Tuesday, 13 October 2015

My failed stand-up comedy career

What Tinky Winky taught me about audiences with a smoking gun
© Steve Palmer 2015

Flyer from 1994 - Includes Dave Thompson and yours truly
The Bearcat Club in Twickenham was the second worse place you could perform as an aspiring stand-up twenty years ago. The club’s website says that these days it’s one of London’s best-loved comedy venues. Not to me it isn’t. It’s been gut-wrenching even looking the site up. I never want to go there again. I’ve no idea if it’s still the second-worst one to play or whether Up the Creek in Greenwich still has that dubious honour.

The Bearcat. Back in the 90s, they had professional hecklers, who sat in the front row. These people said things to the comedians that the audience behind them couldn’t hear. But the performers could. The hecklers got the volume just right.

It was terrifying.

So. The open spot. Try-out. Open mic. The bit in the show where newly-starting-up comedians got their five minutes. Like an apprentice gladiator being thrown to the lions, it was rarely a level playing field. If you pay £30 to go and see Michael Mcintyre, you’re going to want to enjoy it, including to justify the expense. And I hope you do. However, as the try-out in a line-up of several comedians, you’re fair game.

The night I did the Bearcat, Dominic Holland, who I’d spoken to a couple of times at gigs and who was very encouraging and helpful, went on stage and stormed it. If you stormed the Bearcat you were a professional comedian who was not only funny, but who also knew how to control an audience. Holland had them eating out of the palms of his hands; and cheering from the rafters.

Then it was my turn.

No. I don’t really want to talk about it. Except I will. A bit. I wasn’t funny. The audience humiliated me in a way that I couldn’t have ever imagined. I’d much rather see my trousers fall off in Piccadilly Circus. I was, of course, relieved to get off. They’d had their pound of flesh. I’m almost in tears writing about it.

So: why? Why did I do this awful thing? A hobby as a stand-up comedian on the try-out circuit? Well; it all started when loads of people fell off a stage during a student play.

Stand up and be counted

Bradford University. 1983. A musical, which was a tribute to Scott of the Antarctic, with the bizarre but perhaps imaginative title of ‘Scott bears all in polar regions.’ For some reason, the producer thought I was funny and got me to do five minutes of stand-up. OK, I was billed as ‘The worst comedian in the world’ but I could hardly sue under the Trade Descriptions Act. 

Rehearsals went OK. We were due to perform in the Communal Building; what everyone called the Commie.

Ah, the Commie. Fond memories of appropriating barrels that were destined for the Beer Festival; then rolling them down a grassy verge that Bradford students will know well – it starts at the library and Shearbridge Green / Bradford Halls, and swoops down towards the Commie. The barrel-rolling, and other larks, were played-out with my friend Ian.

Ian couldn't resist, every time he was in the vicinity of a phone, picking it up and shouting: "Get me the White House. Brezhnev's still dead." The reference to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, recently deceased, would get me laughing every time.

Ian and I got to introduce John Cooper Clarke, the poet. Not this time at the Commie. This time in the Great Hall, no less. The story goes that we were on stage in front of 2,000 people and were enjoying getting ‘air time’. All we had to do was to say a few words to introduce the great punk wordsmith. We stretched the concept of ‘a few words’ as far as we could, hogging the limelight. We just talked and talked to the audience. Because we could. It was great. 

Apparently Clarke then said: “It looks like I’m already x!*!x well on.” And then started making his way onto the Great Horton Road. He was dragged back. We were dragged off. Short of getting one of those curly sticks and yanking us from the stage, we were dispatched to the sidelines.

The social secretary was a guy called Neil Smith. He was always suspicious of me and Ian. With good reason. In 2013 I discovered him online and he was very generous, and funny; and he was so forgiving about our misadventures from the 1980s. Because Ian and I were right wind-up merchants. I had to break the news to Neil that Ian had died in 2006.

