Stinker, sailor, stand-up guy
From working with sewage to working on a show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Islander Adam Morrison has worked his proverbials off to get a shot at the stand-up comedy circuit, writes Andy Gray //
Adam Morrison can already consider himself a comedy giant. Alright, so he’s yet to tread the boards at the London Palladium, and he’s not what you’d call a household name – although his face is very familiar to his wife and three kids. However, he is 6ft 7ins and very funny, therefore….
Having clocked-up thousands of miles in pursuit of his comedy dream, Adam from Sheerness, Sheppey has not so much been bitten by the performing bug – he’s been ravaged by it. The long midweek trawls to places such as Newcastle and Torquay to perform quick-fire stand-up stints – the return trip to ‘the Toon’ equated to 65 miles travelled for every minute of stage time – are beginning to pay-off. In January, he played his biggest gig to date at the Wimbledon Theatre, as part of a bill topped by TV panel show perennial, Romesh Ranganathan. It represented a significant step-up the comedy ladder for the 34-year-old ex-navy man; a step nearer to one day maybe trading his current job in wastewater and sewerage maintenance for a funnier kind of s***.
A droll performer whose gags smart and observational; silly and occasionally rude, take their cue from an amalgam of comedy heroes such as Michael Mcintyre, Peter Kay and US funnyman Bill Burr, Adam made his (sort-of) stand-up debut on a whim following an afternoon’s drinking with friends in 2011. Boosted by pals’ long-held belief that his comic ability was worthy of the stage, and bolstered by umpteen pints of liquid courage, Adam stopped-by a Sheerness live music venue to ask if he could have ‘five minutes between bands’. “The compere handed me the mic and said, ‘right, you’re on now,” Adam remembers. “I had nothing prepared. I’d given it the large beforehand, but as soon as I had the mic in my hand, I was like, ‘What do I say?’ I just started going, ‘You alright? Everyone alright? And where I was drunk, I just kept repeating that for about two minutes. My mates, who had come down to see me, started heckling, going, ‘You’ve asked us that already you idiot’. Then I remembered a joke me and a friend had been working on, and one bloke laughed. I thought, ‘Yeah, that‘s good’ and came off thinking, ‘If I can make one bloke laugh, I’ll carry on and work at this’.
Adam’s story in the pre-performing years reads like a script written in the finest tragic-comedy tradition. Having set his heart on “seeing a bit of the world,” by joining the Navy upon leaving school, he was accepted, and then rejected by the submarine service for being too tall. He joined a ship instead, and during his four years on the high seas, Adam not only satisfied his globe-trotting ambition, he developed his funny bones. “I was a bit of a knob; a lot of a knob at school, but the Navy sorted me out. I grew-up quickly, found my confidence and started making jokes – more mature jokes. Navy is like a lads’ holiday with a bit of work thrown-in. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Adam abandoned ship (legally) in 2005 when he met his wife-to-be, Avril. They started a family and the former seaman set about finding an occupation suitable for the skills and experience service life had taught him – but he found himself high and dry.
“I was told when I joined the forces, ‘You’ll get any job you want’, but it’s complete bollocks,“ Adam says, bitterly. Security guard, labourer, casual driver… a string of menial jobs came and went as career opportunities failed to come knocking. “We’d bought a house, my wife was pregnant and I was a newspaper boy – at 26.” The desperate times reached a nadir when there was another mouth to feed and still no sign of a proper, living wage, as Adam explained. “I kicked-off in the job centre a couple of times. It’s like they don’t even wanna help you. I asked if I could go on a forklift driver’s course. They said I couldn’t cause I hadn’t been unemployed for 13 weeks. I told them I didn’t want to be unemployed for 13 weeks.” These were far from salad days for Adam, who said he and his wife lived on ‘bread and beans’ to ensure even if they didn’t, their two children ate well. “Instead of having dinner, to save money, we’d just go to bed. Nappies and baby food was more important than anything else. I was solely focused on finding work – comedy hadn’t entered my head.”
The unthinkable was averted – “I told my wife ‘If I’m doing these s***jobs when I’m 30, I’m gonna kill myself” – when family connections helped secure Adam an apprenticeship at a water company as a mechanical engineer. For a nearly 30-year-old giant, learning the ropes with a bunch of gangly, young shavers presented a further blow to his battle-weary ego, but Adam said – for once, no pun intended – being qualified to fix and maintain water and sewage pumps was “a way out of the cesspool I was in.”
There’s no time like the first time, whether it be a kiss or tentative toke on a shared and freshly bum-sucked ciggy, initial sensations – good or bad – are never forgotten, hence Adam’s first ‘proper’ gig – “January 12th, 2012” – smoulders pleasingly in his memory. He popped his performing cherry at a Comedy Virgins night held at the Cavendish Arms in Stockwell, south London, just six months after his faltering ‘Everyone alright?’ unofficial debut on Sheppey. For the capital gig – which he’d seen advertised online – Adam was required to fulfil a five-minute slot alongside 14 acts, most of whom were also first-time gag-sters. Was he nervous? Just a bit. “I smoked 10 fags in 10 minutes; then I went out and bought another 20.” In his frantic state, Adam said he stalked the venue for some friendly advice from a fellow comic, albeit one more experienced than him…big mistake. The man, who shall not be named, supposedly told him, ‘Don’t bother, you’re gonna be s***; you’ll die on your arse. If I were you, I’d just go home’. “He was being serious,” Adam recalls, still dumbfounded at the harsh assessment of his chances. Others were more supportive, with one seasoned comic telling him, ‘Be calm, breathe, jot some notes on your hands for reference in case you forget your stuff, and just enjoy it.’ Easier said than done, for cometh the hour, cometh the, ‘sickness and diarrhoea’ as Adam’s pre-show fears kicked-in with technicolour effect. Follow-throughs seldom have a fairytale ending, but having made it to the stage, Adam said he was a man transformed, to the point where he could feel everything – except his bowels – “all coming out” as he reached an almost semi-conscious state of euphoria. He said: “As soon as I went up there I said something like, ‘I’m a proper virgin, cause this really is my first time. There is a difference between now, and to when I was 15, though – I’d like you to laugh this time’. And they all did, which relaxed me.” Whilst waiting in the wings, Adam was the proverbial rabbit caught in headlights, but with his act in full-swing, he was now the one behind the wheel with a comedy full-beam trained on the audience. His only moment of dread occurring when the ‘memory joggers’ he was advised to ink on his hand were bleached invisible by his nervous sweat: it mattered not a jot. “I could feel my whole body, from my toes to my head, just tingling,“ he said. “I had goosebumps, my heart was racing. When they were laughing I had this electricity running through my body. It was ridiculous. The crowd were going mental. I put the mic back on the stand, stood there, looked at my mate in the crowd and went, ‘What the f***?’
