Remember that weird period a few years back when whole sections of major bookshops were devoted to incredibly bleak memoirs? Racks and racks of the grim, similar-looking things. Baffling. Now is definitely not the time for such depressing tales. Now is the time for pun fun.
Cue Gary Delaney, long-time gag-writer to the stars and now earning the requisite recognition for his almost superhuman power with punchlines. After several well-selling tours, his debut book has just emerged, a rollicking joyride through the set-up/payoff arts. Pundamentalist has puns for the whole family: rude ones, daft ones, deft ones, stinkers and absolute belters. It all began late last year...
"On 3rd December 2019 I put up this stupid joke on Twitter: Hey everyone, did I mention that I've got a book coming out? I don't know why I shoved it up there in the first place.
"The tweet did OK numbers, it's a reasonably good joke. 279 likes. 250 is the benchmark. Less than that is a failure. It's maybe not good enough for the stage but it's perfectly fine for social media on a Tuesday. It was seen by the publishers Headline who got in touch with my agent with a book deal."
Nice! No? "Initially I was hesitant," he admits. "It's a lot of work and I was focussed on writing another show quickly to capitalise on the success of my last tour. Then some idiot ate a bat and suddenly I had an awful lot of time on my hands, and no income. There was easily enough time to pore through 20 years' worth of notebooks and gig recordings, and 11 years of social media posts."
The result is a classic joke book, with 1000 Delaney originals all sensibly spaced out, 2020-style. Actually it's nice to see someone get the in-print credit for their own gags, with so many nefarious books and sites regurgitating other people's wit. Was Delaney hesitant about using up so many?
"I already put jokes on my social media every day to help sell tour tickets so I don't mind using up material. I write a lot and have spare stuff once the live shows are taken care of. I decided to put in 1000 jokes (as opposed to the standard 500 or so) so that I could fit in the classics people would expect, but also lots that people hopefully wouldn't have come across before."
But when did he tell his first onstage joke? Valentine's Day, it turns out.
The Comedy Brewhouse, Islington, 14/2/1997. Tiny little open mike club. I can't remember any of the other comics who were on the bill to be honest. I just remember that the emcee introduced me very nicely saying he'd seen me before and I was great. Clearly a lie, but very kind.
I got some laughs, I got an applause break by using a rhythmic trick, and it was intoxicating. I'm sure I'd cringe if there was a recording of it now. I then did a few months of sporadic open spots, and even a TV spot as my seventh gig, then I lost my bottle and stopped gigging.
On the morning of 1/1/2000 I decided to try again. When I returned, I realised that I should just focus on the one-liners, and work a lot harder.
Favourite show, ever?
I was doing a summer afternoon gig in a big tent for a load of hairy bikers. It was going really well. Then about 20 minutes in it went ballistic. I was getting the biggest laughs and cheers ever, the crowd were on their feet. I thought I was a genius and had finally discovered the secret of comedy. I hadn't.
The sunlight was bright on the tent wall behind me. Unknown to me, a drunken biker had slipped out of the gig and, seeing the queue for the portaloo, had craftily popped round the back of the tent to relieve himself. He didn't realise that with the sun behind him he was making the perfect shadow puppet of a weeing man on the canvas right behind me.
If you've ever seen the Mannekin Pis in Brussels it was like that, but 6'2 with a beard and leather jacket. Still, well done to him, he nailed that gig. In fact I think he's going to be on the next series of Britain's Got Talent.
I once did a gig in English to a crowd in Berlin who, I was assured, had excellent English. It was a cabaret night called Blaue Montag, in maybe 2001? I was following a group of schoolkids who sang a medley of Beatles' hits whilst bobbing up and down and holding torches over their heads. The crowd loved it. They also loved the German stand-ups. I watched from the sides thinking 'If they think these German comics are funny, then I'm really going to nail this gig!'.
Narrator's voice: He didn't.
I died really, really badly. I got two laughs. I don't mean two jokes got laughs. I mean two people laughed at two different points in my entire set, one was a laugh when I acknowledged that I was dying, the other was a man from Luton who genuinely did like one of the jokes. Just one.
It's one thing to speak English but another to grasp the subtleties of wordplay. After the show it was customary for all the acts to come out again for a bow, so that was fun. After the gig the guidelines for visiting English comics were updated to say that you should probably avoid wordplay. Now that's a death.
If I was telling this as a story I'd probably say that I ended with a line about how, like my grandad, I have now also bombed in Berlin, but that's not true. He really did bomb Germany, but I never made the joke as I was scared they'd hate me even more. I just said goodbye and quietly walked off to sulk.
Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?
Emo Philips. Adrian Juste used to play his American stand-up clips on Radio 1 on Saturday lunchtimes in the 80s. I had a Saturday job at a garage in Sparkbrook and was blown away and that was that really.
And who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?
Not saying. I might need them again on the way down, so why burn bridges?
Is there one routine/gag you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?
No, there are thousands, probably even tens of thousands by now. I don't do the jokes I like. I do the jokes that work. I think of it as a venn diagram. Set A = things I find funny and Set B = things an audience find funny. Intersection C = career.
If I just did stuff I found funny and didn't listen to my audience I'd be a conference organiser with a hobby.
How has your lockdown been, creatively and generally?
Pretty good to be honest. I was 159 dates into a 160 date tour when the hammer fell. I'd been expecting it since early February so I was pleased to only lose one show in the end.
After that I really needed six to nine months at home to write the new tour, so the virus was a much better writing discipline than I would ever have on my own. I've written ten minutes of one-liners every week since the end of April so I've plenty to test when comedy returns. The book came along at a good time too.
I'm not a particularly social person so it's not really been a problem for me. I spent the first few weeks panicking every time I had allergies or a bit of asthma, but after I got over that it was grand.
Are there particular reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions that stick in the mind?
I don't read reviews so I can't comment on that, and hecklers are generally tedious.
I did some big festival gig once, Download I think, and had a guy right at the front row screaming at me throughout my set that I'd stolen all my jokes from a comic he once saw on TV. There was 2000 people there so I could easily ignore him and go over it so I did. Anyway, it turned out he'd seen me on TV but didn't recognise me. I guess his heart was in the right place.
How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?
Very happy. I've got a decent sized audience who love my work to play to, I can reach them via social media so I'm not dependent on TV any more, and that will see me out for the rest of my career I think.
When I was a comic in my 20s so were my audience, same in my 30s, same now in my 40s. My audience are mostly older and I'm totally cool with that. I don't have to worry about my references or people being offended, and I don't have to try and get on trendy TV shows or court a young cool demographic. My audience love gags, my tour shows are played to sold out rooms full of people who have self-selected to be there as they find me funny. Life is good. I can't wait to stand on a stage again in 2021.
When I'm gone my jokes will still be here making people laugh. That's probably the main thing I like about the book. The permanence.