' If you fuck this up it’s over for you – you can’t do anything else'

In an extract from his new book, Simon Day recalls his first stand-up gig

Malcolm Hardee was what people call a character, but that’s like saying Mohammed Ali was a boxer. He ran the Tunnel Club in a pub just outside the Blackwall Tunnel. He used to do a rude Punch and Judy show in the Seventies and claimed to have invented alternative comedy; he was also the lynch pin of the Greatest Show On Legs, a comedy ensemble whose Balloon Dance became a hit across Europe. It involved men covering up their private parts with balloons, which would get popped to music.

The Tunnel Club gave a showcase to all the emerging alternative stand-ups. Everyone played there: the Comic Strip people in various forms and guises, Jo Brand, Jeremy Hardy, Alexei Sayle. If you were funny, people laughed; if you weren’t funny, you were subjected to verbal personal abuse the likes of which you’d probably never heard before. They were a tough crowd, hard but fair. The Millwall chaps got in there regularly – and, as I mentioned, generally weren’t backwards in coming forwards.

The quality of heckling was exceptional at the Tunnel and if you ask any of those pioneering stand-ups they’ll tell you it was the best club to play, because if you stormed it there you knew you were on your way.

I’d started writing comedy in my head, though not on paper. Could I start out at the Tunnel Club? I reckoned I’d be slaughtered.

Being newly unemployed, I started hanging out at [my friends] Max and Mark Swan’s shop in Blackheath. Jim and Bob (or Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer) had rented the upstairs office to write comedy. When I met them the first thing that struck me was how well they dressed: three-button suits, Hush Puppies, shirts and ties; Bob wore the odd T-shirt for work but all round they were very smart.

They smoked fags, were nice, polite, cocky in a charming way. They laughed all the time and you could tell they were on the way up. With their Darlington and Middlesbrough accents they were a breath of fresh air.

Jim had started a comedy show called Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out in Deptford, by Goldsmiths. It was totally different to anything on the comedy circuit, a rambling shambles of odd artworks, catchphrases, bizarre almost psychedelic comic characters, all pinned together by his mock-cheesy-showman chutzpah. Jim had already done bits with Jonathan Ross on The Last Resort and had become pally with him. Ross was very helpful to a lot of aspiring comics (including me, some time later). Channel Four had been down and subsequently offered Jim and Bob a series: they were going to be stars.

Mark Swan told me straight out, ‘You’re funnier than them. You should do a stand-up show.’

It seemed like a great idea. The minute he said that I was off and running. I immediately told him of my various ideas and he joined up the dots for me: I’d start doing a character and he’d laugh and add some bits and his own ideas. For whatever reason, he believed in me – and that was what I needed. Left to my own devices I’d always give in to negative thoughts eventually and I’d never persist with my dreams.

Besides, what did I have to lose? I was unemployed, hungry and angry and I had issues with women and my parents. I was a natural.

We started writing together properly. I came up with a number of characters – Tommy Cockles, the music-hall character, for one; we both put a lot into that. I can’t remember who had what idea, but Mark wrote lines of material that I performed unchanged.

I also did a crusty called Smudge who was really a capitalist; it was a dig at all the weekend crusties with rich parents, who had drawers full of Giros they didn’t really need. Mark made me a wig with dreads he bought from a West Indian hairdressers and I had a rainbow-coloured jumper to wear

One night I was lying in bed perfecting my Robert De Niro impression when an idea came to me. I jumped out of bed and wrote a sketch around an impersonation of De Niro in Raging Bull. It was the scene in which he remonstrates with Vicky, his wife, but I’d substituted her infidelity with her eating my sweets: ‘I know what you been doin’, Vicky: you been eaten my sweets. The Mars bar, the Milky Way and the family bag of Revels . . . (We had jazz playing in the background when I eventually performed this and to this day it’s one of my favourite bits of work. It was sketches like this that set me apart from the observational comics of the day and eventually got my foot in the door with the TV people.)

There was a sketch with Brookside directed by David Lynch, too, and another one where I detailed the chain-of-command in hashish dealing: starting out with a guy in a council fl at right up to gangster in an Essex mansion I did all five characters very fast. Mark was very good at getting me to work hard on all the technical stuff. My Attention-Deficit Disorder meant I was always trying to leave his flat and wander off, but he’d make me stay and rehearse everything over and over again.

