Back in the days when I was fresh faced and youthful and The Matrix had arrived on one of them new DVD disc things, I enrolled on a Film Studies A-Level. On the morning the class began the tutor noticed around 45 faces staring back at him in the room, all crammed into every corner, sitting on tables due to lack of space in the room.
“Who signed up for this class because they thought they’d be watching new movies every day?” he asked.
A vast percentage of the room stuck their hands in the air.
“Okay” he replied “We’re going to watch a film right now but here are the rules, the door will remain open through the screening for you to leave if you get bored but if you leave today then you can’t come back for the rest of this course. I don’t want to see you again in this room”.
There were some noises of derision in the room.
“The first film we’re going to watch is black and white”
Four people got up and left.
“It was made in 1942”
Another five headed for the exits, enough for those on tables to now find a seat.
“It’s an example of Classic Hollywood Narrative”.
Another two gone.
“It’s called Casablanca”.
With that he produced a VHS tape (yes, it was 1999) and let it roll. Within the first ten minutes another eight had gone back to the canteen never to be seen again. Two hours later we were engaged in a deep discussion on classic Hollywood narrative. It ended up being the first day of a very enjoyable two years of watching a vast variety of movies from far flung corners of the globe as well as others closer to home. There were periods during 2001-2002 when I’d be watching about three films a day and then attending student movie screenings at night. I usually wasn’t fussed what I saw at that time because I’d usually do the media student thing of sitting with a notepad taking notes whilst watching.
It’s the reason some friends are amazed that I’ve never seen some of the more mainstream movies in my time. I have never seen Robocop for example, it took me until a few weeks ago to watch the original Total Recall, the Rocky series of movies passed me by and *whisper it* I’ve never seen Return of the Jedi. By 2004, at the end of my degree course, I found myself burnt out with films in general. It’s only in recent years that I’ve gone back to some of my favourites and gone out looking for some new ones to add to the pile. I don’t think my passion for making films has quite come back, I had enough hassle with that back in college, but my desire for a good story is slowly coming back to me after a few years away. I’ve spent some time attempting to silence the inner critic that was so loud during the college days and just enjoy films again.
You know the Spiderman story in which Peter Parker gets the black suit which expands his powers beyond all of Peter Parker’s dreams but turns him into a complete arrogant bastard? Well that was me when I got a microphone in my hand on a stage.
It was The Brickyard in Carlisle when I had a slightly unusual booking. It wasn’t for a outright comedy gig but for a dating auction. A group of film makers were trying to raise money for their latest project and their producer had the idea to get five single lads and five single girls together, organise dates and let people bid to go on those dates with them. They needed somebody to be auctioneer and, seeing as the producer was a long time friend of mine, I took the job. It remains the only gig I was ever given entrance music for. The wrestling fan in me knew this would be the closest I would get to entering a room full of people to music. For some reason they chose Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ which worked at the time.
I walked onstage with my leather jacket slung over one shoulder, went up to the mic which was set at the correct height seeing as it would just me me using it, grabbed it, mustered my sleaziest voice possible and said “Good evening lovers”. This might make it sound like I’d been drinking beforehand but I always made it a rule not to, I did every gig sober and drank afterwards. What followed was three hours of absolute mayhem, fueled by me being a pretty obnoxious swine to all involved. The first half had the lads up with the girls bidding. Upon noticing that this seemed like a far too heterosexual set of rules I suggested that any blokes who fancied the guys on show should just bid for them as well and we’d be done with it. I was greeted with five men suddenly getting really, really scared.
The bidding for the guys was slow and never really went above £20. The dates were drawn at random by each couple once the bidding was done. The local cinema had given two tickets to a film of the couple’s choice, an Italian restaurant had donated a voucher for a three course meal for two and the bowling alley had given away free games so it was good stuff they had lined up. The highlight of the bloke’s half was when one guy, who was fairly good looking in his own right, was gaining a lot of interest until he raised his arms and revealed massive sweat patches around his armpits. Bids for him stopped suddenly after that. When the girls went up for bids the place really went crazy. One girl got up on stage and twirled around a bit before telling me she wanted it mentioned in her intro that she was Spanish. I opened with “Here’s Lot Number 7 punters, she’s Spanish so imagine the possibility of blow jobs and paella”. Yes, I actually said that in front of an audience. No, I’m not proud. She actually ended up going for £275 which was quite a different set of circumstances for the small beer the lads had gone for. By the end of the night my throat killed, I was downing water just to carry on and I’d thrown the auctioneer’s hammer into the audience like a rock star would throw a guitar plectrum. The night had raised £1500 for the film, it ended up being something based on songs by The Manic Street Preachers.
