First Drafts: New Comedy at Rose Theatre

Jay Lafferty and Lou Sanders on how practice makes perfect with work-in-progress comedy shows

Feature by Ben Venables | 15 May 2018
  • Lou Sanders

The American novelist Erica Jong once said: "You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone."

While this is sage advice for authors, who know that what's scribbled on scrunched up paper can stay between them and the bin, it is useless counsel for comedians. The only way to develop material for a live comedy show is to put the work on as a live comedy show.

At Gilded Balloon's Rose Theatre the Fringe is arriving early with a season of work-in-progress gigs. And far from being like watching a writer stare at a blank page, comedy WIPs can often be as engaging as the final show. The spontaneous nature of the gig might not be as slick as it will become in August, but it gives these performances a different kind of energy for an audience to enjoy. 

Although for the comedian, even an appreciative audience can induce something like labour pains. As Lou Sanders tells us: "I like honesty – honestly I do. I like if the audience are up for it at the start, as that sets the tone. If we have a good start then I can usually ride that sweet wave of goodwill. Then through the show it’s obvious some bits are going swimmingly and other bits need drowning. And that’s fine – same as having a baby I guess. Exactly the same as having a baby." 

Sanders has a clear vision for Shame Pig. The first spark of inspiration was Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which she has been pondering since quitting drinking last year: "Looking back at all the shameful, awful – but in retrospect, quite funny – things I’d done when I was a lush, it all sort of came together."

But to test the material properly a clear idea is no substitute for as much stage time as can feasibly be booked. "I rarely say no to a preview because they’re so important," she says.

Jay Lafferty is working along similar lines: "I have seven hour previews planned across Scotland from Edinburgh to Strathaven."

Lafferty started thinking about her latest work while performing her last show: "Last year's hour wasn't long enough to say everything I wanted and the bill wasn't steep enough to stop me talking!" Although the idea for her new show Wheesht!, as the title implies, actually stems from problems caused when she has held her tongue.

Agreeing with Sanders, Lafferty also values feedback from an honest audience. Even if this goes against a comedian's natural inclination: "I think if comedians had the opportunity to choose their own audiences they would only ever play in front of appreciative loud laughers," she says. A more preferable crowd, she adds, would be: "highly intelligent but understand the nuance of a dick joke."

In addition to her previews she has "a number of shorter slots at development nights across the UK to help get the show ready." 

But when is a show ready? Due to administrative deadlines comedians submit their hour's description while still working things out. "The blurb is often harder to write than the show," says Lafferty. "I’m not joking. How can you encompass an hour long show into 40 words?" However, she adds this is part of what comedy is all about – "A Fringe show is a movable feast – it will and should evolve."

The full preview season at Rose Theatre also includes shows by Tom Stade, Mawaan Rizwan, Kiri Pritchard-McLean, Larry Dean, Maisie Adam, Chris Forbes, Ahir Shah, Micky Overman, Alfie Brown. It can be viewed at

Lou Sanders: Shame Pig (work-in-progress), Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre, 31 May, 7.30pm, £5  – tickets here
Jay Lafferty: Wheesht! (work-in-progress), 28 Jun, 9pm, £5 – tickets here