William Donaldson's Week: Next time I'll try not to be funny

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PITCHING up at 8am on Monday to start work on Rory Bremner - Who Else?, I found two chalk-faced street derelicts huddled over a heat-valve outside Geoff Atkinson's office. I was about to boot them out of my path as examples of the undeserving poor - 'On your bikes. I want clear blue water between me and types like you' - when I thought, 'Hang on. They might be writers from last week's show.' So I gave them a florin each for a bowl of soup. It's tough at the top, what goes round comes round and so forth.

Happily, and as a result of a recent lunchtime conversation with my friend Craig Brown, I had worked out how to handle this sudden and unexpected gig. We had been discussing intimidating situations and Craig had wondered whether - either through vanity or temporary madness - one would accept an invitation to appear as the idiot guest (the MP, the tub of lard or the camel-faced columnist from the Sunday Times) on Have I Got News For You.

The mistake, I'd said, would be to try to be funny. Baz Bamigboye, the Daily Mail's 'Mr Showbusiness', had done well by looking nice and rocking with laughter at everyone else's jokes.

The same rule applied, I'd said, at one of Pete the Schnoz's dinner parties for brilliant 31-year-olds - glittering occasions attended by girls who were quicker than Zoe Heller and young men with sneering haircuts and unnaturally short arms who, while angrily smoking six cigarettes at once, could compose a monologue on the spot deploying regional accents from 17 different social sub-groups. One's only option was to smile and thump the table. Pete the Schnoz's guests needed admiration as keenly as Paul Merton and Ian Hislop did.

'Attending a Pete the Schnoz dinner party,' Craig had said, 'must be as gruelling an experience as finding oneself in a roomful of writers working for Rory Bremner.'

And that, by an odd coincidence, was precisely what had happened to me. Geoff Atkinson had rung me up and invited me to join the team.

'You won't have to come up with any jokes,' he'd said. 'Just sit in quietly and act as my moral conscience.'

Fair enough, except that he already had John Bird on board, who happened to be my moral conscience. At this rate, and if Bird's moral conscience came on board, there'd be an infinite regress of moral consciences, and we know where an infinite regress leads.

Bird, in fact, had been my moral conscience ever since I'd produced his satirical revue Here Is The News - a challenging entertainment in which every sketch had ended with the destruction of the world by nuclear explosion and which had been performed without the benefit of lighting. Bird had thought the designer, Sean Kenny, was doing it, Kenny had thought Bird was, and I hadn't known there was such a thing as lighting. I'd imagined that the stage-doorkeeper threw a switch and away we went. The evening had proceeded to the sound of the audience walking out and the thump of thin satirists falling headfirst into the orchestra stalls. Not that Bird or I had known this. Not caring much for the theatre, we had preferred to have a fish dinner round the corner.

Be that as it may, I pitched up on Monday - crisp white shirt, four new pens in my top pocket - determined to follow my own and Craig Brown's advice, which had been to sit tight, look nice and laugh at other people's jokes. Least of all would I produce my own joke - more accurately, Roger from Chicago's joke - which, against Geoff Atkinson's advice, I had in my top pocket with the pens. (Roger from Chicago, responding to my cry for help, had, very decently, biked round his collection of Three Stooges scripts.)

So - and in case they were remaindered writers from last week's show - I gave the street derelicts a florin each and climbed the stairs, at which point, and through lightheadedness caused by loss of oxygen, I think, I breezed in on John Fortune and my moral conscience, Bird, who had their heads down working. I slapped them on the back and told them my joke, and they laughed politely and, after an hour or so, they managed to steer me into the passage.

And then, since Atkinson had not yet arrived, I wandered round the office telling my joke to the young women adorably punching their desktop hardware ('Here's one] I see you've moved on again, Miss Zamit'), finally walking in on Sean Hardie, who, in a frenzy of creativity, was producing a blizzard of scintillating sketches. I told him my joke, and he laughed politely and said: 'Excuse me, I really must get on.'

And then Atkinson arrived and I thought, right, I'll sit tight and listen.

'Here's one,' I said. 'Someone obviously from another planet - Michael Howard, Baroness Finchley or Mr Bean - takes by accident an hallucinogenic drug and immediately talks in a normal voice and behaves quite sensibly.'

Atkinson politely explained that Mr Bean wasn't on the show.

'I know that,' I said. 'I'm not stupid. My joke evolved from that idea, which, in itself, is loosely adapted from one of Roger from Chicago's Three Stooges scripts. Imagine this: the Olympic Games for competitors on drugs. The 100 metres for cannabis users. Paranoia when the gun goes off. 'Hey, shit, what was that?' The 800 metres for pisspots. Punch-ups and a volley of Irish jokes at the first bend. Catching the javelin for those on LSD. The hop, skip and jump for fat men on steroids. They can't get off the ground. The marathon for speed freaks. They hare off at 100mph and have heart attacks after 10 yards. Eh? Eh?'

'Oh dear,' said Atkinson, who had lost two stone and aged 10 years in the last five seconds. 'Let me explain what we're trying to do . . .'

I must have taken this badly because at the end of the day the street derelicts gave me my money back.

'You'll be needing this,' they said. 'We start next week on Hale and Pace.'

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