‘Booed off in 17 seconds’ comedians recall their first gigs

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Shappi Khorsandi felt as if shed walked on the moon. Isy Suttie watched a man change a dressing on a wound as she spoke. Omid Djalili fell off the stage. So how did the first gigs of Paul Merton, Susan Calman and other top comics go?

Paul Merton

I was on at midnight and did a show about a policeman giving evidence in court, after someone has given him a hallucinogenic drug. It was April 1982 and the venue was a bit of a bearpit: the original Soho Comedy Store in London. Id been working on my four-minute piece for about six weeks. It was full of surreal non-sequiturs, as the policeman describes his hallucinations in a straightforward, policeman-like manner. My favourite line was: I then saw Constable Parish approaching me, disguised as a fortnights holiday in Benidorm.

Id read about police busteding an LSD factory in Wales and ingesting some of the dust. One of them had said: I was sitting in the pub with Detective Inspector Norris when I noticed my pint of beer was getting bigger. But he said it in a matter-of-fact way, like it was: The Ford Cortina was parked outside for 25 minutes.

I bought a policemans helmet from a tourist shop and took along a notebook, in which I had written down the whole monologue. Knowing it was all there gave me tremendous confidence. I had no performance experience but I stormed it! The audience went wild. I walked all the way home, getting back to my bedsit in Streatham at 7am. It was something Id dreamed about doing since I was four. Id left the civil service in 1980 to do comedy. That routine got me through the next 18 months. Every time I had a mediocre gig, I thought back to that first night.
Paul Mertons Impro Chums is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 11-21 August

Susan Calman

Susan
Susan Calman on the Edinburgh fringe in 2010. Photograph: Martina Salvi/Rex/Shutterstock

It was 10 years ago at the Stand Comedy Club in Glasgow. I arrived an hour early and chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes. Id imagined my fellow comics would be genial, welcoming clowns. But I was greeted by silent, swaggering boys who didnt look in my direction. I realised this was kill or be killed. The show was sold out, nearly 200 people were waiting to be entertained, and I was so nervous I wanted to run for the door. The audience laughed at least once and I was sick afterwards. I realised, through the cigarette smoke and vomit, that being a standup was the only thing I wanted to be.
Susan Calman is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 5-28 August

Jo Enright

Jo
What a cheek Jo Enright in 1992. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

It was August 1991 and Id just completed a drama degree, so I knew how to look unafraid on stage even when I was terrified. The gig was an open spot at Londons Comedy Store and, once Id finished, I stood alone off stage as a guy came over. Your confidence is good, he said, but you need to get as much stage time as you can, anywhere you can get it. I was irritated. Who is this guy? I thought. One of the bar staff? A tech guy? I hadnt asked for feedback. I just listened, smiled, thanked him and, after about five minutes, he walked away. What a cheek, I thought. Who does he think he is? I later found out who he was: Eddie Izzard. And hed been kind enough, in his gentle manner, to give me tips.
Jo Enright plays Birmingham Mac on 26 September

Al Murray

Id been doing some sketch comedy at university, mucking about with friends, and we decided to go to the Edinburgh festival. We did a sketch about Wilfred Owen being called in by his commanding officer and, like a tutorial, being told: Well, this poems not good enough! You need to come up with something a little better. As he was coming in, Rupert Brooke was leaving, being told: I want that on my desk the same time next week. The thing you have when youre 20 or that I had was that you think: Well, Im funny. I can do that.
Al Murray The Pub Landlord: Lets Go Backwards Together is at Assembly George Square Gardens, Edinburgh, 4-14 August

Omid Djalili

Omid
Fell headfirst off the stage Omid Djalili in 1997. Photograph: Piers Alladyce/Rex/Shutterstock

The guy on before me was an alternative ventriloquist who drank beer while working his puppets mouth. He got booze everywhere. Please will you welcome Omar Darjeeling! said the compere. I pranced on and slipped in all his spillage. I picked myself up and clambered to the microphone, which refused to budge from the stand. When it finally did, it hit my head with such force a three-inch cut appeared across my brow. Bollocks! I said. Then I realised Id pulled the mic so hard the cord had disconnected. So I took a step forward to pick it up and fell headfirst off the stage. I was helped back up by punters (Brilliant, mate, dont stop) but the stage was so high that I had no choice but to heave my left leg up and walrus myself back up stomach first. As I lifted my leg, my black trousers ripped, revealing my white underwear. Then, as I shuffled chest-first on to the stage, my grey shirt soaked up the beer. Sweaty and concussed, I waited for the noise to die down and said: Can I start again?
Omid Djalili is at the Pleasance Grand, Edinburgh, 23-27 August, before embarking on a UK tour

