Back to the comedy grindstone

Oct 5 / Alfie Noakes

Tuesday September 28th 2021 was only the fifth show since the We Are Funny Project started running shows again after the lockdowns and pandemic madness of the previous 18 months. As an MC with more than 1000 gigs under my belt, even I was wondering about how rusty and awkward I would be after such a long time away from the stage.

As it turned out, I was convinced after the third show back that I was well on track to trusting myself to be a decent host again, to open my mouth and find something suitably amusing falling from it, often learning at the same time as the audience exactly what I was going to utter. Some kind of mental muscle memory awakened and a form of flow was with me again. Maybe not up to 100%, but suitably reliable and funny, and surely only going to improve gig by gig.

"live shows are currently facing a sea change that is unprecedented"

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A change has occurred

Already, after just 6 shows back, I have come to realise that our scene and the live shows are currently facing a sea change that is unprecedented. Frankly, I rather like much of what is happening. In the main it is fascinating and, to be honest, occasionally irritating. You know, like how comedians often are…

Of course, I am not the only one who needs to “shake off the rust”. In London many open mikes have been running since July and so the acts have had a chance to get perhaps 20 – 30 gigs by the time my stage opened for them, that is, if they were pushing and trying really hard. The reality is, many acts have performed not at all or maybe half a dozen times since July, which is the same as saying maybe half a dozen gigs since March 2020. There is a lot of rust to be shaken off, throughout our community.

"delightful vibrations from rolling laughter that only a live and in-person event provides"

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Who's Zooming who(m)

Add to this the fact that the lockdowns were a prime opportunity for comedians to be writing (but not live performing in the traditional sense) new material, we are faced with a sea of performers who have experience, rusty as it might be, also landing with untested comedy content. Yes, there were a host of Zoom gigs, which will certainly have helped to keep the acts in some form of condition. However, I imagine that it could only help so far, perhaps in contrast to a track athlete they are suddenly restricted from having a coach supporting them, and instead of a running track within a stadium they are restricted to laps in their back gardens, dodging the kids toys and ducking under the apple tree as they get some cardio but never approach their full speed and potential.

I believe that Zoom gigs were valuable for the comedy community to keep in touch, chat and see one another, find a focus for writing the new stuff, and enjoy some all-important humour injections during some genuinely dark days. I am not knocking Zoom gigs, but it should be recognised that they never could provide the undeniable energy and feedback, the art of “reading the room” or the delightful vibrations from rolling laughter that only a live and in-person event provides.

"When this is over I’m definitely going to follow my dream, you never know what’s going to happen in this weird world and so once these lockdowns ease I’m going to go to… dominate the Southern hemisphere with nothing more than charm and an army of gifted toddlers"

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New faces, new talent, old issues

Then, of course, we have a huge pool of new acts entering the scene. I can only imagine that during lockdown a litany of folk have said to themselves something akin to, “When this is over I’m definitely going to follow my dream, you never know what’s going to happen in this weird world and so once these lockdowns ease I’m going to go finally try and perform stand-up comedy/learn to ride a horse/become an actor/dominate the Southern hemisphere with nothing more than charm and an army of gifted toddlers”.

Thus, there are lots of new faces and acts and jokes. Personally, I think this is wonderful. After more than a decade promoting and MCing gigs across London I knew pretty much every act, at least at a certain level, and had often come to memorise half of their set from seeing them perform so many times (which was the inspiration for the We Are Funny Challenge shows which required acts to generate new material and freshen up their work).

New acts, by definition, means new material. New material, almost always needs working on, editing, polishing, the tone and delivery experimented with, etc. etc. etc.

So, while the new faces are refreshing the scene, through absolutely no fault of their own, it’s the nature of the stand-up art form, their jokes are often not very good. Yet.

The potential is thrilling and I like that fact very much. However, right now, as a booker as well as promoter and MC, I have found I have to be more mindful.

So many new acts arriving at the same time, means that I have to press upon them some of the elements, attitudes and protocols of our beloved comedy scene.

Here are some examples of behaviour that I have had to manage in the last 3 weeks, since we re-launched. Acts cancelling last minute or simply not turning up. With so many comedy nights in London I imagine the newbies feel they can be dismissive in such a fashion and just get a gig elsewhere. This is true for them, up to a point… and then later realise that they can’t get spots at the better nights, such as We Are Funny Project, because they have cockily burned their bridges early on. A shame for all involved and totally unnecessary. It simply requires a couple of minutes to send a message and be courteous and respectful.

Further, arriving late for “sign in” has proven to be a surprisingly sticky issue. For my shows, acts are required to sign in by 7pm for a gig that starts at 730pm. That half an hour between all acts being signed in and the show starting is critical for me as promoter and MC. I will not write the Running Order until I know who has arrived, it’s pointless to write it before 7pm based on who was booked, in case, for example, 2 of them do not show up. 

“I have made sure every single act has still gotten their spot, no matter what time they arrived, since we re-launched. My relaxed attitude will not last much longer”

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An MC has gotta do what an MC has gotta do

So, in those 30 minutes I need to write the RO, walk the room and ensure everyone knows their spot, change my clothes, check the camera and mic, organise the audience and acts into the best seats for maximum enjoyment and take 5 mins to “get my head” into the show. It’s a tried and tested process that works for me and the acts and the audience.

