Revelations; If I couldn't make 'em laugh it was curtains
The time: Summer 1987 The place: Birmingham The man: Frank Skinner, comedian
Tuesday 02 September 1997
I'd already had a series of dead-end jobs that I hated, including the local foundry where I hammered lumps of metal into shape - everyone there was deaf and had three fingers. By this stage, I was on the dole and I'd recently split up with somebody I'd been going out with for six-and-a- half years.
Turning 30 was having a weird effect on me. I quit drinking and took up with this girl who was just 17. Part of stopping drinking was because someone told me they could see me heading towards the tramp-on-wasteground syndrome, a life on fortified wine and shouting at people in the West End. I already had the beard, so I shaved it off.
On the actual evening before my birthday I was working on the side stuffing envelopes in this nasty little warehouse. At 10 o'clock at night, this new girlfriend (who I was crazy about) phoned up to say it was all over. Two hours later I was 30, with nothing going for me at all. It wasn't that I was despairing, more laughing at the hopelessness of it all. Something my friend's girlfriend said summed up my feelings exactly: "What's it like to be 30 and on the scrapheap?" I didn't really know what I would do with the rest of my life - I couldn't see any options.
About three or four months later I had a thought that powered me on to what I do today. The image of me as an old man of 70 entered my head. I was looking back, wondering what would have happened to me if I'd tried to be a comedian. The idea of having tried and failed is fine, but not having attempted it at all seemed like a nightmare. It was a real moment of epiphany. I'd always made people laugh, and friends and teachers would tell me I should be a comedian. My sister's boyfriend remembers the first time he came round to our house. I was just four, dressed up in a cowboy suit and doing a turn on my guitar in the corner of the living room. If anybody tried to talk I got most upset. Knowing that I liked football so much, he asked if that was what I wanted to do when I grew up, but my dad banged our black-and-white telly and said, "He's going to be on the box."
A very significant moment for me was 9 December 1987, my first booking as a stand-up, for the Birmingham Anglers Association - even though I died on my arse. I can even remember the opening joke: "Last Christmas I bought my girlfriend an engagement ring and the dog ate it - ever since we've just been going through the motions." I deserved to fail. My manager, the owner of the club and the disc jockey were standing in the wings gesturing at me and shouting "come off, come off". They turned the house lights up and finally turned my mike off.
It was not a good start. However, I had already contacted someone who ran a venue in Edinburgh and drawn out pounds 400 from my life savings of pounds 435 to pay for the next year's festival. I had about 10 months to learn to be a comedian. It was not belief in myself that kept me going; I just couldn't waste the money.
The Ivy Bush on the Hagley Road in Birmingham was the first time I felt "I could do this". It was my first alternative venue. Suddenly the observational material that the Birmingham anglers hadn't liked started to work. I doubt it will read well on paper: "I've recently done my driving test and what confused me was that the examiner was much more polite than I'd expected. He wouldn't say, `Turn right here, turn left there', but `Would you like to turn left?' I thought it was optional, so I started chatting back. `No, I'll take another, it's a bit of a nasty junction down the bottom. Oh, by the way, I nearly killed somebody last week'." That, I recall, was my first big laugh. It felt wonderful. I've never tried heroin but I imagine it's similar - you don't know how good it's going to feel until you feel it and then you want to keep on feeling that feeling. There were just 70 people in the audience; for them it was just another night out, but for me it was the moment I took off. There wasn't too much wrong with my material even at my first terrible gig - I used a joke about sneezing four months later on television and stormed it. There was also a routine about Skippy, which is on my first video, which people often tell me is fantastic. I was just so inexperienced - while a violinist can practise their scales in private, a comedian has to learn in public.
Recently at the Edinburgh Festival, I bumped into another comedian, called Owen O'Neal, who was doing a brilliant play about his drinking days. He is now, like me, teetotal. He believed he drank because he wanted to be 18 again, and I think that is maybe why I drank and perhaps also why I love comedy - I don't know, because who can analyse themselves? Making people laugh is not a mature thing to do - it's a weird world of suspended animation. I even spend my money on teenage things, rather than houses and cars: like taking a helicopter to a football match I want to see while I'm on tour, or paying pounds 10,925 for Elvis Presley's midnight-blue velvet stage shirt.
Success has made me more subdued off stage; I'm no longer firing off gag after gag to prove I'm funny. Rory Motion, a hippie-type comedian who I toured with and a very sweet guy who is probably more concentrated than me, worried about me because I seemed to be more at home and more myself on stage than I was off. Not that it bothers me, because I'm not an introspective person. I very much love being on stage - most things that you are crazy about have a detrimental side, be they women, drink, or football teams. But that shouldn't get in the way of your passion for them.
I do honestly believe that I have the best job in the world, and I'm starting on a 100-date tour because you can't get too much of a good thing. I haven't toured for three years and it's overdue. I want to feast long and hard.
Frank Skinner's tour starts tomorrow in Jersey and ends in early December in Newport.
Interview by Andrew G Marshall
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