Mid-life crisis? Ooh no, not me

Dave Cohen on his return to performing

There are two ways for an ageing comic from the 80s and 90s to return to performing. The right way and the wrong way. Route 1, also known as ‘The Nick Revell Way’, is the right way. Starting from scratch, you accept that all those gigs you did 20 years ago mean nothing now. You go back to the circuit like a newcomer and slowly work your way up again, from five-minute open spots to paid gigs, then five years later, if you’re as persistent as Nick, you’ll be making a living as a stand-up again.

Route 2 is the wrong way, and covers everything else that is not the Nick Revell way. Route 2 suggests that there might be an alternative, any alternative, to having to go the Nick Revell way, which sounds too much like hard work.

I decided to return by Route 2.

And so, a couple of years ago, armed with half a dozen new songs and a few updated routines, I performed some gigs on the London circuit. The new material nights, like all new material nights, were hit and miss, but the gigs themselves were fun. It was great to be back, not least because the rooms were no-longer smoke-filled. It was lovely to see old faces and meet new.

But a few gigs in I wondered: what am I doing here? Perhaps that should have been my first question. Does the world really need another white, male, middle-class comic? Albeit older, balder and deafer than the rest. Have I got something new to bring to the circuit, or is this just a mid-life crisis? If I’d not been a stand-up in the past, would I now be out buying a Porsche or having an affair?

I decided to take Route 3. Route 3 involves not becoming a stand-up again, but performing something different. So instead of doing just gags, I thought ‘I’d like to perform a one-man poem.’

Which is not as mad as it sounds. Comic songs, or rhyming gags as I prefer to call them, had always been my strongest point. The subject matter felt right - it’s the true story of my disastrous involvement in the Womad Festival of 1982. How Phil Collins saved me from jail. My twentysomething love life – almost as disastrous as the 1982 Womad Festival. And it’s the story of punk... in Bristol. And hopefully funny enough to attract a comedy audience.

I began doing gigs again, in the usual and not so usual places. For the first time ever I performed in a library, next week I’m at the Poetry Cafe. Ooh, get me.

Recently I re-established contact with another group of people I hadn’t spoken to since I quit stand-up. These were the doubting voices in my head. Every comic has them, don’t they? I remember one now famous performer – the only comedian I never saw die on stage – who used to work himself into such an incredible state of agitation and fear before he went on, I didn’t think he’d survive life, let alone 20 minutes at the Comedy Store. But those histrionics were obviously what he needed because he only ever stormed the place.

I never quite reached those heights. Did stand-up for ten years: Jongleurs, the Store, Edinburgh, colleges, the odd radio and telly gig. About eight years in started to grow weary. Doubting voices got louder. Became over-analytical, stopped enjoying it so much. Voices wouldn’t bloody shut up.

What followed was a painful, protracted period turning up to gigs and never knowing whether I’d storm it or walk off after five minutes. I became familiar with the look of pity on the faces of my fellow comics, that very look I had doled out myself in better times, the one that said, sorry mate, thank God that wasn’t me out there, that was excruciating.

When I finally saw sense and stopped doing stand-up I went through what we psychologists call the Seven Stages Of Performance Withdrawal. Denial that it was definitely over. Bitterness. Anger. Jealousy. Humiliation, grudging acceptance, and finally, more bitterness. Only took me about 13 years. I’m OK now.

I’d like to think I’m not planning to pick up where I left off. I look back to the person I was back then and see a mess. Lacked confidence. Desperate for stand-up success, desperate for a girlfriend. Comedy audiences and potential girlfriends pick up on those vibes. They don’t look good. I lacked the mental capacity to deal with failure dispassionately. Took it too personally. Which is understandable. ‘Get off stage, we hate you… nothing personal.’

I’m 51 now and have a sense of perspective. And a good show I think. I did good one-man shows back then but didn’t always believe in my ability to perform them. I was always popular with the other comics, mind - had never been successful enough for them to hate me.

So why have I come back? I’m aware some things are tougher now. There’s the internet. Which in its most horrendous form looks to me like a universe of ten zillion punters at the back of the room: too scared to heckle at the gig, just wait ‘til they get home. Laptops out, they’ll be spewing bile like I’m a cross between Bin Laden and a paedo.

Then there’s mobiles with cameras. Those punters will film my worst moments, post them on YouTube along with my phone and bank details so complete strangers can call me at 3am to scream abuse, or point at me in the street and shout ‘Look, it’s the paedo with the NatWest online saver account 64730198 who actually charged people to come and see what he called a comedy show, the nerve, oi mate you’re about as funny as a starving earthquake victim, you’re worse than Radavan Karadzic - at least he never claimed to be funny…’

All I can say is, thank God they didn’t have mobiles or You Tube when I played the Joker in Southend in early 1992. There were bad gigs, there were awful gigs – and there was the Joker in Southend in early 1992. And Manchester that summer. And my last Jongleurs gig...

But no, this is not a mid-life crisis. I’m not planning to grow my hair long down one side to comb across the top of my shiny pate. The reason I’ve come back is, I’ve missed not having performing in my life. Also, most of what I write these days ends up sloshing around in some giant mushy development quagmire at the BBC. I’d like more people to see what I write.

So hello everyone, I’m back. I’ve learned many things in 26 years of writing and performing comedy, but the most important lesson is this: if I mention Bill Hicks in this article I’m guaranteed at least ten tweets.

    Dave Cohen’s My Life As A Footnote is playing around London atE the Poetry Café on March 20 and 21; Etcetera Theatre on March 23 to 28 and the Hen and Chickens on March 29 to 31.

Published: 11 Mar 2010

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