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Tales of an open miker

It was my third time on stage and I was really cooking. It was at the “Anarchy” nightclub’s newly introduced comedy night. I couldn’t believe it when I heard there was open mike comedy right on my doorstep – finally there was a space where my sideways take on modern living could be given a voice.

I started my set with a pretty risqué but spot-on bit about contemporary race relations. I got the idea when I saw a middle-aged Sikh man in the petrol station and noticed how funny his hat was. I had my reservations about the material before going on stage, I live in a pretty “metropolitan” area and was worried some people wouldn’t get the inherent irony. And even though ninety percent of the audience were white males in their twenties, I hesitated for a second. In the end I needn’t have worried – the joke went down a storm, even heralding cries of “That’s so true!” and “Yeah, they are like that!”

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From this I segued into a piece of observational comedy. Observational comedy has the ability to tap into the collective unconscious of an audience, reach into their Jungian minds and provide them with a cathartic release as well as the knowledge that deep down we all suffer from the same uniquely human condition. It was a bit about how sometimes after you get your hair cut you use too much shampoo afterwards, the audience couldn’t get enough.

I remember reading somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master something. I took pride in the thought that I’d come about as close as you could reasonably expect in less than one. When I came off stage it felt amazing, like how I imagine being on some kind of drug must feel like.

I was packing away a handful of props into my Super Mario backpack when a balding man in a smart striped shirt approached me. He told me I was really funny and “slap bang in the middle of a key demographic”. All this flattery overwhelmed me and my usual quick wittedness escaped me. “Cool” was all I could muster in response.

The man went on to explain that he represented Harry Steele, the controversial funny-man and host of my favourite late night panel show Nerves of Steele. He asked if I was interested in becoming a ‘programme associate’ for Mr. Steele. Of course, I jumped at the chance of working with one of my idols. Steele’s stand-up DVD Give A Fuck, Me? was an inspiration to me and I’d watched it at least three times.

The next thing I knew, I was outside Steele’s office. The walls were adorned with pictures of Steele with his famous pals and shelves buckling under the weight of BAFTAs and British Comedy Awards – needless to say it was pretty intimidating. I was ushered into the office and Steele gave me an outline of what I would be doing. My duties would include writing raw material for him to “re-mould”, providing youth-friendly pop culture references, running to the local Pret A Manger and being verbally abused. The last two didn’t seem particularly fulfilling but then I remembered that I had rent to pay, £200 a week and my parents were only sending £150 – so I couldn’t afford to be fussy. I accepted the position on the spot.

I remember the first gig I accompanied Harry to. It was what we in the business call a “corporate gig” for the senior management of ASDA. I was pacing nervously by the bar at the back of the packed function room. Some people might think that a room full of supermarket managers would be pretty dull. Well, let me tell you, it was anything but. The party was in full swing and everyone was dancing along with just the right amount of irony to the Macarana. I would have liked to have been right there with them but I was racked with nerves on Steele’s behalf. A man with gelled hair holding a bottle of premium apricot cider yelled at me over the music:

“Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m a comedian.” I replied.

“Oh yeah? Here’s a joke for ya.”

With perfect timing, in the momentary quiet between songs, the man let out a fart. He, and the group of men in ill-fitting suits crowded behind him, fell about laughing. My fear subsided – I could see this was a comedy crowd.

The music was shut off and the house lights dimmed slightly. I was now backstage and watching from the wings as Harry took to the stage, to thunderous applause. He was spellbinding – it was like watching Picasso paint, or Mozart do a song. Not all of the crowd was paying attention, in fact large portions of the audience were still talking loudly about how fragmented the market had become and swapping anecdotes about what bastards customers could be. Harry kept going and never batted an eye-lid – you could tell that the ones paying attention really “got it”. The set ended in a standing ovation when Harry declared that the people at Tesco were “a bunch of wankers!”

Harry invited me and a select few female members of the audience back to his hotel room after the gig. We drank and laughed like children into the early hours of the morning. Harry kept on impressing me – for a man with only one nostril his cocaine intake that night was truly heroic. I hold that night as the benchmark for what I have achieved so far in my fledgling career and for what comedy can achieve as an art form. I even got a hand job from a middle-aged but relatively attractive store manager while sat on the edge of the Premier Inn bathtub. I was the first to wake up in the morning and stepped out onto the balcony to breathe in the Dagenham air.

“This is it,” I thought to myself.

“This is comedy.”

by George Cann

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