James Mullinger encounters his comic hero
They say: ‘Never meet your heroes.’ Which is of course Grade A nonsense right up there with: ‘You can have too much of a good thing.’
I have been lucky enough to meet my hero twice in the past three months. And the old adage should really be, if you do meet your heroes, just make sure Ricky Gervais isn’t in the vicinity. I will explain.
I have been doing stand up for six years now, three as an open spot, three as a paid MC, opener and - in smaller clubs - headliner. There are many reasons one starts a career in stand-up and mine are similar to most: primarily a total adoration and respect for the craft. Unlike some who start out, I had a day job I liked, but I always felt frustrated that I had never pursued my childhood dream to be funny on stage. My lonely schooldays were spent alone in my bedroom listening to Ben Elton tapes and watching Frank Skinner videos. I knew them all off by heart and they stopped me caring about being bullied or failing all my exams. And all that time I dreamt of doing it myself. As Seinfeld described in the Gervais / Rock / CK love-in Talking Funny on Sky Atlantic last week, I just wanted to be ‘one of those guys;.
To me ‘those guys’ were guys like Seinfeld’s sitcom alter-ego. Or the characters in the Tom Hanks film Punchline. Hanging out at comedy clubs, battling to get spots, travelling to different places to perform to people every night, bullshitting with your friends. What a great life. The dream. But I never had the confidence to try it.
That was until six years ago, when I saw the Seinfeld documentary Comedian for the first time. When saw that movie I knew I just had to stop thinking about it and just start doing it. I first started doing stand-up at open mic clubs at the beginning of 2005. Shortly after, a colleague at my day job (working on the picture desk at GQ magazine) asked me to write about it. I declined because I stand-up is something I have always taken very seriously and I didn’t want to be perceived as one of those annoying hacks who try it just so they can write a feature about it.
However a year later, when the opportunity arose to perform at the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal and write about what it was like performing on a world stage alongside comedy heavyweights, I felt it was justified since I had already done more than 100 gigs.
The piece came out, I had some positive feedback and I continued gigging three or four nights a week trying to improve all the time. Then in 2009, I learned that, incredibly, Seinfeld had read the feature I’d written, as well as another piece about how my wife and I had spent our life savings to travel 5,000 miles to Memphis to see him live for my 30th birthday. So I decided to approach his long-term manager, the legendary George Shapiro about writing a piece on Jerry and why he was my hero.
I was told in no uncertain terms that he never does interviews when he has nothing to promote. I chased relentlessly for close to six months when I received an email one evening saying George would speak to me. I called him and he explained Jerry did not want to speak to a journalist but he would happily chat with another comic. I said that I would love it if the conversation could be conducted that way. A time was set and one evening, , bang on the agreed time, the phone rang and the unmistakeable voice said ‘James? Jerry Seinfeld.’
I almost wept. Thankfully I was able to keep it together for the 45-minute conversation but after we bade one another farewell I must admit I did have a bit of a cry. Throughout the conversation he was charming, witty, insightful and never once patronising.
In the resulting feature I described how Comedian had inspired me thus: ‘Watching the greatest comedian fail gave me permission to do the same.’ I wrote the piece from a very personal place and concentrated on my love of his stand-up, rather than the TV show. George Shapiro sent me an email after it was published say he loved that line. ‘That's what it's all about,’ he said. I had never felt so happy.
Until a day later I received the following email from Jerry himself:
I was very happy with your article and still can't believe you did it.
I really thought my hero days were over.
It's always a great pleasure to chat with someone who's genuinely interested in 'The Racket'. And not just doing a celebrity usual.
Mostly however, I am happy to have spurred you on to the comedy adventure.
As Ray Liotta says in Goodfellas, ‘For guys like us, to live any other way was nuts.’
I could have died happy there and then. I was at a gig when it arrived in Northampton and fellow comic Steve Hall and I sat in the dressing room staring at the email aghast. Steve summed it up when he said: ‘That is just beautiful.’
