Most of the time I hate doing stand up comedy.

I hate coming up with jokes.

I hate rehearsing jokes until I can remember them.

I hate the deathly silence or mild indifference most of the jokes in question receive.

Most of the shows I do are comedy nights I run out of the room above a bar in town. They give me free drinks and the room upstairs once a month. All I have to do is advertise the night, get enough acts to fill a two hour show, and enough customers to buy drinks.

It’s a pretty good deal, with an incredible level of creative freedom. I can do whatever I like with the show. I’m writing and directing a play for a festival and I keep having to re-write that to avoid offending people and getting around staging limitations.

With stand up it’s just a mic, a warning about adult content and I’m free to do anything within the boundaries of British law.

I never said I hate stand up as an art form, I just hate doing it.

I blame myself. You see what happened at first is I’d get all my performers from the university. It was strictly amateur night and the playing field was level… There wasn’t anyone who had much more experience than I did. I’m very, very low level in terms of ability and experience but it didn’t show for the first couple of shows.

Then I started getting e-mails from guys on the professional circuit. I wanted to put on the best shows possible, so I let them all in.

Unsurprisingly they pushed the standards up with their fancy pants notebooks and stage presence, and made me look even worse than I am.

I hate doing stand up.

I’ve quit comedy more times than I’ve performed it.

*  *  *  *  *

One of the greatest moments of my life so far was on St. Patrick’s Day. I’d passed out the previous year after drinking around ten pints of Guinness so I decided it’d be safer to just stick to Jameson. I ditched my friends on the dance floor because I was bored and the band kept playing U2 songs. I ended up drinking with an American exchange student who’s playing God in my play, and a professional magician who performs at my comedy night.

As we were drinking a girl came over to us and asked me if I was the guy from the comedy night. When I told her I was she smiled and told me she ‘really enjoyed going…’

That was nice, but it would have been better if the sentence hadn’t ended ‘… with my boyfriend’ and me getting the barmaid to put another double in my half pint glass that had probably forgotten what being empty felt like.

The point to the story is not that I am an awesome bitchin’ rockstar from Mars. No, the point is that however awesome that felt it’s not the reason I do stand up. It’s a feeling that pales in comparison to spending twenty minutes on stage with forty people watching your every move, listening to your every word, and laughing at every joke.

That’s what gets you addicted. I’m no better than a crack addict really, and I certainly don’t dress any better.

Since I performed that routine my life has been an empty and futile battle to come up with anything anywhere near as good. I’ve told jokes that have got laughs since, but it’s not the same.

At one point during the single greatest twenty minutes of my life a girl right by the front of her stage was literally on the edge of her seat and gasping with each twist of the story I was telling.

Power — total control.

For those twenty minutes the darkened lounge was my kingdom, and I was its God. It’s a strange and heady cocktail of power and constant, instant validation… It only feels like two minutes, and it seems like there is nothing else in the world but you and forty faces.

The whole twenty minutes essentially paves the way for the ten second payoff at the end which is met with laughter and applause whilst I thank everyone for coming.

As the room emptied I collapsed down on the stage floating slowly downwards into a perfect cocktail of solitude, validation, adrenaline and free whiskey… And now I feel like a rockstar…

Most of the time I hate doing stand up comedy, but this is why I don’t stop… Why I can’t stop…

For the same reason sports fans cheer their team season after season however bad they might be performing.

For the same reason some people keep doing drugs, however adverse the physical effects might be.

It’s an addiction… and I don’t want a cure.

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James D. Irwin is a British writer based in the Hampshire countryside. His work has appeared online, in print, and on stage. He can be contacted at [email protected]

37 responses to “Laughter is the Best Bad Medicine”

  1. JSBreukelaar says:

    Same reason writers send out stories no matter how many rejections…. that one acceptance (in ten…hundred) makes it all worth while. Like the man says, with all this shit, there must be a pony. Nice piece, James.

    • James D. Irwin says:


      I never sent anything out that’s been rejected, because I don’t really send anything out.

      Because I can’t take rejection…

      No. I should. Seeing your name is print is always pretty cool.

  2. Zara says:

    What is it with comedians and Jamesons? Is it like some secret handshake thing or something??
    It’s always nice to see you here, Jim. You make me laugh.
    Don’t stop.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Thanks Zara. I’ve been away too long and I’ve missed ‘hanging out’ here.

      Jameson is a classy drink, and comedians are… classy? Maybe… ?

  3. “…a perfect cocktail of solitude, validation, adrenaline and free whiskey.” That does sound like a little slice of heaven.

