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December 13, 2008

What I Learned About Stand-Up Comedy In London

Note: I was going to upload this almost a week ago, but other things took precedence.

There is only one comedy club in Athens, where I live. The one I work at. You'd think it would be hard to get booked, but there aren't a lot of aspiring stand-up comedians in Athens, where I live, either (or established ones, for that matter). As a result, I learned pretty much everything I know by watching HBO specials and reading FAQs on the interet.

Attending a live comedy show is a very different experience to watching an hour-long HBO special.
Let me tell you, sitting among the audience, looking at a sparkling microphone lit by a single spotlight on an empty stage and hearing repeated announcements saying "the show will start in 10, 5, 2 minutes" is a lot more exciting than double-clicking on an .avi file...

Then there's the crowd warm-up and audience interaction that you can't really witness anyplace else. Right off the bat, the comedians' experience was obvious. These guys were professionals. Mind you, not all of them made me laugh. After all, a professional isn't necessarily "better" than an amateur, he just does whatever it is he does for a living - and it was clear these guys had put a lot of work into their acts. Years of polishing their material had allowed them to juice every possible laugh from their concepts, coming at them from all conceivable angles.
You could just tell they'd done thousands of shows. Heard pretty much every possible heckle. And, boy, were there heckles. I went to a Friday late show (it started at midnight) and most of the audience were pretty tipsy even before the show had begun. At some point, a German lady sitting in front of me was just yelling gibberish, considerably lessening my enjoyment. Still, the performers handled it like, well, pros.

I was impressed by how quick-witted they appeared, how they made it seem like they had funny remarks about anything and everything at the tip of their tongues. "Oh, so you're a carpenter? Here's a joke about that. And you, sir? Norwegian? Hah! Listen to this!" There's this trick they do where they repeat the audience's answer to every question ("Where are you from?" "Scotland." "Scotland!") which keeps the people who didn't hear interested, while conveniently buying enough time to think of a comeback. Even so, I wish I had attended a second show, just to figure out how much of it was improvised and how much just looked that way.

Even when mocking the audience, though, they'd put "a little more effort" into the joke. At some point, the host made fun of a patron's open-legged stance. "My balls are so big, I can't sit any other way." he said. Some would have stopped there. After all, he got the laugh. Still, he went one step further: "Saturn has been pushed out of its orbit because of the gravitational pull of my enormous balls". It wasn't as funny, but it gave the (false?) impression that he wasn't just going for the easy dick joke.
I found it interesting that, when interacting with the audience, they would stick to a topic even if it wasn't killing, confident that they'd get a good laugh eventually. Long running jokes and callbacks created a sense of "shared experience" and won us over. Combined with the fact that they answered each. And. Every. Heckle, this really strengthened their frame and won our respect. They made it look like they weren't seeking a response. Curious detail: They didn't ask for audience member's names, rather going straight for "where are you from, what do you do".

Besides the Comedy Store, I also went to a much less glamorous show: it took place in a Hotel basement without spotlights or microphone. The show wasn't sold out (about 40 out of the room's 60 seats were full) and the main act mostly joked around with the crowd, probably the wisest choice, seeing as how the next number - who tried to do straight material, really intelligent stuff with lots of double-entendres - bombed miserably

I was surprised by how much every comedian I saw kissed up to the audience (a behaviour you don't see much in HBO Specials where the egos are bigger and the crowds adoring). Rather than ask us to applaud them, they'd tell us to give our love to the mic or applaud ourselves for being such an awesome bunch. I guess it's easier to say "is that all you've got?" when you're not asking for praise on your own behalf.
Being in the audience also made me realize how hard it is to remember the performers' names... even if you intend to! Dimitris is a common name in Greece and getting people to remember it is a riddle I have yet to solve.

All in all, it was a great experience. Turns out that, in many ways, we have it good, here in Greece. It's a lot easier to get booked, and competition among comedians is much less intense. I'm also proud to say we offer a pretty good show, even by British standards. Our problems are mostly on the marketing side. Unfortunately, the smaller market also means it's impossible to make a living just from stand-up...
More than anything else, seeing stand-up shows in London made me realize I owe it to myself to try my luck abroad.


Dan Fontaine said...

Nice post. Glad you enjoyed the nuances of the show. I'd be interested in the comedy club experience outside of the US. I'm sure there are differences but I'd guess the foundations of the show are the same. Oh, I'm a comic by the way. :] Take care.

Dimitrios Doukoglou said...

The main difference here in Greece (something I hope to touch upon in a future post) is that stand up, as a form of entertainment, isn't really part of our collective consciousness. We get customers who have no idea what they're about to see...

Sukeile said...

I had no idéa about the chaos in Athens, I'm not even sure what to say, it sounds is horrible!

Now for your real entry:
I have only been to one stand up show in my life, it was a fun experience, there are some very sucsessful stand up comedians in Sweden. But they are rarely in Lappland.

The rest of your what you wrote was also very interesting, it was just a bit difficult to take in after reading that wikipedia page. It scared me, I hope things calmed down now and that there were no more deaths.

Please take care!

Dimitrios Doukoglou said...

Glad to see you still have internet access (and electricity :P)

A week has passed since the killing and things haven't calmed down much. It's an odd feeling: I can sense that something "big" is happening, but I can't quite wrap my head around it.
I haven't gone out much in the past week, but I was in a Starbucks a few days ago, and everything seemed so normal, which felt very surreal.

CitizenMac said...

Great post! I love the UK's stand-up comics (Eddie Izzard is a personal favourite, back when he actually used to do stand-up), and it's all the characteristics you describe that really make it work.

Stand-up comedy is such a rare thing in Greece, it's nice to see people actively trying to bring it forward, even if it doesn't quite reach the mainstream (maybe that's for the best...!).

That said, I gotta make it to one of your shows at some point :P