Sometimes a comic will have a dream, in which they’re doing a show but not only is the audience not laughing, they’re looking at you with utter bewilderment, a mass of expressions proclaiming ‘what IS this?, as if someone had placed an octopus on the stage. Then you notice surreally notable figures in the crowd, such as Terry Venables and Mike Atherton, and the audience mutters, reads their texts, their indifferent bemusement so thorough it would be progress if the bald man in a bow tie in the second row launched a kung fu kick at your chest.
This week I can declare I’ve been living the dream.
I was asked to do a show during the Sports Journalist of the Year Awards, in the Grand Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden. Gigs like these are always tricky, as the audience isn’t there to see you, so you’re an interruption, and they all share a profession in common making you the outsider.
John Inverdale was presenting the awards, so I decided my first line would be “What a marvellous presenter John Inverdale has been this last twenty years. And it must have helped to motivate him that he isn’t much of a looker.”
Clink clink went the cups and saucers.
I suggested theirs was an odd profession, where they’re allowed to be twenty-three stone, half way through a third bottle of wine and write “The trouble is they simply weren’t fit enough.”
I heard a cough, and saw Sir Clive Woodward get up to go to the toilet.
I carried on with material about cricket, tennis, football, as if eventually I might find the right sport and exclaim ‘ah, so it’s fencing you want to hear jokes about’, before doing twenty minutes on those ridiculous epees from the seventies.
It occurred to me that Mike Atherton, interviewed briefly in the moments before I went on, had got a bigger laugh than me. Mike bloody Atherton, not only a cricketer but a batsman known for a dour dogged style almost deliberately resistant to displaying any shot containing a whisker of flamboyance, a man who sets out on a mission not to entertain and he’d got more fucking laughs than me.
I noted that Terry Venables was in the room, adding “So I hope someone’s keeping an eye on the cutlery, or that’ll be in Ilford Market by tomorrow afternoon.”
I could hear an individual slurp of coffee.
16 minutes I was on apparently, and there’s not one of those minutes
I wouldn’t gladly swap for a week in Guantanamo Bay. If I’d been made to carry on for another 10 minutes, by then there’d have been a delegation from Amnesty International stood outside with placards and pleading for my release.
There all sorts of reasons why a comedy gig becomes a disaster, some of which are beyond your control and some of which aren’t. It can’t have helped that John Inverdale introduced me with the words “He’s just completed a sell-out tour of Croydon.”
But maybe it’s fitting that sport, with its inbuilt uncertainties and fluctuations, should provide such a stinking 16 minutes.
And just as the most viewed sporting clips on youtube are disastrous goalkeeping errors, shambolic run-outs, and athletes tripping over, in its way this night was funnier than if it had gone to plan. The image of Terry Venables frowning with part derision and part extreme bafflement is comedy at its purest.
So I suppose afterwards I should have done an interview in which I apologised to my fans, promised I would get back to the training ground to prepare for the next gig, insist I wasn’t even considering resigning, and then blame everything on the referee.