DECEMBER BLOG 13th Dec 2011
The Comedians curse
Welcome to my pre-Christmas blog. My, you look chilled to the bone, my friend! Brush the snow from your boots, come inside and take off your scarf, gloves and overcoat. Yes it is dark in here. There’s been a power cut and it could be hours until the supply is reconnected. Luckily I found some candles to brighten up those dark corners and frighten away any imaginary demons that may lurk in them.
Sit down and warm yourself by that roaring fire while I pour us each a glass of mulled wine. What was that? No, that’s not someone tapping at the window. It’s just the withered branches of a tree being blown about by the bitterly cold North wind. I agree it does sound a little eerie. A little unsettling.
Even more so at three in the morning when the timbers of this old place creak and moan and strain like an ancient, arthritic giant and other, unexplained sounds emanate from the room at the far end of the landing that’s been locked for over twenty years, ever since the terrible December night when….
See what I did then? I led you in one direction, you willingly followed me and then…bang! I surprised you. In other words, my opening paragraphs followed the exact same pattern as a joke. A comedian sets it up…reels in the audience….and the last line of the joke is the ‘payoff ‘ …or surprise.
I started this Christmas blog in a spooky manner because this is traditionally the time of year for ghost stories and tales of mystery and imagination, whether it’s with your family and friends sitting around swapping strange experiences…which have no rational explanation…or the annual ritual of reading a couple of chapters of Charles Dickens “ A Christmas Carol “ every night when you’re snuggled under the duvet.
I love a mystery and believe me there is no greater mystery, in my book (which comes out next year priced £30 in all good book shops and an ironmongers in Aberystwyth) than what makes a person want to become a comedian when they are absolutely totally unsuited to the job psychologically. The history of comedy is littered with the names of performers who were, at-best depressed or at-worst totally screwed-up because they didn’t quite make it to the ‘ A ‘ list.
And here’s the thing. The list of comedians who did manage to make it to the ‘A ‘ list, subsequently becoming fabulously rich and achieving success on stage, television, radio….even in films…and who became even more depressed and screwed-up, is just as long.
If you’re only vaguely knowledgeable about the great comedians of the past, you’ll be aware that Tony Hancock, the man whose BBC tv shows were so popular they emptied ‘pubs and caused church services to be re-arranged, was an introspective manic-depressive who late in his career developed an over-reliance on booze to give him confidence before he could face an audience.
Although a massive star, he was riddled with insecurities and jealous of the success of his comedy colleagues Sid James and Kenneth Williams. So he dispensed with them before also sacking the men who had created the ‘ Hancock’ persona which had propelled him to success, scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. He then channel-hopped from the BBC to A.T.V. ( one of the several ITV companies which broadcast to the nation in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s ) for whom he made a truly appalling series which shed viewers in their millions, even though the nation really wanted him to succeed ( no I’m not that old, I just know my comedy ).
Although famous for his radio and television sitcoms and a brace of films which, while fitfully amusing, didn’t set the movie world alight, he did start out as a stand-up comic and eventually went back to it when his star waned. His famous return to stand-up at the Royal Festival Hall in September 1966 was a hit and miss affair and even the 50 minute televised version of the show did him no favours.
Despite hiring his old scriptwriters Galton and Simpson to pen him some new routines, whether it was because he couldn’t learn them or didn’t think they did him justice, he scrapped the new stuff and on the night went out and did bits from his old act, including impressions of long-dead actors that would have had anyone under 30 in the audience scratching their heads. Remarkably, his comic timing was still intact but he looked tired and bloated and nothing like ‘ The Lad Himself ‘ whose television shows just a few years before were un-missable.
His problem,…well one of them…was that he continually analysed what made audiences laugh. He wasn’t content with being the biggest, most-loved comedy star in Britain year after year. He over-intellectualised the art of comedy so much it eventually evaporated in his hands.
Two years later, in the middle of trying once again to resurrect his career and star status, this time in Australia, he took his own life, leaving a note that said “ Things went wrong too many times “.
