The life of a touring comedian is a uniquely pressured and privileged thing; to have tickets bearing your name bought by people who hand to you an evening of their lives, and ask you to fill it with laughter: Hwoo. I have worked and toured with comedians. I should have remembered that to ask them anything when they’re nearing the end of a tour is as likely to invoke a torrent of existential woe as it is a massive yawn. It is certainly naive to whimsically ask them what life is ‘all about’ as an opening gambit.
Al Murray, creator and purveyor of quality pub landlord alter-ego of the same name, gamely replied to my blithe tone, (no doubt as annoying as finding a skidmark in your hotel bed): “What’s what all about? I barely know what day it is any more – we’ve been touring since this time last year pretty much and I feel like I’m living in a great big rolling present with no end in sight. And what’s that all about?”
I thought of other comedians who – though they know they are lucky to be doing it at all – after a long stretch on the road, with homogenised hotels and the quiet inner-mania that comes with hundreds of people expecting you to be at your best every night, inevitably reach the stage when they just want to go home and sleep in their own bed.
I asked Al what helps.
“Good food. And the fact that the audiences are nice: it remains an ongoing daily surprise that people want to come and see me.”
Even after years of playing to packed houses, a state of refreshed disbelief characterises most working comedians. Beneath the skill and success is always the novice receiving his first laugh. (Unless you turn into a total nob. And lordy there’s a few of those about too.)
What does a comedian do at the end of a long tour, once ensconced in the comforts of home? Sleep? Scratch his balls? Al, it would seem, attempted slothdom but failed miserably.
“I’d given myself six weeks off at the start of last year, fully intending to do nothing at all after a year on the road, and a couple of days in I got bored, sat down and started writing some of the ideas that then turned into the book. I got about 35,000 words done, took it to a publisher who then – horror of horrors – wanted me to actually finish the damned thing. Writing is hard because unlike stand up you can’t tweak it night after night, you have to sign off on it and watch it go out into the world to haunt you. Or worse still be completely ignored.”
I doubted it would be ignored, but wondered if success in other realms was a blessing or a curse in a comedian’s literary sidestep.
“It opens doors, but also warps expectation of how a book might perform. But as this book is written from my point of view, not the Pub Landlord’s (like the last 3 books) it at least has the advantage of novelty.”
I pictured Al daintily tapping away at some high spec Apple product, and then – thinking of another writer in his family – imagined it, like a romantic wanker, all falling away into black and white – the screen replaced by quill and ink, as writers of yore would have been tasked to write their tomes. I nudged him to divulge.
“You mean the Thackeray thing: he’s my great great great grandfather. As a youngster all that did was guarantee that I wasn’t going to read his books, which is a shame as Vanity Fair is brilliant. But I never felt a weight of expectation or anything.”
Not many people can boast – nor lament in moments of reduced self-assurance – names of great note in their lineage. Al is neither abashed nor bolstered by it. Even with literary and military history peppering his family, and his own success, he almost swats it away. A reductive instinct perhaps further micro-evidenced by reducing his full name to Al, about as short and fuss-free a name as you can get without being called ‘Oi’. I asked him what’s in a name, if anything.
“I love the idea of nominative determinism – that your name somehow sets your fate. And there can’t be that many plumbers called Tarquin.”
I pondered. Nope. Never had my pipes tended by a Tarquin.
Knowing there must be some level of choice in a constant circuitous touring of the nation’s larger venues, I asked Al what made him keep coming back to Southend.
“The Cliffs is a rarity for doing stand up – it’s a big room where you can hold everyone’s attention. Southend crowds are no-nonsense and one night there was a bloke at the front whose name was Cliff. What else could you ask for?”
Al will be playing the Cliffs Pavilion with his new show The Only Way Is Epic on Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th June. His book – a memoir about his love of history – will be out in the autumn.