I remember the first time I was in a nativity play. I was a shepherd. I remember it because I had to wear an old tea towel on my head and it had a faded tomato ketchup stain on it and I wondered if they had tomato ketchup in Jesus' time. The fact that I was also wearing trainers didn't really seem to bother me. Being 5 years old, my rigour for historical accuracy was patchy at best. Although I didn't have any lines, my moment to shine came when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the shepherds. We were sat around a camp fire. Obviously we didn't have a campfire in the school hall. We probably could have done, it was the 1980s after all and no one gave a damn, but there was probably a wood shortage or a miner's strike or something. That's right. Growing up in Cheltenham in the 1980s was rather like Angela's Ashes. Frank McCourt didn't have access to a Sega Megadrive and neither did I - not until the 1990s anyway. Bleak times.
We were told to mime collecting sticks, make a fire and pretend to be cold. I zealously approached the task like a reincarnation of Marcel Marceau. I scoured the stage around me for firewood, felled mighty oaks, cleaving their branches in twain and flinging them onto a huge funeral pyre, all to loosen the grip of the blistering hypothermia that was apparently wracking my body. I was so dedicated to the task in hand that I completely forgot to look startled when Louis Averiss turned up in a white table cloth and tinsel headband to announce the birth of the Messiah. My overacting caused me to miss out on the birth of God in human form, but in many ways, as the headmaster was forced to admit, I stole the show. Or ruined. Yes, I think he said I ruined the show.
I was met with a warm smile of approval from my mother and a kindly stare of indifference from my father. Fortunately, because I was five, the fact that I hadn't attacked another child or wet my pants or said anything too loudly about my penis was all they could have expected of me and more.
Twenty six years later, I was reliving the same experience. Last weekend I performed 20 minutes of comedy in front of 400 odd festival-goers at the comedy tent of the Wychwood Festival, Cheltenham. After six years (on and off) of stand up, this was the first time they'd decided to come and see me. I still had the same nerves and faded condiment stain (this time on my well-worn jeans). My mum had previously excused coming to see me on the basis that "What if it goes horribly wrong? I'd be so embarrassed." The stakes were high.
I had my usual '5 minutes before I'm due to go on cigarette' having judiciously used the toilet 25 minutes before (I have a rigorously observed pre-gig timetable). Peeking into the tent I was rather surprised to find my dad was already onstage under the pseudonym 'Harold the Geography Teacher' leading the audience in a rendition of The White Stripes' 'Seven Nations Army.' I genuinely felt the same level of surprise I had failed to manufacture upon the Angel Gabriel's scripted entrance 25 years before. Apparently the MC had picked on him, not knowing that he was my father, and my dad (already having put away 3 pints of Wychwood's Hobglobin) had enthusiastically decided to invent a fantasy identity, with things snowballing from there. It seems that years of raising kids in his 20s has left my dad with a thirst for freewheeling festival antics. The MC, Alan Anderson, had also described my mum as a "sexy MILF." My mum was delighted by this until I later told her what MILF meant, at which point she announced that people should keep certain things to themselves. Anyway, technically speaking she's a GILF.
Unlike at the nativity play, attacking other people or wetting my pants or saying things too loudly about my penis are expected in stand up. Demanded, almost. That said, I did a gig where (5 minutes into my set) three old women left, demanding their money back and saying to the promoter "We're not sitting here to have our minds corrupted by this filth." My material is fairly inoffensive and the refund they demanded was going to a cancer charity. So who's morally bankrupt now old women?
Fortunately the gig went pretty well. The comedy tent was loud and disruptive to play and once The Human League started playing on the main stage about 200 heads turned towards the exit, but the remaining 200 people who kept their faces towards me enjoyed the show. My mum came over and gave me a hug, her face grinning with an expression somewhere between genuine pride and massive relief. 'Harold the Geography Teacher' said "See? That was okay!" which was the warmest indifference I've ever had from him.
Because I'm 31 and beyond hope, my mum has now given up trying to convince me to become a "funny lawyer" or an "amusing headmaster" and has accepted my career choice, which (in turn) has helped me accept it too.
Three days later I rose again, this time to play an open mic gig to six indifferent musicians. Jesus Christ got into preaching at 30 and was headlining The Sermon on the Mount within a year whereas I'm still making the same income as an easily distracted shepherd. I fear it may take me a lot longer to make any real impact. Those "funny lawyers" must be laughing it up.