Another unusual gig, this time for a ‘mini festival’ in somebody’s house in the West End of Glasgow. With some sort of installation in each room of the house (photography in the bathroom, author readings in the bedroom, movies in the living room), my job was to do two half-hour stand-up sets: one in the front garden and one in the back garden.
The first one didn’t go so well. I think it was mainly my fault for being so tired after a long week but partly because the audience was very small and the front garden didn’t lend itself well to standup with people coming and going between the house and the street. But I did enjoy how the neighbours all came to their windows to see what was going on.
The second set, however, was hugely enjoyable. Because I was fairly unprepared for the event and had hoped to use my megaphone only to find at the last second that it wasn’t working, I had to think of an improv plan quite quickly. There was a stepladder in the garden as part of an art installation and on a bookshelf in the living room I saw a book called The Best Pub Joke Book Ever!: No.1. Surely the perfect ingredients for a piece of performance art!
So I sat atop the rickety step ladder (“Not my real ladder, my step ladder” – Harry Hill) and orated relentlessly from The Best Pub Joke Book Ever!: No.1, giving commentaries on the jokes as I went along. I told the audience that I would be there all night, even after the party had finished and even if it began to rain. I liked the idea of the audience disappearing off into the night only for me to stay there, talking to myself until falling asleep.
The result, I hope, was an interesting commentary on the relationships between comedian and joke and act and audience. The fact that I was stranded in the cold atop of a step ladder, reading unfunny and occasionally hateful jokes was nicely representative of the lonely indignity of being a comedian.
I explained at the beginning of the routine that jokes are anathema to comedians: that we hate being asked to tell them all the time. So the whole thing was painful to me. But my pain was their pleasure. They lapped up tired punchline after tired punchline and made “ooh!” noises at the vaguely misogynistic or racist ones (and there were plenty!).
I would periodically ask the audience whether they would prefer to hear some “short and sharp” jokes (about flies in bowls of soup or animals crossing roads) or a “long and tortuous” one. The people who understood the idea properly would shout back “long and tortuous!” knowing that these jokes were the most painful to me.
When I got heckled I reminded the audience that they could leave whenever they liked. It was only I who was forced, by my own self-inflicted contract, to stay.
Someone suggested that buckets of vegetables be provided to throw at me. A great idea! The audience are very much a part of this “piece” so a bit more interaction would be a good thing. If I were to make a show out of this in the future, I could charge people to try and knock me off the ladder (50p for a small vegetable, £1 for a potato, £5 for a squash). This is how I would earn my wages. Like so many office workers I could maybe pay for a house by doing something demeaning. But at least I would be being honest about it.
A future show would also involve assistants to help in selling the vegetables: an Englishman, an Irishman and a ‘Scotchman’ perhaps or maybe an actress and a bishop.
One joke started with the words “Ahmed goes into a bar”. Understandably, there was a cry of “careful!” from the audience. I reminded them that the jokes were coming from a book and not from me and that I couldn’t be blamed. But then I said “Maybe the joke has nothing to do with him being called Ahmed. Maybe you’re the racists!” which went down very well.
As the sun began to set, a man opened a window in the house. At first I was worried that it was a neighbour telling me to shut up but in fact it was a man who had been in the audience at the start of the set. “Just checking you’re still there!” he said. Indeed, I had been on my ladder for quite a while. Almost an hour, apparently. The man at the window had brought an electric keyboard with him and took to making comedy parp-parp music after the punchlines. This was great! I loved how the whole thing – the ladder, the book, the comedian, the audience partipation, the keyboard – had all come together at the last minute without any planning. A lovely piece of impromptu silliness.