Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘I definitely spiced up my otherwise clean act’
Paul Kerensa has a comedy confession to make
As a kneel-down stand-up, I’m often asked: ‘How do you keep your comedy on the straight and narrow?’ Truth is, I don’t always.
I try, but have moments of slippage. One particular stand-up gig was a turning point, to stay with me till I’m old and grey and my jokes are too (better grey than blue).
First though, a few other gigs are part of that journey, like the Christian festival with the Bishop of Oxford in the front row.
‘Do you do many church events?’ he asked me afterwards.
‘Yes, lots,’ I replied. In normal times (remember those?), half my gigs are comedy clubs, half are in churches. It’s not planned that way – that’s just who calls.
‘Well don’t,’ he said, with a mock firmness. ‘Go back to the mainstream.’
He gently suggested that was where I was needed, rather than literally preaching to the converted. Maybe he also liked doing jokes in his sermons and didn’t want the competition.
The turning-point gig – the one that made me clean up my act – was a comedy club gig in a village hall. I was ‘doubling up’, meaning I’d managed two gigs on one night.
Generally when this happens, the two venues are near: you open in Derby and close in Nottingham, that sort of thing. In big cities, you might fit in more. Hal Cruttenden is legendary for this. I gigged with Hal one night in London to find that while I was doubling up, he was quintupling up. Opening in Covent Garden, running to The Comedy Store, a middle spot in north London, a fourth gig in even norther London, then finally The Comedy Store’s late show. Impressive.
Incidentally, my record doubling-up distance is 200 miles. My agent thought Wales was tiny, so booked me to open in Cardiff but close in Bangor, four hours apart without a motorway. Thankfully I left Cardiff by 7:15pm; Bangor was a student show happy to run late.
I digress. Finally, we reach our destination: the gig where my ruder jokes got the better of me. I’d opened elsewhere and ran into this village hall to close the show. The compere greeted me gleefully with a show update: ‘Nice audience, they love the bawdy stuff!’
I gulped. I’m not a ‘bawdy’ act! I keep it clean. This audience, apparently, had different tastes.
A dilemma then: Stick to my guns and play nice? Or play the room, ‘naughtifying’ my act? Urged on by the compere, I caved. I was no Frankie Boyle, but definitely spiced up my otherwise clean act with some fruitier language. It landed well, but I felt I lost a bit of me in the process, and walked offstage muttering: ‘That’s not me.’
As I leant against the bar, a cheery but concerned man sidled up to me. ‘Excuse me. I’m a vicar from the church down the road. We’ve booked you for a comedy show next month. We thought we’d see you here first. Do you have another set you could do?’
‘Yes!’ I exclaimed and explained how I’d fallen for the old ‘change who you are to appease other people’ trap, for one night only.
That was a turning point, but each of these gigs (and a thousand others) have been part of that journey. Less a turning point, more a gradual curve in the road.
When the gigs come back, I’ll try and stick to the straight and narrow, though I think it’s important too to somehow meet people where they are. It’s a continuing journey, and those obstacles in the road are always inevitable. God’s my satnav. I’ll try and listen harder.
Paul Kerensa is a comic writer, performer and radio broadcaster
This article was published in the May 2021 edition of Reform