ARTS : What's the secret of comedy?

Er... timing. But then there's the state of the audience on the night, the gag writing, the compere's introduction, the post-performance analysis... Mark Wareham asks six alternative comedians to put together their guide to good gigging

THE PREPARATION

Bruce Morton

Glaswegian comic monologuist whose new Channel 4 series `Big Big House' goes out later this year

Writing is staring at a word processor until you get a headache or until a joke or a tea comes along. If I knew where my ideas came from, I'd go there. The idea for my new series came about when I was thinking, "I'm such a bloody couch potato, why not write a show about sitting around the house?" You can never be sure how, why and when the Muse comes, but it only comes along for a minute or two. It's busy. The Muse has got people to see. So you're changing a light bulb and suddenly you're rushing to write something down. I psyche myself up before a gig. Pacing nervously, glancing at notes again, more nervous pacing, a couple of cigarettes and a lot of mumbling. One small brandy is my limit beforehand. Once I was drunk and also a little bit stoned before a slot in Edinburgh. I was halfway through telling a story when I realised that I couldn't remember the end. So I had to stop and confess. Somehow I dug my way out of the hole and continued. Towards the end of the set I remembered how it ended, and it turned out to be a joke about amnesia. It got huge applause because people thought I'd been winding them up to pull off this smart ending, when actually it was just God looking down and sniggering at me. So now I always try to go on straight. I don't trust myself. I just tell myself, "You can have a drink in 80 minutes."

THE VENUE

Donna McPhail

When not gigging, co-presents BBC2's `The Sunday Show' (12.45pm Sun) with ex-`Word' girl Katie Puckrik

It's the audience that makes a club good or not. Except when it's the carpet or the chairs. Or the music they play in the interval or even the day of the week sometimes. Yeah, there's definitely something in that, actually. Fridays, for example. They're always quite quiet, even if there's a really big crowd.

End of the week, you see. Everyone's tired, still in their work clothes... been drinking since six, they've got no energy left... or anyway it's Streatham or Brixton or whatever poxy hell-hole we're in, and they've never liked laughing down here. The audience was far too laddish or not laddish enough or something and the compere did far too long; especially with the Bank Holiday and that hen party being so drunk and that microphone - that microphone's worse than useless.

Anyway, they shouldn't be serving food in a comedy club: you can't eat and laugh both at once. They're two very difficult jobs, especially with that big group of Germans in, and they all kept their coats on: it was so cold in there and what with my bad back and migraine attack I was just trying out some new material and it used to be a really brilliant club, I thought, but it's actually a pokey little hole... Anyway I'm not going to play it again... Still, it's a good little earner...

THE PERFORMANCE

Phil Kay

Glasgow's finest since Billy Connolly; winner of Top Live Stand-Up Comedian at the 1994 British Comedy Awards

It's about confidence, bravado and arsing around. It's that old thing of luck favouring the brave. Something happens in the audience and while you're talking about it, something else is brewing. Just before the last gig I did, I'd been in the kitchen and found a washing-up glove and put it in my pocket. Thirty minutes in, I found it and it somehow became relevant to my impression of Jesus fooling the carpenters with extra long arms. The carpenters would be thinking, "We've made this cross to fit his arms and now they're longer," and Jesus is being nailed on with one hand flopping off simply because I'd found the glove which turned into this long arm.

So it's luck, but it's also being open to luck, not just going out there and seeing what happens. I'll go out and base it round the first three or four minutes. Not an opening gag as such. I don't have one. I just hope something happens as I'm going to the mike. The other day I held the mike up for a guy to say "Hello", but he was standing by the speaker, so when I put the mike towards his mouth it sounded like he was making the noise of a Chihuahua because of the feedback. So he became Chihuahua Boy, and every time I pointed the mike at him, there'd be feedback and he'd bark. That's what I want at the beginning of a gig. I don't want to come on and say, "Good evening, here's a great joke", 'cos I don't have any.

