‘Why don’t you try to make it funny?’ my boss suggested. ‘None of our columnists are funny.’
‘Well, not intentionally.’ I replied quickly.
‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘That’s what we’re looking for. Funny.’
My next thought was to point out that most of my jokes are of such vintage that they pre-date the world’s oldest continuously published daily English language newspaper, but I kept that bit to myself, deciding to quit while I was ahead.
And so it has been that way for the past year and a half. I like to think that I’ve done my best with my modest ability and have tried to make a few people smile along the way as the column has grown in popularity (some weeks the digital traffic almost reaches double figures).
I suppose I have become used to being the odd man out among the posse of political writers, the one who always looks in a different direction for material, the one whose brief is to try and scatter the clouds a little. Sam, Ben, Alex, Ruth, Robbo. And me.
I was in the middle of just such a self-indulgent daydream when my boss called me on Zoom. I quickly blew the dust off my laptop screen and answered.
‘Good news,’ he began. ‘We’ve got a new columnist, a big name.’
A big name? I tried to think of high-profile people who might be looking for a new opportunity; Julian Simmons, Nigel Farage, Piers Morgan, Prince Harry, Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, Ang Sung Su Chi. This was getting me nowhere.
‘Who is it?’ I asked.
‘Tim McGarry ’
‘You mean Da out of Give My Head Peace?’
‘Yes. He’s a big name…and he’s funny’
‘Hmmm,’ I replied. I chose my next words carefully
‘Of course,’ I went on, ‘he might be funny as an actor, or doing stand-up, or as a screenwriter, or even presenting the 497th series of The Blame Game, but writing for a newspaper is a very different art.’
‘But he’s already sent his first column and it’s so funny. I’ve sent it you. Have a read.’
I hung up, opened the attachment and scanned the text.
‘Hmmm,’ I thought. I called my boss back.
‘Well, what do you think? It’s really funny, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I conceded, ‘it is funny I suppose. Of course, if you are going to be satirical about politics or current affairs, there’s always going to be a market for that sort of thing, the obvious targets….the royal family. Some of us like to tackle more challenging subjects.’
‘Well,’ my boss went on, ‘what are you writing about in your column next week?’
‘Ah,’ I began. ‘I’ve a couple of good ideas. There’s the time I split my trousers, that was really funny. And then there was the time I went to the school gates to pick up my son and turned up 15 minutes early. You should have seen it, it was hilarious….I just stood there on my own….for 15 whole minutes.’
‘Hmmm,’ he responded. ‘Well, keep thinking, I’m sure you’ll come up with something good.’
I moved on. The dust settled once more on the screen of my laptop. My wife walked into the room.
‘Guess who we’ve got as a new columnist,’ I started. ‘Only Tim McGarry.’
‘Da out of Give My Head Peace?’
‘That’s really good. He’s very funny.’
‘Hmmm,’ I said.
‘Remember the time we saw him doing stand-up? He was hilarious.’
‘But. when you really think about it, what is “funny”? People laugh at different things. Some people might find that sort of thing funny, others might, I don’t know, find it funny when someone splits their trousers.’
My wife gave me a look.
‘Don’t be daft, he’s really funny….and he’s a big name. It’s a good signing.’
‘Look, I’m really busy with work here, I don’t really have time to chat.’
Days passed. The first McGarry column appeared in the paper, complete with a huge front page plug. I measured the depth of the photograph with a ruler; it was close to life size. My phone buzzed. It was a message from a friend.
‘I see you’ve got Tim McGarry writing for you.’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘He’s funny….and a big name.’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘I think it’s a great addition, the News Letter really needed a funny columnist.’
‘Hmmm,’ I thought.
More days passed. I was back at work trying to write my next column. The trousers splitting anecdote wasn’t really working out. It just seemed to lack the necessary dramatic tension. And, I had to concede, it wasn’t very funny.
A message appeared on the screen of my laptop. I saw it was from our venerable political editor Sam McBride. Occasionally he allows me a little of his time when he wants to give his formidable brain some respite from dealing with issues of substantial gravity. He was responding to a message I sent four Thursdays previously.
At the end of the missive it said: “Great news about getting Tim McGarry as a columnist.’
I typed my response.
I waited a moment. Then little blinking dots began to appear on the box on my screen, indicating that he was composing another message to me. I thought about what Sam was likely to say. For some reason which I couldn’t quite put my
finger on, the words ‘Determined. Forthright. Informed’ kept going through my mind.
The little dots kept blinking.
Then the message appeared.
‘Now, you can officially call yourself the News Letter’s second funniest columnist.’
‘Hmmm,’ I thought.
* Jonny McCambridge’s new book, Afraid of the Dark, published by Dalzell Press, is available now on Amazon.
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