Stress is good for stand-ups

Luke Terry

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Topics Culture

When I tell people I do stand-up, I usually get one of two responses. One is ‘Tell me a joke’, which leads to me giving a long explanation about the oversimplification of comedy, the importance of environmental factors, and that me bellowing my lines in the smoking area of a club is probably not going to give you an accurate representation of my act. (This usually leads to them calling me boring, and leaving.) The other response is: ‘That must be so scary/nerve-racking/stressful.’ To this, there is only one response: yes.

Stand-up is a stressful thing, but that’s part of the fun. The adrenaline rush you get from standing up in front of a room of people, with only a list of untested dick jokes and your bit on North Korea to protect you, is incomparable. It’s like going bungee jumping using a cord you manufactured yourself. Whether or not you get a laugh offers the most honest assessment possible of your skills. And that can be pretty stressful.

Which is why I was surprised to read about ‘The Sick of The Fringe’ initiative, a project that aims to highlight the mental and physical strain performers are under while putting on a show at Edinburgh. And it’s not the only one. Equity, the UK performers’ trade union, is running something called ‘The Sanctuary’ at this year’s Fringe, a place where performers will be able to go to get away from the stress, relax and get massages. Additionally, Fringe Central is putting on an event called ‘Freaking Out and F**king Up’ (their asterisks, not mine), which will focus on helping performers deal with failure. Rather than embrace the intense, high-pressure world that is performing, these events are painting stress as a terrible burden.

The thing is, as a stand-up, stress is unavoidable. The Sanctuary could offer stress balls with hecklers’ faces on and handfuls of Valium, but the stress will still be there the second you step back onstage. These projects would be better off teaching performers to love stress, to see it as a driving force. Stress cannot be removed, but it can be utilised. After all, isn’t stress supposed to be one of the best things about stand-up? Isn’t the stress of preparing a good show part of what makes the validation of a successful gig so special?

These attempts to treat stand-ups’ stress levels as a kind of mental-health issue pathologise what is a perfectly natural, and potentially beneficial, part of performing and everyday life. Hell, if you’re the kind of thrill junkie who wants to spend a month entertaining small crowds of unruly Scots, stress can be fun.

Luke Terry is a spiked intern.

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