At 8.45 p.m. I was back in the toilets again feeling pure terror. In front of me was a narrow window which I thought I might be able to squeeze out of if I dislocated both my shoulders. This seemed a more attractive proposition than the alternative: leaving the loo and stepping out on stage to deliver my maiden stand-up comedy performance.
In theory, a few months ago, it sounded like a great idea. Everybody is anxious at the moment. I’m anxious, you’re anxious, everyone born after 1990 is anxious, or so the newspapers tell us. I stay up at night haunted by a sense of strange foreboding. I once went to a party and found four people crying in the bathroom. Counsellors, therapists and psychologists are making a killing out of my inconsolable generation, but no one knows what to do about it. I read once that there’s nothing like facing up to your fears in order to conquer them, and that’s why I ended up in this predicament.
Imagine all the things that might make you nervous in an average day: work appraisals, presentations, meeting new people. Stand-up comedy is all of those rolled into one and magnified. So I signed up for the open mic night at the Fox and Duck in Kingston. With only four days to prepare, I consulted some people who had been at it for a while.
‘Try and give yourself some kind of “point of entry”,’ said Ben, who’s been playing the London circuit for a couple of years. ‘Success in the low-level arenas, where you’re only given a few minutes to make an impact, is all about having a “thing”. Some people go for snide and snarky, others go for wild and unhinged. Whatever it is, it just has to be something people can latch onto quickly and go “Oh, so that’s his thing then, is it”.’
Gigi was very much from the opposite school of thought. ‘Just try and be yourself. Personal experience is where all the best material comes from,’ she said breezily, having just come off stage performing a set that mostly revolved around her three failed marriages. And what if ‘myself’ isn’t funny? ‘Well, the worst they can do is not laugh.’
From inside the gents I could hear the final chords of ‘My Sharona’ being hacked out by the aged cover band on before me and I felt a fear far more visceral, much more animal than the usual existential anxiety. If someone had put a pen in my hand and asked me to write my name, it would have looked like a scribble. I thought: ‘I’ll tell the compère it was all a mistake, that they got the wrong man. I’ll pay my bar tab, sidle out of the back door and run off into the night as fast as I can and I’ll be careful never, ever to mention this to another human being as long as I live.’ But it was too late for that. Already the man with the microphone was struggling to drag out the two syllables of my name into an exciting-sounding introduction. To the indifferent applause I left my cubicle and took to the stage.
For those reading this hoping for catharsis, expecting that everything went amazingly well and I’m now pursuing a career in comedy: you’re mistaken. It was bad. Actually, even I was surprised at how bad it was. Before I’d even had a chance to switch on the mic, an overweight man in a Burger King crown began heckling me — the usual stuff about my act being shit, which though prescient, seemed unfair. In the heat of the moment I forgot that in dealing with hecklers the comedian is expected to be witty. So I said: ‘Shut up.’ Big mistake. The man looked genuinely hurt. ‘He’s only having a laugh, mate,’ cried somebody. ‘Yeah, pick on someone your own size!’ cried somebody else. He got a bigger laugh than I did all night.
At 9.07 p.m. I was back in the bogs. Not one of my jokes could be said to have gone down well. For the most part, my increasingly plaintive attempts at coaxing the audience into laughter were met by winces and snuffles. There wasn’t even any ironic laughter. Despite all that, I did feel a small twinge of masochistic satisfaction, as if I’d walked across flaming coals and survived, or spent half an hour doing yoga. I’d looked my worst fears in the eye for a full seven minutes and come out the other end no worse for wear.
As for my nerves, they took a while to subside. That night I was up welcoming the dawn chorus, waiting by the window for the adrenalin rush to fade away. But as for my dark forebodings, these were noticeably absent, and when finally I did nod off, I did so in a state of repose long forgotten since boyhood. It would be too much to ask of the Fox and Duck that they let me back on stage every time I feel those fears come back, but it’s enough to know that it worked.