‘You must be very brave.’
I’ve been a stand-up comedian now for about 15 years and I’ve long since lost track of how many times somebody has said that to me. It’s one of the four responses that comics get when people find out what you do for a living. It’s by no means the worst; for example, my heart sinks when a sentence starts with ‘I’ve got one for ye…’ – not least because invariably what follows is tremendously offensive to someone’s race/gender/disability/sexuality or occasionally, all of the above. You’re more often than not left with the choice of fake laughing along and dying a little inside or sticking to your morals and risking a slap in the chops.
That risk aside, there really isn’t much bravery involved. It’s just talking nonsense to people and, with the noticeably exception of one gig I did in the Philippines, those people aren’t armed.
Doctors, nurses, soldiers, firepersons, police – basically anyone who has a job whose uniform can also be used by a stripper, they all have to be considerably more brave than we do on a daily basis. So do strippers come to that. (side-note: I once did a gig in which there were male strippers in the dressing room beside ours, those poor boys had the soul-crushed thousand-yard-stares of Vietnam vets. Forget Magic Mike, the reality is a lot more Tragic Terry.)
Another one on that list is ‘have you been on TV?’ People then do this face when you explain that you haven’t been. I then have to explain to that face my other job. You see ‘I’ haven’t been on TV but I’ve got rounds of applause on Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week. As well as being a stand-up, I’m one of those even rarer beasts; a TV comedy writer. Odder still – I’ve also written a whole load of kid’s television. If you look closely, you’ll notice my name on about an hour of CBBC output most days. I get a kick out of all writing, whether it’s sweating over a one-line zinger that sums up Brexit or figuring out how a tiny blue bear with a limited vocab can cope with an apartment flooding with custard.
The only downside of TV writing is that you’re never in control of it. Even when I’ve worked on sitcoms, producers, broadcasters, and once – and I wish I was making this up – the guy who answers the phones, they all get to have a say. In hindsight, maybe this was what pushed me to write a novel. Who doesn’t like the idea of having total control? Even the phone-answering guy likes that and he didn’t like much.
So I wrote a novel. Actually what I did was I wrote lots of short stories as logically, I figured that’d be a sensible place to start. Rome wasn’t built in a day and presumably the novel of the same name wasn’t either. One of those short stories was about a guy who visited elderly residents in hospital and just played along with whoever they thought he was in an effort to keep the patient happy. It was a nice idea that lacked an inciting incident. I was about to give it up when a thought struck me – what if one of the patients attempted to kill whoever they thought that fella was? This sparked a whole load of questions and in an effort to answer them, A Man with One of Those Faces was born. I’m proud of it. In fact, I’m more proud of it than anything I’ve ever done.
I didn’t know it at the time but I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d written a crime thriller set in my hometown of Dublin that, seeing as it was written by me, has a fair bit of comedy in it. Comedy and crime do not go together. Never, ever. No way, no how. Upon reading that blanket statement, names like Christopher Brookmyre, Carl Hiassen and Colin Bateman might pop into your head to refute it – well shush, you’re wrong. How I know this is, I did what I was supposed to, and wrote letters to every literary agency in Britain, which is where I live. Most of them came back with a hard and fast no as soon as they’d spied the words crime and comedy appearing within three paragraphs of each other. I even tried taking the word comedy out of everything but they could clearly smell it off me. As far as I could tell, none of these agents had actually read any of the novel. They were that certain. A couple of agents had it recommended to them by a well-respected author and they read it. The first agent absolutely loved the sample. I mean so much so that when he had to pass on it because it contained comedy and crime, he did it with as much discomfort as if he’d been passing a kidney stone. Honestly, I felt sorry for the poor fella by the end.
The other agent rejected it with more ease. This time, because it was “too funny and too Irish”. Now that was a new twist. I knew people hated comedy with a passion but the Irish now too? Surely not everyone in those big parades they hold all around the world in March is doing it ironically?
It was at this point, I was getting disheartened and my English wife was getting really annoyed. Refreshingly, it wasn’t me she was annoyed at.
‘Right, what was it exactly that guy said again?’
‘Too funny and too Irish.’
‘Brilliant. We’re going to take that sentence, replace the word “too” with the word “very” and we’ve got our sales pitch. We’re publishing this book ourselves.’
‘Ah hon, I don’t want to self-publish.’
‘We’re not self-publishing, for a start – there’s two of us.’
And she was right. Publishing is just one of the many activities I’ve discovered are much more fun to do with the wife than on my own. Don’t get me wrong, people still do the face. The ‘you’re self-publishing?’ face is the exact same as the ‘you’ve not been on TV face’.
Here’s a couple of facts. My book has been edited by one of the best editors in British publishing, a gent called Scott Pack. He’s a lovely man who has also started cheerleading for the book in a manner I’m pretty sure isn’t in the job description. An award-winning designer has done the book’s cover; I know that as the award was won for our book’s cover. If I come across as a tad defensive pointing this stuff out, it is because I am. Being written off from the get-go does kind of get your back up. Remember that whole pride thing? I did warn you.
