It was evening. We’d ambled around the coast from Cafe Mambo where we’d watched the sun set. Now we were perched on stools at a table in Bar M as the DJ gently tried to change gears and set us up for the night ahead. The ubiquitous fire jugglers were swooshing flames through the air on the beach just outside and I was trying out some new material on Andy.
Andy had two regrettable qualities. Not only was he naturally wittier than me in general conversation, he had the generous tendency of finding everything funny. I’m Atacama dry and deliver my jokes pretty straight, so trying them out on fellow travellers – the clubbers who we met along the way – only led to them thinking I was being serious and a bit odd.
I’d arrived at the point of writing jokes through what you might describe as a sudden accumulation of comedic capital.
Rick had turned up to do supply work at my school one day. He was a stand-up comedian by night and drove a Ford Escort. I’d get in that car in the school car-park and a few hours later we’d be hurtling through London on bicycles with no brakes heading for a nightclub where his friend would let us in for free. On Thursday nights, Rick ran his own comedy club above a pub just off Leicester Square. I would hand out flyers in the square and encourage people to come along. There were never more than about twenty punters in that tiny upstairs bar but I saw some of the funniest acts there.
Rick had a mobile phone with a speaker on it that he used in order to make prank phone-calls to restaurants to entertain the crowd between acts. It was Rick who encouraged me to get my first phone so that he could contact me at the last minute if something was happening.
I’d always assumed that comedians just fell into comedy through being naturally funny. You know the sort of thing; a guy makes his mates laugh and one of them says, “Have you ever thought about trying comedy?”. From Rick, I learnt two important things; that comedy was something that you could choose to do and that you could work at just like you could work at any other skill. I’ve started to realise that these are quite middle class ideas, the opposite kind of thinking to my grandfather who, when confronted with comedians or singers on the television would exclaim, “the things some folks will do before they’ll go out and work for a living!”
At the same time, I joined the staff curry club. A leading light in this movement was Joel, another stand-up comedian who also ran a comedy club, this time above a golf clubhouse in Ruislip. After a couple of drinks and a chicken madras, I agreed to Joel’s suggestion that I should give it a go; that I should put together five minutes of my own. Joel would be my coach.
I went way and wrote a surreal stream-of-consciousness which Joel dismissed as not very funny. Where were the jokes? I’d never thought of it that way. I’d never pictured comedy as a set of parts that you assembled but I now realised that this was what it is and it is no less creative or, well, funny because of it. Joel loaned me a cassette tape of Jerry Seinfeld and I started to analyse the joke types, the misdirections, inversions and juxtapositions. I came back to Joel with a set of actual gags – mostly very lame – and we started to make some progress. I went away that summer and wrote some more (which is why I was bending Andy’s ear in Ibiza).
I did my five minutes and then I did it again. I had a vague idea of continuing but I moved school, got promoted to head of science and gradually lost touch with Rick and Joel. But this is not a sad tale. I learnt a lot about myself and, on reflection, I learnt something of the nature of expertise and aspiration.
And I got to be a stand-up comedian. I did that.