Comedy: Learning how to die with dignity

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Our monthly series continues with Julian Barratt contemplating death on stage

I've always had an uneasy relationship with comedy. I wasn't particularly funny at school. I remember I used to do an impression of Shaggy out of Scocby Do: (Zoiks! Like make for the door, Scoob!) which a friend thought was brilliant. During a lesson I did it in a whispered voice. He laughed. The teacher asked what was going on and my friend announced that I could do this really good impression. The whole class turned to look at me. "Let's hear it then." I got up, did the impression and stood there while the whole class turned around silently. My impression wasn't mentioned after that.

When I first started doing comedy, I didn't want anyone to know about it. I would skulk off guiltily into the night and return after dark like a murderer. Usually it was me who had been murdered.

The most important thing in stand-up is to learn how to die with dignity. Because you will die many times. The worst deaths are the first ones, when you don't know why you're dying. You're leaping about like a performing monkey to a graveyard of faces. If you do something wrong at the beginning of a gig, you're in trouble. You're talking, throwing shapes, but you're coming across like a brown mumbling lump. If someone dies badly on stage it can destroy people's trust in the entire concept of stand-up. The silence following death is like a black hole. It sucks everything in unless the compere performs a swift exorcism.

Unfortunately, where one person might have sympathy, crowds become sadistic. Audiences are afraid at first, scared you'll fail - they don't want to have to see that. They have to be reassured that you're funny if you die at a gig - there's no possibility of escape. That's what death is. But you're not even safe after death. If you've died, people see it as an open invitation to offer you advice. It ranges from the consolatory, "Hey, keep it up, keep plugging away", to the honest, and infinitely preferable, "You were shit, mate".

I was on tour a few years ago, the gig hadn't gone well for me. Flailing about to an expanding silence. During the next act, a heckler in the crowd was promptly humiliated with a well-honed put-down. So the heckler got up, turned round, undid his trousers and unveiled a big round arse. After the gig he accosted me: "Some of your stuff was quite funny. I like the kind of stuff that a lot of people don't find funny." Later on he explained his arse-showing criteria. "I don't mind it when a comedian takes the piss out of me. But when they call me stupid, well, I show them my arse." He spoke these words with a seriousness, with a weight of sorrow almost, as though he was imparting a great secret. Audiences are strange unwieldy beasts - beware.

Julian Barratt appears with Noel Fielding in `The Mighty Bosh' at The Hen and Chickens, 109 St Paul's St, N1, 29 Jun & 13 Jul, 8pm, and at the Canal Cafe Theatre, W2 (0171-266 1717), 30 Jun & 1 Jul, 8pm

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