Who had two hundred and eight in the sweepstake? Step up and claim your prize.
On the evening of Thursday April the first 2010 I was performing an open spot at Rawhide in Liverpool. At that time I was struggling to make ends meet, living day to day while sinking further into debt. I’d quit my day job the previous August having finally had enough of being a square peg in a round hole. I say a square peg, my constant snacking at my desk meant I was definately a round ped and getting rounder every day. Probably more accurate to say that I was a round peg in a round hole that would have comfortably accomodated a normal sized peg. It was a huge step, a massive gamble and I had no idea whether it would pay off. By the following spring I’d made a bit of progress but was still a long way from making enough from stand up to stop me from haemmoraging money. The gig at Rawhide was an attempt to crack a weekend club. It went okay. Just okay. I’ve not played there since.
On the evening of Friday April the first 2011 I was the middle act for the Friday night line up at The Frog & Bucket in Preston. The Frog clubs were most assuredly off my radar a year previously in spite of my eagerness to break back in with them. Lee Martin, the booker, had told me previously that he didn’t ever anticipate me working weekends at their clubs. Now, a year after my first gig diary, I was working a Friday night and had several more weekend bookings in the diary for them across the year. I had proven my mettle as a comic and compere and, as a result, was working for decent money as part of some great professional line-ups. Progress indeed. Day by day, gig by gig I’d worked hard and it was starting to pay off. In comparison to a year before I was now confident to call myself a professional comedian. My landmark moment had come when I realised I was making more money from comedy than I had from my previous desk job. This means that I’m either a superb, highly valued comedian or that I had a really badly paid desk job. I shall leave that for others to decide.
The Frog in Preston was like a new dawn for me, the first gig I’d performed in ages that didn’t need to be written up in any sort of detail afterwards. I was absolutely free to turn up, do my job and then fuck off home without ever giving it a second thought. That’s pretty much what I did. Andrew Ryan, the MC for the evening, introduced me. I went onstage, said some funny stuff and then left when I was done. How did it go? What happened? What did I learn? None of your fucking business. The first rule about gig club…
My gig diary has certainly commanded a fair amount of attention, far more than I ever expected it to. The attention has been a tremendous motivator, especially when I’ve found my willpower flagging. Whenever I went a few weeks without an entry people would comment on this and urge me to get back to work. I’ve had comics I’ve never met before telling me how much they’ve enjoyed reading them, especially those that are newer to the circuit. I’ve had folk accuse me of self-aggrandisement, painting myself far above my status. Equally I’ve had other folk tell me that I’m much, much too hard on myself. I’ve been commended for my honesty and berated for being full of shit. I’ve been told that the diaries are doing an amazing job of raising my profile as a comedian and been told that my honest account of poor gigs was going to cost me work in the long run. Some folk think they’re brilliant. Some think they’re horrific. Most people’s opinions will lie somewhere between those two points.
It still blows my mind when folk I’ve not seen for years tell me they’ve spent hours discussing my diaries in cars with other comedians. Would I want to be a fly on the inside of the windscreen? For me this wasn’t ever about becoming a topic to break up awkward silences between service stations. I started writing my diaries for two very simple reasons.
The first reason was to develop something resembling writing muscles. I’d not sat and written anything of any length or consequence since my A-Levels. All my stand-up, all my material, all three of my full length shows were pretty much thrown together on the fly and developed onstage. Hand on heart I can’t remember the last time I sat down and put an hour or two into writing jokes, sketches or scripts. I’d kind of coasted thus far and this was going to be my attempt to raise my game. My attempt develop the sort of discipline that means I can sit and create without being distracted by food, the internet or something shiny. As I write this it feels like it’s worked. I don’t want to write this wrap up. I hate writing. I love having something I’ve written but I hate forcing myself to sit down and write. I’d rather be out socialising, playing on the PS3, watching a film, cuddling up to Laura… Anything but actually sit down and work. Nevertheless here I am getting the job done. The real litmus test comes tomorrow when I have to try and write something else.
The second reason was to take time and examine myself as a comedian. It’s all too easy to turn up to a gig, do your thing, head off into the night and then completely forget everything that happened. Good gigs, bad gigs… They all blur into a colourful mush of events that soon slip through the gaps in my memory. By taking time to pore over the details of the gigs, the bad ones in particular, I’ve managed to actually retain a few of the lessons I needed to learn. The fact that a number of these lessons kept cropping up suggests that I needed to learn them really badly.