Old friend

Ian was killed on his motorbike and I saw him on too few occasions between the end of university and the day he died. Ian would have been my consultant for this chapter. He didn’t mind being embarrassed; he stood for university president on the ‘criminally insane’ ticket. And nearly won. He wound up the political student types. I said in an article I wrote for the BBC Bradford / West Yorkshire website: “Ian’s love of life and ‘no strings attached’ approach to friendship liberated me.”

At the funeral, the crematorium building was packed with people and they needed to use both rooms. I obviously went to the ‘overflow’ room, not being close family or having any pretence to being a regular friend to Ian any more. Then: “First up to remember Ian is his friend from Bradford, Steve.” 

I had to run at breakneck speed around to the main crematorium area where the service was being held, as the truth dawned that I was to be the first to speak. Ian was having the last laugh on me. So I arrived, breathless, taking gulps of air as I was about to start talking.

And there was Karen, his wife; and his three young boys. And his extended family. And loads of friends. And I’d come prepared to talk about how Ian and I used to muck about and treat life frivolously. A bit risky, I suppose, being first up to speak. But then I thought: “Sod it. It’s what he would have wanted.” This might have been deeply embarrassing but I went for it and talked about how we ran amok on campus. 

Stupid things like going into the Union shop and pretending to get the wrong end of the stick. We asked for onions. Silly things like organising a speed-eat-all-you-can halls of residence dinner. Ian did it in four minutes, 20 seconds. 

Childish things like jumping over the postbox on the Great Horton Road that was still, when I was last there, slightly at an angle like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then I looked up and wondered if they were about to all chase me out of the crematorium. 

But folks at the funeral were appreciative, because they all knew what Ian was like. Of course, there were many more, important speeches, but I was glad I was able to celebrate Ian’s zany approach to life. 

Ian. Thank you. As your best man, Simon, said on the day we said goodbye to you: “Shine on you crazy diamond.”

Staged disaster

Anyway; back to the Commie. I was playing the part of the failed comic in the Antarctic romp. And I was a minute into my routine (OK, perhaps it’s best to describe it as a ‘bunch of terrible jokes’) when I heard an almighty smashing sound behind me.

The Commie could be used for discos, gigs and shows. And a raised performing area was assembled for the latter two. Actually, this ‘stage’ was really just a bunch of glorified and rickety trestle tables that constituted a performance area. On this occasion, as I stood there, behind me some hastily-erected polar scenery was swaying. Then the stage buckled and the entire cast – there were loads of extras – fell about four feet onto the floor. One guy broke his leg.

The audience burst out laughing, not knowing how gruesome it all was back there, because the falling scenery shielded them from sight of the full carnage. But this was my moment. Sensing just the right amount of pregnant pause, I grabbed the microphone in its stand and said: “Well, you can laugh.” 

Appalling. What a wasted opportunity to get a bona fide laugh. But I couldn’t think of anything else in the heat of the moment. It got a moderate chuckle. Yeah. Thanks. 

Somehow, though, my appearance as a stand-up was encouraged. That summer we took some theatre productions to the Edinburgh Festival, and ‘Gandhi: The Panto’ was going particularly badly. We were filmed for Joan Bakewell’s ‘Pick of the Fringe’ on BBC2 and so my first ever TV appearance as an artiste was as an extra, dressed in a dhoti, walking bearfoot in the streets of Edinburgh. 

But the same guy who cast me in the role of comedian in the Antarctic escapade suggested that I repeat the exercise in Edinburgh to ‘save the show’. Talk about high expectations. So, I did a routine and I can’t remember if it was OK or not. Actually, I was probably crap.

Not as crap perhaps as when, back in the Commie, we performed ‘Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street’. As the policeman, I had to shoot Sweeney, played by a guy called Alex. The gun wouldn’t go off – there was a firearm malfunction - and instead I had to stab poor Alex with the broken gun, much to the delight of the audience, who fell apart. So did I…

And then I forgot all about stand-up. And I left university…and grew up a bit.

