Thursday, 15 December 2011
More Sitting down than Standing Up
Once upon a time I had a strange hobby. Yes, for a few years, on the odd evening, I was a stand-up comedian. The impetus to get up on stage and make a tit of myself really started with Bohemian Night: a gathering of Reading's musicians, poets, comedians and general weirdos that used to happen every Wednesday at that fine drinking establishment, the 3Bs. It wasn't rare for audience members at the B's to become part of the entertainment and, eventually, it was inevitable that I would get up and have a go. And I discovered that (a) I wasn't bad at the comedy thing and (b) I enjoyed doing it. People who know me well know that I've always had this desire to perform, this Drama Queen element to my personality. Oft I had trodden (trod?) the boards at various Am Dram establishments, so I was already well versed in bringing shame upon my family.
I'm pleased to say that for all my time as a stand-up I didn't often die on stage, or dry up. I had the odd special moment. One gig in Hammersmith comes to mind. That evening the pub we were performing in didn't seem to be aware that there was a comedy gig on and after 5 minutes of performing to dangerous looking men wearing permanent frowns I decided to put the mic back in the stand and shuffle off the stage. I said, "Screw this. I'm off. Where's the compare?" To which the response was, "he's taking a shit." Cue a rather long and dispirited journey back to Reading. But, all in all, I had positive experiences. One evening at the Bearcat Comedy Club I shared a bill with Omid Djallili who said some very encouraging things about my material. I also was asked to host the Reading Comedy Festival stand-up competition a few times and I performed in such exotic and far-flung places such as Lincoln and Cardiff. I even once got paid!
The buzz that you get from one of your jokes going down a storm is like no other. It's the immediate validation you don't get from writing fiction, and when you're in control of an audience it gives you a terrific confidence boost. I do still sometimes miss it and so, dear reader, you ask yourselves 'why on earth did you give it up?' Well, I never really saw comedy as a career. My heart is in books and the comedy was really something I only did for fun. To be honest doing small gigs in obscure London pubs becomes a bit of a soulless slog sometimes. You often get back at 3 in the morning and then have to go into work the next day; you're very rarely paid and if you've had a bad gig it's a long way home alone with your thoughts. Also, while I met some terrific people out on the circuit I met a lot of very bitter, two-faced bastards too. Quite a lot of folk at the lower level of the comedy ladder, who really do want to make it a career, don't care about bad mouthing fellow comics and generally being unpleasant to the 'competition.' I just didn't want to spend any more time around such people, especially as I was only there for fun. And as London really is the centre of comedy, and we ended up moving further away than Reading from The Smoke, shlepping up to the capital on regular weeknights became something of a chore, and Abingdon and Oxford (lovely though they be) offer very little opportunities for the budding stand-up.
Like Rupert Pupkin, I went out in style. I ended up doing regular spots at a comedy night in Oxford. All very well, but the audience were pretty much exactly the same every week and were mainly comprised of one of the college Dining Societies. So, they got to know my material and hence I couldn't do the same skit every other week. (Writing fresh new material every week is not easy) Also, I found them by far the hardest audience to get going and I know fellow comics who had the same experience. On the night I decided to make my last I opened my set with the words "Hello Hogwarts!" to pretty much absolute silence, but, you know what, I found it funny. I may then have referred to several audience members as "over-privileged swan munchers." While it wasn't the most stormingest of storming sets, it provided a nice bit of catharsis. And thus, I decided to go out by insulting my audience, which is pretty much when you know you're done.
Maybe I'll do it again one day. Spoken word events don't have the same kind of buzz and while writing is what I love, there's no one there laughing/cheering/clapping as soon as you write a great sentence. Still, I can make my ten month old daughter squeal with laughter with a good pirate impression, and that I find makes up for a lot in life. I love comedy. It's an art form like no other and when it's brilliant it's about one of the best damn things ever. And maybe the Oxford students I offended that night have forgotten by now and are ready for some new killer lines...