MICHAEL MCINTYRE tells of his early career in this laugh-out loud memoir
If you’re going to wear that suit, you must remember to keep checking your flies are up, Michael,’ my wife Kitty reminded me on the morning of my big meeting.
‘It doesn’t matter how charming and funny you are at lunch, if you stand up with your flies open it’s kind of over.’
Kitty was referring to my one and only suit, bought in Singapore for £100. There was a fatal flaw in its tailoring, the imperceptibly slow unzipping that would occur after about an hour of wear.
I was wearing this to the meeting my agent Addison Cresswell and I were having with Elaine Bedell, Head of Entertainment at the BBC. I don’t think I need to explain how important and powerful she was, it’s all there in her job title.
I was all too aware of this as I stood clutching my travel card on the Northern Line Tube to Leicester Square, fiddling so much with my zipper that people were edging away from me.
Our lunch was at The Ivy, the original famous one a few doors along from The Mousetrap at St Martin’s Theatre.
If you’re going to wear that suit, you must remember to keep checking your flies are up, Michael,’ my wife Kitty (both pictured) reminded me on the morning of my big meeting
Over the years, when passing, I had attempted the impossible task of peering through the stained-glass windows, wondering which celebs were dining within. Now I stood outside the door, checked my fly for the hundredth time since leaving home, and headed in.
The maître d’ greeted me warmly. I felt like Roger Moore or Michael Caine as I gave him the name of the reservation. He replied with the words nobody wants to hear and the coolest people have never heard: ‘You’re the first to arrive.’
I really didn’t want to be sitting on my own, needily waiting. I panicked. ‘I’ll come back,’ I said and walked straight out at the very moment Addison and Elaine were arriving together.
‘You leaving, Michael?’ Addison asked, bemused.
‘No, no, I just… lost my bearings. Hi, Elaine,’ I said, deflecting the awkwardness.
We kissed each other hello on both cheeks without a hitch. We both started with the opposite cheeks and confidently went for the second kiss. It was probably my best greeting with a woman to date.
When the waiter came over to take our order I assumed Addison or Elaine would ask for more time as none of us had glanced at the menu, but they knew what they wanted, having eaten there countless times, and expertly reeled off their orders, along with a few personal preferences.
‘And you, sir?’ he asked, turning to me. Not wanting to waste time I ordered the first thing I saw on the menu.
‘I think I’ll just have… the langoustine.’
I had never ordered langoustine before. When the plate arrived I immediately regretted my decision as they lay on the plate staring at me with their eyes, their actual eyes.
I saw a flicker of confusion on Elaine’s face as she noticed me struggling to peel the first one. I wanted to salvage the situation and saw the lemon wedge as the perfect opportunity.
My plan was to squeeze lemon all over my langoustines, chef-like, expertly. This was a mistake. Many of you will have squeezed lemons on food and 99 per cent of the time the juice shoots directly on to the food.
I was wearing this to the meeting my agent Addison Cresswell and I were having with Elaine Bedell, Head of Entertainment at the BBC. Pictured: Michael McIntyre at charity gala in 2017
Unfortunately, 1 per cent of the time it shoots off at an oblique angle, and this was one such occasion.
I squirted the lemon juice past the eye of the langoustine and directly into the eye of the Head of Entertainment at the BBC. Naturally she screeched with surprise and it must have stung too.
‘I’m so sorry!’ I said as I passed her every napkin. Addison was rendered speechless as Elaine repeatedly batted her eyelid over her violated citrussy eyeball.
‘It’s fine, it’s fine,’ she said, as her eye started to swell.
The rest of the lunch passed without incident. It was very much my nature to fixate on and worry about the acidic attack, but Elaine was so kind and had a great sense of humour about it and it hadn’t affected how she saw me.
Well it had affected how she saw me, but you know what I mean. The lunch concluded with an exciting plan. Long-term, Elaine felt I could be a future star on the BBC, and on Saturday nights in particular.
But for now she was going to help me get my face on the box. She mentioned the long-running jewel in their crown Have I Got News For You. It was all rather dizzying.
I kissed Elaine goodbye as expertly as before and she jumped in a taxi. As I was embracing Addison farewell he seemed pleased with how it went.
‘Good lunch, Michael, very positive. She likes you a lot, which is good news.’
‘Thanks, Addison, it’s really exciting,’ I replied as he jumped into the next taxi on the rank, before rolling the window down and pointing to my waistline.
‘Oh… and your flies are undone.’
TOUGH GIGS AND RICH KIDS
Shortly after I first appeared on Have I Got News For You, I received a phone call at home.
‘Hi, is that Michael?’ asked a female voice.
‘Speaking,’ I replied.
I always say, ‘Speaking’ when someone asks if it’s me on the phone. It’s so annoying. I wish I didn’t. It just pops out of my mouth automatically. Identifying yourself by describing what you’re doing at that particular moment is weird. I may as well have said, ‘Sitting’ or, ‘Scratching’.
