I must look a right state before I go onstage. More than once a fellow comic or promoter has startled me out of my pre-gig shoe-staring to ask in worried tones: ‘Are you alright?’
Yes, I’m fine. It’s my thing. I have a routine before I go onstage that is structured to the point of autism. It’s a routine that has built up slowly and surely isn’t finished evolving yet; it starts with changing into my lucky tennis shoes and ends with the MC saying my name.
My taste for stage gear is neutrality: no logos (brands would have to pay me to wear them, not the other way round), and I’ve lost the heavy glasses I used to consider my ‘trademark’. I’m clad like a Microsoft employee on dress-down Friday. But at this time of the year, I do allow one variation: I wear a poppy. Of all the causes that are close to my heart, why does the poppy get a look in where others don’t?
You might say that the poppy glorifies war, and you’d be entirely wrong. Politicians glorify war: David Cameron got to make his victory speech after the death of Gaddafi without having to so much as dry clean Libyan dust from his trousers first. The press are also quick to exploit jingoism to flog papers with their ‘Gotcha!’ headlines and the confidence that only comes from an air-conditioned office thousands of miles away from the action. Tellingly, much of the media debate over the conflict in Libya was more to do with economics (‘How can we afford this in a recession?’) than whether our soldiers might actually get killed. When NotW hacked the phones of dead soldiers, we saw exactly the cynical foundations on which the relationship between the paper and ‘our boys and girls’ was built.
The people who don’t glorify war tend to be the ones that actually go out and fight it, and unlike the rest of us, they don’t get to pick their fights. Whenever I’m told stand up comedy is the ‘hardest job in the world’, I think of friends who’ve gone to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and it puts my backstage collywobbles into perspective. Despite the industry metaphor, very few comedians have actually contrived to die onstage.
The worst that can happen to a comic is that an audience (with an agent on the back row) doesn’t like them. In other parts of the world, some of the subjects we cover onstage without thinking about it would be enough to get us arrested – or worse. There are plenty of comics who perform the neat conjuring trick of simultaneously saying ‘the unsayable’ whilst regularly packing out theatres. The freedom for us to fill our time on stage with whatever we like is a privilege we owe in no small part to the sacrifice of people we don’t know in the armed services and their families.
Last year, the Royal British Legion raised £36million. This year they want £40million. Let those of us that make the greatest use of freedom be the most evangelical in our support, show that we don’t take it for granted, and wear a poppy onstage.