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

Shappi Khorsandi felt as if shed strolled on the moon. Isy Suttie watched a human change a dres 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 run?

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 ensure 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 has just said: I was sitting in the pub with Detective Inspector Norris when I noticed my pint of beer was get bigger. But he said it in a matter-of-fact route, like it was: The Ford Cortina was parked outside for 25 minutes.

I bought a policemen helmet from a tourist store 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 strolled 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 day I had a mediocre gig, I believed back to that first night.
Paul Mertons Impro Chums is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 11 -2 1 August

Susan Calman

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, greeting jesters. But I was greeted by silent, swaggering sons who didnt look in my direction. I realised this was kill or be killed. The indicate was sold out, virtually 200 people were waiting to be entertained, and I was so nervous I wanted to run for the door. The audience giggled at least once and I was sick afterwards. I realised, through the cigarette smoking and vomiting, 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

What a cheek Jo Enright in 1992. Photo: 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 frightened. The gig was an open place 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 annoyed. Who is this guy? I supposed. One of the bar faculty? 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 afterward 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 slapstick 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 been 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

Fell headfirst off the stage Omid Djalili in 1997. Photograph: Quays 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 greet 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 eventually did, it reached my head with such force a three-inch cut seemed across my forehead. Bollocks! I said. Then I realised Id pulled the mic so hard the cord had unplugged. So I took a step forward to picking 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 belly first. As I lifted my leg, my black trousers rent, uncovering my white underwear. Then, as I shuffled chest-first on to the stage, my grey shirt soaked up the brew. 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 -2 7 August, before embarking on a UK tour

Andrew Hunter Murray

Im six and this is The Big One. Got my dres: yellow jumper, brown cords. Im relaxed but edgy. Got my pre-show patter: approach sideways, mumble hello, look at my shoes. I have my situated: a single gag 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 region are shocking. OK, off I run. What did the football manager do when the pitch inundated? 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 stimulated it.
Andrew Hunter Murray is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 6-29 August( not 16)

Romesh Ranganathan

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

I blagged my style 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 the majority of members of my set on the way to the venue. I recollect doing bits on Batman, gym cafe and 24 -hour petrol station. I was supposed to do five minutes, but overran so badly they blinked the stage sunlights on and off. I didnt know that was why they did it, however, and “was talkin about a” 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 day wondering when I was going to tell a gag.
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 garmented as a fox mouth along to a voiceover of a childrens narrative. 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. Merely one gag truly 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

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 afterwards 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 sieves over his eyes.
Mark Thomass The Red Shed is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 6-28 August

Shappi Khorsandi

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 money hed earned that night already: Thisll be you, pet in a few years. The idea of making money from comedy constructed 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 gratified. Stephen Merchant was his name. There were about 20 people in the audience. The compere called my name. My legs didnt stop shake, I did some gags, the audience chuckled, 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 tell: Maybe hell get better and come back. So I did. Thanks, Ukulele Lady.

Isy Suttie

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 beverages comprised half the audience. The others: a drunken hipster and two German students, one of whom expended the entire first half changing a garmenting on his leg. On stage, I rattled through my prepared material in less than a minute.Then I improvised, talking largely 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 -2 7 August and then on tour around the UK

Rachel Parris

Performance art Rachel Parris.

This glamorous Serbian performance artist get chatting to me about her next event and mentioned she required 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 smoking and dusty antique furniture. I played my ballads 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 closet. My act went well, people giggled plenty, and so I maintained doing it. I dont know if it was the nerves or inhaling the petroleum paints, but Ive rarely felt such a high.
Rachel Parris is at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, 6-28 August

Nish Kumar

I played the cellar 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 display marriage 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 frankly suppose I would have done a athlete if I hadnt been attached to my friend. We were playing Siamese twin 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 expelled 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 chuckled in all the right places. I thought: Well, this is easy. I should probably quit my day chore, take several lovers and scheme the movie 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

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 depict called Brown Men Cant Hump and did it in the college theatre. It was like my insurrection 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 get chuckles because youre cus, 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 -2 8 August

Lucy Porter

In 1995, I played a comedy night at Alexanders Jazz Cafe in Chester. It was run by a double act “ve called the” Comedy Police and if the audience didnt like you, theyd screaming: Wooo-wooo-woooo! If the siren was loud enough, the sons 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 giggled rather than woo-wooed. I was so giddy with success that I bided for a few beverages and ended up missing my develop 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

Quit the day job Ellie Taylor. Photograph: Karla Gowlett

My first gig was at a little tavern 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 slapstick. I rattled through my act in about 90 seconds, with my teeth sticking to my lips in anxiety. I objective by saying something about my home township in Essex being very cultured because it had the big three: New look, Nandos, Costa. It got a amazingly big laugh. I quit my day task 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 saloon 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 the working day. But my five-minute set went well. I now know thats because I was opening the second half, what we call the baby place. If Id been first on, I likely would have tanked. The guy from Bournemouth died

Jen Kirkman

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

My first gig was in 1997 at a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The demonstrate was a festivity of absurdist humour. I didnt have to do anything weird: “its just” expected that I wouldnt do anything hacky like tell overly punchline-driven gags about aircraft food. Smoking a cigarette takes me six minutes precisely the amount of day I was given. So I illuminate up and started to talk. I told a tale off of the top of my head about how it felt to graduate high school without having lost my virginity and the shame spiraling going on in my head during the course of its graduation rite. I didnt quite have punchlines, only honest assessments of my feelings. I got giggles and lots of other voices 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

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