“Have you gone mad?” asked one friend. “You’re so brave. I could never do that. Wouldn’t meditation be wiser?” said another. For someone with a long history of depression and anxiety, plus a morbid fear of public speaking, taking up standup comedy might seem like a masochistic decision. Yet to me it makes perfect sense. Excruciating fear of failure is at the heart of most people’s aversion to attempting to make a room full of strangers laugh. But controlling that fear, and not succumbing to it, is the central reason I’ve chosen to expose myself in this very public and potentially humiliating way.
I grew up in comfortable, middle-class suburban Hertfordshire in the 1970s and 80s, but my upbringing was a complex one of emotional uncertainty. Years of therapy have lent me an understanding of how I learned to cope over the years. To avoid facing difficult issues during my childhood and teenage years I buried my emotions, and that evasion only escalated in adulthood. By my early 20s, I was mentally ill-equipped to deal with life’s thornier challenges.
At the age of 22, I suffered the first of many breakdowns. My parents divorced when I was 15 and my upbringing simply hadn’t furnished me with the psychological toolkit we all need to navigate life’s unpredictable ride. In the 28 years since, there have been numerous relapses, culminating in an almost catastrophic meltdown six years ago. Barely able to work, parent or communicate, I felt suicidally depressed and chronically anxious for more than a year.
Thanks to the selfless support of my ex-partner, the life-saving efforts of my local NHS mental health team in east London, and the mood-stabilising properties of lithium, I eventually recovered and, touch wood, I’ve been functioning relatively normally ever since. But the latest episode magnified my need to confront my fears head on, not bury them.
As a child, I always used humour to shield myself from emotional discomfort and as a freelance writer I’ve attempted something similar – albeit via the written not the spoken word.
I’ve flirted with some journalistically unnerving endeavours in recent years, including spending the day in drag and the evening as a life model. The desire to try standup was always there, but I felt that, thanks to my shaky foundations, exposing myself to public scrutiny in this way was too big a risk to take. Until this summer.
Whether it was my marital separation, the isolating lockdowns or a clichéd midlife crisis, I finally took the plunge in June and enrolled on a standup comedy course for beginners, run by experienced comic Andre Vincent at London comedy collective Amused Moose, whose alumni include Jimmy Carr, Sarah Millican, Jack Whitehall, Greg Davies and Romesh Ranganathan.
Via a combination of gentle confidence-building trust exercises and some improvised word play games, Andre created an intimately welcoming atmosphere where my nine fellow standup virgins and I surrendered our inhibitions enough to share some very personal and hopefully amusing stories.
We soon discovered that there’s something about the immediacy of comedy that allows you to speak honestly and openly about even the most painful of subjects and that, however dark the material, there’s always a humorous angle. One 50-something student wanted his material to focus on his recent battle with testicular cancer. Another man chose to share his experiences of coming out in London in the 1990s. One woman on the course riffed on the absurdities of racial and cultural confusion in Yorkshire, while another looked at the challenges of being a young Chinese immigrant in London.
Prior to the course, I’d had no intention of talking about my mental health, but one brain-storming exercise sparked a response that inadvertently steered me down that path.
When asked to list as many things as possible that we were grateful for, my first thoughts were a healthy family, Tottenham finishing above Arsenal – again – and an adoring Jack Russell rescue dog who has kept me sane during the pandemic. Yet the word I wrote at the top of my gratitude inventory, half in jest, was “Lithium”.
Andre delicately teased out some more detail and, before I knew it, I was telling a room full of strangers how the psychiatric mood stabiliser had been instrumental in vanquishing the suicidal feelings that had plagued me five years ago. Very much an advocate of the “there’s comedy in truth” school of thought, Andre encouraged me to explore the subject more deeply and I realised that dark though the material was, there was also comedic potential.
In the depths of my last depressive episode, humour was an alien concept, yet off-loading in a safe, supportive environment felt cathartic. However, I was also aware that sharing this material in forensic detail on-stage was maybe a step too far, and the last thing I wanted to do was trigger someone who’d been through a similar experience to myself. So, I shifted sideways and homed in on the fertile terrain of parental embarrassment.
My own children had been particularly supportive of my comic ambitions – “Why are you doing this, Dad? No one thinks you’re funny at all. No one will ever pay money to watch you,” said my 16-year-old daughter reassuringly, when I informed her.
Out of this, a comedic narrative unfolded. I was able to send up my kids’ parental shame at my escapades, like having the temerity to talk to their friends at teenage parties using Gen Z lingo, and my parents’, too – mainly their predilection for naturist “sun clubs”, finally freeing myself to publicly air my most mortifying teenage anecdote, which still haunts me nearly four decades on.
Spending the weekend at a naked campsite, trying not to watch middle-aged nudists play badminton, was never top of my teenage bucket list but thankfully the years have blurred those memories. Except for one, which is still disturbingly etched on my brain. I was an awkward 13-year-old standing self-consciously at one end of the naturist swimming pool when I spotted someone startlingly familiar. She was a 50-something, Rubenesque nudist about to plunge into the water. She was also my history teacher. As you can imagine, I wanted to die on the spot.
Dying on stage is every fledgling standup’s greatest fear, but as Andre, who regularly talks on stage about the psychological impact of his own battle with cancer, says, it’s a groundless anxiety.
“Every time I teach a group of students, someone will say, ‘What if I get up on stage and everybody hates me?’ but that makes no sense. Audiences don’t go to watch comedy to hate people. They’re there to have a good time and that’s the idea that people need to shake off.”
As my debut at the Water Rats pub in London’s King’s Cross approached it became clear that my main obstacle in avoiding five minutes of tumbleweed wasn’t my material itself, but my ability to remember it. But memory or no memory, 7.30pm on that Sunday night rapidly arrived and there was no going back.
Watched by a room full of ultra-supportive family and friends, the show opened and five acts later I found myself in the spotlight, clutching the microphone for dear life and watching people laugh at my toe-curling and clumsily recalled tales of 1970s nudism.
Euphoria might be overstating it, but there was certainly a wave of relief and satisfaction as I realised that the whole experience wasn’t quite as scary as I suspected. No one died. Most people laughed and several kind people – probably lying, who cares? – told me afterwards that I was funny.
Two months later it’s fair to say that Jack, Jimmy and Romesh aren’t looking nervously over their shoulders but I’m now approaching gig number four. I’m still a million miles from feeling entirely comfortable on stage, but it’s also a million miles from being the terminally mortifying experience I thought it might be. So for now I’m planning to continue to feel the fear – on and off stage – and do it anyway.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, go to samaritans.org. Nick McGrath is at the Comedy Virgins night tomorrow (thecavendisharmsstockwell.co.uk)