It was on my ‘bucket list’, but that doesn’t mean it was a sensible thing to do. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is something I’d like to do before I die as well, but at the age of 56 and with the lung capacity of a broken windsock I probably shouldn’t attempt it. In this particular case, though, all I was risking was public humiliation and I know from experience — lots and lots of experience — that I can survive that. So I decided to do it. I would try my hand at stand-up comedy.
This particular story begins last year at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green. On the second Tuesday of every month, the club is taken over by Andrew Doyle, the creator of Titania McGrath, and Andy Shaw, Spectator Life’s resident satirist, who host a night of no-holds-barred humor called Comedy Unleashed. Like every other part of the entertainment industry, the world of comedy has been captured by the woke cult and these days any stand-up with mildly risqué material can find it difficult to get booked in mainstream clubs. That’s where Comedy Unleashed comes in. It’s like an oasis of free thought — the comedy equivalent of Václav Havel’s flat in Prague in 1968. The only rule is no self-censorship. If it’s funny, it’s funny.
Anyway, in October, after watching a hilarious set by Simon Evans, one of the very few right-of-center comedians who gets anywhere near Radio 4, I had a moment of madness. I buttonholed Doyle and Shaw and said: ‘I’d like to have a go at stand-up. Any chance of booking me in for a 10-minute slot?’
I was expecting them to sit me down in a quiet room and talk me out of it, but no. They enthusiastically agreed. They’re both big believers in taking risks on stage — that the best stand-up involves walking a tightrope, with the performer not knowing whether he’ll fall flat on his face. And that went double for a complete novice like me. So I was confirmed for February 11.
The Backyard Comedy Club has a capacity of around 300 and it quickly sold out, partly because lots of my friends — people such as Paul Staines, who runs the Guido Fawkes website — bought tickets in the hope of seeing me crash and burn. To minimize the risk of that, I sent a rough draft of my ‘set’ to Doyle and Shaw, as well as to Konstantin Kisin, the Russian stand-up who shot to fame last year when he refused to sign a ‘behavioral agreement form’ promising not to make any politically incorrect jokes as a condition of appearing at the School of African and Oriental Studies. Their feedback was brutal. ‘Trim it down,’ said Kisin. ‘The faster you can get to the punchline the better.’ In other words, back to the drawing board.
On the night, my biggest fear was that I’d forget some of my jokes. I asked Andrew if I could read from cue cards, but he looked skeptical. ‘You could…’ he said, leaving me in no doubt that, no, I really couldn’t. So as my slot approached, I walked back and forth backstage reciting my material over and over again, trying to fix it in my head. I knew that the more nervous I was, the more likely I would be to freeze, so all that pacing probably didn’t help. Then I got a heads-up — ‘Five minutes, Toby’ — and my pre-flight nerves blossomed into a full-blown panic attack. At one point I thought I might actually pass out. Why in God’s name had I volunteered to do this?
When the moment finally arrived and I clambered on to the stage, it was almost like being in a dream. I was there, but not there — a bit like someone who wakes up from a general anesthetic in the middle of an operation. And as I feared, I did forget some of my lines. There were two points when I couldn’t remember what came next and just plunged forward, making my best guess, and inadvertently left out some of what I considered to be my best jokes. Then again, judging from the reaction of Kisin and others to those ‘gems’, maybe it was for the best. I managed to bring it in at just under 10 minutes, so at least I didn’t get ‘the hook’, which is when the master of ceremonies physically pulls you off the stage because you’ve over-run.
I got a few laughs, so thought I’d just about got away with it, but wasn’t sure until I bumped into Paul Staines in the bar. ‘You bastard,’he said. ‘That wasn’t as bad as I’d hoped.’ Not a five-star review, but I’ll take it.