No laughing matter: From heckling to bottling, Britain's leading stand-up comics recall the horror of their first gig

Bottled in Bangor, slapped around in Southend, and hounded by heckles from the bar staff. Taking the first tentative steps towards a career in stand-up comedy is no laughing matter, as today's hottest stars tell Carrie Matthews

The obvious appeal of a career as a professional stand-up comedian is this: you get to make people laugh for a living. Being on the receiving end of adulation from a room (or arena) full of people isn't a bad way to make the mortgage payments. Other incentives include the tantalising lure of a radio series or maybe a transfer to the small screen. And, for a handful of the highest-profile stand-ups, there are huge riches to be reaped from tours, not to mention royalties from DVD sales.

But only a handful reach such heights, and the upward trajectory to get there requires unsociable hours, pitiful pay, unruly audiences, brutal reviews and professional instability. What's more, someone with a single TV credit to their name is arguably more employable in the eyes of the BBC than someone who has proved their talent countless times in sweaty venues across the UK but remains a less familiar face.

Live comedy, then, is not for the faint-hearted, and those who lack the necessary drive quickly fall by the wayside. So how does anyone survive? We asked six of comedy's brightest stars to recount those gritty early experiences...

Stewart Lee

"I always wanted to be a writer, really," reveals Lee, one half of former double act Lee and Herring, acclaimed stand-up in his own right and co-writer and director of the hit musical Jerry Springer: The Opera. "But then I saw a comedian called Ted Chippington when I was 15 and that made me want to be a stand-up. I realised you didn't have to be flash like Ben Elton or old-school like Bernard Manning or personable like Jasper Carrott. You could be harsh and bleak."

Yet, despite his success throughout the 1990s, in 2001, Lee quit stand-up altogether. "I couldn't seem to write anything new that I liked and was in a rut. No one was coming to gigs that I had outside London, which were losing money. But I started again in 2004 - working with Richard Thomas on Jerry Springer: The Opera inspired me. He made me think there was something in being sincere about what you felt. And there were so many people interfering in the West End show – it was very satisfying to go back to one man and a mic."

Four years on, with the BBC2 series Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle under his belt, a DVD out (the wryly titled 41st Best Stand Up Ever!, following an accolade bestowed on him in a Channel 4 poll) and a tour kicking off in autumn, Lee is still going strong. Reflecting on a career spanning three decades, he says, "The bad memories become good ones in hindsight. Being bottled off in Bangor Uni in 1993 seems heroic now."

Mark Watson

At just 29, Watson has packed a startling amount into his career already: his own Radio 4 series Mark Watson Makes the World Substantially Better, a mini-series for BBC4 (We Need Answers) and a regular spot on BBC2's Mock the Week. Then there are his hugely ambitious and much-celebrated 24-hour (and one 36-hour) live shows. Oh, and he's ticked the writer box by getting a few novels published, too.

"I never imagined comedy was something you could make a career of," he says – a statement typical of this unassuming comedian from Bristol, whose profile is set to explode as the result of a new £8m ad campaign for Magners pear cider in which he stars. "I really just started it as a hobby, in the same way as you try tennis to see if you can get any good at it.

"My first gig went well enough to make me think, 'Well, I could give that another go,'" he recalls, "although if I saw it now I would probably be horrified." But he's also had his fair share of unpleasant experiences. "I had a gig in Maidstone, Kent, very early on. The venue doesn't exist any more – hopefully it burnt down. One doesn't like to generalise but, well, they were sub-human..."

Watson doesn't feel he fits the stereotype of someone who makes people laugh for a living, admitting to a natural shyness – though he credits this with motivating him. "If I were an extrovert, I don't think I'd have any need to get on stage."

Anna Crilly

Crilly is best known as the dour cleaner Magda in the BBC sitcom Lead Balloon, a role that earned her a Best Female Newcomer nomination at last year's British Comedy Awards. She started out as a stand-up and still regularly performs, these days with fellow writer/performer Katy Wix, with whom she is taking a sketch show to Edinburgh this year.

"I wanted to be a veterinary nurse growing up," she says. "I like animals a bit more than people, but not in a mental way – I'm just shy. At the age of 33, I still find conversations with clever people awkward in case they may deduce that I'm a bit of a bonehead. A chocolate labrador is 100 per cent less likely to notice this than Stewart Lee and, besides, Stewart Lee won't look nearly as pleased with a bit of raw bacon."

Comedy is something she seems to have stumbled on. "I was lost and confused for about seven years after graduating from university. The joke in our house from a young age was that I would stack toothpicks in Tesco and my brother would go to Cambridge University. He did, but who's on BBC2 now?

