Oscar Wilde famously gave one of his characters the line that "the only thing in the world worse than being talked about is not being talked about". What if the only thing worse than being laughed at was not being laughed at? That's the prospect I faced when, in a moment of madness, or perhaps in an attempt to stave off the onset of senile dementia, I signed up to do a spot as a stand-up comedian.
I was belatedly accepting a challenge issued more than 20 years ago by Paul Horan, one of the prime movers in the establishment of the Classic Comedy Club, just up from the Town Hall in Queen St. Horan and some other very funny men spoke to me for a piece I was writing about the establishment of a stand-up scene in Auckland, at a Freemans Bay pub then called Kitty O'Briens. Perhaps I made a remark that made him laugh. In any case, he urged me to have a go at the open mike sessions they were calling Rookies' Night.
I baulked, of course, but every time our paths crossed, he raised an eyebrow in inquiry. I responded by closely studying my shoes. Eventually, he was kind enough to go and live in Melbourne and the pressure was off.
But the idea kept tugging at my sleeve and at last, shortly before Christmas, I took the plunge, emailing Scott Blanks, who runs the Classic, asking for a slot on one of the Monday evening bills, which are now called Raw. Given a date, I had a deadline. I had to deliver six minutes of original material. And I had to hope like hell it was funny.
Dying is easy; comedy is hard. So runs a standard quip among performers, to the extent that the word "dying" is the go-to metaphor for lamenting a performance that falls flat, as in, "I died out there."
For many people, the fear of public speaking is more crippling than fear of flying, snakes and spiders. I had never had any difficulty addressing a crowded room, but I was under no illusion that comedy was a challenge of a different order, even if the audiences at Raw nights are under strict instructions to be kind to us.
I obsessively watched comedy clips on YouTube, not to gather material, but to study technique. Good comedians pursue an idea beyond its logical end but the best ones know when to let it go. A line of patter might glancingly refer to an earlier joke, so a comic can clip the ticket twice. Self-deprecation is standard practice. Breathing in and out and taking your time, pausing as Novak Djokovic seems to just before hitting a tennis ball, is a way to avoid panic-stricken gabbling.
But the biggest difficulty was in getting the style of writing just right. I knew that the best, most effortless comedy is the fruit of hard work. It's written and rewritten until everything inessential has been pared away. But, in contrast to the humorist, the comic has to craft everything in short, pithy utterances that – here's the hard bit – sound as if they are concocted off the cuff, but have none of the hesitations and stutters that characterise everyday speech.
Meanwhile, the perspective must be specific and personal. Imagined situations have to become lived experiences, so a segment about, say, parking wardens has to involve you getting a ticket, even if you didn't.
I write and rewrite. I memorise, say it out loud with a stopwatch ticking. I rewrite and rewrite again.
Melanie Bracewell: 'You keep dying over and over again'
Comedy series without a script coming to TVNZ OnDemand
Half an hour before the doors open at the Classic we first-timers are shown the ropes: we're shown how to detach the microphone from the stand and set it to one side (it forms a barrier between performer and audience, they say); we're told a red light will flash on the back wall when our time is up (as if we might be hungering for an extra half-hour); we are taken to the backstage waiting area, grandly called the green room, which is grubbier than the student flats of my salad days. As the clock ticks towards 8pm, I wish I hadn't given up drinking: a stiff double would go down just fine right now.
Sitting in the green room, I realise I am older than any two or even three others combined. And I have assumed the power that so many women over 40 talk about: I have become invisible. The other Raw recruits chatter excitedly, testing lines out on each other. I am like a stain on the furniture: no one knows where I came from or wants to sit next to me, and everyone thinks the most polite thing to do is pretend I'm not there. I decide there's material here for a second show. Assuming there is a second show.
I feel dejected and alone, wondering if there is a back door I can escape through (there isn't). My mood is not helped by the fact that, when I arrived, I was told I was not on the list, until I scanned it and saw the name "Peter Colada". As stage names go, it's not a bad one, I decide. If it all turns to custard, I can deny ever having been there. I tell them to stick with it.
Then, suddenly, I am in the spotlight, seized by that feeling you have just before a car crash, when you realise that what is happening is inevitable and you wonder dimly whether you are going to make it out alive.
Hefting the mike stand out of the way, I get my feet tangled in the cord and the second or two that it takes to extricate myself seems like a month. I miss the chance to make fun of it with a one-liner ("Did anyone order a python?" or "Well, that just about wraps it up for me") and stumble through an old joke about Canadians, because the performer before me was Canadian. ("An American asks a Canadian, 'Why do Canadians get so upset when people think they're American?' And the Canadian replies, 'That's why.'") As an opening line, it's far too obscure, though the two audience members who get it laugh like drains.
The seven minutes and 48 seconds that follow (I narrowly escape the eight-minute red light) are a traverse of the learning curve at the speed of sound. Some of my best lines are greeted with silence; introductory sentences not intended to be funny (my theme is the perils of ageing and I begin with the line "my name's Peter and I'm dying") bring the house down.
Time telescopes and before I know it, I'm walking off as what sounds vaguely like applause fills the room. I didn't take the city by storm but I didn't die either. And, call me crazy, but I feel the way I did after my first parachute jump: I know I have to do this again.