My First Stand-Up Comedy Gig
Trying not to die — both literally and metaphorically
The window was small. Certainly too small for me. A svelte cat might be able to wriggle through, but an overweight, middle-aged man? No chance.
However, it was worth a try.
The MC would be finished soon — I had to be out of here by the time he was done. Escape — that was my only option. Which meant trying to squeeze my fat —
“Please welcome to the stage Steven Fitzgerald!”
Crap. Too late.
Giving the window a final contemptuous sneer, I plastered a fake smile on my face and pulled the black curtain open. I’ve no recollection of how I made my way from the green room to the stage. But that’s where I had now found myself.
On a stage.
In a comedy club.
A packed comedy club.
As is obligatory, I had shaken the MC’s hand, and he departed. I lifted the microphone out of its holder and — making sure I didn’t entangle my feet with the cable — picked up the stand and put it behind me.
I turned and faced the audience —
What had I agreed to?
The journey to that stage had begun two months earlier when I had started working for a comedy club — the mighty Laughterhouse in Liverpool.
It was my dream job. I loved comedy and I loved the people I worked with. We were a small band of misfits trying to bring laughter to the fine citizens of Merseyside. And we succeeded. Our club was popular — our shows were always sold out on the two nights we were open, Friday and Saturday.
Did I have aspirations to be a comedian? I’d written and directed a few sketches with two friends but my divorce had brought that enterprise to an end. I knew I’d like to return to that once I’d adjusted to single life but I wasn’t actively considering a career performing. However, if I ever got the chance to give it a go, I would.
As it turned out, that opportunity came quicker than expected.
The club ran an introduction to stand-up comedy in conjunction with Liverpool Football Club — Take a Stand. To gain a place, you had to be unemployed but actively seeking work. The course was designed to build a participant's self-confidence, a quality that would give you greater self-belief with interviews, but also provide an emotional boost after a long time out of work.
The format was simple. For five weeks, you’d work with two professional stand-up comedians. In our case, comedy titans Chris Cairns and Phil Chapman. Under their gaze, the participants would complete confidence-building exercises as well as — slowly — develop their own routines. A routine that, in the sixth and final week, you’d perform at Laughterhouse to an invited audience.
One of the — many — perks of being employed by Laughterhouse, was a place on the course. One that I, initially, declined.
The proposition was terrifying. Especially to my just-divorced mind. My own self-confidence was in the gutter — to put myself through the torture of trying to make a roomful of strangers laugh seemed beyond perverse given that my self-esteem was non-existent.
Bombing in front of a hundred people was the last thing I needed.
But even more so given that I knew what I would be letting myself in for.
By this point, I had managed dozens of shows at the club. As an employee or as a punter, the atmosphere of the cramped cellar that doubled as our performance space was electric when full. Even now, it’s still one of my favourite places in the world.
However, to walk onto its tiny, raised stage and try to control that space, and make everyone giggle? That took an act of courage I didn’t believe I possessed.
It also required a huge slice of insanity.
No, thank you. I was good as I was.
So, why did I change my mind?
Simple, really. I needed to do it.
Take a Stand
This wasn’t about fulfilling a dream or taking the first steps in my fantasy career. Although I had vague aspirations to be more involved in comedy, as I said before, the time wasn’t right. Also, the idea of doing stand-up never appealed. I loved it but it never seemed very ‘me.’
I’d always felt more at home with sketch comedy. Not only did I love the unfettered silliness of programmes like ‘Monty Phyton’s Flying Circus’, but I also liked the fact that — as a performer — when you acted in sketches you were hiding behind outlandish characters.
Stand-up was a million times more exposing.
Granted, you’re still hiding behind a persona — no stand-up is the same person off-stage as on it. It’s not the real ‘you’ on that stage but a carefully crafted character you’ve developed. If done well, that persona amplifies your material. But, although heightened or exaggerated, that persona is still largely ‘you.’
And it’s a ‘you’ that is flying solo.
When you’re performing with someone else, if something goes wrong, there’s a chance they can bail you out. Forget your lines? Well, there’s at least one other person on stage with you — if they’ve got their wits about them, your mistake can be covered. But, on your own? With no one else to help out? Jeez, no way.
