"All sorts of entertaining" - Elizabeth Seckman

"Michael and his pals make me wish I lived in Adelaide" - Cherdo

"If I had a daughter, I'd send her to Australia to meet him (and marry him)" - Robyn Alana Engel

"An Australian version of me. Only younger. And Talented. And better looking. Okay, nothing like me." - Al Penwasser

"Whom must I fuck or pay to get a quotation at the top of your blog post?" - Janie Junebug

Saturday, 15 March 2014

New Experience Challenge Week 9: Performing My Own Show

I've talked about new shows I've seen and I've talked about being part of other shows, but this week for the first time I had my own comedy show. Me. I was in charge, I was the star and all the profits went to me.

...Ok, that's not entirely true. It was a split bill. My good friend Russell Hartup was the one who created the listing in the Fringe directory and it's under his name. So it wasn't purely my own show, I had a 50% stake in it.

I hadn't really done much stand-up in about a year when Russell called me up and proposed the idea. I was out of practice and pretty much out of sight and out of mind of the comedy community. Plus I always thought I'd wait until I was absolutely ready before starting my own show - I'd heard too many stories of people losing money, seen too many people desperately handing out flyers to people who were just annoyed by it and gone to too many shows that only had three people in the crowd. I stalled for days on making a decision. Russell had already done a fair bit of research - he'd picked out a room that could only seat forty people and decided five nights was the best season to do. In the end I decided that I really should just do it for the experience. Who cares if we only performed to three people a night and it ended up costing us money? It would be something I'd remember with fondness years later. Plus I think Russell was kind of counting on having a second person there so he didn't have to do a whole hour of material himself.

We registered the show with just a few days to go before the deadline. We called it "Mike and Rusty Jump in the Deep End", a name that we hoped would convey the idea of two people who had just decided on a whim to do a show at the Fringe, but who still knew what they were doing. So we had a show. The next step was to work out what the show actually was.

We worked out that we should do 10 minutes of chat together at the beginning of the show - greeting people, talking to individual crowd members, making a few jokes here and there - then one of us would do 20 minutes of stand-up, the other one would do 20 minutes of stand-up, then we'd both be on for a 10 minute closing sketch. At one point I realized "Hang on... I've got two musical comedy songs I could do. I've also done a couple of really successful five minute sets in the past. What if I just use them?" And bam, I had my 20 minutes. This was easy. I also came up with an idea for a new song and began writing it to make it my closer. It was basically to update Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" to reflect current Australian politics. Sounds hilarious, right? Don't worry, you'll see what I mean soon enough.

Next step: to practice my material. The two songs I already had didn't need practicing. Songs are easy to perform because they're word-perfect. There's an exact inflection of your voice, movement of your body and economy of your words that you don't get with normal joke telling. The fact that you have to make the jokes fit into a poetic structure means it's pretty hard to fluff around and get sidetracked. Basically it equals the maximum number of laughs per minute. So that meant all I had to do was work on my two five-minute stand up sets.

The first one was difficult. I wrote a bit about a girl I liked that already had a boyfriend. At the time I wrote it more than two years ago, the basic concept was true, although greatly exaggerated. Now that girl is long gone and I was left to make it sound like I still felt that way. It had dated jokes in it too. There was one which involved Coke bottles with people's names on them, which is something they did back then, but not anymore. This was going to be tough.

It took me longer than it should have to start going back to open mic nights. By the time I returned, we had six weeks left before opening night. I figured I'd have three practices of the first set and three practices of the second set and that was it. Meanwhile I was still working on this third song. I'm not a very good guitar player, so even after I finished working on the lyrics, I had trouble playing it and singing it at the same time. Anyway, at my first open mic night, the host made a big deal about me having been away for a while before bringing me on. It was like I was staging a big comeback gig. I was disappointing. I didn't get much laughter and I'm pretty sure the lighting guy flashed my one minute warning a bit early. That's ok. I left, rewrote a little and went back for the next one. Slightly better. Still not great. Went and rewrote again. Went back for the third week.


There were so many comedians working out new stuff for their shows that I didn't get a spot in the lineup. That's ok, I'll just do it next week and only work on the second set for two weeks instead of three.

Think again.

