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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle