Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Had a breakdown, nearly quit, didn't, but why?


Just to point out, this is NOT one of my science letters. They'll probably resume shortly. This is a personal blog. You can still read it, but it's not the same thing is all.

If you've been glancing at my facebook/twitter updates recently, you may have noticed a sudden crash in my confidence and aspirations following my first attempt at a solo show. I genuinely thought about quitting comedy for good. While I've received much support/chiding/blackmail in an attempt to convince me to change my mind (which is appreciated), the reasons behind my questioning my comedy commitments weren't made clear, so most of the responses I got were irrelevant or misjudged (understandable, as I didn't give any useful info to anyone).

So, in order to wrap up the whole sorry affair in neat self-contained package, here's the chain of events and the rationale behind my behaviour.

I decided to do my first solo show. It's normal for acts, when they get to a certain point (or in some cases, well before) in their careers, when they feel ready, to do a solo hour. It's useful for many reasons; it shows that you can entertain an audience for that length of time, it shows you have that much material, it reveals that you can construct a longer set effectively, it indicates you have the sufficient writing ability.

Normally, acts do a solo show to take to the Edinburgh festival, hoping to be seen by the higher ups and picked up by TV/Agencies/crack dealers/all three.

I don't plan to go to Edinburgh any time soon, financial, career and familial commitments don't permit it for the foreseeable future. But I've been meaning to do a solo show for a few years now. I know I have the material, but did I have the stage presence, ability, delivery etc. to keep a set going that long? I felt I'd sat around with my thumb up my comedic arse for too long, so I should find out. As I've suddenly become more known in the science communications field, and also because of the interest in my Science Letters, I felt it would be worthwhile having the piece of mind that yes, I can do a solo show. In case it picks up for me even more, you know?

However, I am not one for self-promotion. I have never headlined a gig, I have never been the main focus of attention, I have organised several popular events but approval of my efforts was based on my organisational and planning capacity. That's fair enough. But I've never been able to tell what will happen if faced with a crowd that are there to see me specifically. And I wanted to know! Arrogant? Maybe, but welcome to the comedy world.

However, my self-criticism is quite powerful, and my self-belief is quite under-developed. I only opted to take the plunge and do a solo hour because so many people said they'd want to see it. I figured it would be worth doing. I coordinated the timing so it didn't clash with anyone else's gigs (apart from Ronan Keating's, but that was out of my hands). I gave several weeks notice. I invited all my friends, all of the Cardiff Comedy group, all of my Humourology group (over 1000 people all told), I got plenty of confirmations. As a result, I spent almost an entire week of my life preparing and planning this evening.

Ended up with 9 paying customers. 5 complete strangers, plus a couple for whom English wasn't their first language (an issue when it comes to me, admittedly). Add the acts and their friends, family and close friends who just come to my gigs because I grovel, 16 people there. I put a brave face on it, but the embarrassment was crushing. It was this and the thought processes that transpired that made me think about quitting

This might seem melodramatic. Let me elaborate. And bare in mind, I'm a qualified scientist, so I have properly thought about this in a thorough and analytical manner.

I had at least 35 people promising to attend, several more unofficially telling me they'd be there (which is plenty for a gig), all of whom were really enthusiastic about doing so, which in turn made me work as hard as possible on the show to justify their support. Around 6pm, I started receiving cancellations. Some felt I was worthy of an explanation or excuse. Almost everyone else just never turned up.
I am incredibly grateful to those who did attend (at least 3 of whom are registered disabled), but you did serve to emphasise the number of people who didn't show.
This hurt, it really did, I can't lie about that. There was no other comedy on that night. Sunday night (contrary to what some people have suggested in a generous attempt to make me feel better) is a very good night for Cardiff comedy. Any new event announced by the Cardiff comedy facebook group gets about a dozen people in as a matter of course. My show didn't.
Perhaps I'd pitched it in too 'scientific' a manner? Yet my Humourology gigs get ample people in via the same approach. The only difference is that this gig was focussed on me. And suddenly, the numbers evaporate.

I've been chastised for overreacting to the fickle nature of people. I agree, perhaps in many cases I've just been thwarted by unreliable 'friends'. But the fact that people were so enthusiastic when I suggested doing a show, but then opted not to attend? I can't help but feel that requires more effort than mere unreliability can account for.

I know full well that I could speak to each person who promised to come and they'd all have a genuine reason for not being there. I don't believe this was a conspiracy to make me feel like shit. I'm sure everyone thought 'it's just me, it won;t make a difference'. That's the logic that's causing the environment to go to shit.
Look at it my way; Several dozen people said they'd come, and all of them, ALL OF THEM, suddenly had something else to do that outranked seeing my d├ębut solo show. My comedy colleagues would know what a big deal this is to me, my non-comedy friends would too as I told them.
Assuming that they weren't acting together, that's a very large group of people who rank showing support for my (considerable) efforts below things like fatigue, or 'early start in the morning', or visiting a mate, or travelling some distance, or any number of things that I've seen be put aside countless times in order to attend other gigs/events.

