I took part in the Radio 4 show "28 Acts in 28 Minutes" at the Bloomsbury Theatre tonight. I'd done the live version in Edinburgh this year a couple of times, so knew that it was a fun idea, but this was something else.
They were recording two shows this evening, which meant that there were 56 comedians milling around the large (but not that large) dressing room from relative newcomers like Josie Long to wizened old pros like Nicholas Parsons and Barry Cryer - all primed to deliver a minute of material.
It was surprisingly nerve-wracking. I have rarely seen comedians looking so pale and thoughtful. Because perversely of course having to do sixty seconds is much harder than doing 20 minutes. You can't afford to mess up, you can't afford a punch-line to fall flat but if you totally forgot what you were meant to be doing one minute is actually a long time to fill. Sixty seconds of silence can literally drag on for hours. Yes, literally.
It was like a sort of mini, ultra concentrated Edinburgh Fringe and it was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and to make new ones. I had a lovely chat with the annecdotal Barry Cryer who is full of jokes and stories, like a jolly uncle who turns out to be genuinely witty and amusing. Also, unlike some of the older generation of comedians he has a genuine love and interest for what's going on now. You won't catch him on a clip show bemoaning the fact that you're not allowed to make those "harmless" jokes about "wogs and coons" any more or saying that "The Mighty Boosh" are as funny as cancer (which I think I saw Bernard Manning saying recently - looking like the unpleasant curmudgeon that he most surely is). Unlike Manning or Roy Walker or any of that breed of fool who is nostalgic for a time when things were horrible, you'll catch Barry still plying his trade at the Edinburgh Fringe - not as a money-spinning one off, but every year, because he likes his job and is also interested in seeing what other people are up to. He revealed to me that this year is actually the fiftieth anniversary of his first stand up gig and I told him, genuinely, that he is the comedian whose career I would most like to emulate. He has worked constantly in that time and though maybe not as big a name as some of the amazing comedians he worked with he is (unlike most of them) still alive and (unlike nearly all the rest) still working. So much as I might look at Ricky Gervais and think "Wow, I wish I could get to write an episode of the Simpsons and be in a Christopher Guest film," I'd still rather be Barry Cryer if I was given the choice. You know preferably a Barry Cryer who was asked to write an episode of the Simpsons and appear in a Christopher Guest film. But then has Ricky Gervais been asked to write for Morecambe and Wise. No he hasn't. Though knowing his luck the technology to reanimate the dead duo will probably be invented and he'll be the first person to be asked to write the script (and i don't actually begrudge Ricky his success, I think he's great. The luck is more about what he's been asked to do rather than any feeling on my part that he doesn't deserve it)
My point is that I now see my career as a Marathon, not a sprint and if I was 71 and still going on stage and getting the cheers that Barry got tonight I would be more than happy with my three score years and ten. And one.
Barry regaled us with stories, my favourite of which was the one about the last Edinburgh when he'd bumped into Stewart Lee and for a minute refused to talk to him, looking at him with a face like thunder. Stewart, not surprisingly worried about having upset this comedy legend asked what was wrong. "I can't believe you Stewart," Barry told him, "You've totally ripped off my vomitting into the anus of Christ routine. I've been doing that since the Sixties."
The best bit is that knowing Stewart as I do, for a second he would have been worried that this was actually true, before the penny dropped.
After the show many of the 56 comedians could be seen propping up the free bar and Barry was there with the best of them. It was such a fun evening and made me proud to be in the same group on the Venn diagram as all these people. Apart from Dan Antopolski who is a dick.
That was a joke.