Lesson 22: Thoughts from a Newer Act and A Pro (on Material, Gigs and Shows)
For this the twenty-second lesson I thought I’d speak to a couple of working comics. To get a broad perspective I spoke to one newer act, James Ryan, and one long established pro, Matt Price both of whom hail from the west of England where I now live. Here are their thoughts on getting started as a stand-up and developing your act and career.
CHRIS: How did you get started in stand-up?
JAMES: I started by doing a 6 week comedy course. Without doing it I don't think I'd ever have got behind a microphone.
MATT: I was trying to write a book about boxing. [Matt trained to be a boxer]. It failed. I had some stories about the people I met and wanted to tell them to an audience. I thought a comedy audience would be right and after many years of trying, I was right.
CHRIS: Where are you both at now in your careers?
MATT: I just wanted to be good at comedy. I never viewed it as a career. Comedy isn't a conventional career anyway. There are tried and tested routes to certain places in the business, but for most comics it's a question of developing your craft and keeping yourself busy.
JAMES: I'm still at the relatively early stages, well four-ish years in now, but I'm gigging regularly but not as much as I should be. I also run a couple of my own nights and I have been spending a lot of time writing. I’ve worked on several adverts and I’m just in the middle of recording a spoof podcast show. I’m really trying to focus on the script writing and currently working on several different projects.
CHRIS: What advice do you give brand new comics James?
JAMES: Just gig as regularly as you can, practice your set and, most importantly, write what makes you laugh.
CHRIS: And Matt, what sort of advice do you give newbies?
MATT: I tell them to learn to play the room they are in. It takes time to learn how to read a room, but often if it goes badly it's due to a mistake on my part. So it's worth learning. Other than that, work hard and be nice to people. And be aware that you can learn from every gig, which mean the next time you are in a similar scenario (good or bad) then you will know what to do.
CHRIS: Can you both tell me about your writing processes?
MATT: I tend to try one joke at a time and then build a new bit or story around that. I usually try the joke a few times. It's often an idea rather than something that is fully formed. Most of my material is developed in front of an audience. I find I need that in order to get the rhythm of it. That said, we all work in different ways.
JAMES: I write loads of notes on my phone of anything that I think I could use, then I transfer on to notepads. I've got notepads from four years ago that I still find things in that I can use now. I also find giving myself a deadline helps, some of my best ideas have come just before a deadline.
CHRIS: How often do you do new material in club gigs?
MATT: It depends on the gig. There are times when it's best to just stick to tried and tested material because failure isn't an option in that room. It could mean not getting re-booked for example.
JAMES: I only do new bits on no-pressure new material nights but if it gets a good response I'll try them first in middle slots. I also emcee a couple regular nights with a reoccurring audience so I write a new section each month which I open the first half with.
CHRIS: Are you thinking about doing an Edinburgh show James?
JAMES: One day! it’s on the bucket list but I’m trying to put my efforts in to the script writing now. If I was to take an hour show I'd need to put all my focus on it. Saying that I have an idea about a conspiracy theorist doing a meeting in his local scout hut. The meeting being the show.
CHRIS: Meanwhile Matt, you’ve been doing Edinburgh shows for years in your story-telling style.
MATT: Yes. I've always told stories. It's just that in recent years, storytelling comedy has become a thing. Over an hour, I like to have a narrative and tie up the loose ends at the end of the journey. I've just stuck to what I do and now finally it's become fashionable.
CHRIS: What did you do with this year’s show Matt? (“Last Night a Weegie Saved My Life”, Gilded Balloon, 2018). MATT: The show has gone in a more personal direction in the sense that I had a horrific experience as a child that I never felt I could talk about. The result is that because it's part of the overall story, I've felt that I can. Without meaning to I've done a very "Edinburgh" type show where there is a heartbreaking bit, but it ends up really funny at the end.
CHRIS: How have audiences responded to this?
MATT: I'd like to think that they have enjoyed it. I've had good audience feedback on the way out and on social media. It's also my funniest show yet so that helps to balance the personal stuff. CHRIS: And finally, what keeps it fresh for you?
JAMES: for me it's having a few different projects on the go, though it can be over whelming at times. I had a few months spell of just watching Netflix and going to work and didn't really have much to write about. So, I made a conscious decision to start being busy and going to events, seeking out things to do not turning down any invitations and started getting material that way. Though I did a have a killer a gag about Netflix.
CHRIS: And Matt?
MATT: I try to do what makes me happy on stage. I banter with the audience a lot, which keeps me amused and makes the overall set a bit different every night. Making the audience laugh is my priority. It's really about them, or at it's best, us.
First up James actually touches on something I recommended in the last lesson's homework: get out and about and experience stuff. And Matt draws all his material from his real life experiences. Of course there are stories from your past you can draw on but you can also generate stories.
A great example of this kind of approach was pioneered by Dave Gorman who would go on an absurd mission and build a show out of it. I saw the original "Are You Dave Gorman?" in Edinburgh many years ago when he set about tracking down his namesakes. Another brilliant example I saw in Edinburgh came from Alex Horne who did a show about a year of bird watching with his father. And I've recently helped a comic structure a brilliant show that tells the story of her mission to find a husband in a year.
Your missions need not be so huge and life changing of course. You could set yourself a simpler, more localised task and still get material from it.