A few years back at the Comedy Cafe New Act night two egos clashed with hilarious consequences. That night, when the show was still downstairs in the big main room with several Viking banqueting tables worth of audience in, saw a pro MC with a couple of decades of circuit experience under his belt bringing on eight new acts he had never met before and was likely to never meet most of again. As with all new acts nights, where anyone willing to do an unpaid spot could if they contacted the venue at the right time get themselves on, the quality was variable; some were veteran ‘new’ acts with honed sets hoping to impress the bookers into progressing them onto weekend work, other were very new, one or two were the deluded who never had it to start and would never improve but still kept booking themselves in to die again. Whoever this MC brought on stage, he himself was good enough to keep the audience attentive and laughing even after a shocker or two walked off. He set the night up well and then he did good, solid, effortless MCing inbetween each act.
Until the third act. He brought the third act on to a massive round of applause and a hundred punters still with hope in their hearts they were going to enjoy this newbie but he brought that new act on saying his first name slightly wrong. For arguments and anonymity's sake let say the MC called him "Andrew" instead of "Adam." An easy mistake with eight new names to remember and the pressure of a hundred people to make laugh. When the applause died down, "Adam" leaned into the microphone and stated "It is Adam, you Cunt!"
The MC who was making his way from the stage to hang out at the bar stopped in his tracks. He seethed. You could see the lit fuse, the timer ticking, the wire coming out of the rucksack. He joined the other acts and door staff in the bar area, separate from the stage and crowd. Boom! "Did he just call me a cunt? What his name? Did he just call me a fucking cunt?" The door staff calmed him down. Told him they would deal with it. And deal with it they did. "Adam" spent five minutes struggling on stage, he had just insulted the man who the audience already trusted and liked over a tiny mistake, shown massive ego when no one in that room had any faith yet, just hope, that he was funny. He had lost them before he told a joke. While the room would all forget his name by the next morning, the comedians waiting in the wings would not forget the sight of him being bundled out of the Cafe by the bouncers when he got off. The MC did not stop exploding. Whereas before he was generous to the new acts, all graces were off, he'd been insulted at his show, he now did 10-20 minutes of killer stuff between every act. None of the newbies could follow his skill and material as he had a point to prove to the room who had heard him be called a big C. Whether it was Adam or Andrew that guy clearly thought everyone knowing his exact name was more important than being funny, being rebooked or have the grace to let a pro act off the hook for an understandable slip up.
I tell this story as I was thinking about acts with and without stage names recently and the reasons many might want one. They can be more memorable to MC and audiences alike than a mere Joe Smith. A distinguishing one is great bit of branding, a fine way of distancing your real life and persona from what you do onstage and they can just make MCs’ lives a little easier to avoid anyone being called a cunt. Some people like to use their real name in the hope that one day exactly that will be up in lights. Others see the name they are brought onstage as part of the props and costume of what they do and reject anything as boring as what their parents gifted them with.
Character acts are the most obvious comedians with nom de plumes. Frank Sidebottom, George Ryegold and Marcel Lucont all have very talented real people behind them but are better known by the role they play. Even though I know all these acts’ real names even in social situations and email correspondence my first instinct is to call them by their stage monikers. Al Murray the Pub Landlord and Al Murray are very different personas despite sharing the same name and body. The character started life when comedian Al Murray found himself in an Edinburgh venue with a bar and decided to incorporate the setting into his performance. The facade created in that venue bore more creative fruit than his own stand up set so instead of rechristening his new success he shares the name with his fictional alter ego. The addition of "The Pub Landlord" lets you know what is fiction and also exactly what the act is. But you don’t have to be a character act to make your stage name stand out...
If you look back into the early days of alternative comedy, and many of those acts had or have names that are unsubtle puns or alter egos; Jasper Carrott, Ian Cognito, Brian Damage and Krysstal, Boothby Graffoe, Ray Presto, Eugene Cheese or Robin Banks. Maybe these came from a punkish spirit of burning down what came before and creating a new extreme personality for the stage like Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer, Rat Scabies, Poly Styrene or Cheetah Chrome. Many older acts originated from the folk and pub gig circuit so you can see how the idea crossed over. Especially back at a time when many live artists still signed on . Cogs told me once, I assume jokingly, not even his ex-wife knows his real name. Who really is that incognito funny man?
