What it’s like to do Stand-up comedy for the first time

A couple of months ago, I googled exactly this. What came up wasn’t that helpful and a few weeks later I found myself about to go on stage feeling as though I was stepping over the edge of a cliff. It was the scariest, most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done. In five minutes I’d know what it was like to have performed my own comedy material. I’d have experience. New knowledge. Beforehand, though, the fear of the unknown was all-consuming and I surprised myself by not dying through the sheer terror of it.

Afterwards, in the glow of relief and gratitude for having DONE IT, I thought, shit that was intense. And also brilliant. And worth every second of stagefright and anguish. So I wrote this post.

This is for anyone who wants to know what it feels like to go from considering performing live comedy to actually getting on stage and doing it. From curiosity to performance, here’s my experience:

1. Curiosity

In September I get curious about performing stand-up comedy. I write some material. For the first time, I have a vague inkling I might be able to pull it off. This happens after I return from a five day improv retreat with the Maydays. I’ve been performing improv for just under a year and am hooked and keen to learn and to do it always and forever. Stand-up is a different animal, it’s something I adore as an audience member, but until now, never considered I’d be capable or confident enough to do it myself.

However, in order to do it, one of two things needs to happen: a) I need to find a local open mic night or b) hope an opportunity too good to turn down lands in my lap.

Fortunately for me, it’s the latter. Unexpectedly, a friend contacts me about a New Act Competition they’re running at 2 Northdown, the comedy venue where she works in Kings Cross, London.

Say yes, deal with the consequences later.

it’s a personal mantra, but I’m pretty sure Stella Duffy said this to me.

2. Call it in

Before I can talk myself out of it, I apply. Press send. Immediately regret what I’ve written in my application. Too glib. Contact the venue. Reapply in more truthful, less glib fashion. Press send. The gig is months away so I metaphorically pat myself on the back for being proactive, forget about it and get on with life.

3. Gig confirmed

Shit. Best hide head in sand and pretend not happening. Best spend next week worrying about unfinished, unrehearsed material, rather than focusing on writing, finishing and rehearsing material.

4. Gig minus four weeks

Material still not finished. Except it is. Except it isn’t. Or is it? Still haven’t performed in front of another human so how would I know? Best continue worrying and stressing, rather than dealing with in mature organised way.

I pick up Viv Groskop‘s book, I laughed, I cried, her memoir about performing 100 stand-up gigs in 100 nights, which I read years ago and loved. It begins with her recounting an excellent, successful gig where she wins a trophy, immediately followed by an account of one of her worst experiences and the horror and reality of how badly a gig can go. I lie awake that night, wondering what’s in store for me.

5. Performing to humans

There’s no way round it. I have to perform to someone. Decide on Tim, my podcast partner. I am appallingly dreadful. I read from a script – HUGE error – am wooden as a frickin rocking horse, over-explain everything, am apologetic, go way over the allocated five minutes and crucially, am NOT FUNNY. Tim is very sweet, laughs a bit and then sits me down and gives me fair and constructive criticism. I listen.

Over the next three weeks I tweak the material, tighten it up, film myself, watch it back, play on repeat in my head, say it aloud several times a day. Bore myself stupid with it. My main concerns are blanking out on stage and/or going over the time, which is an absolute no-no.

Each week, after recording the podcast, I perform to Tim and each week he laughs a bit more and continues with his honest critique. (Thanks Tim, you helped more than you’ll ever know.)

6. One week to go

I perform to the improv group I rehearse with on Mondays. They’re incredibly receptive and supportive. Of course they are, they’re my friends! They laugh. One of them says he wishes I hadn’t tensed up when I started. I wish that too and vow to work on relaxing on stage.

One of the coaches, Alex, who I performed with at the First Light Festival in the summer, gives me some useful and specific feedback. I note it down.

Later that week, I book some time with Justine, my other improv coach, for some performance coaching. She’s got years of experience, including being in Cambridge Footlights, so I take her coaching very seriously. It’s helpful. I admit I’m good at being coached, I listen and respect the expertise of others. I’m a firm believer that there’s no room for egos if you want to get good at something.

The session is invaluable and for the first time I feel prepared and that I can do this.

Between now and gig day, I repeat my set over and over and over in my head and aloud whenever I can. I have moments of crippling self-doubt which threaten to sabotage my efforts but I double down on pushing these away. I haven’t got time for self-confidence-bashing chattering monkeys now, for crying out loud! As noughties singer Daniel Bedingfield crowed (over and over and over, on autotune, if memory serves):

I gotta get thru this.

Damn right, Daniel. True dat.

7. Gig day

Oh. My. God. I didn’t sleep much last night. I’ve woken up feeling sick. On a positive note, last night a punchline came to me that made me laugh out loud and I’m going to end my set with it. If I deliver it well, it’ll work, I’m sure of it.

My biggest fear still is blanking out.

No. My biggest fear is going over the five minutes. Or being sick on stage. Or crying. Or doing that swallowing thing. Or my mouth drying up. Or looking as scared as I feel.