However, that became the very reason I chose to do the course. To prove I could do something — anything — on my own.
I had just gotten divorced and was trying to rebuild my own life. And I was struggling. It wasn’t simply that I had spent the majority of adulthood in a relationship, and had mostly had someone else to share the burden with. It was also due to chronically low self-esteem, an issue I’d struggled with for as long as I could remember.
And it wasn’t going away.
A very large part of me still didn’t think I could make a success of post-married life. After all, I’d screwed up almost everything else — I’d probably screw this part up as well, wouldn’t I?
Well, I would if I maintained that attitude.
Agreeing to participate in the course was a tiny, first step toward stretching my wings. To prove that I could fly solo. Suddenly the very name of the course — Take a Stand — took on a greater significance.
The more I considered this, the more it seemed to matter.
So I said ‘yes.’
Instantly I regretted it.
Learning to be Funny
The first few weeks were tough and clearly showed me how low my confidence was.
I had studied drama at university so wasn’t a stranger to either performing or improvising. After graduation, I had run countless theatre workshops so knew how to control a group’s attention. And I was a comedy geek — over the last year alone, I had seen hundreds of hours of live comedy — surely some of that must have rubbed off?
In answer to the last question, no — it hadn’t. I was as funny as typhus.
And all those years spent performing and teaching back when I had the recklessness of youth didn’t count for anything. I wasn’t that person anymore. I was no longer a vibrant, risk-taking actor/director — I was a sad, slightly broken, middle-aged man.
And Take a Stand might just be the biggest mistake of a life that hadn’t been short of outrageous missteps.
In fairness to Chris and Phil, they dealt with my utter abjectness with compassion and unfailing support. And they made the course fun. Starting gently, we improvised a lot of very bad, unfunny jokes. We took turns going up on stage and speaking nonsense into the microphone. I hated every nerve-wracking second but it wasn’t due to the tutors’ lack of effort.
However, halfway through and I was considering quitting. This was supposed to help foster my confidence — so far, all it had done was erode it a little further.
My utter inability to generate any funny material wasn’t helping.
A Blackhole of Comedy
Following Chris and Phil’s advice, I started carrying around a notebook.
Anytime anything happened in my everyday life that sparked my imagination, I wrote it down. Most of these notes weren’t funny but, as I’d been taught, that wasn’t the point. The humourous part of a joke was often the last bit to arrive as it needed crafting and honing.
What mattered at the outset was that you had found a subject or issue that had triggered some response within you. Once you’d explored it, once you’d found out what part of that subject intrigued or resonated with you, and once you’d figured out what your attitude towards that subject was, then engineering a ‘set-up’ and ‘punchline’ was relatively straightforward.
The actual joke you created was rarely instantly brilliant — if most of writing is rewriting, then almost ALL of comedy is rewriting.
You will still need to remove redundant words, sharpen the imagery, and heighten the ‘punch.’ Quite frankly, it's one of the most laborious things I’ve ever done. It’s linguistic micro-management on an ant-like scale.
But as long as you have enough material to shape, rewriting and finessing is possible.
My problem was that I had nothing.
My notebook was getting fuller by the day but nothing funny was emerging.
Until, suddenly, it did. With abandon.
An Actor Prepares
Of all the lessons I learned during this experience, one of the greatest was to trust the process.
As long as you put the hours in, eventually, something will emerge.
You just have to keep focusing on the process, and on doing the work. And, really, you have to as it’s the only part you have any control over. I felt a bit stupid at realising this as it was an idea I’d been introduced to twenty years earlier and paid almost zero attention to.
Like every other drama student on the face of the planet, whilst at university, I studied the work of Konstantin Stanislavski, the founding father of naturalistic drama. Before him, theatre acting was declamatory and amateurish. It was his ideas, primarily devised whilst being the first director to stage the masterpieces of Anton Chekov, that ushered in a new style of performance, one that is still the predominant approach today — psychological realism.
I’m constantly amazed that — for a module I hated studying at the time — just how many of Stanislavski’s words stayed with me. For, although he may have called his book ‘An Actor Prepares’, it’s really about the creative process as a whole. Not least when he discusses the interplay between the conscious and subconscious mind.
