An ancient Footlight sagely reflects on the artiste’s life after Cambridge
Pondering the other side
I don’t like referring my life’s trajectory back to the moment I left Cambridge, but that is apparently the point at which people like me (irresponsibly over-educated and practically under-skilled) are meant to start ‘climbing the greasy pole’. As I return to Cambridge for the fourth year in a row to perform a comedy show to fewer and fewer friends, and more and more confused strangers, it seems a good time to reflect on the opportunities that present themselves to an alumnus of the “Arts ;(”.
It has been 1,308 days since I graduated. Looking at that number now, I can’t tell if it looks long or short. But the fact that I took the time to calculate it precisely (factoring in the 2016 leap year, of course, and counting the days of individual months out-loud, like some wretched malfunctioning Amazon Alexa), implies that my days are now long beyond reckoning. I tally the days and months as a prisoner on my cell wall, although at least a prisoner has a clear number to count down.
I’m exaggerating, obviously. The reality is never-ending days that pass by in the blink of an eye. Time flies when you’re having fun, but fun dies when you’re having time, or something.
I left as so many do: hopeful, ambitious, anxious, aware of the bubble I’d been in but somehow still shocked when it burst. I had become so comfortable performing to those eternally sold-out, steamingly drunk Footlights Smoker audiences, who would so generously validate me running around with a t-shirt over my head screaming ‘I’m a witch’ (I am grateful, never change).
In the first run of our smoker tour show, we’d placed the chairs too far forward onstage during one of the sketches. In the blackout, I bounded up to clear the chair off and fell off the stage directly into a woman’s lap. She made the sound you might imagine a matron to make when hearing a dirty joke on the wireless. The rest of the audience witnessed a man-bean momentarily disappear from view, heard the bean say ‘shit’ in genuine fear, and then scream an apology to the tune of the 20th century fox theme, which happened to be the blackout music. It’s surely the most people have ever laughed at something I’ve done, or ever will again.
And this is the beauty of a smoker audience; it is all-loving and all-forgiving. I once came onstage (tragically, if memory serves, with some of my kit off again) singing ‘they’re gonna taste great’ – a reference to that horrific Frosties ad circa 2006. We all knew it wasn’t funny, but by this stage it had become a running joke that if someone had an idea that demanded some kind of physical humiliation, ‘Archie would probably do it’. I think my friends were testing the limit of this theory, and much to their enjoyment it emerged that theory had no bound. The sketch – shockingly – died on its arse, which, as in all erudite writing, was also the intended fate of my character at the end of the sketch. The committee had warned me to fall carefully as I had a sharpened pencil pointing directly into each ear. I mocked them disdainfully for their feeble anxieties, and of course proceeded to fall directly onto onto the left pencil which jammed hard into my ear. There was an audible gasp from the audience. For several months afterwards my ear would bleed intermittently. It was so worth it. Because a smoker audience is endlessly generous, supportive, and has a memory so short that by the next week the Frosties-boy incident somehow seemed to have left no scar on their collective conscious.
It was beautiful – almost poetic – to emerge from this into the real world of handing out flyers in Edinburgh with the word ‘Footlights’ on them and meeting the response ‘I don’t find tossers funny’. And I’ll be honest – fair enough. But the disturbing thing about tossers is that they make up a very large portion of people trying to be funny for a living. We’re everywhere. We are emotionally needy and greedy and jealous and mercenary, occasionally-spiteful-although-not-enough-to-be-properly-called out, bitter, self-aware, self-congratulating, self-hating, mildly masochistic. But don’t forget – we’re funny!!! And will do a curayzy dance in our pants in exchange for money.
The anxiety of attempting a much-coveted and infamously improbable career trajectory can be softened by a bunch of funny and kind people doing similar things. I wrote and performed and got pumped on coffee and got drunk and got sad and got GBK with my sketch friends, Two Plus Ones. We did Edinburgh twice, and received a five star review. We also received a two star review, which described us as ‘interminable sketches mildly alleviated by energetic performances’. It is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking to see something you have been thinking about every day for the past year be urinated on beneath the cocked leg of a passing dog. Maybe that was what it deserved? Who knows.
The reality is that our creation was neither world-changing art nor a plaintive dirge at the funeral of comedy. It was slap-bang in the middle. Like, on a good day you might recommend it to a friend. On a bad day, you might avoid eye-contact with the performers on the way out and feel a bit sort of empty at Pizza Paradise afterwards, but you don’t know why.
And so, if you are soon to depart from the comforting nest of friends and books and ancient opulence that became background information many moons ago, I would like to warn you – from my position of profound three-years-later wisdom – that it will all be completely and absolutely fine. And that is a reality more terrifying than you could ever imagine.
Archie is a multi award-winning ex-Footlight performing a new hour of musical comedy at the Corpus Playroom in Week 0.