The biggest one, the one that kept cropping up over and over again was that I needed to relax and enjoy myself. It’s no mystery that my worst gigs of the year were the ones where I was a ball of nerves before I went onstage. A happy Chris Brooker is a funny Chris Brooker and a funny Chris Brooker is a successful Chris Brooker rather than a homeless Chris Brooker. I’ve become much better at noticing when my nerves are in danger of getting the better of me so I can, for want of a more technical phrase, chill the fuck out. Taking a moment or two to catch my breath before I go onstage has been working like a charm. “This is just a room, these are just people.”
Two pieces of advice stuck in my mind from two comedians I gigged with many times over the year. Martin Mor said that the best way to handle any situation is to have more jokes. Is the gig going badly? This is when it’s a good idea to have more jokes. Is the gig going well? A good idea to have more jokes. Now that the diaries are done I can start fleshing out my set and looking to add more banking bits of material to my arsenal. Well, that’s the theory anyway.
The second piece of advice came from Jonathan Mayor. If I had to single out one comic that’s been absolutely invaluable with their advice and encouragement over the year then it would have to be Jonathan. He took time to share his thoughts with me about my compering after our night working together at The Frog & Bucket in Preston as well as being a friendly, familiar and supportive face at my first weekend gigs at the Manchester Frog last spring. The most important advice he gave me was to ensure that I varied the volume I performed at onstage. Don’t try to blast the audience with noise. Go quiet, draw them in and then use volume where appropriate. I’ve made sure to use this fantastic nugget of wisdom as much as possible, not least because it’s another way to make me feel calmer while I’m up there. Hard to avoid getting stressed if you’re screaming at people.
My goal was certainly never to set myself up as some sort of critic. I’ve cringed every time someone described my gig diaries as reviews as that’s something I’ve been actively trying to avoid. When something or someone has struck me as funny or enjoyable then I’ve not been shy of saying so but I do so because it was such a great part of the night. On the few occasions that I’ve mentioned seeing comics have less than stellar gigs I would hope I’ve made it clear that it’s not because they’re anything less than superb comics. The one exception across the year would be MnM, the open spot whose self-destruction on stage at Mirth On Monday earned a write-up all of it’s own. Personally speaking I felt that highlighting his abhorrent behaviour throughout was a worthy example of how not to carry oneself during one’s first attempt at comedy. Or, indeed, how to carry oneself at all in any walk of life.
I’ve had two requests to alter something I’d written about another comic during the course of the year. In both cases I changed or removed what I’d said without any question whatsoever. In both cases I genuinely hadn’t meant any offence and thought at the time of writing that what I’d said wasn’t especially contentious. Everything is open to interpretation and I’m fully aware that a few lines that are innocuous to me may come across as backhanded or damning to someone else. On the flipside I’ve also noticed that things I’ve written in my diary have turned up on several newer acts comedy bios. Good luck with that folks, especially as my seal of approval and a pound will get you a scratchcard.
I felt rather liberated over the first weekend of April. On Saturday night I gigged in Alexanders and anything that happened on that night is strictly between the audience, the other comics the promoters and myself. On Sunday I drove down to Rugby, watched Wrestlemania with Laura and then did what exactly any sensible person would do after they’d finished a year long writing project. That’s right, I went to Denmark.
Back in February I found myself talking to a chap called Tommy Nielson after I’d MCed the final of the Midlands Stands Up competiton at Highlight in Leicester. He told me about a comedy festival he was organising in Aarhus, the Danish second city. I told him I would love to come over and be part of it, citing my experience with workshops and shows alike. A few weeks later I got a call inviting me to come and compere the international showcase gig. A week in Denmark with my travel, accomodation and food paid for with a bit of cash thrown in? Count me in.
Thus it came to pass that ten minutes after The Rock had helped The Miz retain his WWE Championship Laura and I were in the car on our way to Stansted airport. There we bumped into Jim Smallman, travelling out with us to perform his 2011 Edinburgh show Tattooligan. The first day was something of a blur, starting at the Aarhus Comedy Festival central office. They had a display of controversial art and cartoons including a rather graphic caricature of the Danish royal family indulging in what appeared to be a wild orgy. There was even a rather startled looking sheep involved. Fellow Brits Tiernan Douieb and Sarah Hendrickx seemed similarly nonplussed to begin with. What exactly had we let ourselves in for?
