I did amateur stand-up #comedy for three years before it ate me up and spat me out. Like most young men are wont to do, I got in to comedy because of a girl. A wholly forgettable girl in the greater scheme of things but I was 24 and was hoping I'd get to see her untanned areas...
I was working full time in a call centre and said girl said to me, "I saw some stand-up the other night, you should do it Ben, you're funnier in conversation than half of them there!". Always a sucker for flattery and distracted by a pretty face I thought "how hard could it be?!"
Pretty fucking hard actually!
There's definitely a misconception in comedy that it is very easy to make. Armchair warriors of the land always think, "I could do that, he's just talking about the news!", but I encourage any naysayers to visit your local amateur night and give it a whirl. My first gig was a new act of the year competition which in hindsight was an awful place to start. This kind of competition is for the best amateurs to show they're ready to step up and ideally prove that they're ready for at least paid work.
I went there with a 5 minute set entirely about my name, because y'know, I'm funnier than half of them there!
I literally did a joke about how my dad named me 'Ben' and not 'Benjamin' because he didn't want a son, he wanted a dog. I said this aloud, on a microphone to strangers. Pity laughs aside, I didn't win, though I did get an 'honourable mention' for having, not the worst first gig the promoters had ever seen!
I still don't know why I didn't stop there and then but I kept going, gigs were few and far between as I was mainly looking for them in my local area. After a year of so-so performances I realised the only way I would improve was through attrition and the only way to get more gigs was to travel, so I emailed a lot of venues and managed to accrue a veritable myriad of dates up and down England and Scotland.
The downside being I absolutely hate to drive, but having a car gets you a lot of gigs in the world of stand up, more experienced acts will often offer you spots on gigs just by simply driving them there and back. Behind the curtain of the actual fun part - y'know, standing up and making people laugh - is a life of endless travel, a lot of the time journeying most of the day for very minimal time on stage, sadly being funny is less than half of it.
Still, it didn't bother me for at least 2 years and the experience is one I'll never forget. After months of gigging I'd scrapped the material on my name and moved on to comedy song writing playing guitar and warbling at innocent crowds of comedy goers. The gigs were going really well, but I was becoming known as a novelty act and much preferred just standing and talking. Eventually I moved away from songs about sexually disappointing women and perverted milk men and just went back to talking about it!
I continued to gig for about another year doing rather well but ending up quitting when I was simply tired of the travel and the personal costs. Even when paid it rarely covered petrol and the cost of food and drink and I'd given up weekends with my friends for the best part of 3 years as Thursday, Friday & Saturdays are the most popular gig nights. Part of me misses it and looks back with rose tinted glasses, but then the reality of the long, sometimes lonely drives and never having any money snaps me back to reality.
I think all people who did or maybe still do comedy for any length of time have that one gig that made it all seem worth it. For me it was at 'The Frog & Bucket' in Manchester. The Frog & Bucket have an amateur gong show in which roughly 12 acts compete to 'Beat the Frog' what this entailed is lasting 5 minutes on stage. The compere (host) of the show would warm the crowd up then pick 3 people at random to be given a red card and the comedian was tasked with lasting 5 minutes without all 3 cards being raised and therefore being gonged off. There was literally a gong!
Like I said previously, that year I'd emailed asking (begging) for a tonne of gigs, The Frog & Bucket had venues in both Preston and Manchester and I'd managed to get booked at them both one week apart, playing Preston first.
Upon arriving, I signed in and checked the running order to find out I was on last, this sucked as it meant that I was definitely consigned to staying the entire evening. If I'd been on first, had gotten gonged off, at least I could be home before midnight. The night wasn't going to end till 11 so I rehearsed my material and then went and talked to the other comics, which I always enjoyed but it was always a pissing contest of who was the funniest, even more so in the gladiatorial setting of a gong show. The girl I was talking to was bragging to me about how she'd Beat the Frog many times already (not a euphemism) and was simply here to try new material. A risky business as usually you want to put your best foot forward in a competition, something I learned from my very first gig, woof woof!
Said Frog Beater was on before me and I figured she'd last the 5 minutes, so I went for a quick bathroom break. No sooner had I popped the old fella out from his Hong Kong Phoey underwear confines, I heard the gong, I quickly cleaned up just in time to hear "and our final act of the evening, give it up for Ben Messenger!". Flustered and caught off guard, I mumbled through a minute of material before forgetting my next line (I should have rehearsed more). My mind gave me the only stuff it could remember and there I was making awful jokes about my name:
"So my surname is Messenger, no relation to Melinda, though that's not what I told the police when they found me in her back garden"... GONG!
It was a thoughtful 3 hour drive home, I'll tell you that much. I knew I had Manchester the following week and rather than be down about the 6 hours wasted journey from the week before I decided to learn from it and rehearse my damn lines! No matter how natural a comedian sounds he has rehearsed everything he is saying or has said so many times that it's become second nature. That's why comedians hate hecklers, of course they act all calm and give a witty retort but it messes with their timing and is a shitty thing to do, even if a lot of the time it makes for some great moments.
I arrived at the venue early with about an hour to kill, this was my first time travelling to Manchester and alone no less, I resided myself to going to the pub across from the venue. The pub was called 'The City', it's the kind of place where the arm chairs have tattoos and no sooner had I sat down with a pint and some crisps was someone being thrown out, it was only 6pm! I held my phone near the furore so I could look past it and have a spy, when a man approached me asking if I wanted a phone charger, he proclaimed it would 'charge any phone!' I declined, he weirdly never showed me the charger, how could it charge any phone? Was the end made of Play-Doh, one size fits all?! A second later a lady approached me who looked a bit, well I don't want to say 'slow' but if Sloth from #TheGoonies had a sister... She presented me an open unmarked bag and I'll admit her opening gambit was pretty strong, asking "DO YOU WANT ANY MEAT?". The bag was full of various unlabelled cuts of meat, was she asking in general, was I meant to pay? What was the meat, it was unlabelled, was it beef? Veal? Was it the last person who said no to the meat?! I just told her I'd already eaten and promptly left.
I entered the venue and checked the running order and much to my dismay found out I was once again on last. I decided this was a positive as the gig would span 2 hours and my act would be the most fresh in the crowds eyes. The venue was packed, seating 250 people and the crowd were rather vocal having heckled off stage a few other acts. I made the executive decision of going pee pee during a break as to not get caught with my pants down again, not that I pee with my pants down, but I digress.
My name was announced and I was off, my material was landing, screw you, Preston! I'd practiced it so much that I was on complete autopilot and could enjoy the laughter I was receiving, the feeling was euphoric, I was doing a bit on getting older when I was interrupted. I was talking about how I'm getting older: "Y'know, I'm 24 now[I was] and I'm at that age where 18 years old girls are out of bounds now, not that they're too young, just none of them want to sleep with me... Much like 24 year olds!" at that moment some girls starting talking and giggling, I'd seen this crowd had hammered acts who had ignored previous interruptions so I just asked them straight up what was going on? One of the girls, outing her friend said, "she would sleep with you!". The crowd laughed to which I returned "I'll hold you to that! In fact, I'll hold you down for that... It's on like #DonkeyKong, I won't throw any barrels at you but I am quite hairy!" The crowd erupted in laughter and I'd won them over, I Beat the Frog!