Mid Nineties

But the urge returned. I had been in a career job for a few years and I was just about to get married, so perhaps I was having a 30-something ‘life crisis’. Working in the travel industry had its benefits, but day-to-day on the desks could be dull. And I started thinking of trying to do stand-up again. 

A friend, who hadn’t just messed about with theatre in Bradford like I did, but who went on to be a theatrical big-wig, was down in London. She encouraged me to do something about the comedy bug. It was 1992.

A few months came and went and I did nothing about it. Until my stag do. We were in a pub in Crouch End. I knew that they had comedy in the basement every Saturday night but this was the last thing on my mind as I sat there with devil horns on, with writing across my forehead in lipstick and with party streamers dangling down. And I was wearing a plastic fireman’s helmet. 

Suddenly, at about 10.55 pm, as the comedy evening downstairs was coming to an end, I decided it would be a good idea to go down there. In disbelief, my stag friends followed me, and arrived in time to see me grab the microphone from the compere, who was winding up the evening’s entertainment. I pushed him to one side. And I told a joke from hell. Remember; I was near the end of my stag do and the joke sort of mumbled out. A drunken spilling forth of an inaudible punchline. 

But it had an effect on me.

Typing this, I’m sitting in a bar not far from the venue where this happened, reminiscing about my first ever gig. It was a crazy, wild and impetus thing to do and the worrying thing is, it wasn’t the least embarrassing or awkward at all. At that point I had no fear of being on stage. 

Then I started doing stand-up properly. Oh dear...

Tinky Winky’s school of comedy

Mrs Steve had seen an article in the Observer about a stand-up class at Jackson’s Lane Community Centre in Highgate. She wishes she hadn’t. I enrolled. We were lucky to have, as our tutors, the likes of Andy Parsons (a regular these days on Mock the Week), John Hegley the poet, and Dave Thompson. The Dave Thompson who also doubled-up as Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies. 

The ‘students’ all tried out our material in front of each other. Wow; the egos in that room. We were taught microphone technique – it’s very important. You don’t want to fumble before an expectant (or non-expectant) audience. We all encouraged each other. It was like therapy. But, ultimately we were on our own, as our own agents, to book our own gigs and to try to make audiences laugh.

The thing is that the first time I did a gig for real I was funny. It was actually at the same venue as the comedy course – Jackson’s Lane. There were about 15 people in the audience but they all laughed. I was terrified. But, according to family, that petrified look apparently makes me come across as funny. So I thought my golden new career was about to take off. All I had to do before a gig was to work myself into a frenzy of fear; and then shit myself. 

But once I started getting into the zone and trying to take on an audience, it was like I became a machine and so I lost that look of terror. And, on top of that, my usual outward-going personality seemed to abandon me on stage as well. After that first gig, I sort of lost my mojo and never recovered it. So my success didn’t last long! Psychologists would have a field day. Anyway, after that, I can’t say I ever really enjoyed myself as a comedian. Apart from one gig. But read on…

I’ve calculated that between the early summer of 1993 and January 1995 I did about 200 gigs. This was on top of the day job. One hundred and fifty shows went OK. Pretty non-descript. I even humiliated a heckler once. Result. Of the remaining fifty, forty were pretty disastrous. That leaves ten. 

About five were abysmal and about four were so bad that I find it totally awkward and humiliating writing this. This included the Bearcat Club.

Do the maths and you’ll see there’s one gig left. More of that in a moment. Because that was good. That was very good.

First though, some lowlights from those bad gigs: I was ignored by a bunch of students in Harrow, who snogged each other through my act. Mrs Steve was there and when I came off stage, she was so upset she had to be consoled by a very nice Rhona Cameron. I asked my sister to a gig once and I was appalling. I won’t get that time back again. 

My try-out slot at the Comedy Store was everything it shouldn’t be. Lee Evans came into the changing room and was very encouraging, but it didn’t help me. I was shocking and the compere rubbed salt in the wound, afterwards coming up to me and telling me that he thought I was terrible. I’ve harboured a fantasy that somehow he was trying to beat me down and that it was his way of waving off the talented up-and-coming opposition. But now I think it was because I was just crap and because he was just a nasty person. Name withheld.  

