Banging the gong
This is a long post. It’s actually two posts edited together, one of which I wrote before I’d even considered setting up a blog thing, so forgive me if it feels a little ‘bitty’, but I wanted to say this.
I had a happy night at a gong show in Reading last night.
In case you don’t know, a gong show combines comedy with an opportunity to ruin a comedian’s evening by voting them off before the end of their allotted time. The format was pioneered in American comedy clubs, in the 1980’s, I think. They’re called gong shows because the early ones would have someone literally banging a gong in the act’s face, to ensure they were adequately humiliated in front of a baying audience before leaving the stage. People like that, don’t they. So much easier to ridicule someone for trying than to actually get up there yourself.
Comedians still do them though. We do them for various reasons, not the least of which is that beating the gong is a hell of an affirmation that you can do the job. Sometimes we do them because it’s the only way we can put ourselves in front of particular promoters. Occasionally, it’ll be for the value of the prize for winning the evening. There are many other less honourable reasons.
I’ve done several going shows in the last three years (and have yet to encounter an actual gong; generally, it’s been replaced by funny sound effects or appropriate music – last night’s comics who didn’t go the whole distance were ‘played off’ with The Smiths’ ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’. Beating the gong at the Lion’s Den in Kings Cross is rewarded with ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. And the Frog & Bucket clubs in Manchester celebrate those who ‘beat the frog’ with Paul McCartney’s Frog Chorus, which surely makes the people who don’t get that far feel a bit better about it).
But, as you may have gathered, I’m not a great fan of gong shows. I dislike their potential for brutality at what ought to be a happy, laughter filled event. I’ve seen people gonged off just for mentioning, in the set up to a gag, that they are gay. I’ve seen people booed off for having no blue material (well, I say ‘seen’… ‘experienced’ is closer to the truth of that one). I’ve even seen someone triumph because their intelligently ironic attack on the BNP was misunderstood by an ugly audience as the genuine racism they were seeking from their comedians. There’s something about gong shows which attracts this kind of audience. Most audiences are not like that. Most audiences are my friends.
The last gong show I did was in the North East of England about a year ago. I survived the gong but lost at the ‘joke-off’ stage (where all the survivors are given a moment to tell a crowd pleasing joke). I didn’t feel bad about that. What I felt bad about was that the person who won was a man in his mid 40’s, who told us of the recent occasion when his mother had caught him wanking. Ugh.
I had another gig in the area the next night, so had booked a cheap hotel locally. As I sat in my seedy, badly lit room that night, listening to drunk teenagers breaking the few remaining windows of the abandoned shopping centre beyond the yet uncracked window I didn’t dare to look through, I wondered what on earth I was doing this for. I wasn’t enjoying driving 300 miles to hear regional variations of material about paedos and poo, and I certainly hadn’t enjoyed the audience which had liked me enough to give me 2nd place. I knew ‘being a comic’ could be, and should be, more fun than that. Which is why I decided there and then to never do another gong show.
But then, Stuart Laws (he’s mentioned elsewhere on this blogsite thing – check him out; he’s great) said he and James Mason (also great and worth seeing) were going to run something called ‘Not Another Gong Show’. It was going to be a night where the acts were respected. Everyone had a 3 minute grace period during which they could not be voted off, and only had to survive a further two minutes. And they achieved it. One of the acts was doing his first ever stand-up gig. I would NEVER recommend a gong show for the first gig, but although he didn’t beat the gong, he got laughs on stage, and back slaps from strangers at the interval, and generally felt (I hope) encouraged by the experience. It was that sort of night.
The prize was a wildcard place in Friday’s final of the Reading Comedy Festival New Act of The Year competition. I came second. Again. Close but no cigar. Am I downhearted? Well, I would have been, but I’d actually qualified for that final at a heat last week, so I was really only there for fun last night, and because I enjoy the company of Stuart & James. It was also an opportunity to try out my six minute set for the final on Friday. And I now know it’s at least strong enough not to get gonged off, so I can go and enjoy myself on the big night.