Management gurus and psychologists would later call these two distinct areas the ‘left’ and ‘right’ sides of the brain. But, Stanislavski was one of the first to identify the two different cognitive sections, and — more than that — explore how we could tap into each half's distinct strengths as well as negate their weaknesses.
In terms of acting, the conscious mind is where you store all the dull stuff — your character’s biography, the director’s instructions, and the actual lines of the play. If you just execute all of that in performance, you’ll be okay. Depending on your innate skill and technical training, you might even attain the heights of ‘good.’
But brilliant? No.
In order to soar, you need the subconscious part of your brain to kick in.
This is where the magic happens. It’s where your imagination, memories, and creative problem-solving skills reside. Your subconscious mind takes all those boring elements and, using all the good stuff, fuses them together to create something that — consciously — you couldn’t.
The more material your conscious mind collects, the more potent the results your subconscious creates.
There’s only one drawback — unlike your conscious mind, you can’t access your subconscious mind. There’s no direct path to it.
All you can do is feed it.
That’s why Stanislavki advocated forgetting about it — you can’t control it. Ignore your subconscious mind and focus on what you can control. But, what can you control? The conscious mind.
In other words, the process, darling. The process.
Keep working, reading, and trying new things out. And then keep doing it. Give your subconscious mind the raw materials to work with. However, don’t work yourself to exhaustion. Take a break. Listen to music. Exercise. Socialise. Just as it is with any creative endeavour, those respites give your subconscious time to assimilate everything you’ve thrown at it.
Once it’s suitably fed but also rested, and once all those disparate ideas you absorbed have had a chance to coalesce, your subconscious mind will start giving you slivers of magic.
I can’t say that my subconscious mind delivered magic, but it was a damned sight better than the dross my conscious mind had been mulling over.
One night, a few days before we completed the fourth week of the course, my engorged brain suddenly started feeling talkative.
I wrote a ten-minute stand-up set in one evening. It wasn’t brilliant — by God, did it still need work. But those silly little individual thoughts I wrote in my notebook stopped being the incoherent, demented ramblings of a madman and started to take on the appearance of jokes.
And, once I had one joke, I began to see what joke might follow.
Slowly, sequences of jokes began to emerge.
I had jotted down a lot of things about growing up in a military town but not being connected to the army in any way. Aldershot is a strange place no matter what eyes you look at it through — not being a military brat it was even weirder. I began to put any observations about my hometown together.
Suddenly, I had whole sequences about Aldershot. I saw gaps where I needed a new joke or where I needed to quickly explain something about growing up in the Home of the British Army. I started to develop jokes that would make comparisons to my adopted hometown of Liverpool — where I’d be doing the gig — and Aldershot.
Whilst I wrote, I also realized that some of my stories painted me as an idiot. And that was liberating. Comedy is one of the few places where we don’t have to pretend to be perfect — in fact, the more of an idiot you are, the funnier the effect.
Although I’d exaggerated some of my tales, my innate flawed idiocy shined like a beacon. When I began the course, I had an image in my head that I’d be as smooth as Seinfeld, impressing everyone with my intelligent observations. Turns out I was more Steve Martin — all I needed was a plastic arrow through my head and the image of an idiot was complete.
Now I had a persona as well. That of an idiot. Which gave me more jokes.
Then, after a few hours, I had a set.
All I had to do now was show it to the rest of the group.
I wish I could remember that fourth week. But I was too nervous to retain anything. After our warm-ups, I went on stage and delivered my routine to the rest of the group. It was still ramshackle but at least it was a routine.
The other participants were very kind. They genuinely seemed to like it.
As did Chris and Phil. Who told me I’d now be closing the gig.
I’m trying to underplay that but I still smile when I recall that conversation. Even if I had suffered a hideous accident and never performed at the showcase, professional — and very, very funny — comedians telling you that they liked your act and are putting you on last was a big vote of confidence.
Thank you, Mr Cairns and Mr Chapman— I’ll never forget that.
The next week we practised our acts again and received our final bits of feedback. I added new bits, and cut away the parts that had never landed. In the days that followed, I went to work, looked after my daughters, and bought a new shirt specially for the gig. In quieter moments, I rehearsed my set in my head.
I knew I had a decent set. I also had a funky new shirt. I wasn’t worried. Nah, not even a little bit.