Andrew Hunter Murray

Im six and this is The Big One. Got my costume: yellow jumper, brown cords. Im relaxed but edgy. Got my pre-show patter: approach sideways, mumble hello, look at my shoes. I have my set: a single joke from The Big Joke Book. I eyeball the crowd. Tough-looking group. Load of other six-year-olds. Couple could be seven. Half of them arent even facing the right way. I look for the mic. Theres no mic. Christ. Who booked this? And the acoustics in this play area are shocking. OK, off I go. What did the football manager do when the pitch flooded? The crowd perks up. Silence descends. But nobody bites. This is torture. Oh God, Im Icarus. Ive flown too high. I dreamed too big. Why didnt I go for the knock-knock stuff? Eventually, a girl called Angharad mumbles: What? Ive got them. I drop the punchline: He brought on the subs. Angharads nose wrinkles. Thats stupid. she says. Ive bloody made it.
Andrew Hunter Murray is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 6-29 August (not 16)

Romesh Ranganathan

Romesh
I wrote it on the way Romesh Ranganathan at the Comedy Cafe.

I blagged my way to a gig at the Comedy Cafe in London and didnt tell any of my friends about it. I thought it would be easy and wrote most of my set on the way to the venue. I remember doing bits on Batman, gym cafes and 24-hour petrol stations. I was supposed to do five minutes, but overran so badly they blinked the stage lights on and off. I didnt know that was why they did it, however, and talked about lights for another minute or so. One of the punters came up to me after and said that I seemed confident, but hed spent the whole time wondering when I was going to tell a joke.
Romesh Ranganathans Irrational tour begins at the Kings theatre, Portsmouth, on 7 September

Lazy Susan

It was open-mic night and no one knew what was happening or why. The crowd in Shoreditch, London, had just half-watched a woman dressed as a fox mouth along to a voiceover of a childrens story. Enter Lebensmde, which is what we used to call ourselves. It means tired of life in German, but the only thing we were tired of was having to explain our stupid and pretentious name. We did a sketch about a date. Only one joke really landed. The fox lady was very complimentary. It was just enough for us to book another gig.
Lazy Susan are at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 3-29 August (not 15)

Mark Thomas

Mark
One laugh a sarcastic one Mark Thomas in 2004. Photograph: Justin Williams/Rex/Shutterstock

I remember virtually nothing of the gig except that I got one laugh a solitary sarcastic one. It was at the White Lion pub in Putney, London, on 19 November 1985. What I do remember were the other acts on the bill: Andy Johnson and John Lenahan. John was a frequent compere who would later introduce me by saying: I compered this next guys first gig. He was crap then but hes great now! Andys stage name was Cyril the Tortoise and he would impersonate tortoises for 20 minutes. Occasionally, hed stray into being a bee, sporting a couple of tea strainers over his eyes.
Mark Thomass The Red Shed is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 6-28 August

Shappi Khorsandi

Shappi
I felt like Id walked on the moon Shappi Khorsandi in 2000. Photograph: BBC

I climbed up the stairs of the Comedy Brewhouse in Islington in a state of terror. At the top, some comics stood in a huddle. An exuberant Scot, Brian Higgins, was warm and friendly. He showed me a fistful of cash hed earned that night already: Thisll be you, pet in a few years. The idea of making money from comedy made me giddy. There was another open-spot comic shuffling nervously around the door. He was from Bristol, sweet and shy, the tallest man Id ever met. Stephen Merchant was his name. There were about 20 people in the audience. The compere called my name. My legs didnt stop shaking, I did some jokes, the audience laughed, and the promoter gave me a fiver I felt like Id walked on the moon.
Shappi Khorsandi is at the Stand, Edinburgh, 5-28 August (not 15)

Alex Edelman

My first gig was at a pizzeria in a neighbourhood of Boston called Chestnut Hill. It was an open mic. A music open mic. I was 16 and I had rollerbladed to the gig. The host was a nice lady with a ukulele who asked what instrument I played. I told her I wanted to do standup. She looked at me for a long time before asking how much time Id like to do. I asked: How long do the musicians do? She said: Fifteen minutes. I thought to myself: Fifteen minutes isnt that long. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life. Afterwards, as I shamefully put my rollerblades on, I heard her say: Maybe hell get better and come back. So I did. Thanks, Ukulele Lady.

Isy Suttie

Isy
Another tequila? Isy Sutties first gig.

Another tequila? chirped the builder. It was October 2002 and I was first up after the interval in a small pub in Greenwich. The trio of Glaswegian builders buying me drinks comprised half the audience. The others: a drunken hipster and two German students, one of whom spent the entire first half changing a dressing on his leg. On stage, I rattled through my prepared material in less than a minute.Then I improvised, talking mostly about my scoliosis, AKA my wonky back. They chuckled just enough for me to do it again. I binned the scoliosis stuff.
Isy Suttie is at Soho theatre, London, 15-27 August and then on tour around the UK

Rachel Parris

Rachel
Performance art Rachel Parris.

