I WANTED TO BE a comedian when I grew up. I wanted to be Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner rolled into one with a bit of Bea Lillie and Elaine May thrown in. This was when I was in my late teens, living opposite my mum on the same North London street where I’d been raised. (I’m still there actually, which is weird.) I was 20 and a student at Cambridge University when I wrote my first monologue as a member of the Footlights troupe. We’d travel to perform at events like the Philips Small Appliances Campaign Dinner outside Birmingham.
I remember standing in the wings waiting for a stripper to finish demonstrating the new Philips Ladyshave on legs already so efficiently depilated I thought she was going to bleed. Then I went on dressed in an ankle-length PVC raincoat and a massive tam-o’-shanter cap to sing a comic Scottish song. It did not go down well. But dying a comedic death in front of drunken businessmen wondering out loud why I wasn’t naked was easy compared with stand-up.
Back then, in the early ’80s, the world of stand-up was almost completely male. Women were viewed with suspicion and often treated with casual contempt. The audiences were no better—as soon as you walked onstage you could feel expectations lowering. Gathering our confidence for comedy has been one of the most exciting steps forward in the last 30 years: Now you can hear fabulous female stand-ups anytime you like. Back then, it felt like people didn’t want women to be funny and were surprised and sometimes even offended when they were. This is ironic because without humor, women could never have survived men.
Stand-up. It’s an innocuous enough term. You stand up. You say things. People laugh. You go home with some money in your pocket. But for me it meant the essence of jaw-grinding, dribbling fear, prequel to the sort of failure that I can only liken to sudden-death syndrome.
Whenever I think of doing stand-up, I see a vision of myself onstage with a microphone and the cartoon mouse Jerry below sawing through the stage around me. The mouse saws and saws and only stops if I get a laugh. If I get a laugh, the world changes. I get to live.
At first I only ever did stand-up at political benefits in London—there were plenty of them in the ’80s. I performed for organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Chile Solidarity Campaign, and the Law Reform Society. Mostly these attempts were clumsy, I rarely got paid, and my motives were largely to do with the fact that everyone I fancied was in what was known at the time as the “alternative” comedy scene. I think of those days with fondness: The left still had a sense of humor, and there was even such a thing as selling out. Ancient, forgotten times.
I’ll tell you the best and the worst of it. The best was on my 25th birthday, when a great comedian friend named Ben Elton asked me to support him at a venue called the Croydon Warehouse, several miles south of London. For once it was not a benefit, and he said he’d split the box office with me, which was kind because he was already a professional stand-up, and I was still a rank and terrified amateur. We traveled down together on the train. He was relaxed. I was checking out where the nearest emergency room was. I had 45 minutes to fill and did quite well. The mouse stopped sawing early on, and people afterward came up to me and said things like “At first I thought you didn’t know what you were doing, but it turned out you did.”
I made 60 quid in a brown envelope, which I still maintain is the best money I have ever earned. My material was largely based upon all the things that obsessed me at the time—which is to say, sex, herpes, and Margaret Thatcher. I had jokes about the last two both being equally unpleasant and hard to get rid of. I would rant on about sexual hygiene. This was nearly pre-AIDS, and we were all merrily jumping into bed with one another with no thought of catching death. I did a bit about properly washing your penis, really getting into it with a cotton bud—oh, it was all very hard-core. Women loved it. Straight men buried themselves in their girlfriends’ armpits. Gay men hooted.
The worst was when I helped my anti-nuke friends at CND organize the Reagan Out rally in London. It was June of 1984, and I was about to start rehearsals for a show on the West End called Me and My Girl (a musical I did for 15 months, which kind of pulled me away from comedy and also gave me clinical depression). I spent the morning of the march standing on the back of a lorry stopping and starting columns of protesters and making sure everyone kept moving and no one had to wait around for hours on end. Then I joined the march myself and went to Trafalgar Square, where I had agreed to do some stand-up on Nelson’s Column. Not the top bit, where Nelson is, but on the base, where politicians were delivering speeches.
By the time I got up there, everyone was very hot and angry. By everyone I mean 65,000 strangers. I started my set. Herpes and Maggie went down well enough—everyone there hated her, and for all I know a good proportion had herpes. But then it all went horribly wrong. The mouse sawed and sawed, and I fell through the stage onto a ghastly bed of silent bile, blame, and personal abuse.
The effects haunted me for weeks. Whenever I was on the Underground or a bus, I’d see someone look over and assume they’d seen me and hated me. I remember meeting a friend—one of the comedians I used to fancy—and him saying to me that I was mad even to try comedy at a political rally. It never works. No one had told me that. I’m passing it on now in case any of you are considering it. Just don’t.
I remember the night I realized that stand-up wasn’t going to be a suitable career choice. It was still 1984, and the miners’ strike was in full swing. Some of us—Ben Elton again, and the soon-to-be grandes dames of British comedy Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders—were performing a benefit gig for the strike. I still have the flyer for it: don’t panic—help is at hand. I was in the slot just before Dawn and Jennifer, of whom I was desperately and justifiably jealous, standing by a curtain waiting to go on, and my heart was beating so hard it felt like a terrified animal trying to escape from my body. I thought, If I don’t stop this I shall actually have a heart attack. Maybe not now, tonight, maybe not next month, but I can’t sustain this level of fear. I spoke to Jennifer and Dawn about it afterward. They were very comforting—just carry on and you’ll stop being frightened, they said. They were wrong. They also told me not to worry about the bloke I was in love with, who, I’d just found out, had a girlfriend who was a ballerina. Just wait and see, they said. Funny women will always trump thin, bendy ones. They were wrong about that, too. I’ve told them.
I did continue in comedy for some years after that—doing sketch programs on TV and writing a solo show for the Edinburgh Festival, which I performed in a tent in a hole in the ground. (The venue was actually called the Hole in the Ground.) I wrote a six-part television series of sketch comedy, called Thompson, most of which had a distinctly feminist slant. I hadn’t realized this until all the TV reviewers (99% men) told me it was man-hating.
I just thought I was being funny about the world I found myself in. The sketches were about domestic violence, dieting, droit du seigneur, the female orgasm, and other matters. I remember a sketch that featured the eminent actress Imelda Staunton and me playing medieval wives. One walks into the other’s hut in a panic. She says, “You’ll never guess what I’ve gone and done.”
“What?” says her friend.
“I’ve only gone and split the bloody atom.”
They stare at each other, and then her friend says:
“Well, you can’t tell him.”
Maybe it was a little bit man-critical now that I come to think of it.
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Originally Appeared on Vogue