It’s been almost 250 years since William Blake saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars” on Peckham Rye, and almost 18 hours since Heather Stevens accidentally interrupted some doggers.
I’ve worked in comedy for over a year and a half now and I can’t decide whether my favourite part is writing jokes, rewriting jokes or crying myself to sleep cradling a whisky bottle. Going into the comedy industry and expecting to stay of sound mind is like aggressively jumping on a landmine and expecting to stay of sound leg.
I don’t really know how this happened, much like everything else that has ever happened. When I was at school, my friend Tom used to tell me that he could see me ending up as a comedian, but I think he probably said it in the same way that you might shout to your friend that you think they should become a professional chef over the noise of all of their dinner guests vomiting and suffering from sudden and explosive diarrhoea. Tom also said to me, in biology class one time: “Heather is the perfect name for you, because heather is a rough and abrasive shrub and you have a rough and abrasive personality,” which is where my “AbrasiveShrub” moniker is stolen from. I have never had an original thought.
I am not a comedian. I work for a comedian. I work for Lewis Schaffer. I don’t really have a job title. Lewis tends to refer to me as “assistant”, “writer” or “atrocious example of a human being” depending on how terrible I’m being at my job, and most of the time I’m pretty terrible.
In December I ran into my friend Alom at another friend’s birthday party and told him that I worked for a comedian. A few months later, Lewis’s twice-weekly Free until Famous show that he’d been doing at the same place for several years moved to a new venue, and since I was going to be at the show to record it anyway I offered to stand outside the old venue beforehand to catch anyone that went there by mistake. It started raining, so I was standing outside this dubious-looking karaoke bar wearing a massively oversized green t-shirt with the words “FREE COMEDY” emblazoned on the front, holding some soggy flyers and looking very damp and vaguely homeless when Alom walked past and awkwardly said hello and now he thinks I said “I work for a comedian” in the same way that someone that cleans the offices might say “I work for Google”.
Some of the things I have to do are so straightforward that I will say, with uncharacteristic confidence and hubris, that I’m moderately okay at them: making sure emails are replied to, submitting dates to press and listings sites, recording and transcribing parts of the live shows, editing material, booking transport to and from gigs, avoiding diary clashes, registering for Edinburgh Fringe, helping put together material for this year’s show at Edinburgh Fringe, telling people reading my blog that they should buy tickets for this year’s show at Edinburgh Fringe, making sure posters and flyers are designed, doing a frickin’ parade, helping write press releases. A press release we wrote a couple of weeks ago was described as “nothing short of genius” in this week’s Independent on Sunday, which will go on my Edinburgh Fringe poster when I do my one-woman show about spending my twenties doing menial tasks for the most successful failed comedian in London in exchange for room and board, next to Charmian Hughes‘s description of me as “au pair for Lewis Schaffer’s career”.
Then there’s writing jokes for Lewis’s weekly live radio show on Resonance FM, which I am unfailingly awful at. Most of this blog post has sat in my drafts folder since March. I am really bad at submitting things that I know aren’t good enough, which is the vast majority of what I produce. That is not compatible with live radio, because there’s a very clear and immovable deadline every week. At that point, everything has to be handed in regardless of whether I think it’s good enough or not, which makes every show an absolute ordeal for me. But it’s probably helped me, because if I hadn’t learnt to accept that if all I have is absolute dross then I’m going to have to submit absolute dross, this blog post would have stayed in my drafts folder for another four months.
If I were better at it, and if it were more lucrative, this would basically be my dream job. I work for an amazing person and I get to do some amazing things and find myself in preposterous situations. In January Lewis did a show with Jerry Sadowitz, George Galloway and Richard Dawkins and I ended up getting a free lunch with them. Conversation highlight:
Me: What’s that stuff in the crab shell?
Richard Dawkins: It is crab.
Afterwards I was standing downstairs and a stranger handed me his cloakroom ticket and told me to fetch his hat.
And last month Zach Galifianakis came to see Lewis’s show at the Leicester Square Theatre, and it was amazing to see a global comedy megastar still find time to support live stand-up by performing for Zach Galifianakis.
Because I work for a comedian, a lot of people ask me whether I want to end up on the stage too. The answer is always no, because I am incapable of making eye contact and adequate conversation with one person, let alone plural person. I have been running Oxford Skeptics in the Pub for over two years now, and have still failed to introduce any of the speakers because I am debilitatingly shy. Which is why when I was asked if I would co-host Winchester Science Festival on Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th July with Neil Denny of Little Atoms fame, I said yes.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. I initially said no but was berated by my friends. Also, as soon as I’d turned it down I felt like I’d done something stupid, because it was such a ludicrous thing for someone like me to be invited to do that it seemed unlikely I’d have a similar opportunity again. I don’t understand why I’ve been asked to do it. I’ve been to Winchester Science Festival every year, and every year it is absolutely wonderful, and every year the line-ups are consistently brilliant, and every year there is literally no point where a 23-year-old has a nervous breakdown on stage, which might be what the organisers felt like they’d been missing.
When I did eventually say yes, my intention was to introduce every speaker at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub between then and now so that I’d at least have some limited experience of doing words at people by the time the festival came around. But every month I’d get to the pub and every month I’d lose my nerve. It’s hard to explain the level of fear that the prospect of talking to a crowd draws from me, because I even get anxious every time I go out and see people that I know. There aren’t even three days left between now and the festival and I don’t know what to do because I genuinely can’t see any way that I’m going to pull it off and even if I make it to the stage I’m probably just going to go on fire.
Luckily for you guys, Neil Denny is brilliant and an actual proper professional doer of things, and so is Simon Watt, who is hosting the talks on Friday 25th, so the festival is still going to be amazing. Friday’s day tickets are sold out, but there’s a bunch of free stuff going on, and there are some day tickets left for Saturday and Sunday, and you should buy them because the line-up is fantastic – speakers like Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Helen Czerski and Lucy Rogers – and there’s a chance that you will also get to see me go on fire.
I have to go and prepare now by spending the next three days curling into a ball and crying.