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14 September 2022

A more-than-favourable reception

Another first date, a painful stand-up set, and my best friend’s wedding.

By Pippa Bailey

I write the morning after yet another first date (I go, these days, as much for the column material as anything, and I am beginning to wonder if I could get away with expensing my pints). We meet at a bar in north London for a stand-up comedy night. At the allotted hour, we make our way down to the basement, which has that low-ceilinged, wood-panelled vibe I associate with American movies – 13 Going on 30 or The Virgin Suicides (does anything good ever happen in a basement?). They’re where teenagers go to play foosball and engage in heavy petting; I imagine the bedraggled remains of a tinsel curtain still hanging over the door from someone’s sweet 16th, awaiting a grand entrance.

It becomes apparent fairly quickly that there are only going to be about ten people in attendance, and I would quite happily flee to the safety of the bar upstairs, but my date displays greater perseverance than I and boldly pushes on. Just before the sets start, the compère comes over to the corner booth where we have hidden and beseeches us to fill an empty table further forwards. It turns out to be in the front row. Anyone who’s been to a comedy gig knows where this is going…

[See also: The literal version of “hot girl summer” is no fun at all]

Before the first set has even started, the compère moves on from questioning a Dutch man next to us about his decision to move to the UK during lockdown, to “the couple next to you”. We laugh. Realising he may have assumed too much, the compère asks if we are indeed a couple. “First date…” I proffer. He asks my date’s name. “Phil.” And mine? I could answer, “Pippa,” and leave him to work out the connection – but I already have a sense of the calibre of the talent, and I feel bad for the guy, so instead I hand him the joke: “Philippa…” It’s one of the biggest laughs of the night.

The comics are the sort of men – and they are all men – who said something funny once, perhaps a decade ago, and took it to heart when their drinking companion responded: “You should do stand-up, mate.” There are, oddly, a lot of jokes about prostate exams, which tells you something about their average age – and which leads to some interesting debrief conversations with my date, about the position one assumes for a prostate exam, and various other times he has lowered his pants for a medical professional. I end up telling him how, the day before, I’d been given some travel vaccinations by the male nurse who also did my most recent smear test, and how my brain spent the whole time going “speculum, speculum, speculum” on a loop, just so he isn’t left out alone on this oddly vulnerable conversational limb. (I somehow managed to ask him when his grandmother died with about my third sentence of the date, so all bets had been off for a few hours at this point.)

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I feel for our wannabe comics, really – just last weekend I stood up in a room full of people and attempted to make them laugh (though thankfully my audience were more generous). My best friend got married and it was – and I say this as someone who has been to approximately five billion weddings and is thoroughly bored of them – the very best of days. It is not, of course, traditional for women to speak at weddings, but I did my bit for gender equality and rinsed the bride just as the best man customarily does the groom. Helpfully, I had some good material to work with.

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My friend, you see, married a boy she met when we were teenagers. Our friendship group hailed from an all-girls school, and so had to outsource our boy supply. Among the group of likely lads from a local independent school who stepped into the void was the man who is now my best friend’s husband. The wedding felt, in some ways, more like a school reunion than a wedding: for the first time since we were teenagers, we were all once more at a party together.

It had the potential to be an awkward day – painful even. Spare a thought for my fellow bridesmaid, who counted three ex-boyfriends among the guests. I spoke for the first time in a decade to a man with whom I went on a date when we were teenagers, and it was funny and sweet to hear the details he recalled: how we had shared our experiences of our parents’ divorces.

The sweat and dancing and drunkenness felt almost comfortingly familiar, though the details were a little different: indeterminate items of fancy dress traded for suits and satin; Lambrini for Champagne. There were engagement rings and receding hairlines. No one – as far as I know – found a dark corner in which to snog and no one was locked out on the driveway naked, though at one point four men did take it upon themselves to climb up to the balcony overlooking the dancefloor and begin to perform a strip-tease.

As for my date, I shan’t be saying the words, “I, Philippa, take you, Philip…” any time soon, which is a shame – because it would doubtless raise a laugh.

[See also: Swapping the sunshine for the dark fatalism of Kurt Vonnegut]

This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession