There were many reasons to be anxious ahead of my gig last Friday…
My first gig in weeks. Stand-up comedy might be akin to riding a bike but it helps if the first ride in a while is not uphill which is how I view a 1000 + audience at the high profile Ealing Comedy Festival, which happens to be the town I grew up in, so it is likely that familiar faces will be amongst the throng and adding to the pressure. Plus, the following day I am heading to Greece with a bunch of friends and a smelly gig is not the baggage a comedian wants to take away with him.
Stand up is unquestionably a most unusual beast – an art form riven with contradictions.
Of all the tasks I am called upon to complete, stand-up is the thing I am most proficient at. It is what I am most experienced at, with over 30 years on the boards and thousands of gigs in my locker. I have jokes and stories that work; as long as I get the words in the correct order. And I use the pauses that I know instinctively but are also baked on to my comedy hard drive in case of emergency.
Watching the acts before me, I am struck by what a great art form stand-up is or can be. No other art elicits such a reaction from its audience – which in turn nourishes the performer – a kind of contract, creating a synergy which is almost beautiful.
This Ealing audience happened to be great; full of energy and hope. They might have come to see the only star on the bill (Tom Allen, the host), but they are eager also for the ‘unknowns’ to play their part also. This is the first Ealing Comedy Festival for years, since our masters locked us up for two years and this hiatus might be contributing to the pent up energy and atmosphere. Certainly, the audience are laughing hard and easily it seems with some acts faring better than others and even the weakest act on the bill was politely tolerated. The staging is great. The PA is excellent. Everything is set up for me to have a great gig…
And yet, back stage as my time hurtles towards me, my mind is a flurry of things that might go wrong. I run my links as the effortlessly funny Tom Allen takes to the stage to begin the final section of the show…
And now it is time. Time for me to go to work. An afternoon of fretting and plotting and now all will be decided in the next few minutes.
Finally, I am on stage. Everyone and everything is now on me and my jokes – and a few big laughs in, these ‘contradictions’ occur to me – because stand-up comedy is terrifying and yet it is so bloody easy also. What was I worrying about? My twelve minute allocation is way too short, for me at least, but I think for the audience also. I am relaxed on stage and completely at ease – in stark contrast to my woe only moments before, in the wings and out of the light.
The last act – is supposed to be the best – the headliner who needs to surpass all who have gone before. On stage, I am mindful of time and that I must not do too long. All too tempting with a great crowd and a needy ego. I am doing well and already I might be making things difficult for Paul McCaffrey, the poor sap charged with closing the show.
But I needn’t have worried.
Paul has chops. A seasoned stand-up with a hit podcast to his credit. On his way to the Edinburgh festival, he is also fully match fit, hugely capable and fittingly he brought the house down and definitely topped the bill. On leaving the stage we embraced. Two funny warriors having our Sparta moment.
Also present is my friend Steve Best, a fellow comedian I have written about before. Steve is not on the bill but in-situ with his day job of being a comedy photo journalist. He has a beautiful book forthcoming – Comedian – retailing at an expensive £50 but not so much given the thousands of hours of Steve’s time and effort he has invested. At the gig when I see Steve, I quietly congratulate myself for my own pre-order. I know all about book publishing and hoping for support from my peers that doesn’t always materialise.
Back at home, Nikki has texts from friends who were in the audience and she admonishes me for not recording my set for my ‘gram’. She has a point because this seems to be the rage nowadays.
At least though Steve was on hand and he fires me an array of photos of me at my metaphorical desk.
It is said – a photo is worth a thousand words.
This photo captures this piece of writing perfectly – and which happens to be 1000 words!
I only hold the mic stand twice on stage – when I begin and when I finish, preferring instead to hold the mic and rove about. Give the audience something to look at least…
In this shot, I have the stand in my hand because my work is done. I am retrieving the mic to centre stage and about to bid my audience a good evening. This is why I am smiling so broadly because the gig has been great.
Stand-up comedy has been kind to me. In Greece with four other couples, I am struck by the eclectic jobs that have kept us all busy for so long. I daresay that none of the others could do my job and nor would they want to. But this applies to me also, with me not faring so well at their chosen pursuits.
Being funny is a funny way to make a living and I am fortunate that with my foibles and quirks I am able to do it. Long may it continue…
Paul McCaffrey, Edinburgh Festival, Udder Belly, Cowgate.
If his 12 minute set is anything to go by, his show will be spectacular – as funny as anything else at the largest annual comedy festival on earth.
Steve Best’s book – Comedian available to pre-order here.