The Freeedom to Caterwaul (as long they still come)

I might have written something like this before. Posts being written even more hastily than usual, crouched by the train doors on my 30 minute journey home. Enjoy even more errors than usual this week. 

Stand up is one of the freest forms of artistic expression, the limits are your abilities and your fear of the crowd. The other limit is how much of a crowd you want. 

Your career progress may be impeded by poor delivery and useless ideas.

Your expression may be hampered because your hatred of a crowd disliking you and judging you to be shit means that you take a safer route; better to be liked seven nights a week,  rather than loved on wednesday, booed off on thursday and tolerated on Friday. Mind you, all these things can still happen in three days, or three hours if you’re trebling up gigs at the weekend. It is never easy to leave a comedy club carrying the luggage of “worst comic of the night” or sitting in a toilet cubicle and hearing the urinators talk of how terrible you were – it takes extreme confidence, solipsism or a total lack of regard for the crowd to be untouched by that.

The other limit is the financial rewards you want. You may see being a cult comedian, saying exactly what you want from your heart but playing to low numbers in Kings Lynn and Ludlow, a situation worth sacrificing in the hope that by viewing yourself as a product who will reflect what the largest number of people want, the occasional regret at your artistic decisions will be soothed by the view from the sunny balcony of your third home.

These are not the only ways or self-imposed restrictions, they just happen to be the ones I was thinking about. After early audience rejections, Steve Martin ended up playing the Hollywood Bowl, being wealthy, adored and a stand up who made no compromises. 

I might sometimes wonder if I should have made the decision to be more mainstream as if I had some choice, as if I was capable of playing the big arena crowds; a man’s gotta know his limitations. I think back to some of the crap I peddled in the clubs, lazy, artless, thoughtless, and there’s probably more to come.

I do remember the first time that I was confident enough to think, “I might die on stage here, but I will die doing material I want to do, not die while desperately trying to please them with old ideas that now shame me”. As the dance mix that introduced me faded (not my choice), and having resigned myself to a difficult 20 minutes of communicating, I dug my heels and off I went. Ten minutes in, and most of the audience doubt was gone, it ws only the two blokes who cheered the BNP who seemed unwinnable and frankly unwanted anyway. 

I have accepted I am niche. A comedian friend of mine recently admitted she had moments  when she wished she was more mainstream, a reliable turn, but this seemed to be like Thomas Nagel’s essay on why you can’t know what it is to be a bat. Lose one of the ingrained character traits that has made the frame of who you are, and this may have a knock on effect to everything else that forms your character. Like those time travellers in a ray Bradbury tale, one crushed butterfly of your personality may turn you into a very different monster all together. 

I was thinking about the freedoms of the performer this evening as I was doing a “corporate” gig. I don’t do many private dos, often for political reasons, other times out of cowardice mixed with a cash deflating honesty that I might not be right for them. Tonight’s was for GPs, an awards thing. I had been dreading it for a while. I never feel quite right. Fortunately, the didn’t force me into a dickie bow, just my best (and only) suit and the tie I own that covers all possible events. I am not complaining – one, I said yes. Two, you could paid pretty well for these things, the summer holiday in a nice coastal cottage is sorted now. So why did I feel so antsy before going on and why had this antsiness crawled around me for weeks beforehand. i don’t feel like that before gigs or pretty much anything else I do. it’s usually that bracing sense of nervousness that should translate into fast thinking and talking once your on stage. 

I think it is because I am spoilt as an individual. Most of my professional life I do what I want and it pays enough to have a comfortable life. A corporate awards event feels different – I have a function, I am a vessel, I am an employee. How fortunate I am not spend so little of my life feeling like an employee. 

I met a comedian once at TV centre, at the time presenter of one of TV’s biggest game shows, as he sucked on a cigar he said to me, “I’ve got to go in and entertain those fucking stiffs again”. A high earner presenting a prized BBC show and he despised it all, except the money I presume. 

On Tuesday, I started the day interviewing a dental anthropologist, rushed off to write an article about Christmas with Brian Cox, sat in 6music and played Momus and guessed the lives of listeners through their song choices, got on train to Ealing where I read out from rude books and aped about with Joanna Neary and George Egg, then ran to the Central Line and Liverpool street, where I stood on stage and expressed my rage and desire for beauty and passion in art in the cellar of a pub with a painting of Lemmy on the toilet door, then write a blog post on the train home while eating Turkish Delight – Hey Man, now you’re really living. 

The line ups for the last ever Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows are HERE

Brian Cox and I are keeping quiet about most of our many, many guest acts at our Compendium of Reason shows, but Ross Noble joins us on 12th and Ben Goldacre on 12th and 14th, the 25 others are under wraps HERE

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2 Responses to The Freeedom to Caterwaul (as long they still come)

  1. Fotoflex says:

    Ha! Jim Davidson, I bet!

  2. Out of all the arts, I gather, to be a successful stand-up comedian must be inhumanly difficult. Yes, you are lucky to be able to make a decent living out of it, but I sense a humbleness in you that is rare and very appealing. I have never been able to see you live on stage (not living in the UK) but I hope one day that I will.

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