Confessions of a Gong Show addict

Why comic Hartley Pool keeps going back for more

If you’ve ever taken a day off work to travel to London and perform in the Comedy Store’s King Gong competition with only two stand-up gigs to your name, then you’ll know exactly how I felt as I sat there, dressed as an old man, and watched comic after comic deliver their straight, and somewhat forgettable routines.

I was starting to panic. Being new to this whole thing I had arrived early to give them my walk-on music (Eminem’s Lose Yourself) and intended to go on in character as Sir Bernard Flowers to try some senile dementia-inspired material. Now, with all these energetic young things bouncing on stage as themselves sans music, spouting lines about late trains and George W Bush, I could see the future.

And it wasn’t orange; it was failure coloured.

Now, five years later, I’ve done four King Gongs and three Beat The Frogs (a similar night at Manchester’s Frog & Bucket) and I absolutely love them. A lot of stand-ups – some of them at the top of their game – wouldn’t even consider getting involved, and not because they represent a step backwards on the career ladder, but because there’s that overwhelming fear of a crowd that would really love it if you completely screwed up and threw up all over yourself in shame.

True, not everyone has come for that, but of the three or four people who have been handed the cards to hold up when they’ve had enough, you can guarantee that at least two of them have such a sadistic streak.

Back in the Comedy Store, I was just starting to realize how horrific the next few minutes were going to be.

‘You one of the acts, then?’ asked the middle-aged man next to me.

‘Well…yes.’ For crying out loud, I was wearing a fake beard, fake bald head, glasses, carrying a walking stick and scrutinizing a scrappy bit of paper like it was the cure for cancer. What on Earth else did he think I was doing there?

‘Thought so!’ he looked proud of himself and offered his hand. I took it reluctantly. ‘Name’s David, I’m just starting up a comedy club. Interested to see how you do!’

I gave a weak smile and tried to look hopeful.

‘And now,’ said the MC, who might have been Paul Thorne but possibly wasn’t, ‘the funniest name on the bill…not. It’s Hartley Pool as Sir Bernard Flowers!’

For me, it took a horrific accident in Denver, Colorado, to put things in perspective and show me the right way to approach the competition. To cut a long story short, I was on a crane (along with someone who had the interestingly inappropriate name of ‘Tom Cruise’) that collapsed onto a house.

As we began our faster-than-expected descent, I looked down at the roof that was now rapidly approaching us. Rather than, say, screaming so hard that my head exploded, all my fear left in an instant, to be replaced by a feeling of calm, and a fleeting message that there was nothing anyone could do anymore, and I should just go with the flow. The relaxed state I was in when we connected saved my life.

And so it is with King Gong, Beat The Frog. The whole point of the night is to provide entertainment for people who did not pay to come to a conventional gig, they paid to have their say about what they find funny; therefore, unless you have a very broad base for your humour, have great charisma or just tell old jokes off the TV there’s a good chance you’ll fail.

Once you can get your head round that, and stop those fantasies of the audience carrying you round on their shoulders, chanting your name and demanding the establishment immediately install you at the top of their Saturday night bill, there’s nothing to lose any more, so you might as well just go out there and have fun. On the plus side, if a joke does work there, it’s more than likely a keeper and the next normal gig you do will seem a fair bit easier, given that no one’s going to gong you off.

So, in Britain’s best-known comedy club, Lose Yourself started up. I picked up my stick, and following advice from a one-day workshop I attended at the ‘Comedy University’ in London, became Sir Bernard Flowers, walking slowly and arthritically towards the stage. The applause died down, now replaced by muttering and a growing hum of discontent. As I ascended the steps I heard the first few shouted insults coming from the back of the room. By the time I picked up the microphone, there were a fair few more.

‘Good evening, I’m Sir Bernard Flowers,’ I said throatily.

‘Fuck off!’ the crowd responded, and the three cards flew up like they were on strings. The gong went off.

‘But I took the day off work for this,’ I whined, in my normal voice. The audience seemed to find this hilarious, and one woman laughed so hard she fell off her seat.

‘Oooh, they’re laughing. Can I stay now?’

‘No,’ said Paul Thorne, if it was, indeed, him.

I walked slowly back to my seat – not in character this time, just depressed - to find that my new friend David had, for some reason, decided to not be there any more.

But it doesn’t matter, because I came back and will keep coming back. There’s nothing to lose – if you do badly, it was a King Gong night for goodness sake, and if you do well, you’ve got a lot to be proud of.

I only live in the UK for two months a year, but if I didn’t, I’d be doing every gong show going, and by now I’d surely either be the new Head of Comedy for England. That or lying in some seedy back alley injecting ketamine up my arse.

Published: 28 Apr 2008

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