It's possible that Several dozen people suddenly had something vitally important to deal with on a Sunday evening. A few is likely, but all of them? As a scientist, I can't delude myself that that's the case. Which suggests that almost everyone, when it came down to it, ranked seeing my show below something else that required less effort.
I know most of the people who promised to come, they aren't bastards (in general). I don't think this was malice against me, but it does logically lead to the conclusion that, despite 5 years on the circuit, people just aren't that fussed about watching me perform. Either they've seen me many times and are of the opinion that to see me again would not be something they'd enjoy, or they've seen me a few times and decided I'm not what they'd enjoy.

Either way, this is a damning indictment of my standing as a comedian.

And yes, it's possible that people wanted to come, but opted to attend to less desirable matters because "it's Dean. Dean won't mind". I know I have a reputation as a soft touch, I'll always help out where needed, I'll let things go rather than cause a fuss. But I'm still a human, so fuck you if you think I'm just a door matt.

The main thing was, I planned my show to account for all the variables people have been telling me are to blame. It was on a day which is arguably the most popular for the Cardiff comedy scene. It didn't clash with any other gigs. It was publicised and promoted in a manner that has been shown to work several times. Even failing that, I was for the first time taking advantage of the bare minimum of goodwill that would obviously result from 5 years of getting involved, helping out, and generally contributing beyond the call of duty to the local scene (to the detriment of my Scientific career, which is not something I ever feel the need to tell my comedy cohorts, but screw it).

I failed.

This of course led me to question my standing in the comedy scene. And it wasn't good. I've tried to stay out of the 'politics' such as it is, but this has probably led to my being more of an outcast than anything. I'm not asked to be involved with any new projects or big gigs, unless someone has to stand in. I've stormed gigs ahead of several other acts on the bill, but when the audience come to talk to the acts after gigs it's never to me. I average about 1 audience member a year telling me they enjoyed.

I don't make an impression, not a lasting one anyway. Either that, or I put people off

I can make a claim to 5 years of doing comedy (simultaneously with a PhD), a serious effort to top writing top flight material (I'm an excellent writer, I will say that much and have witnesses to back me up), countless contributions to the local scene, an eagerness to help out whenever I can and an unwillingness to screw people over to get ahead.

All that. Yet I couldn't scrape together an keen audience in the double digits.

I'm currently unemployed (a big part of which is due to my commitment to the comedy), I have no offers, no work lined up, corrections to complete. I was able to deal with this situation because I felt at least I was appreciated in the comedy world. That is no longer the case. Hence, I didn't think it worth throwing away another 5 years in order get maybe 20 people to my next show.

Now, all of these things are my issues, not anyone else. And I've decided not to quit, but to try and turn this around. But you may notice a few changes in me over the next few weeks.

(Whingeing little prick, aren't I? No worries, I'm better now)

Also, before I finish, some responses to the things people said to make me feel better.

I'm not. If I was the sort that was, I wouldn't have lasted 3 weeks. Ironically, the show itself went surprisingly well for a first effort. It needs a lot of work of course, but people seemed to enjoy. There's plenty I can work with. It's the massively disappointing lack of support I got for my efforts that utterly humiliated me.

Yes, I'm aware that 16 people or so is a very good number for a solo show by a relatively unknown act taking place in a busy festival. But it's a fucking shocking turnout for a debut solo show by a regularly gigging act who has been encouraged to do it by his presumed supporters in a context where other shows could easily expect an audience. Let's not forget I had support too, 3 good acts who also tent to bring along several friends. This time, it seems like my being the main act actually sapped their usual followers. That hurts.

I'm not. But see the massive rant that precluded this.

I could be a poet, good singer, good bloody philosophiser, if nobody wants to see me do it it's still just me talking aloud to an empty room. And that's mad

Reformed junkies miss heroin, it doesn't mean quitting isn't good for them

Yes, it's nice to know that at least 25 people, one of whom I married, find me amusing (thanks Ted). But it was the massive disparity between my apparent on-line support and my actual, physical, real world support that led me to this. Thanks for the nice messages, but you were just highlighting the issue for me.

There, that's off my chest now. I'm not quitting, but I am adapting to this. Let's move on.


Manic Expressive said...

Yup. I can see why you would be a little ticked off.

Leebo said...

That sucks. I get upset just reading your post; I can't say I have been in the same situation (I'm no comedian) but I feel your pain regarding being let down by flaky people you (at least used to) respect.
Honestly I think the best person you could consult with (outside your standard support group) is... another comedian. Unfortunately lots of comedians have bad experiences like that in their careers, so I imagine that if you heard some of those, you would feel less alien and more confident that change is possible. I don't mean changing yourself, I mean changing the outcome.

Well anyways, you should be writing a new letter. From science.
How does this sound?

Dear Assholes,
Do you know the probability of everyone that said they were committed to coming suddenly have a dire situation that they must attend? Not fucking good (in %).
Thanks for not showing up to the gig like you promised, and thanks for the heartfelt excuses (to those who gave them), you're a real trooper. Next time, remember the courtesy you extended to me, and don't be surprised about my behaviour the next time you ask for my help.
Science loves you, yes... but you're still an asshole. And now that's scientific.

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