Courtney Gilmour is new to the comedy scene and making a name for herself. We recorded her for the first time a few weeks ago when she opened for awesome stand-up and Canada Talks host Allison Dore as part of the She Dot comedy festival. The show was amazing (buy Allison’s cd when it comes out!) and we found a solid new comic in Courtney. Actually, the whole show was really really good and featured Shirley Whalen and Julia Hladkowicz too – awesome show. Here’s Courtney’s blog about being a new comic and offers up some tips to anyone new to comedy or thinking about doing it!
I started stand up in a city where a comedy scene was pretty much nonexistent. Aside from two successful comics born and raised there, who had moved on to Toronto the first chance they got, the options for performing were few and far between. My first real experience of telling jokes in front of a sizable audience was at a “City’s Funniest Comic” type contest which took place at a seedy dance club and was hosted by a living, breathing night terror. The show was chaos. Between a two hour delayed start time, a crowd that was eagerly anticipating the show’s end so they could dance, and a host who was so hammered he could barely remember his own first name let alone anyone else’s – it’s safe to say the evening was a complete disaster.
Somehow, though, it didn’t turn me away from stand up comedy. Amidst the insanity I still got to see some raw talent at work from other contestants, some of whom are still performing regularly, and I learned a lot about how to muscle through a bad situation. The comics who did the best that night were the ones who were able to command the attention of a rowdy, uninterested crowd in spite of the odds stacked against them. As a medium to low energy introvert, this fascinated me. I watched in amazement as people who had ignored me or shouted “ARE YOU A LESBIAN!!!” just moments earlier were now totally engaged in someone else’s act. I knew that I wanted that kind of power and presence on stage, and I knew the only way to get it was to keep practicing – even if it meant hundreds of more disaster shows (and it did mean that).
I have since moved to Toronto and have learned many other useful things as a new comic navigating the comedy scene. Here are a few I’d like to share.
I find that conducting yourself maturely and playing nice in the sandbox (not ‘door mat’ nice, grown-up nice) opens up doors for you sooner than you might expect. Comedians always have a hawk eye on you when you’re first starting out, and for a number of reasons. For one thing, they’re genuinely interested in seeing new acts and scoping you out. It’s easy to be intimidated and think it’s all judgement, but the reality is that the comic community can be very encouraging and many comics are also frequently looking for fresh talent to book on their shows. When I first moved to Toronto, I was booked on a show I had no business being on – and I’m not saying that from a place of modesty. I was still figuring out my jokes, my sets were largely disjointed, and in retrospect, at least on paper, I was just too amateur to be on this particular lineup. But the producers gave me a chance, because we established a friendly rapport and they saw me working hard at open mics. I don’t want to tell new comics to “keep your head down” but I do think there is something valuable in approaching new territory with grace and respect for the talented people ahead of you. Drunkenly yelling your loud-mouthed opinions on the state of comedy at open mics or on Facebook is generally a bad idea and will only tarnish your name before people even know it yet.
This is something I’m still struggling with and go through phases, but any seasoned comic will tell you – and continue to tell me! – that getting as much stage time as possible is essential. The bottom line, no matter how much natural charisma and wit you have, is that you just have to get out there. When I tell friends or other new comics that I’m doing shows every night of the week, they’re usually stunned. Every night? Multiple shows in one night? Yeah, that’s what it’s going to take. And I hate it sometimes because I’m lazy and easily intimidated and also a perfectionist. The idea of trying brand new material that hasn’t been fleshed out yet in front of my peers is terrifying. But it’s necessary. Also, it’s easy to start coasting on booked shows once you start getting a steady stream of them. Suddenly your calendar fills up and you’re like, “Oh cool, I don’t have to do another open mic ever again, I’m basically a success now and it’s time to start talking about this on podcasts.”
I’m learning that relying on booked shows does not serve me or make me better. It’s safe because I know there will be audiences who haven’t heard my dusty old archaic jokes, so I get to keep doing them and avoid challenging myself to write new stuff. I know myself well and I know that the only way I get better is when I cut my teeth. So, that’s what I have to do instead of staying in and trying to train my cat to ride around the apartment on a Roomba.
This sort of aligns with the idea of being classy but I think it’s a completely separate category. You can be polite and courteous but there are comedians in the Toronto scene who are well known for being kind and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of them are also some of the best performers in the country. One of the biggest influences on my journey through stand up comedy has been the experiences I’ve had with comics who have reached out to me personally, encouraged me gently, and told me to stick it out even after eating shit on stage. To put the conscious effort into going the extra mile for people in your comedy community, especially when you are new, travels a long way. It builds a positive reputation for yourself and makes other comics not only want to work with you someday, but seek you out to do so. Plus, you’ll probably sleep better at night knowing you’re not a salty old asshole.