It might not just be to recreate yourself with a more comedy sounding name. Some performers’ are members of Equity where you cannot share the exact same stage name as any existing member. So a change has to happen. Performer union rules like this have seen Jim Jeffries add an extra “E” into his name once he began to crack the US market despite over a decade as an established player on the international circuit. Beetle Juice and Batman star Michael Keaton started his career as a stand up when his real name was Michael Douglas. Obviously when he moved into TV and movies there already was a Michael Douglas starring in stuff and famous for being son of Kirk (born Issur Danielovitch). Confused yet? Well now seems the perfect time to recount the infamous, possibly exaggerated, tale of when Kirk’s other son Eric Anthony Douglas played the London Comedy Store. While bombing he mentioned he was Kirk Douglas’ son only to be heckled with “No I’m Kirk Douglas’ son.” “No, I am.”
As that last Spartacus inspired story suggests a good distinct stage name removes your performance from a more common name’s pre-existing connotations even if those connotations open as many doors as they close, case dependent. I know a now pro act who when he first started discovered a terrible open spot with only one letter different in his surname. He spent the first few years of his career racing against his unfunny namesake to play for promoters first or risk being tarred with the lesser act’s unfunny credentials. And if you do have a very common first name and surname is it the end of the world to jazz it up a bit? I’ve had three different Stuart Richard apply for spots over the years which makes emailing the one I want to book a minefield. There are countless variations on Dan or Dave plus Green or Grant messaging me at the moment for spots. They blur into one. I can understand why an act would want to keep their name for any potential glory but if your emails struggle to stand out when applying for gigs due to a bland name you are not going to be the first to be offered gigs when a promoter is scanning their books quickly. A few years back there were three Andrew Stanleys gigging regularly until they had a night performing together in competition where the deal struck was the funniest on the night kept their real name. Ask yourself this who is more likely to get booked Michael Joseph Pennington or Johnny Vegas?
Gene Perret, three-time Emmy winner, former head writer for Bob Hope and a writer for a myriad of shows include Carol Burnett, “Three’s Company” and “Welcome Back Kotter” also wrote a few books on successful comedy writing. Check them out as they are full of great advice on joke structure and generating ideas. The paragraph that stuck with me, however, is how he got his first regular joke writing gig. He used to send all his submissions to TV shows on branded stationery with a duck logo emblazoned on top. The producer who hired him said they always noticed the guy who sent the duck submissions wrote good funny jokes so if they ever needed to find last minute material rather than wading through all the submissions all over again they just rifled through until they found his insignia. An unforgettable stage name is your duck logo, an everyday one is like sending in your funny material on plain white paper. You may be good enough but branding wise you’ve lost the edge. Best advice I can give using this example is have a stage name that is unique, even idiosyncratic, but an email address that is as close to that as possible in lettering. Being characteristic but easy to find in the pile will increase your responses and last minute offers from lazy and forgetful bookers like me tenfold.
Comedy experts often advise new acts to tell your strongest joke to start. Or be confident as you walk onstage, looking the part, but actually an audience’s first judgement on you as an unknown quantity is your name. When the MC has to rack their brains to remember what to call you or take out a piece of paper to read it off of you are already on the back foot. The crowd is collectively thinking even the host does not know who this mug is... how can they be funny? If this happens to you a lot your name is either really forgettable or difficult to pronounce. Mispronunciation is a hard one to combat, always try to introduce yourself to the MC giving your full name before the show, don’t assume they’ve remembered it from when you met six months ago or can read it with perfect phonetics. If you have a name that Anglo-Saxon tongues trip over again and again then maybe you need to bite the bullet and make your and their life easier. Shortening a laborious name worked for Louis CK or as his Mum calls him: Louis Szekely.
There is one last reason to add a bit of showbiz sparkle to your comedy handle away from the reality of your birth certificate. You only get one real name in life unless you are a fan of depol or credit card fraud. When you start out you’ll be rubbish... No... You will. Do you really want mates, family members, work colleagues, exes or that school bully recognising your real name on a listing and turning up to watch before you find your feet? And if it takes you a long time to get good, why not mend some burnt bridges with venues and shake off bad reviews by rebranding yourself when your product is finally at a saleable quality? In the music world David Bowie, Katy Perry and Lana Del Ray all released flop debut albums under their given names, only to rechristen themselves when they tried their new more successful directions. Why shouldn't that work for stand ups too once they find their voice after trial and error? You probably have a day job or one day will quit comedy and want one again. Think about the filth and nonsense you say on stage, think about all those deaths and horrible gigs and then think about a potential employer entering your real name into Google and finding a Youtube clip you did not even post of those things. A stage name is easy to drop and kill off. Then no matter where your journey in comedy eventually takes one, you can keep your birth name and get on with your life. No matter who you might have called a cunt from onstage along the way.