Words and Numbers

Oct 30 / Alfie Noakes

Blog based on the live We Are Funny Project Show from an unnamed date in September 2021

First of all, and I have known this forever, some acts will lie about how many gigs they have done. Moreover, in this period-of-time, acts are counting their “lockdown zoom gigs” as a “gig” and I can’t quite accept that.

This was one of our first shows back since we re-launched following that pesky pandemic and trilogy of lockdowns, clearly a lot has changed. Quite frankly, I am still trying to get to grips with what is happening in our Comedy Community.

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More than anything, there is a wave of new faces coming through, and a significant drop-off with acts that were performing regularly in “the before times” and this is bringing a series of pros and cons. 

It used to be, even when booking well over 100 acts per month, I was familiar with about 90% of the acts, in fact, I knew about half their sets by heart. The 10% was what helped keep it fresh for me. My awareness of the quality and tone of the acts helped me to generate a solid running order, and avoid multiple acts tanking in a row (this is to be avoided as a long break from the laughter will sink the night so it’s a case of popping the newer/weaker acts among the bankers) or to separate acts with similar themes/persona from stepping on each others’ toes…

There was a most weird moment as I brought up the next act, and a totally different act got up.

Right now, the equation has flipped on its head. I only know 10% of the comedians, mainly because they are new, but with a heavy smattering of acts new to London but experienced on other circuits. This is super-exciting for me, truly refreshing. 

All the same, right from the beginning of this gig, I was rudely awoken to the fact that I have lost, to some degree, my ability to generate a solid running order which is a key element to the success of the show.

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Being somewhat blinded as I am, to the tone and quality of the previously unseen individual acts, I mainly opted to consider experience to be equivalent to quality, which in absence of any other clues, is arguably the best and only choice. What a mistake on my part. First of all, and I have known this forever, some acts will lie about how many gigs they have done. Moreover, in this period-of-time, acts are counting their “lockdown zoom gigs” as a “gig” and I can’t quite accept that. Zoom gigs did not allow for really reading a room, waiting for the laughs to die-off, building real energy, taking the trouble to travel, alcohol influences and the rest. I have no equation to figure out what a Zoom gig is worth versus a live gig, but I can be as arbitrary as the next person, so I’m going to say ⅓.
Presume that 3 Zoom gigs bring the level of experience that 1 live gig would bring (and I’m probably being generous).

Let’s play out a thought experiment. Assume an act tells me they have 100 gigs. If 60 were more than 18 months ago with a massive break of 18 months, and they have come back and done 40 gigs in the last 3 months, do they really have the quality of an act with 100 gigs?

I would say not.

So, here’s where I went wrong, right at the top of the show.

All experienced comedians know that the rust kicks in quickly if not gigging regularly. Historically, as an MC, I take a 3 week break around Christmas and New Year and have found it takes about 3 gigs to get back up-to-speed. I also found that it took the same 3 gigs to get there after the pandemic, so who knows..?

Ignoring Zoom gigs for a moment. If an act did 60 gigs before lockdown and 40 since, arbitrarily once again, I would half the experience from “the before times” and now the act is nearer 70 gigs experience. We have all taken a hit in our abilities and experience and are fighting to regain them, or are a new act, and thus fighting to build the skill-set for the first time.

So, here’s where I went wrong, right at the top of the show. I put the act that claimed to be the most experienced up first, stating he had “200 gigs”.

There’s an adage in stand-up, “Open with your best joke and close with your 2nd best joke”. 

If that is true, and we ignore my above brain droppings, that’s been 199 tough gigs leading up to another poor gig. Frankly, in retrospect, I don’t believe him. I have barely ever seen an act with that level of claimed experience make so many rookie errors, especially when claiming to have gigged lots since the social rules were eased.

There’s an adage in stand-up, “Open with your best joke and close with your 2nd best joke”. Well, the first part of that is true when writing a Running Order, put your best (or most energetic and eccentric) act up first, so that the audience, just as with a joke, can relax and subconsciously think, “Aaaah, this is funny, I can relax, it’s going to be OK…” and simply start enjoying the show/set.

While the opening act definitely had charm, the majority of his set was referencing minor pop bands from the late ‘90s and early 2000s. There were audience members born since those acts dis-banded. Unless you shared a love of this micro-niche, and had some notable knowledge of the individual band members, then there was no way these jokes could fly. So, in the main, they did not. 

A hard start to the show. Thankfully, I had placed an act that I do know, and consider to be solid, into the second spot and he raised the bar and the laughs, a truly promising and focused new talent. Next up was an act I knew from “before” and he had an entirely new set that blew his old set out of the water and somehow, has learned to be lighter and more charming than ever before, these 2 in a row pulled us out of the quagmire created by the first act. Phew.

