Friday, 22 April 2016

Victoria Wood Killed the Ghost of my Relationship

I tried to do a drawing of Victoria but it was offensively bad.
I was bullied growing up. I needn't go into detail at this point, but I had a rough time in childhood. I got given lots of advice on how to cope, but the one I latched onto is, "If they start to laugh, then you should laugh too. Then they're not laughing at you, they're laughing with you." It wasn't always easy, or indeed possible, but I learned to laugh loud enough to drown out their spite. I started to make self-deprecating jokes before they could do it. I became complicit.

When I was in my late teens I had a boyfriend who did stand-up comedy. Throughout our relationship I went with him to numerous gigs and sat dutifully in the audience making sure to laugh at his jokes, whether or not I found them funny (though, to his credit, most of them were). I even forced a giggle at the jokes that were at his own expense and actually made me slightly uncomfortable, like an anecdote which claimed his ex had compared sex with him to being “repeatedly slapped with a pillowcase full of jelly”. I’ll respectfully decline to corroborate this comparison.

Like most people who go to enough amateur stand-up nights, I started to think “maybe I can do this”. My boyfriend thought I was funny, my friends thought I was funny. In fact it was in my first year of uni that I discovered that my no-filter, off-kilter way of talking was actually interesting, or at least amusing, to the people around me. After  a childhood of feeling like an irreversible freak, I realised that I could make people laugh, and that was empowering. Rather than using my flippant self-criticism as a form of defence from my enemies, it became a way to entertain, and sometimes shock, my friends. The more I watched aspiring comedians bumble their clumsy ways through their first gigs, the more I thought that I could give it a go myself some time.

Eventually I broached the subject with my then-boyfriend, suggesting that I wanted to try a mix of stand-up and comedy songs, hoping for some pearls of wisdom, or at least a pep talk. I can’t remember exactly what he said word-for-word but it more or less amounted to “people won’t laugh as much because you’re a girl, and that’ll distract them from the jokes, you’ll need to be twice as funny just to catch up.”

Ah, little baby feminist, Elena. You should have left him there and then. Instead I let his sexist, horseshit statement put me off even attempting stand up for at least a year after he said it.
In that year, he and I broke up anyway. His pre-graduation crisis and my depression became more than our fledgling relationship could handle and by the summer I was single again. My heart was quite badly bruised and it messed with me for months afterwards. Like many post-breakup-humans I felt haunted by the ghost of my failed relationship.

What didn’t remotely help is that shortly after the relationship was officially dead, I almost died too. My lungs were evidently jealous of all the attention my broken heart was getting, so they decided to break too. Not content with having one thing wrong with them at a time, I had suspected blood clots on both (which meant self-injecting with blood thinners, which sucked) as well as pleurisy (where your lung lining is inflamed, causing laboured, painful breathing when your lungs rub on the lining), pleural effusions (where the lung cavity fills with fluid, which is also bloody painful and affects your breathing) and, long term, pleural adhesions on my left lung (where the lung tissue sticks together and gets scarred.) In the diagnosing process the doctors also mentioned scary diagnoses like pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer. It was a very bad time.

Once I was out of the hospital, whacked out on two types of heavy painkillers, I was pretty much just a human beanbag for a few weeks while I recovered. While I was propped up in the living room I did weeks of channel surfing, tiring quickly of the constant repeats on E4 and endless episodes of Friends. This was a pre-Netflix era for me, and I got sick of my usual channels really quickly. One day, too tired to change the channel, and vaguely recognising the name from videos my parents had, I struck up re-runs of Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV. 

It didn't take long before I was hooked. Here were some of the great actresses like Julie Walters and Celia Imrie who I recognised from Harry Potter and Bridget Jones, starring gamely alongside this warm, hilarious woman who could make me laugh while she pulled at my heartstrings. Her astute, observant, bittersweet brand of comedy was not only something that made me laugh, it was also reflective of the kind of jokes I wanted to write and had been assured wouldn't be funny. I watched as Victoria Wood put live audiences in stitches with musical comedy, which I had been told wouldn't be accepted. My body was all bent out of shape and I still felt betrayed and heartbroken, but suddenly my faith in my ability to overcome adversity with humour was restored.

There are, of course, other comedians of all genders who have gladdened and inspired me along the way. I quote Shappi Khorsandi on a near-daily basis, and I still have a huge crush on Mae Martin after I saw her at a gig the comedian boyfriend did a slot at. Probably my earliest and most enduring experience with comedy was cassette tapes of Rowan Atkinson, Live in Belfast which I can recite word-for-word.

By my third year of uni I'd been gigging regularly as a singer/guitarist for almost two and a half years, and when a gig at one of the student bar started going terribly due to technical issues, I took the opportunity to joke away the awkwardness. When the microphone stand continually collapsed I quipped, "See, I've been single so long that even inanimate object don't want to be that close to my mouth." People laughed. They laughed quite a lot. At the end of the gig someone asked if they could book me to do a stand-up slot at a benefit for Amnesty International. I seized the moment and agreed, and when I got home that night I wrote my set, including four new songs, in about two hours. I was pumped.

I can't remember my first gig too clearly. I was nervous as all hell and I'd been to enough amateur comedy nights to have an acute fear of the pin-drop silence that follows every bombed punchline. I downed a few whiskeys and took to the stage with my trusty uke, and sang songs about bisexuality, hangovers, self-doubt and the inevitability of drunkenly snogging a bellend on SU nights. To my relief, people laughed. They laughed hard. In fact the girl who had booked me cried with laughter. I was flying.

I did a few gigs, all fairly successful, but once uni was over I lost steam. I was too poor to travel to venues to continue on my streak and eventually depression took over again and I lost motivation for simple things like eating and other basic self-care, let alone schlepping into London for gigs. But that almost wasn't important any more.

My short-lived comedy career was fun. It was empowering. And, ultimately, it proved my ex wrong. I couldn't stop him falling out of love with me, or writing about me on his blog. But I could make a room full of strangers laugh. And that felt way, way better.
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