After the show, several of the acts found ourselves standing outside the venue, locked in that particular kind of conversation comedians often have. You see, we all go trotting around the country, doing our individual thing, and while friendships bloom, we don’t often find ourselves working together on a regular basis, so we binge on each others’ company once in a while. On deserted town centre streets, dodging beggars (note to beggars: comics have nothing to spare; it’s not meanness, we’re all skint) and hen parties dressed as pussycats in search of late night chicken and ribs.
We spoke of how we don’t believe in competitions, but keep entering them, we swapped anecdotes of the worst introduction we’ve ever had from a compere, we got angry about joke thieves, we laughed at each other’s stories of the real pay-off of doing stand-up; the people we meet along the way who would never otherwise have crossed our paths.
We spoke also of the emotional highs and lows we go through. A conversation I try not to have too often with people unassociated with comedy, because I don’t want to sound like some fluffy little luvpot about it. But when electricians, plumbers or barristers gather together, they discuss their jobs, so I don’t see why comics and actors shouldn’t too.
Standing up in front of an audience and saying silly things to make them laugh is, on one level, just that. We all do something similar in our daily lives. Yet, when you present yourself to the world as A Comedian, you do risk being stabbed in the soul if it’s not to the taste of the particular group of people you’re meeting that night. It gets easier, of course, to process the ‘deaths’. If you know the material has worked before, it’s not too hard to deal with one bad night now and again. Everyone has them. And sometimes, they’re the catalyst for a new thread of material. Nothing is wasted.
The one piece of advice most comedians (and writers and poets) can agree on is, “Write what you know. Write about your own experiences.” OK, so there’s not a lot of personal experience or psychological fragility underpinning the stream of goat based puns I like to do now and then, but hey, I like puns, OK? No kidding. Etc.
It seems to me a comedian’s experience comes from who you are, what you think, feel and believe, what you’ve lived through (big and small) and how you uniquely process all that. From “whatever became of white dog shit?” to Stewart Lee’s epic 90’s Comedian set, it’s about saying, “This is how I see the world. Is this how you see the world?” Match or mismatch, if it’s also funny, you’re onto a winner.
Parts of my current set deal with the inescapable fact that, while I’m only a 3 year old comic, I’ve been on the earth now for half a century. And yes, there really was white dog shit. I’ve scraped it from my own shoes. The ones with animal paw prints on the soles. That’s the sort of thing that entertained us before the internet. But instead of talking about that on stage, I have a few gentle gags about ageing. After a gig earlier this year, a man of my own age approached me to say he’d found my middle age bit “very moving”. As drunks at comedy clubs are wont to do, he offered me some unsolicited advice. “That’s important material,” he said. “You should show it more respect. Stop making jokes about it”. I said, “I’m a stand-up comic.” He told me that was irrelevant. “People don’t always want to laugh you know.”
Well, he’s a cock. He was drunk. And, in the specifics of a comedy club, he was wrong. But I’ve had a couple of experiences recently which are anything but funny, yet for me there’s a beauty to them which makes me want to tell the stories. Until my idiot new friend puts on a “let’s not laugh any more” comedy night, I can’t tell them on stage, so here they are. Just for you.
I’m really enjoying this week. Six gigs in as many days, including the competition final later this week. Next week, I have one gig in the diary, and one memorial service. The gig is for Laughing Horse. The memorial service is for my friend Euan.
Euan and I met when we were 11, on our first day of big school. He was a bright, friendly kid with twinkly eyes and a unique but impossible to describe smile, which felt like a reward when he gave it to you. Quickly, he was moved to the achievers’ stream, while I went to the “not thick, but doesn’t really apply himself, so why should we bother either” class. We remained friends, but not close friends. We were the sort of friends who drifted in and out of each other’s lives for the next 39 years, often hearing one another’s news through mutual friends. He, the achiever he was always destined to be, thrived internationally in business, but could still find time to attend the occasional play I’d find myself fannying about in from time to time. I last saw him in May, at a reunion of old school pals. He looked well. Slim, tanned, healthy. The twinkle was still in his eye, and that smile raised the already high spirits of everyone it touched that hot, nostalgia-fuelled night. In August, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. And a couple of weeks ago, he died. The first person I’d known all my life to go. Part of my social matrix is missing.
