It occurred to me that I've been writing this blog for three months or so, but I still haven't described what happens at my gigs in any great detail. This week seems as good a place to start as any then, as I travelled to Weston Super-Mare, Hull, and Cardiff.
The A-Team were famously soldiers of fortune, and comedians have more in common with The A-Team than you'd think (aside from the obvious Murdoch/mental health issue parallels). In much the same way Hannibal and the lads would drop everything to help a cowboy's daughter who was the innocent victim of some racketeering, stand up comedians are often called upon at short notice to fill in if another comic's dropped out due to illness, or car trouble, etc. I was Christmas shopping for my dad when the call came (in the unlikely event he's reading this, dad - you're getting another Welsh rugby DVD).
Promoter: Hey El, are you working tonight?
Promoter: Do you fancy doing twenty minutes at Jokers in Weston Super-Mare? The gig starts in two hours, and it's cash on the night
Me: Fuck it - go on then. I mean 'of course I would'
You might be surprised at my reticence, as work is work, but for those of you not au fait with the comedy club scene in the South West of England (and I can't think who that could be), Jokers in Weston Super-Mare is a notorious, scandalous shithole. Mainly because the club's accomplished the incredible feat of only attracting two, very specific types of people, i.e:
a) the frighteningly, disturbingly moronic
b) individuals who seem to genuinely hate comedy, and are having their quick tempers studied by boffins at the University of the West of England in Bristol.
'Well that's a pleasant mix of punter' you might think, and one perfect for a great night all round. The line up filled me with a sense of festive cheer of course, as alongside myself it consisted of a comic who somehow mixes breathtaking arrogance with being a talentless fuckpost, and a man who's a byword on the comedy circuit for unoriginal hackery, in the same way Microchips is a byword for 'culinary philistine' and Karen Matthews is a byword for the decline of British society. 'Magic' I thought. 'Weston isn't far, I can be home by midnight.'
There was no lightbulb in the dressing room, so I sat in the dark reading the paper via the light of my mobile phone, in a comedy club that smelled overpoweringly of Christmas dinner. I was then offered one of the spare Christmas dinners (no man who lives off service station Ginsters 'Scotch Egg Bars' could refuse that), so I took the stage more physically prepared for the Queen's speech than bringing mirth to 70 people on a works do from the nearby village of Wick St Lawrence. Before you ask by the way, the night was set up beautifully by the compere - plenty of pejorative remarks about Polish work ethic, creating a nice hotbed of racism in preparation for twenty minutes of my whimsy. I also benefited from this incredible introduction: 'He's brilliant. He's amazing. He's the fifth Beatle - it's Elis James.'
Now for those of you reading this who don't know me, I was born about 170 miles too far south and about 35 years too late to really stand a chance of being the fifth Beatle.* In fairness to the compere however, I do have relatively long hair, so the comment was clearly justified. Sadly I have no Beatles material whatsoever, and was shaken by the palpable wave of disappointment that came when the audience realised my opening anecdote wasn't about the minor chord sequence in 'From me to you.' That said, 'sheepshagger' comment aside... (Sheepshagger! Sheepshagger! It's not 1982 and I was in Somerset for fuck's sake) the gig was pleasant enough.
The saddest part of the evening was during the interval though, when the headliner asked why I wasn't heading home. I replied that I always stayed to watch the headliner, as it seemed polite. He actually said 'I'd go if I was you El, because I've looked at them and they look like total retards. I'm going to go proper lowest common denominator - you're not really missing out on much. Go on mate, get going, and miss the traffic.' Wowsers. That is depressing. It's like something I imagine 1980s England footballer Kenny Sansom used to say to his wife. 'I wouldn't watch today's game if I was you love. To be honest I regard finesse as a dirty word in competitive football, but I'm undeniably effective. And that's what pays our mortgage and keeps you in legwarmers.'
All in all, a fairly unremarkable start to the weekend then. The next gig however, Hull University on the Sunday night, was a total joy.
