It was during teacher training that I finally started doing comedy, aged 23. The Stand had a comedy club in Edinburgh, run by Tommy Sheppard and Jane McKay, a couple so much larger than life they would have been scarcely believable if they’d turned up in Dickens. Tommy described himself as ‘a businessman’, which I later discovered is a Scottish synonym for ‘crafty’. Jane compered and was always outrageous, hilarious, emotional and drunk.
I just turned up one night with a bunch of mates and asked if I could do a spot. Tommy told me I couldn’t just turn up and go on. I was disappointed and told him I’d come down with about ten people and we’d all have bought tickets. That changed things completely and he stuck me on for five minutes.
It went really well, even though my act was rubbish. I think I started with some joke about how I‘d like to know if I was going to be murdered so I could go around behaving strangely for a few days just to mess up the reconstruction on Crimewatch. For the first year my act was all jokes about murders and people losing their legs, stuff like that. An ignored insight into what teacher training was doing to my sanity.
I couldn’t be arsed getting a teaching job and just drifted into doing comedy full time, even if there was some nightmare gigs.
At one gig in Newcastle, they put the acts up in a flat. When we got talking, it turned out one guy had done a show standing on top of a car in a car showroom as people walked by trying to gauge if he was a schizophrenic. Another bloke had done a gig where he turned up only to be bundled into a van and driven up to a dozen elderly people in a car park. The van reversed towards the crowd and the back doors were flung open – him standing slightly hunched in the back doing his act.
I’ve got my own horror stories. There used to be a festival in Glasgow called Mayfest and some bylaw said that if pubs put on entertainment that wasn’t music they would get a late licence. I suppose the idea is that boozers would stick on Death of a Salesman and people would be culturally enriched as they got drunk. In practice, bar owners stuck on stand-up. You’d have to do five minutes so they could get their licence, but it paid £50 and you could do a few a night.
I did one in a converted church. There were about 300 people in. The DJ just went, ‘Here’s a comedian’ and handed me his mic, tethered to the mixing deck by about two feet of cord. I crouched there and did some jokes and everybody seemed to be laughing uproariously. Later, I learned they were laughing at a laser centred on my forehead, making it look like I was in a sniper’s sights.
I’d recommend everybody try bombing on stage at least once. People are always chasing new highs; what about new lows? Dying on your arse is a low you won’t believe. I heard of a guy who died during a benefit gig for victims of miscarriages of justice. An old guy came up and put his arm round him at the bar. He felt a bit better until he realised he had done so badly he was being consoled by one of the Birmingham Six.
Gig on the Green was a festival in Glasgow Green. The tent was packed with people waiting for the compere Phil Kay, an unpredictable genius and maniac. As Phil walked on, someone shouted, ‘Show us your dick!’ Phi replied, ‘I’ll show you it if you get up here and wank it for me!’ and actually got it out.
There was a big gasp from the crowd and this bloke, fair play, decided he was going to honour his commitment. Realising he’d need some momentum to get past security, he sprinted right at the stage and was in the middle of an impressive leap as two bouncers intercepted him and drove him face first into the ground.
All I could hear through the chaos was ‘… please welcome Frankie Boyle!’