The first time I’d ever been in a comedy club was one I was due to perform at. Yes, I’d seen stand-up comedy on the telly. I’d been to see Sean Hughes and Jack Dee at fancy theatres. But this was the first time I’d been in a comedy club. I’m not sure I even knew these places existed before someone booked me to do a five-minute open spot (these spots are for new acts and are unpaid – it’s where we learn our trade).
It was the little room upstairs in a pub in Newcastle. I wore a back wing top. I had no idea what I was doing, but a lovely woman called Kate Fox had convinced me I was funny and quickly shown me the ropes of performance: how to hold the microphone (so it doesn’t shake); what to do with your other hand (hold the microphone cable, and if there isn’t one, panic); speak clearly (slow down, SLOW DOWN); fake confidence (that’s mostly smiling and trying not to break wind too obviously) and BE FUNNY. Oh God – I’d gone straight to the gig from work and didn’t have my notebook with me. I ALWAYS carry my notebook these days. Even to Asda. You never know.
The compere introduced me and I walked on stage to a sea of expectant faces. Not in a good way. Not like people at the cinema awaiting the forthcoming magic. More like in a court where the jury have decided you’re guilty and their annoyance at being there is only slightly offset by the fact they’re not at work. With one woman knitting on the end. My career was in their ambivalent, pint-clasping hands.
The first half of the set was delivered to complete silence. Like in a lift with a stranger. Or on a date. Then something happened. I told a story about my dad and the room erupted. Silence became a whoof of laughter and it was like someone had injected Dairy Milk into my face.
From then on I was hooked. And still am. I love doing it, I love watching it. Stand-up on the telly is wonderful. Apollo, Roadshow, One Night Stand, Comedy Central’s new show The Alternative Comedy Experience (which is filmed at The Stand in Edinburgh, the best comedy club in the UK, in my opinion) all feature a variety of circuit comedians telling their jokes.
There’s something there for everyone. Stand-up on the telly is one thing, but seeing it live is something else. There are brilliant comedians playing to rooms above pubs and arts centres around the corner from where you live. And anything could happen at a live gig. On telly you’d never see a bread bun thrown at a comedian. On telly you’d never see a man weeing against a tent, silhouetting beautifully behind the comedian, making the audience howl and the comedian think he was having the gig of his life.
An old man once got on stage with me as he wanted to tell his divorce story. The exhilarating Comedy in the Dark (started by the organisers of the Leicester Comedy Festival) would be rubbish on the telly. It would be radio. And if you only watch comedy on TV you won't have seen Daniel Kitson, a comedy genius who never does telly these days but is electrifying and poetic and brilliantly funny.
It’s best, I think, to treat stand-up comedy on the telly like tapas: small tasters of something you’d love a proper plate of. Google Henning Wehn, Alun Cochrane, Sara Pascoe and see them live.
The Sarah Millican Television Programme ends tonight at 10pm on BBC2
Sarah's stand-up DVD, Thoroughly Modern Millican Live, is now available at amazon.co.uk