This morning, political journalists, who’ve spent the last few months incessantly predicting Theresa May’s imminent resignation like 11-year-olds at a traffic light, summoned one last “nnnnnnnow!” and threw up their fists in celebration. I have been engaged in my own long-running and determined campaign of refusing to write a column about Brexit. You’re quite welcome.
Instead, I’d like to write about something a bit more hopeful: awakenings. Can you point to one moment that fuelled and propelled you towards your dreams? I have two.
The first came as I looked up at the result of my English A-level on a board in the main hall of my college. After an education that had mostly felt like a goggleless swim through treacle (undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia had seen me wearily written off as a space cadet by a school that was overwhelmed with far more challenging pupils than me), the sight of that single, unambiguous letter – that gloriously matter-of-fact capital A – threw a sudden and lovely light into every corner of my mind.
Having largely given up and resigned myself to quietly waiting for the “happiest days of my life” to finally end, here was the documentary proof of a thought that I’d previously only ever held with a slippery grip: that I was not, in fact, thick, and that with the right teacher – one who could see the potential in the disconnected – I could achieve more than I had ever dared to believe. Thank you forever, Vicky Kingston at Richmond upon Thames College.
The second moment was my first experience of watching live stand-up comedy at the age of 17.
Back then, the idea of becoming a comic myself seemed as wild and inane a dream as opening a launderette on Mars, but here I was, having made the long trek from my home to The Comedy Cafe in the quasi-mythical urban wasteland of early-Nineties Shoreditch.
The room was heaving with lairy drunks sloshing about wooden tankards of some sort of strong mead or barley wine (admittedly the mists of time may have clouded my memories). Their feral passions were being gamely marshalled by a strippergram – an ancient profession that’s now mostly defunct, as the idea of paying £70 to see the nipple of a police impersonator seems more than a little profligate in this era of austerity and Pornhub.
Then, the comedy started. The compere – a tall and relaxed man – quickly calmed the frothing crowd. Then he introduced the first act: a woman. An actual woman.
Let me put this into context. I dreamed of being a comic, but aspirational role models for a secretly bisexual and openly Iranian girl weren’t readily apparent in the mainstream TV comedy of the 1970s and 1980s. Try as I might to follow in the footsteps of Bernard Manning and, later, Jim Davidson, it seemed a forlorn hope that I would ever fully master the art of racist and homophobic goading.
That is, until I saw this woman – an actual, real woman, remember – step on to the stage, and a door swung open in my mind. I was beside myself with excitement. She walked to the mic, opened her mouth, and before she could speak, a cry of “get your tits out” filled the air, quickly followed by a chorus of boos. Without a word, she turned around and walked off.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was the moment that I knew with all my heart that there was no other job in the world that I would rather do. I wanted to make drunk people, who hated me, laugh.
There is a serious point that I want to make, and that is that stand-up is a medium that needs to be seen live. Of course you can enjoy it on TV or YouTube, but the proper way to experience it is in a room, with other people, watching a professional comic try to walk the tightrope.
I say “try” advisedly, because even the best and most famous comedians run the risk of messing up at a live show and may have to call on finely honed skills to lift it up again and win the audience back.
And that’s the thrill isn’t it? The risk of “dying”. Intuitively, you all know this, just as you know that the millions who tuned in to watch Evel Knievel jump his motorbike over rows of buses would have been less excited by watching him skilfully parallel park. It’s also the source of the high for us comics; that’s what makes it a compulsion, and it is a compulsion. If a week goes by without doing a gig, I get very friendly at bus stops.
When I started stand-up in the 1990s, there were live comedy clubs all over the place. No one cared if the line-up had anyone on it that they’d seen on TV. Sadly, a lot of these venues have been forced to shut down as more and more people are equally happy to shut themselves indoors and watch online.
But if that’s all that you ever do, you are missing so much of the fully immersive experience of live, unedited comedy, in which you are a vital part of the show.
As a touring comic, I’ve seen theatres that were held afloat by volunteers as arts funding was brutally slashed. The first time I played The Beggar’s Theatre in Millom, the audience helped to bring in the chairs themselves as 100 per cent of its funding had been cut. You couldn’t ask for clearer evidence of a community that wanted and needed an arts space, and that pulled together to make it happen.
It is my hope that there will be a resurgence of these venues, and that’s why I am so excited that Waltham Forest Council and the Soho Theatre (of which – full disclosure – I am a trustee) are investing in converting a beautiful former cinema in Walthamstow into a new 1000-seater comedy venue, due to open in 2022. It’s so much more than a commercial venture: it’s an investment in our cultural tradition of vaudeville.
While the council has taken a huge step in restoring this spectacular old place, there are many smaller venues all around the country that need your support, so go: make a plan, leave the house, and please don’t see it as a duty or a chore. On the contrary, you may have some of the best nights of your life.