Confessions of a comedy time-waster

Michael McEwan apologises...

It has been around seven years since I last took to the stage at a comedy night of any description. By now, according to popular culture, I should be experiencing some kind of itch, perhaps even a full-blown skin-scratching frenzy, to return to the mirth-making fray. But I’m not. Not even close.

Instead, I look back on my stand-up ‘career’, such as it was, with a mixture of satisfaction and shame.

Satisfaction that I gave it a go. Shame that I was often terrible at it. Satisfaction that I performed at many prestigious venues. Shame that I failed to turn up to many gigs without informing the promoters. Satisfaction that I shared bills with many now-household names. Shame that my heart was never in it the way that theirs were. Satisfaction that I met a lot of good people who I am still in touch with today. Shame that I let a lot of people down, both as a performer and promoter.

But do I regret any of this? Broadly speaking, no. Sure, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t turn up to some gigs without prior warning and, yeah, it’s not nice knowing that some people will be walking around with negative collection of adjectives pinned to your name somewhere in the deepest recesses of their memories. But regrets? Nah. Comedy was, for me at least, a necessary experience. Not a distraction, not a vanity project, just catharsis. Pure and simple.

But we’ll come to all that. First, some details. Between 2002 and 2005, I would estimate that I booked something like 60-plus gigs. I probably made it to no more than 50 of them. Of those, around a fifth were ones that I promoted at my university union and so getting stage time was hardly a quantum physics exam.

I got that promoter job by virtue of two things: the fact there was nobody else doing it and being able to pique the interest of the entertainments co-ordinators with a potent combination of bluster and bravado, which would become the axis of my every performance thereafter, incidentally.

It was tremendous fun at first. I got to be the centre of attention for a couple of hours on every second Thursday, act out in the MC role and share a bar tab of £50 per gig among my mates and me (but mainly me).

As the host, I got to banter with the pretty girls before, during and after the gigs and mock the guys I didn’t particularly like the look of during it. Afterwards, there were security guys kicking about so I didn’t need to worry about anything kicking off.

Buoyed by this ‘success’, I got cocky. I started booking gigs for myself at other venues. I checked local gig guides for listings, called promoters and got myself on the bill. It was stupefyingly simple to do, too. What’s your name? Where have you performed before? You free this date? You’re booked.

I still vividly remember the first non-university gig that I did. It was in the basement of a bar in Glasgow on a Saturday night and it was at a long-running, popular comedy night.

I turned up and was told I’d be the third of four comedians taking the stage that night. Want to know how naïve I was? I thought that being second-last was tantamount to being the first support act. I told everyone who came – all four of them – that I was the second most important person on stage that night. I think they bought it. I know I did.

Anyway, the gig came and went. I made a decent impression and that was that. I hung around with my entourage for the show to end and then went up to the promoter to thank him for the gig. Or, to tell the truth, to try and approach the subject of what I’d be paid for my services that night. I mean, first support? That had to come with cash-money, right? Thankfully, I’m glad to say the promoter never broached the subject and neither did I. But that gives you a clue as to where I was.

I was 19, arrogant as hell and not half as talented or as interested as I made out. I was scheduled to compete in the final of the Chortle Student Comedy Award that Lloyd Langford won, 2003 I think. I never turned up. I can’t remember the excuse I gave but I remember it was a lie. I never intended going. I just liked showing my mates – more crucially, would-be mates – that my name was on the bill on the website.

The gigs I did appear for I was frequently terrible, occasionally average. After one particularly laugh-free performance, I remember bobbing out of the bar like the driftwool. The promoter was there enjoying a cigarette and bouncing around like a Jack-In-The-Box. As well he might have, too. The crowd were loving his banter. If we’d been team-mates on a football pitch, he’d have run rings round all ten of the opposition and left me needing just to beat the keeper to walk out of the place like some all-conquering comedy king. As it was, I channelled my inner Gordon Smith instead.

‘You didn’t enjoy that one bit, eh?’ he said, quite rightly and even more bluntly. I laughed awkwardly. ‘One word of advice,’ he added. ‘Punchlines. You don’t have any. Get some.’

He was absolutely right. All of my set-ups were limp, verbal cul-de-sacs. There was no killer hook to any of them. Christ, even an attempted-killer hook would have been a start. But here was the trouble: I didn’t care. I could pretend the laughs happened when they didn’t. What mattered to me was that I was a stand-up comedian – by name, if not reputation.

And herewith comes the need for catharsis. Now, full disclosure: I recognise that the next few paragraphs might read like a well-worn cliché. But they’re true. Each and every last word. Frankly, I don’t care if you believe me or not. After reading some of the tales of my adolescent dishonesty as chronicled above, I wouldn’t blame you for being sceptical. But you would be wrong to be. Completely and utterly wrong. Besides anything else, why lie now?

So here it is. After suffering terribly from a prolonged period of bullying at school, I went to university as unknown to everyone else in my classes as they were to me. I wasn’t this guy, that guy or whatever guy. I wasn’t the guy who got a chalk duster smashed off the back of his head in the corner of a classroom on more than one lunchtime. I wasn’t a hanger-on. I was just me.

And that was tough. Trust me, the only thing more difficult than being somebody who gets picked on is being somebody that nobody notices. If you spend long enough being a victim, you rue the day you become a ghost. And so, if school had been my road to perdition, university, I decided, was going to my path to redemption. And comedy was going to be my vehicle.

It’s obvious why, is it not? I got to take centre-stage on my terms, not some cowardly, pock-faced kid’s. I got to mock the type of people that had tormented me and justify it as comedy. I got to talk over people who tried to talk over me by virtue of having a microphone in my hand. It was a natural fit for me, even if I was far from a natural for it.

The weakness of my material never once bothered me. When you’re more used to being laughed at, rather than with, why would it? For me, a dissatisfied audience was still not half as bad as a satisfied classroom of tormentors. Put it this way: it’s hard to lose sleep over something you don’t care about when your dreams are already darkened.

I never wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Not full-time. Not part-time. It was just a route I could abuse towards getting over some lingering issues. And only now, writing that, do I realise I have one regret. I took stage time away from people far more interested than I was.

Take those 60-plus gigs at, what, an average of ten minutes a time. That’s ten hours of stage time I wasted during my abuse of the stand-up stage. Ten hours that could have – and should have – been given to comedians, not me. That’s something I wish I could take back.

Timewasters exist in all walks of life. That’s a fact I’ve come to discover as I’ve matured and got older. It would be a much more straightforward world if they didn’t. People are so wonderfully and diversely talented that it’s a shame their opportunities – be it stage time or whatever – are diluted by those who talk a better game than they act.

On the plus side, life is good now. Actually, it’s great. I’m happy, healthy, content and, perhaps perversely, I still love comedy. Even when it’s bad, I love it. I watch people on stage now and wonder about the person behind the performer. What are their motives? What are they really like? What makes them laugh? I don’t profess to have a more informed insight into the mind of a comedian because, well, I never was one. I guess I’m naturally inquisitive.

Seven years. Feels like a lifetime ago.

Perhaps that’s because it was a whole ‘me’ ago.

Published: 2 Jan 2013

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