By the end of the week I was rather upset at the prospect of leaving. Aarhus turned out to be a gorgeous little city full of similarly gorgeous people. I’d been somewhat concerned about a language barrier but it soon became clear that the Danes spoke better English than I could find in many parts of Greater Manchester. The showcase gig was absolutely out of this world, playing out to over four hundred of the most eager comedy-goers I’d ever seen. There were moments during my opening section when I was genuinely astonished at how keen and willing to laugh they were. Al Pitcher, Jovanka Steele, Bob MacLaren and Harry Kondabolu were one hell of a line up and I was thrilled to be out there with them.
Part of the experience revolved around workshops during the day. These were primarily concerned with getting a selection of comics from around Europe together to discuss the boundaries of modern comedy. What could possibly be funnier than a room full of comedians? I was highly sceptical to say the least but these turned out to be a genuine highlight of the trip. It gave us all a chance to get to know each other away from the usual bars and gigs. Occasionally a debate would break out too.
The hostel where we stayed was basic to say the least. You know your accommodation is no frills when you have to collect your bedding from reception and make the bed up yourself. Laura and I lucked out by coming over together as this meant we landed a room to ourselves while the other acts were sharing. That said we did land a twin room and had to push the beds together like errant teenagers at summercamp. We were well fed too with a fine breakfast of various meats and cheeses spread out for us every morning. It was wonderful but I did suspect I’d go home with scurvy if I’d stayed much longer than a week.
It’s almost impossible to condense the week’s happenings into a passage or two of text. In addition to the showcase gig I performed several times at the English language open mic night which took place in the charmingly named Cockney Pub. It’s possible to apply for a smoking license if your venue is below a certain size and the Cockey Pub qualified for this readily. As a result this would be the first time I’d gigged in a smoke filled room for many years. It felt oddly nostalgic but my lungs felt like they’d been grated afterwards. I did a couple of sets at the open mic and MCed the last night as well, it was immense fun. They got absolutely everything with the exception of a few puns and anything that revolved around very specific UK references.
I compered a night called Polar Bear Comedy alongside a fine fettled selection of Norwegian acts performing in English. It’s incredibly humbling to find yourself working alongside comedians that have the guts to tackle comedy in a second language. We had a small but enthusiastic crowd in that night and we all had a great time. Special mention must go to Vidar Hodnekvam who was overjoyed to finally meet another comic as obsessed with wrestling as he is. I told him to come visit for a few gigs on a night that coincides with a WWE show gathering at our undisclosed location.
My willingness to throw myself into anything that came along saw me in some deeply bizarre situations. I performed at Comedy In The Dark one night, a concept gig borrowed from the Leicester festival that is exactly what it claims to be. There was no light whatsoever in the venue except for very briefly when an act was either going on or coming off. Mads Brynnum, the compere, used the cover of darkness to make sure he was bollock naked when the lights came up to bring me on. He’d also compered the gig in Danish. Unsurprising considering the fact that the gig was in Denmark I suppose.
It was a somewhat bizarre situation. Sat in the pitch darkness waiting to go onstage I suddenly realised that the only words I could possibly hope to recognise were my own name. Safe to say I was ever so slightly on edge knowing that I could find myself onstage at any moment with little to no warning. I also wondered what would happen when the gig’s language changed from Danish to English. You couldn’t imagine the middle spot at The Frog doing their set in Danish and the audience keeping up. They struggle sometimes with acts from the south let alone acts speaking in another tongue. It was amazing, I went on and launched into my stuff and they kept up perfectly. It was as if someone had pushed a button on their DVD player and switched languages. Thanks to Laura’s research I’d even managed to put together a few lines that were specific for a Danish audience, specifically playing off there rivalry with Sweden. Can’t beat a bit of casual racism, especially if you’re from out of town. They even lapped up my Comedy In The Dark specific lines about writing my set on my hand and declaring it a safe working environment for a ginger comic.