I was 17 when Elvis died his comedy death on a jewel encrusted toilet (well, that’s how I’ve always imagined it; they don’t include the bathroom in the Graceland tour for some reason). Elvis died at 42 and I remember saying, with what I believed at the time to be sincerity and compassion, “Well, he had a good innings”. Twenty-seven years later, when my closest friend of 20 years’ standing had a fatal heart attack in his sleep at 41, I saw things differently.
Euan, in his final days, had told a mutual friend, “I’ve been lucky. It’s been a great 50 years.” Fifty years is nothing. I guess if I were 102, I’d feel the same way. Losing people at what I consider a young age, feels to me like a call to live. Let’s get out there and do what we need to do. And enjoy what we’re doing. If we can’t beat the gong, let’s at least bang a gong to let the world know we’re here.
It’s not cause and effect, but I know there’s a link to be found, should I ever choose to seek it, between the death of my closest friend six years ago and my move into stand-up three years later. More, I hope, than merely needing to talk to people in pubs. Stand-up offers an opportunity to reflect on experiences, albeit by distorting truths to make them funny. It’s been argued that it’s the last bastion of free speech, that a comedy club is the only place where people are free to speak the truth. And it’s not all Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce. It can be cuddly Uncle Richie having fun with puns and just making you chuckle, too.
It was at a comedy night in Northamptonshire, the weekend before Euan died, that this happened…
It was a charity gig in a village community centre, for Brainstrust, which I now know is a charity associated with brain cancer. What I hadn’t expected was how many people there had been directly affected by it. I spoke to friends and family of at least three local people touched by the condition. I looked around but couldn’t see any telephone masts. Just an unusually big unlucky coincidence, I suppose. The night itself was heartwarming. It was a large but quiet, smiley audience who were there as much to proclaim support, love and respect for their friends and family members as for the comedy.
I was the first of two acts in the second section and to be honest, the set was a bit hit’n’miss for the most part. I was not having a great time. The audience were not regular comedy-goers, and were mostly older people, as these village do’s tend to be, so as I began the run-up to a silly little rap I’d been doing for the last week or so (written in response to a night when I had found myself the only comedian at a pretty hard core music night and had had to follow an angry young chap who’d been rapping about what he intended to do to his “rich white bitch”), I was preparing myself for disappointment. However, each time I’d performed it, I’d asked whether anyone in the audience could beatbox. There never had been, until that night. A young guy came up and we shared the only mic (creating plenty of ‘business’ around that, which really helped). He was a stunningly good beatboxer and it brought a new dimension to the piece. I left the stage to one of the best receptions I’ve ever had, and joined Beatbox Boy outside for a celebratory cigarette.
I thanked him for saving me from near death and he said he was only too happy to do what he could to support the charity, as his father had died of brain cancer three days earlier.
The poignancy of this moment has stayed with me ever since. His courage, his generosity still stuns me when I think of it. I suspect it will stay with me forever.
And the conclusion to all this? Oh… being alive can be tough sometimes. It can hurt. Badly on occasion. But for all the small minded, mean spirited or just misguided idiots and fools we encounter along the way, we also share the planet with brave, beautiful people whose very presence makes the journey worthwhile. I guess. Some hippy dippy shit like that. Live now, not later. Cherish those around you. Have fun.
And other stuff I could never say directly on stage despite the fact that it is thanks to the comedy adventure that I find myself exposed to such wonders.
It’s been a long post. Thank you for sticking with it when you could so easily have gonged me off. Any comments?