A wish fulfilled

A wish fulfilled

Shortlist’s Creative Solutions Editor James Gill on realising his dream of doing stand-up comedy

I simply wasn’t worthy. For me, stand-up and comedy had always been best left to the likes of Chris Rock, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and countless other greats I’ve long loved. How dare someone like me even consider giving it a crack?

However, as my twenties made way for my thirties, there was that nagging sense of, “Why not?” After all, I didn’t want to end up as “that guy”; the bitter old chap nursing a lonely pint in the corner of a pub, muttering how he could have done comedy.

Having loved comedy and stand-up as long as I can remember, I owed it to myself to at least give it a go. And so I did. Indeed, the only piece of advice I could really give to anyone thinking about taking on a new pursuit is to actually try it. You can write as many life-plans and timelines as you like, but, until you’re actually doing it, you’re wasting time.

Shows such as Live At The Apollo make stand-up seem incredibly slick, although the reality is much more stark. Imagine dark and desperate rooms in the worst pubs you’ve ever been in, where laughs are unlikely and audience members unlikelier still. From Lee Mack to Bill Burr and beyond, it’s in these bear-pits where pretty much every stand-up earned his spurs. There are no shortcuts to greatness. Heck, that was a bit earnest, no?

Having dipped my toe in the murky waters of stand-up with a handful of gigs in 2005 (sharing the bill on my debut, ludicrously, with Tim Vine), I made my first real foray in April 2010. And let me tell you, it was a horror show. With one of my best mates (let’s call him “Paul”… because that is his real name) on board as co-writer and travelling companion (what a guy!), he looked on slack-jawed as I nervously staggered and wobbled about on a stage in a dark and dingy pub in north London to sweet, sweet radio silence. I remember the gig vividly, and this proves a truism for the majority of stand-ups: you never quite forget the bad ones. The great ones, on the other hand, are erased from the memory by sunrise. Tempted? Are you?

Rather than quit there and then, Paul and I worked on me standing still (ground-breaking, I know) and the second gig could not have gone much better. That provided all the momentum, encouragement and impetus we needed and, eventually, five-minute spots on open-mic nights would become longer paid spots at bigger and better nights, as the on-stage deaths dwindled and confidence grew (stand-up would always provide wonderful life lessons: an occasional on-stage death was always a great leveller).

While I personally always favour self-deprecation, fast-forward two-and-a-half years and progress had been decent. I’d graduated to playing some of the biggest and best clubs in the country, performing at Edinburgh in 2011 and 2012 and generally playing nicer nights. I was also learning improv and running my own successful comedy night, Always Be Comedy in Kennington, south London.

I love stand-up, and performing six nights a week meant a great deal to me. Not only did I meet some fascinating folk, but I got to do something I’d dreamed of doing since childhood. When it was bad it was spirit-sapping, but when it was good, the euphoria made reading a book on the way home a welcome impossibility.

However, with a job I loved at ShortList Media, a better half I was about to become engaged to and a new house on the horizon, something had to give. And, in September 2012, it was the stand-up. Why? Because happiness is the enemy of comedy.

Ultimately, I was happier in the job, happier being with the missus and happier being in our new home than I was doing stand-up (which had, understandably, always been a source of self-inflicted anxiety and pressure) and so I walked. Well, sort of. No one gets away clean. I still run my own comedy club, which goes from strength to strength. Always Be Comedy has had Russell Kane, Nick Helm, Rob Beckett, Alex Horne and many, many more greats, and remains a pure joy to MC (which was always my strongest hand). I’ve also been doing improv for around a year, which is a tremendous way to stay sharp.

Maybe stand-up was an itch that needed scratching, maybe it had served its purpose. What I know for sure is that actively doing something I dreamed of doing for two and a half years was an incredibly happy and immensely rewarding chapter of my life. As a result, I’m more focused than ever, with me striking a much richer balance between work life, home life and social life. I’m generally far happier, and that’s thanks largely for having enjoyed the entire experience.

Ultimately, you don’t get all this from nursing a lonely pint muttering about what could have been. In comedy circles, this ending is what is known as “Call-back”. See. No one gets away clean.

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