Extract: It’s Not A Runner Bean by Mark Steel

The Trauma of the Slightly Successful Comedian

The tortured soul of the successful comedian has been analysed through the centuries — the tragic tears behind the face of the clown, the internal agonies of Hancock or Lenny Bruce. On the other hand, the failed comedian is the subject of many a study: The King of Comedy, The Entertainer. But supposing you do the occasional slot on the telly, have your own Radio Four series, acquire a following of about two hundred in the larger cities of Britain, or seventy in smaller places, like Kettering. Suppose you’re always in work but are unknown to more than a tiny fraction of the population. You will be in the undignified and tormented plight of playing a role with no identity; the Slightly Successful Comedian.

The Slightly Successful Comedian no longer trucks round the clubs on a bill with jugglers and people with stage names like Sir Laughalot, but plays to a group of fans in the smaller of the two rooms in the smaller of the two theatres in the average town, as he arrives passing a bustling queue for Murder at the Tennis Club, starring a bloke who was in one series of London’s Burning, in the four-hundred seat auditorium upstairs.

The struggling comedian can look forward to an appearance on TV that will change his life forever. The Slightly Successful Comedian has been on TV and the next morning had to go to the launderette.

The marvellous thing about being a struggling comedian is that you know where you stand. Once in Norwich I went on stage at a miniature rock festival in front of three hundred students who were screaming for a band called Fuzzbox who had been due on an hour before, but who were running behind schedule. Forty seconds later the promoter was delicately wiping a pulsating globule of gob from my shirt and ordering a roadie to sweep a glistening path of smashed Thunderbird wine and cider bottles from the stage. Later, as I tried to get to sleep sharing a settee with a St Bernard in the promoter’s squat, I felt proudly part of a living tradition, the struggling comedian on the road.

Compare that to the mind-twisting experience some years later of getting two encores after a ninety-minute show to two hundred people in Leicester, then ten minutes later waiting outside for a bus to the bed and breakfast while two blokes growled, ‘You’d better not be pushing in, mate,’ while their girlfriends protested, ‘Oh leave ‘im Kev, ’e’s all on ’is own.’

Or what about the emotional turmoil of the night I appeared on a programme with Barry McGuigan, Jan Francis and John Alderton. For an hour or so after the show we chatted, drank and joked together. ‘Good luck with the new telly series,’ I said to Jan as we parted. ‘And good luck with that gig you’re doing in a pub in Bradford,’ she replied. Less than an hour later, I was dragging a mattress into the living room of my Tulse Hill council flat because water was dripping through the ceiling in the bedroom.

There are two crushing insults you can make to the Slightly Successful Comedian. The first is to go up straight after a storming show and say, ‘That was really good, mate. So do you actually make a living out of this, then?’ This is the equivalent of getting a plumber round and as he’s reaching behind the washing machine, asking, ‘So what do you do as a day job then?’ The correct response to this question is to tell them you earn between twenty and thirty thousand pounds a week.

The other insult is to say, ‘Oh, you’re a comedian are you? Well, who knows? One day you might be famous.’ This approach supposes that: a) all comedians crave fame above all else, and b) you clearly haven’t got it because I’ve never heard of you, mate. Therefore you are, so far at least, a failure.

To this you must reply that fame is the most appalling possible yardstick to measure success by. David Mellor, after all, is famous. So is Keith Chegwin. And Myra Hindley and Jeremy Beadle and Alan Titchmarsh and Reggie Kray and that irritating twat who introduces Countdown.

Bamber Gascoigne is famous. I know because I once saw him arrive at a theatre and as he was collecting his tickets a security guard shouted at him: ‘Oy mate, here’s your starter for ten. Haah haah.’ Whether it annoys him or not that every time he goes to a shop he has to expect the assistant to say something like: ‘What would you like? No conferring, I’ll have to hurry you…’ I don’t know. But it surely can’t have been his life’s ambition.

I was fascinated by a television advert for toothpaste, in which three actors play dancing teeth singing something along the lines of: ‘We’re all smiling because now we get smothered twice a day in new oxygenated Crest. Mmmm.’ At one and the same time those actors had attained the height of their fame and the peak of their failure.

So I can reassure myself that semi obscurity is healthy. That a project such as writing a radio play that will go out on Radio Four at 10.45pm to twenty thousand retired antiques dealers dotted around the home counties is far more worthwhile than going on a BBC1 panel show and scoring two extra points for singing the theme to The Wombles with Robin Asquith.

It’s also a complete myth that appearing on any old daytime cack is going brings in the crowds to your live show. If being on telly was all that was required to build a live following, the weatherman would be doing sell out runs at the Albert Hall.

So Slightly Successful Comedians know full well the limitations of fame as a gauge of value to society. But they also know that if they look out of the window and see the postman they think: ‘Ah, there’s the postman,’ whereas if they looked out of the window and saw Des Lynam they’d shout: ‘Fuck me, there’s that bloke off Grandstand.’ Which is why it does feel awkward, and slightly depressing when I come out of Broadcasting House after doing a radio show such as Loose Ends, and I’m almost pushed over by a heaving throng of autograph hunters reaching over my shoulder desperately waving their pens at Diana Rigg.

It’s also why there’s nothing more flattering than being invited to something you would never take part in on principle. For example I’m extremely proud of an invitation I received to be in the audience for An Audience With Jimmy Tarbuck. Tarbuck is the latest in a line of buffoons who saw the way the wind was blowing towards comedians like Eddie Izzard and Jo Brand. These types of performers have been attracting a young mainstream audience, which the likes of Tarbuck must tap into if they’re to remain stars. So they’re desperately trying to re-invent themselves with a kitsch image by surrounding themselves with younger comics. The only stand to take was not to go. But on the other hand I’d have been well fucked off if someone I knew had got an invitation and I hadn’t.

The Slightly Successful Comedian understands that a comic’s real ambition should be to wish to be funny by being passionate about things you love and vitriolic about things you hate, and that to convey that to a small number means far more than being a guest on Win, Lose or Draw.

But if you are half satisfied with something you’ve written or performed in you must want it to go out to as many people as possible. In other words be more famous. And more successful. The egomaniac wants fame no matter how it comes. The Slightly Successful Comedian craves respectability and fame. That’s real megalomania.

At this point the person who said, ‘Well, who knows. One day you might be famous,’ will probably say, ‘All right mate, I was only being polite.’

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