TECHNIQUE / Laugh? They had to carry me out in a box: In comedy, you haven't lived until you've died. Six stand-ups who have stared death in the face relive their experiences with Mark Wareham

JENNY ECLAIR

SIX years ago, I was playing a disco and I thought, 'I've just got to clear the floor.' It was full of Japanese business people. So I resorted to a faint. It was the only way out. I'll try anything to get out of trouble. I'll put on the girlish charm (which is becoming increasingly difficult at my age) or I'll say, 'I'm just a middle-class girl messing about,' and it all becomes a bit desperate. I regularly get booed off stage at college gigs. I feel a creature descend upon me as I rev up in the wings. Then I go on stomping, all guns blazing, like a mad bitch on heat.

I've had some humiliating defeats. I started 11 years ago when I was 21, and I still don't know if I'm going to get it wrong. One time I did a gig with Malcolm Hardee and I was having a quick pee round the back of the stage. He lifted up the tent flap and saw me, so he quickly introduced me. I had to come on, tucking myself in, to face 800 leather-jacket bikers. I said, 'You know what it's like when you're having a dinner party,' and 800 of them rose in unison crying, 'Fuck off'. I tend to go home, beat myself with a stick and dig myself a hole. No matter how many good gigs you have, that one bad gig wipes out everything else.

Jenny Eclair is at New Jongleurs, Middle Yard, Camden, London NW1 on 28 Oct, and is on tour with the National Comedy Network

MALCOLM HARDEE

I USED to do this Scottish song 'n' dance routine which involved getting someone out of the audience. I'd been doing it for some time in England dressed in Scottish regalia with this awful Scottish accent. I used to say, 'Right you Jimmy, I want a volunteer from the audience, right you,' in an aggressive Glasgow-style accent. It worked fine in the Home Counties, but I made the mistake of doing it in a nightclub in Glasgow and this bloke got up and knocked me out. I was out for about a minute. There was a long silence. Eventually I got up and said, 'Not you,' and pointed to someone else.

Another time in Glasgow I was supporting Gerry Sadowitz. They loved him, but they didn't like me. I made the mistake of losing my temper with them and said to someone in the front, 'If you think you can do any better, come up here and do it.' He got on stage and he was brilliant.

I normally get out of trouble by saying, 'This isn't going very well, is it?' Complete honesty seems to work best. For me, dying is when the audience actually ignores you and starts talking among themselves. One time I was playing an Exeter University gig, and we had the interval at the same time as Gary Glitter was due to start next door. We started off with a full house, but when we burst out from behind the curtains for the second half we just saw the last two people going out the door. I once played a Milkman's Convention. The Milk Marketing Board booked me for some entertainment, but I was on at about nine o'clock, which is late for a milkman. By the time I'd finished half of them had fallen asleep.

Malcolm Hardee plays Up the Creek, 302 Creek Rd, London SE10 on Sundays, and is on tour with the National Comedy Network

EDDIE IZZARD

WHEN I do die it's normally huge. I did the warm-up for BSB's The Happening with Jools Holland. It was an error. Jools was the compere, so status-wise I was the sub-compere. People just looked at me. I couldn't get any laughs at all. Complete silence. There were heads of TV there, it was major death. But I try to be positive. If I can die and keep going it's still a show. There's a tendency to speed up. You go to your next joke, then you cut out of your last joke . . . You don't even do the punchline: you think, 'No, that won't work,' and you lose confidence. The idea is, 'Don't speed up, wait until people get back on board.' If the audience stops believing, mentally they pull out. You've got to keep saying all of your jokes. If you pull out of one, you pull out of the whole thing and you end up talking rubbish. I did that at the Comedy Store in the early days. I'd do five minutes of superb death and go off with my head held high. It was stll death, but death with honour. I did a gig in Crouch End where I started off well and everyone thought, 'Hey, great'. Then I lost it, which is more difficult because you've got to get it back from a negative. By the end I got a one-all draw. The trick is not to gabble.

