My Catskills Gene Failed Me: On Walking Off Stage Prematurely

I have just experienced one of the rarer events in my career, I cut a gig short, very short. Technically, it wasn’t short. I was at a new material night and we are permitted to try anything from one minute to fifteen, but it fell way short of my pre stage intentions. I was at Old Rope, one of my favourite comedy clubs where I have tried out hours and hours of new material, some of which has been incinerated, much of which has made it into my shows. Tonight was a return of the minds behind it all as hosts, Phil Nichol and Tiffany Stevenson. They took on the audience, drawing information and playfully mocking what they unearthed. I had a sense that they audience were not quite the make up of those who usually like to risk the new material, burn outs, breakdown and joie de vivre of such a night, but I took to the stage with no visions of icy silence. I don’t like to start with a “hey, how are you going?”, I just start talking. One group were from Southport and there was a lone knitter in the front row. Rather than attack them for these characteristics, I thought I would celebrate them. I had a delightful time in Southport with the Utter Shambles tour recently, so thought I would tell them of the feistiness of middle age that allowed me to leave my hotel in my pajama trousers to tell a bar to turn the noise down. Then I would praise the knitters of the world, I am a big fan of knitting, and explain how the physical act of knitting creates a spectacle up there with pipe smoking in terms of actions that aid the winning of an argument. The pause for contemplation as you sup on your pipe, then point it into the air as you reply to an argument, makes your rebuttal more potent, as does not replying to a point until you have finished the next knit one and purl one (I do knit, I hope this language is correct). Then I would go onto to talk about what I had intended; why Colin Pillinger is not deserving of British cynicism, Freud’s attitude with his patients and how different early 20th century psychotherapy would have been if he had based some of his complexes on Midsummer Night’s Dream instead of Oedipus Rex, blindsight and gorilla logic, amongst other things.
But we never got that far.
Perhaps the audience members thought I would be deriding knitting and Southport and didn’t want to play anymore.
Within a minute my mind, which I sometimes count as me, said, “no, not tonight” and I looked at the audience and said the same thing, “this isn’t working, let’s leave it”.
I had got my rucksack and coat on (but not in that order), by the time Phil Nichol forced the audience to force me back on stage. I took out my postcard notes and peremptorily explained why each one was not suitable for the night, then left the stage again.
No fun.
My protestant work ethic reprimanded me, and now the “love me love me” bit of my ego feels I’ve let myself down. I have rarely, even when facing abuse or bottles, cut a gig short.
Once at the Frog and Bucket, many years ago now, I looked at the audience and said, “you know, this used to be one of my favourite gigs, but we don’t get on anymore” and walked off a few minutes from my allotted end. There will be the odd other occasion, but even when exiting would have been better for all concerned, I would be pig-headed enough to stink up the room until the contract was fulfilled.
It is a rarity to feel the sensation of , “no, not tonight” and act on it, it goes against all the codes of honour drawn up by Dan Leno or George Formby or Grace Fields of whoever it might have been that may have etched it on the Batley Variety Club dressing room wall.
There are times when I have stood on stage and thought, “I don’t feel it tonight” whatever “it” maybe, but stuck there and found that the audience were quite happy, even if I believed something had eluded me.
Is it sometimes better to do as Larry David did, walk on, survey the audience and say, “no”?
More often than not, I’ll still be on as the tech guy waves a placard saying “my train leaves at 11” (maybe you were at that gig last week), I will always try to give value for money, and the babysitting industry thank me for the unexpected overtime, but tonight, the performer fled, leaving a man on stage thinking he better leave to (like the final Gibb from that Clive Anderson Bee Gees interview)

Footnote: Just one week ago I did two hours of new material in Leeds, funny how these things go.
Footnote 2: also I don’t feel melancholy about this, I just find that writing things out immediately after such things can be useful and hopefully vaguely telling.
Footnote 3: I was back to overrunning again by the next night, at the delightful Lolitics gig. recommended

I will not be leaving the stage early at the London Christmas gigs w/ John Hegley, Alexei Sayle, Josie Long, Helen Czerski and 100s more
Or my last tour gigs in Kings Lynn, Dartmouth, Leicester, Evesham or Tunbridge Wells and Christmas gigs with Brian Cox HERE
Happiness Through Science DVD HERE

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23 Responses to My Catskills Gene Failed Me: On Walking Off Stage Prematurely

  1. Hugo Blake says:

    A stiff drink and a sound sleep I suppose.

