Two Hundred & One

The Gig: Sportsman’s Dinner, Stockport Cricket Club, Stockport.

The Date: March 10th 2011

The Line Up: Tomato & Basil Soup with a chunk of fresh bread, Basil cream cheese stuffed chicken breast with new potatoes and seasonal vegetables, apple & mixed fruit crumble with custard, coffee, mints, Mr Alan Stuttard (President of Walsden Cricket Club) & myself.

“Fuck.”

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”

I won’t lie to you. My inner monologues definitely had wittier and more eruldite moments than the one it was having at that precise moment. I was in the car park of Stockport Cricket Club, walking past a selection of expensive looking cars towards the clubhouse entrance. This particular booking wasn’t going to be like anything I’d ever done before. It was a sportsman’s dinner, a fundraising event for the club. I’d never performed at one of these events. I’d never been to one of these events. I knew precisely fuck all about sports and even less about cricket. My inner monologue became only ever so slightly more aticulate.

“”Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Why? Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Why? Why? Why? Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”

Why had I taken this particular booking? Simple. The money. I’d had a call from Alex Boardman the previous November giving me the heads up on a gig he’d been offered and had to turn down. It wasn’t a normal comedy night but he was confident that I could do a good job. I thanked Alex profoundly and rang Colin, the organiser, to pitch myself and my abilities. He went over the format of the night, said that I’d need to perform a half hour set after the meal and after the evening’s speaker. He offered me a figure, less than these type of gigs normally pay but still more than I can usually command for my efforts on a Thursday night by some margin.

A sportsman’s dinner is not a comedy night. Generally speaking you’ll be performing to big groups of men, quite possibly shitfaced by the time you step up. As a rule it’s a set up that favours the punchy, gag-heavy comedians towards the mainstream end of the circuit. Guys like Greg Cook and Mark Rough, no nonsense comedy bruisers with a machine gun punchline rate. I’m hardly the most whimsical, off beat or challenging act around but I doubt I’d be anyone’s first choice for this kind of engagement. A room full of cricket players on a night out… Were they going to be charmed by the likes of Generation Gap, Flux Capacitor, Word In Game and my usual bankers? The magic eight ball says “Don’t think so.”

It’s important to be honest with your limitations as a performer, both to yourself and the people that book you. On paper this was way, way out of my sphere of expertise and my comfort zone. If I was Colin and I knew what I knew about me then there’s no way I’d have booked me.

“That sounds fantastic,” I lied through my teeth “Shall I get that in the diary?”

So the deal was struck. Chris Brooker, armed with a setlist about call centres, Back To The Future and the ZX Spectrum +2 (With integrated tape player…) had signed on for possibly the most mainstream of mainstream gigs. I’m full of shit and even I knew I was pushing my luck there. Even with months to spare I felt nervous. I then did the only rational thing I could possibly have done under the circumstances. I pushed it to the back of my mind and forgot about it for four months.

The week before the gig I suddenly realised that I’d not heard anything from Colin in months. No confirmation, no call, no email. I suspected that he might have changed his mind or that the dinner had been cancelled. I say suspected, a good part of me was hoping that was the case. I could hardly afford to lose more work across March but it certainly would have been a welcome escape route. Hence I was simultaneously relieved and gutted when Colin emailed back and said it was all set. It all started at seven forty-five, I would probably be on around ten forty-five, dress code was smart casual. Fuck…

My smart casual attire was the same jeans, jacket, shirt and tie combination that had been so well received at the recent one-night-only reunion of Primitive Faith. As a result I felt more like a scruffy, underdressed bastard with every step I took up the stairs of the clubhouse. I had a hole in the pit of my stomach and my mind was racing in circles. I hoped this wasn’t too obvious from the outside. The room was laid out with rows of tables for the meal and there was nobody in there except a few waiting staff in the corner. The entrance to the bar was in the far corner and that was where I bumped into Alan Stuttard, the guest speaker for the evening. He immediately put me at my ease by being of the nicest, friendliest and most welcoming people I’d met in a long time. A veteran of the after dinner circuit, we chatted for a while and I did my best to pick his brain without looking too much like I knew nothing whatsoever. He asked for my contact details as there was a good chance he’d need a comedian for an event in the not too distant future. I suggested he might want to take them off me afterwards…

I was introduced to Colin at this point. He and his son were in charge of the night and, as such, were both running around in a mist of stress to make sure everything worked out. This was the first sportsman’s dinner at Stockport Cricket Club in quite some time, hence the need to run it at a modest cost. The time came for the meal to be served and the diners made their way through from the bar. A quick demographic check revealed an average age somewhere between forty and fifty. Not a group that I would neccesarily consider as my target demographic. It was, as was expected, entirely male as well. I was sorely tempted to nip outside to “Just get something from my car…” and then drive off. Knowing my luck I’d have pranged one of the nice cars in the attempt. Instead I took my seat between Alan and a gentleman called Mike, one the club’s higher ups.

