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Sunday 7th August 2005

In 1988 I was up doing my second Edinburgh in The Oxford Revue. I had just turned 21 and dreaming of a career in comedy. The show, not surprisingly, was patchy, but with some interesting enough stuff given the age and inexperience of the writers (me and SG Lee). But the Fringe was an unpleasant experience almost from the start. The comedy world was changing (in truth it had already changed) and not only were sketch shows old-fashioned compared to the fecund new alternative comedy stand-up scene, but something like the Oxford Revue represented the old days where (supposedly) posh Oxbridge students would come up to Edinburgh, be seen by ex-Oxbridge TV types who would immediately give them their own TV series. In fact I don’t think this was ever particularly true and certainly no-one from Oxford had been “discovered” in this way since Rowan Atkinson maybe a decade previously. In fact I would argue that all the Oxbridge people who ended up getting their own TV series in the past were pretty talented people: Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, Fry and Laurie and so on. I can’t think of too many talentless people who had got onto TV – well maybe Mel Smith – but the perception was that there was an old guard to overthrow. And even though in 1988 it had already been thoroughly overthrown (if it ever existed) it was time to put the boot in for all the years of injustice. And our soft, young, naïve faces were the easiest place to insert that boot. Certainly something brilliant was happening in comedy and we were not part of it, but were just unlucky that we were up representing a moribund art form against something vibrant and full of momentum.
So Keith Allen came to review our show, but instead of watching any of it, just got drunk, moved some crash mats, thus nearly causing serious injury to a young, but brave Ben Moor (who did the jump anyway – though I may have pushed him) and then walked out after one sketch and tried to beat up our theatre manager. He then went on TV to say that the Oxford Revue was as you would expect, rubbish. This was probably an accurate review, but it would have been nice if he’d stayed to have his expectations confirmed. Looks like I’ve been having walk-outs for a long time.
The next week we were invited onto the TV show to defend ourselves, which was of course just another arena for more abuse from Allen and several stand ups (My dad thinks, including Malcom Hardee – so forget all the nice things I said about him, the man was a cunt! Though rather satisfyingly a cunt whose son is now at Oxford himself). In hindsight I can see they probably didn’t care about it that much and were just having fun at our expense – they were merely shooting fish in a barrel, using special fish seeking missiles. As I defended the accusation that I was a posh public school privileged nit (I was in fact only a nit) my face reddened and my voice rose and my humiliation was complete. I accused Keith Allen of being on drugs when he saw our show. He pulled a sarcastic face. It was all horrible.
Then (and this is what this is all leading to) we were invited to perform at the notorious stand up club Late ‘N’ Live at the Gilded Balloon. We knew very little about the club or its reputation for being a heckler’s paradise (we were stupid, young, naïve and hopelessly out of touch), but would have performed there even if we had because they were paying us the princely sum of £10 each.
On the night it seemed that every stand-up comedy in town had turned up to heckle the stupid young lambs who were willingly skipping towards the slaughter and who were the personification of a system that needed to be crushed. Now I know that everyone gets treated like this if they show weakness, but then I took it personally. Gamely we went ahead with it all, trying to do our sketches, without microphones to the assembled throng of filth and fury. Looking back it seems like simple insanity, but we did our best. I don’t remember much about it, though seeing comics I liked and admired laying into me left me upset and confused. It all seemed so important then and I felt that I was unwelcome in the comedy world that I so craved joining. These experiences left psychological scars that took years to heal and which would mean that even now there is a part of me that expects all stand-up comedians to hate me. Despite this roasting (which was our own stupid fault, I know that) we did go back the next week to fulfil our second engagement, because ironically given the fact we were all posh privileged aristocracy, we needed the money. We wrote new material and took along some different performers. Ben Moor and me did an ill-conceived and yet I suspect slightly brilliant act called “Herring and Spaz” in which Ben played my mentally ill little brother who I would make dance to “Dancing Queen” for a Twix and which when the dance was complete I just stamped on. It was a routine based on frustration at our previous treatment. It was wrong and angry and come on, if you can ignore the wrongness for a moment, quite funny. If we’d just made Ben stupid then it would have been fine. But we didn’t. Maybe we should resurrect that this year. He is up here. I don’t know if he still has the orange cagoule. I remember a woman being very offended and you know what, I think in this case she was justified.
After that Edinburgh I came close to giving up my dream of being a comedian, I lost a lot of my confidence and changed from a high status to a low status comedian in the stuff I did. As I have said, the associations from that day have remained for a long time and it’s one of the reasons I was reluctant to do stand up.
But this morning at about 3am I faced my demons to return to Late ‘N’ Live as an act for the first time in 17 years. It was a massive psychological step for me, as even though I am now quite happy doing stand-up, this confrontational arena renowned for heckling and drunkenness is something that is far out of my safety zone. I know that I am not the right kind of comedian to prosper in this environment and that I haven’t had a chance to hone the necessary skills to give myself much of a chance of succeeding. But I wanted to do it, to conquer the beast on my back and also because they were going to pay me £140. Some things don’t change. I still need the money (and given that they were paying £60 – for six of us – 17 years ago, the fee hasn’t really gone up too much).
I was disappointed to find out that I was headlining. Not only did this mean that I would have to stay up later, I also knew that people would be more drunk by then and also probably comedied out (especially as an extra comic had been added to the bill).
I pretty much died on my arse. But not as badly as I did 17 years ago. Maybe in 17 more years I might go on there and be just kind of all right. Even my banker rude material was doing little to please them. They wanted me to address them and converse with them and they also wanted me to piss on a jacket, which was some kind of in joke for the gig. I didn’t do it though. I find it hard to urinate in public.
Towards the end I started giving as good as I got and it wasn’t all terrible, but I was out of my depth and my mouth went dry like it had in Croatia, but despite the minor humiliation of going badly in front of some of my comedy peers I wasn’t all that upset. In fact I felt pretty proud of myself for having gone back to face this demon. It’s not an area of comedy that I think I’d want to get into on a regular basis (even though I massively respect the guys who can perform in these conditions – Russell Howard was an unbelievably assured host, do check out his show if you’re up here), but if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same, then you might not be a man, but you’re on your way to being a stand up.
I’ve got two more gigs booked in there and just like 17 years ago I am not going to cancel them, even though I know they will go badly. Like 17 years ago this is mainly because I need the money.
Maybe I should ask Ben Moor if he wants to re-form “Herring and Spaz”, though given my support for SCOPE, I would have to change the name now. After all Ben’s character was suffering from mental illness so it was a misnomer in any case.
Ah Edinburgh, how I love thee. You smack me in the face with a brick and yet still I keep coming back. Will you ever love me back? Or does my devotion just make you want to treat me even worse?
Satisyingly towards the end I said, "My name is Stewart Lee. Don't miss my show "90's comedian" at the Underbelly." So hopefully that should destroy the Lee-sters reputation (even though in actuality he was across town, killing the room at Best of the Fest.
If you want to see our wrong opinions of one another then why not check out this article in the Sunday Times.

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