Trouble finding the funny bone
The night comedian Stephen Grant bombed was the night his career took a turn for the better. The English computer geek turned comic 'died a horrible death' at London's Comedy Store in early 1998, two years after he started winning fans with his stand-up act.
Lesser men would have quit, and Grant reportedly thought about it, but fortunately for the fledgling funnyman, talent agent Lisa White was in the crowd and recognised his raw ability. 'She saw something good in me,' says Grant, now one of the most popular members of the London comedy circuit who makes his Hong Kong debut tomorrow.
'In your early career as a comic you bomb a lot. Some days are just like that. But that's the way you learn,' says the 34-year-old, describing how he would hone his act after each show, learning what worked and what didn't. White set Grant on a career path he long dreamed of, although the biggest break came in 2000 when he landed a job as a writer with BBC Radio 1, writing scripts for star presenters such as Zoe Ball.
'It enabled me to quit my job and do comedy full-time,' says Grant, who used to advise companies on potential Y2K computer problems, the so-called millennium bug that some feared would wreck the world's computers when dates changed to the year '00'. 'That work dried up eight years ago,' says Grant with a laugh.
Grant had wanted to be a performer since he was a boy growing up in England and Hungary, his mother's native country. His father, a sales rep, had once acted in The King and I on London's West End, but, put off by the experience, tried to steer his son into a more stable career.
'My dad felt I should have some kind of practical skill,' says Grant. So, at the dawn of the home computer age in the 1980s, he became proficient writing computer programs on the ZX Spectrum. By 16, he had written five commercial programs and began a career as a programmer and software designer, only dabbling in
comedy as a hobby at the behest of his neighbour Robin Driscoll, a mentor who later invented the Mr Bean character made famous by Rowan Atkinson.
But in 1996, he took to the stage in his native Brighton on England's south coast, where he started to draw a regular following.
Even after White spotted him it was not all plain sailing. Grant appeared in a reality show on young comedians preparing to play the Edinburgh festival. 'Unfortunately, it aired before the festival and I got a large following,' he recalls. 'My shows were sold out but I wasn't ready for it.'
The supposed setback again turned to Grant's advantage. He was noticed by the BBC and got a contract that enabled him to work on comedy full time. His father was 'secretly disappointed' when Grant quit the day job, but eased up after he earned a reputation as one of Britain's best comedy comperes.
Grant now runs the successful Krater comedy club in Brighton and filled the city's 1,000-capacity Theatre Royal for a show at which he filmed his first DVD performance, the highlight of his career. 'It was amazing, everyone was shouting and screaming,' he recalls of his stage entrance.
Grant admits he will feel nervous when he plays Hong Kong's Punchline comedy club alongside compatriot Ricky Grover. 'Normally, I don't feel nervous,' he says. 'You can't feel nervous doing a job you've been doing for 11 years. As it's a new venue and audience I probably will, but it's a good thing. It will make it more exciting.'
Punchline Comedy Club feat. Stephen Grant, Ricky Grover and Glenn Wood, tomorrow, Sat, 9pm, Viceroy, 2/F Sun Hung Kai Centre, 30 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai, HK$320 (plus optional HK$130 buffet dinner from 7pm), Cityline. Inquiries: 2317 6666