Many people do not appreciate the skill of stand-up comedians and performers and in particular their ability to seemingly ad lib vast portions of their shows, that are actually well rehearsed and worked out in advance.
An example of this technique was apparently evidenced by the late great Frankie Howerd who’s ‘catchphrases’ included a series of non verbal means of communication and random inane noises - all of which appeared to be done in such a way that the audience would think they were seeing an entirely unique performance when in fact every single movement and uttering was completely scripted.
I first noticed the phenomena subsequent to seeing Newcastle-Upon-Tyne native Ross Noble in the Ulster Hall in Belfast. The show was the first time I understood that the rows of seats are so close together there so as to prevent you literally ROFL-ing and causing a fire hazard of yourself.
I belly laughed so much during that one hundred and twenty minutes I thought I’d have worked my stomach out to such a degree that I’d be heading home with a six-pack!
I had seen Ross on the television a bit over the years but not to any great degree as, like Northern Ireland comic Jim Eoin, he was living for much of his time in Australia.
It’s only when you see some of these people in the live setting of a theatre that you appreciate why they were let on the box in the first place.
What totally blew me away was that within a couple of minutes of starting Mr Noble started riffing off an audience member and came up with about 15 or 20 minutes of banter that could ONLY have come from that interaction. And the show continued that way until it was finished.
I was amazed by the experience, I thought, ‘I knew he was going to be good, but that was seriously impressive.’ And also ‘I wonder what he meant to talk about tonight that he plainly didn’t have time to do because he was so busy dealing with all the improvised gags?’
Some 15 years earlier I had seen another late great of the comedy circuit, Sean Hughes in the same Belfast venue and been wowed by him in a show that followed the expected format of a well worked out routine, professionally delivered. The only audience interaction I remember him making was asking if there were any cohabiting couples in the audience. A sizeable amount of roars and cheers went up and then he asked if there was any single people living alone to which there was a deathly silence. Sean used the contrast in the two responses to illustrate a point that when you’re single and you live on your own you forget how to speak.
So you can tell that his show was much more cerebral than Ross’s but I became such a devotee of Sean’s I even joined his fan club to keep up to date with what he was doing. His comic musings would be sent out every so often by his erstwhile assistant Sue, who would compile a stapled booklet of black and white typed A4 pages that I would look forward to reading. As the common courtesy I was ingrained with dictated, I would always send a little thank-you note and as a result we became quite friendly despite never meeting. I don’t believe that I was the only member of the Sean Hughes Fan Club but I did seem to win all the competitions.
When he died in October 2017, Sue sent me a copy of the Order of Service from his funeral- it was in glorious colour and in A5- I was incredibly honoured.
Another comic who I raved about for years for their live performance was former hell raiser Dave Chapelle, not a big name here but he’d started to have some success in the 90s and had begun making movies at the time I saw him.
I was visiting friends in Upstate New York and we decided we would test the limits of the City that never Sleeps by heading there for a night without booking hotel accommodation. The mission therefore was just to keep ourselves occupied until we could get a train back out of town.
Around 11pm, and on a midweek evening, we found ourselves and about half a dozen other patrons, in a comedy club hosted by the intriguingly name Louis Schaefer which I assumed a few years later may have been a play on the word ‘Lucifer’. And looking around we did think that we were in for a hellish couple of hours.
There was a comic who was in the middle of their set and there were two more on the bill but before the next one was allowed to start, Louis came on stage to announce an unexpected guest addition, Dave Chapelle, old friend of the club was going to do a few minutes.
Dave shuffled under the spotlight and took the microphone and looked out at the audience. Well I think he intended to look out but he was obviously so under the influence of alcohol or narcotics that his eyeballs appeared to be being operated independently from his brain or to put it another way like a cock-eyed teacher he was unable to control his pupils....boom..boom!
The couple of minutes turned into about 75 and myself and my friends did indeed have to pick ourselves up from under the table we were sat at, having been unable to avoid rolling around in fits of laughter. It was a magical experience being that we were not expecting much from the star of ‘Half Baked’ who was showing he could entertain whilst in fact completely baked!
The memories of the event kept my friends and I warm for the rest of the night, as we marvelled at how he was able to keep talking whilst clearly so non-compos mentis.
The early hours of the morning were also memorable for us watching two of New York’s finest get into a fracas with a homeless guy as we watched from a booth inside the corner café made famous by being a location in the sitcom Seinfeld; and additionally by us being woken up, after we’d fallen asleep on the subway, by a heavy set drunk-guy singing very loudly Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three’s 1984 hip-hop anthem “The Roof Is On Fire”. I’d never heard it before but I have never forgotten it…The RO-OF…The RO-OF…The ROOF-IS-ON-FI-RE….
Twenty years later and I was there – this time in an audience of many thousands- to see Dave Chapelle in Dublin, both of us fully sober this time, where, like my memories of Sean Hughes, Dave was measured and professional, funny and insightful but the true magic wasn’t there. I enjoyed the performance but I wouldn’t pine for twenty years to see him again.
I found myself in a hotel bar in Manchester city centre after a legal conference a couple of years after having seen Ross Noble for the first time. A lot of wine consumed since the formalities were over and the craic was getting going when I spied in another part of the bar the familiar flowing locks, and distinctive facial features of the Geordie Genius.
He was reclining in a comfortable sofa alongside three rising comedy stars who have since all become household names. I was not in the least bit interested in them, but I was compelled to go over and gush my appreciation to Ross.
I meekly entered near where he was and did that cliche’ humble, bowing and scraping type thing where I was almost doffing my cap as I apologised for interrupting them but I just had to tell him how much I enjoyed the occasion of seeing him in Belfast a couple of years earlier and it was the most incredible thing to witness and, well that was it, just you’re great, so funny (like he’d never heard that before but he was polite and gracious in thanking me for saying it), that’s all I wanted to say. Other than can’t wait to see you next time you’re back. And you can guess what he said next can’t you??
‘Emm...I was just there last week...’
As my face fell, I could see the reflection of my red -embarrassed-cheeks in Rob Beckett’s glitteringly white teeth as he gave me that look that showed he sympathised with my shame.
‘Oh…my, I can’t believe I missed that...I’ll just have to wait til the next time again… and keep a better watch out…. Well goodbye.’ I said trying to recover and beat a hasty retreat but mortified all the same!
A couple of week’s later I bought the audio recording for the previous tour, Things, performed in Brisbane, to remind myself of how funny Ross could be as I was still a bit scundered even then by my foolish statement.
And sure enough, it was funny but not as funny as when i’d heard it all in Belfast. Yes, contrary to my impression at the time, none of the ‘THINGS’ he said were improvised at all - right down to the bit in the Zoo! (You had to be there!)
I had been comprehensively duped by a consummate performer, but- pardon the pun - for the most noble of reasons - making people feel good - to add something positive to the world. Yes he got paid for it, but he gave great value in return.
It’s a pity that so many other talented individuals choose to use their skills at manipulation to simply obtain an advantage for themselves, to set back the world rather than help it to move forward.
As Sean Hughes tried to point out, its a constant battle between the mumbo jumbo we get fed and common sense that we have and we have to figure out which to listen to.