‘My name’s Fay Clayton, we haven’t met. I work with Addison and book the corporate events. Sony want to fly you out for one in Portugal. You perform the next day and fly back the morning after. They’ve offered five thousand pounds.’
‘Offered? Me?’ I asked, stunned. In truth I nearly fainted. I had never done a gig for five thousand pence, let alone five thousand pounds.
As she was speaking, I was staring at the Sony logo on the television I got from Curry’s on a ‘Buy Now Pay Later’ deal. I’m finally going to buy this Sony TV outright, with their own money, I thought to myself.
I flew to Lisbon a few weeks later. All went well on that occasion, but corporate gigs are notoriously tough. You get paid ten times more for ten times less of a response.
The audience is often dominated by men who aren’t there for comedy. They are there to network, feast and drink excessively, all at the expense of their employer.
I tried to adapt my act to respective events, with varying results.
At the Customer Service Awards I walked on and said in a monotone voice: ‘The hosting of this award ceremony is important to me. Please wait and I will be hosting as soon as possible . . . The hosting of this award ceremony is important to me. Please wait and I will be hosting as soon as possible…’
Nothing. No laughs. More than a thousand people who worked in customer service didn’t get that joke and just waited patiently for me to start.
After a rocky beginning I did mostly enjoy the corporate work and I also started performing at private parties.
At the first bar mitzvah I did, I felt like one of the family. I was sitting and chatting with an 89-year-old lady who had flown over from Florida for the occasion when I was interrupted by a hilariously cocky 12-year-old boy.
‘I’m considering hiring you for my bar mitzvah. Good job tonight… on the whole,’ he said in his unbroken voice. He then held out a business card, which I took. The card just had his name and mobile phone number on it.
‘Thank you, Daniel. I hope to see you on your big day too,’ I said.
‘Maybe,’ he said, walking away. ‘There are a few others in the mix.’
I’m not sure what was the purpose of giving me his card. Surely he needed my card, not that I had one.
Was I supposed to keep phoning him and inquiring whether he had made a decision about wanting me for his bar mitzvah?
Sometimes I was hired to entertain people who weren’t celebrating a special occasion. They were just so rich they couldn’t be bothered to go to a show so they paid for me to come to them.
I was once flown on to a yacht in the French Riviera to entertain a family of 12, including a three-year-old girl who sat at the front with big headphones on, watching an iPad in her pyjamas.
Just before I got to my first punchline she lifted up one headphone and shouted: ‘Is it finished yet, Mummy?’
That lunch came a few weeks after Addison had got me my big break, an appearance at the televised Royal Variety Performance in 2006.
After years of debt and lack of success on the comedy circuit, I remember striding off that stage at the London Coliseum, the applause of the bejewelled and bow-tied Royal Variety audience ringing in my ears.
I glanced at Prince Charles looking down on me from the Royal Box, his face grinning.
‘He’s an incredibly funny chap,’ I imagined him muttering to Camilla, ‘I’m sure the public will take to him, like they did to Diana. No offence.’
I was 30 years old and after being a uniquely tremendous loser in love, I had met and married Kitty, the love of my life and mother of our then-newborn son Lucas.
Kitty was, and remains, out of my league. I don’t know who determines the leagues.
I’m sure with gruelling exercise and Hollywood plastic surgeons there can be occasional promotions and relegations, but Kitty is far too many divisions above for me to ever catch up. Go on, Google her. I’ll wait… See what I mean.
Over the years I have pointed to unshaven, dirty, badly dressed men in the street who have obviously fallen on hard times.
‘You see that man over there, darling, the one with the two Lidl bags,’ I’d say as we stopped at traffic lights. ‘That’s me, if I’d never met you.’ And she would just nod in agreement.
The three of us, Kitty, Lucas and I, were then living in a rented flat in North London, with debts which at their worst amounted to more than £30,000.
I had become very familiar with seeing a minus sign before the total when I pressed ‘account balance’ at the ATM. A homeless person sitting beside a cash machine once told me he had no money.
‘No money?’ I said. ‘I remember when I had no money. The good old days. Now I have minus money.’
I immediately realised the inappropriate nature of my joke and gave him a fiver, plunging myself into further debt.
I blame nobody but myself for getting into debt in the first place. Growing up, my experience of borrowing money had been from my wealthy grandmother, who never asked for it back let alone charged interest.
Blinded by the offers of money in big print from loans and credit cards, I never read the small print. If the font sizes were reversed, I might have avoided such a financial mess.
I’m not blaming the font size.
Actually, I am blaming the font size. How deceitful to hide key information in smaller, hard-to-read text.
I once mooted to Kitty that I should get laser eye surgery, having worn glasses most of my life.
‘You have to be careful, Michael,’ she warned, ‘I’ve heard it can be dangerous, make sure you read the small print.’
I replied with a joke I’m pleased to squeeze in here.
