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Tuesday 19th February 2013
There is very little about my job that shits me up any more. I don't really get very nervous about gigging except in extraordinary circumstances. So it's good to have some engagements that fill me with terror. The show Set List still does that and to an even larger extent so does the Radio 4 show "Just A Minute".
Even though I had a good time on the show last time I was on that's no guarantee that things will run as smoothly again and this time I was up against a more intimidating panel of Paul Merton, Julian Clary and Jenny Eclair, all brilliant players who would spot other's mistakes before me and not countenance any repetition, deviation or hesitation from me. But even though there's a chance of humiliation or maybe exactly because of this I would always be keen to take part. Paul Merton told me that as a student he had taped this show on C60 cassettes and listened to them all again and again. It's just an honour to be amongst the elite who have taken on this pointless and stupid game. Paul still have reverence for it even after all this time and however much I might let myself down on air it would all be worth it for the drinks afterwards and hearing Merton and Parsons talking about the history of comedy (and their place in it).
We were recording two shows tonight and I made the early mistake of challenging Merton just a few seconds into the first round. Although my challenge was erroneous I somehow wrestled the subject from him. He was never going to take that well. I was terrified enough already without having riled him at this early stage. And I had a shaky start with my own attempts to speak for a minute (it is such a short time in all other circumstances than this game) and this time concentrated too hard on not umming and erring and ended up repeating myself all the time.
For the first ten minutes I barely got a look in and had my one solitary unearned point to my name. I considered buzzing in just to let my mum know that nothing had happened to me and I was still here. I then made a basic error in the first four words of my own subject (one that I thought I had a decent crack at doing well on) and Merton ruthlessly buzzed in. Though kindly, realising how hard I'd been finding it to get a word in, he let the challenge pass and I managed to talk for what felt like about five minutes, but was less than half a minute before I came crashing down in flames (which is rather apt as you'll find out when you hear the show and discover what the subject was). Things improved a little bit for me, but I wasn't in danger of being told off for over-enthusiasm this time. I realised that in this exalted company my job was to keep my head down and let them be funny and hope that I could occasionally interject something of worth.
The funniest bit though was when Nicholas Parsons burped. I hope they keep it in. I was really hoping to challenge him for repetition but alas couldn't get my bon mot in amongst the hilarity.
I didn't really enjoy my own performance all that much at the time, if truth be told, feeling creeping mortification at being so rubbish, but that's what is so amazing about the experience. Failure is truly possible. The shows were good ones and I had a couple of mini triumphs that made it just about worthwhile and goaded Merton again with a couple of pathetic and picky challenges (though it was really my only way in). The others were fiercely competitive, but Julian kindly nodded at me to take on challenge early on, perhaps recognising my nervousness. But I did get to say "goolies" in one round, my brain was searching for a clean euphemism for genitals (and God knows that I know enough of them) but that was the best I could do. It probably went better than I felt it did. You'll have to judge for yourself. But I like the fact that I am not happy with my performance. Because this isn't an easy thing to do and it wouldn't be as rewarding if you didn't have the strong chance that you might make a tit of yourself.
I worried that Merton's indignation might be genuine and that he might insist I never appear on the show again or snub me in the green room, but he was charming and friendly, knowing that this is all part of the game, whilst probably still enjoying his supremacy and status. You have to earn those stripes on this programme and it will take you at least a dozen appearances before you're anywhere near getting them.
And afterwards we got to drink and I heard the stories about the old panellists and who was grumpy and who was drunk and who had fancy women and who stole a giant bottle of Tabasco from a dressing room, for no real reason. There was a picture in the dressing room of the Just a Minute team from around the late 70s or early 80s, Derek Nimmo, Lance Percival, Wendy Richard and Clement Freud, with a handsome and smart Parsons in the middle. It reminded us all of the history of this thing we were taking part in.
I left feeling exhilarated and disappointed in equal measure. I couldn't sleep because it was all rattling around in my head and I was thinking of what I could have said and what I might have challenged. Just like with Set List, I want to go back and try and again and see if I can do better. It is really fucking hard! But I know that I can do better and it's really great to have something so challenging to attempt (if Paul Merton ever lets me come back). I am not sure when the episodes will air, but it's a series that is always worth listening to and recording on a C60 tape. It's the best comedy show there has ever been and I've done five episodes more of it that you (probably) have. In another 30 years players of the game might be looking at a photo of today's panel and reminiscing about the ones they met or the stories they'd heard. Most of us won't be here (I bet Nicholas Parsons still is though) but there's a good chance that the programme still will be. Out of all the things I've done in my career I can't think of much that tops that.
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