I did stand-up comedy for the very first time, this is what happened
I am not a stand-up comedian
Let me just make that clear, if that wasn't obvious. I am not a stand-up comedian. Chances are, I will never be a stand-up comedian. Definitively, a stand-up comedian is what I am not. And yet. Yet. I decided I would try to be one, if only for a few minutes.
There's an art to stand-up comedy that goes beyond the obvious writing and performing of jokes. You've got to sell it, whatever that is. Your imagination, your unique worldview, your fundamental guiding beliefs, your principles, the very foundation of your existence. And the audience, most importantly, has to buy it.
I stood up for 3 minutes and told jokes about physically shitting myself and having a Birmingham accent.
Different jokes... for different needs.
Anyway, I recorded something of a mental diary on the day. I didn't write it down as I was in the midst of the second most stressful period in my entire life, defeated only by the time I temporarily went blind in one eye simply due to a 'protein in my blood', according to the doctor and then had to have injections. Into my actual eyeball. Needles. Literally in my eyes. Needles. Yeah. And that isn't even that far ahead of the stress of stand-up comedy.
So here it is then, the internal descent into madness, the mental journey of a man forced to come face to face with his single worst fear - prolonged public humiliation and embarrassment/simply just talking to strangers - in the name of #content.
And if you don't want to read the words in between, the whole thing is in glorious HD at the bottom of this story.
Thursday 4 October - The Night Before
I begin writing my set. I'm anticipating being given around five minutes of stage time, but knowing that I will speed through my 'material' (that's what comedians call it, isn't it? Material. Makes it sound fancy, somehow.) I am conscious of prepping more.
I pour myself one (1) large (LARGE) gin and tonic and get down to writing jokes, which, as a first-time stand-up comedian, consisted of the following process:
- Pacing around my room doing laps of the bed and trying to think of jokes
- That was it, really
I go to bed late-ish, around 3 am, with some idea of what I want to say. I do not write it down.
Friday 5 October - The Big Day
My alarm wakes me. I let out a loud 'FUCK' and a groan as soon as I realise what day it is, which is immediately. I immediately realise what day it is. I try and remember what I had come up with the night before. I remember very little. I should have written it down. Maybe I should have written it all down. All the funny jokes I had thought of the night previous.
The first official outing of my 'material'. It's a momentous occasion as I stand in the shower, beneath the intermittently scalding and freezing water of this particular block of council flats, and talk to myself, out loud, pausing for imaginary laughs, shaking my head in feigned disgust at my own tepid humour.
After a lengthy set in the shower, I bring my one-man comedy roadshow back into my bedroom as I towel off. Whilst walking around in circles again, bottle of Evian a microphone, I take the bold decision to edit out a bit in which I compare having a Brummie accent to telling somebody you just met you're a convicted paedophile, and another bit in which I explain why Venice is problematic because it stinks of fucking garbage and at least once during your trip a handsome Italian man will make both you and your girlfriend silently question your relationship as you sit beneath the fountain in the cool Italian moonlight, gelato in hand, ready to risk it all for the tall, dark stranger walking past straight out of a Pantene Pro-V advert.
It occurs to me that what I am doing, what I am actually doing, is completely mental. This was a mistake. This was all a very, very bad mistake. Something has gone wrong for this to happen. Something has gone badly wrong. I hope somebody else has realised this and manages to cancel the whole thing.
I begin to stress over my outfit for the gig. After a lengthy period of deliberation, I settle on: a plain white t-shirt and some black trousers. Overall, I am pleased. Things are really starting to look up. I might be a natural after all. This might all just come together.
Panic sets in. I do my first timed run through of my set. It clocks in at 9 minutes. That is almost double my allotted time. Help, I think, help, I am too funny, I have too much material, the comedy gods have blessed with an inordinate gift for stand-up and now I have too much and I have to cut some of it down and - help! - I don't know which bits to cut it out because - seriously, help! - I don't know which bits are funny because maybe none of it is?
FUCK! *groans, collapses onto bed in despair again*
I'm running late for the train due to an existential crisis I had whilst attempting to deliver stand-up comedy to a room consisting of: me.
On the train, I once again start rehearsing my material. Silently, obviously. As in, sit there and imagine myself being funny. Sat next to me, I notice one of those slightly balding, wonky men in a suit watching Question Time on his iPad. For a second, I'm tempted to ask him if he would listen to a couple of jokes and tell me whether or not he thinks they are funny. Then I remember this is a middle-aged white man sat on a train watching Question Time for pleasure. For fun. For genuine enjoyment. I imagine he derives most of his humour from unemployment statistics and that Telegraph cartoonist whose jokes are so clever they're not even jokes, just really blunt, line-drawing explanations of events in a box. Mark?
Arriving in Southampton, home of Comedy Central Live, the first stand-up Comedy festival of its kind if you pretend Edinburgh Fringe has never existed, or disqualify it for being in Scotland, my mind is briefly taken off the fact that I will be performing my watered down Robinson's Summer Fruits version of stand-up comedy in just a few hours.
It's a lovely day. The sun is shining. I can slowly feel my anus expand and retract like someone filling up a water balloon.
Setting up camp in the extremely hospitable VIP section (exactly like the rest of the festival but with actual neon-lit toilets rather than portaloos and a small white fence to keep out intruders) I notice there is a bar, which is good, promising, and I briefly consider buying a drink. Not wanting to peak too early I refrain. The time will come.
