How to be a stand-up comedian

We grilled pro comic John Lenahan on how to be funny Discuss this article

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Peter Feely finds out about the art of comedy – and gets a tutorial from a professional.

With The Punchline Comedy Club and The Laughter Factory lining up gigs in the city, as well as Monty Python legend John Cleese set to appear at The Madinat Theatre in November, Al Murray playing the Dubai World Trade Centre on October 4, along with Iranian funny man Omid Djalili on October 11, Dubai’s stand-up scene is thriving. With such an exciting wealth of talent about to land, we couldn’t help but wonder how hard it might be to induce uncontrollable fits of laughter from an audience. With the help of someone who’s seen both ends of the comedy world – working as a street performer before playing to sell-out crowds in London, we quizzed US-born comic John Lenahan on what it takes to make the grade.

Straight off the bat, the first piece of advice the American comedian has for me is simple: Do not drink before a performance. He then goes on to reveal the secrets to performing stand-up: There aren’t any. Citing a blunt example of a former comic, Lenahan says: ‘There used be a comedian on the circuit and his name was Johnny Immaterial. He was a great act. He used to go on stage and say: “I know the secret of comedy,” and he’d kind of build it up for five minutes then he’d say that “the secret of comedy is to say lots of funny things”. You know – it’s true.’

But Lenahan reveals there’s a moment when the crowd turns and you start to win them over. He refers to this as “breaking an audiences’ back”. There’s a moment when a joke hits and the audience breaks and after that you’re home free.’

He’s open about a fear of failure or humiliation though, recounting a recent faux pas and subsequent backlash at a gig: ‘I did an awards ceremony in Atlanta for Dragoncon [world’s largest science-fiction fair] with 3,000 people in the audience. This guy came on dressed as Spiderman and tore off his shirt. He was a black guy and he was ripped, so when he walked off stage, I said: “Spiderman, how do I get a chest like that in white?” Most of the audience laughed, but some people tweeted about me being a racist without actually hearing about the joke.’

An animated conversationalist, the slightly manic stand-up becomes less enthused when the conversation turns to how to deal with hecklers: ‘There are two kinds of hecklers. Neither of them are welcome. But one is worse than the other – the ones that shout “rubbish”. Either that or fake snoring. For that, you have vitriol you can throw back at them, which is usually really effective as the rest of the audience doesn’t like that. Hecklers actually believe they are helping the show. There are other hecklers that are funny. Sometimes I just say: “It kind of annoys me when hecklers are funnier than I am.”

‘Nine times out of ten, a heckler will want to come backstage or to hang out with everyone. I don’t let that happen. Female hecklers – I’ve seen a couple. I did a gig at The Comedy Store where Robin Williams just showed up out of the blue. I was the compere. It was horrible – there were so many hecklers. At about 2am, Robin jumped on stage and was heckled by this woman in the front row. Front-row hecklers are the worst as they’re just talking to you. The rest of the audience isn’t getting it. When you lay into a person in the front row, the audience says: “Hey, why’s he being so mean to that person?” Hecklers from the back tend to be okay though.

Continuing with his story, Lenahan says: ‘So Williams went on stage and goes: “Why are you doing this?” And she said: “I don’t know, I love you.” And Williams mimed, holding a rifle up to his eye and said, that’s like Oswald [Lee Harvey] saying: “I really respect you Mr President.”’

I then press him as to how comedians are supposed to remember their material while on stage. Lenahan is dismissive about my fears, saying: ‘It’s not that tough. When you become a comedian you start with five minutes because that’s all you get and five minutes is an eternity. If you can’t do anything in five minutes, you can’t do anything.’ He explains that it’s the transition between sketches where performers are most likely to slip up: ‘All comedians worry about transitions. You see bad comedians talk about a plane and then move on to a sketch about peanuts.’

As with most things in life though, it eventually transpires that beyond a gift for being witty, the skill merely lies in practice (Lenahan uses a mirror), and a willingness to make yourself the centre of attention.

Most of all though, Lenahan rates experience: ‘People’s greatest fears – death is number two behind public speaking as their biggest fear. Penn, from the act Penn and Teller (the magicians), said it’s all about experience. Like an airline pilot, where he says: “How many hours do you have?” The more hours experience you have, the better you are.

‘I have had the lights go out, I have had people throw things at me and I’ve had an audience member fall off a stage and knock someone else unconscious. If anything goes wrong I can fix it.’ Well, rather him than me.


John Lenahan is performing for The Punchline Comedy Club in Dubai on September 12 and 19. www.timeouttickets.com.

This include one night at the Hilton Doha on Tuesday September 17. Dinner and the show costs QR300 with one welcome drink. The show starts at 7pm. The show starts at 7pm.
Call 4423 3333.

The Punchline Comedy Club will be at:
Emirates Golf Club, Dubai on Thursday September 12.
Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Friday September 13.
Hilton Al Ain Wednesday September 18.
Jumeirah Creekside Hotel on Thursday September 19
Sharjah Wanderers Sports club on Friday September 20.

Tickets for all the above shows can be bought from www.timeouttickets.com

In Doha the club will visit at the Hilton Doha on Tuesday September 17. Dinner and the show costs QR300 with one welcome drink. The show starts at 7pm. The show starts at 7pm.
Call 4423 3333.

Click here to view our full interview with John Lenahan.

By Peter Feely
Time Out Doha,

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