What my Madelaine McCann joke taught me about comedy

Barnaby Slater reflects

A few years ago, I used to have a joke that went like this: 'You know when you've got something you desperately don't want to lose, you put it somewhere safe. And then inevitably you never see that thing again. Well that's OK if it happens with your wallet or your keys, because they can be replaced. But I was babysitting once…

[Hopefully laughter comes here before the topper]

'… so I won't be going back to Portugal anytime soon.'

There it was. My joke. I know, incredibly hack. It would often be greeted with big laughs. Sometimes with bigger groans, but once… just once… with a reaction that has become a tale of comedy infamy.

I don't say infamy with any sense of self-aggrandisement. In fact, I'd rather not say it at all, as I'm not, in hindsight, particularly proud of the joke at all. But I need to mention it as this story has been regaled back to me so often, but always incorrectly. Comedy Chinese whispers if you like. The gist of the story I hear is: 'There was an open spot who once did a joke about Maddie McCann when her dad/mum/ grandparents were in the audience, and then the comedian hit him/her/them' or some such.

So let me explain what actually happened…

I was indeed just an open spot at the time. I was a terrible, young, raw stand up comedian who was performing because I knew I had to do it., even if I had no idea how. Yet something always told me I had to stick at it.

Back then I had no control. I was stupendously nervous at the thought of getting on stage. On the day of a gig I could come up with a hundred reasons to not even go to the show. Sometimes gigs would go well, but I didn't know why. Most of the time it would go badly and my lack of control meant I would end up accusing the audience of incompetence. In my head it had to be their fault. How could it be mine?

The truth is I was totally unwilling to face up to the fact that I didn't work hard enough at my art. I gigged sporadically, maybe once a month, yet it never crossed my mind that if I were to perform as often as possible then I may actually learn to enjoy it, rather than face it with absolute, intense, desperation-inducing fear.

On a winter Saturday night in 2009, I made my way to The Camden Head in Islington. It was a five minute spot. A huge deal to me at the time. After four minutes or so it had gone well, especially with the three women at the front on a hen party. They had been great - enthusiastic, listened well, good laughers - if anything, nothing that you'd expect from a hen party

At that point I felt that nothing could stop me. Time for my big closer. THE joke (as written above). Anyway, I get to the punchline. I tell it. At which point the script goes a little something like this...

INT: Upstairs room of Camden Head Comedy Club. London. Night.

Barnaby is about to deliver his punchline. He stands proud. Expectant of huge laughter.

…I won't be going back to Portugal anytime soon

That's out of order. I know her.

Who? Maddie?

Yeah. She's my friend's cousin.

(not missing a beat)
I think you'll find she used to be your friend's cousin.

At this point, every single man in the room started laughing uproariously. And every woman started shouting at me. Literally shouting. I got off stage quickly. I was the last act before the interval during which, unfortunately, everything went nuclear.

The hen came up to me in tears (it was her hen party, surely she was going to cry at some point) saying: 'A little girl? really? a little girl?' What I should have done is apologised and left. But I was raw and naive, so I defensively set about sticking up for being a comedian and the power of free speech. Big mistake.

Things went from bad to worse, and to cut a long story short the three nice ladies on the hen party left the premises and the promoter asked me never to return again. That's exactly what happened. No hitting. No parents there. And yet, no pride from me in it having happened at all. Even though my comedic instincts were almost unfathomably quick with my riposte, I still look upon the night with embarrassment. Suffice to say I never told the joke again, except when asked specifically.

So what's the point of me telling you this? Well… the point is that acts change. They improve. If they're willing to work harder, they get better. Unfortunately, human nature denotes that if we see something and think it's bad, then we instinctively think it will always be bad. We've all made that assumption. But it's not true.

Now, I'm my own biggest critic. But what I do know for sure, is that if the above incident had never happened I would probably still be exactly the same comic I was a few years ago. But what it did was make me take a long, hard look at myself and start working harder. It made me want to understand the art of stand-up comedy. How I could control it. Not just write a few jokes for shock value, but to comprehend what it takes for an audience to feel comfortable watching and listening to you. And once they do - well, you can almost get away with anything. Almost.

But the point of this isn't just to say that I'm better now than I was a couple of years ago. The only person who cares about that is me. The point is mainly aimed at promoters. I've been in the presence of a number of promoters recently who talk about acts in terms of being 'shit' or 'unable to deal with big crowds' based on the one time they've seen them a few years, or even a couple of months ago. Now, of course, some acts are not as funny as others and never will be. I'll never be Bob Monkhouse, I know this.

But what I'm trying to say is that the improvement in acts over a few months of working hard can be huge, I've seen that first-hand recently, and suggested some acts to promoters who have replied: 'Oh no, he's shit. He came down here a year ago and I'll never book him again.' I've seen one promoter at their try-out night not even listening to an act perform because he's so sure that the act is not good enough to progress based on previous performances.

Of course I understand that acts don't get many chances to impress important promoters. And you should always be ready with your best stuff for the biggest gigs. But all I'm asking is for us not to be judged on just one gig. Or what you heard about someone from something you saw or heard about two years ago. People improve. Acts improve. If they didn't then there would be no comedy, because let's face it…. not many are born with comedy talent. It has to be worked on. Dear old Bob and his missing joke books were the perfect example of this.

Published: 27 Sep 2011

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