I have my first interview/tutorial of the day with Rob Delaney, the American comedian known for having a big, furry moustache. Rob Delaney no longer has that moustache and he looks really weird. He doesn't even look like Rob Delaney. Instead of telling him, I ask how to be a comedian. He starts saying things and instead of listening to the potential pearls of wisdom my mind drifts to the future horror that awaits me. He says "what you say doesn't matter, it will almost certainly be shit" and that temporarily brings me back to reality.
He tells me to "deliver the package", emphasising package like he is talking about a very different kind of package altogether. I don't know how to deliver the package. I don't even know if I have a package to deliver.
To relax a bit, I have a go on 'The Beast'. 'The Beast' is the world's largest inflatable obstacle course. If there is one thing I can do, and do well, it is this: rampaging through a giant inflatable obstacle course like a drunk man through a hedge.
I complete the course in a close to personal best time, and become extremely, extremely sweaty for my trouble. Good. Fantastic. Now I look even more anxious than I feel, which I didn't actually think was possible.
I get a drink, to settle the substantial nerves. Unfortunately, they are only serving cider. The plastic cup is too cold to hold as I walk around in circles reciting jokes. I put it down. I continue wandering in circles.
I interview Katherine Ryan/plead for help. Katherine Ryan tells me to be likeable and not racist. I tell her that half my set is racism. You know, as a joke. Katherine Ryan does not laugh at my joke. In fact, she briefly believes that half my set is actually, loosely racist.
I chat to Phil Wang, who tells me to expect projectiles, especially lawn darts, and that, after looking me and my monochrome outfit up and down, you simply can't do comedy without wearing yellow.
The omens, at this stage, are not good ladies and gentlemen.
I have a bit more time to myself so I buy a couple more drinks and try and really get my set down.
I give up on trying to get my set down and instead decide to just focus on the drinks.
Just concentrate on drinking the drinks. Everything else will just kinda work itself out, I reckon.
This seems to be working. I can feel myself getting funnier by the second. This really seems to be working.
With about 45 minutes until I'm due onstage, I get some alone time with Russell Kane. No, not like that. Russell tells me that I should project the fact that I am shitting myself to the audience. We work on a little Imodium gag. I realise fairly quickly that Russell is full of energy and body movement and just, well, enthusiasm, whilst I am stiff, rigid and dour.
He leaves me to head over to the tent where we will both be performing. Before he does he asks me what my surname is so he can introduce me properly. I tell him, and he scribbles it on his hand. This is actually happening, I think. Panic sets in once again.
Arriving at the tent myself to scope out just exactly what it is I'll be dealing with I am temporarily calmed by the sight of a single drunk woman dancing around to the intermediate disco music that is being played. This... now this, is an audience I can perform to. She's clearly having the time of her life - and literally nothing is even happening. Nothing is going on.
I might actually become this person's favourite stand-up comedian. Thank god nobody came to watch.
Less than ten minutes later, the tent is full. Word got out. Lots of people have come to watch. There are people stood outside the entrance of the tent trying to peer in. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck.
Russell gets on and starts injecting some life into the crowd, and from the backstage area - which is just another, smaller tent with water and coke - I can hear roars of laughter, and cheers, and more roars of laughter. Fuck.
Beside the backstage tent is a small grassy area in which performing comedians are free to roam around, and go over their material, and in my case have a bit of a small (LARGE) panic attack. It reminded me a bit of a holding pen for cattle, or a prison yard.
It turns out that I wasn't alone in my meditative ambling around in circles. The other comedians that were performing on the same stage a bit later on than me, after I had vaporised the audience into a fine, laughterless, dust, were also out there. Milling about hopelessly.
Huge Davies was there, and he is good. He is good at stand-up. He is also lovely. He plays a keyboard with a spatula sticking out of it and believe me, it's a lot better than it sounds. He asked me if I was "the journalist" who was going to be performing stand-up. "Yes," I said. "Yes I was. Or at least, I'll be trying to. Haha." He didn't laugh. Why don't people laugh when I say things?
He told me that I'd be fine, and that I just needed to relax.
What I thought when he said this: Telling a visibly unrelaxed person they need to relax is the equivalent of telling a man falling from a building: "WOAH. You need to slow down." When has telling someone to relax ever worked as a method of relaxation? When has the deranged gunman in the street ever been stopped in his tracks by "You know what mate, you just need to relax a little bit"?
What I said: Yeah, you're right. Thanks man.
It's go time. I am called from the comedian horse paddock and readied with a microphone. Russell Kane begins explaining to the audience what I'm about (he has no idea what he's doing, please go easy on him, etc etc) and then begins sort of squinting at his palm.
The ink has smudged. He doesn't know my surname. Oh, good. Good. At least I don't have to go through the indignity of them knowing my actual name. Good. Good. 'Pigwig' is what he opts for. Good.
Huge Davis told me afterwards that it sounded good. Knowing he had to follow me, I felt like telling him he was welcome. Instead, I just said "thanks man". Enough comedy for one day.
I had a beer, and the beer was terrible, and it was also the best beer I have ever tasted.
High Flight, a sonnet by John Gillespie Magee Jr., is a poem about him taking a Spitfire to 33,000 feet and feeling, well, fucking incredible.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Stood atop a three-foot-tall stage in a small - but PACKED, it was PACKED - tent, I felt a similar phenomenon to the Royal Air Force pilot all those years before.
There's something about having people silent, hanging on your every word, and all those eyes looking back at you, waiting for the moment to come.
I put out my hand.
I didn't touch the face of God.
I told some jokes and some people laughed a bit and it felt just as good.
For booking enquiries and future TV panel-show appearances, please contact my agent.
Which is me, actually. [email protected] Hit me up. No gig too small or large.