One Gig per Day for a Year.
By Jason Chatfield
I’m not really one for goal-setting, but this year I set myself a goal to improve my stand-up comedy. The idea was that I would do, at minimum, one gig per day for every day of the year.
By ‘gig’ it could be a spot at a show, a hosting spot or even just an open mic. Minimum 4.5 minutes.
I made a calendar. I would cross out each day as it passed, filling in each triangle of the cross for every comedy set I’d done that night. Something of a re-appropriation of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” method.
Half the battle was actually remembering to colour the triangles…
I started out doing stand-up back in 2007 in Perth. I did a spot every night because I could. Perth was going through something of a comedy renaissance. There were plenty of rooms popping up for a young comic to get up and try out new stuff, developing their material and finding their comic voice. A bunch of us all decided to take advantage of that, and a lot of us are still working at it 8 years later.
The following year I moved to Melbourne, where, despite the huge comedy culture, there was a glut of comics and not as many rooms. Rather than doing one set per night, I was doing maybe 2 per week.
I have to admit, that was also my own lack of doggedness. If I really committed to it, I could have hung out at more shows and jumped up if there were no-shows, but I didn’t have the experience or confidence.
I was also finding my feet in a new city, living alone and trying to make a living as a cartoonist by day. It wasn’t easy to just head out the door at a moment’s notice with a desk full of deadlines. If I really wanted to, I could have got up a lot more, but I didn’t.
Over the ensuing years, my attempt at committing to comedy was constantly overrun with other distractions and my own half-arsed attitude to the craft.
The one thing that is universally true in stand-up comedy is that there are no shortcuts. You just have to do the work.
If you don’t do the work, you don’t get good. You can sit around reading books about comedy, talking about comedy, blogging, tweeting, rehearsing bits in your bathroom mirror or in front of your friends, but in the end the only way to get good at comedy is to get up on stage and do the work.
You’ll bomb more than you kill for an inordinate amount of time. To persist with it requires some kind of mental deficiency, but that’s comedians for you.
At the end of 2014,
I flushed my previous 7 years of material down a hotel toilet in the Lower East Side, blocking the entire plumbing system. I was trying to be ceremonious about it. I blew it. Water and soggy pages plastered the floor before I ran out of the hotel only to return the next day and see caution tape over the doors telling guests it was out of order.
On January 1, 2015,
I resolved to recommit to comedy with the same fervour as when I started back in 2007. The calendar was pinned to the wall and I had a blank notebook, ready to write my dumbest thoughts and turn them into jokes.
The first month was tricky. I went up with no old material. I had nothing but a few half-baked premises and not one joke. It was like doing my very first gig again.
There were a few blank nights too at the start of the year, since I didn’t know which mics had started up again for the new year. But after a while I was doing up to 3 - 4 sets per night.
The greatest thing about New York for a young comic is that if you want to do the work, the rooms are there.
There are a seemingly infinite number of mics for any number of the week, and if you commit, you can get up as much as you want. But you have to want to. It’s not easy racing around the city all night from mic to mic, sharing a subway car home at 2am with a drunken homeless guy, screaming at the empty seats about chemtrails and jet fuel melting steel beams.
We’re very luck in 2015 to have as many clubs and mics as we do. Back in the early 70’s when a lot of our comedy heroes were coming up there was no such thing as a comedy club. They were opening for musicians, playing retirement homes, college cafeterias -anything where people were congregated.
The way to get good is to play as many different venues as possible, not to do the same one every night with the same material.
Generally, you learn much more from the tough gigs than the easy gigs where they’re laughing at everything; even the stuff that isn’t quite ready. That said, occasionally there are some nights where it’s tough, and you learn nothing except not to perform to 2 comics in that abandoned basement at 2am on a Monday ever again.
I recorded every set and listened back to it a few times to see what worked and what didn’t. Some gags needed tweaking and some just needed to be thrown out altogether. It still astounds me that I didn’t diligently do this for every set when I started out in ’07. I’d have got a lot better, way faster. There are so many comics who still don’t do it, and it baffles me. I get not writing stuff down- but not recording your set is crazy.
Editing is one of the most important parts of performing comedy. You can’t edit yourself if you don’t listen back to your set.
You will think you remember how the set went, but then you listen back and hear all this nuance in the different kind of laughs you got (or lack thereof), the beats that were wrongly placed, the timing, the inflections and pace, the structure of the jokes themselves- there’s an infinity of variables you don’t pick up while you’re up there in fight-or-flight mode under the lights. Recording your set is the only way to capture those variables.
By 1st March,
I was MCing a bunch of shows around town and doing spots at bar shows; between 7 and 15 minutes per spot. I had a regular stable of bookers who would talk to each other and recommend me for other gigs around town.
By 1st August,
I’d done 204 sets. There was a period in May where I had to go to Washington DC to host an awards event and only did one other set at the DC Improv while I was in town leaving me with a bunch of blank nights.
By 1st September,
I’d written and performed over an hour of material, whittling that hour down to 20 good minutes.
I auditioned for clubs, and by October I’d been passed and was doing 4 x 15 minute sets per night in front of actual audiences.
I’d done 525 sets and had filled 3 times as many notebooks as I’d filled in the previous 7 years combined — and I still have a LOT of work to do.
Did the experiment fail?
Well, yes. I didn’t get up every single night of the year, so technically the goal wasn’t met. But I did do several spots per night on other nights to make up for the nights I didn’t get up.
The experiment was never going to succeed perfectly the first year I tried it. There were always going to be other social and work commitments that tied me up for the whole night, but by the second half of the year I would often try to sneak in an early mic before arriving at those.
Ultimately, by trying to get up every night I performed way more than I would have had I not committed to the attempt. After I missed a few nights I didn’t throw the whole project in the garbage; I stuck to it and I’m glad I did.
The other night I got off stage after hosting a small theatre show and my wife said, “Wow! You got funny.” She’s never said that before. I must be doing something right.
You can see Jason perform around New York each week.
Dates at jasonchatfieldcomedy.com