Every show so far has seen acts wandering in at 715pm. One act went to the wrong venue over in West London and was messaging me to ask where I was. I tell these late acts that they were due at least 15 minutes earlier and in about half the cases they look at me like I’m the problem, being difficult and unnecessarily prickly, when in fact they have put me in the position of rapidly re-writing the running order and needing to switch what I told half the acts in the room, or I could simply tell them they can’t perform. I always have the choice of asking another act to do a 10 rather than a 5, or simply riff with the audience more, and still run to time.

One act on Tuesday September 28th had the courtesy to message she would be 15 mins late, no problem. The other 3 latecomers seemed to think I was the problem, splitting hairs and being bolshy. One had travelled all the way from Brighton for a 5 minute spot (I so admire such level of commitment that I so often see from the acts, amazing) and I would be a monster to turn him away. The fact is, thus far, I have made sure every single act has still gotten their spot, no matter what time they arrived, since we re-launched. My relaxed attitude will not last much longer.

I appreciate the new faces don’t understand that lateness is rarely tolerated in our scene, just as over-running your spot is a no-no. In the previous 3 weeks I have had to take the stage many times, with the act still blathering into the mike, ignoring the light, and forcing me to blatantly curtail their over-run. The new act may think I’m a prick, when in fact, I’m a good MC who will ensure that all acts get fair and equal treatment and the show is paced properly and runs to time.

It's galling and yet, bizarrely understandable, that the folks who don’t yet understand these elements of gigging are also likely to be the ones delivering the least entertaining material, simply by virtue of being new. I fully understand that with practise and thought they will soon up-their-game but in the meantime, they are still doing just that, practising, on my stage… I hope that these budding comedians will soon learn the key protocols of our community and learn to respect them. I’m certainly doing my best to convey the message, in person, and now here in writing.

So, with all of this written, it’s also fair to point out that acts I am very familiar with and have known for years, experienced performers are also finding the need to shake off the rust from not being able to gig at the rate they were accustomed to until around 18 months ago. They also have written a load of new material during the lockdown, and new material, well, I covered this earlier, always needs polishing and editing and working…

“another act confessing he used to f**k all of his toys when he was a kid. Think he got carried away with the “Tickle Me Elmo” craze”

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Fifth show time

Finally, to the show on Tuesday September 28th. Just our 5th gig back and a mere 3 shows since some toe-rag walked in and nicked all the brand new camera equipment I had bought to upgrade what we do, to a mighty Ultra 4k video quality with rifle miked sound. Bah!

The show was a good one. To be honest, I was not sure which way it was going to go until about 20 minutes in. The acts outnumbered the audience which is often not a good sign, however, this audience was wonderful. They laughed loud and long, responded gleefully to questions I raised during the crowd work and were simply “up for it”.

The acts ran through a gamut of material ranging from feeling old at 26 (I’m 47, yah cheeky git) to coming out as bisexual and finding no one cared, concluding, he was the most homophobic person he knew. 2 acts spoke of their IBS, which I would have thought was a niche topic, but apparently not, be careful what you eat, folks.

Another comedian was delightfully open and funny about her physical disabilities which contrasted with another act confessing he used to f**k all of his toys when he was a kid. Think he got carried away with the “Tickle Me Elmo” craze.

We were 5 acts in before the first applause break for a joke, from an act demanding that he brought “Big Dick Energy” to everything he does. Not quite sure what that means, but as I said, first applause break of the show. Maybe he knows something I don’t. (Note: This is not to be read as a commentary on the size of my own genitals. Probably).

The next act up was the late-comer who had travelled 80 miles for a 5 minute set, a one-liner merchant and I was ready to face palm after the first couple of jokes and then the fella hit his stride and had some proper gold, killing the audience, and gaining another applause break in the show. The thing with one-liner acts is that they pack in more gags in their 5 minutes than the next 3 acts combined, rarely is every gag pure gold, but the hit rate was delightfully high and entertaining. Definitely a new talent to watch develop.

The first part of the show was closed by an old hand at comedy, an old hand at everything because he really is old (older than me, and that’s the litmus test, amiright?) and also a personal friend and a self-confessed GILF who brought his bizarre cheeky charm harder than ever before. I’m so glad a fella of his age made it through the pandemic, is back gigging and making me laugh again.

The second half of the show had 4 acts in a row that I had never seen before and averaged about 30 gigs each (and most of those were pre-lockdown) and so I had no idea what to expect. Each and every one got laughs, just some more than others and what might have been lacking in smart punchlines was made up for with degrees of charm, resilience and a willingness to keep going until they got a gag that landed, which they all did, several times.

Finally, the headliner, an old friend of The Project who did some of his earliest gigs with us, even took a couple of our workshops, and is now gigging across the country at pro clubs and has developed to be a truly funny comedian. It was a thrill to have Kuan-Wen Huang back in our room. Kuan-Wen has a niche, I believe, as the only openly homosexual Taiwanese act on the circuit and he brought it. Teasing the audience, landing with new and tested material, ultimately ending his set with highlights from his new musical based on the British Royal family which was simply hilarious. Bookers, I highly recommend Kuan-Wen, there really is no act like him and he has the goods.

Conclusion: Shows can work even when the audience is relatively small, so long as the MC is on form and the majority of acts bring enough solid punchlines. Aaaaand, acts must get the memo to arrive on time and give fair notice if they can’t make the gig. This way, I will be happy to book them again and they get a good stage to improve their comedy and make us all laugh. Which, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about. Make us laugh!


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