First website entry, and it’s appropriate that I begin this blog in the same week that I kickoff my second stab at a live comedy career.
I’d previously tried my hand at the craft eight years ago, as a fresh-faced, arrogant and very handsome – so I’m told(!) – young go-getter. Overflowing with confidence in my comedic abilities, I’d already written a sitcom pilot script (with no idea what to do with it) and was desperate to get on a stage and wow drunk strangers with (what I thought were) my Bill Hicks-esque rants about everything that irked me.
There were two problems with this ambition. Firstly, the industry was nowhere near as developed as it is today and, despite many begging letters and phone calls, the comedy clubs in my childhood stomping ground of Birmingham simply refused to take a chance on aspiring stand-ups with no references or stage experience. The second and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, far more devastating obstacle to my ambitions was that as a post-pubescent nerd who had barely left his home town and knew nothing about anything (other than 1990’s classic arcade games) it was going to be impossible for me to connect with the usual comedy crowd of inebriated hen-nights, stag parties, office outings and comedy connoisseurs I would have to face when those terrifyingly bright stage lights finally shone upon me.
After months of pestering the local club and nothing close to a positive response, I’d resigned myself to the undesirable conclusion that the only way to get into the stand-up game was to relocate to London, where the comedy circuit wasn’t huge at the time but was certainly more open to gambling on non-established hopefuls and new material than the provinces. In the end, as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary.
Back on a dreary Thursday in 2005, when I was a nightshift graphic designer for a car magazine, I unexpectedly got a call from the Midland’s biggest comedy club saying they were willing to let me do an open spot!
“That’s great! When?” I asked excitedly, mentally planning the process of crafting the perfect five-minute routine.
“Tonight. You need to be here in four hours.”
FOUR HOURS!? Factor in wardrobe dithering, personal grooming and travel time and realistically I had less than THREE hours to put together a comedy routine from scratch, learn it, rehearse it and hone it into an even mildly amusing stand-up set.
PANIC!! This was – I naively thought – my ONE shot to make it happen for me. And I was going to blow it! I knew I was going to blow it. So… panic.
“WHY?!” I chastised myself. “Instead of waiting for the phone to ring these last six months, WHY hadn’t I actually gotten around to writing some stand-up?” I couldn’t even come up with a decent excuse for how I’d landed myself in this terrifying predicament. I was doing a relatively easy job, surrounded by lovely people, which didn’t tax me mentally or drain me emotionally. Although I was a health nut at the time, that never took more than an hour out of my day. I led a comfortable, stress-free existence living with my parents and being doted upon by my mother. I had all the time in the world, and I had spent the last six months WASTING it!! Useless, lazy, procrastinating bastard. I deserved to fail.
“STOP!” I implored myself. “This isn’t helping.” I knew I needed to focus. Focus on writing. I was wet behind the ears, but even I wasn’t naïve enough to imagine five minutes of material took five minutes to write. I needed to clear the chatter from my brain, banish the fear, self-loathing and recrimination and get down to a task I was usually adept at performing – writing funny sentences. “You can do it, Jay.”
It didn’t work. My head was all over the place.
Three hours later I was in the Green Room with two other comedians and our charming, jovial compere for the evening, Andrew Maxwell. They all seemed relaxed, telling each other stories, swapping trivia and the kind of fascinating facts you hear Stephen Fry regularly ejaculating all over us on QI. I should have enjoyed it. I normally would have enjoyed it. Not today.
I remember staring at that blank piece of paper in front of me. My blue bic poised in anticipation for words of genius to flood out of my brain, down my arm and onto the page in front of me.
I was in a mental fog. I only remember one thing from that backstage experience. Andrew Maxwell, I think sensing my distress, and being the nice chap he is, decided to engage me in some banter – presumably to lessen the dark vibe with which I must undoubtedly have been polluting that Green Room.
He started talking about drinking. And here was me, a teetotaler, listening intently to an Irishman pontificating about alcohol. Not a scenario I’d ever imagined enjoying. But I was grateful for the respite from my own thoughts, as Andrew enlightened me about the history of fermentation and how evolution has given different ethnicities varying tolerance to booze depending on their ancestral relationship with the demon drink.
It was a welcome distraction, but it didn’t help inspire me. I knew nothing about nothing and had nothing to say. My world was limited to Beavis and Butthead marathons and Street Fighter 2. What can I talk about that’s even remotely funny? I needed to find topics that the audience could relate to.
