I’m last on stage at a comedy club in Stockwell, south London. The preceding act has just finished a close-to-the-bone skit in costume as Hitler. The audience of Londoners, with a few American tourists mixed in, is still laughing as I take the mic, so I decide to piggyback on their goodwill.
‘That’s a tough Reich to follow!’ I quip broadly.
The crowd falls silent. The spotlight burns a hole in my forehead. In the dressing room beside the stage Hitler gives an exasperated sigh as he scrubs off his marker-pen moustache.
Photo Credit Flickr: Jenny M Brown (The Udder Belly, Southbank)
Londoners have a strange attitude toward stand-up comedy. Often we’ll happily cram into the back rooms of dingy East-end pubs, cellars deep in the bowels of Piccadilly Circus, or the odd club where the advertised comedy turns out to be a heavily inebriated quadragenarian with a ‘Just Divorced’ sign pinned to her chest singing karaoke until the words are nothing but insults for her lost love.
On a grander scale, the Udderbelly tent, a purple outsized upended cow, has just been erected for its fourth summer on the Southbank beneath the London Eye, where for three months it will play host to professional live comedy, as well as cabaret, music, and theatre. Londoners and tourists alike flock not only for the shows, but for the surrounding ‘pasture’; a falsified beach resort of plastic palm trees, multicoloured deckchairs, and overpriced cocktails making the Thames as tropical as it’s ever likely to get.
(Pictured: Dave bores an audience to tears)
Londoners seem less willing to endure any funny stuff beyond the context of a musty pub or inflatable cattle quivering overhead. A few weeks ago I was sharing a late-night Tube carriage with a small group of Japanese backpackers. A man in full fancy-dress tuxedo embarked and proceeded to recount an anecdote about his ex-girlfriend throwing his hamster off a balcony. Instinctively I assumed my frostiest English stoicism and ignored him. The backpackers however, despite the vague incomprehension on their faces, laughed delightedly and handed over fistfuls of change.
This is a strange thing about the English. If we find ourselves on a train in, say, India, such eccentric characters or outlandish mishaps are fondly remembered as an adventure. On home turf, they’re merely a nuisance. So it’s up to visitors to our country to show us how it’s done. The Swedish tourist who, when a busker extracts a bunch of mangled plastic flowers from behind her ear, laughs along instead of grumpily plodding onward. The Spanish sightseer who grins at a Tube driver’s witheringly deprecating announcements like it’s the very finest of street performances.
Photo Credit Flickr: Damon Massah
I gaze out from the stage at a roomful of unimpressed Londoners. The silence stretches. Perhaps if I wait long enough I can shrivel into inexistence before any further jokes fall by the wayside with little more than a pitying titter.
I breathe nervously into the microphone. ‘You know it’s bad when you die onstage after Hitler’s left the building.’
And in the corner a trio of American tourists booms with laughter. It takes all my English resolve not to dive across the room and hug them.
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Category: London Calling