22 Notebooks, 2,000 Gigs
*This article originally publishes May 10th on British Comedy Guide.
I recently reached 2,000 gigs. That averages out to be five stand-up sets a week, every week, for the last eight years.
To some people, that's a lot, to other people it's a disappointingly low number. But whatever someone else's reaction is to my current number, I reply, with 'who cares!?' I'm not racing anyone, because no one else is counting.
My first set was on the 28th of April 2009. Two days before that I had written down an idea. It wasn't a joke, it didn't have a punchline, it was just a funny thought that popped into my head - and it was armed with that thought that I went to an 11pm open mic gig at the Peoples' Improv Theatre in New York.
I remember getting off stage and thinking I stormed it. But in reality my half-baked ideas were only warmly received by the audience of all comics. They were going easy on me. In reality I bombed, though I thought I killed. But that didn't matter. I had now seen what it was like to tell jokes on stage. I was hooked.
At one point, a comic told me that once I reached 50 gigs he'd put me on his show. So I started counting. For the record, he never did give me that gig, but it started a habit I haven't stopped. Every time I do a set, be it a big gala show or an open mic, I mark the number in the corner of the page.
I'm not waiting to reach a certain number - but I like watching the number increase. Sometimes I'll look over a month of notes and realize I've lagged a bit on stage time so I know to step it up the next month. Comedy, like any other skill, takes practice. I think it was Robert Klein who said: "Anyone can be funny. But can you be funny at 8pm every Friday night?"
With practice comes consistency. And knowing that I've been consistent gives me confidence in an impossibly unstable career. When I've had an audition or a high profile gig that gets me more nervous than usual, it helps calm me down to know that it's just another number in a series of numbers. I've done this 2,000 times before. I've been practicing. I can do this.
Since then I've written jokes and setlists into vast numbers of notebooks. I have a notebook on me at all times. They are my security blanket. It doesn't matter where I'm going or whether I plan on doing some writing once I get there, there is always a notebook in my bag. Gym, vacation, coffee shop; doesn't matter. If there's an afterlife I'll carry one into that. I always have a notebook.
And I've always used a notebook, I've never switched to using some sort of spreadsheet or phone app. It's just easier for me. Besides, if I drop my notebook in a puddle on the way to a gig it'll be soggy but it still works. Notebooks are reliable, sturdy creatures. Writing a premise on a tangible object somehow makes the premise itself more tangible. It's no longer just a thought in my head; I can now see it on white unlined paper and black ink. It's real.
I LOVE new notebook day. It's my favourite day. I usually buy moleskins, but sometimes I use notebooks that have been gifted to me. Every time I buy a notebook, there's so much excitement and hope for that new notebook. I always think "This is the one! This is the one my first Live At The Apollo set will go into! This is the notebook my defining 'bit' will go into. Eddie Izzard has Cake vs Death, George Carlin has 7 Dirty Words, John Mulaney has The Salt and Pepper Diner. And I'm about to write mine."
This level of glee and hope might be seen as childish and unrealistic. But no one goes into show-business because they have realistic expectations. Comics are dreamers who say funny things, it's as simple as that.
When I'm done with them, they get tucked up on a shelf behind my whisky collection. I'll be honest, I don't look at them much once they're put away.
To commemorate gig number 2,000 my boyfriend, Tom Watts, loaned me his photography skills and we did a photoshoot. And, for the first time in years, I pulled the notebooks down and looked through them.
It was like opening old and forgotten photo albums of a life forgone. I started in New York and the open mic scene there is quite intense. We often got two minutes tops to spill out our ideas. All the shows were run by comics for comics and had lovely names like: The Dean's List, Bucket o' Buckets, The Wood Shed. I even ran a weekly open mic with my friend Peggy called Dicks. Now, I run a monthly new material night with my pal James in London called Couple Of Pricks. Looking back through the years it's clear that while some things have changed a lot, other things have just been about finding creative ways to title shows Penis.
Looking back at my years-old writings is like looking at the ramblings of a mad woman. Of course it is. There's no organisation, other than writing the number down. Around gig number 75 there's a note off to the side about giving up everything and becoming a Carmelite Nun. I can't remember if that was a joke idea or just a wish.
When I got to my 1,000th gig, I insisted on taping it for my first comedy album. I was at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and I had no idea how to record an album. The recording didn't come out and, to be honest, I think that's for the best, because it wasn't a very good hour.
Reading back over setlists gives me an equally insightful snapshot into old me's mind - some of the setlists are intricate, other's are just the name of the show and a couple of topics to hit on. Either way, it's a good trip down memory lane.
Gig number 281 was my first set at Spank!, a late night Edinburgh Fringe show where I'm now the resident host. After gig 445 there's a note that says "I need to stop being so angry at the audience". It was my first time to the Adelaide Fringe Festival and I recall it being a tough time. Hardly anyone came to those shows.
My first gig after moving to London permanently was Old Rope in London, clocking in at gig number 1,394.
Even as a young stand-up with delusions of grandeur, it looks like I had some self-awareness because after gig 38 are two words scrawled in angry hand writing, "FUCKING SUCKED".
My notebooks are multi-functional. I use them not just for sets but for everything. In there amongst the one-liners and story ideas are shopping lists, to-do lists, lists of lists. I taped my airline ticket into the beginning of one notebook from when I moved to London. In another is my father's eulogy. Not a set, and not counted as one, but written out exactly how I write sets - because that's how my brain works now.
As I got closer to my gig number 2,000 I got excited and told a few people. They asked if the big number was going to be reached during a big show. I was pretty sure that wouldn't be the case, as I hadn't tried to plan it to fall on a certain day. But I wanted a proper commemoration - and since Tom is a filmmaker and photographer with a flare for the dramatic, we agreed he'd take photos of the books. I like that because it's the coming together of our two passions. Him behind the camera and my work in front. Just like we like it.
In the end, as I suspected, my 2,000th gig was nothing special and thus it was perfect. I was performing at my friend Alexander Bennett's new material night This Is Not A Cult. I was running some ideas for an audition and those ideas were warmly received by the small audience of both comics and civilians. After I talked, I mentioned it was my 2,000th gig, cuz why not. When Alexander re-took the stage he made a joke that "after 2,000 gigs you too can end up here." But it was the perfect place to be. Back in a dark room, staring at strangers, armed with a notebook - because no matter where comedy takes you, you always wind up back at the start with nothing but an idea scrawled in a notebook.
Abigoliah's new show Namaste Bitches will play at the Underbelly at the Edinburgh festival from the 2-27th August. Info & tickets