If the audience were revolting and you did badly, at least you could say: “Tough crowd.” But once I drove to somewhere in Surrey and they were lovely. And I was terrible. The audience were so kind that they were actually embarrassed for me. I found that experience much worse than being booed off. I also drove to Brighton and the gig was going OK with the biggest crowd I’d ever played in front of. But one section only of the crowd really turned on me and I’d had enough. So I shouted at them and stormed off, despite that section being in a minority. I knew in my heart, though, that the whole venture was coming to an end.

But there were some amazing evenings. A guy singing “Only You” whilst wearing welding goggles; an American comedian shouting, in reference to the London Underground safety messages: “Mind the gap. YOU mind the gap.” However, I never saw the farting comedian, Napoleon Blown Apart, and that’s a major regret.

And one hot summer night Mrs Steve joined me for moral support at this pub in central London. The pub, like many others at the time, used its upstairs room as a comedy venue. But this one was different. It billed itself as London's only smoke-free comedy spot. This wasn't a lie; every other venue was really smoky. Your clothes always stunk after a gig. Now, at the time, lots of people liked smoking, and so no one came to this particular gig. The audience no-showed. I don't think the organiser even bothered to turn up. But another performer did.

This other comedian sat outside the pub with me and Mrs Steve, waiting and waiting. We had a pleasant enough chat but he was affecting lots of different accents (comedians are often 'in character'). Then I realised that his hair was skew-whiff, and that in fact he was wearing a toupée. In the end, this up-and-coming comic ripped the rug off and threw it on the wooden table for comedy effect. In his normal, London voice he proclaimed: "I've had enough of this." He said goodbye and walked down the road, proudly bare-headed. 

That performer was Matt Lucas and he’s gone on to bigger things. Well, that wasn’t difficult; there was no one there. But you know what I mean. 

What was in my act? I really just told crap jokes and didn’t feel that I ever had a chance to work on a persona, as there was always another gig coming up shortly – so I wrote more crap jokes, that weren’t funny. These days of course, I live with a son with a learning disability and I’ve got a blog and book about it to draw on for material. But I wouldn’t want to do it now. Now perhaps I’ve got the material but not the desire. Twenty years ago I had the opposite. Damn. 

I’ll tell you about that great gig in a moment, I promise. The chapter’s almost over. The punchline’s coming. But first, to a fantastic evening when I got gonged off after about 40 seconds. Yes. It was great. The Gong Club was at least what it said on the tin. When the crowd had had enough of a comedian, they went “woooooooo” until a crescendo moment forced the Gongmeister to rattle that gong. I had my own beautiful gong moment – it really was quite liberating – and then foxed the audience afterwards by telling them that I loved them and by doing an encore. How did the promoter let that happen?

But what the promoter did was to put the gong victims up in the first half and then have an established comedian do a set in the second. That night, Harry Hill was on, and he was so kind and generous to all the comedians. He turned up in his comedy bubble car and we all had a really good chat in the waiting / changing / shit-yourself room. A fond memory and something most people don’t get to do.

Highbury high jinks

So. To that night. I was set to do the Hen and Chickens in Highbury and Islington and my desire to continue this comedy hobby was seriously waning. So I felt more relaxed about the whole thing. And remember Tinky Winky? That’s Dave, who had that other career as a Teletubby, and who was also one of my comedy teachers. I once spent a great afternoon in his flat, with another new comedian; we organised for Dave to give us a private titter tutorial.

Dave was great company and he also gave us his view of what stand-up really is. Yes, you have to be funny but, crucially, you have to be able to control a crowd, like Dominic Holland did at the Bearcat. And Dave went further. He talked about the ‘loaded gun’. The idea is that a crowd want blood. And they’ll let the gun off if they smell that blood. So, Dave reckoned, even the most established comics can struggle if they are on at the wrong time in the running order.

