A Year in Comedy: GONG!
June 8, 2012 23 Comments
The previous post in this series took a look back at my earliest gigs and how they ranged from poor to mediocre. The next performance of note was Gig 12 – which also went badly – and was significant as my first ever gong show appearance. I’ve had a somewhat tortuous relationship with the gong format ever since, so this post seems a good place to discuss it. And it is a good place to discuss it, but this doesn’t mean that I’ll enjoy the process of discussing it. Writing about these gigs is tricky because I’ll inevitably have to discuss the relationship between how successful you are at them and the type of comedy you perform; and any suggestion (and there will be a suggestion) that my failure has to do with anything other than my own shortcomings will make me sound like a cock. Oh well, I’ll make a start anyway…
For clarification, the particular “gong” format that I’ve tried works like this: Three members of the audience are given a card. Each act takes their turn in an attempt to last five minutes. If the audience members don’t like what you’re doing then they hold up their card. If all three cards are raised then you’ve failed. At the end of the show, all the acts that managed to last five minutes are brought back on stage and a winner is chosen via a “clap off”.
My first attempt at the gong came back in September last year at Preston Frog & Bucket’s Beat the Frog. It’s safe to say that I didn’t do very well. I lasted the shortest amount of time out of all 8 acts on the night, with 6 acts managing to last the distance. In hindsight, my status as loser was probably justified. Not only was it my first straight stand up gig for 2 months (I was still in the process of working out how to acquire enough gigs), but I think I was a bit overawed by the occasion. It was by far the biggest audience I’d performed in front of and even the bright lights aimed in your face whilst on stage were surprisingly daunting. I also chose some material – a series of 3 Dragons’ Den jokes that were intentionally bad – that a) I didn’t have the skill to pull off, and b) would have been hard to pull off had I had the skill to pull them off. I followed up these jokes with one that I’ve performed successfully many times since, but I’d already lost the audience and I was gonged off. I lasted just over two minutes, which was poor, but at least it was a learning experience. Playing in that bigger venue was really useful, even if it was only for 129 seconds. It also made it much clearer about what things I should try at a gong show and which I shouldn’t.
My next attempt wasn’t until January and this time was at Manchester’s Beat The Frog (Gig 29). I was worried before the gig, I guess largely because I’d done so badly in Preston, but also because I didn’t know to what extent I should change my material to try and last the distance. In the end, I did some tweaking and I managed to “beat the frog” (although I didn’t win). Reading the diary post back, it seems like I was really happy with how it went – I felt I’d made real progression with my performance – and how the audience reacted to it (despite having one card held up). In hindsight, this led me to carry around a belief that the Manchester audience were somehow more “comedy savvy” than those in Preston. It’s really not healthy to be making assumptions like this when you’re still a novice (as I very much am). Anyway, more on what this assumption meant, later.
A week later and I was back in Preston (Gig 31) and would be using the same set as Gig 29 (with a few minor tweaks). I wasn’t convinced that I’d last for 5 minutes, but I was at least confident that I wasn’t underprepared (as in Gig 12). As the show started, the crowd’s reaction to the opening acts seemed to confirm my pet theory about what sort of material they’d go for. I concluded that they wouldn’t go for mine. I’m not quite sure how this thought affected the performance. If I felt like a condemned man, would this mean that, subconsciously, my performance level would drop? Or would the feeling of having nothing to lose be liberating? I don’t know for sure. I only lasted for just over 2 minutes, again. One of the minor tweaks – a daft twist on an impression (read the original post for details) – got me gonged off. Now, it was a bit of material that I really like, but my girlfriend (whose opinion I completely trust) thought it was baffling. I had to concede defeat. In my diary post, I wrote:
I don’t blame the audience at all for my demise; I just wasn’t giving them what they wanted. The questions that arise from this are: a) am I able to give them what they want, and b) do I actually want to give them what they want?
Ugh. I’m such a cock. Asking myself whether I really want to give the audience what they want sounds utterly ridiculous. This post has taken me weeks to pull together, largely because I’ve struggled with not wanting to come across like an idiot. Since I started this, I’ve been reading Chris Brooker’s gig diary blog (see here) and listening to Stuart Goldsmith’s excellent Comedian’s Comedian podcast (listen here), and they’ve both made me think about servicing the audience and how inexperienced I actually am. I feel more self-conscious than ever about talking about’ my style’ of comedy, and yet if I don’t think about it, then I’m never going to become a better act. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope between taking my comedy seriously and sounding like I’m a pompous, egotistical bell-end.
Anyway. Following Gig 31, I had no idea how to approach my next attempt, which was already booked in for Preston (Gig 38). This was the first time that I’d had a gig where I had no enthusiasm for it whatsoever. After some deliberation, I just decided to try and pick my least obtuse bits and see what happened. Unsurprisingly, I got gonged off again. This time I lasted somewhere over 4 minutes, and although I clearly wasn’t to everybody’s taste, certain sections really seemed to go for it. A number of people came up to me afterwards and told me that they loved it, so although, technically, I was a loser, it didn’t feel like it.
