Don't make me laugh...how I became a comedian at 60

Val Lee on conquering her fears and taking to the stage at 60

I wasn’t looking forward to my birthday. At forty I’d started writing: fiction with a humorous twist. At fifty my first novel The Comedienne was published. And then in what seemed like the mere blink of an eye, along came sixty – with nothing fresh or exciting on the horizon.

A younger friend suggested I enrol on a local comedy course. “You could carve out a new career as a stand-up comedian,” she said

A younger friend suggested I enrol on a local comedy course. “You could carve out a new career as a stand-up comedian,” she said.

“I’m far too old,” was my terse reply.

In the past, going right back to school days, I’ve always been able to make friends laugh.  But there’s a huge divide between producing humorous banter with people you know well, and amusing an audience of strangers who have paid to be entertained. And anyway, who would want to book a sixty-year old novice?

But my younger friend had already paid for the course. “A birthday present,” she said. “Don’t worry. You’ll be hilarious!”

I told myself that ‘age doesn’t matter’ but it did. Maybe not to the other comics, but to me.

Each week eleven would-be comics and me assembled in an art gallery above a shop in my home town of Hastings. By a margin of fifteen to twenty years, I was the oldest person in the room. I told myself that ‘age doesn’t matter’ but it did. Maybe not to the other comics, but to me.

My brand of humour wasn’t contemporary or political or even clever. It was based on small incidents that I found amusing: the window-cleaner I disliked, purely on the grounds that he wore open-toed sandals even in winter, the woman in the corner shop who sighed heavily and raised her eyes ceiling-wards, each time I wished her a bright good morning, my irascible next-door-neighbour always parking his lime-green Fiat with the front wheels on the pavement as if he was fleeing the scene of a crime.

During the week I’d spend hours honing an anecdote that seemed incredibly amusing when recited in front of my bedroom mirror and then I’d arrive at the class. Eventually, the tutor would call out my name. All confidence in my material draining away, I’d take my place behind the microphone and then fail to raise a single laugh.

All confidence in my material draining away, I’d take my place behind the microphone and then fail to raise a single laugh.

I married at nineteen. On the morning of my wedding, my mother said, “If you don’t like it, you can always come home.” I didn’t much like it but I stayed in the marriage for fifteen years. I reasoned that if I could manage that, surely, I could cope with ten weeks of utter failure.

The end-of-course show was held in a cellar bar on the sea front. The room was packed. Our host and compere for the evening was the wonderful comedian Maureen Younger, who runs My Comedy nights in London and throughout the Midlands.

“I guarantee, I won’t be funny,” I told them. “But just clap and then never ever mention this night again”.

In the bar earlier, I’d primed my family and friends who’d come along to support me. “I guarantee, I won’t be funny,” I told them. “But just clap and then never ever mention this night again”.

I took my place with my fellow comics in the room next to the stage.

“Val, you’ll be on after the break,” Maureen called out. “A maximum of ten minutes of comedy please.”

‘someone, anyone, just shoot me now.’

“Fine,” I said. All the time thinking, ‘someone, anyone, just shoot me now.’ The interval arrived and the audience rushed back to the bar –and then carrying drinks, they returned to their seats.

“And a big Hastings’ welcome for the wonderful, Val Lee,” Maureen announced.

People often refer to someone in their life as being their rock. As I walked out onto the stage and into the spotlight. I could see my rocks: family and friends, all of them smiling encouragingly at me. They wanted me to succeed.

Well, I couldn’t let them down, could I?

Somehow, what passed for a ‘routine’ tumbled out of me. I told the audience about my visit to a local hair salon where Michelle, the stylist hadn’t stopped chewing gum over my head.  They nodded. They got that.

Something quite magical was happening. Everyone – not just my supporters – were laughing and the more they laughed the more confident I became.

“I paid one-hundred and ten pounds to look like I’m wearing a badly knitted hat,” I said.

They started to laugh. Yes, my hair did look as if I was wearing a badly knitted hat! Something quite magical was happening. Everyone – not just my supporters – were laughing and the more they laughed the more confident I became. I over-ran my allotted ten minutes but Maureen didn’t mind, in fact she booked me for her London show.

On the strength of that one success I made the decision to become a stand-up comedian, setting myself the task of performing sixty gigs, in a year. Exhausted but triumphant I managed ninety-three. Since then I’ve appeared at the Edinburgh Free Fringe with my one-woman comedy show SHUSH! Afterwards, my brother rang. “You’ve made The Times,” he said.

“Have I?”

“There’s a photo of eighty women comedians. It doesn’t say your name but that doesn’t matter. I just tell everyone you can’t mistake my sister; she looks like a serial killer eying up her victim.”

I’m still first and foremost a writer but making people laugh has now become part of my job description. I’ve travelled all over the United Kingdom, often booked because of my age. My reviews range from Chortle’s scathing ‘her eye for comedy has cataracts – stand-up is not for her!’ to Freaky Trigger’s ‘Her quiet, strong voice commanded the room. We were helpless, in her power completely’.

‘Her quiet, strong voice commanded the room. We were helpless, in her power completely’.

Having been a comedian for over ten years now, my back has broadened. I’ve learnt that self-confidence is key. Without it, the funniest of gags will fall flat. With it, effortlessly you can create a rapport with your audience very similar to the affection you give and receive from those closest to you.  And really, I have that younger friend to thank for believing in me, for giving me the chance to believe in myself.

FUNNILY ENOUGH..

Recently I received a flyer from my local gym. “Let us help YOU achieve that beach perfect body”, it said. But once I have my beach perfect body, what about my head? Won’t that look incongruous ?

I recently split up with my partner. The relationship did have some high points. I remember one weekend when we didn’t leave the bedroom for 14 hours. Every bone in my body ached. However, we did manage to get the fitted wardrobes up in the alcoves.

Each year on my allotment I grow courgettes. You can’t kill a courgette. I don’t mean that it’s too upsetting to kill a courgette like it would be, say, a kitten. It’s just that they thrive whatever you do to them. Trouble is everyone grows them. By the end of summer, it’s easier to shift stolen watches than courgettes.

I used to live in London but now I live in Hastings. It’s a twilight town on the south coast where a woman can claim her right to enjoy carbohydrates and wear elasticated waist bands and wide fitting shoes…or wide fitting waist bands and elasticated shoes.

I’ve learnt that on dating sites,  it’s best not to say: ‘I’m a fun person’. If a long-term relationship develops, this will be thrown back at you during any future disagreement as in: “You’re about as much fun as a plate of congealed porridge.”

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