Thursday, 1 March 2012

Stand Up

I’m last on stage at a comedy club in central London. I’ve just told the best of my new jokes, an altogether misjudged anecdote about eating sweetcorn that had already passed through my girlfriend’s digestive tract. Nobody laughs. My date shifts uncomfortably in her seat and glances back at the door, no doubt judging how far it is to run.

This is everything I had feared stand-up comedy would be. The blazing spotlight coaxing rivulets of sweat from my brow like worms wriggling out into the morning sun. A deathly silence begging to be shattered by cantankerous heckling Muppets from an overhead balcony. The realisation that, despite having 3 minutes to go, the remainder of my material is about as funny as a kitten spray-painted with a Swastika.

The comedy club is every cliché of the open mic scene rolled into one. It’s underground, a scantily lit elongated cellar, so low in places that I am forced to duck my head. The makeshift stage is deep inside, as far from the exit as possible, bedecked in shabby curtains and, I can only assume, the broken dreams of countless comics. We are led to tight rows of folding chairs, usually at home being smashed across a wrestler’s spine, by the exaggerated cockney owner. There is a strong sense that, if fewer people were around, he would cave my head in with the condom machine and steal my shoes.

A group of young guys huddles at the bar under a fugue of hair gel emissions. The kind of banter usually reserved for late-night kebab houses flies around unchecked. We take our seats, and they eye my date and I with suspicion as barely concealed as their beer guts. They are obviously regulars, and we the intruders before I’ve even stepped onstage.

The performance order is determined by names drawn from a hat. With each announcement, one of the hair gel posse peels away to answer the call. It soon becomes clear that the kebab house banter is also their act. There’s a young guy who, sporting a shiny waistcoat and top hat, has strived for a unique look, and, with his resemblance to a transvestite Abraham Lincoln, found some success. His only story falls flat as the basic premise is impossible to believe: that he has lost his virginity. Later, a guy staggers to the stage with a half-emptied bottle of wine clenched in his fist. He slurs through his only joke, a hastily scrawled Venn diagram of a tit-wank, and then invites us to heckle him. For five minutes the audience hurls abuse (‘Alcoholic!’ ‘You’d be better off dead!’) until he stumbles back to his seat. Both men are politely applauded.

Worst of all is Steve, a sexagenarian in a cheap suit and broken glasses. The hair gel posse cheer wildly his approach to the stage.

‘Roses are red, violets are blue...’

‘PREACH IT, STEVE!’ screams the posse.

Steve grins. ‘...And I’m gonna fuck you.’

The posse erupts with delight, slapping each other about the shoulders and spattering their drinks across the bar. This encourages Steve to launch into a story about taking a young girl home from a club, tying her up, and abusing her (‘Tell us what you did to her, Steve!’) My date shifts uncomfortably beside me. I consider getting up and forcibly inserting a shard of beer bottle into Steve’s eye. But the atmosphere is becoming fevered (‘You put a courgette where, Steve?!’). One wrong move on my part could tip us over into some kind of pub brawl, my face dragged comically along the bar, knocking glasses and bottles in all directions, until I’m in range to have the access hatch slammed repeatedly on my head while Steve masturbates into my trouser pocket.

‘Steve! Steve! Steve!’ chants the posse in rampant support.

Steve is a dirty old man, no doubt the subject of endless depraved folklore amongst neighbourhood children, a repellent to even the friendliest of local cats. Macaulay Culkin would scream through the fourth wall and flee to militarise his empty family home. Steve is a laughing stock, but does not realise it.

For years I was told by friends that I should try stand-up comedy. It’s a standard platitude when you have built your reputation on being the class clown. It was only through fear of being Steve, of maintaining my pitiable and unfunny nature, but in public, that prevented me from taking the advice of my peers for so long.

When Steve is finished, the owner announces that there is only time for one more act. As he delves his hand into the hat, I beg in soliloquy, please not me, please not me. The owner looks up and calls my name.

I have just told my best new joke. Nobody laughs. The hair gel posse has disappeared to smoke self-congratulatory cigarettes. I wipe the sweat from my forehead and try not to meet anyone’s eye. My mouth opens for the next joke. I have 3 minutes of material left, and I realise that none of it is any better than Steve’s. So I close my mouth, whisper a ‘thank you’ into the mic and leave the stage.

Nobody applauds. 


  1. Steve is disgusting, not funny. period. Try stand up in a more upstanding establishment and I think you might do well.

    1. I've done it a few times in nicer places than that (the picture at the top is from a different venue). It's not something I excel at!

  2. clap clap clap (not viral)

  3. I want to add, now that I've read the whole post (yes, I'm one of *those), toward the end I was feeling some triggers--reminded me of an experience a 'friend' had at an AA meeting...

  4. Sorry for being dense, I'm not sure what you mean by 'triggers'?