So, to bring you back to where all this started, being ‘very brave’. On August 30th, I turned 41, which isn’t relevant, and I did a stand-up gig in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, which is. You might well wonder how I could fill that room. The answer is I didn’t, Sarah Millican did. I was lucky enough to be supporting her. That’s the final response you get from people when they find out you’re a stand-up ‘do you know…’ In answer to that – yeah, most professional comics know most other professional comics, at least to say hello to. I’m lucky enough to be one of the people who gets the joy of supporting Sarah on tour. She likes the company; she certainly doesn’t need the help. She is the most hard-working and supportive person I’ve ever met. So much so, she insisted that I bring along a box of my soon-to-be-published books to sell in the show’s interval. It’d seemed like a good idea right upon until the day of the gig. On the day itself I think we all got a bit nervous. I felt like a plank carrying my box of 22 books in from the car. Sarah gave an encouraging “I’m sure people will buy a couple” speech in the dressing room. Barry the lovely tour manager reckoned it’d go brilliantly. That’s tour managers for you, 90% of the job is being able to say everything is fine in a convincing manner when it quite clearly isn’t.
I did my set, which went OK, then I gave my fairly garbled sales-pitch about how I’d written a novel and I’d be standing outside in the interval if anybody wanted to buy one. I then brought on Sarah who proceeded to rock the house as only she can. I know that because ten minutes before the interval, I was standing outside in the lobby, with my pile of books and my sharpie clutched in my sweaty hand, listening to the steady stream of roars of laughter and rounds of applause. I was also considerably more terrified that I’d ever been on stage. These people had seen me do comedy and I’d told them the book was crime, they were going to put two and two together. Everybody hates that combination. I had the letters from agents to prove it.
I bloody love this book and I wasn’t going to be able to look at it, as people streamed by with awkward nods and fleeting eye contact. I started to feel like I’d somehow let the book down. It’d be like the awkward morning after a one-night stand. The audience and I had enjoyed that 15 minutes of verbal rumpy-pumpy but nobody was ready for the long-term commitment of a book.
I was stood beside the merchandise stand, which was being manned by the lovely Sean. Right then I hated him with a passion. There he was with his entirely relaxed demeanour, his tour programmes and his selection of humorous tea towels. Of course he looked relaxed, the only problem the stand has had on the 200 dates of the tour is managing the queues. People love tea towels, why hadn’t I thought of that? I’d brought a work of comedic crime fiction to a tea towel fight.
As the doors opened I was all set to bolt when Sean pipped up, “Merchandise over here or buy a signed copy of Caimh’s book over there.” What a prick! I stood there with a rigamortis smile on my face and a pair of nervous underpants that must’ve been fearing the worst.
Then something unexpected happened. A woman came up and bought a book. She asked me to sign it and I nervously did so while answering her questions. She first asked was it funny? I begrudgingly said yes. I’d already started the inscription. I should’ve asked for the money up-front. Rookie mistake. She then told me how delighted she was as she loved crime fiction but it was always so serious. How come there weren’t any funny ones? I then gave her some excited recommendations from the Chris Brookmyre back catalogue and she took a picture of the three of us, me, her and the book. Pic finished, I put the book back on the pile and she reminded me she had paid for it and it was hers now. Embarrassed, I gave it to her and sent it off out into the world. Only then, did I notice the queue. I double-checked to make sure I wasn’t mistakenly blocking the toilet or standing beside a pile of tea towels.
I turned up in the dressing room ten minutes later. Sarah and Barry looked worried, I’d not even made it all the way through the interval.
Sold out! Every copy. I even took back and sold the book I’d given to Sean. I could’ve sold a load more too. People were genuinely annoyed that they couldn’t get one. The wife would be livid when she heard that.
Still though, inexplicably people had bought the book. They’d known that I’d combined crime with judiciously applied comedy and they were fine with it. Clearly, none of these people would ever make it as literary agents.
When I first asked for a guest post from Caimh McDonnell, I hadn’t read the book and to be honest, wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When this brilliant post arrived I was over 80% through the book and well past the ‘Does comedy and crime go together question’ and concluded that this excellent piece should be read before I post my review, which will be coming very soon!
In the meantime if you want to know more visit Caimh’s blog here
Thank you Caimh for an entertaining post and I wish you continued success with a book which will show all those literary agents that they are not always right!
About the Author
Caimh McDonnell is an award-winning stand-up comedian, author and writer of televisual treats.
His writing credits include The Sarah Millican Television Programme, A League of Their Own, Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You. He also works as a children’s TV writer and was BAFTA nominated for the animated series Pet Squad which he created. He was also a winner in the BBC’s Northern Laffs sitcom writing competition.
During his time on the British stand-up circuit, Caimh has firmly established himself as the white-haired Irishman whose name nobody can pronounce. He has brought the funny worldwide, doing stand-up tours of the Far East, the Middle East and Near East (Norwich).
His debut novel, A Man with One of Those Faces, is out now.