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Thursday 9th December 2004

Thursday 9th December 2004

I had hoped I might get a chance to sample Croatian culture, but the jaunt to Zagreb has been strangely reminiscent of many of my gigs around the UK, except... well I was going to say that it took longer to get here, but actually all in it took about as long as it does to get to Carlisle.
I was met at the airport by a guy called Zoran who runs the club I was to be playing at. He was friendly, but a bit hassled and I was tired and we struggled to keep up conversation. I had been told that the audience at the club were good English speakers and whilst Zoran's English was impressive and better than my Croatian (I had only found out that "Bog" was an informal way to say hello or goodbye and found out from Zoran that there is more of a cuh at the end than a guh), I did note that he didn't understand quite a few things I was saying. He did seem concerned that due to Christmas and a concert by a popular opera star that there wouldn't be as many people at the gig as usual. This really was like Carlisle.
The hotel was well out of the centre in a slightly grotty area, and so there wasn't much to see in the immediate vicinity, but in any case I wanted to work on the act for the night. Unusually I was to do two fifteen minute sets, one near the beginning of the show and one nearer the end, which would be interspersed by Croatian speaking comics. I thought I'd do the Talking Cock stuff in the second set, but try some new/really old stuff in the first. But I kept changing my mind as to what that would be and was concerned about learning my Croatian based opening.
My hotel room was sparse and the bathroom smelt like one of the men from the British Library had been sitting in it all morning (not pooing, just exuding his natural perfume). Like I say it was much like any British tour, just seeing the drive into town and the inside of the hotel room.
Zoran arrived to pick me up a bit earlier than he'd said, around 6pm (the show was to start at 9ish) and we drove into old Zagreb which looked a bit more interesting and pretty than the bits I had seen so far. But we went straight to the club, where I had to sit around for a few hours waiting for stuff to start. I hadn't had a chance to buy any food and aside from a bit of fish cake that I picked at on the plane, the last time I had eaten had been breakfast at the airport. I had hoped that Zoran would have realised this and provided a sandwich or at least instruction of where I could eat, but nothing was mentioned. I decided not to make a fuss. With about half an hour to go I asked if there was any food and Zoran told me there was a restaurant downstairs, but there wasn't really time for a sit down meal and so decided to do without. So Zagreb gets a sandwich rating of 0, though they never said they would be providing food so I can't criticise them too much.
The other comics arrived and even though they largely spoke in Croatian, they behaved in a way that corresponded to the UK archetypes. The host was a bit bouncy and smiley and revealed that he hosted the Yugoslavian (rather two people from each region that had formerly made up Yugoslavia - which if you know anything about the history of the region was liable to produce fireworks) version of Big Brother and already in week 2 there was controversy as a Bosnian man had had sex with a Serbian woman. Nice!
The other two comics were less friendly and forthcoming - possibly because they didn't speak English (another warning sign?), but were both fat men with moustaches who liked to smoke. There was little interaction between me and them.
The first part of the gig started OK. I was surprisingly nervous, but the seemed to quite like my stuff about Croatia being the 26th biggest country in Europe- which might make quite a good routine for the UK. But after that we both seemed to be struggling a bit. I did a joke about being big-boned, but realised they probably didn't understand what I meant. Whilst I had checked my act for cultural references that wouldn't work, I had assumed wrongly that the crowd would be fluent English speakers and made no concessions for slang or colloquialism. Maybe I had chosen the wrong place to try out stuff that was either new or unfamiliar. My throat was going dry and my voice occasionally squeaked with the tension. I must have looked as uncomfortable as I felt. I realised that it had probably been a mistake to take on such a challenging gig at such an early stage. Any hopes that I will glide easily into being an accomplished stand-up are ill-founded. It is a big challenge and is going to take a lot of work and I will probably help myself by not performing in front of people who can't really understand what I am saying. I had not wanted to come across as patronising so had been performing at my normal pace and no doubt was speeding up a bit with the nerves. On top of all this I knew that once I'd finished this bit I was going to have to return in an hour or so for more. I was tired and hungry, but I don't think these things contributed too much. Stand-up is less about the material and more about confidence, authority and having a consistent persona. I did not have any of these things in the the first set. It wasn't a disaster, but everyone had been saying how friendly and giving this audience usually were, and t they weren't being those things for me.
When I came off the other comics seemed to be ignoring me more than ever. It reminded me of the early days of doing open spots where the established acts did not want to associate with you if you had failed, just in case your unfunniness was somehow contagious. Like the gig I did in front of Elton John I found myself sitting alone in a little island of space, largely being ignored - possibly I was looking miserable and stand-offish, but I think it was more than that. Sometimes you can stink without letting off a smell and people will still keep away.
The second slot with more familiar material went quite a bit better, but I was still having difficulty getting through to the crowd, who were perhaps mindful of my earlier mediocrity. But I was increasingly feeling that they weren't understanding quite a bit of what I was saying. I got off fairly promptly. Zoran said he was surprised the second set hadn't gone better as it had had some funny stuff in it, but he thought I had been going too fast for people to keep up(something he might have mentioned after the first set). It was confirmed that the crowd were not as fluent as I had been led to believe when one woman came up to thank me and slightly struggling even with this sentence said, "Nice to hear you. You were really, really nice." And, of course I'm not having a go at her for not having perfect English - it's miles better than anything I can attempt in any foreign language and there's no reason I would expect her to be fluent in my language. It just showed I was there under slightly false expectations if not pretences.
No wonder by dissection of the phrase "at the drop of a hat" had not really wowed them!
The Big Brother comic talked to me after this set, saying it was better than the first - it was obviously good enough to upgrade my social leprosy to social eczema.
I suppose in a way it is good to have a comparative failure in somewhere so far away, and I have learned that I certainly need more experience to carry this particular aspect of my job off. But it is quite a big thing for me to be overcoming the fear that has largely kept me off the stand-up stage for 13 years. It makes me nervous in a way that no other performance does; doing live TV was a doddle compared to this. I had some horrible experiences with stand-up and stand-ups back in the 80s and 90s, but feel reasonably confident that I can eventually lay these ghosts to rest and enjoy myself.
And there was a part of me that enjoyed this surreal experience of performing to people who couldn't quite understand me in the 26th biggest country in Europe. A couple of years ago I would not have dared to attempt something so audacious, but I kind of got away with it and learnt stuff in the process.
I returned to my hotel. A group of Croatian men were singing loudly in the restaurant below, having enjoyed food and drink. I still hadn't eaten so bought a Twix and a can of beer from the woman at reception and consumed them in my smelly room before turning in for the night. Ah the glamour of the world of show-biz.

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