It was, at the time, a cut-throat world and sometimes a bit harsh, and dare I say it, nasty for the sake of being nasty. It was you against the world. Dave Thompson advises that some people who run comedy venues are: "Proxy comedians”.  ’ve spoken to him recently and he tells me: “If you succeed, they suck up to you and bathe in your status. If you fail, they play power trips with you. They like to see comedians humiliated at their venue. They feel it raises their status to see someone, who tries to be creative, lose status publicly. The audience picks up on this vibe, and the gun in the room is manifested.”

I was once approached after a gig by a couple who said they thought I was funny, but that because everyone around them was out to get me, they felt they couldn’t laugh. They said that there was a ‘comedy fascism’. They came up to me specially to say this and it’s perhaps one of the kindest things any stranger has ever done for me. Imagine that happening.

And, that night at the Hen and Chickens, in October 1994, it was carnage. Relatively established comedians were close to getting bottles chucked in their direction, and the loaded gun was more like a gatling gun let off its moorings, with every comedian getting rudely booed off. About four of them in the first half, which didn’t last long. The audience were merciless.

And then it was my turn. First up after the break.

I tried a couple of jokes and got nowhere. But sometimes unexpected things happen in life. They didn’t boo me. They’d done their booing. I thought about what Dave had said and realised that the gun had gone off. It was now simply smoking. This was my chance. 

The day before, a man had broken into the lion enclosure at London zoo and was chewed to pieces. I said: “Sod it. This morning, on the tube, I wrote these jokes about the bloke breaking into the lion enclosure. Do you want to hear them?” I got giant appreciative cheers. They actually wanted to hear my crap jokes. And so I got a piece of paper out of my pocket and read these awful puns out. Jokes like: “Before they ate him, they had a pair of teeth”. Actually, that’s the only one I now remember. Aperitif. Get it? Well that audience did, and they laughed; so there.

I’m typing this on the same tube line where I wrote those jokes, about twenty years after the event. Fond memories. Because, at that gig in 1994, they practically carried me out on their shoulders. One guy asked when I was next playing. I tried to explain that if I’d had gone on earlier, I’d have been treated like the enemy within and he would have hated me. It was probably the moment when I realised that I definitely didn’t want to do this anymore, because Dave was right. 

Audience-control is important. And I don’t find that particularly exciting. But I enjoyed that one night.

The evening got better. After I was on, this act called Jimbo performed. Now, I’ve checked online and there appears to be at least two other comedians with the same name. But this is a story about the Jimbo I saw that night in 1994. Meticulously researched, this essay.

Jimbo never spoke. He always went to the microphone and went as if to speak, but always got distracted and that was his act. His mouth opened; nothing. Another attempt; again, nothing. He was often distracted by one of his props, which he examined in close detail. I’d seen him do this several times before, but on this particular evening it was hilarious. 

The audience, by now tamed to being mouse-like recipients of any comedy, loved it. If he’d have been on any earlier, they’d have swallowed him up.

Jimbo did the whole ‘I’ll speak in a moment’ routine; but then he took it one stage further. He flung open the back door fire exit, leaving his props on the floor, and then boarded a 73 bus. The audience were still laughing as he took off on the bus, and as he was clearly visible sitting on the upper deck.

Cassette carnage

About a year ago I took all the audio recordings I had of me doing stand-up and listened to them (in anguish). Then I then pulled the tape out of the cassettes, and placed all the bits in a bin outside Baker Street station. I kept one small recording, captured just after I’d started off as a comedian. The tapes had to go.

And all I’d say is that I feel sorry for comedians these days. You get to be heckled, not just whilst performing, but also after the show. Going onto the Bearcat’s website, I saw this on their ‘latest tweets’ feed: hi I really enjoyed your set last night at the @Viaductpub @bearcatquiz but I think you could've done jokes 5 & 12 better...

Funny ha-ha. And funny peculiar. And funny awkward. Bloody awkward. But what a night in the Hen and Chickens in October 1994.

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