Hecklers and holes

Herring contemplates monetarism, heckling at comedy gigs and a scabby-kneed lady.

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I was heading out for a gig this week, feeling in a very positive mood. For some unknown reason my senses were heightened and I was filled with contentment and confidence and I was being uncharacteristically observant. Maybe someone had slipped some magic mushrooms into my tea.

On the tube I was sitting opposite a smartly dressed, slightly stocky lady. She had a posh black jacket and skirt on and an unusual purple flower or broach as her button-hole. I couldn’t work out if it was real or artificial, yet it was such an extraordinary shade of purple that I think it must have been manufactured by someone other than God.

But what attracted my attention was her leg. She had a hole in the knee of her tights and a fresh wound on her knee, the blood on which had clearly only just congealed. It was a small detail that on another day I might not have spotted, but tonight it jumped out of me and I found it a fascinating glimpse into someone else’s life.

Clearly at some point in the last two or three hours, this woman had had a fall of some kind, a nasty, though not incredibly serious one, and now though her knee must be stinging she was going about her day. Was she on her way to a function or on her way back? Did she fall over at a wedding or at an important business meeting? Or had she been rushing and slipped and was yet to get to her appointment and was late or had decided she couldn’t even go now, with a bloody knee and a hole in her tights.

Somehow I just found this unimportant detail incredibly interesting, a window into the life of a stranger, that unless I was bold enough to ask her what had caused her injury, could only lead to idle, but entertaining speculation. At the very least imagining the moment of the accident of this sensibly dressed and thick legged lady was cause for slight amusement, even if, or possibly because, she had been hurt and slightly humiliated.

The gig itself looked like it would be fun. It was up in Angel and the first half had been poets reading their work to a small crowd of 15 people. In my positive frame of mind I was anticipating a relaxed gig where I could just chat about stuff with no real worry of being barracked or any massive need to go for laughs. I thought I could have a go at talking about the scabby-kneed businesswoman and see if it led anywhere.

However, just as the second half started a very drunk couple came and sat in the back. The MC started a short poem, which had a slightly obtuse joke at the end. The drunk man loudly blurted, “What’s funny about that?” Suddenly my hopes of an enjoyable and life-affirming gig evaporated, as this unpleasant metaphorical smell in the corner permeated the room. The other patrons bristled with embarrassment. My heart slightly sank and then I was introduced and made my way to the tiny stage.

I had barely begun just saying hello and commenting on the intimate nature of the occasion when the man at the back loudly and probably involuntarily sighed. I came back by remarking that that was always a good sign, when you were boring someone before you had even had a chance to tell a single joke. The other people laughed politely, but the tension was palpable and I later found out that the couple had made a nuisance of themselves through the first half too.

You don’t really expect hecklers during a night of poetry and given the gig was just three pounds, these people who were more interested in drinking and canoodling might have made the sensible decision of leaving when they realised what was going on.

I pressed on and getting bigger laughs than one would expect from such a cosy gig, but was still getting these sarcastic and crapulous interruptions. I tried to incorporate the man, but it was clear he was too drunk to know he had been defeated or even realise that something slightly magical (by which I mean the gig, rather than my part of it specifically) was going on around him.

He had decided that I wasn’t going to be funny and was too inebriated to be able to concentrate and I am experienced enough to know there is no point in flogging a pissed horse, so I suggested he might like to leave. His girlfriend shouted back that surely the point of a comedy gig is that the audience heckle.

This is not a position I agree with, though it is one that a small proportion of people seem to believe in. I argued that this might be the case if the heckles were amusing rather than just being a man expressing his own ignorance and stupidity when he isn’t even intelligent enough to understand a simple cock joke that everyone else is amused by.

My ebullient mood was shattered and for a second I thought I was going to lose my temper, but I wasn’t going to let these cockwits ruin my night, nor the entertainment for the other dozen people who were having fun. So I offered the guy his money back out of my own pocket. I was doing this gig for love, not money and I would rather give the people who were interested in listening to me a chance to do so. Although I owed him six pounds to eject him and his girlfriend, I looked in my wallet and only had twenties and decided that I would overpay him for the service.

It felt like an artistic gesture, making some kind of satirical point about the nature of commerce. Although he would certainly have gone for ten, I would give him more than that, make him think he was a winner, whilst actually the overpayment would be a sarcastic comment about him that would in my eyes belittle him.

I wish I had said that I was giving him more in order to compensate him for what he was missing out on, my brilliant act, which is actually worth more than six pounds, but it only occurred to me later that by accepting the money he was potentially missing out on experience and possibly a happening, which in the long run is worth more than the two or three rounds he was going to consume at my expense.

Would someone who had been paid to leave the Cavern in 1962 or a Bill Hicks gig in 1991 be happy in the long run that they had made a small amount of cash. They would actually have missed out. And whilst I don’t think I am as good as the Beatles or anywhere approaching Hicks in comedic skill, my point is that you don’t know at the time what you might be witnessing. And this man wouldn’t have known any better if Shakespeare himself was on stage, doing “To be or not to be” for the first time.

Ultimately I knew the gig would only be good without him. And that the audacity of overpricing his departure would itself be a piece of theatre and fun for everyone else. Indeed they were delighted that I was about to squeeze the human cold sore who was stopping us connecting. The man was so drunk that he nearly ruined the transaction by refusing to take the money from my hand, at which point I thought about physically attacking him, or at least going for him in the hope that the fear of pain would cause him to run away.

But I kept it together, made him take the cash and he went out to the cheers and catcalls of everyone else feeling he had triumphed, only unable to view the world from a monetary position, yet I felt I had landed myself a bargain. He had taken my fee for the night, but it was worth it. I felt more sorry for his girlfriend who thought she was better off drinking with this loser than listening to poets trying to make some sense of the world (not me, I hasten to add, I have the heart of a poet but the mouth of a sewer rat).

And it did mean that I got to do a half hour of material to people who wanted to listen. I talked about the scabby kneed lady and the flamenco dancer I had seen performing to practically no-one and my love of the world was restored. Art (if talking at length about blow-jobs can be seen as art) had triumphed over materialism. Some things are more important than money.

In any case, at the back of my mind I realised that at some point in the future I might be able to turn this incident into a routine or article. And look, I have! I have been paid for writing this and am thus in profit anyway so even on the terms of a bread-head capitalist I have won the contest.

The next day I woke up feeling good about myself. I hope the bloke woke up and realised what a dick he’d been and that the change from my twenty pounds felt heavy in his pocket. I suspect it didn’t and that he still thought he was brilliant, but he is wrong. He is just a puppet in my satire of a society that rewards stupidity with money (Jade Goody), but I am also a puppet in that satire as well. And now I have taken delight in my own monetary compensation, thus invalidating my whole point.

So we’ve all lost and that is all that matters.

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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