24th June 2003
I recently read a list of the top ten most common fears. Number one was 'fear of speaking in public'. Number four was 'fear of dying'. Which led me to think that most people would rather be lying in the coffin at a funeral than addressing the gathered mourners with a heartfelt speech about their dearly departed. And talking of dying, it's no coincidence that we have adopted that word to describe a comic who is greeted by absolute silence or, even worse, a barrage of abuse. The choice of the word 'dying' just shows us how horrible people imagine the experience to be.
Despite happily performing to TV cameras throughout my adolescence (oh, how I prayed for no spots and a vaguely good hair day), my views on stand-up comedy tied in very nicely with the number one most common fear. In short, why would anyone in their right mind put themselves through that experience night after night? And how could I contemplate taking up a job with the title 'stand-up', considering the state of my balance? Before I'd ever uttered the words "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen", I found myself associating what it must feel like to stand on stage and bare your soul with the feeling I have in a dream where I'm standing naked in my old school classroom. But like most things in life the risk of danger, the very thing you fear and know could go wrong, begins to be the one thing that drives you to do it. It's not safe or easy. There's a chance that everyone in that room (for the first 50 gigs read: 2 punters and 15 comics) may despise you. A heckler may upstage you. A mobile phone may, and quite often will, ring just as your punchline is leaving your lips.
Yet it's the knowledge that so many things could go wrong that makes stand-up so damn satisfying. To know that you've walked the tightrope over the snake pit and survived. And what's funny is, the more you do it, the more you realise that absolutely nothing can go wrong in live comedy. A stumbled word, a drunken heckler, a wobbly microphone stand, a forgotten punchline, a ringing phone - all these things often lead to the funniest moments in a gig if you embrace them. The essence of stand-up is that there are no rules to be broken - so things can't go wrong, they only contribute to what's going on at that second. As a very new comic, what was hard to learn was that these chance events should be welcomed, not feared. You had to have the courage to put your pre-written material aside, step into the unknown and see where it took you. When a comic takes that risk, the audience sit up a little. They all know the safety net's gone and anything could happen. In a sense, it's a way for everyone to step outside their planned, ambitious, responsible adult lives and go back to being a kid.
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