Friday, 17 February 2012

I became a stand-up comic… at 60!

A friend gave VG Lee an unwanted birthday present- a course in stand-up comedy. But now she's discovered laughter DOES make the world go around...

Written by VG Lee

A few weeks before my 60th birthday I was at Eastbourne library, reading from my novel, The Comedienne. My friend Jenny was in the audience. Jenny is priceless – she laughs loudly at everything, which makes everyone else laugh loudly, once they get over being irritated by her loud laugh.

On the train going home, Jenny said that she had decided that I should become a stand-up comic. What had I got to lose? There were courses you could take. We could do it together. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Horrible idea.’

‘But you’d be hilarious,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t,’ I said.

A week later, Jenny rang again. She’d booked herself on a comedy course. And me. ‘An early birthday present.’ The class met once a week in an art gallery above a shop in Hastings New Town, where I now live. There were 11 would-be comics and me: six men, six women. The youngest was a girl of 18, I was the oldest by at least 15 years. After the initial shock, I thought, well, nothing ventured… After all, I do write humorous Ž fiction. I often make my friends laugh. On the course, I didn’t make a single person laugh – ever! Ten weeks of me, failing to be remotely funny. It was purgatory.

‘You used to be hilarious,’ Jenny said. She was hilarious, bouncing on to the makeshift stage, tossing out amusing anecdotes and witty one-liners. Everyone loved her. I didn’t. Our friendship was in tatters. I remember trying out a sketch I’d worked on for days. It was about my aunt dying over Christmas surrounded by her dolls. Written down now, I see how unamusing it was, but at the time, I believed this would be the sketch to break my run of bad luck. Silence, then someone murmured, ‘That’s very poignant.’

‘Stand-up comedy’s not meant to be poignant,’ Sally, the tutor, said.

We held our end-of-course show in a cellar bar on the sea front. Eighty people came; friends and families. Sally had hired a professional comedian/ compere for the night who would warm up the audience and create a supportive, lively atmosphere. This was the fabulous comedian, Maureen Younger who runs Laughing Cows (all women comedians performing to a mixed audience) in Soho and Birmingham. My friends insisted on coming, even though I’d told them I’d be awful.

‘First-night nerves,’ they insisted that evening. ‘You’ll be great.’ ‘No. Watch my lips… I will be awful. This is a nightmare and I wish I were dead.’

‘You wouldn’t really want that.’ ‘Please don’t tell me what I wish or don’t wish for.’

Not the best start, alienating my only supporters. I left them in the bar and went outside to stare at the sea. No, I didn’t want to die but a broken limb would have been acceptable. With an arm or leg in plaster as a humorous distraction, I would have felt much more confiŽdent. The audience would be sympathetic, even admiring. ‘Well, you’d got to hand it to that woman with the broken leg – she might have been rubbish but my god, she was plucky.’

I went back and rejoined the rest of the students. Everyone was nervous but we were there to support each
other. (They had come round to liking me, if only as an unfunny oddity!) Whether the acts were good, bad or
indifferent we applauded enthusiastically. We all knew what courage it took to walk out in front of a real audience for the first time and create laughter. ‘You’re on first after the break,’ Maureen the compere said. ‘And no more than 10 minutes.’

I would have liked to reply, ‘In that case I’ll go for short and sweet, Maureen – 90 seconds should be enough.’ 

After the break I stood at the side of the stage, shaking. ‘A big welcome for the wonderful, Val Lee.’

Behind me someone called out, ‘Good luck, Val.’

I walked out into the spotlight and went straight into a sketch about my hairdresser Michelle, late of Toni & Guy, Bridport. On the comedy course it had gone down like a lead balloon, but perhaps the audience was a little inebriated by then, because something magical happened – they loved me!

The more people laughed, the more confident I became. I lampooned my friends and they didn’t mind at all. I over-ran my 10 minutes and Maureen didn’t mind much. After the show she booked me for Laughing Cows.

The next morning I made a momentous decision: I would become a comedian. I would do 60 stand-up gigs to
celebrate my 60th year.

By the end of the year I’d managed 93 and been a finalist in the Hackney Empire’s New Act Of The Year 2010. I
didn’t win but was mentioned in The Stage: ‘Hers was gentle, wry comedy, drawing us into a world of relationships,
ballroom dancing and bungalows – she deserves to carve a niche.’

It wasn’t all plain sailing. I did a show for a week at the Edinburgh Fringe with one of the other students, which was absolute misery for both of us. One evening our audience consisted of just four people sheltering from the rain, plus a boisterous, drunken party of five men visiting for The Tattoo.

‘Anyone here own a cat?’ I plunged in with.

‘I’ve got a stoat,’ drunken man said patting his trouser front suggestively.

When I was a child my mother used to call me a show-off and perhaps she was right. Although I still feel sick with anxiety before a performance and that option of the broken limb once again becomes tempting, there is nothing
quite like making people laugh. So thank you, Jenny.

VG Lee’s new novel, Always You, Edina, is published by Ward Wood Publishing, priced £9.99, and will be on sale in April. For further information:

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