Why Lembit Opik's now happy to be laughed at

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The Independent Online

Politics, as the saying goes, is showbusiness for ugly people. Having had a go at one career, former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik is now trying his hand at the other, hoping to carve himself an unlikely niche as a stand-up comedian.

Mr Opik, who lost his Montgomeryshire seat at the general election on 6 May, was booked to make his comic debut in a London comedy club last night after a friend of his, Robert Meakin, a journalist, persuaded him it was a good idea. Mr Opik admitted beforehand that he had no idea how the gig would go, but promised to send up his party leader, Nick Clegg.

"My career in comedy could last either two minutes or 40 years, depending on how tonight goes," he told The Independent yesterday afternoon, adding that he was very nervous. "I woke up at 5am today and couldn't get back to sleep."

Having appeared on humorous panel shows such as Have I Got News For You, Mr Opik has some background in entertainment but admits he is inexperienced. "I have done a lot of media but very few people make their stand-up debuts at the top of the bill in front of the nation's press, so it has got rather out of control. It has become a bit of a monster: it seems like a similar rise to fame as that of Nick Clegg in politics recently," he said.

The former MP, who has courted publicity over his romantic ties with one member of the female pop duo The Cheeky Girls, said Mr Clegg had called him earlier in the day to reassure him that he did not mind having fun poked at him at the Backstage Comedy Club in central London.

Mr Opik confirmed the Liberal Democrat leader would be the butt of a fair share of his jokes. "He is 10ft tall at the moment and my comedy career is 6ft under tonight," he said, adding that his favourite gags are political and that they would form the main focus of his set.

He said he does not tend to tell too many one-liners, but instead modelled himself on acts such as Ricky Gervais and Larry David. "You don't have to be a comic genius to see that my recent history writes itself as a comedy script, and the challenge really is to see if comedy is something completely different to what I have done before or whether it is like being an MP but a bit funnier," he said.

The show is named after an incident in which a member of the public approached him after his general election defeat and asked: "Didn't you used to be Lembit Opik?"

Mr Opik admitted that he hoped to return to Parliament one day and said that, while he supports his former Liberal Democrat colleagues, he found not being part of their success difficult to accept.

"This coalition is a good result for the party and a great result for the country," he said. "But I did not expect to lose the election, and seeing my party in office always evokes Gore Vidal, who said, 'Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.'"

He said he was determined to remain politically involved and was even entertaining the possibility of running for London Mayor. Admitting that the last few weeks had been "hard", he said he looked back "in angst" at election night but hoped to look back "in happiness" at his comic debut.

Mr Meakin, an occasional contributor to this newspaper, admitted his culpability in suggesting that Mr Opik try his hand at stand-up. He said: "I told him, 'People are going to laugh at you anyway so why not get paid for it?' Lembit said to me the other day, 'You may have created a monster.'"

It's the way he tells them...

* Heard the one about the anarchist who was killed in a condemned toilet? He was crushed by the cistern.

* What is the best cheese to use to conceal a horse? Mascarpone.

* What is the best cheese to use to coax a bear out of a tree? Camembert.