I try and remember some good advice I’ve noted recently.

Mayday, comedian, general fucking queen of the stage and life, Katy Schutte said that if I forget what I’m saying, it’s ok to take a moment and say ‘where was I?’ Or ‘What was I talking about?’ Good, yes, I’ll do that. Tick.

In How to Own The Room, Viv Groskop talks about the importance of breathing. Of taking a moment to ground yourself. Breathing through your feet. Yes! Breathing through the feet, that’s a great one. I do this for the rest of the day, whenever I remember.

I haven’t much appetite all day. I travel to London with my sister, Lynne, and friend Gemma. They’re all upbeat and positive and exactly the sort of people it’s great to be around when you’re feeling anxious. I’m glad they’re with me.

We meet my niece and nephew and there’s an hour to go and I’m shaking now and feeling panicked. I leave them in a pub and go to the venue. My two writers’ group friends are there already and greet me with a hug. I’m feeling overwhelmed by the effort people have made to come and support me. I want to cry with how much I don’t want to let them down.

In the venue, I find stage manager, Em – she’s the one that got me into all this ridiculous nonsense, I remind her. She laughs and says I’m very brave and she’s pleased I applied. I don’t feel brave. I feel like a shaky kitten.

It’s 6.30pm. The show starts at 7.30pm. There are 18 comedians performing over three sets. I’m not on until 9.45pm. Second on in the third set. I want to crawl under the floorboards, but I can’t. I have to watch thirteen brilliant, confident comedians perform very funny sets before I set foot on stage.

I make friends with a lovely woman called Caitlin. She’s on two after me. I’m very new to this and I’m shitting myself, I tell her. Oh, I’ve only been doing this since February, she says, don’t worry, it’s a lovely crowd. Then she asks, how many gigs have you done?

I do the grimacey-faced-emoji face and say, none. Her eyes widen and she says, Oh. I’m sure you’ll be fine. This is when I realise I’ve taken the ‘New Act’ criteria a bit too literally.

I chat to Caitlin and some of the other comedians throughout the evening and find that, despite their experience, they all get nervous, they all have good and bad gigs and, generally, nobody dies from the experience.

This is reassuring.

More friends and family turn up. I’m incredibly touched and yet feeling even more pressure at the same time. I try to plan an escape route but knock it on the head when I realise I’ve got to drive Lynne and Gemma home from the station. Besides, people would almost certainly notice.

I don’t drink anything but water before I go on stage. For the whole of the start of the show until my name is called I feel utterly frozen with terror. I try to smile at people but I know I look visibly scared and my teeth are chattering. How the buggering, bollocking hell am I going to get thru this, Daniel Bedingfield?

Then I hear my name.

8. The Performance

A weird thing happens. As soon as the MC hands me the mic, my fear melts away. So much so, it surprises me and I find myself smiling. I’m also smiling because the audience has disappeared. I’m so short that the spotlight is shining right in my face and a curtain of black has fallen between me and the faces in front. I get a strange sensation that I soon recognise as enjoyment. I suddenly think that it doesn’t matter if I forget something, I’ll just make something else up. I’m an improviser. I can just improvise. Despite how I felt a moment ago, this is not the worst thing in the world at all. It’s really not. Am I garbling? Maybe. Slow down then, I tell myself. I do. The audience laughs at something I do. So I do it more. They laugh more. I’ve missed a bit but it doesn’t matter. I carry on. I keep calm and carry on. The last line is coming. I pause a second. Take my time. Deliver the line and it bloody well lands! It lands right where I want it to. Fuck me, they’re laughing. I feel like laughing too. A light flashes to let me know my time is almost up. I feel like hugging everyone to thank them for laughing. Instead I say some kind of thanks and goodbye. I shake the MC’s hand and walk off stage. Grinning so hard my face aches. Massive relief. I’ve done it. I want to do it again.

Which is lucky. I literally have no idea how or why this happened. But I’m absolutely bloody delighted. Guess I’d better get researching those open mic nights…

8. Oh, hello imposter syndrome 👋

So aware am I that it could have gone badly, that I only allow myself a short time to celebrate. Around five minutes, I think. (Based on the sound advice in this wonderful article, by Maydays improviser Chris Mead). And it didn’t take long for imposter syndrome to kick in – it’s now two weeks since the gig and I’m only just accepting that maybe the judges didn’t make a mistake after all.

But that’s my problem. Imposter syndrome is a whole other topic for discussion and one I’ve written about many times.

The fact remains, I did what I set out to do. And this is what it felt like. Not everyone will feel the same or have the same experience. If you’re curious, though, there’s really only one way to find out.

Thank you so much for reading this very long blog post! Phew! I’m grateful that you stopped by and took the time to stick with it. If you’d like to get in touch or comment, please do so below or email me [email protected]. And don’t forget to listen to the new podcast, speak of the week with ann & tim. It’s a hoot. Much love, Ax

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