21 November 2011

♫...So come on let me entertain you...♫

Nine years ago an old friend sat on his living room floor and uttered one sentence which would change my life. Yesterday I saw him for the first time since that night.

In July 2002 I was doing a week's work in a school back home in Cambridge. It was after my parents had moved from Cambridge to the arse-end of nowhere so I crashed at some friends' house in Ely for the week. One night I was in the pub which had kinda been my local for the last year I lived in Cambridge; when in walked someone I'd gone to Long Road with about 6 years earlier and had not seen since.

He was living in Brighton at the time and was also on a fairly fleeting visit back to Cambridge. After lots of talking we agreed that I could stay at his in Brighton after Pride the following month.

So the night of Pride in 2002 we sat in his living room talking half the night and getting even more wasted than we already were. I mean so wasted that on the train the next day I was grateful for those shitty old trains where wheelchair users had to sit in the guard's van out of sight of all the non-disabled passengers. No-one could see how green I looked and I could occasionally whimper because there was no-one around to hear it.

At one point I said something that made him laugh: Made him laugh so hard that he fell off his chair. Once he'd regained enough composure to be able to speak he said "you should do stand-up."

I don't remember what I said, but I'm sure that under the harsh light of sobriety it wouldn't be remotely entertaining. However, his remark sparked a thought process in my head that I couldn't shake off.

I'd been a fan of stand-up for a long time. Like most people my age, my introduction to comedy was The Mary Whitehouse Experience. The first time I saw it, aged 12 at a sleepover at a friend's house, I remember laughing so hard I couldn't breathe: It was the single greatest thing I had ever seen. In 1992 Both Newman & Baddiel and Punt & Dennis toured the UK and played at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. I remember Newman & Baddiel came to town in April 1992; my 13th birthday was in May and I begged so hard for tickets as an early birthday present. That gig was the first time I saw live stand up, and was followed about 2 months later by seeing Punt & Dennis. Having had my appetite for stand-up whetted I saw several other comics off the telly when they came to town like Jo Brand and Jack Dee. And, of course, Newman & Baddiel and Punt & Dennis a few more times.

I'd always loved performing but the thought of being a stand-up had never crossed my mind. I actually kinda thought that being that funny was like a superpower and it wasn't something that regular people could do. His comment triggered this niggle in my brain that "well maybe I could do it?"

I spent the next two years procrastinating on the idea, while seeing loads of comedy. I regularly went to comedy clubs, to see solo shows at theatres and I went to loads of TV and radio comedy recordings on account of them being free and me being a poor student. It wasn't unheard of for me to go see comedy 4 or 5 times in a week.

When I started doing stand up in November 2004 I very quickly realised that I'd found what I wanted to do with my life. I loved it. Of course, I'm the unluckiest person in the world so stand up dreams were shattered by illness.

I gave it up in 2007 when I became too ill too often to carry on. I was hoping that my health problems would only be temporary and that a few pills here, quick operation there and I'd be good to get back to it. So I decided to bow out before I alienated every promoter in the country. If you're booked to do a gig and you have to cancel on the day because it's a "spend the day in bed with a bottle of morphine" day then you're going to put that promoter in a bind. It doesn't matter that you're genuinely ill, you've left that promoter in a tight spot with a gap in their bill and only a couple of hours to fix things. So they're never going to book you again and are probably going to badmouth you to other promoters that they meet. Luckily the only promoters I pissed off with my health-related unreliableness were small fish rather than any of the really key national bookers. But it was only a matter of time.

It's looking increasingly like I'll probably never be well enough to work again. Kinda ironic really that the current political situation for disabled people in the UK has given me so much I want to say through the medium of comedy; more than I've ever wanted to say before. And the stories I want to tell are so shaped by being ill that I probably wouldn't have the same stories to tell if I was well enough to go out and tell them.

It was politics that led me to bump into him yesterday. I quickly popped in to the Bank of Ideas to check out the access so I could write it up on WtB. I'd been in the building only a few seconds when someone brushed past me and mumbled "Hi Lisa" as he did so. It was him; the guy who'd told me to do stand-up. We didn't chat long because I couldn't stay; this current infection had me feeling like I was dying. Honestly on the bus home I felt almost as nauseated as I did on that aforementioned train journey 9 years ago. We were catching up and he said "I know you're a comedian now..."

"And I have you to thank for that. Do you remember that night 9 years ago when I crashed at yours after Pride? I said something that made you fall off your chair laughing and you told me I should do stand-up."

He didn't remember.


  1. I find this very moving. I was told a few times growing up "you should be a comedian". I was never well enough to have a go in the first place (from the organisational standpoint mentioned above), and now I'm almost glad about that. I had a flatmate at one stage who did stand-up, and the way it clearly made him feel, what he was like when he got home afterwards, is something I can't really put into words. I'd hate to have started and then have to give it up. Tennyson said that it's better to have loved and lost, but sometimes one wonders if that's true. Probably is, but you know, it's a close run thing.

  2. I miss it. Of course I do. I sometimes even miss the standard comedian diet of limp Ginsters pasties in motorway service areas.

    But if I could have my time over and not do it at all knowing that I would have to give up due to health a few years later; I wouldn't change a thing. It sucks that I lost stand up, but I definitely think loving and losing is better than not loving in the first place.

  3. I'm really sorry you lost this. Also for the way you lost it - with chronic illness, it's not like you ever wake up one day, realising everything you've lost and knowing exactly where you stand. It's like the kind of bereavement that happens when someone goes missing. You have hope. You have spells when you come to terms that they're not coming back, but other spells where you still hope. Sometimes there are even reported sightings! So in many ways it's harder than a sudden trauma.

    It's probably a stupid question - because it's probably something you've been asking yourself for the last four years - but is there anything else you could channel your stand-up energies into? I realise there's no way to substitute that magical interaction between yourself and a live audience. We all know what to do with the lemons life hands us, the trouble is that the recipe for lemonade can take a long time to work out...

    I hope that you catch a break with your health sometime soon.

  4. You could always try recording some comedy from your living room and selling it privately, giving people a taster via 5-min videos on YouTube. Did you ever get any recordings of your comedy when you were doing it live?