Being based in Cardiff, I tend to either drive or catch the train to gigs alone. This causes my mother endless worry - she seems to hold the opinion that I'm likely to steer the car off a cliff simply to assuage the monotony of motorway driving, or that every British train after 9pm is frequented only by myself and hundreds of brainsick, knife wielding crackpots. We all know that's true of course, but my mum doesn't read this blog, so I can be honest. Anyway, for once I was in London on the morning of the gig and could get a lift with the other comedians - not only would I have company, but they'd be friends of mine. Actual real friends!
Mike Wozniak is a gifted stand up, and one of my favourite people. He was a doctor before going fulltime as a comedian, and still retains the comforting bedside manner of a rural GP, even when he's offering to buy me a drink or showing me something on youtube. I'd actually developed an amazing patch of excema on my right arm on the morning of the gig, and Wozniak prescribed a topical emmollient which of course, he had plenty of in his bathroom. Luke Toulson was doing the driving, and not only is Luke another good comic but also a lovely bloke, so I failed to see how I couldn't enjoy the 8hr round trip to Hull. I was right.
Whether it's through the pub and club scene, dating agencies or sheer luck, Mike Wozniak seems to have aquired an angelic, celestial being for a girlfriend. As I arrived at Mike's house the lovely Lucy was preparing the three of us a packed lunch for the journey up and the journey back, despite not having seen me since the summer and having never met Luke in her life. 'It's so you don't have to buy anything tasteless and criminally expensive from a services' she explained, as Mike looked on lovingly. The packed lunch consisted of ham, mustard, cheese and rocket salad sandwiches (on organic wholegrain bread of course), fruit, and sliced homemade chocolate cake with napkins provided. As I left the house which made busy central London seem like a scene from a James Herriot novel, clutching a packed lunch that Enid Blyton would describe as 'wholesome,' I've got to be honest I was near tears.** Oh by the way, the lovely Lucy had even bought us an Observer for the journey, 'in case any of us fancied doing something topical.'
The journey up was great - we had banter, listened to Nick Drake, I did my impression of the Irish bareknuckle boxer I saw on youtube ('Oi'll foight any man, of any breed, oi'm not scared, me number's six foive noine, tree, tree, tree, and oi'm called Mick'), and the lovely Lucy's packed lunch was so vitamin packed I could actually feel myself strengthen between junctions of the motoway. As we arrived at the gig I was about as excited as most people are on their honeymoon, and the poster of Mike's face in the lobby (which being about as big as a tall man made the ever humble Mike feel excruciatingly embarrassed) almost caused me to have a manic episode - Luke thought it best at this point not to tell me we were entitled to free Pepsi/coffee/hot chocolate/tea, etc, which was probably wise. Anyway, the gig was brilliant, everybody did well, the students of Hull had a great time and as we drove along the M18 back to London all seemed well with the world. The Haribo Tangfastics I bought in a services on the way home were not a reflection on Lucy's packed lunch by the way, it was merely a celebratory gesture. As if Lucy could do anything wrong, she'd also prepared the sofa bed in the living room with about as much care as Florence Nightingale would reserve for if she fancied getting off with one of her patients, or if the Healthcare Commission were inspecting her ward in Crimea for MRSA. As the Wozniaks have no telly, I read The Complete Works of Phillip Larkin before going to sleep, as it had been left on the coffee table for me. Yes. People like that do exist.
Anyway, by Wednesday it was 1-1 in terms of good gigs and bad gigs, so for my final gig of the year I was feeling surprisingly chipper. The last gig of 2008 was a favour for a mate, and I was compering the Christmas do for a company that runs private hospices for the mentally ill in the South Wales area. 'Not quite The Comedy Store' you might think, and you'd be right, but it was in the music venue I used to work at before going full time as a comic, it's walking distance from my house and I was elligible for the free buffet, so I didn't think anything could go wrong.