‘I can’t read the small print, that’s why I want the surgery.’
Through a combination of naivety and poor eyesight, Kitty and I had endured many sleepless nights burdened by our money worries, but with my new-found television exposure the future was looking brighter.
My first appearance after the Royal Variety Performance was on the Channel 4 panel show 8 Out Of 10 Cats, hosted by Jimmy Carr.
Shortly before we began recording I was taken to make-up. ‘Make me look like I’ve just come back from two weeks in Florida,’ I asked the make-up artist.
‘You’d like some bronzer?’ she asked. ‘No, it’s hurricane season, I want to look windswept,’ I joked, and she laughed.
This is great, I thought. I’m relaxed and being funny, I just need to carry on when the cameras are rolling.
The team captains on my debut were regulars Sean Lock and Dave Spikey.
The other guests were Swedish weather girl Ulrika Jonsson, the Channel 4 newsreader Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Johnny Vegas.
Stepping just inside the door of the studio with the others, I tried not to be perturbed by a wardrobe lady rolling a sticky de-fluffing device over my £100 Singapore suit, before moving on to Jimmy’s significantly more expensive one and to Sean and Johnny’s shirts.
With our fluff all intermingled on the de-fluffer it was time for us to mingle for real.
One by one we were introduced to the audience.
‘Please welcome Michael McIntyre,’ announced the studio floor manager. Even I nearly said, ‘Who?’ A ripple of polite applause greeted me as I walked on.
For the first 15 minutes I was in essence an audience member, laughing with everyone else.
But in truth I was in shock and awe at how quick-witted the other comics were. They had jokes prepared and were riffing and bantering hilariously.
When Ulrika got a big laugh and then Krishnan Guru-Murthy an even bigger one, I realised I was being humiliated.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, Johnny Vegas turned his attention to me.
Comedians will scan everyone and everything to be potentially mined for laughs and Johnny Vegas, despite his haphazard persona, has a brilliant comedy mind, as I unfortunately discovered when I found myself and, in particular, my pink shirt, in his crosshairs.
The lunch concluded with an exciting plan. Long-term, Elaine felt I could be a future star on the BBC, and on Saturday nights in particular
‘Who are you?’ he literally said to me. ‘What are you?’
I don’t recall what I said back but the sound of my posh, camp voice sent him into a frenzy of ridicule, like I was in the front row of one of his gigs rather than an equal on a comedy panel show.
I just sat there with an inane grin and took it. I felt like some kind of a freak. I hated every second.
Everyone was charming before and after the show, but when the cameras rolled it was dog eat dog, which was maybe a more apt name than 8 Out Of 10 Cats.
Jimmy very kindly telephoned me late that night to see if I was OK and assured me that the show would look good.
‘You’ll be amazed at what they can do in the edit,’ he said.
‘Can they edit me out entirely?’ I wanted to say, but didn’t.
Jimmy was right. The show looked fine when it went out. I was quiet but had a few lines that were bolstered by added laughs. Laughs borrowed from somebody else who was actually funny.
All of Johnny Vegas’s cutting remarks were on the cutting-room floor, as if they never happened. But they did happen, and I was shaken by the experience.
When Addison called the following week to tell me that he’d got me on to Have I Got News For You, I felt like throwing up. I was in no position to turn it down, but I was finding out that opportunities for success are also opportunities for highly visible failure.
When I heard that the host was Jeremy Clarkson, I gulped. His persona was even more intimidating than that of Johnny Vegas. But then I smelt an opportunity. Maybe I should go for Clarkson like Johnny Vegas went for me.
I Googled Jeremy Clarkson and found out that he had just come back from Barbados, where he had apparently played tennis with Prince Harry.
So I concocted a whole little routine about it, impersonating Clarkson arranging the matches in his trademark way, describing his shot-making like he describes cars, ‘If that serve was a woman’, and an impersonation of the Queen reacting to the news that her grandson was playing tennis with Clarkson, ‘What, that bloody chauffeur?’
This is all I had, along with my off-the-cuff wit that had yet to make an appearance outside of one make-up room.
On the day of the recording, my team captain Ian Hislop knocked on my dressing-room door.
As editor of Private Eye and a regular on Have I Got News For You, he had a razor-sharp wit and I was intimidated by him, but he couldn’t have been kinder and more charming. He was a true gentleman, supportive, full of advice and wishing me well.
I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Kindness did exist in this new ruthless world I found myself in. Although it wasn’t an example I was set to follow as I launched into my seemingly spontaneous jokes about Clarkson’s holiday.
The audience lapped it up. Jeremy laughed along and my new best friend Ian loved it, congratulating me afterwards and saying it was in the spirit of the show to have a go at the host.
If Jeremy Clarkson hadn’t played tennis with Prince Harry maybe I would have dropped back on to the comedy circuit, back driving around the country in my fluff-covered suit, the days of wardrobe ladies rolling sticky de-fluffers over me never to return again.