I first performed on stage at the age of thirty-two in a comedy sketch group called Mountbatten’s Plimsoll.
A plimsoll is like a tennis shoe, and the following joke was going around about Lord Mountbatten who had been blown up on his boat by the IRA:
“What’s white and flies across the water at a thousand miles an hour? Mountbatten’s plimsoll.”
At the same time I got involved in the ranting poetry scene which was taking off in the UK. It was similar to the modern slam poetry stuff with its performance-based polemical language bombs, and in 1982 I appeared at the Poetry Olympics at the Young Vic Theatre in London.
I'm the one on the left.
This led to Time Out magazine hiring me to write a weekly topical poem, which I did for about six months until the novelty wore off.
Here I am putting the world to rights in 1983.
I did my first stand-up gig in 1985. The Comedy Store’s popularity had encouraged more clubs to open, so I bought a suit in a charity shop and booked myself some gigs as Eddie Zibin. Don’t ask me why. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Here I am getting the idea.
Back then things weren’t as professional as they are now and you could get away with stuff that wouldn’t be tolerated today. I particularly enjoyed baiting audiences, especially at the rowdier clubs, and the gigs often ended in chaos.
My old pal Ian Cognito recalls a typical incident in Chapter 5 of his excellent book, A Comedian’s Tale, which is well worth reading if you want an honest and entertaining account of what it’s like to be a working English comic.
Eventually I grew out of the confrontational stuff and started taking stand-up a bit more seriously. Here I am giving it my best shot at Brunel University in 1989. (No, it’s not a wig.)
For the next few years I worked the circuit full time, performing most nights, and often two or three times a night on weekends, including some forgettable radio and TV, until the mid nineties when I started writing for others.
Since then I’ve written jokes for some excellent stand-ups and some truly awful TV shows, none of which I want to own up to here.
Recently I had an e-mail from a
Christian saying he understands why, as a comedian, I feel
the need to offend people. “I get it,” he said, “it’s just
No. For me it has never been just business. If it was, I’d be a lot richer than I am now.
Causing offence is an occupational hazard in stand-up. I used to tell a joke about an earthquake being a great leveller, until I was approached after a show by a man who had lost his sister in an earthquake and didn’t think it at all funny.
When paedophiles first became headline news I told audiences I thought we were supposed to be a nation of dog lovers, and it always got a laugh. But after a show in Bradford I was confronted with great hostility by three young women from the local rape crisis group about my cavalier use of their personal tragedy to make a sick joke.
Another time at the Comedy Store I responded to a typical piece of church bigotry by telling the audience I’d like to give the pope a few inches of cockmeat up the anus – not in a sexual way, but purely in the spirit of unconditional Christian love – and a drunk Irish woman had to be prevented by one of the bouncers from attacking me on stage.
At a gig in Liverpool, I was keen to try out a new joke I’d written about an Islamic petty criminal who had to change his name from Fingers to Lefty to Hoppy to Stumpy. I knew it would get a big laugh, and it did whenever I told it thereafter, but on this occasion I failed to notice an amputee in a wheelchair at the side of the stage, and the joke went through the trapdoor, Saddam-like, in a dead drop, plainly making everyone in the room very uncomfortable. I felt like stopping the show to explain that it was a joke about Sharia barbarism, not amputees, but I have to admit if I’d been in the audience I’d probably have been embarrassed as well.
Nowadays I’m pretty relaxed about people being offended. It’s never intended, but what the hell, I make videos to talk about some of the things that offend me, so if push comes to shove we can all be offended together.
I like comedians who are offended. They’re more interesting. I like silly jokes as well, but when I hear intelligent humour expressed with attitude I’m all ears.
On one occasion, though, I got it badly wrong. In 1991 I found myself on the same bill as the doyen of edgy stand-up, Bill Hicks, at a little club called Oranje Boom Boom in London’s Chinatown. He had just arrived from America and was warming up for the Edinburgh Fringe, but this particular evening it didn’t happen for him and he totally died. Not because he was offensive or anything like that. The audience were just in the mood for something else, or perhaps they had seen Denis Leary do his material the previous week, who knows?
Anyway, he went down about as well as a Bible salesman in Mecca and walked off after ten minutes to the sound of his own footsteps.
A few weeks later in Edinburgh, Mark Thomas grabbed me with his usual enthusiasm: “Pat, you’ve got to go and see this American guy, Bill Hicks. He’s fantastic.”
And I said: “No thanks, Mark. I’ve seen him. He’s shit.”