There was a program on the table providing the details of the night’s proceedings. The meal, the speaker and then… Oh good. Chris Brooker: An extremely talented comedian. No pressure there.

I’m a social retard. I’ve been known to run away from people that I don’t know very well so as to avoid the pitfalls of small talk. The thought of being sat between two people I didn’t know for the duration of a meal was enough to make me uncomfortable in and of itself, let alone with the prospect of a half hour set afterwards. Nonetheless things seemed to go alright. Alan was friendly and Mike proved to be good company as well. I had my notepad to hand and jotted down anything I noticed as the meal went along. I asked Mike a few questions about the club, the players and so on. He was happy and eager to share anything he could, going so far as to point out a few of the players in attendence. Their star player, apparently, was working behind the bar that night. Keeping it real. I started to relax a bit.

The first course arrived, a very pleasant tomato soup. I say very pleasant, I didn’t actually get to eat that much of it. I’d managed to maintain a relatively cool, collected exterior in spite of the panic alarms going off throughout my adrenal system. My nerves betrayed me once and once only, when I tried to eat the soup. My hand was shaking so badly that I couldn’t trust myself to get spoon to mouth without spilling it everywhere. I suspected I was better off leaving it rather than throwing it all over myself.

The envelope game, a staple at these events, was drawn after the soup. For those unfamiliar it’s pretty straightforward. Everyone is given an envelope upon which they write their name and within which they place a sum of money, in this case two pounds each. The envelopes are collected, emptied and whichever one is then drawn from a hat wins a proportion of the cash. I ended up putting a fiver in mine because I had no change and was too nervous to ask for it. It certainly wasn’t in an effort to be flash. I did the draw with Mike and one of the winners was a higher-up at the club, nicely marking him out for later.

The rest of the meal, being solid, didn’t present the same challenge to my stress-addled motor skills. Mike was nice enough to point out various other characters around the room as the meal progressed. It also turned out that I wasn’t the only one having their first attempt at a sportsman’s dinner. It turned out that the caterers were too. Suddenly we noticed that there wasn’t any salt or pepper out on the tables. The solution? A single salt shaker and a dispensing container of Morrisons value black pepper. Not exactly silver service but this really tickled me. It also seemed to lance the boil of nervousness and I wasn’t anywhere near as stressed after that. Dessert was apple and summer fruit crumble served with custard. This also put me at ease. Crumble, it just makes everything alright. Besides, who could possibly get rowdy after they’d had crumble? I wondered if serving apple crumble with custard before talks in the Middle East would solver all the problems.

The meal finished, I made my seventh trip of the nights to the gents in order to pass water and the after dinner segment of the night began. Alan stood and proceeded deliver a forty minute after dinner speech based around his years of playing the noble sport of cricket for Walsden cricket club in Yorkshire. A mixture of anecdotes and gags, his gentle charm and charisma had the hundred plus in attendence rapt throughout, frequently getting good laughs and rounds of applause. An awful lot of what he said went sailing straight over my head like, erm, a cricket ball that had been hit well by someone who had a bat. That clumsy sentence is the limit of my knowledge when it comes to the sport. Or, at least, I thought it was. I’d jotted a few ideas down over the course of night and realised that I didn’t know fuck all about cricket. I actually knew next to fuck all about cricket and it would prove to be a crucial difference. A quick text to Sully O’Sullivan to check I had something right and I had a few opening lines I was fairly confident in, one of which was in fairly poor taste. Fuck it. In for a penny…

Alan wrapped up his speech, during the course of which he’d had a gentle rib at me for being ginger. Game on fella, this gave me permission to rib him back and I wasn’t going to pass that up. He’d also dropped the F-bomb a couple of times which opened that side of things for me too. I thought that the plan was to go straight from Alan to me. Instead they decided to have the raffle next. You don’t fuck with the raffle. I’d offered to do this for them and, with the advantage of a cordless mic, walked over to the alcove where the various prizes were on display to make the draw. All of a sudden my night became an awful lot easier. Drawing tickets, picking prizes and bantering with the winners. In essence I had an opportunity to compere for myself! I had a whale of a time, taking the piss out of the prizes and the winners, especially when they won a prize they had no enthusiasm for. One guy, a Man City fan, won VIP tickets to see Stockport Country. I told him he had to go. One of the club’s higher ups won a pair of pens and I got a big laugh for asking whether we could trust him with anything that sharp. You get the idea. I wasn’t exactly pushing back the boundaries of comedy but I was relaxing, having fun and proving my comedy credentials. Let’s hope I could keep it up for when my set started properly.

