12 things stripping taught me about stand-up comedy
When I tell people I’m a comedian I get lots of questions like “can I borrow your phone charger?” or “thank you but, for the ninth time, do you have a code for the loo?”. Lockdown has given me plenty of thinking time to finally get round to answering these, I’ve compiled the 12 most important things I’ve learned about stand-up here. And it’s C3570X, if you’re still waiting inside the Costa at Turnpike Lane.
Bonus! I worked on and off as a stripper between 2015 and 2019, before I got fed up of talking to strangers in dimly-lit rooms and laying everything bare in public, and became a stand-up. Stripping gave me plenty of time to master things that I lean on and use over and over again in comedy. So, if you’re reading this from your COVID-19-induced quarantine, you can now become an expert and boldly venture into not one but two career paths which have just evaporated.
1. Look out for each other.
Comedy is an art, a business, possibly an affliction, but it is also a community. It’s a myth that stand-up is a solo venture - yes, it’s ultimately down to you to be funny and work your material and not fall asleep on the train, but the best projects and gigs in my experience have been the ones where everyone clubs together to make it fun. There’s a pervasive myth, too, that all strippers are bitches to each other. Assholes live in every corner of every industry (in this one they take centre-stage) but I also found solidarity and amazing friends in the strip club dressing rooms and cackling together on the bus home afterwards. I’ve seen the stripper community continue to show up for each other, inside and outside the club, and for women everywhere, including but, not limited to, other sex workers.
2. If it is going badly, do not stop until you have turned it around.
People have this very inconvenient habit of not all agreeing about what’s funny. In practice, this means your best material can smash it at one gig, and exactly the same material will crawl into an endless, strained cavern of silence at another. Making it work in every room is your job. On a strip club shift you gain nothing if, once you’ve asked everyone in the club for a dance and they say no, you give up to smoke outside. Instead, you do the rounds again, and again, and again until either the club is empty or you’ve sold a private dance. During a comedy show, you need to keep searching for the laughs with the audience you have. If it takes until the very final bit of the night to make it work then, that’s what it takes.
3. But sometimes it is just not your night, and that’s not your fault.
People are too drunk to cope with more than a three-word sentence; someone on the front row hates you because you look like their ex; people came straight from a labrador’s funeral and you’re doing a really long Dog Bit; there’s a hundred reasons why you might just have a shit night. Sarah Millican’s 11 o’clock rule is a generally good one for gigs, lap-dancing and life: if you had a terrible night then, give yourself until 11 o’clock the next day to agonise, self-loathe, binge on pies and feel terrible about it, then forget it ever happened and try again.
4. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.
Gossip in the dressing room is only useful or true to a certain extent. We all exaggerate, have insecurities and petty beefs with different people. Do your own thing, at your own pace. Learn from others and ask for help where it’s useful, but your hustle is your own and you will become the expert in what works best, for you.
5. Everybody has an opinion on why you’re doing your job.
“You have daddy issues,” “You’re mentally ill,” “You couldn’t get a proper job,” “You’re a narcissist,” “You’re an art student,” “You failed at [insert more prestigious medium of art, entertainment or performance].” It’s surprisingly hard to shift people’s very firm pre-decided view of why you do this, and what kind of person you are. I don’t usually think there’s much point spending your energy trying to address this, and most of the conversations with people about it are boring. You will also be experiencing an outlet for the hidden resentment of people who would love to “be” a stripper or a comedian, but not work like one.
6. Never underestimate how much men will expect from women, for free.
From what I understand, most sex work - within which I include stripping - is like sitting at the centre of a roller-disco of male entitlement. Why do men try to negotiate down the price of a dance? Why do they think all this labour should just fall into their lap, for free? Why do men think it’s an easy job to put on all the makeup, strip off all the body hair, make all the soothing noises and do all the heavy lifting in a conversation and play exactly into the fantasy of what they find sexy and non-threatening, and then insult you by trying to knock a tenner off the lowest price for a dance? If you’re a female comedy act, there’s still a chance that you’ll be treated as a free therapist, nanny or PR for idiot men whose pea-sized egos are too threatened by the prospect you’re as funny or funnier than them. Stick to your guns, do your thing, ask for help when you need. It is getting better and it’s all of our jobs to send this deeply-rooted sexism on its way out.
7. We must smash the “Pay to play” system and demand that clubs treat us fairly.
Strippers pay a fee to go to work. You pay the club anywhere between twenty and a stupid number of pounds to work a shift, and you either take all the money you made home, or give a cut to the club. There are advantages and disadvantages to this: mostly, it means dancers are being ripped off and club management give you all the restrictions of an employee, and none of the perks of being a freelancer. Comedy is a more optimistic picture because unless it’s a new material night you won’t be asked to gig for free. However, festivals absolutely rinse performers financially for the privilege of taking part, despite the festival being dependent on those performances.
I don’t drink but the absolute last thing I want is performance venues to stop selling alcohol. It loosens people up, it makes people happy, and for lots of people it’s a nice and not unhealthy thing to have a pint before you go onstage. Bear in mind that stripping and comedy are both jobs which come at a high, high rejection rate, and be careful of where your booze intake starts becoming more than a way to cope with the odd bad week. It will save you a lot of time and pain if, unlike me, you don’t use comedy or stripping as another great way to further your drinking career.
9. Know your own boundaries.
Everyone works differently. Don’t judge the parameters of what others are happy to share, show or do; and respect yours.
10. Everything has moved online.
You want to what - make money? In THIS economy? This is particularly painful to write during lockdown when an actual plague has tanked all the physical places we could work, but: big sections of the comedy and sex work industries have expanded to online. For strip clubs: why would a customer risk being seen by someone they know, having things stolen, and - in many clubs - not be allowed to touch their dick if they can do that from behind a laptop at home. I am very old-fashioned and I don’t think anything replicates the experience of a live gig, or an awkward lap dance. And in the neoliberal late-capitalist economy, pretty much every self-employed person needs to go all out on social media and digital spaces to attract and retain business. Things change, and we adapt accordingly.
11. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the judgement you’ll get for dating someone from work, so just brazenly enjoy it.
I am more embarrassed about an extremely basic male stand-up I dated for a few months than about a matching tattoo I got with my favourite client, and that’s all I have to say about it.
12. Mix everything up and keep doing what’s fun.
At the end of the day - for all the crap that comes with them, these are fun jobs. If you’re stuck in a rut, play around, change up your routine, reconnect with what makes you really laugh, or do something else.
Siân Docksey is the UK’s number one Welsh-Armenian queer comedian from Belgium. She has taken two critically-acclaimed surrealist shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, written for BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Newsjack, Channel 4 Shorts, and BBC Radio 1. Twitter/Instagram: @siandocksey.