Two years later it was decided that GQ would produce a film for the iPad app of the July 2011 edition of the magazine. Needless to say, there was only one person I wanted to collaborate with. Many months of negotiating with his publicist followed. And when I say negotiating I of course mean pleading and stalking. One night after a lovely gig at Newport University, I looked at my phone. There was an email from Jerry’s publicist saying he was ready to speak to me about the film.
Many more days of discussions followed in which I pitched different ideas for what we could do. He was clear on which ones Jerry wouldn’t like and those he would pitch to him. It turned out everyone loved the idea that consisted simply of erecting a sheet of glass in the studio and Seinfeld would knock on the glass, thus looking like he was trapped in the iPad. Readers would get to the page of the iPad magazine, then Jerry would start moving and speaking and asking to be let out. It was a brilliant yet simple concept that allowed Seinfeld to improvise freely.
I went to New York and was sick-to-the-stomach nervous. Speaking on the phone was one thing but meeting face-to-face. And working together. What if he hated me? What if I hated him? I tried to distract myself the night before with visits to comedy clubs,w but nothing would shake the butterflies fluttering through every inch of my body. I awoke the morning of the shoot at 4am and paced my room until 8am when I headed to the studio. Seven hours until I met my hero.
We knew we had Seinfeld for an hour so having spent six hours erecting the glass (after all, no-one wants to be responsible for a sheet of glass landing on the most powerful comedian in the world) and arranging the lighting rig, I acted out the scenarios we wanted him to do so that when he arrived there would be no time wasting. He arrived on time, humble and charming, and watched the clips laughing. It was the first of many times I had to pinch myself this glorious day.
I had to pinch myself hardest when Jerry did a take, turned to me and said: ‘Was that OK?’
Uh yeah Jerry, you’re doing just fine.
I had brought pictures of the defining moments of his career and after filming the sketch ,we recorded audio of him talking about each moment. Having a one-on-one audience with my hero as he discussed his first gigs felt like the most natural thing in the world, such is the charm of the man. Then we discussed the forthcoming London shows and he made clear how utterly out of character this venture was for him. Having stayed an hour longer than he was supposed to, we shook hands and he invited me to come and say hi after the London show. Final pinch of the day.
Three months later and the iPad app is hours away from being available and my wife and I head to the O2 to witness Seinfeld deliver an utterly magical masterclass in observational stand-up in his first London show in 12 years.
Post show we headed to the VIP area, which turned out to be fake VIP area as we were led into another room with just a dozen of Britain’s best known comedians in it. A few moments later Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant walked in. Then an O2 staff member took a call on their walkie-talkie and looked slightly nervous, shuffling and patting down his suit. It stood to reason that Jerry wouldn’t be far behind.
Sure enough the door opened and he came in followed by a dozen or so men in suits. I recognised one of them to be George Shaprio. I went up and we greeted one another like old friends. He then took my wife and I over to meet Jerry. He was talking with Gervais, but George pulled him away, proudly showing him the GQ spread. Gervais didn’t look best pleased but I knew I only had a few seconds so I fumbled with the iPad to show Jerry the video. He laughed loudly and seemed to be enjoying it. I felt enormously happy. Life couldn’t get any better.
I was right. Gervais, still annoyed by the distraction, suddenly interrupted and pulled Jerry back and we took that as our cue to leave, thanking Jerry for the tickets and his time and we walked away.
I never thought I’d ever meet my hero, let alone work with him but the whole experience has left me inordinately happy. He’s a guy who just loved stand-up and became the best at it. It was never about the money. And I do genuinely believe he would still be the happy man he is if he was still trudging around poorly attended clubs every night of the week.
He just loves the craft and if you are doing it, you are doing it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s to 18,000 people, or 18. Just as long as you are ‘one of those guys’.
So my advice is, do meet your heroes. They won’t let you down. They might just inspire you. After all, they are your heroes for a reason, and you know better than anyone what defines greatness in your own eyes.
Just make sure there isn’t a man from Reading with an annoying laugh nearby waiting to interrupt.
James Mullinger is on twitter @jamesmullinger
Posted: 6 Jun 2011