A couple of months back when I decided to go and see some live comedy in the city. I mostly avoid watching stand-up, because I’ve picked up the habit from real comedians of sitting at the back, nodding and saying “Okay, that’s funny”, instead of actually laughing. Also, after a decade or so of orbiting comedy, I was pretty burnt out on watching it. The last time I’d seen any stand up in the US was in 2002 or so, and it wasn’t that appealing. Racist jokes about Mexicans and other people who don’t go to comedy clubs, extended Seinfeldisms, and witty self-deprecation from guys who were hovering dangerously close to public self-loathing didn’t seem that interesting.
The show I went to in April was interesting, though. Even the new acts were clearly very polished, and the established acts were clearly going in interesting directions. Nobody made bad mistakes, and some of them were making deliberately great “mistakes” — trying out new directions that most circuit stand-ups just don’t dare do. The mood of the show was very upbeat and friendly, and the comedians obviously liked each other and hung out socially. I went away thinking “there’s something going on here”, and spent the night clicking around the web to find out what it was.
Here’s what I patched together. In 2000, San Francisco got a comedy college, started up by old hand Kurtis Matthews. Matthews had been doing comedy from 1984 onwards, starting in L.A. and rising up with Bill Hicks, Jon Lovitz and others. In the late Nineties, he burned out on the dream and instead pursued his (by then) elaborate fantasy of actually getting a proper office job and not having to live out of Travelodges, Denny’s and unfriendly bars. But still the back-monkey wouldn’t exit: he still wanted to be involved in comedy, just not as one of its many frazzled front-line infantry in the sweatshop comedy club chains of America. So he started teaching comedy in his home town: taking all those people who wanted to do stand-up the way some people want to sky-dive — not necessarily as a career, but as a primal fear to overcome — as well as semi-professionals who wanted some honest feedback and advice from people who weren’t, at that moment, drunk and waiting for buffalo wings.
My stand-up career began and ended on a Summer night in Edinburgh in 1990. I’d finished college. My parents had just separated, so I didn’t really have a home to come back to. I’d rolled up to the Fringe without any shows to be in, because one of my friends had called me and told me that my best friend had broken up with his practically-wife, and was now sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend. Oh, and they were all trying to run shows and sleep in the same room, as you do when you go to Edinburgh for the Fringe. I think I was there on a combination-mission of suicide-watch and youthful rubber-necking.
I also desperately needed to know what to do with my life. My college friends, Ben Moor and Al Murray, were both setting off to London to be famous. Others, like Stewart Lee and Rich Herring, were already there, grinding through the circuit. Armando Ianucci was I think doing some weird thing on Scottish radio, but there were rumours he was heading down south too. We all knew Armando was brilliant. We all wanted to be there when he hit. Meanwhile, my father, alone and worried that I was become attracted to a duther education course in Advanced Bohemian and Defaulted Student Loans, had put in an application in my name for a job at a computer magazine called .EXE. They were asking for 1000 words and an example of my coding style.
I hung around Edinburgh, without a show. I stood in as compere for a lunch show we did called the £1.99 cabaret, masterminded I think by Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley. Eventually I plucked up enough courage to do a real open mic, outside the protection of an audience half-made up of my friends. I’d seen Stew and Rich do it; it couldn’t be that bad, could it?
I don’t remember much. I remember we all had 30 seconds or so before we were gonged off. I remember a Scottish lady actually standing on a table and screaming at me “You’re shite!” for most of my half-minute. I remember running into Simon Munnery, but I couldn’t tell him what had happened. I wandered around Edinburgh’s yeasty night for hours.
At the end of the night, I decided, grandiosely, that I had two options as a life goal. Either I could do stand-up, or I could try and devote my life to writing a computer program that would make people cry (with happiness or sadness, I didn’t care). I plumped for the latter. No-one I explained it to understood what I meant at the time, because this was before Myst or Doom or the Internet. A few weeks later, I went for the interview at .EXE. They asked me who my favourite comedians were. They hadn’t heard of them, because all my comedy heroes were 23 years old or younger. I was 21.
Kurtis asked the same question at the first class: who is your favourite comedian? To most answers, he’d do a little deconstruction of their technique, or an anecdote. He hadn’t head of Stew, but he probably has now — he’s just come back from London, where he’s working on a BBC show where he’s training up a bunch of would-be comics for their Edinburgh Fringe debut.
I love the class (it’s five weeks long, and I’m in week 3). I’m twenty years away from the kid with pretentious theories of comedy and a deep-seated hatred of anything that wasn’t fiercely novel. I don’t have to write jokes for a living, which means I don’t have those hyperventilating panic attacks (when I wrote with Al, who was a machine gun of gags, I remember him watching me and saying “Danny, don’t do this. Writing more than a joke a day kills you.”). I don’t want to be famous, and I don’t want to give up the day job. I just know that I feel a bit saner the morning after I’ve made people laugh.
Also, I suddenly find comics fascinating again. I’ve been catching up on a decade of talent on YouTube and else where. This week, I watched about five hours of live comedy at the Clubhouse, stumbling or swooping through new material in the live comedy club that literally runs next door to the lesson. The show goes on while I’m in the class. If you put your name down for the open mic spot, they come and get your from the classroom. You get three minutes, same as any other open mic, but the compere is kind and the audience knows what they’re getting. It’s five dollars and bring your own bottle: cheaper than the £1.99 cabaret, after inflation.
Of course, my three minutes sucked. Even lowering my sights from the ridiculous levels my 21-year old self set (no, nobody ever cried at my computer programs, either, except in code review), I’m rusty and old and out of touch and nervous. I had no material for my first open mic, so it was just me doing improvisatory gabble with a bunch of tourists from Jersey. After the show, some of them said their friends were going to see Al at the O2 arena.
My second open mic, I bombed like nothing on earth, missing the audience, missing the jokes, in a self-contained flop-sweat world of my own. My third was … okay. There were two paying customers. I did jokes about being English.
I really wanted to make the other comedians laugh. I remember that was what I always liked the most, seeing Ben or Ed or Al crack up in the corner of the room. The clubhouse comedians laughed when I almost broke the mic stand, but nothing else really worked. The woman in the audience, Sarah, smiled and nodded her way through the act. I know this, because I spent the whole time staring at her.
I think Kurtis saw the show in which I bombed. At the next class, I muttered something about “laughter points”, and said something overcomplex that boiled down to “why isn’t anybody laughing?”.
— Are you on tonight? How many jokes do you have lined up?
I showed him the back of my hand, where I’d written seven jokes.
— Do two of them.
In the end, I did three.
It’s okay. It’s not shite.