Monday, 23 July 2012

Why I Gave Up Stand Up Comedy - And Why I Miss It: A Lament, Part 1.

So I had a bit of a falling out with my agent a few months ago, and it seemed as good a moment as any to draw the line under my reasonably-successful-but-never-quite-took-off stand up career. With a little bit of distance from that decision, I thought I'd write some blogs about how and why I got into stand up, the peaks and troughs, the triumphs and disasters.

Here's how I started. I was a businessman and former lawyer who was looking for new experiences to spice things up. This was pre-children when I didn't know any better. So, thinking I was every bit as funny as the comedians I trudged up to watch every year at the Edinburgh Festival, I decided to give it a shot. There was no career plan, no intention of pursuing it; it was just something to tell the grandchildren. 'Yeah, granddad did stand up once. Impressed? Kids? I say, granddad, Come on, turn that off...' So I put together 15 minutes of cripplingly unfunny material, turned up at the King's Head in Crouch End in December 1992 and was told to do 5 minutes (along with the other 21 open mic hopefuls). Imagine. A bloke with only one barmitzvah and one wedding speech under his belt suddenly having to edit on the fly. Fuck.

Naturally, I did my best joke first: 'As this is my first ever stand up performance, I thought I'd tell you something about myself. I started life (comic pause) as a sperm...' Tumbleweed. And on I ploughed, hoping a hole would open up and suck me all the way to Hades. In desperation and with no dignity left to lose, I threw a couple of impressions in (the only two I could do) - Sean Connery and Frank Bruno - and got a titter. An impressionist! Ah, that's what I am. Who knew? Well actually I was mimic, the kid who did the teachers at school, a bloke who could do a voice or two, some accents, that sort of thing.

I couldn't let it end on such a sour note, and if I could do two, surely I could do ten. So off I went to learn some more voices. Three months later, Comedy Cafe Open Mic night - only won, didn't I? Beat some bloke called Tim Vine into second place. The prize? A paid gig the following night. I had no material, but I could do Chris Eubank. I got some laughs. Suddenly, I was inspired. My sixth gig was the heat for the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition, my ninth, the final alongside Ronni Ancona (who won), Ben Miller and Tim Vine (him again). It was the key to the door, long before I was ready to go through it. Bookers booked me, Jongleurs fast-tracked me, national radio slots followed, I was on TV by August 1993; and I started making inroads into commercial and documentary voiceovers, cartoons, video games.

Bonkers. All because I could sound a bit like other people. I had no jokes to speak of, but people loved the voices and eventually my script caught up. I was soon playing at great venues and shitholes alike. One weekend The Comedy Store, the next, the Flatulent Pig in Stow-on-the-Wold. Corporate gigs followed, as did presenting gigs, bits of TV, voiceovers. It was all fun then. I didn't do it for the money, mainly because - corporates and voiceovers aside - there wasn't much to speak of; it was for the joy of doing it, making people laugh, the power...ahahahahahaha! Meanwhile I was still running my business, having kids, paying my mortgage, the whole schmeer, so I could only gig at weekends and I turned down God knows how many opportunities because of work commitments, including a TV series that helped make someone else famous. Drove my agent mad. Even so, I somehow managed to squeeze in a few solo shows at Edinburgh, plus a sketch show which became a Radio 4 series; I was a Radio 5 Live regular, with my own Christmas show and a gig as lead impressionist on another; I gigged alongside many of today's household names; I did bits of TV (100 Greatest All-Sorts-Of-Shit, The Stand Up Show, Celebri...cough, ahem, sorry...Celebrity Squares...there, now you know). I wrote all sorts of stuff for radio, had various sitcom scripts and pitches seriously considered by the BBC, got invited to a BBC residential scriptwriters' week, the works. I was nearly - nearly - in.

But I never quite committed. It was never my career. I didn't need to be on stage. It wasn't my drug. I had other things to think about - my business interests in recruitment and property, my family, my desire to write books (a whole other story). I retired from stand up a few times, went through various agents (nearly all shit), made comebacks...the truth was, though, that I didn't need it badly enough; I'd already built a life and a steady income before I started in showbiz and without the burning passion, the hunger or, indeed, the time, I was never going to crack it, never gain the necessary momentum.

In part 2, I'll lift the lid on my fellow stand ups, describe some of the shit gigs, maybe some other stuff. Are you listening...anyone?..anyone? Kids?