I write this missive from beyond the grave.
My words travel to you through the ether, across the spectral plane, from the afterlife, through the vortex of consciousness, out of the bounds of purgatory and into the hands of Derek Acorah who is very kindly typing this for me.
You see, last night, I died. ‘Died’ maybe doesn’t do last night justice. It leaves open the possibility of a quiet, peaceful passing rather than the amplified public obliteration that my death actually was. Of course, when I talk of death, I mean it purely in the metaphorical stand-up related definition of the word. The death of one’s performance, credibility with the audience and, I’d have to say, self-esteem. I died. Tanked. Bombed. I went down in a blaze of ill-judged, horrific, glory.
I lay awake in bed last night, wide awake at 3am, replaying those 10 minutes over and over in my head. Each time, I remembered something new that mortified me further. As it was happening, I was aware it was going badly, but it was only afterward as I pieced it together did I realise just how badly it had gone.
I shall set the scene. It was a ‘new material’ night. There were 5 comedians on the bill and there were 9 people in the audience. They sat in 2 rows of 4 and 5. This is not an audience. The effect this has is that rather than feeling like someone preaching to the masses, you feel like you’re in an audition or job interview and under heavy personal scrutiny. This is not the ideal time to try out new material.
On before me was Dave Smiff who does a comedy cockney character and teaches the audience how to be a cockney. He was very good but you could see him struggling with the small and not-terribly responsive crowd. Then it was my turn. The compere introduced me and I took to the stage affably. My first look at the audience kind of shook me. I clocked (besides the friend I’d brought with) only one person who I thought would ‘get’ my set. Now, I’m not trying to sound elitist with that, or even prejudiced, but if you do anything creative, you just KNOW who is going to ‘get’ you. If you make lace shawls, you wouldn’t expect a bloke in an England shirt knocking back a can of Special Brew to get excited about your wares. If you put on an evening of classical music, you wouldn’t expect to see a line of chavs patiently queuing around the block to get in. These were polite looking, straight laced people out for a nice un-challenging evening of entertainment.
I had constructed my ultimate challenging set.
For a while I’ve been developing this material which is, essentially, comedy about comedy. Going to so many gigs recently, I’ve been kind of shocked (as you’ll know if you’ve read my other blogs on the subject) by hack comedians and the easy laughs they get from undemanding audiences. i wanted to explore audience complicity in sub-standard comedy. The irony, of course, was that they remained thoroughly un-complicit through a set of the most sub-standard comedy you could ever see. Mine.
I opened with the one piece of not-new material. The joke I described in the last blog which is designed to get them laughing and then i spend a couple of minutes deconstructing it. I like to make an audience think I’m freezing and then kick in with some intensity and not allow them a laugh for a while. It works for me and they like me a lot more once I’ve broken the tension and they can see that I am in control and it is funny. So I did my little deconstruction to their faces of apathy and disinterest. I expected SOME laughs, just at the fact I was deconstructing a pointless, crude joke with such intensity. Nothing. So, I decide to lighten them mood by finishing that section with a lighthearted throwaway comment. In my head, I’m about to say to them, in a cheeky-chappy rascal fashion ‘I like to start by highlighting my audience as a bunch of cunts – always a clever tact for a fledgling comedian.’ Instead, I find myself saying – with a total absence of cheeky-chappery – ‘I wrote that joke to show that you’re a bunch of cunts.’
A girl in the second row’s mouth drops open. I look over to the comedians. Matt and Alex’s mouths have dropped open into confused nervous smiles. The other comedians are just staring in confusion along with the rest of the punters. There is silence. I feel my ears heat up to about a million degrees. They must be glowing red.
I explain to them that the bit they laughed loudest at in that gag was the line ‘fucked in the arse!’ and sarcastically comment ‘because there’s nothing funnier than being fucked in the arse.’ Adding the line ‘this is why homosexuals bring such joy to the world’ sets me in many of their minds as unfunny AND homophobic.
My next ‘bit’ depends on selling to the crowd that I’m a bit nervous. I’m so nervous, I become nervous as to whether my nervousness is visible through my fake nervousness. It, of course, is. This is not the moment to do my brand new ‘fake observational comedy’ bit in which I feign struggling with presenting some observational comedy.
I wrote this ‘bit’ because the night, which had been advertised on Facebook to 228 people, mostly comedians, billed me as ‘observational comedy so spot-on it hurts’. I hated this description for a couple of reasons – mainly I don’t consider my stuff as being what is really labelled ‘observational’. ‘So spot-on it HURTS!’ Ugh. So, here was my plan. I’d spot the promoter in the audience and go ‘hey, you know how nobody talks to each other on buses?’ and then go ‘oooh, are you ok?’ followed by ‘you know how it takes your girlfriend ages to get ready for a night out? ‘are you sure you’re ok?’ ‘hey, you know how your gran says the craziest things because she isn’t in-step with modern society?’ ‘ARE you OK?’ and then explain that I had felt obliged to do observational comedy since that’s what had been promised and I had wanted to make sure I hadn’t hurt her with it. All I can imagine at this point is that I just looked like I was having a nervous breakdown. With my fake nervousness mixing with my real nervousness lapping over my fake awful material and punctuated by my asking someone apparently random if they were OK. Then for the masterful reveal. My masterful reveal was really me just flatly explaining why I had done that. So, not only had I been strange and unfunny (which is a feat in itself) but I was also smugly explaining to them why I thought I had actually been very funny but had, in actuality, childishly used part of my act to tell the promoter she was shit. It was apparent that the audience – correctly – felt that I should have maybe talked the matter over with her in private rather than have done this. She felt the same way. She loudly said ‘Why are you doing this?’ in an unamused fashion four times.
