On the day that his wife died, Bernard Manning apparently still went on stage and did a show. I read that when Arthur Lowe died in his dressing room during a matinee performance of play which co-starred his wife, she went back on for the next performance. There is a presumed noble rule, that whatever the circumstance, whether grieving over the death of your partner, or stemming a wound in your jugular vein with wig tape and powder puffs, the show must go on. There is nothing more disgraceful than failing to perform in No Sex Please, We’re British just because your entire family were killed in a mid-air collision or hacked to pieces in a violent uprising. Les Dennis’s autobiography, Must the Show Go On? is filled with questioning and regret over occasions where, with the distance of time, it is clear to him he should have said, “sorry, but I am not going on tonight”.
I was thinking about this a few nights ago. Shortly before going on stage, I had a couple of phone conversations that led me to worry about the well-being of a couple of people. It forced out the thoughts of what I might talk about that evening, and replaced them with a shadow of worry that slowed my train of thought to a standstill.
The pressure of having to stand in front of a group of people wanting to be entertained manages to push start some ideas and sentences out, but on this occasion, I think the distraction shows. The audience might not know, but I do.
Sometimes, worries, beyond the usual ones of failure and derision, can hurl out bright and insane performances, the desire or necessity to escape from fears of other’s mortality firing every creative neuron to sculpt a fictional reality as far from your reality as possible. During a period of hospital visits that lasted some months, I recall some near psychotic performances, including a particularly brutal Public Image Limited cover at Karaoke Circus. I think it scared bandleader Martin White even more than when I ended my rendition of Barry Manilow’s Lola by screaming and writhing as I told of the fall of Lola and her transformation into the chicken lady of Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Stand up can be a freeform packaging of everything that is meant to be kept in your id, erupting out and disguised as entertainment, while your ego frantically tries to hold it all together. It can be a dangerously thin line between freedom of expression and self indulgence, what starts out as experimentation and emotional squat thrusts can become self-indulgent bullshit. Then again, remaining risk-free and staying in the confines of a carefully crafted 20 minute set can eventually become deathly and glass-eyed, the pretense of “professionalism”, an alibi for laziness.
I had an odd gig the night my brother in law died. Up in Manchester, my dad called me to give me the shock news that my brother in law would imminently die. I wasn’t sure what to do, but walked the couple of miles from Levenshulme to my gig. XS Malarkey was, and I hope still is, a night where a lot of Manchester comedians hang around even when they are not on. A few friends were there, but I couldn’t really concentrate enough to converse. Eventually I told a couple of them the situation, just to explain why I was even odder than expected. Once on stage, I went into full on mode, showing off excessively. On occasion, I stepped out of my stream of consciousness and noticed that I was talking about death more than usual. Throwaway comments hinted at thoughts of mortality. Walking offstage, an excited college friend I hadn’t seen for a decade or more charged into me excitedly, spilling lager on me. I got asked back on stage, so apologised, but in a dazed manner as the distraction of performance was no longer there to deafen me to what else was happening that day. Walking back on, clutching at my brain to try to think of another few minutes to do, all I could retrieve was an old bit about the horror of bumping into old acquaintances and attempting conversation when all common ground has long been paved over. When I got back off stage, the old college friend was gone. They would never know that the routine was nothing to do with a horror at seeing them, I was looking forward to talking to them, but with my mind spent, they were the only spur that kicked something out of it.
For a profession that can be spoken off as one for rebels and outlaws (I am neither, leather doesn’t suit me), there are a lot of rules.
The show can go on, but only if you want it too.
I am, as ever, touring. Warm up gigs for my new show at Uckfield, Eastbourne, Bath, Falmouth, then off to Sheffield, Norwich, Nottingham, Bristol and probably a town near you. Details of that and some Skeptic in the Pub appearances HERE