In this business converting burgeoning resentment to laughter confirms that you’ve got it. I’ve never had reason to doubt the adage, until now, now that I can’t. With the lights glaring above, the audience below is an abyss. However, an abyss it is not. Only the complete ambivalence offered by a true vacuum, or in this context the total humiliation of performing to an empty room, would justify the acrimony I feel. Stand-up comedy is completely reliant on systemic feedback, and their silence is offering me none but telling me everything.
This agony should provide the kind of mental instigation that’ll extract me from my predicament. Maybe in retrospect it will, but it’s no help to me right now, as I fixate entirely on conjuring something, anything. Semantical, yes, but having belief in your abilities is stronger than having faith in them. You gain belief from success. Faith is the precursor to belief. Faith is pure aspiration, of wanting to turn the unproven into the proven. Reversal of this natural order is cruelty – belief is but a distant stranger to me, and so I’m relying on faith that I can recapture belief. I’m aspiring to be something I used to be, and just how can I do that when I can’t remember the next segment and it’s probably terrible anyway? Gosh, it’s warm in here and my body isn’t helping matters by exaggerating the heat with a nervous flush. The preliminary sweat’s itch has now arrived and is crawling over my skin. Still silence as the muscles in my legs begin to feel flaccid and could buckle under the weight of my body at any moment.
Have you ever felt that dread of being gassed into a semi-conscious hallucinogenic state before a septic tooth is extracted? Was that rhetorical offering posed to the audience or internally? Just as confusingly my brain’s not yet suffering from my physical symptoms. Anticipating this torment’s onset, you experience a queer internal weightlessness as you’re crushed under an invisible mass whilst the physical world collapses around you, is only marginally less awful than the experience itself. Schadenfreude often has scope, but not when it’s paradoxical – say a comedian describing wanting to pass out to alleviate the psychological torment of dying on the vine. Someone’s paying with the expectation that they’ll be amused, not subjected to some creepy arsehole rambling on about his existential crises. At least, right now, I haven’t descended to that desperate measure. Then a quip from the crowd, “fuck off and get aids”, or something to that effect, provokes a stifled laugh from someone else. It offers the perfect opportunity for a pithy putdown. I smile, in a conspicuously wearisome fashion, as a prelude, but the retort that instantly occurs is imperfect, I hesitate, and now the moment has passed.
Another isolated laugh, but this time couched with pity, is offered as I’m guided from the stage. All the staff avoids making eye contact. I exit the building in the most surreptitious way possible, no doubt in the same way any contraband is smuggled in. The centre of town is eerily still; the shops, pubs, takeaways and clubs all appear, at a glance, to be closed. There are no people with their odours, lewd exhibitions and intoxicated exhalations, and no traffic or Taxis are waiting for fares, yet it’s only quarter to ten on a Friday night. Aside from the still functioning street lights, a mass human extinction event could’ve occurred. I walk, and keep walking, observing as much stimuli as possible. Around the corner I come upon a hideous form, a car scarred with mechanical leprosy with all of its wheels amputated, its ghastly colourisation reminiscent of punitive leukaemia treatments. It’s a manifestation of my circumstances, still there, but only just, and unlikely to be revived. At home I enter into a dismal Hemmingway-esque scenario of drinking a succession of rum and tonic waters as I scour my catalogue of unfinished works, sketches, ideas and thoughts scattered over paper and word documents. Things start discouragingly as I revisit a shitcom screenplay I’d written, god knows why and how many years ago, about a gay gynaecologist whose clientele is mostly footballer’s wives.
At this point the wasteland territory men of my age occupy, nearly all of us having acquired a self-loathing complex or latency by this point, was drawing dangerously close. Surely one of the most crude and gruesome exhibitions imaginable is spending whole weekends in bed, naked from the waist down, power watching Band Of Gold episodes on some dismal satellite channel with esoteric content tailored to lonely married men. This sort would become serial killers if there wasn’t some semblance of contentment and the tawdry releases offered by soft-core publications didn’t exist.
Then a more promising concept arrived, comparatively, of course. And by promising I mean cynical, and yes, it needed work, but it could become something. Surely, at the very least, its scenarios and brand of dialogue, the kind that incites petty scorn, would get it commissioned for BBC three? Fictional displacement appeals to its core demographic of bitchy sofa dwellers who relish any opportunity to attack vague caricatures of folk they know, and even elements of themselves. Set in a call centre, it was appropriately called, “Call Centre Cunts”. I had the opening sequence visualised – a gaggle of slovenly, ugly, self-entitled (therefore disproportionately arrogant) thirty something careerless men are huddled around a morass of desks and computer equipment;
‘Ha, fuck me. Here, you wanna check this twat’s name out.’
‘Hey that’s homophobic. We’re only temps mate.’
