“Five minutes,” says a guy in a headset. “You’re on in five.” Ivan looks out from the wings. The stage is black. The ceiling of the club is black. The whole place smells of piss and dust and beer. About a third of the seats are occupied; everyone else is at the bar. He goes over his routine in his head, pausing for laughs. This laughter, he realises, is entirely hypothetical. But he knows what it sounds like.
Try to think of the first joke you ever heard. The first joke that really made you laugh. (This is how they did it at the workshop). Let’s explore why it works. Why it’s funny.
“What’s yellow and highly dangerous?” This was Ivan’s joke. The facilitator explained that because it’s difficult to think of anything that is, in fact, yellow and highly dangerous the question creates confusion, or what he called intellectual discomfort, in the listener.
“Shark-infested custard.” This absurd answer, it was further explained, creates a strong mental image, as well as relieving the listener’s intellectual discomfort in an unexpected way. A guaranteed laugh. Conviction is the most important thing, he said. Weak material, nerves, an indifferent audience, can all be conquered by conviction. If you believe in the joke, if you believe that the audience will laugh, then generally they will.
Ivan drums his fingers against a partition. The booker really liked his stuff, his nervous energy, his rapid synaptic leaps from subject to subject. He can do it, he knows. He is well prepared. His delivery is assured, his timing honed. It’s a short set he’s doing so even if he bombs he can be off stage almost as soon as he walks on.
He listens as the MC finishes his set. The empty seats have been filled. A band of smoke stretches impressionistically across the front of the stage. There is a big laugh, and Ivan hears his name. Then the MC rushes off the stage, pausing to pat Ivan on the back and say “Don’t shit your pants”.
He’s on, squinting hard into the lights, owning the stage. As the applause dies, as he’s about the thank the audience for their kind welcome, a fat guy in the front row shouts, very loudly, “QUEER!”.
“Why do you assume I’m queer? Because I like to fuck your girlfriend in the arse, is that it?” And then he’s rolling.