What do want me to say before you go on?
“What do want me to say before you go on?”
“Er... no, it’s my first time.”
The host whooped and clapped wildly as he made his way back to the stage, I’d only met him briefly at the start of the evening. I thought I would have been on second, but no... it’s nearly the end of the line up and i’m now waiting at the back of the dimly-lit Greenwich Village Comedy Club to go on.
“Next up: he plays clubs and colleges all over the city... Please welcome... Chris Williams!”
I found myself in New York after a whirlwind romance. I met a beautiful Irish woman a few weeks before she moved there with her work. As true love is never straightforward, we did the really long distance thing for a year, and then got married. I know the carbon footprint per shag was not the best thing I have ever done for the planet. Once my visa was sorted, I found myself in Manhattan in October 2012, and this late 30-something wanted to try something new. I should declare at this point that I never did any stand up before I moved there - it was a challenge I set myself. It started with a writing course at a local club, a chance to bat around material with others and with the house comic. In terms of language, I had to adapt to new phrases and words. Instead of corner shop, it was bodega. “Sub off the bench”, was now the “pinch hitter”. I still don’t know how to use the work “fleek” correctly.
Once I felt I had something resembling a set, the challenge was to try and get stage time. That involved networking (comedy code for drinking at shows) and doing open mics. The open mic circuit has a life of its own. They’re on every night of the week - some start at 4pm on a Tuesday, and can easily have 20+ people trying to sign up just to get three minutes of stage time each. Others can be civilised, over brunch on a Sunday morning at somewhere like The Stand. They were not always useful. There were a few where, even with your strongest material, no-one would listen. You would look out into a dark room of ghostly heads in hoodies just looking down at their phones, faintly lit by their twitter feed.
I didn’t appreciate how many people were trying to make it. It’s the only industry where people can be on TV one night, then doing a bar show the next. I loved the range of diversity in performers within the community - ethnicity, LGBTQ+, age... from grizzled New Yorkers to the latest blow-ins who’ve come to “make it” in the Big Apple. I found people to be very welcoming, and I was asked more than once: “You’re British? You must love Monty Python!” Or sometimes Ricky Gervais, or maybe Eddie Izzard. Once it was Benny Hill.
Once I found my feet and started performing, I’d get recommended for other shows and asked to host. Quickly you get caught up within a very creative community. It was invigorating - people weren’t just doing standup, they would also be creating packets for late night TV shows, writing scripts, starting blogs, hosting podcasts, trying improv, filming sketches... But trying to get paid to do standup was nearly impossible. The major venues have a big reputation and look for people with major TV credits. However, there are a few larger venues where, when you get past the veneer, you realise that they’re just another bar trying to get by through enforcing a two-drink minimum. Getting “passed” by some of these did not guarantee regular paid work.
This demand for stage time has created a growing “free” show scene, which is almost punk in approach. Performers are organising their own independent shows across the city, in any venue that would have them. Normally, it would be seven comics and an MC, with new acts and old hands each doing seven minutes or so. There would be at least three or four of these shows every night. Venues ranged from the back room of an old tiki bar on the Lower East Side to somewhere with capacity for just 15 people. Audiences were a mixture of tourists and locals, and normally well-behaved. Heckling wasn’t common, and many venues had a regular crowd each week. I became very fond of the “cheap pop”. It’s the cheer you hear from US audiences when the turn announces something big - an achievement, birthday, anniversary, etc. The crowd “whoop” response is almost Pavlovian. I think it’s because it’s a staple reaction on late night TV which people just carry into real life, thinking it’s normal. Or perhaps Americans are just very celebratory. I don’t know for sure, but it is lovely. British crowds are not so easily impressed. “Lost 10 lbs, did you? Still more to go, chubby.”
I know I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to stand up, tell stories and make people laugh every week. I’ve even been paid on occasion - in cash, not just drink tickets. I played anywhere that would have me - from those dingy dive bars to proper theatres. I made a lot of good friends and got hooked on comedy. I can’t remember all the jokes I used to do, but I have many fond memories - the time I offended the whole of Roosevelt Island on Twitter; or when the pinball machine repair man came to fix something during my first headline set. My favourite was doing crowd work with with an Albanian escort and her “uncle”. But that’s another story for another time. At least my credits are finally correct: “He REALLY HAS performed all over New York City!”