It's one of the funniest situations to find yourself in; being amongst a group of your fellow comedians, your brothers and sisters, your comrades, on a new material night. Nobody wants to be there but we all know we have to be. We've all got something to try out for the first time, something to hone into a 24 carat comedy gem or something to bury once and for all. There's a lot of giggling, a lot of winding up and a lot of running back and forward to the toilet.
With the Glasgow International Comedy Festival rapidly approaching and many comics suddenly realising they could be doing with a few more new gags, such nights are common at Yesbar in Drury Street.
Essentially, all comedians are gamblers. Every night we walk out on stage we're taking a gamble on the audience liking us but more crucially that they will like our material, so it helps if we're confident about what we're going to deliver. When you strike gold, i.e. a routine that the audience really likes, you tend to stick with it. No problem there - it only becomes an issue when your 'new' show is coming up and it is full of old material. Trusting or, more to the point, hoping it will be a completely new or a completely forgetful audience who turn up to see you is not a strategy I would recommend.
We gather in a dark corner, hiding in the shadows, a mutually supportive confessional of uncertainty and bravado. Unsure of material, checking our notes, running through things in our heads, writing entire routines out on the backs of hands.
On this particular night there is a good sized audience but... there's always a but... they are made up of one large group of loud alpha males. It's a work's night out and they've had a few. Not enough to cause a fight, just enough to think they are funnier than us, the true comedians. Who knows? Maybe they are. A large group dominating the audience can affect the group dynamic so immediately you're thinking, “Well, if I do bomb it's obviously their fault”.
The worst bit is when you're just waiting for your introduction. Remember that bit in 'Braveheart' when the English cavalry are charging the ranks of Wallace's men and he's shouting “Hold... Hold...” then just at the right moment he shouts “Now...” they raise their long pikes and halt the charge spectacularly? Well, it's nothing like that. It's a lonely moment, there's no Mel Gibson offering encouragement. In fact it's more akin to a scene from Gladiator with the words “Those who are about to die on their arses salute you” rattling through your mind.
Now comes the dilemma. If they are not responding you tend to resort to tried and trusted material to get a laugh and avert your humiliation. If they are responding you think “shame to waste new, untried material on such a good audience, I'll give them some of the tried and trusted”. Either way you have defeated the purpose. So, you fight against every instinct, hold your nerve and embrace the idea that tonight could end in disaster but at least you will have learned something. Maybe not what you wanted to learn but a lesson nonetheless.
When your spot comes to an end you return to the safety of the dark corner. The over-riding feeling is one of relief - any satisfaction there is won't hit until later. And if your 15 minutes of labour have given birth to even a couple of decent gags then you really are laughing.