Dom Joly: It's OK, Mr Cowell - I can feel your pain

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The Independent Online

It was the editing suite wot did it. When you've been sitting in a tiny room endlessly watching unflattering snippets of yourself and trying to turn them into something entertaining, you long for some/any distraction. My mobile phone rang, and I wandered out to answer it and have a cigarette on the fire escape.

It was a researcher from "Five Live", as they prefer to call themselves now. He blathered on about how I was a "respected" comedy "giant" (by my mother, perhaps, and even she's starting to get disillusioned), and that the show would be "honoured" if I agreed to come on and judge the entrants to their competition. The winner's prize was to be "amusing" on Five Live throughout the World Cup.

I told the researcher that I hated football. "That's fine," he said.

I told the researcher that I'd never done stand-up. "That's fine," he said.

I told the researcher that I was a shallow man wracked by bitterness and a hatred of all other comedians, even ones who hadn't even yet become comedians. "That's fine," he said.

I told the researcher that I was a homicidal maniac, ripped to the tits on drink and drugs, and I'd probably go loony live on air. "That's fine," he said.

I gave up and told the researcher that I would be the judge. "That's great," he said.

It was nice to make people happy, I thought to myself as I wandered back into the televisual equivalent of John McCarthy's Beirut hostage cell.

"Who was that?" asked my editor.

"The BBC. They want me to judge some stand-up competition," I said.

"Live on air?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Jesus," he said.

Come the evening I scootered over to Television Centre. One by one the brave contestants stood in front of a mike and tried to be amusing for a minute, live on air, while we stared at them, nodding encouragingly, mock-laughing along.

It was a bloody nightmare. I realised that, shallow as I am, I didn't really want to be nasty to these people, certainly not to their faces anyway. I'd find myself saying really anodyne things like, "You're already a winner just by coming here tonight."

One guy was so nervous that he'd had a pint or 10 of wifebeater before he came in. It was like watching a slow-motion car crash. He died like a dead man being dragged through the streets of Shepherd's Bush. When he'd finished I said something pathetic like, "You were really nervous, weren't you?" rather than, "You're pissed, you've got the funny bones of a Goth and should have the soles of your feet flayed for even thinking of entering this competition."

I discovered a tiny, disturbing "nice" gene, buried deep inside of me. I was ashamed.

The winner, Tim, was an easy choice as he was genuinely funny and I suppose the thought must have crossed my mind that at least I could walk past the rest of the group as I left the studio without problems. Fat chance.

"Why should I listen to the opinions of someone who dresses up as a giant squirrel?" shouted one slightly scary looking man. It was a fair point. I had no answer for him.

"What makes you think you can judge me?" shouted another.

I don't know how Simon Cowell does it. Maybe the $50m a year eases the pain and helps you to focus? I shall demand that sort of fee should the occasion arise again. Then I can be the real me.