You’ll laugh until you stop

The teenage diaries of comedians are perhaps best left unopened

Spud of the week was the first of Radio 4’s series of 15-minute programmes in which comedians read from their teenage diaries (My Teenage Diary, 1 April, 11pm).

The opener featured Richard Herring, previously stage partner to the talented Stewart Lee, who tells the presenter, Rufus Hound, that “1980 is where my diary gets kind of interesting”. “Oh, 1980,” says Hound, “when John Lennon has just been shot and fingers around the world are being dislocated by the Rubik’s cube.” (Thus ramming home the depressing fact that this show has been choreographed and scripted to the nth degree.) “Do not read without a stiff drink first,” quotes Herring, from the front page of the diary. Hysterical laughter from the audience. “Because I’ve always been worried that in a hundred years’ time this will be discovered and thought to be a gospel.”

There is an inexplicable and near-insane buzz in the room, giving the impression that the studio is full of not just friends and family, but malleable and emotional foreign visitors the BBC ushers met out on the streets around Broadcasting House and invited in, and possibly cleaners and people from other programmes within the building and further sundry gatecrashers, too, all squashed up at the back, just drinking it in.

“I think the royal family is a waste of time,” quotes Herring. “I am anti-war.” One notices a particular laugh in the crowd. A girl. She sounds very keen indeed. Is she Herring’s wife? A charge goes off in the listener’s mind, a horribly clear image: the comedian reduced to doing Radio 4 comedy, the wife overcompensating with an exaggerated display of appreciation – shoulders moving up and down in sync to laughter that simply bursts with love and goodwill, etc – while secretly, possibly, yes, yes, for sure, wondering how much time must be spent sentenced to the mishegas.

My heart went out to that girl. It called to mind awful nights at the theatre, helplessly – and I mean that I cannot help it, I simply cannot – scanning the audience for the friends and family of the actors on stage, anxiously observing the set of their necks, their physical manifestations of duty and worry. (How can anyone ever go to the theatre? It’s so fucking tense.)

“Does reading this stuff out make you feel better about your teenage self?” asks Hound. “Well, the younger me would be quite glad that I became a comedian,” said Herring, a little uncertainly, I thought. And just in case you have been wondering what your reviewer was like when she was a child, I have dug out some extracts from my own diary of 1987, which will reassure you that you are in the hands of a person who was, among other things and for example, continually picking up on cinema’s little-known gems. “14 April: I saw the film The Graduate starring Dustin Hoffman. Nothing and nobody else matters to me now. God. Dustin Hoffman is so brilliant. I just couldn’t believe it. Brilliant. 17 April: Watched The Great Gatsby which was really sad. What was wrong with the girl in it? It was like she was on drugs or something. PS: I saw Harrison Ford on Aspel and Co. God he looked good. His wife is expecting a baby.”

A superb latent critique of the Gatsby film’s moral emptiness, non?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue