe away worldly stresses with giggly endorphin rushes. Acts have the stones to actually go on stage and maximise the thrills by being the one to produce the laughs. Comedy is pretty damned special in bringing mental health benefits.
Being made to laugh. Or better still, being the one to make the laughter, feels good. Indeed it can feel somewhere between infuriating and ecstatic. That's quite a range. Thrilling, in fact.
The healing power of comedy saw me through my worst days and I am so very grateful. I have watched it carry many others through tough times. It is with a degree of pride that I realise We Are Funny Project has been, for many years, a “safe space” for people to perform at, experiment, hang out and have laughs.
Without seeking it out, I soon discovered an added tier to running gigs. I was often a post-gig tonic or even a shoulder-to-cry-on for several performers. Following a bad set, many acts looked crushed and it became part of my unrequested remit to try and bolster them, offer an authentic kind word backed by an honest critique, or whatever… “Do you want to grab a drink and join us..?” as we gathered after the show, seemed a favourable approach, and it turned out, often the bridge to a new social connection. For them and for me.
Comedy is a community and laughter is most definitely a kind of therapy. It’s also a lot less expensive than a therapist.
Other acts were clearly, and impressively, supportive of other performers, on and off the stage. And, supportive of me. I wish to say that I am so very grateful that many of these comedians helped to carry me through the darkest of times. These artists were so thoughtful, kind and most of all, funny. I thank you all.
Disclaimer: Please don’t stop taking your meds and start taking the stage as an alternative. It might be good to do them together. I am NOT a qualified medical professional, but I know what I know and I have seen what I have seen. Laughter, most definitely, has healing properties. Comedy is a gift. Please enjoy it and all that comes with performing.