What Life Is Like As an Amateur Comic On the Open-Mic Circuit

Not a lot of money and crippling self doubt: what's the draw of being a stand-up?

by Sam Larner
Nov 26 2015, 5:00am

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This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Backstage tales from the highest echelons of comedy normally include at least one of the following components: groupies, lots of drugs, or crippling self doubt. On the thriving (but far less salubrious) open-mic circuit, the groupies and drugs are usually but a distant dream. The self doubt, however, is in abundance.

I've done stand-up for over two years—working a nine-to-five by day and the comedy circuit by night—and I often wonder why I do something that makes me a minimal amount of money and offers little in the way of what you might call success. I'd say that only two percent of the gigs I do are ones I would consider "good."

The author, Sam Larner, in action. Photo by Flora Bartlett

But I'm far from the only person who chooses to live this life of self-flagellation. There are hordes of us who take to the stage once we've shut down our PCs for the day. Take James Quintin, a 36-year-old man with a wife of 17 years and two kids. His day job is as a video editor for an advertising firm. His stage name is JQ, because, he says, "I just thought my name was a bit la-di-da." JQ's previous relationship with comedy was exactly the same as many others': "I enjoyed going to watch comedy, but it was never something that I thought I could do."

This all changed when his friend started doing it and he finally realized that it might be possible. He booked himself on a comedy course and began the grind. He's gigged for two-and-a-half years, but his "first time" was in the gladiatorial bear pit of the Comedy Store King Gong night—an event where acts are brought on and "gonged" off if three random members of the audience think they're not good enough. He did OK and he's been performing regularly since then.

James Quintin

Going out most nights of the week to seek the approval of people you don't know doesn't seem like the healthiest—or the most rewarding—of things to do. That said, JQ appears to be pretty content with his lot. "The worst thing that has ever happened in my life has been deaths of relatives," he tells me. "Obviously that's quite difficult, but it's not the end of the world."

Having the confidence to try to make a roomful of drunk people laugh doesn't come as easily to most comedians as you might expect. "I have false confidence, and that's why I do character comedy—because I can hide behind that," says Judy Woodfield, a retired police officer from Birmingham who, when she isn't living the life in France, performs as the filthy Miss Charlotte Tibbs.

I asked Judy if she has ever considered doing stand-up as herself. "I've considered it, but I can't even tell a joke," she says. "I get the punchline wrong, I get confused and all waffly. I joined the police, did my 30 years, and then joined drama school. I'd always wanted to be a comedian, but it just didn't happen."

Judy Woodfield performing as Miss Tibbs. Photo by Flora Bartlett

At what point does a "comedian" become a comedian—is Judy finally one now? It's probably fair to say that you can only call yourself a pro when you're making most of your money from comedy. Does that mean amateur comedians are just hobbyists? Not for JQ. "Paintballing is a hobby," he says, "but you wouldn't do it three nights a week. And you wouldn't do it if for two of those nights you were just getting pelted with paintballs."

Judy, however, considers her comedy career to be more of a hobby and wouldn't introduce herself as a comedian. "Although I like showing off, I don't really like to be the center of attention," she says. "I'm quite shy and quite introverted in a way. I think if I tell people I'm a comedian then their expectations would be so high that I would just disappoint them."

Unlike most of us, Andy Zapp—a 67-year-old Polish Cockney who has only been doing stand-up for the past five years—is earning regular money as a comedian. Andy has always been a performer; he was a semi-professional musician for most of his life and would always be the center of attention at work. In many ways he got into comedy in the same way as JQ: he loved comedy and enjoyed watching it, but he couldn't see any way in. That all changed when an ex-girlfriend booked him onto a comedy course. At first, he wasn't enamored—"teaching comedy is like teaching charisma"—but he was finally on stage and his comedy career began.

Andy Zapp. Photo by Flora Bartlett

Andy might be way over the typical age for a stand-up comedian, but he's got plenty of spare time and, as he puts it, "probably only 15 years left at best, so I may as well keep doing this." He's been performing throughout his life in bands, but prior to retiring he worked as a drugs and mental health officer, a caring side that doesn't really come across in his brilliantly abrasive stand-up. "It's a very difficult time to get into stand-up," Andy tells me. "We used to be a nation of shopkeepers; now we're a nation of fucking open-mic comedians."

It's true that the open-mic circuit is saturated, both by gigs and comedians, which means that unless you're very lucky, the vast majority of your gigs will be done in front of an audience of comedians who are performing before or after you.

I'm not convinced how much I like stand-up. Finding time to write and do gigs is a hassle, and it's this part that I find myself struggling with. I asked Andy how he does it and how much he enjoys it.

"Travel is fucking expensive, but I've got a freedom pass so I'm up and down that Northern line like nobody's business," he tells me. "I get a lot out of writing as well. I don't write much, but when I make the effort I usually do two hours, three hours, twice a week. I've got loads of stuff to write about—I've got 70 years of experience, so it's just about honing down on something."

Judy has a slightly different take on it: "I do it because I like it and there's no pressure. If I don't want to do any gigs, I don't have to. I'm not relying on comedy to make a living."

Spending your evenings pounding the lonely streets of open-mic comedy won't make you rich, but it will give you brief moments of pure elation and joy that you wouldn't find in any other legal pastime. I think it's for those moments that I continue to traipse around the upstairs of pubs with other part-time comedians, hobbyists, and future stars. And if you're thinking about giving it a go yourself, take heed of Andy's words first: "Don't do fucking stand-up—you're not fucking funny."