Perhaps if he’d hung on to his talented comedy cohorts and his writers and his BBC contract, maybe things wouldn’t have gone wrong quite so many times. Who knows? I do know that Bob Hope hung on to his staff and many of his writers for 30 years or more and no one enjoyed their success in comedy and the art of making people laugh as much as Hope and no one was less prone to depression or self-doubt.
Then there was the huge light entertainment star of the 70’s. No, not Mr. Blobby. He wasn’t big until the 90’s. For about three weeks. A terrible, gut-wrenching three weeks admittedly but just three weeks nevertheless.
No, I’m referring to a comedian and impressionist who was popular for a decade or more. I won’t mention his name but you should have a pretty good idea who I mean.
He was HUGE. He had a Saturday night BBC series plus a Christmas special every year. He toured theatres. He played long summer seasons. And he popped-up as a welcome guest on chat shows and panel games. That man had it made. Well apart from the fact he was physically sick before he went on stage or in front of a television audience. He was happiest pre-recording sketches that would be shown on monitors to the studio audience and their genuine laughter would be recorded.
As his success grew, so did his doubts and fears and depression. Until eventually he became so crippled with stage fright he just could not step out in front of an audience. Which as you may know is one of the basic requirements of being a performer. He even tried appearing in stage farces, surrounded by comedy actors who could give him moral and sometimes verbal support if he forgot a line. But even that was too much for him and in less time than it takes to remove the greasepaint of destiny from the over-made-up face of Olde Father Time, this very talented man disappeared from view.
Blimey! This blog hasn’t been very Christmassy has it? Doom and gloom Depression. Suicide. Sad lonely characters…it’s like “ A Best of Jeremy Kyle “ dvd.
Look, it’s not a state secret that most comedians are complicated people. To be complicated is one of the main requirements of the job. You may have seen the ads in your local ‘paper or the situations vacant pages of the Times.
“ Comedian wanted. Simple, uncomplicated people with no particular attitude, hang-ups, obsessions, opinions or oddly- skewed personal view of the world need not apply “.
Let’s take me for example. Why? Because this is my blog. When you get around to writing your own blog you can talk about you as much as you like. I might even take the time to read it. Unless it’s a nice day. But this is my blog, which is why there’s so many references to me in it. I think I’ve made my point. Ever so subtly.
I love being a comedian. I love making people laugh. But most sensible people in the audience realise that I don’t just walk on and make things up as I go along. I prepare well in advance. I write material, and learn it. Over and over again until I know it well enough to open my mouth and share it with an audience.
But before I go on stage my slightly ‘complicated‘side shows itself. I can’t just step out of the car and onto the stage. I arrive well before show time and I keep myself to myself, staying away from any negative conversations or other performers mood swings. Because if there are eight comedians in the green room, all with different personalities and character quirks, it only takes one of them to look a bit nervous or doubtful about the strength of his or her material and it can be as contagious as a sneeze in a lift. A lift with lots of people in it. Well, I say ‘lots’. Two or three’s enough for the germs from a sneeze to spread. You get the idea.
While I’m waiting to do my set, I always try and visualise the end of my act and that it’s gone very well. By visualising the perfect outcome, when my name is called I hit the stage running and work towards what I had already pre-visualised.
That in itself isn’t enough of course. You also need confidence, attitude, experience and faith in your material.
But if you possess all those things and can see, in your head, that they will all come together in the time they’ve given you on stage, you will do better than someone who is full of self-doubt and moments before his or her name is called, is sitting there wondering “ What the hell am I doing here? I’m crap !”.
And here endeth the umpteenth lesson.
Roy Woods song “ I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day “ which there’s a chance you might have heard once or twice while out shopping in the last couple of months, doesn’t make any sense. Why? Well I’ll tell you if you’ll have a bit of patience.
Roy Wood is/was a singer and songwriter.
Singers and songwriters, before the advent of downloads, made money from singles and album sales.
Singles and albums were sold in shops ( and still are ).
But shops like HMV and supermarkets are closed on Christmas Day.
So if it was Christmas every day, Roy wouldn’t be able to sell any of his records, whether they were related to Christmas or not.
So where’s the logic of wanting it to be Christmas every day?
He just didn’t think it through, did he?