Comedy Moments: An innocent abroad

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The Independent Culture
Our monthly series in which comedians reflect on funny moments in their lives sees Andre Vincent recalling some of the trials of being an English comic overseas

At a Christmas party in 1992 I announced very loudly "it was time for me to shake off the anorak of immaturity and be tailored for the suit of responsibility". Now, apart from my close mates telling me I was a twat for saying such a poncey phrase and them teasing me by calling me Lord Byron for the next couple of months, I was actually trying to say to them, in a roundabout way, that it was time for me to settle down. Not in the spouse, 24 kids and mortgage living-hell, settling-down sort of way, but by actually finding somewhere to live in London, getting a permanent telephone number, making a few commitments to some comedy gigs and actually being based in one place for a little while.

The problem was that for the previous seven years I had been a comedy nomad. Like so many other comedians on the British circuit, my roots were in street performing. Don't knock it: Eddie Izzard, John Hegley and Mark Thomas all started on the cobbles of Covent Garden. In the United States, Robin Williams and Steve Martin did cheap magic tricks on the street corners of California. To a boy in his early twenties, this seemed a noble profession and so, under the name Arty Pavarotti (Andre Vincent I consider to be too wimpy for the street), I went with props in bag and passport in pocket and managed to travel the northern hemisphere annoying people in every country possible.

I have been deported from two countries, regularly been strip-searched at customs, escorted around Dallas airport by two policeman to make sure I got on my flight to Canada, and even had my bike confiscated in China because a fat European cycling around was too much of a distraction and caused too many accidents.

While in China I got a gig performing at all the Vietnamese refugee camps fringing the South China Sea. We arrived at the very first one. There were only six of us doing the show, but we were treated like Barnum & Bailey's circus had come to town. The Vietnamese were ecstatic, the performers excited and the Chinese Army guards were shitting themselves.

When we arrived I was warned by the camp warden that when we were doing the show, we shouldn't go anywhere near the main fence. He might as well have said "Mr Bull, ignore the red rag", because as soon as we came to the big finale, I was up that fence, balanced precariously, juggling fire torches. I heard this massive cheer from the crowd, and I thought: "Blimey, they love me, I'm gonna be their new Ho Chi Minh." Only to look down and see the barrels of a dozen rifles pointing up at me and soldiers freaking out and shouting in Cantonese. No sense of humour.

Another moment of over-zealous behaviour was in Vancouver in 1986. I was working at the World's Fair and had made a bit of a name for myself as the mad, dangerous comic to see. Hey, those Canadians, they don't know any better. I got an invitation to see 42nd Street at the big amphitheatre. This was the first time I had been invited to any sort of posh do, so I was definitely going. Now, the seating was quite strange: there was a large balcony with a slight drop at the front where all of us (the exclusive party) were sitting. As we were going along the aisle finding our seats, I heard an old woman say: "Look, there's Arty Pavarotti, I must ask for his autograph." Well, I couldn't miss a moment like this. I leaned across to take the woman's pencil and sign her programme. She looked at me, started drawing back and just repeated the word "No!" What added to the confusion was that a large, elderly black man consoled her, gave me a filthy look and then stuck his own scrawl on the same said programme. The show started and I didn't really give the matter another thought, until the interval when I was introduced to Harry Belafonte.

Really, I think it's best I stay in England from now on.

You can see Andre Vincent as special guest on Rob Newman's national tour from 2 Oct