How to crack a smile: Starting out as a stand-up comedian

By Daniel Golding

This is nothing like I thought it would be. Four weeks ago it was just a harmless exercise, but that was in the comfort of my own home. The reality of being on stage is terrifying.

Leo and his friends watch me with polite interest. I feel a slight surge of confidence, but then I wonder how often he has given a performer the same expression, and suddenly I’m a quivering puddle of nerves again.

Actually, they laugh at my jokes and don’t seem too bored. But I can tell I’m missing that elusive, sparkling something.

Last month I asked graduate Leo Gallagher, a jobbing comedian who has been trying for years to break into the industry, to help me write a five-minute stand-up set and experience what it’s like to perform.

“You’ve really got to have an inherent drive for it if you want to be successful,” he told me afterwards. “It’s a difficult lifestyle. When you do it well it’s great, but a gig is a stressful experience.”  

With Channel 4’s recent Comedy Gala and the Edinburgh Fringe right around the corner, comedy is getting bigger and bigger – these days it can create stars overnight and pull in serious business.

Even with that inherent drive or sparkle, establishing yourself in the comedy world is a difficult and daunting task.

I caught up with Neil Smith, an experienced promoter who runs the Comedy Balloon in Manchester’s city centre, to ask for some advice.

Sitting in the top room of the Ape and Apple pub overlooking a busy street, I love Neil’s energy when he reminisces about performing. “I do miss stand-up. I really would like to get back into it. When you get a good gig there’s nothing like it. It’s such a high.”

The Balloon welcomes new acts and Neil has seen a lot of first gigs. He tells me that beginners should always look for entry-level gigs.

These include Beat the Frog at the Frog and Bucket every Monday or King Gong at The Comedy Store on the first Sunday of every month.

 “Watch as much stand-up as you can, and the good stuff, not just Michael Macintyre at the Apollo,” Neil adds, nodding.

“Most of the comedians will be more than happy to chat for a few minutes after the gig if you’ve got any questions.”

Leo’s living room fit the bill for me, but some would like a grasp of the basic ropes before taking the full plunge. They could try a comedy course.

Some are available at places like Comedysportz at the Manchester Comedy Store, for example, and there’s even a BA(Hons) Comedy: Writing and Performance at the University of Salford.

Neil explains: “Yes, you can teach the basics like microphone technique and various tricks to make you seem at home on stage. But it really does help if you’re naturally funny.

“Not everyone’s got that. I suppose there’s a sort of science to it and the best comics will just have a natural kind of style.”

Again there’s that mysterious sparkle that was missing in my own attempt. I wondered if it was my performance or my writing which had made my act good, but not great.

Manchester’s stand-up circuits have given a boost to successful comedians during their career, but many have also written for TV and radio. John Bishop and Stewart Lee both had writing credits before they made it big.

There are courses for that too, but New Writing Development Manager at the BBC Writersroom Jo Combes, based in Salford Quays, told me that a writer should compose their script about whatever they like. This was encouraging.

Until she said: “We should know what the show is all about within the first two or three minutes, and it should be something totally distinctive and unexpected but in a really funny way.”

“It should really make us care about the characters or make us curious about the world that you’re showing us – surprise us. Catch us off guard.”

Then she gives examples as the first episode of Peep Show or the moment in Friends where Rachel wanders into Central Perk still in her wedding dress. No pressure, then.

Jo’s expectations may be high, but she has some professional advice about making your script commercially attractive.

Make the reader understand from the very start what kind of show you’re writing. Research what a project is looking for – if they want comedy-drama, give them comedy-drama.

“It should deliver on the type of humour that the project is all about, and we should see that within the first ten pages. You’ve only got a small window to make an impact on the reader,” she says.

It should be original and authentic, but it should also fill that all-important gap in the market.

“You have to be aware of what else is out there and have something that is unique to your show. It should have something that no other show has.”

Above all else, Jo says, it’s the characters that keep us coming back every week, so make sure their relationships are real and their dialogue has chemistry.

But then she adds something that sounds depressingly familiar.

“Really, your script has to deliver on the laughs – it might be something makes us absolutely laugh within the first side of A4.”

It’s that famous, ubiquitous sparkle again. It seems like such a valuable asset to an aspiring comic, yet nobody can explain to me exactly what it is.

A good resource for comedians is

The Manchester Comedy Forum’s section MCF Gold is packed with useful tips – but a post by Gary Delaney gives the closest thing to a description of the sparkle, and perhaps the most important piece of advice.

“Believe in what you say. Comedy is nothing without belief. They want to believe you are the man. Let them.

“Choose wisely and follow your own path. Don’t forget to enjoy it, it’s the best buzz in the world. Thanks for the chips.”

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