Teachers can never really be sure what effects their lessons are going to have on their pupils.
With Radio DJ Christian O’Connell, for example, it’s unlikely his tutor knew that an assignment set in the 1980s would eventually lead to the boy creating stand-up comedy...or crossing lightsabers with Darth Vader.
Christian, who now has a popular breakfast programme on Absolute Radio, was 13 when his teacher told him and his classmates to write down their ambitions.
“We spent the lesson coming up with lists of everything we wanted to do in our lives before we hit 40,” explains Christian. “So, it was weird about three months before me hitting 40 finding this list.”
The goals he’d scribbled down were typical of a teenage schoolboy letting his imagination run wild.
Christian says: “Some of the things, like ‘have my own radio show’, I had managed to actually do but there were some other things. In the ’80s I was obsessed with Star Wars, so there was ‘fight Darth Vader’, ‘become BMX World Champion’ and ‘play Bryan Robson at Subbuteo’.”
Finding the list was great timing and it gave Christian some irresistible ideas for things to do before reaching the big 4-0.
It also became clear to the DJ that the material he was generating might find its most suitable home in stand-up:
“Midway through trying to do all these weird things – like trying to track down Dave Prowse (now in his seventies) and persuade him to put on the Darth Vader outfit once more and fight me – I thought, if I was ever going to do a stand-up show and go to Edinburgh it would be about this.”
Christian’s antics led to the creation of ‘This is 13’, which heads for Brighton Komedia on March 22. But, before I ask more about his stand-up, I have to make sure I heard him correctly.
You actually had a mock lightsaber battle with David Prowse?
“I wouldn’t say mock, this was a fight to the death!” Christian laughs, explaining that the ‘battle’ took place in some woods near Croydon.
“There are only two people who have fought Darth Vader. Obviously, one of them is Luke and the other one is now me,” he states proudly. “But it was strange because I was an almost 40-year-old asking a pensioner if he could put on a ridiculously heavy outfit and if we could have a lightsaber battle.”
He continues: “The funniest thing was that he said ‘look, you can come round, I’ll put the outfit on and we can have a lightsaber fight. We just can’t do it in the house. My wife is worried we’ll break something’. I love the fact that even Darth Vader, the most evil man in the galaxy, is still under the thumb like any married man.”
The show’s not all Star Wars, of course. One anecdote involves having a Ferris Bueller style ‘day off’ by trying to get free flights to Chicago and a Ferrari. Christian’s set also contains stories from his radio programme; including the time David Cameron let a couple of rude words slip on air back in 2009.
Christian’s high energy conversational style is suggestive of his brand of comedy. However, he defines his approach simply as “storytelling and observation”, explaining that it’s tricky to pinpoint what exactly makes someone funny.
A quick search on the Internet reveals a variety of positive reviews of Christian’s set, which did well at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year.
However, putting it mildly, Christian’s first appearance at Edinburgh back in 1994 wasn’t so successful.
Christian puts it less mildly. “I died on my backside,” he admits. “I was in a talent competition called ‘So You Think You’re Funny?’ I’d won a regional heat in London and I was told to go up to this kind-of semi-final in Edinburgh.”
The young man thought his dreams were about to come true but cruel reality intervened.
“The guy on before me was Julian Barratt, who went on to become The Mighty Boosh with Noel Fielding. He was brilliant. He was original, charming and I wasn’t. I didn’t really have an act and I went on after him and they just sort of stared at me politely…and I died. Frank Skinner was in the audience, I slept in a shop doorway, I didn’t have a lot of money and cried and I got the first train out of Edinburgh.”
Christian vowed to never return, but an urge to confront his fears finally got the better of him last year. His Edinburgh 2013 set was a delight for many comedy enthusiasts and one prominent stand-up comedian in particular.
Frank Skinner, who saw Christian’s final gig in Edinburgh, said he loved his performance.
“I didn’t know he was in the audience until afterwards,” says Christian. “He came up to me and it was amazing. It was the perfect end to the show.”
Christian has spent 15 years wittily interviewing famous guests on the radio – Ricky Gervais, David Tennant, Jeremy Clarkson and Karl Pilkington to name but a few – but he finds that being funny with stand-up requires a different approach.
“They’re both talking and hopefully trying to entertain people,” he says. “But in the morning when you’re doing breakfast shows, people dip in and out of what you’re saying.”
He continues: “With stand-up in the evening, you’re their night out and there’s an expectation for that. You’ve really got to bring it. You’ve got to do it and I find that pressure really exciting. I love it.”
“There can’t be so much waffle,” Christian observes, but he’s quick to add that any necessary pruning of his material has had an unforeseen benefit.
“The knock-on effect was that, through working the timing, by getting up in front of people and having to be a lot sharper with my delivery, the radio show became a lot funnier and sharper, as well.”
The Comedic Force is strong with this one.
l ‘This is 13’ is on at Brighton Komedia on Saturday, March 22, at 8pm. Tickets cost £15. Call 0845 293 8480 seven days a week from 12pm to 7pm.
By Lawrence Smith