As my 22nd stint at the Edinburgh Fringe comes to an end this weekend, I find myself thinking about my first visit time in 1987.
I was young and foolish and largely unamusing (so all that has changed is I am no longer young â€“ Iâ€™ll troll myself to give the trolls a rest). But that yearâ€™s show had a thirty second slapstick gag, which got a bigger laugh than anything I have done since. I didnâ€™t know it then but I had already written my best ever joke.
Slapstick doesnâ€™t work as well written down (man swings ladder which hits another man â€“ See!), but here it is anyway. Another performer came on stage and proclaimed, â€śIntroducing Mr Harold Pucksa, the man who can only live in a vacuum!â€ť
I would then enter as Harold, running, waving at the crowd, filled with excitement at my new-found stardom. But halfway across the stage my face would turn from a broad smile to sudden, awful realisation. Still hurtling forwards, my legs would give way and I would spectacularly dive at a ninety degree angle and come crashing down on to the floor. Harold was dead. In his quest for fame he had forgotten that he could only live in an environment with no air. Although the main joke was watching a young man happily hurl himself at the floor, perhaps it resonated more because of the satirical element of how seeking glory can be our literal downfall.
No, the falling over got the laugh.
I made it look spectacular and painful by using the little-known theatrical technique of just throwing myself in the air and letting gravity do the rest. The illusion of pain was created by genuine pain. But I couldnâ€™t show that pain as Harold was supposedly dead. By the end of my run at the Fringe I had a huge, multicoloured bruise all the way up my forearm. A mottled badge of comedic honour.
Once I did this pratfall in a large room with a hard stone floor. Not only did I have a long run-up, but the slapping noise my body made upon the unyielding surface added a new aural layer to the piece. The sound the audience made was equally remarkable, a shocked silence as the splat echoed around the room, followed by palpable comprehension of the gag, followed by a wild cacophony that I have never heard the like of again. Loud and long and almost primeval. It swelled and grew, dipped and then suddenly grew again. Peopleâ€™s feet were instinctively stamping, the temporary seating was actually shaking. It felt like it would never end. I lay there dead, wallowing in my achievement.
I didnâ€™t know then that, even though I would make comedy my career, I would never again get as big or as wonderful a response as that one. But many comedians will work a lifetime without ever hearing this heavenly song, sung by a chaotic choir of ecstatic strangers.
Thereâ€™s a tragedy to knowing my best ever laugh is way behind me, yet luckily I am not driven by demons encouraging me to better or equal it. Otherwise my whole life might have become a constant repetition of that 20 second run and leap, to diminishing returns and increasing pain and physical injury.
A small part of me yearns to let Pucksa out one last time, but I am 46 now and my bones are not so resilient. It would probably kill me. Though it might be worth it to have that wonderful harmonious disharmony swelling in my ears as my life fades away.