My alarm signals went off immediately as I arrived at the gig, and I saw about 20 people in paper hats, draped in tinsel and eating nuts off paper plates, sitting at the back of a venue that was big enough to hold a Franz Ferdinand gig in June. 'Ok' I thought, 'it's not the most intimate gig ever. I'd also question whether playing Santa Clause Is Coming To Town by The Jackson Five at unfathomably high volume is the best preparation for comedy,' but I ate a mince pie and tried not to think about it. The alarm bells started ringing for a second time however, when my mate Jon the photographer asked 'for some doormen,' as the group photo everyone was elligible for became such a rowdy affair Jon confided to me that he was 'scared shitless.' Being the type of person I am, at this stage I saw fit to commission Mori to hold an opinion poll asking whether the Christmas revellers were ready for my inimitable brand of Welsh whimsy. The results were as follows:
1%: destroyed ballot paper
1%: What's a rambling erudite shambolic storyteller doing at a gig like this?
Fair enough then. By 10pm the manager asked me not to go on just yet, pleading that 'there was still a bus to come from Aberdare, but they'd been caught up in a services on the A470.' However, I thought 150 hammered people dancing to Slade was enough strangers to spoil a disco for, so I finished another mince pie (Sainsbury's 'Taste the Difference') and decided to take the stage and commit professional suicide. It's quite an interesting feeling that, deliberately walking into something you know you can't do very well at. I imagine it's how Frank Bruno felt before fighting Mike Tyson in 1989,*** although in fairness to Frank, I would have had to really fuck up comedically before splashing the front row with my own blood. For a start, the front row was about sixty feet away.
It wasn't pleasant, it was horrible in fact, but my friend Sian made a tremendous point about what followed - if you look at it from the revellers point of view, what happened was very, very strange. There'd been about three hours of uber loud Christmas disco (and I mean horribly loud), and it was getting to the stage where men were topless and Moira in accounts was being fingered by the work experience boy. At this point though the music unceremoniously stopped, and a strange man no-one had ever seen before (me) started talking into a mic that was feeding back like a poorly organised Stooges concert in 1968. Unperturbed, some people continued dancing whilst the strange man pointlessly asked a woman where she was from, as he couldn't hear the reply anyway because the mic was still doing its best Jesus and Mary Chain impression and 150 people were chatting about why the toilets had flooded. The strange man decided to call it a day at this stage, because Moira in accounts readjusted her skirt, asked him for Mustang Sally and if he knew when the comedian was going to start. Sigh. Seeing his Christmas do fall apart the venue manager acted quickly, shouted to the strange man (above the feeding back mic) 'I THINK WE NEED TO GO DISCO, GO DISCO, RESTART THE DISCO.' In an amazing, supplementary kick in the teeth, the Now That's What I Call Christmas! CD resumed in the same place as before the 'comedy' had started, such was the DJ's apparent faith in the strange man's comedic abilities. I really have to say this however - keeping the Christmas CD on pause throughout my set wasn't the best bit. The best bit for me was when a drunk Irish man came up to the stage and screamed (above the disco) 'CAN I HAVE MY PHOTO TAKEN WITH A LONG HAIRED FELLA, I'VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT,' which after the 'fifth Beatle' experience in Weston made me think it's about time I get my fucking hair cut, and after my impression in the car on the way up to Hull, made me think it was a peculiar case of Irish schadenfreude. I let him take the photo, but in retrospect letting him comb and fondle my hair was probably a bit much.
The slightly surreal turn of events didn't end there however. As Wham's Last Christmas kicked in and I was put on precautionary suicide watch, the next part of the evening's entertainment began. A burlesque dancer emerged from behind the PA system and started to strip, and a few people dropped their paper plates, causing a nut based health and safety hazard. Fifi is a total trooper and did a sterling job, taking her clothes off to the amazement of the assembled crowd (no-one seemed to know about me or her, but the coachload from Aberdare were thrilled not to miss it), and Tony the bouncer came up with the classic 'maybe you should have got your cock out Elis.' Quite. After her performance Fifi consoled me in the dressing room (not like that), and we chatted about our various experiences of Christmas gigs. Without wanting to be nasty she had clearly been on the burlesque circuit for a while, so I was intrigued to hear her nuggets of showbiz advice - you can accuse me of plenty of things, and I have plenty of faults, but I'm certainly eager to learn. However, she came out with this rather disappointing pearl of wisdom:
(strap yourself in)
"I think the reason all those people paid attention to me and not you Elis, is that the type of burlesque dancing I do is slightly quirkier than the sort of 'classic burlesque' dancing people are used to and expecting."