When I was performing in the street, I did bizarre deaths which were beyond death. I actually played a shopping centre in Oxford and there was no one there. In Carnaby Street no one would stop. I started up and did a whole show to no one. People just walked by. But you barricade your brain off. Death's all in the mind.

Eddie Izzard is on tour

JOHN HEGLEY

YOU first know you're dying when about 30 per cent of the people go to the bar or the toilet. When there's a lot of movement. At first it's a feeling of agitation which runs through various shades before it turns into condemnation, then humiliation and finally devastation. You feel it going and you can pull it back, but there's a point at which it's very difficult to get it back.

I've experienced humiliation down the Comedy Store in the early days. One time I heard, 'Oh no, not him again,' before I'd even started. They used to gong you off and you could see it coming. There's a point at which it's a very quick slide down into death. It's a bit like Buddhist rebirth whereby you come back each time, hopefully a little more enlightened - only some people don't come back. It's something about the human spirit wanting to survive. . . it's a natural evolutionary adaptation. It used to be like being in a hostile country where you didn't know the language and they were out to persecute you. As soon as you saw a hostile situation, you'd bring out all the armoury to put out the insurrection, or else it would spread. Audiences are more tolerant now. It was encouraged in those days. There weren't any rules. Now the rules have been set.

John Hegley is currently on tour around the country

DAVID BADDIEL

I HAVEN'T died for a while, but that's not to say I didn't die a few times while I was on the cabaret circuit. It's almost impossible to try and get out of it without something enormous happening, like spontaneous combustion. When an audience has really turned against you, I don't think there's much you can do other than get off. I remember dying at the Comedy Store and someone from the back of the audience shouting, 'The walls are closing in.' I remember thinking, 'What an incredibly perceptive remark,' because that was really what it was like. It felt like being in that James Bond film when the spikes start moving towards you. One time a bloke came on to do an open spot and as soon as he got on the audience knew he was rubbish. After about three minutes someone shouted from the back, 'Everybody hates you. Everybody hates you. You must know, from school.' The act was called Cynical Sid. I wouldn't know how to react to something as soul-destroying as that. You'd have to rebuild your whole psyche for the next two years.

If a show's going badly for Malcolm Hardee, he gets his genitals out. He's got the biggest bollocks in the world, so that gets a round of applause in almost any circumstances. You can turn a bad gig round by getting into a dialogue with the audience. The only trouble is that if you want to go back to your script and it's going really well with the unscripted stuff, it suddenly becomes very stale. Even when you're more established, you still have it in the back of your mind that at some time you might hit an audience that's just not interested. It's a constant trauma.

David Baddiel appears in Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, 10pm BBC2 Mons, and goes on tour with Rob Newman on 11 Nov

DONNA MCPHAIL

THE only way you're going to dig yourself out of a hole is by genuinely ad-libbing and letting the audience know that you're coming through it. Then they respect you. When you start your set there are various trigger jokes. You know if they don't get a big response you're in trouble. Five minutes in, you definitely know which way it's going. I go in with my best jokes first. As a woman, I feel more under pressure to make them know I'm a good comic. I'm incredibly aggressive and fast when I go on because I want people to know that they don't mess. Once they realise they're not dealing with some silly woman, I can relax.

My first ever open spot was at Jongleurs and I stormed it. The next few times I died. One time I was talking about overdrafts when some middle-class prat shouted, 'What's an overdraft?' Two hundred people were laughing with him at me. They'd all probably just been skiing in the Alps and of course it killed them. It was totally dismissive of me. So I said, 'I have nothing to say to you people, I despise you,' and I walked off. It really shook me. Now I'd know better. You have to dig in and say, 'I'm going to calm down. Be more confident, make my delivery slower, smile more,' which of course is the absolute opposite to what you want to do. You want to speed up and get off. But the audience smells it. So you stand your ground and let them know their reaction is of no importance to you at all. It's all a con trick.

Donna McPhail plays the Time Out Comedy Awards, New Jongleurs, Middle Yard, Camden, London NW1 tonight, 8.30pm

(Photograph omitted)

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