the Wrong Cough in Hull Derailed Him, and he went to stare at himself in the dock water

Written between Nuneaton and Milton Keynes, here is one of my self indulgent blog posts on performing. Niche. 

The weight of expectation on any given night can propel you through the air or crush you into bone splinters of self-loathing.

When you start as a performer, the pre-show nausea can kick in days before the show, as experience is gained, the time of sickness and urge to flee to Inverness (as long as the gig is not in Inverness, and few are) decreases. For a very few, it vanishes all together, though this can be through boredom and disinterest, when it has just become “a job”. Some of the most respected comedians still find themselves not standing too far away from a bucket before leaving the wings of an Alhambra or Apollo.

On occasion, you can be quite nonchalant before starting to show off in earnest. I had a lovely night performing at the Winchester Discovery Centre, having spent most of the pre-show anticipation period talking about The Inspiral Carpets and other music of the Madchester scene of the early 90s with the manager and technician. Similarly, the night after at Cheltenham Science Festival was occupied by technician conversations before yelping and howling about self-consciousness in a packed Parabola. That night, my internal monologue was in full Waldorf and Statler while I performed, casting doubt wherever it could, but eventually I boxed them and disposed of them and left with a reasonable sense of success.

Sunday, something had changed. I am the sort of person who finds doubt in an audience’s eyes when there is none. The chutzpah me and the paranoid I duel on many nights, hopefully unseen by the audience. I was performing shows with Michael Legge on Sunday and Monday, and on both nights I felt disjointed, both standing their shouting and also observing me from the outside, the connections of improvised thoughts seemed out of focus. It is those moments where you wonder if their is a homunculus/ghost in the machine stuck deep in your brain, and they are not concentrating. They are forgetting to create the illusion of you being in the outside world.

Hull, back on my own, with a winning interlude of songs from Grace Petrie, I had to fight very hard to stay in the spotlight, the doubt was beginning to seep out. This is my favourite tour, and I think many of the nights of performing it have been some of the best tour shows I have done, should I fail to replicate the very best ones, things can crumble. I don’t want to disappoint you. I don’t want to disappoint me. Whenever I get asked advice for “anyone who is thinking of being a comedian”, I usually reply, “are you diseased enough?”. If you just want to do it “a bit” , you may not have the kamikaze zeal to go on and on and on. It can be self-harming, with a lower risk of septicaemia. 

I have seen some interesting books of comedians’ photographs, both Andy Hollingworth’s exhibition catalogue and Steve Best’s Comedy Snapshot, the next project I would like to see are a collection of photographs of comedians a few seconds before taking to the stage and then the faces as their lip approaches the microphone and their faces are in the spotlight. From “what happens now, breath in, look down, fight or flight, walk on”, to “Hey, I am showbiz!”.

In the past, when my skin has puckered with doubt in the footlights, I have decided to take the issue head on. “Is this not what you thought it was going to be? Is everyone okay? Things seem a little awry”. I thought this might be useful, but have found that my paranoid mind has led to a misstep. I remember asking an audience at Finchley Arts Depot that. Afterwards, people came up to me with confused faces. They had no idea that anything was wrong, and then felt out of sorts that maybe they had not been performing as they should. Similarly, I would occasionally tweet that a gig had gone skewiff and then receive tweets from those confused by my perception. I have been banging on about reality tunnels ever since I began this tour, and I remain intrigued by how performers can dull or amplify the sound of appreciation or the noise of hate. One sigh can knock a performer off course, a tickly cough can be interpreted as boredom, a cavalcade of bored coughs can be interpreted as merely an outbreak of auditorium tuberculosis.

Many years ago, I was watching a late night show with John Sessions as the Donmar Warehouse, and learnt the crushing power of a little sigh when a performer is verging towards doubt. It was late at night, and as John Sessions found a way to improvise towards his Laurence Olivier impression, a tiny sigh left me. I didn’t even mean to. It was very late at night. John Sessions immediately reacted, not at me, but to everyone, “quite right, crowbarring in Olivier, errr, let’s go somewhere else, um, let’s have the interval here”. I was horrified at what I had done.

Whenever I am asked what I would do if i didn’t do what I do now, I draw a blank. Whatever mental highs or lows, there is no other career I can imagine, how fortune that nature and nurture made me diseased.

Come see me, oozing chutzpah and shunning self-doubt in Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Swansea, Newport and many other places. Details HERE

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1 Response to the Wrong Cough in Hull Derailed Him, and he went to stare at himself in the dock water

  1. I was on the front row in Hull last night and can honestly say I really enjoyed what was my first time seeing one of your live shows. Your desire to put on a good show and the warmth you displayed towards Hull was very apparent. Really funny and informative I found myself wishing I had brought a note book and pen to write down some of the books you referred too, although I have order a copy of ‘The Imp of The Mind’ today. Grace Petrie was also brilliant, really enjoying listening to her CD as I write this.

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