So this is my first stand-up performance. I feature on the Tuesday bill when expectations and ticket prices are lowered to allow new talent to be thrust in front of an audience plied with 2 for 1 drinks. I stare through the intimate gloom and remind myself to make sure to get the pace and tone just right to make the material work.
When I say this into the microphone I allow it to resonate, to be taken up by the hard lump of my throat so that it stretches out, perfectly flat.
“I mean it,” I intone slowly, “I’m greeting you, one human being to another.”
This prompts the silence I was expecting. I wait long enough for the audience to become aware of the silence too and then continue.
“The problem is that when I went to University I realised that to survive I needed to master an ironic voice. Speaking in a way that could imply a level of understanding beyond the frankly distressing words that came out of my mouth; well, it seemed to be the only way to cope with a place full of learned people. And being constantly, unrelentingly insincere allowed me to fit in with a generation dispossessed of their belief in the integrity of life on earth.”
I realise that the peril of writing comedy is that you can only write it by anticipating specific reactions, without which, the whole structure can fall apart. As the silence continues I have to hold my nerve.
“Now with my permanently droll voice and look of mild disbelief there are certain jobs that I simply cannot do. And by certain jobs, I mean of course, any jobs. Because it turns out that sounding like you give shit about something is universally important.
“The Establishment knows this, which is why they manage to sound sincere about the most banal of things: makes of sunglasses, types of coffee, holiday packages, where you should and where you should not defecate.”
Just before I finish this sentence someone stumbles through the threshold into the room, trying to adjust to the darkness. The audience look towards the noise of a few empty chairs bumping together. A couple giggle.
“But imagine,” I say, ignoring the distraction and not being sure if anyone heard the last line, “our generation as pilots. Imagine The Establishment allowing us, the masters of profound nonchalance, to fly a plane. Imagine how an emergency might pan out.”
“Captain”, I say deadpan, turning to the right and holding an imaginary flight column, “the fuel line has broken, we’re going down. Should we start the emergency procedure?”
I shrug my shoulders and curl my lip like Elvis, turning to the left. “Yes”, I say, “let’s start the emergency procedure.” I press down hard on the words to make sure the ironic tone takes hold and the statement cannot be mistaken for a command.
“I realise,” I hold up my hands, “that my portrayal of two men commanding an aeroplane reiterates cultural stereotypes. So before moving on I’d like to offer a second version of this tragic event.”
Back in the imaginary cockpit I begin in a slightly higher voice, “Captain, I’m a hard working, intelligent woman, which is why I regret to inform you that our lives are about to end tragically,” I swallow audibly, “The fuel line is severed; shall we begin the emergency procedure?”
Looking back, “Jane, you know that I am also a hard working intelligent woman. The engines have stopped and you’re asking me if we should start the emergency procedure?”
I screw up my eyes and look right to show that Jane has to think about this. I’m picking up pace now.
“Anticipating that like me you might be a feminist audience I felt that I should also provide a critique of the last scenario. I obviously tried to fit too much information into a short death scene to the point of being crass and – through poor handling – may have made a mockery of the very thing that I was trying to champion, namely, equality. A good, critical film director, for example, might simply have had these characters exchange glances.”
I do the mime again, this time only using facial expressions. People laugh, particularly when the Captain provides her ironic response to Jane’s question.
But now to my disbelief the person who stumbled into the room somehow manages to fall from their chair. All the energy suddenly funnels away again. He gets up and just stands there. He blurts out, “It’s the chair; you should try it.”
I made a promise to myself not to get laughs by putting people down. But this seems to be an innocent enough opportunity to involve the audience.
“You want me to try… a chair?”
He just stands there, so I move down off the stage and sit down. The chair is slightly wobbly, but it’s fine.
“It’s a chair,” I say to the room, “It’s a four-legged chair, a design that dominates our world because of its renowned stability.”
There’s a warm response to this. The man isn’t being mocked, just the situation. I return to the stage.
“As I was saying, anticipating that you might be the kind of audience who could be amazed, bewildered even, by something as fundamental as,” and I have to take a breath because I’m starting to smirk, “a chair, I thought I should also offer this version of the scene.”
“Captain, I’m a hard working woman,” people are getting into this now and I pause before delivering the next line, “have you seen the fucking things we’re sitting on, they’re unbelievable?”
It’s the best moment of the night. And when I reflect on it later, when the phrase ‘I couldn’t have scripted it better’ inevitably comes to mind, I wonder what writing comedy is. Could anyone really say that I authored this experience?