A few things over the last few hours have reminded me about the worst nightmare of the performer – that feeling of it all going wrong. According to the novel I was reading last night, the clammy feeling of unease that you feel when it’s just not working, and shows no sign of every working, is called the “flop sweat”. A nice name for it.
I was further reminded of this humiliation by reading about Last Act Standing, a new Sky show which gives the audience (of perfomers) a chance to buzz off the act who is performing to them. This “gong show” style of comedy isn’t new. What IS new is the fact that the buzzed off act will be literally ejected from their performance. They may be bungied off the stage, or have a trap door open for them to fall through… I guess when the set’s going badly, you might want the ground to open up and swallow you, but this literally?
This is looking like a negative post, and I guess there’s a negative side to giving any performance – the risk of it not working. That’s part of the drug which makes stand-up so addictive for me; you never can tell exactly how the audience will react, and if you do it right, then nearly anything can happen (within the confines of physics and other boring practical things).
Maybe comedy can be the hardest to fake when it’s going badly. Being distracted from the funny by non-funny things, like failed jokes, or insecurities, makes one feel less and less funny, empty of joy and really really small. This might be why they call a failed stand-up performance “dying on stage”, you do feel like you’ve become a ghost of yourself. It’s even more humiliating when you’re cut-off mid-flight by a gong-show style audience, who have basically, in clear and unambiguous terms and in public told you that your performance just wasn’t good enough.
To accept that something you’ve done wasn’t good enough is hard. To do it in public is even harder. That’s where your aim “to make something amazing in public” is utterly reversed “to accept you’re failure in that same public”. Ouch.
So maybe part of the preparation for the Fringe involves preparing for a concentrated burst of the ups and downs of being a performer. I’ve written about post fringe blues before – the aftermath of the Scottish Silly Season. Before the punchline of the aftermath, there must be the set-up. This is where you gather together your army of jokes and all your other tools of good cheer, and then put a massive thick skin on.
The thick skin really helps. If you’re performing multiple times in the same day, you can’t afford to let a poor performance at one gig destroy the next one. It’s also quite illuminating when you see yourself give pretty much the same performance at two consecutive gigs and receive totally different reactions; you realise how fickle audiences and the performer/audience chemistry can be.
With my show which has, on the whole, been pretty good to me, I’m not particularly worried about any individual performances flopping – that’s going to be down to me to just sell my material to the crowd. I’m not a bag of insecurities either – aside from one or two naysayers, I feel like I’ll be among friends in Edinburgh with performers and audience alike. For me, the biggest challenge is to get my head into “the zone”.
When I’m happy, I’m funnier. That’s how my comedy works. I can fake it, but (as discussed above) it’s a pale imitation of my funny. Sometimes, I might be unhappy, but the comedy makes me happy temporarily, which is kind of fine, but doesn’t work for long periods. So, my challenge for the next couple of weeks as I prepare for Edinburgh is to charge up the happiness batteries. No matter how exhausted I get, no matter how tough an individual crowd might be, I need to be on top cheerfulness form, even if I have a flyer thrown back in my big stupid smiling face.
So, I’ll be listening to a lot of comedy in the car. I’ll be making the most of the gigs that I perform over the next few days. I’ll be looking for new jokes that I may experiment with in the stand-up sets that I do. I’ll be having silly ideas and daring myself to do them. I may even have long surreal conversations with my cats. I’ll do my utmost to make my girlfriend laugh to the point of paralysis, or annoy her in the attempt. In short, I’ll be that pseudo-superhero* from the above picture, getting into my phonebooth to get ready for action.
I’m too old and too ugly to try to join a boy band, or become a T4 presenter. Stand-up’s my world, and I’m looking forward to the festival that celebrates and indulges it. If there’ll be sweats, it’ll be from giggling, not flopping.
* By the way, I named my superhero character “The Silver Missile”
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