Have you heard the intellectual joke about Goethe, Joyce, a joist and a girder?
My first mistake was the duck joke: "This duck goes into a bar and says, 'Pint of bitter and a bag of your excellent salt and vinegar crisps.'
"And the barman says, 'You speak very good English for a duck.'
"And the duck says, 'Thank you.'
"And the barman says, 'Ever thought of working in a circus? You'd make a very good living.'
"'How could I do that?' says the duck. 'I'm a plumber.'"
I hadn't expected the Comedy Store audience to erupt at this feeble story but I had hoped that they'd be amused by its coming from someone Alexei Sayle had introduced as a sociology lecturer who'd written "loads of bukes". Wasn't there something intrinsically hilarious about an intellectual getting up on stage and telling jokes that would be eschewed by an end-of-the-pier comedian? There wasn't.
As I ploughed on to my next sub-standard joke (man goes to doctor and says that he's worried about his short-term memory. "How long have you had this problem?" "What problem?") I had a sudden urge to hold up a placard explaining the subtext: "Look, everyone. It's not the jokes that are funny, but the fact that they're being told by someone who's supposed to be dedicated to the life of the mind."
I might have won them over if I'd had more time. But I knew that at any moment I'd hear the gong signalling the compulsory end of my performance. So, in a last, panic-stricken throw, I did a violent change of gear and turned to my stock of intellectual jokes.
"This Irishman went for a job on a building site and the foreman warned him that he'd have to answer some difficult questions.
"'That's OK,' said the Irishman.
"'You're absolutely sure?' asked the foreman.
"'Absolutely,' said the Irishman.
"'Right,' said the foreman. 'What's the difference between a joist and a girder. Think carefully.'
"'Well,' said the Irishman, 'Didn't Joyce write Ulysses and Goethe write Faust?'"
That joke always wrong-footed PC friends.
But there was so much noise at the Comedy Store that the punchline was lost in a chorus of objections, and before I could remedy the situation with a smart one-liner about the difference between a sociologist and a member of the Mafia being that a sociologist gives you an offer you can't understand, there was the clanging noise of the gong and the formidable sight of Sayle striding purposefully towards centre stage.
All of this was a good 20 years ago, when the Comedy Store was giving the first outing to dozens of "alternative comedians" who are now firmly installed as television stars. It's galling. Every night when I turn on and hear an audience roaring with appreciative laughter at Sayle or French and Saunders or Ben Elton, I'm reminded of the consequences of my failure to follow a similar career path: long weekends writing pedantic papers for Sociology, interminable first-year seminars on Weber and the Protestant ethic, life-sapping hours in examination meetings, deciding whether Alison's constitutional inability to get out of bed was a valid reason for an aegrotat.
But what sticks in my mind most is Sayle's postscript to my performance. Even as I crept off the stage I heard him drive the last nail into the coffin of my attempt to develop a new, non-academic persona.
"There goes Laurie Taylor. I read one of his bukes once. Never thought there could be anything more boring. Now I know there is. Him."