Think this is a laugh? You must be joking

Playing tiny venues, to hostile crowds, for paltry fees. Being a stand-up is a miserable business. So why are more and more people taking the mic? As our finest warm up for Comic Aid, Ed Caesar finds out why being amusing is worth the agony
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The Independent Online

Go out anywhere in the capital, on any day of the week, and you'll only be a stone's throw away from a comedy gig. A quick glimpse at Time Out will point you towards more than 120 venues where stand-up is regularly performed. But don't be lured into thinking that every comedian is a celebrity, and that every comedy club is a sold-out laughfest. Nothing could be further from the truth. The comedy punter is a prized possession, and clubs and pubs all over London do battle with each other for every last tenner. As one veteran of the open-mike circuit tells me: "It's not the acts you have to worry about - enough of them will turn up - it's the audience you have to persuade."

Go out anywhere in the capital, on any day of the week, and you'll only be a stone's throw away from a comedy gig. A quick glimpse at Time Out will point you towards more than 120 venues where stand-up is regularly performed. But don't be lured into thinking that every comedian is a celebrity, and that every comedy club is a sold-out laughfest. Nothing could be further from the truth. The comedy punter is a prized possession, and clubs and pubs all over London do battle with each other for every last tenner. As one veteran of the open-mike circuit tells me: "It's not the acts you have to worry about - enough of them will turn up - it's the audience you have to persuade."

From the first-time wannabes playing five-minute open-mike slots in rooms above pubs, to the household names who play to sell-out stadiums and who will, this week, be furthering their careers as part of Comic Aid, London's comedy spectrum is huge and varied. And, while there is such a thing as a middle-class comic, making a living as a comedian is, for the most part, a brutal, soul-destroying business.

Edward Hands, Shazia Mirza, Steve Williams, Jimmy Carr, Jack Dee: they all start with the same five-minute slot. Where that five minutes takes them is down to luck, talent, and, more often than not, sheer bloody-mindedness. But whether you're a newcomer like Hands, or an old-timer like Dee, the journey is always memorable.

The Newcomer: Edward Hands

"I'm really bad at remembering my set," says Edward Hands, a 43-year-old internet entrepreneur. Hands is third on the bill at the Blue Posts pub in Soho, competing in a London-wide search by the comedy organisers Laughing Horse to find the next big thing in stand-up.

As number two finishes her set, Hands gets up does his five minutes, during which time his offbeat take on contemporary politics largely fails to tickle the audience's collective funny bone. The biggest noise is the groan that accompanies this joke: "I measure how many steps I take in a day, using a pedometer. Yeah, I keep all my records, I'm quite obsessive about it. I keep them in a pedo file."

"I'll probably never get on to television now; I'm too old," he tells me afterwards, in the downstairs bar. "That's the one thing I would say. Don't leave it too long before you try comedy." This gig is Hands's 13th - he's only been gigging since September 2004, and he still feels there's plenty of room for improvement. "There are plenty of positive signs that it's not worth giving up. But there aren't enough signs that I'm an absolute comedy genius yet."

It is a surprise that Hands, who buys and sells items on eBay, as well as organising medical seminars, made it past his first gig. "My first performance was a bit shocking," he admits. "I went on for 15 minutes when I was only meant to be doing five, which is unforgivable. And I did some poetry as well, which went down really badly. I started well, but it went on for ages. It's called 'the endless close' - where you're hoping to get a laugh and it never comes."

His first gig was the only one for which Hands has ever been offered money. "They offered me a fiver," he recalls. "I don't know whether that was 'thanks very much', or 'please don't come back'. Either way, I didn't accept it. I thought, I'll wait until someone can pay me properly. I might look back on that gig as the only paid gig I ever had. I hope not."

Will he give up? "I'll give it at least a year," says Hands, "but if I don't make it, my ego's going to take a knock. With comedy, you're putting yourself on the line. It's your performance, it's your material, it's you. You're very naked."

The results are in. Hands hasn't made it through to the next round, but it hasn't dented his confidence. "A gig's only the price of a phone call away. I just keep phoning, phoning. Once you've done the gig, you'll hopefully get invited back." If nothing else, he has learnt the one inalienable right of stand-up: there is always a five-minute slot out there, somewhere, with your name on it.

The Outsider: Shazia Mirza

As Britain's only female Muslim stand-up, Shazia Mirza has not only had to conquer the predominantly white male world of British comedy, but she has had to do it without telling her parents. "My first two years of doing stand-up were done in secret. It was only the night before I was going to appear on Have I Got News For You that I thought, 'I'd better tell my parents I'm a comedian and I have been for the last two years.' It was a bit like I'd come out as being gay."

Mirza's two-year secret mission started in 2000 when, bored with her job as a science teacher in the East End of London, she started doing some open mike nights. Having overcome the initial hurdle of standing in front of a microphone in front of potentially hostile crowds, Mirza threw herself into the lifestyle.

"I did everything. Open mikes, exclusively black audiences, exclusively gay audiences. Anything. After a while, most of the gigs were like Jongleurs - proper circuit gigs - but I'll still do any and every gig. I gig every night."

Like so many comedians, Mirza is utterly addicted to performing. "I have to be on stage every night. Otherwise it's just so easy to go backwards," she says, although her description of a typical night leaves one slightly baffled as to why. Most nights at a club on the circuit will involve "loads of really drunk, laddish blokes. After they've seen a load of white male comics, this Asian Muslim woman comes on, and I normally get a lot of heckling. But if I deal with it well, then they really love it."