Gig 42 was my only non-BTF gong show, at Chester’s Laugh Inn. Despite it not being my favourite format, it was quite exciting to play a new venue. As the night had only been running a few weeks, the audience wasn’t huge (although it was certainly large enough to be workable), and fortunately they were quite generous. I lasted the 5 minutes, but didn’t win.
Gig 53 was back at Preston. The feeling of a complete lack of enthusiasm had returned, and had been added to with an element of dread. As documented in my original post, I went through a whole host of emotions on the night, with them being generally quite negative. Weirdly, under these circumstances, I ended up finally beating the frog, although, again, I didn’t win (I came second). What’s notable is that I really enjoyed myself whilst on stage and was genuinely chuffed to have lasted the 5 minutes, but overall I didn’t enjoy the night. It’s as if all the baggage I have associated with the format is having more of an impact on my experiences than the actual performances.
A few days later and I returned to Manchester for Gig 54. As I mentioned earlier, I was working on the assumption that that Manchester audience would be more likely to go for my stuff than Preston. Considering that I was successful in Preston the previous week, it gave the night a weird dynamic for me. I find the night a bit strange anyway, because it’s a really long night (giving you way too much time to think about what’s going to happen) and I get more pre-occupied with lasting 5 minutes than being funny. As you could probably guess, I didn’t last the distance, getting gonged off after probably about 3 minutes. Not only did this shatter my assumptions (which was probably a good thing), but it was about the same length of time as some really inexperienced acts who were performing (which was a bad thing). I didn’t even think I was doing badly, so I really didn’t (and don’t) know what to make of it. It was all very unsatisfying.
This was the final gong show appearance of my first year of comedy and I’ve not made any since. As I’m sure you can tell by what I’ve written so far, I don’t really know what to make of my gong experiences, and find it really difficult to write about. I feel like I should address how your style of comedy affects your chances of success, but this will end up implying that my “style” isn’t “mainstream” and a) I don’t know if that’s true and b) I don’t know if I’ve earned the right to talk about having a “style”. Is any of that stuff actually true anyway, or am I just making excuses for my poor performances?
At this point, I perhaps should try and describe what I think my style of comedy is. It’s notable that I’ve not mentioned it in any of my “year in comedy” posts so far, and on the face of it seems like a glaring omission. It actually took me until the write up for Gig 8a before I mentioned this in my gig diary, so this isn’t a new phenomenon. The main reason why it hasn’t been addressed is because I don’t know how to describe it. If I was pushed, I’d call it daft, but I don’t that’s an actual genre. I do like telling intentionally bad jokes, bits that don’t quite work, non sequiturs and, what I would pretentiously call, metahumour. And, yes, I am a tosser for using the word metahumour, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t do it. Suffice to say, that regardless of the quality of my material, it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of metaphorical tea. But, even if I’m not for everybody, should I at least be able to avoid getting gonged off on a regular basis if I am going to progress at all?
This also raises the question of whether I should be doing a different type of material and be looking to appeal to a wider range of audiences. I don’t want to change my style, but is it more of a mark of my inability\lack of skill rather than out of artistic integrity? Even on the night of Gig 12 – where I was clearly the loser – I didn’t feel any crisis of confidence in my material at least being the right kind of material for me to be doing. But, if you don’t naturally have the sort of material that the audience want, what do you do? Can you change to meet audience expectations and still manage to be yourself and do the comedy that actually makes YOU laugh? There don’t seem to be any easy answers to this.
Trying to take a step back and look at the format a bit more objectively, I think that there’s definitely quite a random element to gong shows. There’s a theory that the best act tends to win, and often this is the case, but it’s also not true for a significant minority of the time. There’s not necessarily any “justice” to who wins\lasts the distance, and that’s ultimately always going to be frustrating. There’s also the issue that “better” and “worse” are massively subjective terms. As a comedy fan, I can think of lots of acts where the majority of the public just don’t get it (e.g. Stewart Lee) – but who are considered to the “the best”. Another factor is the type of people who end up with the cards (i.e. those drunk enough to shout out for one) – it adds a whole layer of randomness on top of the already random nature.
After a recent gig, I was chatting to the headliner – he’s only been a pro for a couple of years. He said that he used to do BTF and regularly last the distance – he had a very mainstream style – but he never actually won. Once he realised he could always make 5 minutes but that he’d never win then he just gave up. It was interesting to hear that from someone who was a) pro and b) the sort of act you could easily see winning it.
I guess I should try and draw some conclusions. Given the amount of words this post is and the length of time it’s taken me to write it, you can see that I am very conflicted about it all. I really wouldn’t be upset if I never did a gong show again, but a) it’s an easy way to boost the number of gigs I’ve got and b) I feel like on some level I’d be “giving up” by stopping before I was able to “beat the frog” on a regular basis. It’s worth reiterating that if I want to get better as a comic then it’s a skill that I should really have. However, I think I’m going to at least take a break of a few months from them as my feelings around them are now so negative that it doesn’t feel great, even when I do well. Maybe if I get some more gigs under my belt, and a better feeling for what I’m actually doing, then it might be time to give them another crack.
I don’t normally do this, but if anyone with any experiences of gong shows (as an act or as an audience member) has any thoughts then it would be great if you could leave a comment below. Am I the only person that struggles so badly with this? Am I talking utter crap? I’d love to know what you think.