The team making the film had apparently been of the opinion they’d be onto a good thing if they got £200 out of it. As far as the money return went the night had been a great success, as far as I’d gone personally it wasn’t mainly because I’d spent an evening winding up a crowd and seemingly getting away with it. In all seriousness I was shocked nobody punched me out there and then.
In the meantime I’d been asked to do a gig in Edinburgh, an event which would mean I’d spend the rest of my days saying the phrase ‘it wasn’t during the Fringe’ over and over again. In April 2003 I was due to support John Scott at The Pleasance Bar. The student paper (yes, them again) got a hold of it and I was interviewed by now Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton who was on the journalism course at the time. During this interview I made the fatal error of suggesting that it was a bit much for the paper’s resident opinion columnist to refer to Scotland as ‘Jockland’ in the last edition. As a result the whole thing was published as me being some kind of staunch SNP supporter based in Carlisle accusing the paper of being racist. It was published three pages away from the rubbish review of the Cafe Solo gig. It wasn’t a good news month really.
Edinburgh itself was terrible. Upon arrival my girlfriend and I couldn’t find the hotel so got a taxi outside Haymarket, the taxi driver bellowed that it was ‘just around the fucking corner’ and wanted to boot us out of his cab before taking us very begrudgingly towards our destination. The crowd at Pleasance Bar was minimal to say the least, a smattering of people lumped around the room. There was a small room at the back with photos of people who had performed there previously including a big one of Harry Hill which amazed me at the time. My set started with my eulogy for my dear departed Uncle Roderick and ended with me going searching for Saddam Hussein with two Americans in the audience. I was pretty obsessed with Iraq at the time for some reason, mainly because I thought I was the British Bill Hicks.
I was not.
Years passed by without me going back onto a stage, I graduated from college in 2004 and never really had an desire to do stand up again. I thought at the time that anger was the best thing to go into comedy with but I’d lost all that drive once I graduated. As a result I’d become slightly disillusioned with the whole thing and wanted to concentrate on writing for a career. Also, as previously detailed, I didn’t like the attitude performing live gave me. There was a certain arrogance that flowed when I was up there that had developed very quickly and terrified me when I thought back on it. When looking back I got the impression that, whilst it had been fun at times, I wasn’t that great at this stand up lark as I thought I’d been at the time. Sure I could hold an audience’s attention but my imagination didn’t work fast enough to keep the ammunition running. With that and the ‘evil microphone syndrome’ I was having a very minor version of Jekyll and Hyde going on. It was time for the evil one to die. He did have one last stand though, at Solfest 2006.
Alan Whittaker had asked me to do a short gig on the Drystone Stage which he put the bill together for. It was the first comedy gig I’d ever done when I was offered payment and my wife was pregnant so I thought it best to earn extra cash if I could. I’d been told that whilst it was a family festival they would be okay with ‘edgy humour’. In reality, upon walking on stage, the heavens opened meaning that pretty much everybody left the area leaving me to joke about Boy George’s cocaine habit with a bunch of seven year olds who had stuck around. These people had been entertained all afternoon by gentle folk musicians, they were suddenly greeted by shouting Scotsman. I stuck out like a sore thumb and was about as popular. I left the stage, walked past the tents and flags, got back to my car and drove home. The pay cheque arrived four weeks later. Back in Edinburgh John Scott had said ‘Get your money first’ and during the drive home I really regretted not heeding his advice. There were a few whispers afterwards of me being ‘misbooked’ meaning I was on the wrong stage at the wrong time but there wasn’t much we could do about it afterwards. The thought of standing up on a stage again to perform makes me cringe. Other comics make it look pretty effortless and one of my favourites, Stewart Lee, admits that he tries to lose audiences on purpose during gigs just so he can see if he can bring them back in.
I honestly wouldn’t have the skill to do that, I’m much more comfortable writing when I can edit and refine to a point which I know it’s ready for consumption. This isn’t to say I regret doing it, I’ve mentioned it in two job interviews since (and got both jobs) as it’s certainly something to stick on the CV and make a talking point. If you ever get the chance yourself then I’d recommend doing it as you never know what you’re going to be like until you get up and do it. It’s what I was like afterwards that was the only major concern.
With those words, spoken down a mobile phone whilst sitting in my student digs in 2002, my brief career as a stand up comic began. A local bar had set up a comedy gig which was being headlined by a local comic who had recently discovered the art. Whilst she was good to go it was decided she needed support acts. The gig organiser drank in the same bar that my flatmate worked at. My name came up in conversation as somebody who might be able to do it and when the phone call came I responded in a positive manner without having a great deal of actual positivity within me. I didn’t harbour any great desire to be a stand up comic in my youth which is an idea many people thought once I started doing it. I did not ‘perform’ in school to avoid being beat up as, regardless of how funny I was, I got beat up anyway. I did not enter stand up comedy because I had some kind of inner demon I had to do battle with. I did it because I fancied a go and I was young and dumb enough not to think about the consequences first.
