Lembit Opik's first stand-up gig

Review by Steve Bennett

Few would-be stand-ups would ever dare perform their first nervous gig in front of the nation’s press. But then they are not Lembit Opik, the publicity-seeking former MP, reputedly making his first steps onto the path to being a comedian.

It would be great to report that, even with a partisan audience packed full of friends and acolytes, that he stormed the gig and truly earned a rousing ovation. And, let’s face it, it would be even better to report that he died a terrible death, leaving the stage to the humiliating sound of his own footsteps, having been rejected by the audience in the same way he had been spurned by the voters of Montgomeryshire.

But, in the biggest anticlimax since George Lucas thought ‘What about another Star Wars movie?’, this was simply a non-event. All the hoopla may have ensured a weird atmosphere of anticipation, but in the event, Opik delivered a nondescript speech – for that’s what it really felt like – culminating in a strange moment of self-conscious weirdness.

This was his David Brent moment; the guy who’s funny in the office – or the Commons – realising the hard way that doing comedy for real requires a whole new skill set. Instead of a natural stand-up set, this sounded like a farewell address to his party faithful; thanking his colleagues with in-jokes about his election agent, his staff and, in long, unnecessary detail, how compere Robert Meakin persuaded him to do the gig.

He joked about his image of a ‘ruthless celebrity-loving opportunist who will stoop to any depth for a bit of publicity’ as the One Show cameras rolled, and other self-deprecatory jokes about how ‘thanks to 13,900 Tories in Montgomeryshire, I’m kick-starting a career I didn’t even know I wanted.’ He has an awareness of his own image that’s rife for mocking, but tended to gently tease himself, rather than go for anything too potent.

Cheeky Girls are only briefly alluded to, acknowledging that he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of his is-she-or-isn’t-she girlfriend Katie Green, the underwear model who was sitting at my table alongside the former Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government and the MPs for Ealing North and Leeds North West and some diarists from the Daily Express. Like I said, not your normal gig.

There were a few formulaic gags that got a few chuckles: pointing out that his name is a near-anagram of ‘I like to be MP’, albeit followed with a nifty tag line; quoting a witty Gore Vidal line about jealousy and suggesting his Estonian surname is actually Irish (O’Pik), a similar joke that was doing the rounds about Barack O’Bama.

Then there were moments that had potential: the routine about Nick Clegg blanking him in the lift when he came to empty his office at Portcullis House had a good combination of underplayed humour, mild self-deprecation – and a tragicomic ring of truth.

But mostly it felt like a mildly amusing after-dinner speech, more notable for what it was not than what it was. No insightful anecdotes about an MP’s lot; no hilarious yarns from his colourful past, no bitter diatribe about how it’s all turned out. If he does more gigs away from the cameras – and there’s no clue yet about how serious he is about a career in comedy – he might be able to conjure up some more attitude, whatever form that might take.

But then things took a turn for the strange, for a man who couldn’t help talking about the circumstances of the gig rather than getting on with it. Referencing Nina Conti, whose ventriloquist act had just gone down a storm, Opik picked up a shoe and embarked on a faux vent act of his own, starting his affected, silly conversation with ‘How do you think it’s going, Mr Shoe?’ That was certainly a strange moment that might make you fear for the ex-politician’s sanity more than any of his talk of asteroid attacks.

He must have thought of that idea on the night; and, really, that’s what the whole routine felt like. Someone at ease with public speaking, with a certain wit to his personality, winging it without much understanding of how stand-up actually works. That might be the best we can expect of any comedy virgin, but it proved underwhelming in such a hyped-up context.

Oh, and clean-up politics campaigners will be pleased to learn that he did declare his income from this gig: Around £100 for his 15-minute set. Another thing that sets him aside from other first-timers facing years of a fee-free apprenticeship.

Published: 3 Jun 2010

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