Friday 4 July 2008

Oh no, I've said too much

A post over at Fat Mammy Cat's fantabulous, award winning blog reminded me of this little story...

In April last year, I showed up for a gig determined to try out some new material I had written about a black man who had called to our door earlier in the week. Despite a self imposed rule that I would never post material here, for the sake of the story, here it is - pretty much word for word as told*.

The other week, I answered the door to a black gentleman standing in the drive. Before I could say anything he said “Oh...I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, I’m looking for my friends. They live on this road but I've got the wrong house”.

"No problem", I said "it's two doors down" - and off he went.

It was only when I’d shut the door that I realised what I’d done. He hadn't told me who his friends were. He didn’t say he was looking for the Conolly’s. I just assumed he was looking for the family of Kenyans who live 2 doors down from us.

I may as well have said “On this street we like to keep our black people in this house”. You wouldn't make that assumption with anybody else. If a woman with a tight haircut, wearing dungarees called to the door you wouldn’t say “Ahh you’ll want the lesbians… number 69”.

I think the only thing that made it event mildly acceptable was that for as much as I foolishly assumed he was looking for the Kenyan family down the road – he assumed I was right.

I like to think he walked away thinking “Well that could be construed as slightly racist…. but I suppose we do tend to keep to ourselves.”

Invariably before trying new material an internal battle of wills is waged between a desire to see if it works and a desire to avoid dying on my arse if at all possible. Without fail, I walk out the door knowing exactly where the new stuff will appear in the set, only to arrive at the venue and decide the situation merits reassessment.

It is not uncommon for me to have serious doubts about the material but on this occasion my concerns were not related to its quality or strength. Instead I was worried some people might find it offensive. I like to think my material and style of delivery are fairly affable and I didn't think this piece was any different - but you never know how sensitive some people will be.

There were only a few people there when I arrived -one of whom was a black lady sitting just to the right of the stage. Between the usual pre gig jitters and my concerns about the new story, I balked completely at the idea of including it in the set.

"But its not racist" I told myself, "it should be ok".

Just to be sure, I called the CPF who had read it over my shoulder** as I was typing it up.

"You know the stuff about the guy at the door this week? Well there's a black lady in the audience. I can still do it can't I?"

"Of course you can", she said. "Its not racist - you're making fun of yourself, not him".

Still racked with doubt, I rang GW (who knows about such things), told him the story, explained the situation and asked if he thought it ok.

"Yeah - you're taking the piss out of yourself. It's fine".

So, with my mind put at rest by the reassurances of the 2 people I trust most, I decided to give it a go. I started my set with 5 minutes of reliable, tried and tested material which almost always lifts the roof. It settled the nerves: I had proven that I could do funny and the audience knew I could make them laugh. A perfect opportunity to slip in the new story - if it didn't turn out as rib ticking as I had hoped, they would give me the benefit of the doubt on the basis of the strong start and I could close out with another strong 5 minutes to end on a high.

Well that was the plan.

As soon as I said the words "black gentleman" the audience, almost as a single person, leaned forward, gasped audibly and focused, with gaping gazes, on the black lady to my right. Some looked to their companions with horrified expressions that screamed "Can he not see her? Does he not know she's there?". I could see everybody mentally preparing themselves to be outraged on her behalf when I delivered what they clearly assumed was some horrendously racist joke.

"No problem", I thought, "its not racist or offensive it will be fine". But 5 seconds later the realisation dawned on me: "you know its not racist, CPF knows its not racist, GW knows its not racist.... but these people don't know its not racist".

It made no difference now, I was like Magnus Magnusson. I had started so I had to finish. I couldn't abandon a story I had just started without it delivering a single laugh. I had to continue... so I did.

I soldiered on through the story - with an audience alternating their unsmiling, dumbfounded stares between me and the black lady. The only person laughing - during the new story and an excruciating closing 5 minutes - was the black lady.

She thought it was hilarious.

(I used the same material the following night and on numerous occasions since and it is always received very well. Some nights are just strange).

*It's funnier than it reads - honest.

**She didn't laugh. She never does. It seems to be a good indicator that it will work in a gig.


B said...

Great joke, could imagine it being used by David Mitchell for a whole episode of Peep Show.

I don't actually see how people pick something like that as racist when it clearly isn't. Yet I know most people would take it up as that.

I'm gonna try out some comedy next year, not really suited to public speaking or anything though, any tips? get drunk is the only idea I've got so far.

Caro said...

People like to think they're politically correct. Bollocks to that.

Anonymous said...

You could probably use the story about telling the story just as easily I am guessing - Loved it, great Post!

The Bad Ambassador said...

B - Thanks. Re: comedy advice, I can only tell you what (seems to) work for me. The most important things are to write 8 minutes of material (never using 10 words when 9 will do) and know it inside out. I wouldn't advise knocking back a few before hand - but the most important thing is to start loudly and confidently (even if you are quaking in your boots). Drop me an email ( if you want more detailed tips - or maybe I'll whip up a post about it.

Caro - I agree 100%, as I would imagine to most level headed, reasonably intelligent people. Very diplomatic of you not to comment on the quality of the material though! lol

Conortje - Thanks. I have toyed with the idea of combining the two stories in some way alright. Not entirely sure I could make it work though.

The Bad Ambassador said...

Oh dear, I've just re-read my reply to B. "The most important things are... but the most important thing is..". Must re-read before submitting.

It reminds me of the following exchange between the Simpsons and Sideshow Bob.

BOB: "Madam, your children are no more!...than a pair of ill-bred troublemakers."
HOMER: "Lisa too?"
BOB: "Especially Lisa! But especially Bart.

My apologies.