“Just dae your normal stuff but leave oot the bad language an ye’ll be fine.” These were my instructions as I prepared to face my toughest challenge so far as a comedian: Performing stand-up for 20 minutes in front of sixty Glaswegian children and their parents.
My normal stuff includes rather child-unfriendly topics such as negative equity. I don’t want to know a child who laughs at a joke about negative equity. Some comedians draw on their experience with their own children. I don’t have any and with only one month’s notice, there wasn’t time to start a family. I’m not Madonna.
Leaving out bad language wasn’t too much of a problem. I don’t overly rely on it. It wasn’t clear to me how much protection these kids’ ears needed anyway. Having been to the Glasgow Celtic versus Hamilton football match the previous day, it was obvious that Glasgow children knew plenty of bad words and a few arm gestures that were new to me.
My problem was a more basic one – I didn’t know what makes children laugh. External help was needed. I sent a text to some friends in the know. People who were parents or teachers. “Wat r kids n2”? it said. Actually it didn’t. I spelled all the words correctly and fully. The fact that I can’t tolerate abbreviated words in texts is one of the reasons I’m so removed from the youth of today.
“Children laugh when adults do something silly” said one friend. Slapstick does not come naturally to me unless I’ve been drinking. Who knows what impact it would have on a child’s attitude to drunkenness if they heard that it can make a man dance with a mop and attempt to chat it up. I suspect the child would conclude that drinking is great craic altogether. It is, but they should find that out for themselves.
The replies were flooding in:“All the chart music, Rihanna especially”. Rihanna. Hmm. Rude Boy isn’t really a song I wanted to discuss with a room of pre teens. Simply repeating the words of the ragamuffin and ska influenced chart-topping single could get you placed on some sort of register. “Come here Rude Boy, Boy is you big enough?” is definitely not a lyric about whether the man in question is capable of being effective at centre half-back under the high dropping ball.
Suggestive lyrics are nothing new. Rude Boy is merely a natural progression of what has gone before. When I was six, Like a Virgin was released. Admittedly I didn’t know what a virgin was. I just knew that now there were two – both called Madonna.
Another text comes in. “Facebook popular with over-10s. One teacher in school got a friend request from a 5th class boy.” When I was ten, teachers were mysterious figures. The notion of them having an actual life outside the school wasn’t really countenanced. If you saw them wearing jeans, it shook you up for the day. There was no question of teachers being your friend. You might accidentally call them Mammy but not a friend.
Now, most people’s inability to figure out their Facebook privacy settings means that our photos are visible to all. It must be very hard for a teacher to say fingers-to-your-lips with any authority when your pupils have seen a photo of you taken in Lisdoonvarna straddling a man who’s wearing an ‘Up the Deise’ Straw hat. Especially if you’re the principal.
As the show approached I fretted more and more about my disconnect from The Yoof. Images of Scottish children sitting in crestfallen silence, looking at their parents for reassurance kept appearing in my mind. Their disappointed whispers haunted my thoughts. “Why isnae the man funny, Mam? All the other comedians made me laugh but he just makes me feel sad.”
“I dinnae knaw wee Hamish, sometimes grown-ups make mistakes”
As a comedian sometimes you get to observe the audience making their way to your show. You make little judgements about what kind of night it’s going to be. I was in the Laughter Lounge in Dublin one night waiting to go on stage. I scanned the crowd, anxiously assessing the drunkenness of a group of lads on a stag night. The stag himself walked past, unsteadily picking his way to his seat. His unsteadiness was partly because his friends had arranged for him to spend the weekend handcuffed to a dwarf. (You can pay for the service, apparently). I concluded it was going to be One of Those Nights. But nothing compares to the fear of arriving at a club and seeing a people-carrier empty itself of cherubic flaxen-haired children as the parents fuss over scarves and coats. How can I let these people down?
It’s a few minutes before the start of the show and I’m chatting to the staff. They’re talking about previous performers. Better comedians than me have frozen at these gigs or worse“Some of them just come out and do their normal set” says the barman, chuckling at the memory “One local guy arrives on stage wi’ a pint and said ‘F**** sake, am I the ‘ainly p**** drenkin? Whas’ the matter wi’ ye?‘” This makes me feel a little better about the show. I’m determined I won’t talk down to these children. I’ll challenge them intellectually so that when their uproarious laughter subsides it will be replaced by a knowing smile. Just to be on the safe side though, I’ve written FART, POO and JEDWARD on my hand as an aide-memoire for some back-up topics.
Now I’m on stage. The first thing you notice about children in an audience is that they put their hands up when they want to say something. Neil, a round little boy from Motherwell is the first to take part. “Yes Neil”, I say, handing him the microphone “What would you like to say?” “Get a job!” He roars before collapsing into giggles. It’s a good line and uncomfortably close to the bone.
The next twenty minutes pass in a blur of laughs, giggles and the odd uncomprehending silence. Despite my fears, the show is quite successful. When the parents leave they nod and smile their appreciation as I lean exhausted against the wall. The children seemed to have a good time too. Though, disappointingly, none have asked to be my friend on Facebook. I should have been a teacher.