Notes from an ex-stand-up’s diary…
I grew up with the likes of Ben Elton, Paul Merton, Julian Clary and Jo Brand. I used to see them in the Tramshed at Woolwich, at London’s Comedy Store and on TV. I wanted to be like them, entertaining audiences with casual and more complex observations. Twenty years and two kids later I got a copy of Time Out and bothered comedy venues until they let me have a go. A real bloody go – and I can tell you, it ain’t easy.
First you need funny material. Secondly, you must deliver it in a funny way and third you have to overcome the nerves that can take the funniness out of the funniest line. I had the pleasure of performing with the great Arthur Smith once. After the show he said: “David, you’ve some bloody good lines,” I positively beamed. Maybe too much as he followed up with: “But your delivery is shit.”
Nerves are a massive hindrance to many comedians. A kindly audience will let you get away with it and you can build up the laughs even after ballsing up the first few gags. Others are less kind and you can struggle through to the end being heckled or facing silence as your brain and body refuse to help you deliver even the funniest material. And that’s another thing: you dream up the most hilarious material and look forward to presenting it to your audience only to run through it just before you’re on stage and it seems to you less funny then than reading out a political manifesto (with the exception of Ukip).
But I always loved developing the material. The notes section on my iphone is full of cryptic references to things I’ve seen and heard to build on later. I’ll go through a few here that have worked for me, and if you imagine someone more professional than me going through them, I hope you like them too.
Jehovah’s Witness ambulance crew
“I fell down the stairs the other day, cut my head. I’d bought a first-aid kit in the 99p shop, the label on it said ‘contents may vary’. I opened it up; it had a pot of yoghurt and some pens in it. So I called an ambulance. When it arrived the paramedics were Jehovah’s Witnesses, the UK’s first all-volunteer NHS ambulance crew, part of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. They refused to give me any treatment and it took four hours to get to A&E as we had to call at all the houses on the way and tell them the ‘good news’. Mind you, by the time I got there I was better, and I’m now a Jehovah’s Witness with my own ambulance and two smartly dressed children to drag around with me.
“We just relaunched our Right First Time scheme at work.”
Number in gents
“Whenever you go into a public gents you see someone’s telephone number scrawled on the wall. I had no idea why people do that. So I wrote mine up there to see what would happen. A bloke rang me asking me to pop down with some paper as he’d run out half-way through.”
“My friend suffers from premature ejaculation. But he wanted to make a donation to a sperm bank. He called to make an appointment: ‘How will you get here?’ Asked the receptionist. ‘I’ll come on the bus,’ he said.”
Been on TV
“I tasted fame in the 90s. I was on Britain’s biggest TV channel, it was CCTV, I got caught nicking pick & mix out of Woolies.”
“There’s a real blame culture where I work. I’ve been asked to find who’s responsible.”
“My local police are doing an anti-bike-theft campaign at the moment. I went to register my bike. Turned out there was a clerical error and it’s been put the sex-offenders register. Apparently it will take six weeks to put right, I can’t ride it near any schools, swimming pools or playgrounds until then.”
“When you see documentaries about Tourette’s it’s only working-class people that seem to have it. None of them ever go into a shop and say: ‘Can I have a copy of Horse and Hound, you have lovely rotund breasts and might I suggest that my tumescent penis would fit between them nicely? And a box of cigars please.’ No, they’re all much ruder than that. I think they do it just to get benefits, it could be very lucrative. Big hairy minge.”
I have hundreds of these cryptic clues, often written hurriedly; many of them I forget what they even meant. In fact as I write there is one that foxed me for a while: “How’s the bush?” But it just came to me: there was receptionist in a building I worked at once who told me she lived in Shepherd’s Bush. One day, I was signing in some ‘important’ guests and I absent-mindedly asked: “How’s the Bush?” I know that I am seen as a sex predator in that building now and amongst those guests but I think it’s worth it for the story I could tell about how easily one could be labelled in this way.
I will give the stand-up another go one day, or may be your advice would be to have a go at pottery or cheese-making instead. But do potters or cheese-makers suffer with nerves? Only one way to find out…
David Eckhoff has written The Royal Factor, a comic novel describing how a prime minister attempts to replace the Royal Family through a TV talent show. And The A-Z of Workplace Cynicism, a guide to bad business.