I first met my future wife in 1999, at the Brixton Comedy Club. I was opening, having been performing for about three years. She meanwhile knew the comedians who ran the gig.
The headliner was Mike Wilmot. A gravelly voiced, grouchy Canadian comic, Mike might just be the most natural comedian I’ve ever worked with. He is the distilled essence of funny. Not to minimise the sweat that has taken, of course. Like saying an Olympic athlete is a natural born runner, as if to suggest that they probably just leap frogged the whole, tiresome training bit. But still, watch Mike on stage and it’s hard to avoid the sense he was born standing up. If slightly hunched.
Wilmot was on great form that night. He finished up with a classic routine about the indignities he and his buddies would laugh about, and deny they’d ever endure for cash when they were younger – and the speed with which he’d accept those terms now. It gets progressively filthier as he describes exactly what he’d be prepared to do for a million bucks at this stage in his life – before ending with the line – “But it has to be cash, up front, no cheques. I’m not falling for that again.”
I’d had a drink with Kate and our mutual friend in the interval, but it was watching Wilmot together that first kindled the spark between us. When you share a laugh that hard, at filth that funny, you definitely by-pass many of the awkward “getting to know you” stages of a relationship.
By the end of the night, Kate and I and pretty much every one else I could see was weeping with laughter. And as a result, was closer, to every other person in the room. This, right now, is what we need, on a national scale.
I don’t know if you heard about it, but this weekend, the pubs re-opened. With, in the event, something of the effervescence of last night’s fridge door Prosecco. But still, they’re back.
From rolling its eyes at a sweaty embrace under the Absolute Beginners’ lighting on Dean Street to the pathos of a night worker being told by Owen Jones that his long awaited cold beverage in his local tasted like piss, social media offered its usual masque of contempt, stern admonishment and scorn.
But there are many of us who are waiting so earnestly for the other shoe to drop right now that we are struggling to concentrate on all that. Pubs are all very well but if you really want the nation to heal, you need to re-open the comedy clubs.
I’ll take any number of cautionary caveats. Masks – surgical, N95, welding, whatever – social distancing, perhaps even BYOB (or at least, BYON – bring your own nuts). But as a matter of urgency, let’s find a way to make this work.
I may be biased because yes, I would like to be able to make a living again and feed my family and all that other la di da stuff we middle class performing artiste types bleat on about.
But to laugh together is a deep and urgent societal need. On the famous layer cake Maslow pyramid, it’s right up from fire and shelter. There is nothing that can bring people together, forge real bonds, than being in the same room with them, laughing helplessly at something they know they really shouldn’t be. Victor Borger said that a laugh is the shortest distance between two people. It’s like a benevolent, healthy version of the bonds that were created on Epstein’s Island or in satanic rituals.
I’ve been lucky enough to see many great comedians create this white, welding heat. Jenny Éclair discussing her battered, post-partum anatomy, in terms you would think no women could ever bear to hear – and yet there they were, by the hundred, gasping for air, tears streaming down their cheeks. Michael McIntyre – oh yes – ad-libbing entire sets, reducing audiences to delighted children at his feet, before economics demanded the rather more dilute experience of the arena. Patrice O’Neal getting huge, rolling laughs using only timing – within silences.
I could go on. And of course, if being a part of the audience in those moments is life itself, then channelling the gift, you can imagine, is almost dangerously heady.
It is something we urgently need right now, more than I can ever remember. We are living in strange times where physical and political divisions are rife. Nothing unites like laughter – especially the live kind. I’m begging you, bring it back.