Haunted by my failure (and my dad's ghost) | John-Luke Roberts recalls his most memorable gigs

Haunted by my failure (and my dad's ghost)

John-Luke Roberts recalls his most memorable gigs

Ahead of his run at the Soho Theatre in London next week, John-Luke Roberts recalls his Unforgettable Five gigs.

First gig

When I was four I was taken onstage during the Newcastle Theatre Royal Pantomime by Les Dennis. I couldn’t speak at four – couldn’t speak for another year – so when he asked me questions I replied indecipherably. Nobody understood what I was saying, and this made them laugh, which seemed wonderful to me.

This sadly trapped me into a lifetime of seeking validation through the mouth noises of strangers. There were other kids brought up on stage, but they were let go one by one while I was kept on stage and given presents.

At the time the other kids must have been pretty sad about that, but I hope now they understand that on that day they dodged the terrible fate of a lifetime of humiliating themselves to entertain people they don’t know.

Best gig

I trained at  clown school in France. This is a great thing to do, I think, especially if you want to be able to tell people. ‘I trained at clown school in France.’

I spent weeks at clown school in France being just terrible. I’d walk on stage and everybody’s heart would sink - none more than mine. It seemed hopeless in that clown school in France and I found myself dreading going on stage for the first time in my life. ‘This isn’t why I decided to go to clown school in France,’ I cried.

Then one day we were allowed to change our costume. I changed from a Russian Cossack dancer to a Devil, stuck a pair of plastic fangs in so I couldn’t speak properly, and suddenly I was funny! Everything I did was the right thing! It felt like I was conducting the laughter, or inside the laugh in some way!

It was the feeling I’m chasing every time when I perform, the feeling of an audience giving me the love my father didn’t! I felt on top of the world that day, and was looking forward to going to the bar (with my friends from clown school in France) and basking in my glory.

This was sadly cut short by a terrorist attack on Paris which distracted everyone from my excellent performance. You’ve probably heard that I’m very outspoken in my belief that terrorism is bad. Now you know why.

Least welcome post-show comment

I did a show called Stdad-Up after my dad died, in which I tried to make sense of our relationship by dressing up in his suit and playing a grotesque version of him. I performed him as an insult comic, in a huge suit filled with balloons, bellowing at the audience for about an hour.

At one performance somebody I couldn’t quite place was in the audience - they were familiar, but I didn’t know why. After the show I was talking to them in the bar, and worked out they were a friend of one of my siblings.

As I was speaking to them they said something which made me realise they hadn’t known my dad was dead, and - more weirdly - that they were only working it out now, half an hour after watching the show which was really very explicitly about him dying.

They seemed angry at me, confused, and made me feel generally like I they wanted me to make them feel better about my dad being dead. Which didn’t really seem fair - it wasn’t their dad that had died. 

That and the time someone said: ‘Don’t give up the day job’, although ultimately I took it as a compliment because my day job at the time was comedy.

Worst gig

A hotel had the idea of setting up a special promenade comedy night where the audience would be led to different hotel rooms, and be greeted by comedian in each one.

The comedian would do a site-specific performance in the room, and then the audience would move on. This was, I think, to promote the hotel; their marketing team for some reason thinking a comedian in your hotel room was a thrill, not a threat.

Part of the payment for the gig was you (the comedian) got to stay in your fancy hotel room for the night. The trouble was, I died really very hard that day - stares of genuine hatred from the 20 people in my room as I performed standing on my bed. Normally after a bad gig I like to get as far away from scene of the crime as possible. But the worst thing was, I then had to sleep in that room. Haunted by my failure. 

Best heckler

The vast majority of heckles are terrible, unhelpful, and spoil things for everyone. I can think of one good heckle I’ve received. During Stdad-Up I made a comment about how there was no risk of my father haunting the show because he was a sceptic and he would never admit he was wrong. At that moment a balloon lying on stage burst, and I can only assume the ghost of my father did it. Nice one, dad.

• John-Luke Roberts: All I Wanna Do Is [FX: GUNSHOTS] With a [FX: GUN RELOADING] and a [FX: CASH REGISTER] and Perform Some Comedy! is at the Soho Theatre, London, next week then on a national tour in 2019. Dates.

Published: 6 Dec 2018

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