It's a rare thing for me to feel properly nervous before a gig and it's a rare thing to look into the eyes of the other comedians on the bill and see actual fear. But tonight both these things were happening. Because I was appearing in Set List
, a show where comedians go on stage to find a list of words on a piece of paper, which they then have to form an act around. As if it is their own set. The audience, get to see the words on a screen behind the comic and are of course in on the joke that what they are about to hear is properly improvised and unprepared. They get to see the comic squirm and sweat and hopefully come up with something inspired. But if they really want to see a comic sweat then they should be standing backstage, because the fear in the air is palpable. This is an idea of cruel and wonderful genius and a real test of a comic's nerve and ability to bullshit. I wish I had thought of it.
And a few months ago I did. I was backstage at the Frog and Bucket in Manchester and someone else's set list was stuck to the wall in the dressing room and I thought it would be funny and interesting to take that on stage and try and make your own act out of it and see what you came up with. But it was just an idle thought and not one that I ever considered really doing. Because it was nuts. So hats off to the team behind this show for having that same thought and seeing the potential in turning it into a show.
To quote producer Paul Provenza (my guest on Thursday's podcast) "Asking a stand-up to improvise an entire set is like asking a magician to do real fucking magic."
I was on the late show tonight and had been out for a couple of drinks with a friend and had a couple more as I waited in the bar, the blood draining out of my cheeks and the possibility of humiliating failure ahead, tempered by the fact that people would at least be understanding of the difficulty of the task. But there were lots of other comics in the audience and a camera filming it all, so it would hurt if I crashed and burned. It was made an even stranger experience by taking place in the Caves, where the backstage area was a strange and ancient storage room with big storage barrel and some kind of stone table (or sarcophagus) and a pool of stagnant water and the fact that the entrance to the stage was through a tiny little passage cut into the rock in the corner of the room. Greg Proops, who has done this before and who had closed the early show with impressive proficiency was on first and despite his many years of experience as an improviser his bottom lip was faintly quivering and he was jabbering about how tired he was. If such a seasoned improviser was this nervous then things were not looking good for me. I worried that I had drunk too much and I was up way past my usual bed time, but the adrenaline was keeping me awake and more sober than I should have been.
I tried to make my mind go blank as usually when I am compering this is the bet tactic (though sometimes the blankness remains on stage) and then when my turn came I walked through this strange backstage passage and walked into the light. My list began with the phrase "Cookie Auschwitz" which unsurprisingly I didn't have any existing material on. And if I stopped to think about it there wasn't much to say on the subject. But there wasn't time to stop and think (the act is given 10 or so seconds to read the list in advance, though like a rabbit in the headlights I only saw the first two items) and then it was time to go. I had no option but to start talking and from somewhere came a routine about the fact that whilst all biscuits are treated equally now, historically there had been much prejudice in the world of the cookie and some awful atrocities were committed against Nice biscuits. I suppose my years of podcasting on the hoof had prepared me well and some ways I felt that this was the show I was born to take part in. I waffled on, but managed to construct some amusing conceits and use biscuits to examine the thorny subject of racism and ethnic cleansing. Then it was time to move on to the next subject "Flamboyant Baby" and I talked about the baby in the posh pram with the Harvey Nichols bag, that I had seen a couple of days ago. I was caught off guard by the next subject which was simply the word "Eight". I wasn't sure if it was just the word on its own or whether it joined up with the line below and the audience enjoyed my realisation that I was going to have to do a routine about the word eight - weirdly more difficult than something more surreal. I talked about being eight and my experience of cubs. Then I moved on to "Missile Buyer's remorse" where I managed to reincorporate the idea of fascist biscuits which I had attempted to eradicate with an exocet missile that I had bought on a whim, but which had failed to explode leading to the formation of the BNP (the Biscuit National Party). Finally I had to make up a sexual act from an audience suggestion (they thought they were providing names for a band) and came up with something a bit silly and disgusting for "Singing Fish" (involving ventriloquism and the manipulation of the meatus).
Then it was over and I came off stage feeling shell shocked, but exhilarated. People seemed to have enjoyed what I had done and it felt incredible to have risen to the challenge. It was properly mind blowing and exciting but I was already thinking about what else I could have done and commented to Paul about how I'd be going over the gig again and again in my head and he predicted (correctly as it turned out) that I'd find it hard to sleep tonight. He was passionate about this show and correctly so, as it's about pure comedy and fear and reminds a comedian of what his or her job is all about. It's always good to get away from your comfort zone and this show really does this. And it's also properly entertaining for the audience, pulling away all preparation and artifice and giving them a glimpse into the workings of the comedy brain.
Years ago when I started stand up my dream was to go on stage with no idea of what I would talk about and no script and still be funny. It seemed an unattainable dream back then. So it feels good to be at a stage where I can have a good crack at something as difficult as this.
I was playing the gig over and over again in my head, as predicted, kicking myself for missing some avenues that I could have explored, especially in the racist biscuit section. And though I had different and maybe better ideas with the benefit of hindsight, that's the exact opposite of the point. It's what comes out of the moment. And the fact that the failures and the dead ends are part of the fun and make the successes look more impressive. It's been a while since a comedy idea has kept me awake at night and my mind was spinning with ideas. It's properly an amazing thing and you should go and see it if you get a chance. Hopefully I will get to have another crack at it, though I suspect the second time will be a lot more difficult.