THE HECKLERS

Greg Proops

American comedian who won't leave Britain. Has appeared on C4's `Whose Line Is it Anyway?' and `Viva Cabaret'

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "heckler" thus: "Heckler [Hk-lur] n. A drunken, inconsiderate twat with no life who feels the need to destroy the work of honest, god-fearing comedians."

Like all theatrical terms, Heckler is of ancient Greek origin. Heckler: Hec - salamander-brained cheese stick; and, Ler - one who yells mindlessly at people wittier than oneself. Heckling is as old as comedy itself. I guarantee you, at the Athenian Comedy Festival in 457 BC some drunk screamed, during a matinee of The Frogs, "You suck, Aristophanes! Heard it, seen it, get off!" At which point he was bludgeoned to death with fresh blocks of feta by burly, naked, hairless bouncers. The Greeks, after all, invented civilisation.

Notes to a heckler: first, the comedian has dealt with oysterheads like you before. Second, comedians have a microphone, therefore they can be louder than you. Third - and this is the key - people paid money to see us, not you. You rarely see a sign outside a comedy club reading, "Tonight: drunk yuppie stag party from Chingford who yell `You're shite', with four comics in support".

I think it was George Bernard Shaw who once said, "If you put an infinite number of hecklers in a room for an infinite amount of time, eventually they'll pass out in their own vomit and everyone else can finally enjoy the show."

THE COMPERE

Arthur Smith

Balham wit; source of the line, `Whatever happened to white dog shit?' His `Live Bed Show' is playing at the Garrick

I have compiled the following tips for aspiring comperes.

Always try to remember the names of the acts. This is not as easy as it seems. I once introduced Frank Skinner as "bollocks, I've forgotten his name," and Mark Thomas as "the interval".

Give the act you are introducing a big build-up. Visiting American comedians will say, "Yeah, tell 'em I've been on Letterman, Saturday Live, Jay Leno." A British comedian will say, "Er, just sort of say my name, if you like, or not, if it's too much trouble."

Or try the Malcolm Hardee approach. A standard intro goes something like, "They're probably crap, and here they are."

Do not become discouraged if members of the audience keep asking you where the toilet is. Audiences often assume that the compere is the manager of the club. This is a good thing since then you only have to be slightly funny and they're impressed.

Be wary of benefits. They are usually worthy causes but are often appallingly organised. Expect some difficult links. I did a benefit where a speaker ended up talking about the horrors of Auschwitz for 10 minutes. Then I had to come on and do the raffle.

Don't worry. In a hundred years time, no one will remember whether you were good or bad at the Meccano Club in March 1995. Good luck and save a joint for the last act.

THE WIND-DOWN

Sean Lock

Supported Newman & Baddiel at Wembley, 1993. Appears in `Rock' with Bill Bailey at BAC, London from 27 Mar

When you come off, you're usually pumped up. It's best not to even think about how it went. Nobody cares when you go really well. An audience can be up and cheering, but 10 seconds later they've forgotten about you. Likewise, it doesn't mean anything when they think you're crap. I did a gig where I had 350 people on their feet, shouting at me to Get Off, Get Off. I was wondering how I'd made them that angry. They were apoplectic. I came off and I remember not feeling any kind of shame. I went to the bar and just stood there drinking, and when they walked past me none of them looked me in the eye. I was bad, fair enough, but there was no reason for such wild anger. You get a lot of people come up and they actually like you, but they're very nervous so they end up being rude. Two students came into my dressing room to tell me how great I'd been. When I asked them to leave so I could get changed, they started having a go at me for being a fourth-rate comedian.

I coined the term "gag hag" [a comedy groupie] but I haven't had any dealings with them. A woman chatted me up at a gig where I'd died on my arse. She said, "I like the way you offended every person in the room." Turned out she was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party trying to recruit me. There aren't that many gag hags about. Comedians aren't a very attractive bunch, really.

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