There was a pause. I thought about just leaving. Silence. Someone drops their mobile phone. I doubt I’d have heard that had the room been empty but this vacuum of silence amplified everything.
I decide to press on. The next line in my act is this:
‘Why do you never see attractive people at comedy shows?’
Someone gasps, which – at least, thank GOD – is a response. I continue ‘Seriously, look around, you’re a bunch of feckless, ugly, grinning baboons.’ I made up the grinning bit. I continue telling them how unattractive they are and then turn my attention to my fellow comedians who are ‘no better’. This includes two men I had not met before this evening. The high point of the set for me was highlighting my friend and fellow comedian Matt Richardson as being the most attractive performer ‘and, in honesty, he looks like what would happen if the PG Tips chimps decided to parody Skins’ – which I’m very proud of but, within the context of the set was me having moved on from insulting the promoter, to strangers, to my friends. I was uncharismatic, unfunny and just pathetically rude.
I decide to explain to the audience why ‘hack’ comedy is awful and how it works. This is something I believe in strongly. I get angry when I see a comedian appear onstage, ask someone their name and where they come from then tease that person. It engenders laughter from the rest of the room because they’re relieved to not be the one who is being picked on. Once the room is laughing, the comedian has insidiously won their approval. not through gags but manipulation and victimisation. As if this were the perfect time to improvise, I decide to win the audience back by doing a demonstration of this tactic. I go straight to that one guy who I thought might ‘get’ my humour, get him to stand up and I and say ‘what’s your name and where are you from?’ ‘I’m Tristan, I’m from Bognor’ – I launch straight into my brilliant satirized ‘truthful’ take on hack comedians by snarling ‘YOU’RE A FUCKING IDIOT AND YOU COME FROM SOMEWHERE SHIT AND BY EXTENSION THAT MAKES YOU FUCKING SHIT’. The audience, bucking the expected response of laughing, glad it wasn’t them being picked on, instead look at him with horrified sympathy and then back at me with unbridled disgust. Tristan was a nice young chap with round specs and a stripey jumper. I had just shouted at him. The most recent in an escalating scale of demonstrations of me just being nasty to people – apparently in the name of comedy, but not detectably so. I tell him to sit down as I move into the last part of my set.
This was my plan: Whilst talking about the detestable rise of comedy about rape and pedophilia, my set would slowly become ABOUT rape and pedophilia – the jokes would be increasingly centred in those subjects, which would highlight how easy it is for an audience to become complicit whilst being hysterically ironic that I was campaigning against these things, whilst my set descended into unavoidably drawing humour from them. The ‘denouement’ was to the effect of ‘still, I guess we all become that which we hate’. So I’d written the material carefully to be getting unintentional laughs from rape/pedophile jokes and to be getting increasingly angry at being funny in ‘that’ way.
The last bit is where you traditionally try to tie up all the threads of everything you’ve talked about earlier. I ask Tristan to stand up, he stares at the floor and ignores the request. I declare that Tristan being from Bognor is funny, Tristan being fucked in the arse is funny, but only if it’s consensual – Tristan being RAPED in the arse BY A CHILD is just NOT funny!’ The audience agrees. Silence. I have played my mastercard. And forgotten what I wanted to say next.
What I had wanted to say was (following on from the audience being ugly because they were insecure and liked to come out to see other people get picked on so they can feel better about themselves) ‘who needs to hear jokes about rape and pedophilia to feel more confident about themselves?’ I fluff this completely and – to my own utter horror – announce ‘I’m just worried that I’m in a room full of rapists and peadophiles!’
I can’t remember how the hell i had wanted to end this set. I look at my hand and see the final note as ‘rapists/peadoes’ – doesn’t help.
‘And that is all I have to say’.
Alex, the compere, comes out and tries to illicit some applause. it is muted.
Usually when you finish a set, the other comedians nod or shake your hand or whisper some congrats. the other comedians – three of them being friends of mine – AVOIDED EYE CONTACT. Nothing.
On stage, Alex says ‘let’s try and get some goodwill back in the room’ and tells them how they aren’t ugly and they’re all very attractive people. Paul Fung is the next onstage. He riffs an opening detailing what he had to go through to get his friend Tristan to come to the show tonight.
‘Will you come to the show?’
‘No, I don’t like it when comedians pick on the crowd’
‘Nobody is going to pick on you!’
‘I promise! YOU FUCKING IDIOT!’
Looking back on it, it wasn’t even just death, it was a suicide mission. I’m stunned in retrospect that I could ever have thought that any of that material would warm me to an audience. But I don’t think that’s what I was trying to do. My comedy heroes were always Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Stewart Lee and Denis Leary – nasty, mean, snide, intense guys one and all. It was only natural I’d want to play about with that stuff and see how far i could push it. It was also honesty. Honestly, I didn’t like that audience, I didn’t like the standard of promotion either. If i’d had the conviction to be more aggressive rather than intermittently nervous and apologetic, maybe it could have worked somehow. As is, I got it out of my system. I feel like that’s the set I’v been working on for a while and I needed to try it, needed to see where it took me. I won’t ever do that material again.
And I have to decide if I want to do stand-up again. I’ve still not worked out why I’m doing it at all. I hate the audiences and resent the expectation to amuse them, so why do it? Do I want to try a nice set?
I don’t know right now if I want to continue at all.
I shall now crawl back into my coffin and have a little rest.