A series of articles giving an insight to why I decided to try stand-up and looking back at early performances.
Originally published: Jan 3rd 2012 @
The old proverb states that “laughter is the best medicine”. Now I’m not sure how useful a concept can be in the fight to cure cancer, but it’s a good placebo when times are tough. It offers an escape from the drawbacks of reality and, for a little while at least, can raise spirits and make you forget your troubles.
Along with football, comedy (in particular TV sitcom) has been a mainstay of my life which has followed me through childhood and now into the adult world (that is if a baby faced lad who still lives with a parent can be considered a ‘grown up’). Conjoined to the first paragraph, some of you reading this will probably assume that the latter statement conveys a sense of adversity and misfortune amidst adolescence. And you’d be right, but nothing serious though and not now anyway. I just like to have a laugh.
I consider myself quite a fortunate person and am probably edging towards middle-class, although a streak of the working-class will always shine through (specifically in my manner of speaking). However, there were times where things were far more difficult and an upshot laughter was something to unite a family through the struggle. Sharing a giggle with someone is an intimate action of bonding that signals a consolidated appreciation for an idea or moment. It’s a public showing that all members are thinking on the same wave length and is one of the most beautiful parts of human nature. Almost any other emotion or response can be faked, but a laugh occurs on impulse alone and a simulation can be spotted a mile off.
So when times are tough (and even when they aren’t) finding common ground to smile at is something to be treasured dearly. Perhaps that is why the golden ages of televised comedy are spawned from times of global depression.
Growing up in the working class 90s, we had to settle for terrestrial television. Occasionally we’d be fortunate enough to acquire a short term deal with Sky at a discounted rate and this would mean an additional 30 channels through the analogue satellite. Much like now, 90% of those were rubbish.
By the age of eight I was living with only my father following his separation from Mum. We survived; I certainly never felt unlucky or poverty stricken, but the financial struggle was a continuous battle. For entertainment purposes my Dad and I had two options, play football or stay in. Football loses its appeal when the light starts to fade. This resulted in Only Fools & Horses being a daily ritual as we gathered around the 24inch Sanyo to watch Gold’s repeated episode. Fast forward to 2011 and I’m still trapped in that daily routine (with or without Dad joining in the experience). If you’d peered through our windows in the late 90s (which would’ve been easy enough as we had no curtains at that point) you’d have seen that channel locked in from seven until bed. Old episodes of Never Mind The Buzzcocks (during the days of Mark Lemar), Men Behaving Badly, and other reruns of past BBC productions became friends. A little sad, but when you’re an eight year old only child there isn’t much choice in the winter evenings.
They say you don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone and that was true with those little beauties of British television. It was only during times when cash flow problems meant resorting back to the four terrestrial channels that that analogue box received the respect it deserved. Fortunately my Mum bought me a PlayStation and so I could water the evenings productively leading England to World Cup glory on FIFA 98. My Dad had no such comfort and instead substituted Gold for the video player…well, anything to avoid Corrie.
His choice of cassettes would often be those of stand up comedy taped off the telly. He found them funny, but due to the adult content I was banned from watching. Sometimes I’d sit downstairs, listening to Oasis on the portable CD player. Eventually I ascertained when the best bits (according to my Dad’s laughter) were coming up and would turn down the volume in anticipation.
Unfortunately his taste in stand-up did not match the preference in sitcoms. The main one was Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, a comedian that to this day I simply can’t stand. There was a Bernard Manning one too, and a Jim Davidson one. Next to them on the shelf stood a single Ken Dodd; a token gesture to more suitable family entertainment. That one only left the case when I snuck downstairs to watch them whilst Dad was busy; thereafter I stuck to ‘Chubby’ Brown.
When Sky returned, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of viewing content. The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air was a comedy I’d previously watched in weekly installments on BBC, but could now access on a daily basis. Sky Sports 1 meant I could watch the likes of David Beckham and Alan Shearer – players I was more accustomed to seeing in their computer generated form – at almost any hour. Only Fools aside, comedy took a back seat. Then, in late 2001, I was introduced to The Office. My world would never be the same.
I instantly fell in love with Ricky Gervais’ David Brent and, despite having not yet turned twelve, the complexities of the humour struck a chord. For years, I’d loved TV comedy and subconsciously took solace in the family bond that it offered, but now I was actually consuming comedy with my own interpretations of the genre and what made the programme tick; my understanding of sitcom, human interaction, and joking in general had advanced to the next level.
Only Fools, Fawlty Towers, Harry Enfield are all timeless classics of British television but they all shared a reoccurring theme. A laughter track. Even the stand up video cassettes watched on the sly conformed to the protocol I’d become accustomed to; the magic of the performance was hugged comfortingly by an audience signaling when an appropriate time for laughing had arose. With The Office, the goalposts moved and parameters had changed. I was able to determine myself whether an awkward silence, an acknowledgement seeking gaze at the camera, or an ill timed joke was funny. To me, it was new and exciting to be interacting with comedy in this fashion.
I was hooked on The Office and was ecstatic when my Dad was given the first (and at that time only) series on VHS for his birthday. My understanding of comedy was evolving with age and Gervais had rightly inherited the accolade, which had now been vacated by Del Boy, of being my hero.
