The first time I did stand-up comedy I was terrified, but I got through it rather successfully. It was a huge relief, and inevitably I thought I was a bit special; perhaps even a natural. So I was considerably less nervous at gig number two. I took to the stage with some aplomb. And bombed.
Maybe it was a mistake to base a whole routine around the subject of cannibalism. But I wasn’t dreadful. I have been dreadful, and I will be again, but I wasn’t that night.
However, I learned a massively important lesson, one you can only learn from a bad gig. Not everyone is going to find you funny. Not everyone is going to “get” you. That realisation is wonderfully liberating. You can only go with what you think is funny and hope others feel the same.
Sure, you have to learn the craft. You have to know how to hold a microphone; you need to know how to adjust the height of the mic stand if the act before you is a dwarf or a giant. You need to project your voice and you need to stand in the spotlight. But you don’t need to pander. You need not to do that
Have you ever stood up in Islington and informed a bunch of middle class lefties that you are a right wing Tory, and then tried to make them laugh? I have. There’s only one way to do it: fearlessly.
As soon as a crowd sees that you’re desperate to please them, you’ve had it. That’s when the laughs die and the heckler senses his moment has come. But if you give it to them with both barrels and without apology they’ll listen. And the people in the room who find you funny won’t be afraid to show it.
But even when you’re on fire, you rarely win the whole room. The reason famous comics do so isn’t just because they’re good – it’s because they play to their fans. Household names have been known to bomb spectacularly on turning up unannounced at small gigs to try new material. No-one in the world is got by everyone.
It’s fascinatingly awful watching someone try. The contortions they go through to be at once universally amusing, unoriginal and inoffensive are mind-boggling. Mild desperation turns to all-out panic when a stand-up realises that their do-it-by-numbers approach has elicited not warmth but contempt.
On the other hand, I for one am over the moon if I manage to make 40% of the crowd cry with laughter while the others stare at me blankly. That’s a job well done.
Finding their audience is the challenge for any comic, musician or artist. It really doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks if you can develop a loyal following. If you work hard, you’ll pick up more fans along the way. Those fans will win you more fans by introducing their like-minded friends to your work. People who’ll get you.
You have limited resources and so you need to target your marketing campaign effectively. If you are a sensitive singer-songwriter who specialises in folk ballads, the rap community will not provide rich pickings.
And if you’re a Conservative parliamentary candidate, you shouldn’t target smug Guardianistas who are never going to vote for you in a million years, even if they can be convinced that you’re not the Devil.
I have made some very dear left wing friends through comedy. Initially they got a shock on learning that gentle, civilised Tom who cares about the environment thinks that tax is too high, feels the House of Lords and the Monarchy work, believes that private healthcare helps alleviate the burden on the NHS, worries that immigration is out of control and condemns the European Union as a racist protectionist racket that helps to keep the citizens of what we optimistically call developing countries poor. (He additionally thinks that proportional representation is the last way of delivering a new politics because it means that some or all MPs will lack a personal mandate and be answerable to tribal party elders rather than the public.)
But then they get a kick out of boasting that one of their best friends is a Tory. And they are respectful. They want to understand what I believe and why. If they assert that a Conservative politician is wicked and I explain that I know them personally and that they are in fact a thoroughly decent person, my friends have the integrity to trust that I know best. Reluctantly, they acknowledge that I’m not unique and that you can be a Conservative and not all bad.
So I’m doing the Party a service. No need to thank me; it’s the least I can do. But here’s what I can’t do: I can’t get them to vote Tory. I don’t think I could even get them all to vote for ME – and they’re my friends; they LOVE me.
I can do this, however: I can make a good fist of persuading a cabbie who is thinking of voting UKIP to vote for us instead. I can help tip someone who is umming and ahing over the edge. I can explain Conservative principles to anyone. But if someone tells me that they are implacably hostile to everything the Conservatives have ever stood for, I don’t even bother trying. Not everyone gets Conservatism, you see.
The problem is that if we lose our nerve and fail to articulate our core beliefs, even our natural supporters will forget what we stand for. That makes it all the easier for our opponents to misrepresent us.