I didn't get on the next week either. Here's why: The way this particular open mic night works is that you have to bring three paying friends along to get on stage. Then you have to be one of the first twelve people to put their name down on the list. Now when the night first started up, everyone was bringing their respective three friends. But here's a tip no one realizes when they first start stand up - your friends get bored of you very quickly. They'll come and see you once... maybe twice if you're lucky. After that they've always got better stuff to do. So now you don't necessarily have to bring friends to get on the list. If there's less than twelve people that have brought friends and you get in early enough, you should get on. Well, that didn't happen this week. For the second week in a row I missed out because I hadn't brought friends.

So I was faced with a decision - with two weeks left to go until the first show, should I give the first set one more practice or just hope for the best with that one and start working on the second one? The second set was a sort of controversial set about religion versus homosexuality and where I stand being a Christian in that debate is hard. I'd only done that set a couple of times. The first time I did it it was the best set I'd ever done. I got four applause breaks, won a spot in the lineup of a different show and made some contacts out of it to do some gigs up in Perth. I tried it again in Perth and my nerves combined with the drunk and impatient audience meant it died gruesomely. I decided to trust the set. I'd give the first set one more go and then spend the last week trying out the second set. If it turned out that that second set was just as out of date as the first one, well... I was in trouble.

I got to that final open mic night full of nerves. It got to my turn and I walked up on stage and opened with what some comedians call the "tester joke" - a kind of throwaway line where if it works, you know you're in for a good night. If it gets silence, the rest of the set won't do much better. I got on stage and said 'So I discovered two things on Sunday which really surprised me. The first thing is that I can drive all the way from my house in Klemzig to my church in West Lakes and throughout the whole trip, I only have to change lanes twice. Twice, for such a long trip. That's impressive, right? The second thing I discovered later that day is that fucking no one cares.' It probably sounds pretty bad on paper, but when I said it on the night, the crowd loved it. I continued with my next two jokes and got an applause on the third one. The set was absolutely fine. No tweaking needed.

So now let's talk about the show itself. We had a total of 200 tickets to sell. We tried to figure out what our expenses would be. Registering for the Fringe cost $395. Hiring the room would be $440. We estimated posters and flyers for the show to be about $200. And somehow I got it into my head that the Fringe would take $3 for every ticket that was prebooked for the show. So we decided to set $20 for tickets. That way if we sold 100 tickets, we'd make money. 100 tickets. Didn't seem too hard. If we half-filled the room each night, we'd be in the green. It took a long time to start getting sales. We didn't get past twelve presales until at least February. But slowly it did start to grow. Out of five shows (Sunday 2nd March, Wednesday 5th-Saturday 8th March), Friday filled up quicker than the others by far. At one stage we'd sold 39 tickets... 28 of them were on Friday. Friday was practically sold out before the other nights had even hit double digits. Russell admitted to me that that was all because of people from his work. They'd all known he did stand-up for a while, but no one had ever seen it. Russell had been shamelessly pushing for them to book. After some investigation I realized that while all of my family and friends were planning to go, none of them had booked. It felt just like one of those open mic nights again. I was unsure whether to push people to go on Friday night when the large crowd was coming so they'd enjoy the show more or one of the other nights just to even it out a bit more. But then Russell revealed to me that a couple of reviewers had booked tickets for Sunday night. There's your answer. The mission became to fill Sunday night up as much as possible. Russell gave me constant sales reports. It was going up. It was getting faster and faster as it got closer to the date. Finally on opening night, not only was my entire friends and family there, but we oversold the night. It ended up being 41 tickets. It was amazing fun and we kicked it out of the ball park. I've put the recording of my part of the show below so you can see for yourself. That third song I was working on wasn't perfect, but I made it work. And we both had enough material to go for 25 minutes each, which meant that we didn't have to get back on for 10 minutes again after we'd both gone. The reviewers never turned up, which was a shame, but it didn't seem to matter. Numbers went up by double digits each day after that, until by the end of the run we'd sold about three quarters of all the tickets. We'd well and truly made money.

This wasn't Sunday night's crowd, but a good crowd nonetheless.

It was great fun and I'll definitely be doing it again. Maybe not next year, because I don't want to rely on my friends and family as much. But it will happen.

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