Don’t worry, I more than compensated for that later.
I’m not sure when the nerves started in earnest. But I knew they had arrived when, from the safety of the greenroom, I peered out into the venue to see six of my friends in the front row. And then another four in the second row. This was bad for the front two rows are the only ones you can from the stage — the lights shroud the rest of the room in darkness.
If I died, I’d be able to see the faces of my friends as I did so. Thanks, guys.
As the start of the show grew closer, the normal rules of time didn’t apply. In stark defiance of anything Professor Stephen Hawking ever wrote, a minute no longer lasted sixty seconds. We had obviously fallen into a wormhole where time was being squeezed — minutes flew by in seconds. It was like being on that watery planet in ‘Interstellar’. Except without Anne Hathaway for company.
As the rules of time seemed to have been suspended, so did the laws of human biology. My body was no longer a fully-functioning collection of vital organs but a sack of fleshy uselessness that needed to go to the toilet a lot and was shaking like Frankenstein's Monster after his creator had rammed a million volts into his neck. I also appeared to have ingested a flesh-eating parasite that was taking large chunks of my stomach lining.
However, soon there were more important things to consider now.
Mainly, we had reached eight o’clock.
The hum of the auditorium descended into silence as the house lights came down, and the walk-on music kicked in. I wish I could tell you what track was played but — truly — I have no idea.
Chris, performing MC duties for the evening, marched out of the green room and onto the stage. I recall his first jokes getting big laughs but I zoned out after that. The synapses in my brain were whizzing and sparking uncontrollably — it was as if someone had sawn off the top of my skull, poured soda over my brain, and then plopped a roll of Mentos in there.
It was okay though — I could chat with the other performers whilst I waited to be called to my doom. Except I couldn’t. Once they’d done their act, they sensibly retreated to the bar to get drunk. As I was on last, this meant watching the green room slowly empty until it was just me in there.
By the time we reached the end of the show, I hated them all.
Then it was my turn.
Chris went on to whip the audience into one last frenzy. One I’d be deflating a few seconds later once I’d opened my mouth and told my first joke — hang on, I didn’t have any. My mind was as empty. Blank. No — that’s not right. I had loads of stuff in there. Loads.
I couldn’t even remember my date of birth.
I began eyeing up the window.
Maybe I could —
“Please welcome to the stage Steven Fitzgerald!”
I smiled a fake smile on my face and pulled the black curtain open. Careful not to trip over, I made my way from the green room to the stage. I shook Chris’ hand and he skipped off towards the bar. I lifted the microphone out of its holder, picked up the stand and put it behind me.
I turned and faced the audience —
“Hello. My name’s Steven. And I’m not from Liverpool. You can probably tell that by the way I’m talking. (PAUSE) Properly.”
Thank you, brain. Thank you.
My memories of the next ten minutes are a series of snapshots. A sensory montage of individual moments that have been edited by someone with no editing skills and who was more than likely drunk when they tried to piece the experience together.
I remember my friend Sean laughing at a joke I told about running into an army patrol back when I was an inebriated teenager.
I recall Phil — one of the course's tutors — smiling when I launched into an atrocious Irish accent. That was his idea and I didn’t think I could pull it off — his face told me I had.
I remember enjoying every single second and still being surprised every time I got a laugh.
Most of all, I recall the sense of satisfaction when I finished. The applause was nice but probably more out of sympathy than anything else. It was more the fact that I’d done it.
I’d flown solo.
To say that the next few years didn’t go as planned would be an understatement of galactic proportions. A brief stay in a psychiatric ward was the nadir. It is one of my biggest regrets that I wasn’t able to build on the platform given to me that night. However, as I slowly rebuild my life and sanity, that night is one I cling to tightly.
Every time I doubt myself, I imagine myself on that stage.
I recall that I can do it.
I always knew Take a Stand would be important to me. I knew that as I was doing it. But, as time rolls on, it becomes more than just a cherished memory. It’s a reminder that with support and camaraderie anything is possible. That laughter is always healthy. That I am capable. That I can even be funny when I want to.
More than that, it’s a reminder to trust the process.
Never — ever — stop working. If you keep going, tiny slivers of magic will appear.
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