I sat up late at night attempting to come up with something I could talk about for five minutes. A couple of years previously I had crashed my Mum’s car whilst driving from Carlisle to Gretna. Four cars were involved and nobody died (a key factor in using it as a source of comedy). It culminated in two Glaswegian handymen, whose van was at the front of this pile up, asking if I wanted a bag of Quavers a mere two minutes after impact. I was in a state of shock in my driver’s seat whilst they offered me cheese flavoured snacks. Plenty of other stuff happened too but the Quavers gag was pretty much what this was pinned on.
Cafe Sol in Carlisle was the scene of the crime (on Castle Street if you ever want to do the Cameron Phillips tour of Carlisle). Upon arrival I discovered that I wasn’t the only support act. There was another Mancunian student who was on the performing arts course at the time (so therefore used to stages, not like old Media Production me). He went first and opened his set with something along the lines of…
“Right, well…..shark attacks eh?”.
Out of context it sounds rubbish but, for some reason, he got a laugh out of it which was absolute fair play to him. I went up after and did the ‘car crash’ set. Let nobody tell you otherwise, the first thirty seconds of a stand up gig are the worst experience you can have as far as social interaction goes. You’re standing in front of all these people just hoping for some kind of level of acceptance. You’re hoping that the stuff you have lined up hits the mark because you’ve got nothing else. On that night, I got lucky because the build up to the Quavers gag went really well. I spoke at around a hundred words a second due to nerves but it made the performance more frantic. Once the first laugh ripples through the room then you’ve got something to build on and it feels fantastic. I was probably helped by the fact that I approached the mic stand to find it was set far too tall for me and I pretended to bang my forehead off it. Mics being set too high was a common theme throughout my short lived stand up career, I’m only 5 foot 6 in my trainers.
I got offstage to be greeted by a girl who pointed to her stomach and said “Your jokes made me warm right there” which I took as a positive even if she did seem steaming drunk. The main event came and went and we drank the night away, I went back to my room and sat up for a bit trying to wait out the adrenaline build up. It felt great, like something you can truly tick off the list of things you have to try in your life. Even to this day I can say yes to anybody who asks if I’ve tried stand up comedy. I’d made no money out of the gig but I had a great experience and proved to myself I could hang with it. I got invited back the month afterwards for more of the same and I, thinking I knew what was best, decided to write another set from scratch. Rather than attempt to improve on my set list from before I went for something completely different. My reasoning at the time was that I thought I’d be playing to pretty much the same audience so I needed something different. ‘Different’ became ‘random’ which gave rise to ‘weird’. It’s what became known by myself and my friends as ‘The Family Coconut Gig’.
Put simply, an elderly relative had decided to come up North to Scotland and present my Dad with a coconut. This was brought over by a family member who was fighting in the war and took it upon himself to keep a coconut he had found and bring it back to Britain. Obviously, in those days, it wasn’t a case of nipping down to Tesco to get such an item so this was held in great curiousity. By the time it had reached Gretna though it had become infested with various insects which aforementioned elderly relative was blissfully unaware of. My sister and I spent a whole afternoon trying to kill the bug with a variety of chemical sprays and powders. It was like Starship Troopers only much worse.
I took the coconut in a bag, produced it once I hit the stage and proceeded to talk about how it came to be in my possession and why generations of my family thought this was something worth holding onto. Once again it seemed to do okay, getting a few good laughs and hitting a few high notes. This was also the gig which featured my first heckler in the shape of a very drunk man who came in, walked to the front of the stage, raised his fist in the air and yelled “British Army!” before collapsing in a heap in the ground. He was something special indeed.
The first couple of gigs had me riding on a high cloud of wonderment. I had tackled stand up comedy and came out unscathed on the other side. I was considering a couple of offers with bookings and I was looking at going up to The Stand Comedy Club in Glasgow. It was then, whilst waiting for some footage to render in my college edit suite one day, that I pondered what to do next.
‘What Carlisle really needs right now’ I thought to myself ‘is a comedy night’. The sad truth is that I seriously thought I was the guy to supply this. What followed including lost iguanas, a mini war with the student newspaper, an interview by now Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, a theatre in Cockermouth, story telling wizards, bad jokes about cancer, a gig in Edinburgh and annoying a field full of hippies.