In late 2004 I started using a small dictaphone to record my stand-up routine. To monitor where laughs were coming in my material.
Ok, not laughs. Strained muffled pitiful groans.
One evening I performed a spot at The Comedy Hovel. Later when I got home, I did what I always did. Grabbed a beer from the fridge. Locked myself in the bathroom. Assumed a foetal position under the sink. Cried for ten minutes. Composed myself. Played back the tape.
The aural torture this particular night was more excruciating than usual. I heard coughing and sighing (me), polite slightly confused murmurings (them), persistent low hum (fridge behind the bar), intermittent barking (guide dog of audience member) and finally, some snoring (them again or was it me)? Things had gotten so bad at this stage I couldn’t honestly remember.
However this gig was also interspersed with comments from somebody sitting next to the dictaphone.
That somebody was Jason Best.
Hotshot young comedian Best, booked to close the evening, hadn’t noticed the dictaphone placed side-stage earlier and had begun whispering comments about my routine.
A litany of stinging negative criticisms climaxed finally with a solemn declaration -‘Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse comedian in the whole of my professional existence.’
The whole of his professional existence? Jason Best was nineteen years old!
And in my view, represented all that was going wrong with stand-up comedy in the early years of the twenty-first century. Jogging on stage in a tee-shirt, torn jeans and trainers with his boy band front man smile. How could anyone who was nineteen do a comedy routine? How could anyone that good-looking do a comedy routine? I’d always thought comedy was about being an ugly outsider.
(I was signing on when I started off in comedy so I had to come up with a stage name. It just came to me in a dream – a very bad dream.)
I cursed Jason Best and vowed to take him down.
The following week I was at a gig outside of town. Circuit veteran Harvey Fogerty’s act was being continuously interrupted by a loud heckler. Harvey hated hecklers – spent his non-gigging hours stalking and verbally abusing former hecklers at their places of work – and was having enormous difficulties with this heckler. That’s when I came up with an idea. How about hiring this heckler to go to Jason Best’s hugely anticipated high profile gig the following week.
I tracked the heckler down after the gig. Harvey Fogerty had him in a chokehold in a side alley outside. I intervened.
‘Harvey, leave it. Heckling’s part of the game.’
Harvey muttered something under his breath and went back inside.
I looked at the heckler. Round guy. Goatee. Red face. His name was Rob.
‘I caught your heckling in there. I liked what I heard.’
He was chuffed.
‘Thanks dude. Which bit in particular.’
‘ ‘Get off the stage you unfunny cunt’. I like the hard-core stuff. I’m a traditionalist.’
‘I don’t know. I felt that was a bit predictable. I like to vary it. Try to be original. Sometimes I just go ‘Warum?’’
‘It’s German for why. I call them my Zen heckles. It confuses the fuck out of some comedians. And there are so many crap ones.’
I nodded. Rob sighed and looked up at the sky.
‘Imagine a world with no blow jobs.’
Puzzled, I looked at him. He went on, ‘80% of stand-up comedians would have nothing to talk about. It would almost be a price worth paying.’
‘Comedians. Nothing but amplified needy people thirsting for affirmation from pissed idiots who spend their lives laughing at totally unoriginal observations – ‘toenails, what’s that all about?’ – is that funny’?
Yikes. Rob had caught my act. That was one of my ones. Thankfully, he hadn’t placed me yet. Attempting to abort him mid-rant I moved the conversation on.
‘Would you like to make some money?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ll pay you some cash to go to Jason Best’s gig next week at The Tee-Hee-Hee Club and heckle the bejaysus out of him.’
‘Maybe I should go into business. Get cards made up. Heckler for Hire.’
It was two days before Best’s gig. I thought things over. Maybe I had over-reacted. So what if the Best kid thought my act was rubbish. My act was rubbish.
I decided to ring Rob and cancel things.
‘Listen, Rob, I’ve had a change of heart. No matter how much you despise him it’s kind of unethical to try and ruin a comedians’ act. And illegal. Pre-meditated heckles are considered sedition, I read somewhere. Sorry for wasting your time.’
Rob cleared his throat.
‘I wasn’t going to heckle him anyway. He offered me 120 euro not to heckle him but to heckle you instead, next time you perform. I thought you looked sort of familiar.’
There was a pause.
‘Was it you who did that piece of unfunny shit about toenails? ‘
I became flummoxed and enraged. Temporary legal rational forgiving me was history.
‘Rob, you know what, heckling is too good for Jason Best. I want you to maim him. That cheesy-grin Timberlake face of his needs disfiguring. Immediately. Have you any friends …in that area…Rob?’
“Maybe one or two. Oh, one more thing. He says, frankly, he doesn’t think he’s ever seen a worse comedian than you in the whole of his professional existence.’
Enter illegal completely irrational unforgiving me.
‘You know what Rob. If you are going to go to the trouble of maiming him you might as well kill him. 800 euro Rob?’
After buying some new batteries for the dictaphone, checking my bank balance and contemplating how completely unsuited I would be to a modern day real-life recreation of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, I called Rob again.
‘Rob – that murder thing, forget it – I’ll top his 120, I’ll make it 150 euro just to heckle him. Are we clear on this, Rob? No homicide. Just heckle.’
The night of the gig I paid Rob fifty euro up front so he could have a few beers and get in the mood. I only had one instruction.
‘No warum. Stick to the classics.’
But when Jason walked on and began his act something came over Rob. He was silent. Almost child-like. Think 1858. Lourdes. Apparition time all over again. But no heavenly music in the background. Just monster laughs. Rob was simply in awe of the ‘precocious, awesome, fierce comedic brilliance – The Irish Times’ of Jason Best and became convulsed with helpless laughter. He laughed so much he forgot he had to heckle. I reproached him.
‘Rob, some heckling please!’
Post-paroxysm Rob failed to stop his sides splitting. He was literally in pain. But happy pain.
I persisted with my request.
‘Rob, some ‘fuck off you unfunny cunts’ please. I’m paying you for some ‘fuck off you unfunny cunts’’!
‘I’m sorry dude, this guy is – forgive the cliché – a comic genius!’
The crowd erupted at another one-liner. Rob looked at me.
‘My brain is incapable of constructing a heckle in the presence of Jason Best. I just can’t stop guffawing violently!’
Rob guffawed violently. On-stage Jason wiped some sweat from his brow. And went on with the show. In fact, he stayed on for three extra hours.
How much laughter can humanity take?
At the end of the night Rob approached me.
‘Jeez, I’m exhausted.’
He shook his head in wonder.
‘Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better comedian in the whole of your professional existence.’
Later that year Jason Best became a huge star. As for me, one night while wiping away some tears in my bathroom, I accidentally dropped the dictaphone down my toilet.