  2. Iain Couper says:

    Chin up mate.
    Nobody can be ‘on’ every single night. I’ve seen a fair few acts who I wish had just held their hands up and said ‘sorry, not tonight’ rather than put me through an uncomfortable and unfunny squirmfest.


  3. Trigby Nobfast says:

    most people have the odd duvet day… they don’t get out of bed though. Going all the way to work and then going away again, not normal, unless you said fuck it I’m going down the pub… yes that gets done – se what I’m trying to do? Equate being a star performer with a normal guy doing a normal day’s work. Is it working?

  4. sam says:

    Good for you, it shows you care, I bet next gig is one of your best. You should always have someone in the wings, who when you give them the signal can come running on and rap you in tin foil and carry you off, James Brown style.

  5. ps2007 says:

    I suppose you need the audience reaction as much as they need your action. I remember seeing your gig last year in Cranleigh and felt you had an initial doubt about your place in Surrey commuter-land. You seemed uncomfortable and unsure. Yet, as with anywhere in Surrey, many (like me) were ‘blow-ins’ from all over the UK – there was a wide mix. You got over it, thankfully, and it was an excellent night – as it was this year, too. It’s surely a tough life on stage alone. All I can say is thank you from me for the pleasure, enlightenment and entertainment you brought one person.

  6. obligatory ‘aww we still love you!’ comment

  7. Colin (Tech F&B) says:

    I remember you getting up for ‘Beat The Frog’ which was great but don’t remember the walking off stage on, I assume, a weekend gig. I wouldn’t of minded at all. I miss you even now as I very rarely get to see other gigs.
    I know what you mean about the audiences we sometimes have that make it ‘just a job’ rather than any sort of pleasurable experience.

  8. benjuggler says:

    As a fellow performer totally relate to situation….never done it myself but respect any other performers right to….it’s not the same but a few years back I saw John Martyn…he was drunk …did a few songs and called it a night…lots of people wanted their money back….but I thought…I came,saw,enjoyed & he’s an artist…it’s not always gonna fly…..way of the world…hope material goes well on tour…sounded funny to me….!

  9. Jonathan says:

    Sounds like you read the audience, and took a tough decision. Never easy, but all part of what makes life colourful and liveable I guess. Can I suggest you set a time limit to your fretting – 1hr 7 minutes should be plenty – then let it go. You’re still the best comedian I’ve had the pleasure to spend a long evening with. Oh, and of course, you’ll be in my prayers….

  10. Sam Freeman says:

    I was doing new material on Sunday night and knew after about 2 minutes that this wasn’t going to go well – mostly because the line “I was told this was a pastry-friendly gig, so I brought pies (big reveal of homemade pies), I am like Jesus, just with Pies, and less of a beard” gained utter silence. In fairness it could have been because it was shit, but it certainly meant the next 15 minutes all themed around pies, pie making, pastry, fillings and love were met with utter contempt and silence. Reading this makes me feel better that it happens to comedians I really enjoy from time to time (although sorry to hear it did happen).

  11. I know that feeling – it occasionally happens to teachers too. But we can’t walk off 😦 !

  12. Mike Agg says:

    Robin, I’ve seen you perform many times and last week’s gig in Windsor was my favourite yet, despite the gormless sound guy trying to rush you. (It wasn’t even very late! I complained to the theatre and I’m still awaiting their response).
    It was lovely to chat to you in the interval. Thanks again.

  13. Gareth says:

    After meeting you again at the end of the Leeds gig you mentioned in this blog (a brilliant gig, bravo) … I introduced you to my friend Karen and you both discussed Larry David walking off stage.
    Karen came to me today after reading this blog and said she feels really bad about it.
    I asked her why and she is convinced that she planted a subliminal seed in your mind and caused you to walk off stage. Hehe.
    anyway, I hope all is well and look forward to seeing you again next year.

  14. What do you we have to do to get you to come to Jersey? Sometimes we’re on the circuit sometimes we’re not. Mostly tours get as far as Portsmouth and then stop. Please come to Jersey.

  15. mraemiller says:

    I walked off once when the audience were too wankered to know or care. Wonderful feeling of irresponsibilitu. Shame we cant do it all the time but I guess promoters would moan

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