Comedy from the bottle

Do great stand-ups have to drink? asks Louise Curé-Freeman

A couple of nights ago I found out that I was disabled. I was backstage at a club engaging in a light spot of pre-gig nervous banter with my fellow open-micers when one of them noticed that I was the only person in the room not drinking alcohol. He wanted to know why in a suspicious, sneery way as if to pre-empt my saying that I wanted to keep a clear head for my impending minutes under the lights which would be a declaration of professional intent, of trying too hard, and of letting the side down by actually being seen to care.

The reason I wasn’t drinking booze is because I don’t – I’m teetotal. Not because I have an imaginary friend in the sky who has forbidden the drinking of alcohol in the magic book of fairy tales they are supposed to have written, not because I’m a recovering alcoholic and not because I’m taking medication that can’t be mixed with alcohol. I simply don’t touch the hard stuff.

The other people in the room couldn’t have looked more horrified if I’d ripped a leg off a kitten and started chewing on the bloodied stump. Then the questions began. Why don’t you drink? What about nerves? How can you be funny when everyone gets their best ideas when they’ve had a few? Finally one guy summed up the general mood by saying ‘doing comedy sober is like running with no legs, you’re like comedy disabled.’

Am I? Does my permanently boozeless state mean that I am missing out on some essential part of bringing the funny? It’s true that any list of great comedians will also be a list of drug addicts and alcoholics: Tony Hancock, Richard Pryor, Peter Cook, Bill Hicks etc etc. But the point that is often missed is that a great comedian is a rare comedian and someone with a genuine gift.

The sober Bill Hicks of Relentless is no less edgy and hilarious than the messed-up Bill Hicks of Sane Man. Bill Hicks was funny because he was Bill Hicks, and anyone wanting to emulate his success is going to have to do a lot more than drink like him.

Of course alcohol is a great leveller. Step out on stage at a comedy club and nearly everyone staring at you will be pissed to some extent, and what better way to get an audience on side then tell them about a time when you got drunk and acted like a tit? Look at Ricky Gervais awkwardly sipping from a bottle of Stella during his gigs as if to say, ‘See, I drink too. I’m an ordinary bloke, not a wildly successful multi-millionaire who gets away with material that would see Jim Davidson lynched simply because I raise an eyebrow in all the right places so that everyone knows I’m being post-modern.’

Away from performance and during the often lonely and difficult process of putting a set together alcohol is often puffed up as being a vital piece of kit. Again I’ve been told that my sobriety puts me at a disadvantage because I’ll never be relaxed or brave enough to push boundaries or take the necessary leap of imagination that is required to come up with something brilliant.

I’m happy to concede that I may never come up with something brilliant and if that proves to be the case then it’s because there was no brilliance in me to begin with; booze can’t summon forth a talent that isn’t there.

But if it turns out that I do have talent and get to turn this glorious unpaid pursuit into a real and successful career then I will have gotten to the top the same way that everyone who has gone before has, by putting their heart and soul into what they do. I don’t believe that it is also necessary to sacrifice my liver.

  • Louise Curé-Freeman performs under the stage name South

Published: 27 Jul 2009

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.