May 31, 2014
"But you made the quiches yourself": becoming a better stage performer
The stage lights burning the back of my eyes. The solitary microphone and the stares from the audience. And the sudden and lurching gap in my memory.
I remember my only attempt at stand-up comedy well: I died on my backside: a brutal failure. The years have not diminished my shock at the experience.
The next time I took to the stage was for Bright Club with a comedy lecture called Gospel According To Aphex Twin. It wasn't stand-up but I played it for laughs and I shook like a leaf. Four years later and, for the first time ever earlier this week, I had a "performer moment". A moment where I wasn't just on a stage reading funny stuff, but I used a learned technique to elicit a response from an audience. Like a Performer, capital P.
The moment happened as I compered Bad Language. A couple of open mic acts hadn't turned up, and at one point there was a risk that it could have derailed the night. I needed to make light of the situation on stage, so I used a stupid metaphor, explained slowly with the best deadpan I could manage. I likened the no-shows to me making five quiches for a dinner party, with only four guests turning up, leaving me to eat the final broccoli-filled quiche even though I hated broccoli.
And then came a friendly heckle. "But you made the quiches yourself."
"But you made the quiches yourself."
The heckler shot my metaphor down with brilliantly-timed wit. I couldn't fight the logic. Why would I make a quiche I hated the taste of?
Something clicked. For the first time, I could use a heckle to gain a bigger laugh. I feigned a dawning realisation at the audience member's insight, and while I acted this out, my mind wrote a punchline. The punchline went something like: "This is what my life has come to: me making quiches I hate for people that don't exist."
As I spoke the punchline, keeping my timing regular and my voice steady, my brain went into planning mode again. I decided that after the word "exist", I should turn from the microphone. A visual full stop to land the phrase with a decisive thunk. It worked. People laughed.
It was only a small moment, and by writing all this out, I am probably overplaying it. I'm also not trying to tell you how hilarious I am. The point is this: what struck me about that moment was I could multi-task my little brain gremlins to enable me to plan mid-performance. I'd not done that before. I felt like a stand-up.
The heckler apologised afterwards, but he didn't need to. I thanked him for making it funnier than it ever could have been.
I guess the moral is that performance skill can be learned, that's probably worth trusting the moment, that a strong-enough stage presence can withstand almost anything.
There are many stage performers better than me. But sometimes it's nice to look back and see how far you've come - because the energy I still get from that long-past stand-up failure still drives me to be a better performer today.