Laughing at Lembit

So who’d have guessed that an ex Lib Dem MP who writes a column for the Daily Sport and once dated a Cheeky Girl would decide to become a comedian?

Having lost his seat in the recent general election, Lembit Opik, the former Member for Montgomeryshire, made his stand-up debut earlier this week at London’s Backstage Comedy Club. According to reports, his performance was underwhelming, which is perhaps unsurprising. It’s rare for a first open spot to hit the comedy stratosphere, and it’s mildly unfair to have to lose your comic virginity in the glare of the media spotlight. On the other hand, only someone with a pre-existing media rep could secure an open spot at such an established club at such short notice if they had no previous experience – so it swings both ways.

Lembit’s not the first to try and carve a career as a comedian having acquired fame – or infamy – through some other reason. In the early 1990s, for example, John Wayne Bobbit famously had the end of his penis cut off by his wife, and was well known enough to secure a few bookings as a stand-up (as well as pursuing an equally unlikely career in porn).

But the tradition is much older than that. In the late 19th century, Arthur Orton became infamous as ‘the Tichbourne Claimant’, after he had fraudulently claimed to be the long lost heir to a fortune – in spite of bearing no real physical resemblance to the actual heir, Sir Roger Tichbourne, who had been lost a sea some years earlier. Having been released on bail, Orton started making personal appearances in music halls, apparently without much success. In spite of that, he was so well known that he indirectly provided one of the great music hall comedians with his stage name. Kent’s own Harry Relph was only 4’6” tall, and early in his career he thought it would be funny to name himself after the physically huge Arthur Orton. He started calling himself Little Tich, and became internationally famous. So much so, that he gave the world the word ‘titch’, meaning a small person – ironic given Orton’s legendary girth.

So if Lembit sticks with the stand-up, how far is he likely to get? In his favour, he’s always come across rather well on Have I Got News For You, with a nice line in self-deprecating gags. He’s an eccentric, which is normally a good quality for a comedian. Also, political oratory has much in common with stand-up. In both, a single performer directly addresses an audience in the first person (without the mask of character), potentially has to deal with heckles, and seeks to provoke a particular effect. As Max Atkinson pointed out in his magnificent book Our Masters’ Voices, political speeches have little devices (known as ‘claptraps’) built in to elicit applause, the most obvious being a three-part list. Think  ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ or ‘Education, education, education’.  Many jokes work on a similar principle, being structured into a list of three, which Tony Allen has defined as ‘Establish, reinforce, surprise’. Here, the third item of the list cues laughter instead of applause – if you do it right.

Successful comedians project an aspect of their personality when they perform, and it’s the interrelationship of stage persona, audience and material which makes the act work. It can take years to create a stage persona – or to ‘find your voice’ as most comedians would put it – but Lembit’s got a readymade persona. He’s the nutty, Cheeky-Girl-dating ex-MP with the crazy name.

On the tiny snippet of his act that I heard on the Today programme, he didn’t sound nearly as assured as he does on Newsnight or Have I Got News For You. He lacked the quality of ease – or ‘stage repose’, to use the old-fashioned term – which is so charming to watch. What this reveals is how bloody difficult stand-up comedy is. It all looks natural and spontaneous, but there’s a huge amount of skill, artifice and experience that goes into making it look so effortless.

Still, if Lembit sticks with it, he could get to the point where he comes across as his usual affable self whilst in the high pressure situation of a comedy gig. The problem is, what’s he going to talk about when people have got fed up of hearing about being a Lib Dem MP and dating a Cheeky Girl? Do we really want to hear Lembit Opik’s opinion on cats and dogs or the differences between men and women? Perhaps more importantly, will audiences ever let him talk about anything other than being a Lib Dem MP and dating a Cheeky Girl? I can’t imagine audiences would have wanted to hear John Wayne Bobbit talk about anything other than having the tip of his manhood severed by his wife and thrown out of the window of her car (although the are questions they could have asked him, like, ‘Did you really abuse your wife to the point where she would do something like that?’).

There’s a comedy album by Robin Williams, released in the late 1970s, in which somebody heckles him: ‘Do Mork!’ The rest of the audience join in, and he’s left saying something along the lines of, ‘No, I don’t want to do that here’ in a horribly plaintive voice. The fame built by starring in Mork and Mindy must have boosted his stand-up career, but the price he paid was to have idiots shouting that at him.

To his credit, Lembit went beyond the funny name/ ex-MP/ Cheeky Girl dating angles in his first gig. He also did a cod ventriloquism act with someone’s shoe. Maybe that’s the stuff to build a comedy career on and maybe not, but there can’t be too many ex-politicians who have made it to the top as a stand-up.

I certainly can’t imagine him touring thousand-seater venues, putting out a best-selling DVD every Christmas, or even appearing on Live at the Apollo.

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