A second season of The Office followed and my affection for it was equal to that of its predecessor. Then, on February 23rd 2004, my fifteenth birthday (and yes you are welcome to send me presents), I was given a present that in hindsight was probably the most influential gift I’ve ever received. A humble, stocking-filler of a present but a life-changing one nonetheless. It was Ricky Gervais: Animals on DVD.
Prior to this moment I wasn’t even aware of his stand up show. In my eyes, Gervais’ work began and ended with David Brent much in the same way that for years I thought of David Jason solely as Del Boy and had never made the connections to Granville from Open All Hours. I’d been exposed to a brand new side of my latest hero. My love of comedy was about to expand and devour the art of stand-up.
It was brilliant. It still is. For 73 minutes I became lost in the anecdotes of one solitary man. No ensemble cast to bounce ideas off, no situations to craft a suitable moment for the perfect punchline. This was a man, a microphone, and nothing else; save an opening VT, a handful of illustrations depicting various animals getting jiggy, and a Bible (well if you’re going to have a book by your side it may as well be the good one). Yet, despite the modest set-up I wanted to watch that hour and thirteen again and again.
Unlike those cassettes I’d watched as a kid, the reason for watching this particular show had nothing to do with the fact I was getting away with listening to an overweight middle aged man saying naughty words. This tubby comedian was just actually hilarious. A new love had formed.
As the years rolled by I enlightened myself with the genius of other greats both past and present. From the royalty of snappy jokers such as Jimmy Carr and Steven Wright, to the masters of storytelling like Russell Brand and Stewart Lee. Each had their own explicit personality on stage and each was equally as majestic as the last. My once clouded perception that to be a comic meant being an offensive, vulgar working class man of hate had been made clear and I could now see that the art form was open to all.
Even now, I view it as a blessing that the scope for humour is so vast that I, a twenty-two year old from an upper-working / lower-middle class family, can appreciate with equal enjoyment levels the works of completely contrasting acts. I could just as happily sit through a boundary-pushing, knuckle-biting hour of Frankie Boyle as I would watching Josie Long and her loveable, kooky, heart-warmingly fun shows. Humour is subjective and that alone lends comedy an extra wealth of beauty.
Television comedy still played a huge part in my life and, as my way of consuming it evolved with age, a new host of programmes dawned on my horizons. Peep Show, The IT Crowd, and a handful of other 21st century classics became instant favourites as did a number of American shows. As with stand up, my pallet for sitcom was broad and the likes of Friends and Fraiser were being viewed with the same optimism as Curb Your Enthusiasm, or even South Park. Although my passion for televised humour was being shared with the stage version, it didn’t mean my love for it was any less. In fact, I even enrolled for a degree in TV Production at University with aspirations of becoming a screenwriter.
I passed the course. Just thought I’d get that out there.
For all my enthusiasm towards stand up (by now I was old enough to actually go and watch comedians perform live) it never dawned that it could be an avenue I’d wish to walk down. Being shy and often self-inclusive meant that the spotlight had never been a craving of mine. Not once did I perform in the school plays, nor would I offer myself up for any sort of public attention. Yet, I loved making others around me laugh and, fully aware that being your own critic is easy, would say it was a strength of mine.
Then in the Spring of 2010 I took it upon myself to join a writing group based at the local theatre. Our first major assignment was to write and produce a show that focused on the theme of London 2012. The result was an exhibition of the collective works penned by individual members; my pieces were three short sketches to link the short plays together. The reoccurring setting for my skits was the boardroom where major decisions were being made and the humour came from the diversity of opinions shared between the workers and the fact one guy was completely misunderstood. I did warn you that The Office had filtered my very core. Even one of the stage managers said I was a “mini-Gervais”. His words, not mine.
I’m not really doing myself or the show justice there but that’s for another day. More importantly, on a personal note at least, this show offered an opportunity to perform on stage for the first time. Actually, ‘forced itself upon me’ would be a more apt description of my introduction to public performance, but looking back it was the best thing I’ve ever done.
In the days leading up to the show Kate, another writer and subsequent friend of mine, continually pleaded for me to help out. Despite genuinely wanting to help more than anything in the world at that point, I knew that nerves would get to me and regretfully declined the offer. That was until another member of the group, Melissa (who happens to be the Head of Press here at StageWon) gave a much needed pep talk and insisted that this undertaking was not beyond my abilities.
Typically, the constraints of my gender took over and as any man confronted with the same situation would do, I let the pretty face win me over. Pride swallowed, I agreed to help.
In the role, which was clearly the most significant in the play, I amassed a total of eleven words. Eleven. My stage debut consisted of less than a dozen words, yet the thought of going out in front of 92 people was petrifying. However, it went well and my little cameo even included a tiny bit of getting into character with a raise in pitch when he was worried. The piece ended and rightfully got the applause it deserved, though in my head it was reserved exclusively for those eleven words of perfection.
I also got a congratulatory hug from Melissa. Happy days.
To be honest, it wasn’t overly enjoyable but I’d overcome a fear and knew the impossible was now possible. With a little bit of morale boosting from a few people, including Melissa, who encouraged my sense of humour, I made the decision to attempt writing for a new medium.
By October, I was ready to make my debut as a stand up comedian.