There is a nice interview in the i Newspaper with Tom Allen, the stand-up comedian and television presenter of The Apprentice: You’re Fired and The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice in which he talks about comedy, eccentricity, feelings of shame and self-loathing and what sounds like a journey towards self-acceptance.
I saw Tom’s act at the Edinburgh comedy festival a few years ago, when he was still playing to 50-odd in that tiny hot room right at the top of The Pleasance. I thought he would go on to be a star and so it has proven. He’s got that mix of camp with killer lines but an innate warmth that has been a proven recipe for success in generations of British comedy.
It was interesting to read in his interview with Hannah Stephenson that he has often felt alienated or excluded or an outsider, but he has managed to build that into his comedy.
“I have found with stand-up that the more I lean into the times I felt embarrassed or awkward or an oddball, the more I have found that audiences respond to it. Fundamentally, we all feel like outsiders and feel sad at times and we all feel an existential sense of who we are,” he says.
It might be that he has hit the big-time in comedy partly because he is able to take that sense of alienation and not belonging and otherness but hold it up as a mirror that people can relate to: he’s looking at things differently in his act because he is him, but also because he is us.
Tom feels “the best comedy is the stuff about communication, where you go, ‘Do you feel like this? Have you noticed this?’” and it’s that way he brings people in that makes his act work.
Tom is gay and was bullied at school. He says he has loving parents but had feelings of shame about his sexuality and coming out.
“I feared people would make fun of me if I used a big word or if I held my hands in a certain way or I did button up my blazer. If I was clearing up at a party I wasn’t able to do it with a great sense of joy. Now, I’m like, ‘This is the party, I’ve just tidied up. Let’s have a canape workshop.’ I can celebrate this eccentricity.”
It sounds like Tom’s life and comedy, which he talks about in his book No Shame, is in part a journey towards working with what he’s got, accepting it and by doing so, accepting himself.
He says: “My journey in the book is that comedy is about taking those feelings of unhappiness and rather than burying them, putting them on a stage. I hope the book reaches out to people so they feel less alone.”
Not all of us, obviously, want to be up on stage trying to make strangers laugh – indeed for lots of people that could easily be the most terrifying thing they can think of. But I thought there was something inspiring about the way he has been able to integrate different parts of his personality, even the bits he might not like so much, and use that increased acceptance to make his way forward in the world.
The interview concludes with him saying: “Ingrained senses of shame and sadness that come from not feeling quite right don’t go away overnight” and that certainly has the ring of truth. But by examining the things we feel sad or ashamed about and perhaps by talking to someone in a non-judgmental, safe and supportive space about them, we can manage them and work with them to live a more accepting, more fulfilled life.