Comedy saved my sanity

...And now Alfie Noakes wants to harness its power

Three years ago, along with my good friend Frank Cassidy, I launched a free open mic night in London. With all the clarity of a Zen riddle I should have understood the bitter-sweet nature of operating in the stand-up when on our opening night, a bar brawl broke out in a manner entirely reminiscent of the finest 1970s Burt Reynolds output.

I captured the furious flying fists and toppling tables on video. We posted the footage to YouTube and got more hits from that fight than the City twat who started the strife in the first place. Only in hindsight would I see there was some kind of lesson within: Stand-Up…fighting … filming…rabble-rousing …

Somebody that I am unable to name once said, ‘You work with what you have, not with what you wish you had’. This sentiment has been an essential mantra to me for the last year or three. Having lived a largely blessed life for more than 30 years I found it all being stripped away. I lost my money, my career, my marriage, my health, and very nearly, my beautiful young son, all in quick succession.

Someone else later said: ‘Turn that frown upside down.’ Now once I had bandaged my bloodied knuckles after having addressed their initially smug cod philosophy, I got to thinking about those five little words. I realised that I had already found a way to invert what was in fact more like a pained scowl. The new material comedy nights – Touching Cloth at Dirty Dicks in Liverpool Street –  saved my sanity and were an essential ingredient in assuring the relationship I have with my charm-filled and delightful six year old boy.

There is only one aspect of what went so wrong in my life that I care to share in any kind of detail. And this only because to do what I have challenged myself to do, I am obliged to shout about it.

Most of us know about the chaps who made the greatest use of a ladder, a Batman costume and Buckingham Palace, the gentlemen better known as the Fathers4Justice. Well take it from me, they had a point, and still do.

If you’re anything like me then when F4J were at their height of publicity-generating powers (purple flour-bombing Tony Blair in the Commons was another event of theirs) then you were mildly amused and didn’t pay much more attention than that. Thing was, I didn’t have any children back then and with no ‘skin in the game’, I chuckled and moved my attention swiftly onwards.

The simplest message from F4J was that the family courts in this country are unfair. Having now been dragged through the family courts I can report that this claim is indeed true. Claims that the system is slow, inefficient, loaded and not focused on the best interests of the child would also be true. It might be helpful to inform you of some of the facts of my own case but as these courts are closed, I run the risk of prosecution for contempt of court and lose all contact with my son by order of the court if I were to go into detail here. Obviously I can’t do that. So, I’m going to go into detail somewhere else….

For well over ten years I worked in the media, mainly in television production, and I presented, wrote, edited, produced and directed shows for BBC, SKY, ITV, Channel 4 and MTV. This is my skill set; producing shows, organising people, managing talent, asking questions, telling stories, making the complex understandable and turning the bland into the interesting (this last one is especially important if one had a producer role on Big Brother for a whole series). Some of these skills are transferable when running a successful twice-weekly comedy night which hosts around 2,000 performances per year.

The distraction/vocation of co-running our nights during the over long and entirely depressing court proceedings which effectively had me ‘guilty until proven innocent’ was an absolute tonic.

The litany of crazy characters delighted me. Some befriended me. Some killer jokes made me laugh for the first time since, well, our previous show. I was so grateful to the acts who delivered jokes that tanked so badly it helped me put things into perspective, to help me realise that I wasn’t the unhappiest person in the room, even if for just those few seconds.

As an MC I got to make people laugh and blow off some steam, especially when a nasty heckler decided he wanted some attention, well, it was therapeutic for me to give it to him…with both barrels of my bilious voice box. All of these things, and more, got me through the darkest days and I am now out of the courts and my son happily lives with me a good amount of the time. Job done.

Except, no. Not really. My case might be over but the insanity of the secretive family courts continues. I promised myself that when my own case was completed I would stick with the issue and try and help to generate change. This is where ‘You work with what you have not with what you wish you had’ comes into play.

I have documentary making skills. I have a comedy club. I have a cause. I have friendships and contacts with some of the finest and freshest comedians here in London, arguably the world capital of stand-up comedy. So put them together and you get, well, a work-in-progress.

I have recently set up the fledgling campaign We Are Family project, whose primary mission is to crowdfund a feather-ruffling documentary on…. well, you get the picture of what has me so outraged by now. Much of what goes on in these courts beggars belief, which is why a film is needed to show people what crazy actually looks and behaves like. The film might tell tragic tales but who wants hitting over the head with a big stick of depression? Not me. That’s why my touchstones for the making of this film would be Mark Thomas, Michael Moore and, ahem, Mark Twain (I think his film was credited to Alan Smithee after the Director’s Guild intervention).

I have been immensely supported by the comedy community. On Friday, Arthur Smith will headline the 3rd WAFP comedy event that I have run since getting clear of the Courts. The support bill has been filled with some of my favourite open mic acts, who have been challenged to work in at least one joke about dads/dads rights. I like to think that I am offering extra stage time to some great people/acts and forcing them to stretch their creative tendons. I certainly hope some of the comedians will aid me and provide creative ideas for elements of the film, and some might even appear in the finished documentary.

During these special comedy nights, some acts have done a brand new five, others told just the one bespoke joke, yet they have all helped to bring the funny and the money. The nights have been filmed and the complete shows are offered as a downloadable reward for anyone making a donation to funding the documentary, which we intend to start shooting in the spring.

It is clear to me that I am once again a very fortunate man. My son is secure and what I have is indeed what I wish I had: lots of laughs, artistic freedom, a heartfelt mission and a wonderful group of artists helping me to help them to help me. I salute you one and all.

Published: 30 Jan 2013

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