Slaying my Late & Live demon | Tom Rhodes on returning to Edinburgh's bearpit

Slaying my Late & Live demon

Tom Rhodes on returning to Edinburgh's bearpit

For the past 14 years I have been tormented by a demon. That demon is the stink I have carried around with me in the form of a memory of the only time in my career I was ever booed off the stage.

It happened during the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2000. I was not a part of the festival then, I had just come to investigate the situation because I was interested in doing it one day. I think any comedian worth his salt, no matter where they are from, should do the Fringe at least once in their career, because at the end of your month long run you will walk away a better performer. And because the best jokes are never written on sunny beaches, they are written in cold horrendous places like Scotland.

My old friend Rich Hall was doing a late night spot on Late & Live at the Gilded Balloon so I tagged along with him to watch.

Back then the Gilded Balloon was located in Cowgate and the show that night was an all-American line up of comedians, hosted by Lewis Schaffer. A lot of people had gone there specifically to heckle Lewis. It was vicious and it was mean and I admit, I found it amusing.

It turned into the biggest anti-American hate rally I have ever seen and one American comedian after another became lambs to the slaughter.

Rich Hall was supposed to close, but mysteriously he got laryngitis during the course of the show and asked me if I would be willing to take his spot.

Me, being the cocky son of a bitch that I am, thought I could actually win the crowd over. I had already had ample amounts of beer and started gulping down more to give myself extra liquid courage.

Then, as I was introduced, the sound man screwed me by playing God Bless America – which made this already rabid anti-American crowd go apeshit. I couldn’t even get started because the entire place shouting together was deafening.

‘Fuck you! Go back to America! Fuck you! Go back to America!’

I had a very serene moment where I sat down cross legged on the stage and lit a cigarette. I can still picture that cinematic view of all those ugly, contorted faces with spittle coming out of their mouths as they yelled.

‘Fuck you! Go back to America! Fuck you! Go back to America!’

I got back up and tried to tell some jokes but they were the wrong choices and I was soundly booed off stage.

So for the past 15 years that has been my Vietnam. Sometimes I’ll wake up in a cold sweat, in the middle of the night thinking I’m still on that stage at Late & Live.

I didn’t realise how hard I had taken that story until December 2002 when I was performing in Atlanta, Georgia. I woke up late in the afternoon that day, made coffee in my underwear and turned on CNN.

CNN had live images from Edinburgh showing part of the city engulfed in flames. They showed a map – and I knew it was the Gilded Ballon burning to the ground. Me, alone in my underwear, having coffee in Atlanta, Georgia, I stood up and applauded.

Every comedian remembers the worst show they ever had but few of them ever get to see that place burn to the ground on live television.

For the past 15 years I have invented and collected every conceivable evil heckler comeback line and nasty zinger to crush any drunken outburst.

So this year, I arrived in Edinburgh looking forward to performing an hour solo show every evening… but I also secretly wanted to exorcise this demon that has haunted my sleep.

I needed to make peace with the place, so that from here forward I don’t wince when I hear the name Edinburgh like a foul odour just came out of a sewer pipe.

My first night back at Late & Live this month, the audience was not the chaotic band of ruffians I had anticipated but turned out to be tame college students uncomfortable with looking at a human face longer than their phones.

There were only a few outbursts and only one persistent babbling goon that was trying to derail my train.

I hit him with one of my old standard comeback lines and he just shut up. The crowd erupted in a cheer like from a clean hit in a gladiatorial battle. The man did not speak after that. Just to be sure he was done I said, ‘Your volley.’

To which he raised his hands in surrender and let me continue.

Maybe it is because I am older now and sober but I was not afraid and felt sympathy for the guy who just heckled me.

It was too easy to shut him down and I felt like a cat who was playing with a mouse.

My second spot back at Late & Live I got to perform an entire 30 minute set without interruption.

No one heckled. No fist fights broke out. No legions of goons booing or pointing fingers.

They were surprisingly attentive and up for a good laugh late in the night.

Maybe I got lucky, had I been an Israeli comedian maybe they would have held more against me from the start.

On the last night of the festival I did Late & Live again. I thought it would be a fun experiment to open with the story of being booed off stage the first time I had done the show and how happy I was to watch the place burn to the ground.

I thought I would point out an audience member and ask them to yell, ‘Fuck you! Go back to America!’ Then I would share with them all of these heckle comeback arrows I had in my quiver.

This experiment started out fine but after the fourth attempt the entire crowd took this sinister idea into their hearts and in unison started chanting, ‘Fuck you! Go back to America!’

Before I knew it I had used up every comeback line I had prepared and had to resort to telling my jokes again.

The most important thing is that I didn’t get rattled and stood in the chaos of screams like the sheriff in charge of this little town until my time was up.

I’m happy that I successfully got to kill this demon that has lived in my head. I see now that I was wrong to take it so personal, the rowdy soccer hooligans of my memory are now the memory of spoiled posh children out for a good laugh.

You still see talented comedians from all over the world psyching themselves out back stage, then go out there and capitulate after the first heckle.

For any performer afraid of Late & Live I think it is best to remember the advice that Paulie got in the movie Pope Of Greenwich Village just before Bed Bug Eddie had his thumb cut off

‘Just remember Paulie, nothing hurts as bad as you think it’s gonna hurt. Once this is done wrap a belt around your wrist and get yourself to the nearest hospital.’

Tom Rhodes: Colossus is at the Soho Theatre, London, at 10pm tonight and tomorrow night. Tickets.

Published: 29 Aug 2014

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