When people discover I work in comedy, they frequently ask where my ideas come from. This is not because anyone is remotely interested; it's just a veiled way of saying: "You haven't based any of the social misfits you so often play on me, have you?" And the answer, of course, is yes, I have.
I don't get out that much, you see, and I have to get ideas from somewhere. So yes. It's you. All the people I've ever encountered. And, while generally I will only take a tiny detail, such as a nervous laugh or a slightly odd way of inflecting sentences, if push came to shove in a script meeting, if I were being pressed to come up with a bit of background detail from a character's personal life, would I plunder the tragic story you told me in confidence over dinner one night? Well, I would never use your name...
But, of course, that's not what people want to hear, and that's why writers and performers fall back on that vague old stalwart: "Oh, all my ideas come from sitting on the bus." Occasionally, however, that's where they do come from. I was sitting on a bus yesterday when a woman came down the stairs clutching a rabbit on a lead. The woman was delicate-looking and rather beautiful, and on the spectrum of eccentricities, I'd say she was in the zone of colourful characters rather than rum coves.
Nevertheless, the rabbit was wearing a pink lead and a pink bow in its fur, and as she staggered down the steps with it, all the other passengers sized her up, decided she was probably a dangerous oddball, and did what British people do in such a scenario – they pretended she wasn't there. I watched with interest because, apart from the fact that the rabbit wasn't a dog, there was nothing odd in her behaviour at all. I found myself admiring the self-confidence of someone who was prepared to be branded "weird" and damn well wasn't going to apologise for it.
It happened that, just moments before I had boarded the bus, I'd been musing on what constitutes abnormal behaviour. I'd been shopping for a dinner party, and the pudding recipe I was using required a large amount of white chocolate buttons. Now, I'm the sort of person who is so preoccupied with appearing normal that I can't buy four bottles of wine without remarking in a jaunty voice that they're not all for me. So I went to the supermarket checkout suffused with embarrassment at my large pile of mini sweetie bags.
When the assistant came to ring them through, I felt compelled to say that they were for a child's birthday party. It was a lie, and an unprompted one at that. But somehow, to my skewed brain, it made me seem more normal.
The assistant clearly couldn't give a damn, but politely asked whether it was for a girl or a boy. "My daughter," I lied again, and then realised that as the supermarket was near my daughter's school, and her real seventh birthday party was a month ago, and somebody who knew this might publicly challenge my veracity, I would have to qualify my pointless lie with another. "My younger daughter. She's three... four." A look from the assistant proved that, while my large order of chocolate buttons had aroused no suspicion, this uncertainty about my offspring looked distinctly dodgy. And it was. I had invented a third child for myself in order to appear "normal" in the face of overwhelming chocolatey evidence to the contrary.
So, on the bus, a short time later, I looked in admiration at the bunny woman for having the self-possession not to proclaim, as I would have done: "Look at me carrying a rabbit on a lead! I'm doing it as a bet... to raise money for charity. I'm not mad!" The other passengers were not so impressed, though. They continued to look the other way, occasionally sneaking glances at the woman with the rabbit and smirking as if to say: "You couldn't make it up!"
Then, another woman came down the stairs of the bus. She was smartly dressed for a shopping trip, and French, so didn't feel that British urge to avoid the eye of the oddball. She spotted the rabbit, cooed a few niceties at its owner and stroked its foot. The owner was pleased, I think, not just that someone was admiring her rabbit, but that she was in some way being brought in from the cold. She smiled, and I did too, feeling relieved that the awkward tension had been broken. For a glorious moment, the bus had become a more tolerant environment.
But then an odd thing happened. The Frenchwoman, though she'd stopped petting the rabbit, continued to stare at it – a stare that went on far, far too long. The bus stopped and still she stared. It started again, and still she remained with the rictus grin, gazing at the rabbit, yet not engaging with its owner. Slowly, the balance of normality shifted. The owner, who'd worn her little eccentricity with such pride, began to look uneasy as this seemingly "normal" woman gazed freakishly at her rabbit. Her body tensed, her face hardened and finally she did what all British bus passengers do in such a scenario; she turned her back on the Frenchwoman and... pretended she wasn't there.
I ended the day with three comedy ideas: the woman with a rabbit instead of a dog; that bizarre, inexplicable stare; and a storyline for a surreal sitcom about a crazy woman who invents a fictional child because she's too embarrassed to buy chocolate buttons. For now, my friends' secrets are safe with me. I really must go on buses more often.