Updated: Dec 3, 2021
Twenty-five years ago I got myself an open-spot at the venerable Bearcat comedy club in Twickenham, greater London. I was at university as a mature-ish student (doing Theatre Studies and English) and I’d done 5 minutes of stand-up at the ‘drama social’ event which had gone down well. What I’d overlooked was that I’d performed to a group of my peers and friends who were supportive, got my sense of humour and wanted me to do well.
Thinking I was a comedy genius, I got myself a gig at the Bearcat, a tough (but fair) room. Reader, I didn’t have a clue. I’d written a very strange set that I felt was pushing the boundaries of comedy but looking back was rather self-indulgent and confusing. Performing to forgiving friends was one thing but actual paying punters was a very different situation.
Now, the room had (has?) an unusual set up in that the stage was inserted into the room in front of a door, blocking the bottom quarter of it. To get on stage, you’d duck through the door as you stepped up onto the stage. Then at the end of your set, you’d need to duck as you stepped off the stage and exited through the door. Everyone was fine going on (and the pros managed the duck-and-exit gracefully) but I’d seen many open-spots die and then - as they went off in shame - they’d forget to duck and would bang their head on their way out, compounding their humiliation. I thought, poor bastards this won't happen to me! (You might see where this is going...)
My big night came and following a less than rousing intro from the emcee (warning the audience that I was new and to give me a chance) I entered, remembering to duck. Result! Pleased with that, my opening stupid joke then did get a laugh. I can still remember it 25 years on: “I share a common middle name with my best friend. Our shared middle name is Gives Good. Which is great for Brian Advice. Not so good for me, Chris Head.”
From there I said something weird that had some mild amusement value then launched into a bit about a cannibalistic polar explorer. It didn't have any context or relation to me – it was more like a short story – and when I got confused and had to go back and repeat a bit, the audience’s patience had worn out. The heckling began and lots of audience members were inviting me to get off in no uncertain terms. I tried to plough on for a bit, shouting another bit into the din but then decided to bow out with as much grace as I could muster. (I’d probably been on stage for about 2 minutes of the 5). I thanked them for their attention and said I was glad I had a go and then went off. That was at least a good decision. Ploughing onto the end when you’ve lost the crowd is not something that anyone enjoys.
Not the worst ever death… but as I departed… yes I forgot to duck and I banged my head heavily on the truncated door. Ouch! Now THAT got the biggest laugh of my set. The emcee then came on and made a joke at my expense (fair enough) and the night continued. My one saving grace was that instead of disappearing round the back to lick my wounds as I’d seen so many other open spots do, I went straight round and sat in the audience with my friend. As soon as I crossed the Rubicon and joined the audience, the barracking stopped and I even got a pat on the back from someone behind me and some sympathetic looks. I’d shown I was one of them who had the balls to have a go.
So yes, this final lesson is on the cheerful subject of dying on stage. It happens to everyone. Often when a usually successful comic dies (on a night that’s otherwise going well), it’s because early on the audience decided for some reason that they didn’t like them. What is a death for a comic? Really it’s when an act is going down to total silence or is being heckled to oblivion. Having a quiet audience doesn’t really count although that can be pretty painful too.
Following up on the previous blog about compering, it can be particularly painful when an MC dies as they have to keep coming on repeatedly to a hostile or indifferent audience. I’ve seen gigs where the acts are actually doing okay but the emcee is flat-lining, It’s almost like the audience appreciate the acts as a break from the compere.
When I interviewed Barry Ferns for my book, in some more great quotes that didn’t make the final draft, he had this to say on the subject of ‘deaths’ . Initially, he was talking about an act who was doing a gig in a prison (tough crowd): ‘In the middle of their set, just as a way of getting into a bit of material, they go, “Who went on holiday this year?” That was a terrible setup because nobody did. They’re in prison.’
In terms of dealing with such awful moments, Barry went on to say: ‘You have to accept that this has happened and you have to react. You can’t pretend that something isn’t happening. There are fun ways of dealing with any situation but you have to embody that fun. For instance, I remember being at a gig and it was going terribly. The comedian, he’s a very famous comedian now, he was dying for about 20 minutes. Nobody wanted to be there. He didn’t, they didn’t but it was still happening. He just looked down, looked out of the window and said to a someone in the first row, “Do you believe in an alternate reality?” and she went, “Oh, yes.” He went, “Do you think there’s an alternate reality somewhere out there where I’m having a good gig?”’
What’s the takeaway from all this? I guess it’s acknowledge what’s happening, be gracious and, if you can, be playful too. I’d also suggest getting off early but I guess the comic Barry just discussed was either wanting to do his time to earn his fee or professional pride kept him there.
Anyway, I never made it to the end that night at the Bearcat , but what better place to end these 25 lessons than with a homework on ending your set? The convention is of course to end on a big laugh. Easier said than done. Now here’s another reason why you might want to get off early. If you get a really big laugh and you know you're near the end anyway... get off! That way it’ll look like you’d planned all along for that to be your big finish.
So you have a set? (I should hope so if you’ve read through all twenty-five of these lessons.) Now it’s time to end it. Work through this check-list and try each one, picking one that works for your set. You can even double up with two (or even three) of these endings.
CALL-BACK: This is a very reliable and effective ending technique. You end by unexpectedly bringing back or re-incorporating something from earlier on. Many of the endings that follow could potentially involve a call-back…
FULL-CIRCLE: Definitely involving a call-back, this is a neat ending. With this you take us back to the topic or statement you started with. This, incidentally, is commonly seen in newspaper columns.
PRESENT MOMENT: It can be effective to bring the focus back into the room or the present moment situation right at the end. Eg, if you've been talking about pulling, you can end by directly trying to pull someone from the room.
I’M OFF TO…: End the set by saying you’re off to do something related to what you’ve been talking about. Or even contradicting what you’ve been talking about. See below…REVERSAL: With this ending, you suddenly reverse the polarities of some aspect of your set. Eg: If you've been taking the piss out of something people do that you hate, right at the end you reveal you're off to do it. Or you reveal an extra final fact...
EXTRA FINAL FACT: Can be related the reversal. This is where you bring in one extra piece of information right at the end that casts everything you've said before in a new light. In a great example, I once saw an act who had apparently been a drunken Mancunican revealing that he was in face sobre and spoke with an RP accent.
FALSE DAWN: Here you make it appear that some problem or issue you've been addressing is in fact resolved, but then right at the last you plunge us right back in it. Eg: “I'm only joking! I didn't call off the wedding because of his facial hair! That would be madness. (BEAT) I called it off because of his back hair.”
CALL-TO-ACTION: End with an instruction for the audience to follow or a rallying cry. Eg: “So I urge you all, tomorrow morning go up to your boss and tell them where to stick their job”
.QED: You reach a conclusion based on everything that's been said. You end by saying you've proved your point, maybe with a spurious air of logic or science. This can often be tackedon as an afterthought but the audience will see it as integral. Looking back over your set , what have you proved?
META-ENDING: This post-modern ending is where you step out of the act and refer to the fact that you are trying to end your set. (See p.136 of my book for a great example of this from Sean Lock).
And that’s it for these 25 lessons! Here it all is: a book length treatment of stand-up... for free! Speaking of books, whilst some bits and bobs from these blogs made it into my book, the vast majority of it is new stuff developing and extending what I've written here. Have a look. I have also now written a follow up, Creating Comedy Narratives for Stage & Screen.