This glamorous Serbian performance artist got chatting to me about her next event and mentioned she needed a comedian for the bill. I told her I was one. Id wanted to do comedy for ages. She booked me for the opening 20-minute slot and paid me in wine on the night. The room was filled with smoke and dusty antique furniture. I played my songs on a rickety old miniature piano. There were a lot of candles. There was a French artist painting a picture of the evening on an easel and an actor doing one-to-one short plays in a cupboard. My act went well, people laughed plenty, and so I kept doing it. I dont know if it was the nerves or inhaling the oil paints, but Ive rarely felt such a high.
Rachel Parris is at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, 6-28 August

Nish Kumar

I played the basement of the student union in November 2005. The room was normally used as a nightclub, so it stank of alcopops and sick. It was a sketch show wed been working on for two months. The room was pretty packed, probably about 160 people in, including all both my friends. I remember a rising sense of panic. I honestly think I would have done a runner if I hadnt been attached to my friend. We were playing Siamese twins in the opening song. Thats student comedy for you.
Nish Kumar is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 6-28 August

Lou Sanders

My first gig was in a London pub which, years later, I was ejected from. I suspect for being too much of a legend. I felt the fear all over my body. Pre-gig, I couldnt eat my dinner. I thought that could be an upside of gigging: fewer calories. We were all brand new comics and all very scared, but much to my own bamboozlement they laughed in all the right places. I thought: Well, this is easy. I should probably quit my day job, take several lovers and plan the film rights right now. They booked me for the following week and, Im delighted to say, I died.
Lou Sanders is at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, 3-28 August (not 17)

Vir Das

Vir
Booed off in 17 seconds Vir Das.

I did a 90-minute show for a crowd of 800 people. It was in my final year of drama school. Id written a show called Brown Men Cant Hump and did it in the college theatre. It was like my rebellion against how serious the acting programme was. Whats worse than bombing the first time you do comedy? Killing. Because you fail to realise that youre only getting laughs because youre cussing, cracking inside jokes, and horsing around with friends. Then you try that stuff at an amateur night and get booed off in 17 seconds true story! But I can happily report that, since then, people who arent my friends now find me funny.
Vir Das is at Gilded Balloon Teviot and Gilded Balloon at the Museum, Edinburgh, 20-28 August

Lucy Porter

In 1995, I played a comedy night at Alexanders Jazz Cafe in Chester. It was run by a double act called the Comedy Police and if the audience didnt like you, theyd scream: Wooo-wooo-woooo! If the siren was loud enough, the boys in blue would beat you off the stage with rubber truncheons. I stammered out a few one-liners Id written, and a couple of bits about being short largely filched from Ronnie Corbett. The audience laughed rather than woo-wooed. I was so giddy with success that I stayed for a few drinks and ended up missing my train home. Sleeping rough at Chester station prepared me for the glamour of my subsequent showbiz career.
Lucy Porter is at the Pleasance, Edinburgh, 6-28 August (not 15 and 22)

Ellie Taylor

Ellie
Quit the day job Ellie Taylor. Photograph: Karla Gowlett

My first gig was at a little pub in front of around 15 people, at least 13 of whom were co-workers I had pressured into coming to watch. Yep, I was that person in the office. I wore a tartan dress specifically so I could open by saying that I looked like a tin of shortbread. Classic biscuit-based observational comedy. I rattled through my act in about 90 seconds, with my teeth sticking to my lips in fear. I ended by saying something about my home town in Essex being very cultured because it had the big three: New Look, Nandos, Costa. It got a surprisingly big laugh. I quit my day job a year later, much to everyones relief.
Ellie Taylor is at Just the Tonic at the Tron, Edinburgh, 4-28 August (not 15)

Seann Walsh

It was at the Marlborough theatre, a small space above a lesbian pub in my home town of Brighton. It was a sell-out as one of the acts had brought a coachload of family and friends from Bournemouth. I was so nervous, I didnt say a word all day. But my five-minute set went well. I now know thats because I was opening the second half, what we call the baby spot. If Id been first on, I probably would have tanked. The guy from Bournemouth died

Jen Kirkman

Jen
Shame spiral Jen Kirkman in 2010. Photograph: Michael Schwartz/WireImage

My first gig was in 1997 at a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The show was a celebration of absurdist humour. I didnt have to do anything weird: it was just expected that I wouldnt do anything hacky like tell overly punchline-driven jokes about airplane food. Smoking a cigarette takes me six minutes exactly the amount of time I was given. So I lit up and started to talk. I told a story off of the top of my head about how it felt to graduate high school without having lost my virginity and the shame spiral going on in my head during the graduation ceremony. I didnt quite have punchlines, just honest assessments of my feelings. I got laughs and lots of other sounds that let me know that the crowd understood me, sympathised with me, and fully supported my entire being. I naively assumed that this audience represented every single person in America. Thank God this is about my first time, not my worst time. Im still not ready to talk about that.

Jason Byrne

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/aug/01/comedians-first-gigs-paul-merton-susan-calman-shappi-khorsandi-isy-suttie-omid-djalili

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