I could hear the act before me getting uproarious laughs. I was stuck on the toilet panicking my guts out.
Why was this happening? My job involves lots of public speaking - to strangers, colleagues, senior leaders, peers, and random people on the Internet. To small BarCamps and to thousands of people in a conference centre. And yet I was shaking with fear at the thought of 10 minutes in front of a few dozen people in a pub. WHY?!
Let me backtrack. My friends at Science Oxford asked me to do a spot on their Science Cabaret - could I do a 10 minute stand-up set about computer security?
Well sure! I've done loads of talks on this, and they're usually well received and get a fair number of laughs. I must be able to trim that down and add more jokes. Easy.
But, reader, it wasn't. This was the first time I've specifically tried to do a talk that was focussed on the funny. It was hell.
I watched back all my previous talks. Everything I thought was funny got barely a laugh - but lots of my improvised asides got hearty chuckles. So should I wing it? Hell no!
I watched YouTube videos of several successful science comedians to learn what they do. Huge thanks especially to Anna Ploszajski and Steve Cross for being my unknowing mentors. One thing that struck me was just how well rehearsed they were. I don't mean to diminish their natural talent - but it is obvious that they put a phenomenal amount of work into creating a repeatable performance
I've written before about rehearsal in comedy - and it is vital.
So I honed my performance. I practised it in the shower, while driving to work, when on mute on a conference call. Every single word became comfortable in my mouth. That I knew every syllable and each hand gesture perfectly!
And that's where it started going wrong. You know when you repeat a word over and over until it loses all meaning? That - but for 10 minutes of "comedy".
Nothing sounded right. All of the pauses I'd put in for laughs just sounded awful.
And then I saw the line up for the evening.
- Helen Arney - queen geek songstress. On TV and radio a lot.
- Kyle Evans - an award-winning singing mathematical comedian fresh from his Edinburgh run.
- Allison Woollard - a professor from Oxford University.
- Joanna Bagniewska - an award winning Zoologist.
- Chris Lintott - another prof from the local uni, who happens to present the BBC's Sky At Night show.
- Lucy Rogers - oh, just the frickin' judge from Robot Wars!
And me. A bloke with a Comp Sci degree. Who had never done stand-up before.
HELLOOOOOO IMPOSTER SYNDROME!
So, I'm sat on the bog. I can hear the laughter and applause. I know I'm going to have to go out. The only exit from the loo is through the venue. Could I really walk past all those people, grab my coat, and dash off into the night? It was an option...
I stood behind the doors to the venue. I waited for the climax of the first performance. I farted. Repeatedly.
"Please welcome to the stage..."
Feel the fear and do it anyway. It's only 10 minutes. There's at least two decent jokes in the set. The audience have had at least one alcoholic drink. No one would be rude enough to walk out halfway through, right? Right?!
Feel the fear and do it anyway. There is no choice. Try not to shit myself live on stage. Or throw up. Or both. Why do I feel like this? Is it the quality of the other performers? Is it the lack of confidence in my material?
Feel the fear and do it anyway. There's a problem with the projector and laptop. Fuck! Why does technology hate me. Can I do this without slides? No! Shall I tell them to ignore the problems? Everyone is staring at me. My stomach lurches.
Feel the fear and do it anyway. Someone else walks to the microphone. He looks like me, but he's smiling and confident. He grabs the microphone as though he knows what he's doing. He says the first joke and there's a huge laugh!
Feel the fear and do it anyway. I let this guy carry on with his rehearsed performance. I peak out to the side. Those people are laughing, so I get him to pause. Relish it. I watch him effortlessly move to the next section. I take the reins for a second and try an off-the-cuff bit of improvisation. A laugh, but not as much as I'd hoped. I give control back.
Feel the love and do it anyway. I let him lean into the laughter. It pushes the fear away. Not completely, but enough. The performance is going well. I pretend that the call-and-response stuff is spontaneous. It isn't, but it works. I fake my own helpless giggles. The audience buys it.
Then, without warning. It's over. "I've been Terence Eden, thank you very much!" I let the performer walk to the edge of the stage and collapse into a waiting chair. My wife sends me a text of support. The adrenaline isn't letting go of me. My stomach knows it can unclench. I'm desperate for a pint, and simultaneously glad that I'm not in possession of one. Probably best not to go down that route.
The rest of the performers are sublime. I can finally relax and enjoy them.
I don't know where the fear came from.
I usually give technical presentations where I know the audience are eager to be relieved of the drudgery of yet another PowerPoint. But people spending their free time and demanding entertainment? That was enough to throw me off.
I'm glad I've done it. I know I want to do it again. I'm certain that I don't want this as a career. I loved the response. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.
We had a great time at Science Cabaret for @Oxford_IF with @chrislintott @helenarney @DrLucyRogers @edent @kyledevans @JMBagniewska @AlisonWoollard - more pics over on Facebook and Insta #ScienceOxford #IfOx2018 pic.twitter.com/At4XlXUsdV
— Science Oxford (@scienceoxford) October 23, 2018