Stand Down

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

Yes, well, I’m sure you must all know the feeling.  I started to write today’s post early on Wednesday evening and by the time I was ready to wrap up the day I was confident that I was ready to wrap up the post.  I was happy with almost every single aspect of it.  I read it through again on Thursday evening, by which time I was happy with some of it, and I tinkered around the edges with the bits that I thought could be better.  This morning I read it through one last time before scheduling publication only to find that overnight some malevolent little spirit had toyed around with my carefully chosen prose and turned a thousand handsomely woven words into a complete dog’s-dinner.  It is awful.  I have not got the time to edit it into any kind of shape – it has, by some means that I do not understand, contrived to bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything I had set out to say: it was a random chapter ripped summarily from a jumble sale Jeffrey Archer, run through a cross-shredder and reassembled by a three year old, dyslexic chimpanzee – it had to go.  I hit ‘delete’ with the kind of relief usually only experienced when the police car that has been following you for three miles finally pulls off into Starbuck’s car park, at which point I immediately realised that I had nothing left to say today.  I rooted about the scrumpled papers that line my desk and finally found one that said… “It is a recurring nightmare.  I am performing a stand-up routine in front of everyone I have ever known and not a single person is laughing…” so, here we go then.  Please excuse spelling, grammar, syntax, lack of logicality – if that’s even a word – but I haven’t left myself with the luxury of enough time to edit it into any kind of shape, nor to bin it if it’s beyond salvation…

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever known me that I have never actually delivered a comedy routine on stage.  In fact, I can recall performing before a massed audience only once in my life, that being in a schoolboy ‘Mummer’s Play’ which featured myself forgetting whatever line of mediaeval gibberish I had been entrusted to deliver and instead, possessed by the sheer panic of an empty head, blurting out from astride my broomstick steed a decidedly non-period joke, with which my English tutor was pointedly unimpressed.  I have always found writing jokes easy, but I have cherished the luxury of blaming other people when they fall flat to the stage with the kind of ‘splat’ more usually associated with the back end of a cow. 

Stand-up comedians are, by tradition, young – older stand-ups are usually known as ‘washed-up game show hosts’ or ‘didn’t you used to be?…’ and generally know much better.  Occasionally I imagine this could be my ‘way in’: an old man telling jokes to a drunken, student audience: how cool would that be?  Young women have so much time for old men, and young men know better than to upset young women; it’s fool-proof.  Could I be the fool to prove it?

I know how a stand-up set works: you don’t go for the big laughs too early (just as well really) you introduce yourself and get the audience on your side.  The big laughs come in the middle of the set, although in my nightmare-set, I have never actually got that far – I usually wake just as the audience mood begins to darken.  I have no idea whether my ‘big laughs’ would, in reality, be bangers or damp squibs.  I have no idea, in fact, of exactly what they would be at all, nor of how I would deliver them.  Would I stalk around the stage acting out the scenes that I picture in my head, or would I lean casually on the mike-stand, laconically weaving my comic tapestry with a wry smile on my lips?  The stage ‘prowl’ is probably not likely for me – not with my knees – but at the same time ‘laconic’ is not a word that is easy to reconcile with my general demeanour.  I am not so much an uncoiled spring as a tightly wound-up spiral of anxious inconsequentiality.  An unmanaged de-coil could have, what I believe are known in psychiatric circles as ‘far-reaching consequences’.

It doesn’t help that I have the tendency towards the tongue-tied stutter when I’m stressed.  In reality, it could take me hours to tell my first gag.  I do have a strategy to cope with it in restaurants – uniformed waiters stress me out – I tell everybody what I am going to order and then, when the waiter stares expectantly at me, I say something completely different.  Surprise is the trick.  Dinner in a restaurant is like a lucky dip for me.  I’m never certain what I am going to get – even after I’ve ordered it.  The same strategy could give me a certain air of unpredictability on stage, but I’m not at all sure of how I would handle the knowledge that I had no idea either of where I was going, nor how to get out of it.  I fear for my sanity and my underwear.  I have a similar problem with social gathering ‘chit-chat’: pre-party small-talk with me can be unpredictable – and seldom in a good way – particularly when I’m not at all certain of who I am talking to.  My friends know what I am like – they make allowances – but whenever I am invited to mix with an unfamiliar set of people, I simply apologise in advance and pretend that I am somebody else.  My whole demeanour, combined with my social ineptitude, reminiscent of a man attempting to overcome the confusion of just having woken up…

(…I enter and walk to a stool, centre stage, carefully placing a folded towel over the seat.)  “The management insisted.  They’ve just had it re-covered…”  (I sit down.)  “Hello.  My name is Colin McQueen.  That is Colin, as in dead Scottish forename and McQueen, as in dead American actor, and the only reason that I started by telling you that is to prove that I don’t have to look it up from the label in my pants.  Now, if I appear to be a little uncomfortable, by the way, it is because my pants are on their third day – I did inside-out yesterday and today is back-to-front – never the most comfortable of days…  I’m sure that many of you will have seen me walking on and thought to yourselves, ‘He’s a bit old to be doing this sort of thing, isn’t he?’ and you are, of course, correct.  I have crossed the threshold between checking my pants in case I should get lucky, and giving them the once-over just in case I have already been very unlucky…

Thankfully, I normally wake then, bathed in sweat, uncertain of where the boundaries of reality lay, and aware only that all I can hear is snoring.  How closely dreams resemble life…

9 thoughts on “Stand Down

  1. If it’s any consolation, I would watch your whole set and laugh out loud.
    Perhaps you would do better with a partner, “Now appearing, Colin and Crispin.” or something.

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  2. Stage fright. When I was about 6, I was dressed up by my very talented mother, as the knave of hearts. I was to walk on and say “The Queen of hearts she made some tarts. The knave of hearts he stole them all away!” I had it all down pat and it was the debut of a long acting career, but as I walked to the stage my teacher said in a loud stage whisper “You forgot your socks!” She totally ruined my life, the bitch. I have a waiter story too, though it was actually a non-native English speaker girl who said to my then boyfriend “Do you want your soup in a cup or in a bowl?” he looked at her with a straight face and replied “I thought I’d have it in a basket.” Which made me fall about but the waitress did not understand this crazy foreigner. As for small talk…I cannot do it, at all. 🙂

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    1. Oh I can do small talk (none of my conversation rises above the minuscule) but only as long as I know the person with whom I’m small-talking. I don’t mean ‘know’ in the biblical sense, but I do mean that I am rather more familiar with them than bumping into them in the queue for sweet potato fries

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  3. I’ve tried stand-up comedy a few times. When I lived in central London, I wrote myself a five minute spot and tried it out at a few basement comedy clubs. My gags seemed to work on the punters and one evening I noticed two chaps sitting to one side of the small audience. (When I say small audience, I don’t mean children, or adults of a diminutive size, I mean numbers). Anyway… at the end of the evening, these two characters approached me and said, “We book acts for Jongleurs comedy clubs, you’re not ready yet, but you could be up there with the big boys”. Now to any normal human being, that would be the prompt to get their act together and build a multi-million pound/dollar career in comedy. However, as someone who has gone through life doubting his abilities, I failed to act on it, and here I am at four minutes to midnight, still unknown to millions and relating this story to you….

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