"It's great to be excited about being on the bill with someone you truly admire," she enthuses. One such comedian is Jack Dee, writer and star of Lead Balloon. "Meeting Jack has to be the best memory – star-struck doesn't cover it. I've since realised he's nothing, really nothing special," she laughs. '

Kristen Schaal

Schaal, an alternative comedian from Colorado, is best known for her role as obsessive fan Mel in HBO's cult hit Flight of the Conchords, which returns to BBC4 on Tuesday. She didn't consider a career in comedy until college.

"I wanted to be a Price is Right model where you get on household items and run your hands over the dishwashers – I thought that looked really fun," laughs Schaal, though she adds earnestly, "I actually really wanted to perform and realised stand-up was the one medium where you had total control of writing material and putting yourself on stage.

"My first gig was for a tiny sketch group and I wanted to try some stand-up. I did some jokes about the drugstore round the corner, because there was a woman who worked there who looked like a witch. I just talked about that," she says, "and the college kids went wild."

Recalling a time when her comedy was not so well received, she recounts, "There was this regular stand-up night where I decided to play an incoherent character who can't articulate herself. It was a hit in the alternative comedy scene, but at this conventional night... well, it bombed. In the worst way."

Currently on a UK tour performing Double Down Hearts, a two-man show with Kurt Braunohler, Schaal also recalls a period when she had a crisis of confidence, due to a manager who didn't understand the alternative nature of her comedy, which has since won her legions of adoring fans. "He thought my show was no good because it was too weird and couldn't be on Saturday Night Live. It kind of devastated me. So I took a year or two off. But one night I walked into an improv room and starting improvising and it was like, 'I miss this,' and things took off from there."

Dave Gorman

Taking a break from stand-up seems to be a common theme among the pros. Gorman, creator of the hugely successful Are You Dave Gorman? (first a show, then a TV series, then a book) and host of BBC2's Genius, started doing stand-up in the late 1990s. Whereas lack of confidence and writer's block halted Schaal and Lee respectively, Gorman succumbed to the physical and lifestyle strains of life on the road. On finishing his three-year, worldwide Googlewhack Adventure tour, he decided to pack it in. "I had lost nearly two stone, got a nodule in my throat and destroyed my social life. So I stopped."

But a niggle that "wouldn't go away" led him to start gigging again in secret last year. "It reminded me why I'd started in the first place: because it was fun." Now he's gearing up to embark on a national tour, Dave Gorman: Sit Down, Pedal, Pedal, Stop and Stand Up, which kicks off in August.

Performing comedy simply for the joy of it was very much the impetus for Gorman: "The assumption seems to be that when you first set foot on stage you already knew you wanted to do it professionally. Which seems odd to me. You start doing it as it's fun. Then you realise you can make a few quid at it..."

That's not to say he hasn't had some unsavoury experiences, especially when starting out. "At one gig, I was introduced with 'I've never seen this guy before... might be good, might be shit. I think he's a poet.' I walked on to the sound of 150 people chanting, 'Fuck off!' – I obviously wasn't walking on funnily enough for them. I just argued with hecklers for 20 minutes. At one point I looked over and the bar staff were heckling me."

Jon Richardson

"It's a disappointing side-effect of the intimacy of comedy," says Richardson, "that when someone doesn't like what you do, it can seem they don't like you personally. Having been assaulted after a gig in Southend, I've come to terms with that."

A relative newcomer at 26, Richardson juggles hosting his own show on BBC6 Music with a current UK stand-up tour. His friends initially advised him against giving comedy a go. "They told me not to, as they thought I would make a fool of myself. Usually that sort of comment from people I trust would crush me, but when I found myself arguing against them, I knew this was something I was taking seriously.

"Nerves had put me the wrong side of five pints and a double Jack Daniel's, so I would be lying if I said I had much recollection of the specifics," he admits of his first set. "But I remember getting a laugh for my first line and thinking, 'It's working! It's actually working!'"

Bottlings, abusive managers, aggravating throat nodules – these are just some of the perils of the job. But, says Richardson, "When you make eye contact with an audience member as you deliver a punch line, and see them laughing at nothing more than the workings of your brain – that's the most invigorating sensation I've ever felt."

'My First Gig', a night inviting established comedians to relive their early career while giving the public the chance to try stand-up, launches on Wednesday at 7.30pm at The Old Coffee House, 49 Beak Street, London W1 (www.myspace.com/myfirstgig)

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