I'm a fairly laid back sort of person. I also really liked Fifi, so I restrained myself from screaming the following, fairly obvious point: 'NO! I REALLY, REALLY BEG TO DIFFER! I think the reason they paid attention to you rather than me Fifi WAS BECAUSE YOU WERE SHOWING THEM YOUR FUCKING TITS'
Which is a slight lie. Fifi had festive snowflakes covering her areola.
So great. Unbelievably, in order to get paid I had to draw the fucking raffle, which must rank highly amongst the top ten bleakest moments of my life. That said, Fifi and I performed well as an impromptu double act, where I read out the numbers in a heartbroken whisper and she pouted, looked impressed 'at the size of my sack' and handed out the prizes. Compounding the misery even further, I was getting my stuff from the cloakroom when the cloakroom attendant asked if she could nip out for a quick cigarette. As cloakroom attendant happened to be my old job at the venue I said 'of course you can,' at which point the Pontypridd contingent decided to leave and I was stuck on cloakroom duty for about twenty minutes. This must have looked amazing - it can only have seemed that the cloakroom boy had begged the manager for ten minutes stagetime 'just to give comedy a go,' but it had gone horribly wrong, at which point he had to return to the cloakroom to make sure everyone got their coats back at the end of the night. I think the reason I didn't get any stick from the punters was it's that type of attitude that gave Britain an empire.
Ok. So even though the whole night was horrible, and encouraged the following exchange:
Bouncer: Alright El! Spike tells me you're doing the comedy - when are you doing it mate, I'd like to watch!
Me: I've done it Bob, just now actually
Bouncer: But I only saw you five minutes ago, and you were still preparing your jokes?
Me: Yeah. Short set.
I don't regret it, because I love stand up comedy, I really genuinely love it. I don't know why (well I do know why, but I've been typing for ages and my fingers are tired), and Lord knows I wish I didn't so much sometimes, but the above story is retrospectively hilarious, and once I'd had a Guinness and another mince pie (I really fleeced those cunts for all I could get) I felt fine.
Elis James: Nerves of steel.
*I'm actually a bit of a Beatles fan (ok, fanatic), and the contenders for title of 'fifth Beatle' more qualified than myself are as follows: Brian Epstein (the Fab Four often referred to him as this in interviews), Pete Best, who got chucked out in favour of Ringo before the band became famous, Stuart Sutcliffe, the original bassist and John's best friend who died of a brain haemorrhage, Jimmy Nicol, who took over on drums because Ringo had his tonsils removed when The Beatles toured Australasia in 1964, George Best who was christened 'El Beatle' by the Portugese press after Utd played Benfica in the 1966 European Cup quarter final, George Martin who produced all the records, and Jeff Lynne who worked with the three surviving Beatles on the 1995 Anthology series. At best, (after taking this list into account) I could be known as the '13th Beatle' which doesn't have quite the same ring to it, and I've not even included the band's trusted roadies Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, who both have more of a claim than me. I know I've sort of proved the comperes point by bothering to write this, but even so, 'he's brilliant, he's amazing, he's the fifth Beatle - it's Elis James' is still an excruciatingly fucking shit introduction.
** I don't think I've eaten like that since I left home in 1999, so forgive me for getting a little emotional.
*** One of my favourite pieces of sports writing ever, is the great Hugh McIlvanney's description of Bruno entering the ring at the MGM Grand, before his second bout with Tyson in 1996: 'Walking taut-faced and dry mouthed from the dressing room to that illuminated square of canvas amid a bedlam of exhortations, crossing himself repeatedly, like a cardinal on speed.' I know that to compare ill-advised stand up at a Christmas do with fighting Mike Tyson is wildly over the top, but what a truly great description that is.