Then it hit me. At the time, I was a fan of Jane Fonda’s exercise video, which I had watched so often the VHS tape was wearing out! I could try and get some humour out of that… but juxtapose it with something offensive and shocking. “What’s edgy and funny enough to get a laugh?” My Beavis and Butthead-obsessed social circle talked about nothing but masturbation. So there you had it. “Wanking to the Jane Fonda exercise video” would be the heart of my first ever stand-up comedy routine. Complement the re-enactment with some fitness video clichés about “warm-up stretches”, “feeling the burn”,“no pain, no gain” and I’d have them laughing in the aisles. Finally, the routine was coming together nicely. Throw in some of my favourite paedophilia jokes and that should at least get me up to five minutes. I might just survive this brutal baptism of fire with some dignity intact.
I was going on second. A safe place in the running order for a new act as the audience would already be warmed up by the MC and first act. They should be in a forgiving mood. I’d already asked Andrew not to mention this was my debut. I was already trembling uncontrollably and thought if the crowd knew I was a newbie it would be even easier for them to sense my weakness and tear me apart for it.
I didn’t hear the MC and first act. I was just too focused on trying to memorise the bullet-points of material I’d written 30 minutes ago in the Green Room. When the compere introduced me I tried to put on my game face. “If I look confident then they won’t know how frightened I am.”
It’s amazing how quickly my tension disappeared as I grabbed that microphone. It’s a transition that still happens every time I take to the stage. Something about the “going into battle” moment forces my nerves to settle the moment I start my act.
It was downhill from there. I remembered the bullet points: Jane Fonda. Exercise Video. Masturbation. Kiddie Fiddling. The jokes, unfortunately, disappeared from my brain. And steadfastly refused to make an appearance any time during those agonising four minutes. So all the audience heard was a confessional soliloquy by an onanistic pervert who dabbles in child-molestation. They didn’t laugh once.
About three minutes in, I heard booing from the bar area to my right. I later discovered this was a member of staff who was doing me a “favour” by trying to bring this painful gig to an early close. I ignored it and carried on. The polite, stony silence from the audience was broken after about four minutes by my first heckle. “Tell us a joke!” shouted a burly bloke about four rows back. And the audience tittered.
I’d seen a lot of comedy and knew this was an occupational hazard. I also knew that any comedian worth his salt would put a heckler in their place without missing a beat. What I didn’t realise was that the intention should always be to turn the audience against the heckler and come out of the encounter looking like a hero. Instead of doing that I turned, faced the man I now saw as my comedic nemesis, and made a joke about his weight that ended with me screaming the word “cunt” at him with a menace in my eyes I have never before delivered or managed to replicate since. The crowd audibly gasped and collectively jerked back their heads.
I was suddenly overcome with shame. This wasn’t me! I’m a nice guy. What the hell just happened here?
I knew instantly that it was time to leave. I can’t remember if I thanked the audience, or even whether I said “Goodnight”. What I do remember as I slinked away from the stage was hearing Andrew Maxwell coax a round of applause for me out of the horrified audience by explaining that this was my first ever gig.
What happened next just rubbed salt into my already debilitating wounds. Andrew, God bless him, made the bizarre decision to repeat the exact same material that had just bombed. My material. And the whole crowd roared with laughter. I couldn’t believe my ears. “This guy must be a magician!” I thought to myself. How on earth did he take a joke about sexually molesting a baby – a joke that I had delivered to deathly silence – and convince 200 people that it was the height of hilarity?
I was embarrassed and ashamed. I went straight back to the Green Room and stayed there for the next 2 hours. I daren’t risk leaving any earlier for fear of meeting someone, anyone, from that audience who had just seen me humiliated.
I was a proud man. I wasn’t used to failure. I couldn’t bring myself to let anyone see the shame and disgrace that was overwhelming me. Not the audience. Not the comedians. So I put on my poker face. When Andrew came back into the Green Room, he looked at me in silence for a whole ten second. Then said: “Everybody dies on stage. Sooner or later. But stand-up really isn’t the business for you.”
I was taken aback. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down! “Why not?” I demanded defensively.
“Because you don’t care. You’re sitting there, having just died on your arse in front of 200 people, and you obviously don’t give a shit.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to tell him how much I did care. How deeply I was hurt by what I’d just endured. How I was devastated by my failure to convert this opportunity into the start of a long and fruitful comedy career. But I’m a proud man. I said nothing…