The Loneliness of the Long Distance Punner

Paris, Milan, Keswick and Hull - the glamour of being a comedian on tour

I am just about to embark on an international stand-up tour which will keep me busy until June 11th. It is a slightly surreal itinerary, which sees me playing Hull one day, then Paris the next, then Milan, then Keswick. It’s as if someone wants to give me the illusion of having a glamorous life, but then bring me crashing down to earth. Not wishing to be rude to the people of Keswick. But all you have is a Pencil Museum, which is hardly a match for La Scala Opera House or the Eiffel Tower is it? And I really, really like pencils. A lot.

My show is called ménage à un and is loosely themed around the subjects of loneliness, only-ness and Onanism. But I felt it was quite an apt title in any case, as stand-up is surely the most solitary and masturbatory of art forms. Each night I stand isolated in a spot light, vigorously massaging my organ (in this case my brain), then shooting my brackish ideas over the audience’s delighted and sometimes less delighted faces (not everyone enjoys their face dripping with unsavoury ideas).

And just like such a one sided sex act, it can seem like such a good idea at the time – while it’s actually happening you’re both up for it - but once it is over, you catch each other’s eye as if to say, “What the Hell was that about? What were we thinking? Why did we both willingly and enthusiastically put ourselves through that ordeal?” And then you slink off separately into the night, feeling nothing but shame and confusion, vowing you will never see each other again, but secretly hoping you will accidentally meet in another dark room and repeat the whole sordid scenario. Only then can a comedian feel he has really earned his money.

I think people might imagine that a stand up on tour must have the most wonderful and gregarious of lives: working for an hour a day, then getting pissed, taking the finest drugs and sleeping with a string of nubile groupies. But in reality this kind of thing only happens about 97% of the time. And it does not make up for that yawning 3% chasm in which we are a secluded breed of unloved outcasts.

If a gig goes badly, there is the mortifying walk of shame, through the throng of disappointed punters, before you are swallowed by the night and make your way anonymously back to your hotel where you sit alone in your room attempting to pleasure yourself to the poor quality soft pornography, laid on for sexually unambitious businessmen.

If the gig goes brilliantly, it is even worse. You have wowed a room of people, you are literally a god to them. But when you return to their earthly realm, real life seems monochrome by comparison. The company of such tedious mortals is not something that you crave. So you head to your hotel alone again, contemplating the fact that the fleeting adoration of a room of drunken idiots is probably no substitute for the true love of a devoted wife or the unconditional devotion of a tiny child. Then you drink yourself into oblivion before inevitably tuning into Lusty Asians VIII and allow the night to come full circle.

Of course, I am jesting. It is my job. You must never take anything I say seriously. Though you must always suspect that in everything I say there is some grain of truth. Imagine what fun it must be being my girlfriend. No wonder I am alone.

But in reality I am not as downhearted as I might seem. I love this ridiculous and wonderful (I almost baulk at calling it this) job.

It is the autonomy of stand up that makes it such a brilliant, unique and exciting medium for the communication of ideas. There is no-one telling you what you must do, no producer telling you what you can or can’t say, no executive suggesting you try to appeal to a certain demographic, no actors to misinterpret what you had to say. It is just you on your own, doing the stuff that you think is funny. It is possibly the last pure art form.

In ménage à un, I mourn the fact that I have lived for nearly 40 years and yet never taken part in a threesome. I thought that by drawing attention to this in the show I might persuade a couple of young ladies in the audience to take pity on me and make my fantasies come true. But after over fifty performances I have lowered my expectations. For a while I just hoped my desperation might lead to a twosome, but if it ever has done then I was not involved. So recently I have taken to asking any single men in the crowd if they are prepared to come back to my hotel room and pleasure themselves next to me, so that at least I won't be alone.

Who says comedy is the new rock and roll?

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.