‘Yeah Mike, we’ve got fuck all rights.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with being little though, or a dyke, so there’s nothing wrong with being a little lezzer, is there?
‘There’s bound to be one in here. Isn’t what’s her face one? Eh, Hitler haircut. Works on the third floor?’
‘Yeah her, but she doesn’t dress like one.’
‘You can’t tell for certain who is.’
‘Yeah you can.’
‘Well my dick’s one for starters.’
After several hours marooned on the sofa waiting for the text to expand and improve significantly, I was interrupted by a text alert. My agent, don’t worry, he has other more successful clients, left me a message after learning of my latest performance. Surprisingly, it signified grave concern at the potential repercussions for me, not disappointment or anger at what being associated with me might cost him. He claimed to have visited my flat three times over the last two weeks, but each time I wasn’t in. This struck me as an odd comment. Surely he must be lying? Trying to find sanctuary from professional failure in this digital age is exceedingly difficult, though I was inadvertently offered temporary respite by the ceiling, as the light emitting from the television hit it to create satisfying hues. Finishing yet another alcoholic concoction I fancy another, but that requires a vertical posture, which I’m too exhausted and inebriated to consider. I tilt my head, one of those awful after hours gambling shows is on, but the remote isn’t immediately visible or within reach.
Only once there can we appreciate that desperation is truly the last vestige of hope. The newsagents down the road has a number of laminated paper party (I assume – though perhaps they’re aimed at comedians going through a crisis of confidence too?) masks of celebrities and other vile characters of public interest, one being Katie Hopkins. But will the newsagents be open tomorrow? Surely it will be? It’s a Saturday. If I arrive on stage wearing a Katie Hopkins mask with the eyes cut out surely that would induce a few laughs, as an icebreaker? But yet again it’s entirely complacent plagiarism, moments later I realise I’ve subconsciously stashed and now stolen it from Vic and Bob’s nineties parody of Stars In Their Eyes. However, I might just get away with it, as most people have probably forgotten it. The key is diverging from the format enough and making it somewhat sophisticated, despite its appearance. I’ll produce a guise and act that mocks her many cynical minority phobias and yearning for cultural atavism, a brand of fiction that entices the carping of complacent, unthinking, insufferably dogged neo-liberals who are helping to foment fascism’s reappearance. The theory, in theory, is a logical one – I’ll be freed by being entirely beholden, or should that be committed, to the sketch which necessitates further detachment from my routine. Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be a shite comedian playing a fraud, the sort of trite rubbish that perpetually populates shitty evening quiz shows.
Speaking of light entertainment, those quiz and panel shows were a good earner. It’s amazing to think that I used to frequently appear on them. They should be less popular than cancer of the ringpiece, but then most people vote Conservative, watch Britain’s Got Talent and listen to Bruno Mars, so of course the format’s ubiquitous. Nothing crushes one’s confidence more than failing to be considered funny enough for them. Where I find myself now certainly isn’t funny. I’m appearing as Katie Hopkins in front of a huge audience, and all of them are wearing paper masks of my face with the eyes cut out.
And they aren’t laughing, and so the process begins again. Random thoughts start to race in and out of my visual cortex; weird green jelly being eaten by pensioners, your uncle’s bad breath, your uncle’s shite taste in music, your uncle, ugly girl with a face like a bag of hammers smiling at me, runny eyeliner, morbidly obese men parading their spare tyres in replica football kits, doghair in dogshit, fascist moustaches, wanksock, rancid turnips, you don’t have planning permission for that, talking anorack, paella left out, cumface, Real Stories From Auschwitz sponsored by Mediterranean Cruises, constipated by wotsits, Mexican Wave at Dianna’s funeral, canteen smells of off fish, why do twins always have the same haircut? Malteasers – the lighter way to enjoy diabetes, big toe nail clipping found down the back of a sofa, homeless folk with pets, now think of something profound – spontaneity is the genesis of all traditions, at least I know what Ecuadorian bananas taste like, Julian Assange probably has them daily, why do my palms have that overwhelmingly repellent smell after you’ve been clutching something metallic for too long? I once developed a hernia bruise that had a smiley Gordon Ramsay face. Now my bowel’s going ballistic, like a rampant gorilla that can’t remove a butplug from its arse. The audience have disappeared, as has my Katie Hopkins attire. The lights are now off, only the dim safety lighting from the fire exits and the corridors at the back prevent the venue from being pitch black.
Were all those years of stand-up routines, laughs and acclaim all the figment of a diseased mind? Had I spent years roaming the streets at three in the morning with the sole intent of breaking into venues with stages to perform to nobody? If so, the lie was a salvation, and this epiphany, the punchline, the delusion’s climax, is its most diabolical act – that I’m not funny, I was never a comedian and that I had no audience to lose.