As soon as I arrived, S said she thought we would be the only ones down there. We grimaced. “Should we leave?” We watched the door but no one else was going downstairs. How to explain? It’s just research! We’re not real punters. We’re more likely to take notes than laugh out loud. We decided to stay but that we’d need a cover story.
Searching the room for inspiration, we spotted the man at the door who had spoken to us as we arrived. The function room was double-booked, he said, so the council meeting about the drains is just around the corner – there’s a comedy gig happening here. So that was our cover: we’d arrived for the meeting about the drains and decided to stay for the comedy gig instead.
Thus bolstered, we went downstairs. It was immediately obvious that we were indeed the only audience members there. An odd assortment of characters huddled together in a pack, managing to be both nonchalant and nervous – the comics. We felt observed. The compere nicknamed us ‘the genuine audience’.
The first act came on with his guitar, looked us in the eye once and then spent his whole set avoiding eye contact and singing to the rest of the room. Why? Because his set was aggressive and sexist and badly matched for an audience of two women in a quiet room. Here there was no group hysteria to rely on, no social lubrication that would mean we would, despite ourselves, laugh at jokes about violence to women. He made no adjustments to his set, in tone or content, and we watched him in silence. The compere shot anxious glances our way. The first act finished, giving an embarrassed wince and retreated to the side of the room.
At this point it became clear that, aside from being awkward, this was actually a situation where we had a lot of power over the room. We could decide to withhold our laughter and everyone would hang on that decision like the crowd in a coliseum waiting for the emperor’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
The compere burst back onto the stage with energy. This time he made great play of asking us questions, engaging us, trying to win us over. Because he wasn’t one of the acts, he had some distance from the success or failure of the night (as conventionally measured in laughs-per-minute). This outsider’s position meant he was the only person who could say how crap the gig was. He asked us why we had come and we gave our story about the council meeting. The compere blinked, obviously startled that the only audience members were ‘accidental’, but quickly incorporated it into his narrative.
The next few sets were very patchy. Another aggressive misogynist act with a central rape joke was a lowlight, but there were one or two good moments, and whenever we responded with the smallest smirk, the whole room noticed it.
About two thirds through the line up, a woman began by saying she was throwing her set out of the window. She brought the mic with her over to the audience and straddled a chair, facing us. She spent some time asking us questions, quipping and improvising, with mixed success. But her act of joining us in the audience was striking. Suddenly we were surrounded on all sides by the comics, facing us – the subject of her set. There was a power shift – we were no longer Roman emperors and there wasn’t so much at stake in our laughter alone because the comics were more at ease. It made me consider the role of domination in stand up comedy. How much of a comic’s act relies on power shows and domination? The content of this comic’s set wasn’t amazing, but her simple adaptation to the situation was, at this moment, radical. I realised that if the room’s not laughing then there’s an opportunity to do things differently that most comics can’t, or won’t, take.