I know an intelligent young man who had his first opportunity to vote last Thursday. He didn’t in the end, because he wasn’t clear how the parties differed and he didn’t want to just tick a box. That doesn’t show contempt for the democratic process; it shows a reverence for it. It also suggests that the Party didn’t do a good enough job of getting its message across.
It’s right to have lots of policies. It means that if you find yourself in Whitehall you have some idea of what you’re going to do. It means that you have an answer when someone asks you something esoteric but important on the campaign trail. Yet you also need to have a clear, overarching message that is hammered home relentlessly and which focuses on a handful of key priorities.
I had the privilege of working on Boris Johnson’s campaign for Mayor of London, and that balance was achieved. Detailed policy documents on a range of issues were produced and, before you ask, Boris could quote them backwards and forwards and in Latin. It demonstrated to the commentariat that he was ready to govern.
All of us were also told in no uncertain terms that our key priorities were cutting crime, sorting out transport, improving housing, reducing wasteful spending and making London beautiful and that crime was the number one priority.
I was professionally (but not emotionally) detached from the Conservative campaign this time around, as I worked at Channel Four News and thus had a contractual and moral duty to be non-partisan. Walking down Grays Inn Road I saw large Tory posters calling for national citizenship service and discipline in schools. Good stuff, but not a platform for government (and it wasn’t clear on the posters that the national service wouldn’t be obligatory).
I want a Big Society, and I completely agree that society isn’t the same thing as the State. But a minister’s job isn’t done if she can encourage some eager residents to volunteer in their community, and the most eager ones don’t need any encouragement.
It is completely right to allow parents and organisations to set up new schools. (Just as long as they aren’t mad communists who think that being good at finger painting is as valuable as being literate and numerate, and yes, that is a real concern.) Obviously, though, we can’t rely on vast numbers of people having the necessary time, energy, expertise and non-communist credentials.
I have recently rediscovered another passion: lifting weights. Because I want to take it seriously this time, I’ve been going to an incredible gym where a world-class powerlifter and his friends give expert tuition for free. It’s the Big Society in every sense.
There’s only one right way to pick up a barbell. Unless I wrap my hands around the bar, keep my hips down, push my chest out and lift my head up, raising 130kg is a torturous process. If I do obey those laws, then the bar flies off the floor.
How do I know this? Partly through trial and error, and partly because some very bright (the world-class powerlifter happens to be an Oxford maths graduate) and more experienced lifters told me so. Patiently, assertively and in straightforward language.
There are fundamental truths in other areas of life, even areas that are often considered subjective. I’ve seen comedians on the circuit who are just much funnier than most of the ones on telly. James Taylor and Kate Rusby are wonderful musicians and rappers are usually cacophonous halfwits. It’s as simple as that, no matter that some critics and normal people don’t get it.
And when all is said and done there are two approaches to politics and governing. You can seek to run people’s lives for them, driven by the conviction that the average person – let’s call her Gillian Duffy - is vulgar and stupid and doesn’t know what’s good for her. Or you can back the winners and the people who want the chance to work hard and become winners, and give them every chance by liberalising the economy and backing to the hilt those institutions that educate them effectively, keep them healthy and afford them the protection and the freedom that lets them live their lives to the full.
Some philosophers claim that conservatism has nothing to say for itself. They are wrong. They don’t get it. Conservatives have the wit to realise that society is big when we rely on tried and tested principles, not when some clever clogs tries to design it all from scratch.
Margaret Thatcher got it. Edward Heath came unstuck when he forgot it. The task at the last election was to show that all Conservative candidates got it and to reach out to everyone else who got it and who would get it if the message were simple and clear. There are enough of them, let’s say 40% of the electorate, to ensure a healthy House of Commons majority.
The Conservative Party fell short because it sent a confused and confusing message to the public. It gave them reason to doubt we have something meaningful to say. In my experience, it was also often slow or unwilling to respond to media requests, although I’m not sure the press or broadcast teams were to blame for that.
Now the Party finds itself in negotiation with people who don’t really get it at all. There may have to be compromise. But at the very least, Conservatives must push out their chests and keep their heads held high, and say fearlessly that there is a wrong way to do things and a right way. If you can’t get it basically right, it’s not worth doing it at all.