    Though I’ve thought about it, I’ve never attempted to perform comedy, because like, Billy Crystal describes stage fright for his brother in the movie Mr. Saturday Night, I have “living room balls.” But even telling jokes and entertaining with funny stories in social settings (and in another respect in writing) is something of a drug I find, like I need to get people to laugh to validate my presence or else fill any conversation lulls.

    But keep at it, you must be doing something right over there.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who say they’ve always thought about it.

      The thing is being entertaining in a social setting is far more enjoyable, and doing stand up robs you of that in that most stories have been heard before, are best saved for the stage, or people expect you do do jokes on demand.

      That last one actually would be right up my alley, but I don’t really do jokes as such.

      Which sounds ridicuous, I know.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    It takes nerves of steel to do stand-up comedy.
    I am really impressed that you can do it and enjoy it.
    I could not do it in a million years.
    I’d look like a deer caught in the headlights, and not be able to utter a word.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Nerves of steel and/or shots of whiskey.

      I started out doing shows sober because I was paying for drinks and I was scared of forgetting my material. Now I have to have a drink before I go on or I’m two nervous to focus…

      A lot of people think it’s easy and end up pretty much like a deer caught in headlights. It’s a horrible thing to watch, the second worst thing after a bad comic who doesn’t seem to realise how badly they’re doing…

  5. Slade Ham says:

    Preacher, choir.

    With that said, you have to stop chasing that set. You’ll never recreate it. Every show to me is like meeting a girl. A short lived, one hour relationship between you and the entity that the crowd becomes.

    And when it’s over, it’s over.

    You can never get her back. You can get someone else that is great in different ways, better even, but it’s never the same. It’s always a different kind of beautiful.

    You just have to keep getting up there, over and over, falling on your face repeatedly. Eventually though – and I PROMISE you this – if you continue to write and you continue to go on stage (not once a month or even once a week, but every single chance there is a mic near you) then those good nights will get more and more frequent.

    Just don’t kick the drug before you get there.

    Eleven years in and I still want to walk away sometimes. It never goes away, but like you, I recognize that I can’t quit.

    You just pour another James and hit ’em again….

    • Irene Zion says:

      Slade and James,
      I would sure like to hear you both doing your acts, one day!
      Maybe you could youtube the acts?

      • James D. Irwin says:

        There’s poor quality a clip of me on facebook doing a mediocre-at-best bit about british politics where it’s pretty obvious I’m trying to rip off Bill Hick’s delivery and failing horribly.

        Nobody ever films me when I’m doing okay. A friend of mine is supposed to be putting up a fundraiser I hosted, but I don’t remember if it was a good performance.

        I know I’ve watched Slade on youtube though.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I was waiting for you to show up… it seemed kind of inevtiable.

      I get what you mean, totally. It’s not so much that set that I want to get back— and with a bigger comedy scene I could do that particular routine many more times to a fresh audience each time and improve it each night— it’s more… I don’t know… When I wrote the routine I talk about here I knew it was good when I wrote it. I don’t exactly want that exact same feeling, but I do want to have material of that quality again.

      I’m back at my parents now for Easter, and it seems I can only write material in their house during religious holidays.

      It’s frustrating at the moment. Until I started running the comedy night there wasn’t anywhere in the town to perform. Between financial restraints, boring university assignments, and various other projects getting more than once a month is pretty tough. At least as host I decide how much time I get.

      I’m trying to set up an equivalent night in the nearest city, and looking at ways of doing a couple of shows a week, even if it’s just a sort of small thing more like a workshop with the ten or so amateur acts who have the same problem.

      Until I started my own comedy night there wasn’t one in Winchester, and the comedy club in the nearest city is a branch of a nation-wide chain that caters to mainstream audiences. The entire comedy scene in this country is located in London, except for August when it travels to Edinburgh, and it’s a very exclusive, competitive business.

      I don’t know if it’s any easier starting out in the US, but it’s not like I’m not putting the effort in or ignoring chances. There just aren’t any, which is frustrating.

    • Gloria says:

      Slade, this is beautiful advice. So interesting to hear you talk about your work instead of, like, squirrels and shit.

  6. jmblaine says:

    Hm, comedy sounds like
    & playing music
    & that other artistic stuff
    where you live for it
    & then you get right to it
    & think
    “Ah geez, I’d really rather just go lay on the floor and watch Zapped again.”
    Lethargy is the devil.

    I saw this guy once
    who did comedy but
    I noticed that he was just
    talking about stuff
    & somehow it was funny
    so I asked him
    & he said
    “Yeah, I don’t have material. I just go up there
    & talk about stuff I’ve been thinking about.
    Tonight it was stealing my brother’s Vixen album
    when I was in 7th grade.”

    Hard to figure out how
    much to try/ not try isn’t it?
    Well, for me it is.
    Good to see you, sir.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      There’s a British stand up called Ross Noble who really annoys me.

