Saturday Night: That was a joke, I swear it

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE STALLS at the Hackney Empire were packed, but that was no surprise because that's where the bar was. No one seemed to notice the baroque balconies and tiers, glimmering in jaded pink and dirty gold leaf underneath the lights. The business of the moment was getting the pints in.

I stood awkwardly at the back propped up against a golden pillar, between a group of bright young black-clad media things and some lads in denim. Juggling a cigarette, a steaming yellow vegetable patty and a full pint of lager, I strained to see the stage through the jiggling crowd.

As the lights went down, the crowd settled, carefully balancing their drinks on the back of the seat in front. Some obviously knew the comedians John Thomson and Simon Day through the Channel 4 programme Saturday Zoo where they play two camp showbiz commentators; others seemed to have wandered in by mistake. 'So it's a comedy show?' asked one girl, as she took her seat. 'Oh right. I thought that I was coming to a concert.'

On came 'Bernard Right-On', one of the characters performed by John Thomson. He leant forward and clasped the air as if he really meant it. 'An Englishman and Irishman and Jew walk into a pub,' he said. 'Now isn't that a nice picture of racial integration.' The audience laughed loudly.

'My wife is fat but it doesn't matter because she has a lovely personality.' The men laughed more heartily than the women.

'I met a guy on the street the other day who had a pie on his head and cream in each ear. He's the local eccentric, lovely character, always brightens up the place.' Everyone laughed, except for those in silly hats.

I had suspected there would be some aggressive heckling, but it didn't happen. A girl in front of me keeled over after one too many Snake Bites and went to sleep under one of the tables near the bar. Her friends were momentarily worried. A couple had made way for her as she fell and the others made sure her head was comfortable on the floor, while they turned back to the show.

The acts were introduced by an old hand on the comedy circuit, Malcolm Hardee, who wandered around the stage in a disappointingly understated suit. He swore a lot, repeating 'fuck it', his catch-phrase, at the end of every sentence. I was informed that catch-phrases are to comedy what underwired bras are to fashion, essential for a good night out. So any comedian worth his spangled jacket has one. Jonathan Ross leapt out of a box with a brilliant smile and even more brilliant jacket and jogged through the audience to the bar.

The thing about politically correct gags is that you have to know all the old ones before you can appreciate the new. All the Comedy Club veterans were laughing their designer socks off. As a novice, I spent a lot of time curling my forehead, saying 'What?' and laughing after everyone else had stopped.

As the audience continued to pile in the drinks, 'Tommy Cockles', a sad character born in the old music halls, made his final appearance on the British stage. His whimsical memories and bizarre tangents and anecdotes about concert parties in Burma will grace the boards at the Hackney Empire no more.

Outside in the streets, as the audience wove its way out of the theatre, the rain poured and the pubs had already closed for the night. I had laughed a lot and drunk a lot, but it was still early, still time enough to enjoy myself.