On the Thursday night I was invited to be a judge at the final of the Danish Open Mic Comedy Awards. I suggested that my absolute inability to understand Danish might prove to be something of a hurdle. In response I was told that I would be there to judge the acts based solely on their performance skills, confidence and the way they carried themselves on stage. I was somewhat sceptical but thought I’d go along for the experience. It turned out to be an amazing night. I sat with Tommy and Jesper Holger, the two other judges and watched the night unfold. Jesper and I had also been left unsupervised with a small stack of post-it notes which we soon used to label everything in sight including audience members nearby. I thought I’d sit baffled for the entire show but I soon realised that I had plenty of notes I could take about each act without knowing exactly what they said. It also became apparent that “I know what you’re thinking…” sounds the same in any language. When I compared notes with Tommy and Jesper at the end of the night they all agreed, not only on the winners but also on the standings for the rest of the acts. The night was won in a landslide by a an exceptionally funny guy called Daniel Lill. Hopefully he’ll land over on our shores some time soon.
One of my last gigs in Aarhus was one of my strangest to date. I found myself being driven around the city streets in a Mini while I performed to two students sat in the back. This was a somewhat unusual publicity stunt, an up close and personal gig in a Mini that had been auctioned off for charity. It was bought as a wedding present but it transpired that the beneficiaries didn’t actually want it. Not to be deterred Tommy went off and found two girls sat out in the Saturday afternoon sun. A few minutes later they were captive in a car while I did my best to compere without getting too travel sick. Could have been a nightmare but it was awesome, especially as the two girls got into the spirit of things and were very hard to offend.
One of the sideline projects for the comics attending the workshop had been provided by Aarhus city council. They had put up a cash prize for whomever could help them out. Their ongoing campaign was aimed at encouraging council employees to speak out if they felt something was amiss. To this end they had offered two prizes of fifteen hundred euros each for the best radio and tv sketch to put this message across. Long story short, Laura had an idea for a TV spot, I wrote it up, it won and we wound up fifteen hundred euros richer. I’ve not had too many holidays where I’ve come back better off than when I left but I could definitely get used to it.
It was on that Saturday afternoon that I stood on the canal bridge in the middle of Aarhus. The sun was shining and the various cafes were full of folk that had spilled out onto the street. A street band was playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow and I stood watching the world go by with Laura. I’d had an incredible week and this all combined to create a truly breathtaking moment. If you’d gone back a year and said that this was in store then I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Then again I probably wouldn’t have believed many of the things I’d seen and done over the course of the last twelve months. Biker festivals? Pissy Lane? CEX employees? Furries? Jim Davidson? I have an amazing job and as a result of it my life is frequently amazing too. It’s moments like that one in the centre of Aarhus that remind me I made the right decision when I jacked my job in over a year ago. I’m fully aware that I lead a charmed life and I would urge everyone to poke me with something sharp and lemony if I ever take it for granted. We went back to the hostel and drank cider in the garden.
Aarhus was amazing, a phenomenal week packed with phenomenal people. We spent much of the time sat in the festival office on massive beanbags chatting and making use of the wifi. We met comics from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Holland and Estonia as well as getting to know fellow UK folk Sarah and Tiernan much better. I was absolutely shattered when I boarded the Ryanair flight (Yes, them again…) back to Blighty. Shattered but happy on the tail end of an incredible busman’s holiday. I’d loved my time in Denmark and was itching to go back there again as well as to all the other countries that were crying out for English language stand-up. Could there have been a better way to finish off the year I’d spent meticulously documenting my comedic happenings? I seriously doubt it.
I sit here on Tuesday May the third, a month after we flew out. April turned out to be rather hectic. Laura found herself a flat in Manchester and moved up from Rugby. The fortnight after we got back was somewhat dominated by the process of transporting Laura, her possessions and her cat safely up the M6 in my trusty Skoda Fabia. Along the way I managed to turn thirty five years of age with minimal trauma. I’m now on the home stretch to forty in no uncertain terms. Looking ahead I’ve got plenty of gigs booked for the coming months, many of which are for clubs that I wasn’t playing this time last year. I’ve got a run of gigs in Hungary, The Czech Republic and Slovakia booked in for later in May and I can’t wait for those to come around. The nagging doubt that I won’t be able to pay my rent this winter hasn’t gone but it’s definitely subsided.
Things are looking alright. Sure, they could always be better somehow. I could always be a little richer, a little thinner around the waist and a little thicker around the hairline. The diaries, the infamous gig diaries, are now completely over and done with. Where am I going to put all the time and effort that I’ve spent on them for the last two hundred and eight gigs? What am I going to do with myself now?
Anything I want.
I love my job.