I was in drag the last time I did stand-up, about twenty-five-years ago, in a crowded bar at the Tron Theater, Glasgow. It was a return appearance, on a ‘gong night’ bill that included Craig Ferguson, who was starting out with his comic character Bing Hitler.
In some respects I was amazed to be asked back, and was certain my invitation had been a clerical error. The first time I’d tried to be Lenny McBruce and was full of misplaced energy that led me to telling the audience to ‘fuck off’, whilst reading a copy of the Sun, riffing on its headlines, horoscopes, interviews and adverts. I’d got as far as Princess Diana and Pete Sutcliffe jokes, when the howls of abuse proved too much, I was gonged quickly off.
Other gong nights had seen a generation of new and original talent: a duo called Victor and Barry - Alan Cumming and Forbes Mason - those erstwhile founders of the Kelvinside Young People’s Amateur Dramatic Art Society (KYPADAS), who performed camp musical numbers, in slick-backed hair and monogramed smoking jackets.
And then there was Jerry Sadowitz, who was incredible, and still is. His humor was unpredictable, relentless and much in the spirit of Lenny Bruce - nothing was sacred, no subject off limits. When menaced with the gong, he pulled out a joke pistol and threatened to shoot the compere, John Stahl.
Amongst such talents, I was just a daft, wee laddie, who wanted to succeed more than I wanted to perform.
So, on my return, I revamped one of my old drag characters, Bessie Graham, a mistress of the single entendre. I went through the rehearsed material and it seemed to be working well - at least for half the audience, those nearest to the stage that is. But for anyone beyond row 4, I appeared as an indifferent mime artist, with a basic grasp of mime. Later, I was told my mic had not been working.
Afterwards, watching Craig Ferguson perform, I decided to give it all up. Over 2 years of performing, on-and-off, I’d found out I was fine at comic characters and sketches, but hadn’t grown-up enough to have my own voice, and know what I wanted to say. And without that, I would never be any good.
That’s why Lenny Bruce was so good. He knew what to say. He understood himself - his strengths and his weaknesses. He developed his own philosophy that influenced, as a new documentary reveals, writers such as Norman Mailer (who even tried his hand at stand-up), and Philip Roth; musicians like Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison and even David Crosby. Here is Lenny Bruce performing towards the end of his life, when he was banned for obscenity, unable to perform anywhere but San Francisco, bankrupt, drug addicted, and yet still as brutally funny and as honest as he had ever been.