Mirza's star is obviously rising. She is just about to embark on a tour of America, and has recently sold out shows in Denmark, Germany and Belgium. Unlike many circuit comedians, Mirza is unrepentantly ambitious: "I want to do the 1,000- or 2,000-seater theatre tours. I want to do films. I want to do a lot of different, groundbreaking things. I don't want to be a jobbing comic who does the circuit every night. That's OK for some people, but not for me."

The Sensation: Jimmy Carr

It's mid-afternoon, and Jimmy Carr is driving to The Dorchester hotel to meet Kelly Osbourne for tea and "maybe have a pedicure". It's a far cry from his early life as a stand-up on the London circuit. "I'd done close to 100 gigs before I got paid," says Carr. "I think it had been nine months of just turning up at gigs and getting myself on open-mike spots. In fact, the initial thing I did was just watch a lot."

Not one to put all his eggs in one basket, Carr kept hold of his job as a marketing creative for Shell for the first three months of his comic odyssey. It was, he readily admits, a strange double life. "There was this odd overlap. I was out gigging every night and turning up to the office every morning," he recalls. "But I never thought about making it. I was just happy playing small clubs and hanging out. It was the coolest thing. I couldn't have been happier."

It was two years before Carr got his break. "I had a really good Edinburgh Festival in 2002 - I'd sold out a one-hour show - and I got asked to do this Peter Cook tribute gig. My own series was underway by then, but the Peter Cook thing was definitely the big one."

Despite his new-found TV fame, Carr hasn't left the circuit behind and still gigs at least twice a week. "I'm a stand-up," he says defiantly. "And no one on the circuit's terribly impressed if you're on TV. I suppose I've stolen my ethos from Jay Leno. You can do all the TV in the world, but that's a team game, and anyone can be dropped from the squad. And if you haven't gigged in a while, you're not firing, you're not match fit. So I try and do it whenever I can."

Even when he's not gigging, he still watches live comedy. "There's a huge amount you can learn by watching. It's like learning French by moving to France. You just immerse yourself in it. But also, I just really enjoy it. The only place I really laugh is with other people. Comedy's a social thing, and that's one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place. I still go to comedy all the time."

And with that, Carr disappears to fulfil his less than arduous obligation to Kelly Osbourne, and get a foot massage and a cup of tea.

The Star: Jack Dee

"The big turning-point for my career was getting an answering machine," says Jack Dee. "It was 1989. I was working in this restaurant off Oxford Street during the day and gigging at night. It was great, because I had time to gig, but it meant that I was away from the phone all day. I suddenly thought, 'I'll get an answering machine, that might help.' When I got back from work the first night it was just full of bookings. I probably worked in that restaurant a year longer than I needed to."

Dee's career in stand-up had begun three years earlier in 1986, when, aged 24, he had turned up to The Comedy Store "as a punter" and found out that anyone could get up on stage and do a spot. "I gave it a go, I did my five minutes and Don Ward, who owned the club, came up afterwards and said: 'How long have you been doing this?' I told him I'd never done it before, and he said: 'Well, you've got something. Keep coming back and I'll keep putting you on stage.'"

Dee spent the next year or so playing at clubs around London. "It wasn't the money I was interested in," he says. "I just wanted to be a part of the scene. It didn't occur to me that I'd be able to make a living out of it. I just wanted to show myself that I could do on stage what I'd done at school." Yet even Dee had his share of bad gigs. "Horrific experiences? I've had lots and lots," he says. "When I lost it on stage, the audience was completely unforgiving. They wouldn't stand for being embarrassed by a performer in obvious pain. You hear stories of these great, witty heckles, but I never got any of them. It was mostly just 'fuck off'. You learn to bounce back, but in comedy you learn everything the hard way."

Dee was offered his own show by Channel 4. But television was never the game plan for Dee. "It's one of the big changes today," he says, "that people go into stand-up deliberately to target television. You saw it in America first, and inevitably it happened over here." There's no danger of Dee leaving the circuit behind, though - he's currently doing the warm-up nights for his forthcoming 96-date tour. So, Jack: Wembley Stadium? Carnegie Hall? "Actually, I'm on my way to Aylesbury."

The Prodigy: Steve Williams

It's Saturday night, and Steve Williams leaves the stage at The Backyard to huge applause. He has just delivered a 20-minute set in which Welsh rappers, Aussie backpackers and bestiality are all fair game. "He's really good," says the Geordie girl sitting next to me, "I almost pissed myself." His employer for the evening seems to agree. "That was one of the best debut weekends I've seen," says Lee Hurst. "He'll be headlining here before too long."

Williams has done what he calls "his fair share of rough gigs", but insists this is all part of the stand-up experience. "I don't think anyone just sails through. If you run the Grand National, you're going to clip a few hurdles on the way round."

Williams started performing four years ago at the age of 25, when he turned up in London and "a mate asked me to do five minutes at a pub gig. I did a few gigs for nothing. Actually, quite a lot of gigs for nothing. I was just having a laugh, you know, doing it for the love. I never thought about a career or anything. But I did think to myself - this is alright, innit? I can do this." His first paid gig came soon after at a club called Mirth Control in Plymouth; he was paid enough to cover his petrol - almost. "I was just so grateful for the gig, to be honest."

"I probably do about 20 gigs a month now, and the odd open mike just to try out new material. If I do Thursday, Friday, Saturday at a nice club, I reckon I make more than my dad did in a month as a labourer in South Wales. You can make a decent living. I'm doing my own one-hour show at Edinburgh this year, which, I think, counts as being a success in its in own right. But I'd love to do some TV and radio stuff, too. As long as I keep enjoying it, then it's OK, I'm a success."

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