Failing Gracefully

There’s a lot to be said for a killer opening. Whether it’s an Imperial Star Destroyer hammering the shit out of a Rebel cruiser, or the Nazis biting off a piece of Poland, both got people to sit up, take notice and want to know what comes next, as well as really setting the tone for what was to come.

Despite knowing this, I’m always really lazy with the openings for my solo stand-up shows. I spend nine months writing a show, travel around the world to perform it and then open it by simply turning down the lights, playing my current favourite mash-up and walking onto the stage. There are hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of ways that I could better open my show, but for the sake of simplicity – or as I said earlier: laziness – I do next to nothing and then wonder why it’s so tough to kick-start the momentum.

Last night however, I didn’t even get my bare bones opening right. While the audience were coming into the room, I was backstage having a bit of a dance. I like dancing when the conditions are right. Normally that means a) I’m alone and b) I’m drunk; but before a show I’m stone sober and I really like to kick out the jams in the narrow space between the curtain and the back wall of the venue. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that the floor was riddled with loose mic cables which, as I danced, were wrapping themselves around my ankles like hungry anacondas. When the lights went down and the music came up at the start of the show, I tried my very best to leap onto the stage, but my legs had danced themselves into a cable orgy and I fell over. When the spotlight finally came up, I was face-down on the stage in full view of everyone, desperately hoping that the audience liked a good prat fall. The audience though had seen nothing of the fall (that happened in the darkness) and so just stared at me, wondering why I was starting the show on my hands, knees and face.

The true test of the integrity of a system is in how it works when it doesn’t. All things fail, but the trick is to make them fail gracefully. When a joke dies in front of an audience, many comedians will deploy a pre-prepared line, acknowledging the failure in a self-effacing way that reminds the audience they’re still funny. It’s not the only way, or even the correct way of dealing with a joke that dies, but it’s one way of allowing the joke to fail gracefully in front of a paying crowd. It picks the mood back up and allows the comedian to continue with at least a bit of momentum.

Last night my system failed and it failed with all the grace of a newborn giraffe. As I floundered around on the stage, trying desperately to untangle my feet in front of a confused and disappointed audience, all I could think was “this SHOULD be funny.” It should have been but it just wasn’t. It’s like I’d started Star Wars with a shot of Han Solo on the toilet, or World War Two by marching into Warsaw and doing the Hokey P/Kokey.

I’m doing my show again tonight, and despite the fact that I’ve spent a lot of this morning thinking about how I can fail gracefully, by the time the show rolls around I’ll probably just stand backstage, dancing in the dark, hoping that my tech has finally gaffered all the cables to the floor.

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