      He’s hilarious, bordering on genius. And he goes on stage with nothing. He just starts talking about this or that and in about two hours he’s created a web of interlinking stories that are ten times funnier than most stand ups…

      I try and write with room for tangents. Most of the stuff I’ve done on stage has been a tangent that crops up during a rehearsal…

  7. mutterhals says:

    This is almost exactly how I feel about writing. Sometimes I get really frustrated with it, but I always end up trying again. And I really identified with what you said about being on stage, that is a really awesome feeling.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Weirdly I never get that frustrated with writing. It’s only when I can’t write that I get annoyed, and worry that if I don’t write something soon I might lose it completely.

      I’m terrified of losing my ability to write. I freaked out last night because I haven’t written prose in a couple of weeks— I’ve been working on a script— and I began to convince myself that every grammatical decision I’d taken was wrong.

      I should have had a drink to calm down…

      There’s more control in writing, I think. You can be fairly confident of what you’ve done before showing people, and even if they hate it unless they’re reading it right in front of you their reaction won’t be instant… and possibly cushioned to spare that fragile artistic ego.

      Comedy audiences are bastards. They won’t laugh to spare your feelings.

  8. Hooray it’s Irwin! You’ve been gone too long. This called to mind a piece that Slade did once about bombing but the bombing being just as funny as anything else he did. Maybe bomb funny. That’s my big advice. That said, I think you’re fantastically funny, and I’m glad you plan to keep at it like crack because someday I’m going to catch me an Irwin performance. So obviously you’ll have to hang in there just for that.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I have been gone too long! I haven’t really had anything to say and I keep having to write people out of a play because apparently twenty-four characters is ‘a bit much’ for a half hour play…

      I’m in the middle of writing a big proper TNB piece but it was taking too long so I knocked this out before everyone assumed I was dead.

      Don’t worry, I’ll keep going. I hope.

  9. Joe Daly says:


    I love hearing how this is going, as I remember you getting ready for your first one. Now it’s gone all viral and you get to shepherd it wherever you’d like.

    Do you think you’d feel differently about doing stand up yourself if you had greater confidence in your performance? Admittedly, you’re really just getting your feet wet, while sharing a stage with a higher and higher caliber of talent. That’s understandably challenging, but so many things in life seem to suck until we put in our time and find our rhythm. Here’s hoping you find yours soon.

    You fucking rock star.


    P.S. HUGE match tomorrow between the Manchesters. Tevez and Rooney both out. Who do you like?

    • The whole thing kind of exploded unexpectedly and now I have all this responsibility that I could do without but kind of enjoy. I like being in charge, and I’m proud of the fact that in a business where a lot of people are chummy and exclusive to amateurs I make the guys who can’t do other gigs a priority.

      On the other hand I have the pressure of running a good show AND writing the best material I can. I’d be more confident if I got to test and tweak my stuff more often. Despite all the down sides I’m kind of lucky that I have a familiar environment with a pretty loyal and open, forgiving audience who are pretty supportive. They don’t mind watching you try something different.

      One guy heckled once, but he was drunk and a punchline to a lot of jokes or the rest of my time on stage that night.

      I this comment might have taken a while to appear, or maybe the game is being shown at a weird time over on your side of the world. I’ve seen the game already.

      I used to really like Man City and Man United a couple of years ago. Back when I got into football United had a core of great British players who played well as a team and were so fucking entertaining in Europe. City were tiny, in the third tier of English football so they were everyone’s favourite underdogs.

      These days I can’t decide which team I hate more. I can’t stand Rooney or Nani, or the fact they keep winning despite playing poorly. But I hate Man City, not just because of their money but their attitude. Mostly it’s the money though and the fact that they don’t deserve any of their success. You could fund a long war with the money they’ve spent on players and it pisses me off that I’ve seen Spurs through from narrowly staing in the EPL in 1998 through years of mediocrity, near success, and more mediocrity slowly building towards being a top 4 team and that’s all going to shit because these bastards have rocked up and bought their way to the top.

      I’ll be supporting whoever wins between Stoke and Bolton.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    So I guess what you’re really saying here is that bad medicine is what you need?

  11. Greg Olear says:

    The best thing about stand-up — or any sort of live performance where you get to make jokes — is that, unlike with writing novels, where you have to wait for sometimes years before the audience reacts, if they react at all, the response is instant. If it’s funny, they laugh. If it’s really funny, they laugh louder. Period. It’s brutal that way, but it’s also really awesome when it works. I bet you’re pretty good up there. Take some video, would ya?

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Totally. One of the great things about TNB as a writer is that you get a response— usually positive, always interesting— almost as soon as you post. It’s not as instant as stand up, but a million times quicker than anything else.