There was due to be a break between the raffle and myself but the good folk of Stockport Cricket club wanted to just get straight on with it. Democracy prevailed  and I went back to the table to deliver my set. This is is. No gimmicks, no prizes to hide behind… Now it was time to sink or swim. I took a deep breath and began.

“I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I know absolutely fuck all about cricket. The good news is that next week I’m taking over as coach the national side.”

My scant cricket knowledge thankfully included the fact that England had been beaten by Ireland not so long ago. I also knew, and had had it confirmed by Sully, that New Zealand had recently defeated the mighty cricketing nation of Pakistan. Hence my next joke, admittedly in poor taste. I said that a Kiwi friend had ribbed me over England’s loss to Ireland while boasting about his nation’s win over Pakistan. I played that this had gone until I’d snapped and told him that England wasn’t a bad team, they were just a little shaky. A bit like Christchurch.

Referencing a natural disaster to help me get through the opening minutes of a tough gig? Yep, that’s pretty low. That said it definitely worked. There was a loud “oooh” followed by laughter and I was off to a start. I went on to reference the fact that I was considerably younger than everyone else on the top table and got my first rib in on Alan, a gentleman in his late sixties. I suggested that he was actually thirty four but that was what living in Yorkshire did for you. Yes, that’s right… A joke about Yorkshire in Cheshire. It worked like a charm. I then took the opportunity to joke about the scarcity of salt and pepper, suggesting that they put them on chains by the bar for next time or ask for a deposit. By this point I pretty much had them and we were off. I snuck in a few more lines here and there about the players in attendence but mostly I stuck to my usual stuff. To my immense satisfaction it went down an absolute storm. All of the material I usually rely on went over brilliantly. Yep, the stuff about call centres, Back To The Future and the ZX Spectrum +2 (With integrated tape player…). I finished with my usual closing piece, something that I hadn’t expected to do, and was astonished at seeing the previously reserved audience join in with the finish. Yes, it’s lightweight and hack but it fucking works. Big response to finish and my job was done.

Well, almost. There was an auction of various merchandise that I ended up running. By this point I was just having fun, teasing the bidders and playing off of each other for chuckles. “How can you go home and adequately satisfy your wife knowing you’ve bit outbid on this autographed rugby shirt? Time to man up!” Eventually my role in the night really was over and it was time to head out. Colin, Mike and the other folk at the top table shook my hand enthusiastically saying that I’d done a superb job. Alan, to whom I confessed afterwards that it was my first ever after dinner speech, was pleasantly surprised or at least polite enough to act as if he was. He admitted that my humour wasn’t exactly his cup of tea but that it had worked brilliantly. A gentleman through and through, I thanked him sincerely for helping me feel so at ease. Cliched as it may sound, I might not have gotten through it without him.

I walked out into the car park, leaving with a very different feeling to the one I arrived with. I was absolutely buzzing, riding high on the adrenaline of a job well done. It’s rare these days that I get that sort of buzz after a gig, the sort that can keep me up all night afterwards. I can count on one hand the number of times it’s happened in recent memory. I really felt like I’d acheived something, walking into a gig and completely out of my comfort zone. I’d been a bag of nerves at the start of the night but I relaxed, had fun and everything flowed from there. My extremely rudimentary attempts at bespoke gag writing had proven successful too which was a confidence boost in and of itself. I might not be too bad at that writing lark after all.

I had a text on my phone from my Dad. He’d seen my status update on Facebook earlier that alluded to how nervous I was before the sportsman’s dinner. Were they comforting words of encouragement? Nope.

“Bet you wished you’d gotten into football now.”

Right idea, wrong sport. Then again, maybe sometimes it’s better to know nearly fuck all anyway.

Gig Score: 8/10

Lesson Learnt: Relaxing, having fun and occasionally writing gags is pretty good. I should do that a lot more. Another lesson about not judging an audience before I start as well.

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