I owe my career to a dodgy prawn | Steve Bugeja's Unforgettable Five gigs

I owe my career to a dodgy prawn

Steve Bugeja's Unforgettable Five gigs

1. My first gig

My first ever gig was in Pennsylvania, USA - in front of 200 children. Not ideal. I was 18 and working at an American Summer Camp (the basis of my new Edinburgh show), and for some reason I decided to enter the annual staff talent show doing stand-up.

I still have no idea why I decided to do that, or where I got the confidence. I was a pretty shy teenager, but must have been feeling unusually confident that summer. My friend Tom and I wrote a ten-minute set, mostly observations about the camp and in-jokes about my colleagues. I rehearsed so many times before, driving the campers mad in the cabin…

The gig was in a big hall, like a school gym, with all the campers sitting cross-legged on the floor and all of my new camp friends stood watching expectantly around the edge. I was following a juggler who had never juggled before - so the standard wasn't too high.

Thankfully, they laughed - and I even won the contest, receiving a $20 prize (my best paid gig for quite a few years). When I returned to England, it took nearly two years to get the guts up to do it again, but Round Lake Camp, 2009, is where it all began.

2. My most traumatic gig

Gong shows always have the potential to be traumatic: the pressure to start well, the awful sinking feeling you get when you see one card go up and you're just fumbling your words in anticipation for the second and final cards to be raised.

But one I did at The Arc is Stockton is etched in my memory. It's actually a lovely lovely gig, run by Peter Vincent, certainly one of the more hospitable gong shows. However that day I had a cold. I'd had a croaky voice all day, but I was driving a bunch of other comics up from Manchester so I didn't want to pull out.

I had a cup of tea with ten sugars beforehand because I'd read that Tony Blair did this to help his vocals before PMQ's. I went out there and started great. The first minute went better than ever before. Only four more to go. My voice started to crack a little in the second minute, but I was still rolling on the good start.

Then the third minute hit and my voice caved in. Whole words were dropping off, but in my inexperience I decided not to reference it, thinking that it would show weakness to the baying lions.

So I just continued, pretending that I was actually speaking full audible sentences, when in reality they were getting about one word out of five. I think some audience members thought it was part of the act, the old classic disappearing voice schtick.

Anyway by the fourth minute the cards were going up and I felt helpless. It was over, I'd been gonged off by my own inflamed vocal chords.

3. My most nerve-racking gig

Just over a year ago, a teacher from my old school got in touch, asking if I'd like to do a gig during a year 12 citizenship lesson. Mr Etheridge had been my favourite teacher at school and I felt bad explaining to him that it would go terribly and that I'd rather not do it. So I agreed.

I dreaded it for a good month beforehand. I remember sitting in those citizenship lessons when I was 16, being so bored listening to former students telling us about how great they were doing working at HSBC or about the time they appeared on Deal Or No Deal (that one was actually one of the better ones).

Mr Etheridge gave me as big a build up as he could muster, but it couldn't alter the feeling in the room of 'who is this prick we've never heard of, and why does he want to tell us jokes?'

I started, standing on the school stage where I'd done some of my first and arguably strongest performances as Nicholas Nickleby. Staring out at boys wearing the oh-so-familiar school ties and girls giving me the oh-so-familiar look of disinterest that I'd become accustomed to in my time there.

The first few jokes received tepid laughter. I could see Mr Etheridge beaming away at the back, oblivious to the car crash that he was about to witness. I decided to go off script and just talk about the school and thank the lord I did.

I realised that calling a teacher a loser would go down better than any prepared joke. So I just did that, I slagged off my old English teacher for a bit, the librarian, I had a pop at the head boy sat in the front row, I think at one point I just roasted the shape of the maths block. I was basically the class clown for the first time in my life, just eight years too late.

That gig was the biggest swing from apathy to raucous laughter I have ever experienced. They invited me back this year, I said I was busy, re-sits never go well.

4. The gig that changed my life

That title makes it sound seriously dramatic, but I do think without this gig I likely wouldn't still be doing stand-up now. It was 2012, I'd only been going a year properly, mainly doing open spots and the odd paid gig here and there in Manchester where I lived.

I would often write with Iain Stirling, who lived down the road. He'd just done his first hour at Edinburgh and was now supporting Russell Kane on tour. He was due to be supporting him in Durham one night when he got struck down with food poisoning at about 3pm. His management were struggling to find anyone who could replace him at such late notice.

I was sat in his lounge while he was on the phone and he just casually suggested that his 'mate Steve could probably make it in time'. They said they'd keep trying to find someone. Luckily for me no one was found so they gave me the gig, purely out of desperation. I remember driving up to Durham and being incredibly nervous - this would be my biggest gig by a long, long way.

Russell backstage was very friendly; he asked whether I'd done tour support before, I said no, failing to mention that I'd also never done longer than 15 minutes before. He said, 'just do about 25', I said 'erm, no problem'. I went to my dressing room and wrote down a set list of every single joke I'd ever done on stage before. It didn't look long enough.

I went out there, and thankfully it was one of the nicest audiences I could have ever wished for. I think my newbie energy must have carried me through. But that gig led to me being invited to support Russell on his next tour, and without that I think I'd never have had enough money to keep going and probably would have got a real job and let the stand-up fall away. So it was an incredible bit of fortune.

One dodgy prawn in a Rusholme curry house led to me being able to do stand-up for a career. Thank you Rusholme for your poor food hygiene and Durham for being too far for anyone else to get to.

5. The longest sinking feeling

My Nana asked me to put on a gig for her coffee morning club, which she helps run for partners of dementia sufferers. It would raise funds for them to expand the group and to go on respite holidays - you can't say no to your Nana.

I booked myself, Pete Otway and Smug Roberts (Andy Wilkinson) . The audience consisted of the coffee club members and friends. The youngest person in attendance was genuinely 70. Looking at the audience I wasn't hopeful. The stage couldn't be used because half the audience couldn't see it, and the lighting had broken, so we were as lit as everyone else, with half the audience sat with their backs to us.

Pete did a great job MCing, they enjoyed being chatted to, things were going surprisingly well. Smug also did well, once they got used to the concept of jokes. Then me. Everyone knew my Nana, she'd told them all about how her grandson was a stand-up comedian. Surely this would make it easier.

Wrong. What followed was the longest 30 minutes of my entire life. Whatever I tried they just wouldn't laugh. What made it worse was sat on the front table, smiling away was Nana Jane. She'd been looking forward to this night for months.

But as the minutes went on, her smile turned to sadness as she realised this wasn't going to get any better. In an act of desperation I resorted to just telling them the story from my first Edinburgh show, about me picking up a prisoner and taking them to a friends wedding. It was at least engaging. I even deliberately missed out the jokes, to save the need to the awkward silence.

I left the stage dejected, apologised to my Nana, who insisted that 'some people had been laughing', and went backstage to see Pete with the widest smile I've ever seen. Oh how he laughed.

Steve Bugeja: Summer Camp, Just The Tonic At The Tron, 17:00

Published: 31 Jul 2017

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