A love letter to stand-up

Adrian Thompson thinks comedy circuit has been good to him

Like anyone born with generously-sized ears that stick-out, crooked teeth and little-to-no sporting ability, the school years were a breeze for me. I could feel every block of my character being built as I was repeatedly booted in the shins, mocked for my appearance and threatened with detention for not kicking a ball properly. Every stone that flew past my head on my way home, every bullying attack and every football kicked to the face… They all helped to create a memory of my teenage years that still plays in my head like the opening montage to an American sitcom. Sheer, undiluted bliss.

My twenties weren’t much better. Dramatic relationships, maxed out credit cards and a driving disqualification all read like the opening chapters for a story that usually ends with ‘…until dog-walkers found him, yesterday morning...’

Perspective tells me I should be grateful for having had a loving, supportive, middle-class upbringing. But to pretend that those experiences haven’t somehow moulded me into the person I am today would be ridiculous. Yes, there are folks that had harder childhoods, but just because someone I’ve never met saw their parents shot and thrown in a pit somewhere, doesn’t make the time I announced to the entire assembly hall that my willy was stinging any less devastating. It didn’t go down too well. Everyone bombs first time, right?

When I was 26, my then girlfriend said I should try stand-up. I’d performed in bands since I was fifteen so I didn’t feel terrified at the prospect of a bunch of people looking at me. And what started as singing Nirvana covers turned, bizarrely, into rapping. And with rapping, its focus on wordplay and punch-lines, I slowly warmed to just raw jokes and humorous stories. By the time the girl in question suggested it, the concept of saying some words to elicit a laugh didn’t seem too farfetched.

My first time was in a basement in Southwark Rooms in 2007. Henry Ginsberg was the headliner. It was a Monday or Tuesday night. There were about, nine people. It was dead, it was quiet, I was awful. I remember the act before me came on stage with what looked like a bag of tools, said something fairly disturbing and then proceeded to disrobe. Nearing birthday-suit status, he began pulling sex toys out from the carry-all and was promptly led to the exit.

‘Wow,; I thought. ‘Just… just WOW.’ I’m not sure what’s more upsetting. That the guy felt this was something people would want to see, or that the sheer Britishness of the audience who just sat politely enduring it. I’m sure there are other venues in Southwark where that would warm the crowd admirably, but this was not one of those. After that, the MC announced my name and got the crowd to welcome me to the stage – and suffice to say, I sucked. I was objectively awful.

A year later, I tried again. Another relationship in the toilet, a move into a dead-end job sorting paperwork and I re-emerged at Lion’s Den. This time I focused on more actual jokes than attitude. This time there was about 40 people. It was dark and grimy. It was perfect and it went OK. Aside from a couple of six-month droughts here and there, I’ve carried on ever since; sometimes performing, sometimes writing, always laughing.

Last year I persuaded a friend of mine to try on the basis that, if I can do it, even half-well on a good night, then he can definitely do it, and almost certainly better. He’s a funny guy, quick-witted, amiable. It would be a shame if that was wasted on a career in sales. So much like myself, once the seed had been planted, he kept it to himself, shirked the egging-on - and secretly honed some material. Now it’s like nothing else to hear the work he’s put in and the voice that he’s finding. It’s coming to life and it’s amazing.

What I’ve found on the circuit is, at the risk of overcooking this, what I couldn’t find elsewhere. I was never one of the cool kids. At school or college. In my skating days, I was the worst on the ramps. In the pub, with various circles of friends, there would invariably be a more fun or funny character than me in our group. I would be a fringe accessory to the main conversation, I’m sure. That aside, people always seemed to laugh if I cracked a joke, so I never really knew where I fitted in; if people thought I was a geek or witty, ugly or boring.

If I sound like I’m being a little emo about this, it’s just because I’m temporarily being very honest. Rest assured, I haven’t dyed my hair or anything (…recently). What really put things into perspective though, was about two months ago. Some friends of mine were all on an email thread. I responded with a short paragraph of what I thought was an amusing comment. The reply from one of those individuals was: ‘That’s a really weird thing to say.’ No ‘LOL’ on the end. No kisses. No ‘Haha’ preface to cushion the blow. Just a curt, one-sentence ruling that it was weird. Shortly after, another responded. ‘Yeah, that is weird’.

Now, if you’ve grown up a bit damaged, for whatever reason; bullying, unfaithful girlfriends, parental divorces etc. You’ll know what I mean when I say that harmless criticism of banter like that can confusingly drag you straight back to how pathetic you felt when you got booted in the shins in front of your friends at school. When those two emails came in, I felt so instantly depressed, weak, totally misunderstood and, well, weird.  I remember leaving my desk that day, heading towards the tube and thinking to myself: ‘Ugh, maybe I’m just a complete loser. Maybe normal people don’t find that stuff funny. Why do I even bother people with my horseshit?’

And then I stopped. I thought to myself, consciously, how awesome it would be if that night I dusted off my sensitivity around a mate’s throwaway comment – and proved that weird is funny. A rush of dizzy endorphins engulfed my head, I U-turned back out of the tube, went straight to the basement bar and grabbed an unannounced, lucky-to-get-on, walk-in slot for later that night. Two hours passed and I unleashed a five minute set of acerbic, truly dark and weird humour.

The audience responded, the faces smiled; I’ve been back pretty much every week and have never been more strange or happy about it. And it’s not just about getting on stage and childishly trying to prove a friend wrong. It’s about meeting positive, welcoming individuals. Trying something new. You go to a few of these nights and it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the, ‘Are they funny?’ aspects, that sometimes you forget to notice that the familiar faces you see are so great; they don’t care that you might go ‘off-message’. It’s a credit to them and their friends they bring along that I (and hopefully others) feel so re-fuelled by their awesomeness.   

This lengthy tale isn’t here to get you wondering, ‘what’s next for comedy?’ It’s not going to let you in on stand-up’s best kept secret. But if, maybe you’re unsure of yourself, you worry that you’re insecure, or your friends just don’t seem to get you anymore; I hope you can take something from the renewed enthusiasm I have for everything now – and honestly? It’s all down to comedy.  

Published: 19 Apr 2013

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