At that time on the stand-up circuit there was nothing like my twenty minutes. It contained ten different characters and was fresh and funky, with the added desperation of someone with no safety net: if I failed at this it was all over for me.

I performed for the first time at the Rub-a-Dub club in Sydenham, at a sort of talent night being judged by Jim and Bob. I’d rehearsed in front of Swanny but nothing prepared me for my first gig. The feeling of fear was quite new, like a terrible illness; I felt I was on some horrible drug and couldn’t speak to anyone. I walked around outside the pub and it was like waiting to fight someone after school. I thought that this was the most real thing I had ever done. It was like hyper-reality, too real.

I have no idea who I was in competition with but I know there were some experienced stand-ups. I was jumping in at the deep end. Mark had obviously worked out that if Jim and Bob liked me they could be very helpful. I can’t remember much about the gig.

I remember looking at the punters; there were people there I had to prove things to. The stakes were high! I couldn’t look at them. I went and stood in a little ruined garden at the back of the pub. It reminded me of the places I’d found during my old shit jobs, the places in which I’d loafed or drifted off. I remember looking around at the old broken furniture, smashed pots and torn posters and thinking: ‘This is it: this is your life right here; you’ve nowhere else to go. If you fuck this up it’s over for you – you can’t do anything else.’

I knew I was good, though: I knew I had a strong, interesting set. But would they laugh?

I went on stage, did my set and everyone laughed. I smashed the place to pieces. People who knew me were shocked; I could see it in their faces. Best of all, Jim and Bob absolutely loved it – I could see Bob doubling up with laughter, holding on to the bar.

It was like a dream, the best moment of my life at that point – of course it was. I felt alive at last. I’d had an extraordinary success after a little lifetime of failure and paranoia and boredom. I was the new kid in town. I was the bomb. I was a stand-up comic.

I went home in a cab and had this feeling of contentment and satisfaction like I’d never experienced before, a sort of Ready Brek glow but based on reality not a drug high. I’d done it: I shook up the world! I never had that particular feeling again.

A part of me was fixed that night in Sydenham – a bit of ambition dropped away right there. I didn’t ever want to conquer the world, really, but I wanted to show people what I was made of. That night something was put right inside me.

However juvenile it may seem, I’d proved to myself I could do it and that was half the reason I did it. I see other comics who have experienced much greater success than I have and there’s still that desperation in their eyes, the desire to hold the room enthralled with their personality, to shout louder than everyone else. I’m not knocking it; I just don’t have to do it myself any more, which is a relief. People often say to me, ‘You should be much more famous than you are; you could have done this or that...’ Well, how famous should I be? How high should I get before I have a rest and eat a boiled egg dipped in salt? I did stand-up comedy and that was the big step for me.

I behaved as if I was on happy pills for ages. I bounced around. Simple tasks became pleasures. I started to look people in the eye. When I bought a newspaper and a Twix the Indian newsagent made that transaction with a man on the way up. I still went to the launderette but I didn’t slump by the spin dryer any more; I hopped about the place thinking up material. I went to a restaurant and had a starter and a main course, Suddenly I’d become a whole person. I became more confident with womankind; I sang in the bath; I offered people directions in the street; I smiled at children; I did a few more gigs and everyone laughed ...

On the night of my first gig I’d heard Jim say that I could go on tour with him and Bob. I’d thought he was joking but soon afterwards I got a call from the agent Phil McIntyre’s people checking my availability. This was my dream come true: I’d got myself a national tour with the hottest comics in the country after just one gig!

How was it that after staying in one place all my life I suddenly had the world come to me? Jim and Bob were from the industrial North East but had pitched up right on my doorstep and offered me a job. In another piece of strangery, the snooker hall I’d played in for years had suddenly became a massive comedy club – thirty seconds from my front door. All very fortuitous, but I had put myself in the shop window. I felt the gods were smiling on me, maybe even laughing.

  • From Comedy and Error: They Really Were Marvellous Times by Simon Day, published by Simon & Schuster priced £18.99. Click here to order from Amazon for £9.50. Chortle will publish another extract tomorrow.

Published: 27 Jun 2011

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