Lambs To The Laughter
Veering down Great Portland Street, I got to work, still feeling like a spectre expelled. I was first in and made a beeline for the kettle. I guzzled my coffee like a desperate crow, reflecting at my desk upon this living dusk I’d stumbled on. Then, I imagine, I must have set about doing whatever menial tasks were on the menu for the day. Probably more mailings, more telephone-enquiries, the answers to which would be same inadequate rote rubbish, which was good enough to make the caller go away, but rarely enlightening. How was I meant to describe the difference between psychoanalysis and humanistic psychotherapy in the space of five minutes. Even the therapists squabbled about that kind of thing. And that was the nature of my job, dishing out inadequacies to a needy public. But I didn’t resent the callers. They were just doing what they needed to do. But this day, not that I remember too much about it, I was not at the height of my person-centred powers. I felt more like Dracula working, due to a CRB mix-up, in a crèche, pale as sin, without a grain of goodwill left for anyone.
I was due to meet George and Emma the following Monday, having booked myself in to do a bit of stand-up comedy at a pub in Islington. Monday night was open-mic night, as run by the world-weary Percy. His jowls were hamster-like and the rings around his eyes panda-like, and these are just two of the symptoms of overexposure to the lower echelons of the comedy hierarchy he displayed. Week after week, he’d introduce the acts with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, which was quite a lot considering most of them were painfully ordinary. Lambs to the slaughter, you might think, but these lambs rang ahead. To get a spot on open-mic night, you had to ring up a few weeks in advance, book yourself in and turn up at the appointed time. Many of them were people who just thought they were funny, or hadn’t had a girlfriend in a long time. Funnily enough, I fitted nicely into both categories.
So around came Monday. Even though my life was on the brink of freefall, I’d somehow managed to write some new material, learn it, practice it, if only in my mind, and cling on to just enough self-belief to stay the course. Bottling out was not an option. I had my script at work, and read it through the day to avoid any possibility of a forgotten link or a fluffed line. Then it was off for something to eat with George, and on to the comedy-club for eight. I think I was the first of the acts to arrive, which meant I could book in with Percy and, more importantly, choose where to come in the line-up. There were usually eight acts, split into two sets of four. It was my view that the best place to come in the running-order was first up in the second half. This way, you’re saved the fairly onerous task of starting things up, you’ve seen the standard of four of the other acts, and if things have got a bit rowdy, or the audience has lost interest, Percy, ever the professional, will quieten them down for the beginning of the second half. Suddenly, you have the full attention of a slightly drunk audience who are probably as ready to laugh as they’ll ever be.
Then, gradually over the next hour, my entourage arrived. Emma, with sister and boyfriend, my best mate Jon, who I think was staying with me at the time. He was a friend from school, and my quality-control consultant. I could run ideas past him, and if he found them funny, they were good enough for public consumption.
So, at nine o’clock, Percy welcomed the punters to open-mic night, did a bit of banter, then resorted to one of his Monday night staples, pulling back the curtain at the back of the stage to expose a fairly ordinary bus-shelter outside, waved to the unsuspecting travellers at the ‘comedy bus-stop’, and encouraged the audience to do the same. Well what with the little stage actually backing onto the front-window of the pub, why not? Any mirth extracted from this stunt was always of a visual nature, so lost on me, but it’s ok for the mainstream world to have a laugh on its own once in a while. A bit more banter, and Paddy introduced the first act. Onto the low, small stage they’d spring, usually a single bloke with some lame observations and a lone wank-joke, which he’d fumble.
I was still going through my routine in my head as the first four people plied their wares. I could barely talk to my friends, fearing that any distraction might render me unfocussed. Then Percy rounded off the first half and bad us get more drinks. I, by now, was knocking back my cider with a keen anxiety. Then, ten minutes later, he retook the stage to whip the audience into a frenzy suitable to welcome the second batch of would-bes. One more look at the bus-stop, which was empty, and it was me. I was coming out of the loo when he introduced me, which meant I had to make my way through a fairly dense crowd of punters to reach the stage. For a moment, I felt like the Fonz, and I hadn’t even been cool yet.
Up I sprung, feigning assuredness, removed the microphone from its stand, and retreated into that part of my brain where my script was stored. I did the same ‘character’ I’d done on previous occasions, a kind of naïve Londoner called Brian Brown, who worked at Catford Leisure Centre, for no particular reason. It seemed to go down pretty well. The audience remained fairly attentive, I spoke clearly, didn’t rush, left pauses for laughter, most of which were filled, and when I got back to my seat, Emma seemed quite animated. She’d been at my first gig, another Brian Brown exposé, and called me a ‘dark horse’. This time, I surpassed even this smouldering accolade. Tonight, I was ‘the best’, and it seemed my bestness was beginning to spill out beyond the parameters of my act. For a while, Emma and I were sitting not with the others, but at the next table, holding hands, chatting away to the exclusion of even her boyfriend. Things felt different – we didn’t work together anymore, so our getting together was no longer ‘prohibited under the country code’. I felt a bit awkward though, wondering what her boyfriend might be thinking…was he scowling, throwing disapproving glances in our direction? I couldn’t tell, but I convinced myself they had a loose sort of relationship, or had maybe recently finished. Either way, as for holding hands, I was the grabbee, not the grabber, so I at least I could plea passivity if it came to court.
I don’t know how long you’ve ever gone without touching another person in an affectionate, let alone an intimate way. At this point, bar a string of soul-destroying encounters with prostitutes, I’d spent about eight years in a state of lamination, unable to touch, or be touched. I was beginning to feel almost equal, to my peers, and to the challenges I was setting myself. But I knew I had the capacity to ruin anything. When shatterproof rulers came out, some time in the late 70s, I couldn’t help but bend them to the point where they did indeed shatter.
My conversation with Emma seemed to press quite a lot of pre-relationship buttons. She said girls don’t like dumping someone if they’ve got no one new to go to. I liked hearing this, and it reminded me of Spiderman. Even he wouldn’t leap from one rooftop if there wasn’t another rooftop to land on, or at least a wall to cling to, so why should a mortal office-clerk such as Emma? She asked me if I wanted to meet up on Friday - apparently her boyfriend was going away for a stag-weekend. I leapt at the offer as Spiderman might from bridge to speeding train. No doubt I hounded my friend Jon about it all as we travelled back to mine. I had a bad habit of deconstructing all the ifs and maybes of my non-existent love-life before him, like a mechanic in a Happy Days style garage pulling a Cadillac to pieces and expecting his colleague to put it back together, or at least tell him that all the components look sound. I was on a kind of natural high, a healthy high, one of those highs without a grotesque comedown, one of those highs that doesn’t cost £200, one of those highs you get through doing normal things like meeting people, facing a fear, excelling - one of those highs you earn. I had good reason to feel good about myself. But sometimes good reason isn’t good enough.
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