This beginner’s luck had changed, and Adam was crowned Comedian of the Night. “The compere told me my timing was perfect, and visualisation of jokes was spot-on. It was surreal, I couldn’t take anything in.” Adam said he was compos mentis enough to note how the ‘bad advice bloke’ from earlier, whose performance apparently attracted more tumbleweed than titters, was now the one seeking counsel. “He was asking the compere if he had any advice,” and the compere answered, ‘yeah, be more like him’, pointing to me.”
Played one, won one…Adam could’ve retired from comedy with a 100% record. The initial success wasn’t easy to build-on, however. His then apprentice wage meant he could only gig locally – no more London – when finances allowed. But his new-found obsession was taking hold. “I was stressing about it; stressing about finding the money for it; stressed about going to the gig; stressed at the gig. Everything to the point of getting on stage was stress. The moment I was up there, though, it disappeared. My wife would say, ‘Is it worth it?’, but I knew I needed it, I needed to perform.”
Three years of performances arriving at a trickle ended with a string of appearances at Margate’s Comedy Island Festival in 2015 where Adam was spotted by comedy booking agents Mirth Control. Thereafter, shows arrived in a flood – Manchester, Birmingham, Basingstoke, Luton…wherever the location, however paltry the fee (if any) and fleeting his stage time – if a gig was in the offing, Adam’s answer was always ‘yes’. Even if it meant a round trip of several hundred miles (see previous reference to Newcastle and Torquay) and grabbing a couple of hours’ sleep before starting the day job. Even if it meant spending less time with the family – his three children are aged three, six and eight – Adam was driving to the ends of England’s green earth to make his mirthful mark, and still is. “My wife and I have had a couple of fallings out about it. I’m out most Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but it means we still have Monday, Tuesday and Sunday together.”
Semi-final placings in both the Leicester Square New Act of the Year, and South Coast Comedian of the Year are proof, as Adam says, he’s ‘starting to get noticed’. He’s even ‘beat the gong’ at the ruthless two-minute trial-by-audience for rookie comics at London’s Comedy Store. The penniless yesterdays of baked beans and early bedtimes were painful, but nourishing for the material he now produces and scribbles on notebooks –
“I’ve got about 70,000” – to record those precious Eureka moments of sudden inspiration. “It was all a learning curve,” Adam says of the fallow years, “but I didn’t realise it at the time.”
Break for the border
I view Adam the way I view all stand-up comics, whatever their standing – with a mixture of total admiration and utter bewilderment. What drives a man or woman to prostrate themselves before total strangers in foreign towns and iffy venues where the only reward is laughter, and failure is potential humiliation and utter dejection…or worse? “A woman threatened to kill me once when I picked her out during one routine,” Adam said of one particularly rough gig. “Other than that, the only place I’ve been heckled is in Tunbridge Wells, believe it or not.”
Adam has some carefully-considered goals to help him reach the next stage of his career. He’s not plucking at stars, just yet. “A year from now I want to be signed to an agent who’ll book paid gigs for me. Then I want to give up call-out work, which will mean no more nightshifts, so I can concentrate on comedy in the evenings.” He’s also working on melding his stand-up routine to ‘a solid 40 minutes’ so he can take his act to next year’s Edinburgh Festival. “I feel like I should’ve been up there by now, I dunno why.”
Nearly 500 miles separate Sheppey from Scotland’s capital, but if and when Adam arrives north of the border, someone among the festival audience will apparently know where he’s come from. “No matter where I go in the country, everybody knows the Isle of Sheppey. And everybody loves it – they all cheer. I tell ‘em, ‘We’re the only place twinned with Australia – massive farmland; beautiful beaches, and where Britain sends its prisoners’. He sends-up his Island home throughout his set, but it’s still where his heart is. “Even if I earned millions of pounds, I’d never move off Sheppey.”
Adam doesn’t fit the cliché that maintains all comics are surface smiles and inner torment. He’s a genuine, genial giant, but is experienced enough to know that having left the comfort of the bar and the company of friends to dazzle the rest of the world with his readymade wit, the comedy stratosphere he now inhabits can be a lonely and brutal one. “Pub funny is not the same as stand-up funny. You know your mates inside and out – you know what they laugh at, you can play off ’em. But try walking into a room where you don’t know anyone…
”But comedy’s taken over my life,” he continued, “I couldn’t give it up if I wanted.”
When he takes the stage these days, the tell-tale signs of Adam’s growing confidence and reputation on the nation’s stand-up circuit are more notable by their absence.
“I don’t need to write stuff on my hand anymore.”
For upcoming gig news, visit Adam’s Facebook page:
Adam Morrison Comedy.