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I am running low on patience with acts that are dis-organised or dis-respectful, cancel or arrive late. Tick tock. We Are Funny Project is one of the best rooms in London and I don’t see why I should waste so much time on the dis-organised or a newbie who thinks that all gigs are created equal when they really really are not.

Next up was a comedian that frankly had a “Meh” set, which seems to typify so much, arriving late and then asking to leave “because I have work in the morning” at the break. Of course this person was free to leave, it’s not a hostage situation, but sticking around to watch and support your fellow comedians is both polite and a learning opportunity. Not sure when I’ll allow this act back on my stage but it won’t be this year. 

I am running low on patience with acts that are dis-organised or dis-respectful, cancel or arrive late. Tick tock. We Are Funny Project is one of the best rooms in London and I don’t see why I should waste so much time on the dis-organised or a newbie who thinks that all gigs are created equal when they really really are not.

Anyway, moving along… an old face took the stage, with a new persona and stage name, just 7 gigs since the return of live comedy, or, depending where you draw the line, first gig with me in about 6 years as he had retired. He’s back and had a faultless set, word perfect delivery, great observations, blistering satire and proper belly laughs for me and the crowd. 

The next act up only had 8 gigs under his belt and so my expectations were, quite rightly, on the floor. Newbies have a very hard learning curve, so, far more often than not their sets are not of high quality, and that’s fine, practise and learning make perfect. Except this chap nailed it, yes, an under-developed effort at a stage persona of manic movement was clear, but with jokes as good as those, we have a shining light arrive on the scene. Seriously impressed me and I can’t wait to see where he is in a year, so long as he keeps working hard, seeking to learn and just doing it.

He was “dressed like a bisexual Ghostbuster”

Lovely set from the part one headliner, bringing 10 minutes of mainly beard based comedy and then into the break… with every member of the audience returning (sometimes we lose a few, occasionally gain a few) which is usually a standard-bearer for good times being had by all. And of course, with another drink or 2 in the audience bellies, and the rest of them warmed up, the laughs are easier than ever to elicit.

A delightfully colourful and light-hearted man opened the second half, declaring, quite correctly, that he was “dressed like a bisexual Ghostbuster” which indeed he was. A real turn of joy and smiling charm.

I don’t think I’ve seen a prop comic since 1972 and so it was a refreshing set

Next up was an act whose friends created a significant chunk of the audience, and then he hit us with prop comedy, just 10 gigs into his career. I don’t think I’ve seen a prop comic since 1972 (I was born after 1972, fact fans) and so it was a refreshing set and as entirely hit’n’miss as one may expect. There was gold in there, right amongst the groans. However, he brought such glee to his performance that I was utterly won over. I spoke to him after the show and told him, “There are hardly, if any, prop comics around. It is a disdained form of stand-up, unless you can do it really well, in which case, you are grabbing an entire micro-niche of stand-up and can make it your own. Also, failing this, I think you could be the next Dr Who”. He smiled. Well, he was smiling all the time, he just smiled even more.

There was a most weird moment as I brought up the next act, and a totally different act got up. He happened to be sitting nearer the mike than the actual act I had introduced and the silly sausage got to it before him, reflex action had me shoving him off stage and then re-announcing the due act, and then I departed giving a thumbs up to the act who made a massive rookie error of a) not tracking where he is in the line-up and b) actually listening for the announced name.

The old friend of the club did a fine set, as ever, being unnecessarily brutal on himself while still getting laughs. Then it was time for Mr Eager Beaver to close off the open mike section and he did a solid job, again, an act I have not seen since March 2020 and he has gotten a lot better. Cheeky Monkey that he is.

And so to the headliner… for logistical reasons, the original headliner was not going to make it to the club in time to close the show and so I called on my new friend, Imman Edama, a man of Nigerian heritage yet raised in Ireland, to step in and headline the show. Imman is twice winner of “Irish Comedian of the Year” and was such a delight, working in new material with tried’n’tested and simply thrilled the crowd with charisma, a unique world view and great gags. 

Conclusion

Acts need to be more honest with themselves, and with me. How many sets have you really done? If you did comedy for 2 year from the year 2000 and have just started again in 2021, do you really think you can include all, or even most of, the gigs you did 2 decades ago? I would hope not.

There is no reason to exaggerate your experience to me, all are welcome at We Are Funny Project. Over the years I have hosted over 500 people performing their nerve-wracked debuts, through  to famous TV people, award-winners, etc. I won’t think less of you if you are inexperienced, after all, hard work remedies that… I will think less of you if you big yourself up, trick me into believing you, and then the result is harming the broader show itself. As your MC I have a responsibility to the acts and audience alike, but at the end of the day, my first concern is the quality and fun of the show itself. Acts, please don’t make my task harder, because it brings instant karma, with collateral damage on the other acts. Be honest with yourselves, exactly how experienced are you..? 

Now, acts, build from there.

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