This month Stephanie Davies explores the horror of stand-up and how a modern hero can rise from comedy to lead a nation at war
The modern-day comedy club is a fairly accurate approximation of what I imagine Roman gladiatorial games were like.
Brave combatants step out into the public arena and live or die depending on skill and how much they can endear themselves to the audience. They can be cruel, brutal places. Lessons learned in them are often painful but are never forgotten.
Every comedian remembers the first time they died on stage.
I was 21 and thought I was the bee’s knees. I was getting good reviews. I’d gigged in small clubs and people laughed, particularly my dad, aunt and cousin, who followed me around the northwest like groupies.
Appearing statesmanlike is almost as important as actually being a statesman, particularly in times of conflict, when people need to be inspired
I was booked to play Liverpool University Mountford Hall. It was my first big gig and in my hometown. In my head it was going to be a glorious homecoming, like Westlife at Croke Park in 2019.
I don’t even remember what I said to turn the audience against me. Nerves got the better of me. It was probably just a couple of gags that fell flat. All I remember is the slow hand clap. It started with a few at the front and rapidly spread, like Omicron. Soon 200 people were jeering me.
As a female, I was used to heckles which I could easily swat away with acerbic put downs. But this crowd was vast, and I was too slow to react. The audience, mainly students, smelled blood. It was not pretty. I struggled for a couple of minutes to salvage the room, gave in, told the punters to f*ck off and ran.
I had two choices after that night. Learn from the experience or leave comedy. I decided to learn. I vowed never to get myself in that mess again. I had ten more successful years as a comedian, and I went back to play the same venue a year later. Thankfully it was a much better experience for everyone.
Comedy clubs are some of the best places I know in which to build character and resilience. Comedy teaches you many things. Communication skills, connecting with audiences, timing, bravery, determination, and flexible thinking.
Heroes are born on comedy club stages.
Which is why I was not surprised to learn at the beginning of the Ukrainian invasion that the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was a comedian before he became a politician. He starred in a show called Servant of the People in which he played a history teacher who gets unexpectedly elected President of Ukraine after a viral video filmed by one of his students shows him ranting against government corruption.
As a statesman and leader Zelenskiy has won millions of admirers for the direction he’s shown, inspiring his countrymen and facing the terrible situation he is in with resolve, humility, compassion, grit, and a human touch that few of his peers on the world stage possess.
His performance under pressure, the way he connects to his audience, his simultaneous vulnerability and strength, are admirable. He knows how to perform. He knows how to win over people.
He is the kind of leader many heads of more influential nations would love to be.
I’ve no doubt that his skill in the leadership role owes much to the lessons he would have learned in his former career. The act of leadership, after all, is always bound up in performance to some degree. Appearing statesmanlike is almost as important as actually being a statesman, particularly in times of conflict, when people need to be inspired and when you need to win over people, to be trusted, authoritative and take the room with you.
Being good on TV, however, does not automatically qualify someone as a good leader. Donald Trump, after all, was good at being on TV, with an innate understanding of how to use the medium to his advantage, but struggled to win consensus, to unite or to win friends.
Trump was funny, but for all the wrong reasons. History will not judge him well.
Zelenskiy, on the other hand will not be walking off the world stage to a slow clap. Whatever fate awaits him, a standing ovation is assured.
Stephanie Davies is the founder of Laughology