Stand-up comedy entails high emotional stakes for both performers and audiences. Although stand-up can be interesting for spectators in many different ways, it tends to be clearly either good or bad – and bad comedy can be very painful to watch. For the performer, a good performance feels wonderful, an okay one can feel like a failure, and bombing can feel like death. This post is about adding new material, trying new things, and taking risks.
My first performances went fairly well in many ways. I had written a decent five minute set during the course I took, and although some bits in it were stronger than others, it had a good beginning and end and I felt secure enough with it to just go and present it and concentrate on worrying about the performance rather than the material.
I did pretty much the same set for the first six gigs. Now, one of the biggest misconceptions I’ve found there to be about stand-up is how fast new material is produced. Writing comedy takes a long time. At this point, I would say that developing 5-10 minutes of comedy material would take me as long as writing an 8,000-word research article (I plan to discuss both comedic and academic writing in more detail in another post). In stand-up it is not only that writing takes time, but new material has to be tested and developed in performance, with a audience, and your own intuitions or the reactions of a friend you test the joke on only take you so far. This is why it is more common to replace bits in a set gradually rather than throwing out the entire set at once – although some comedians, like Louis C.K. are known for this, and Teemu Vesterinen did a project where he started off with all new material and worked on it through ten performances over two weeks. However, these are seasoned pros, and in any case developing the new material is a process.
So, when I decided I wanted to start adding new material to my set, that brought on new anxieties. I wanted to start by replacing the weaker material, but it was surprisingly scary to let go of something that I knew was not-terrible and usually got at least some small laughs in exchange for the unknown. Also, I am not (at least not yet, anyway) good at writing one-liners, (short set-up and punch-line jokes) I tend to create a scenario and then make jokes about how the scenario could develop. It seems to me that replacing shorter one-liners that stand on their own is easier in the sense that if the new bit fails, at least it failed quickly. If a longer bit about a scenario goes south, for a beginner like me it’s very hard to abandon it smoothly, so there is a risk of a long, drawn-out failure.
At my seventh gig at Jano I planned on trying out some new material. It is sort of general advice that you should start and end with strong material – I think in his book Andre Wickström says to start with your second-best joke and end on the best one (I don’t have the book at hand to check, so apologies if this is incorrect!). So, my original plan was to start and end on old bits and add a new stuff in the middle. However, I was worried about the subject matter of the new stuff, as it was a bit more personal and heavier than my other topics – and when I discussed this with the other performers of the night, opinions on where I should put the new bit were divided. Most views reflected the idea of bracketing new and untested material with the tested bits, but someone else pointed out that the problem with heavier material is that if the audience gets too bummed out, they might not laugh at even the material that usually works.
My point is not to shift responsibility of my choices to anyone else but to bring out how these choices can be discussed – everyone finished with ‘do what you feel is best’. I ended up putting the new material at the end, also with the hope that I would feel more comfortable going into it after the more dependable bits. In hindsight, this might not have been the best choice, as although the new material did get some laughs, it was clear that it still needed work and I ended on a bit of a low note – also in hindsight, it would have been better to end a bit sooner, when something I had thought of as a minor punchline at best got more of a laugh than the intended point. Technically speaking, I should have ended a lot sooner, as I also committed one of the cardinal sins of open mic comedy: I went over time. I had timed myself at home, but this turned out to be wildly inaccurate – so another incentive for me to learn to write one-liners, or to figure out more possible end points for longer bits, is that it makes time-management easier, so that when you get the signal that you have one more minute left you can at least get to a punchline in that minute.
And to not end this blog-post on a low note, the very next night I had another gig at Molly Malone’s no subtitles club, which was also my first time performing in English. I was, again, trying out a (different) bit of new material, and this time I put it in the middle. It worked okay, and I was then able to go on to the older material, which I was happy to find worked in English as well, as I’d been a bit worried about how much of the laughs had depended on using specific words or language-play that didn’t really translate. Performing in English actually felt very natural and even liberating in a way. Different languages in the Helsinki comedy scene is definitely something I plan to look at in my research. Many Finnish comedians perform in both Finnish and English, some native speakers of English perform in English at mostly Finnish-language clubs, yet others perform in their second language whether that is Finnish or English. The audiences at the English language clubs contain a wide variety of nationalities, for many of whom English is a second language.
I don’t like the feelings of failure, but stand-up comedy requires the willingness to take risks and to learn from the consequences. As a genre, stand-up is predicated on the permission to fail. No-one escapes mistakes, failed bits, or outright bombing (in Finnish they call it stage-death), but as long as you are willing to face the audience again there are endless do-overs. A huge bonus is that the open-mic scene in Helsinki is, by and large, warm and welcoming, with enthusiastic audiences and supportive comics.