If you think slowthai’s heckling rattled Katherine Ryan, you have no idea what comics are made of

Twitter can have as many conversations it likes about the ‘misogyny’ of the rapper’s comments. But in this profession, the troublemakers never faze you

Slowthai brawls with fan after ‘misogynist’ interaction with Katherine Ryan at NME Awards

The word “boss”, I believe, was invented to describe how Katherine Ryan handled the heckler and part-time rapper, slowthai last night as she hosted the NME awards.

Bless his heart. From the moment he decided to try it, he was doomed. Given that words are the tools of his trade, he displayed Olympic levels of bad judgement with them as he squared up to Katherine’s impeccable timing and unflappable poise. Emboldened by, I imagine, free booze and skittles, he invaded the stage which, that evening, was her house. She called the shots. Ryan cooly took the sarcastic mick out of his clumsy, barely coherent sexual advances as he galumphed about her. She put him in his place and kept the audience on her side. As a comic myself, I saw she could have annihilated him, but she was a gracious host and showed mercy. What a gal. What a masterclass in the gladiatorial art of stand-up comedy. Just because you have the ammunition, doesn’t mean you have to use it all. The guy was already ruining his special night, all by himself.

The internet was awash with tweets of concern for Katherine, and how she must have felt “uncomfortable” at his “misogynist” comments, for which he has now apologised, but what people don’t always know about comedians is that the likes of Katherine Ryan didn’t just rock up and say “Hello! I’d like to be on television please and host huge awards ceremonies!” She cut her teeth on the rumbunctious comedy circuit like all of us comics did. She has spent years schlepping from club to club performing in line-ups that would sometimes include a tap-dancing donkey, and learning to handle all kinds of unexpected acts of idiocy. When you’re a comic, you learn to handle hecklers trying to undermine you; men make lewd remarks, women making lewd remarks (A young woman after a gig “flirted” with me once, cheerily shouting out “I’m gonna destroy your pussy!” I told her I had had two children so she’d been beaten to it. Yes, I was proud of myself) while remaining in charge. Comedians are trained to keep a cool head and any drunk having a go at them will always ALWAYS come off looking silly.

Years ago, before I had started as a stand-up, I went to a comedy club in Hanwell at the Viaduct pub. Comedian Dave Fulton was on stage superbly putting down a drunken heckler who, the more relaxed Fulton remained, the angrier and louder the heckler got. He couldn’t match Fulton’s wit and suddenly through the air flew a pint glass. He’d hurled it towards the stage and it smashed against the wall behind the comic’s head. Fulton looked at the smashed glass, stayed right by his mic and, like a cucumber that talked, he said, “If i knew I was going to the zoo, I’d have bought some bananas”. A roar from the crowd, the heckler was removed from the building, the show went on. It takes a particular type of person to have a glass thrown at them, shrug, and carry on. It also takes the same kind of person to see a glass thrown at a performer and still think “this is the profession I want to be in”. We are one of a kind and few things make me feel prouder.

You can be the funniest person in the world but never make it as a comic because nights like this, quite sensibly, would put you off for life. But, if you have the compulsion, nothing will put you off. The first time I ever saw a female comedian walk onto a stage was in the early 90s at The Comedy Cafe in Shoreditch. Things were so different back then that they had a strippergram arrive for a punter before the show started. Younger readers may not know what a strippergram is. Let Auntie Shappi explain; In the days before internet porn, it was common to hire a stripper to come to a public place or a private house party. They were men or women, often dressed as police officers or firefighters (municipal workers were a real kink in the 80s). Nowadays, no one is as excited by a stranger’s penis or nipple. Internet pornography allows us to gawp at all sorts of parts of the body in a sexual context. There is even “prolapse porn”. Don’t ask me how I know. (Clearly, comedy is not my only compulsion.)

Rapper Slowthai holds fake decapitated head of Boris Johnson on stage at Mercury Prize 2019

Anyway, the stripper did her thing and left and then the compère introduced the first comedian. It was a woman and she got booed off before she’d even said a word. The crowd had just seen a woman stand on a table and take all her clothes off. It would have taken years of experience for a comic to follow that. As the crowd jeered and booed, I decided there was no other job in the world I’d rather do. Professional comedians are boots. It may have taken years to get there, years of being booed off, crying after gigs (even crying during gigs...) but if you want it badly enough, you keep going and however gentle your persona might be on the outside, underneath you become as hardy as steel-toe Doc Martens with wisecracks.

We also trust that the majority of our audience, when a heckler is abusive, is on our side. We rightly think the best of them. Twitter can have as many conversations it likes about the “misogyny” of slowthai’s comments, his inability to handle a drink, the fact that he made quite the tap-dancing donkey out of himself by trying to undermine a comic, but to imagine that Katherine was rattled by the incident, nah. It was all in a night’s work for a pro.

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