      There’s nothing worse than a joke falling flat, but there’s nothing much better than a joke getting a good laugh. Not much middle ground.

      I’m a better host than I am a stand up. I’m good at running the show rather than starring in it. In a soccer analogy that you may or may not understand it’s kind of like being the solid captain in midfield keeping the game flowing whilst the skillful striker takes all the glory.

      I keep trying to film shows. Last time I brought a camera and 8 batteries and not one of them worked…

  12. D.R. Haney says:

    Performing is absolutely addictive, to those who want to be the center of attention. Not everyone does.

    I do. I’ve said many times that I’m temperamentally a performer, not a writer. Writing is very, very lonely — unless you become extremely involved with your characters. When that happens — and it doesn’t always for me — real people can’t even begin to compete.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Weirdly I don’t always find myself wanting to be the centre of attention. It’s strange, almost like manic mood swings. Some days I want to live alone in a log cabin with a computer, a few books, and an assortment of alcoholic beverages, and other days I want everyone to know who I am.

      The good thing about TNB is that you kind of have both.

      I’ve also found the perfect medium between performing and having plenty of time to make sure what you perform will get a laugh. Write now I’m writing, directing, and acting in a play and I’m about to co-write, co-direct, and act in a low budget independent film.

      Fictional characters are brilliant to become involved with. I don’t have a lot of spare time right now, but I’ve slowly begun re-writing my novel and it’s surprising how much I enjoyed being around them again. I find fictional characters from other TV shows and films to be fine company though. I’m not some messed up hermit— I do have real friends that I like hanging out with— but I always feel quite comforted watching The Simpsons, or reading a novel I’ve read over and over. Novels are better, because you lose the awareness that anyone else is sharing the experience.

  13. I have a friend who I watched go from the Jokes At Parties stage, to the Writing Bits stage, to the Open Mic stage, to the Comedy Club stage, to the Quit His Job stage, to the Relatively Big Stage stage, to the I Hate This Shit stage, to the Find Another Job, Have A Baby, And Quit Forever stage.

    Not pretty.

    Still, when you have the serious jones for something, painful as it is, it almost always seems preferable to a glance around at those who seem to have no jones at all.

    If you haven’t rented Lenny yet, now may be the time, James.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I guess I’m lucky that whilst I love doing stand up there are a couple of other things that I love doing that require slightly less emotional involvement and far less risk.

      I see it actually as kind of an extension of writing.

      I’d forgotten that film existed until you brought it up. I’ll certainly have to seek that out, especially if Hoffman is in it.

  14. Gloria says:

    Irwin posted! Yay!

    I’m glad you’re doing this, Irwin. Don’t stop. Keep going. Slade’s comment about not trying to chase that perfect set seems dead on. And, as others have commented, this is how I feel about my writing. I’m off 60-80% of the time. But the 20-40% that I’m on is like a goddammed narcotic. If I could understand a single word you say, I’d totally ask you to post one of your shows on youtube.

    Love and love and hugs,

    • I’ll post, but with subtitles.

      Doing a great set feels almost exactly like, and is as rare for me as, having a great session of writing. The difference is there’s more applause, laughter, and ego expansion…

  15. Stand up comedy… ye gods, I’ll leave that to you. Love it or hate it, we can all agree it takes balls to get up there. I can tell a funny story, but if I get the feeling that people even might not laugh, I get nervous and the story becomes way less funny.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      One of the things I do, which kind of works, is that when I’m on stage I act like I don’t care if anyone laughs or not. It takes the pressure off, and it lends itself to the material I do— stories about how muc hI hate myself and why. Or how much I hate other stuff and why.

      I always worry about dying onstage, so I have a drink, pretend to be drunk and depressed and act like I don’t really give a shit to try and trick myself. I’ve seen bad jokes get good laughs, and good jokes die on stage all because of the performers confidence.

  16. I think you are so brave to be able to get up on a stage and talk. I can’t even imagine. I dropped classes in college after learning on the first day of class that there would be an oral presentation later required. You’ve already WON simply by getting up there, as far as I’m concerned. “Spending twenty minutes on stage with forty people watching your every move, listening to your every word” sounds like a bad anxiety dream to me. You might as well make me naked while being chased by wasps and tornadoes while you’re at it.

    So…way to go, James! And yes, to echo everyone else, we need video of your performances, please. (:

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Don’t you sing and play instruments?! That terrifies me. One of the guys who performs at my comedy night does both! I suppose with a band though you can always blame like, the drummer or something if everyone starts booing and demanding y’all play Freebird.

      I hate doing presentations unless I can put jokes in.

      I tried to film my last show but all the batteries were dead in the camera. Hoping it’ll work next week.

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