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Nina Conti: "I was nervous of fainting or puking"

In our latest Comedy Timing column, ventriloquist and comedian Nina Conti – alongside Monkey – talks us through the defining moments of her life

Nina Conti

So Monkey, the idea here is that we write this article together.

I’ll be in bold. Is that OK, Nina?

Yes.

Good coz I don’t want it to look like a play.

We need to focus on five moments that shaped my career, Monkey.

What a wankathon.

And my first one would be…

1. Mum’s puppet theatre in the loft

My mum built a puppet theatre.

You never told me it ran in the family.

We dragged newspaper strips through a gluey floury mixture to make lumpy headed characters. There was a prince with a moustache. He was easily confused and spoke with a thick Russian accent. 'Where is the fairies? And which is the witch?' he’d say, bumping his face into everything and making me laugh my head off.

And here I thought Dad was the influence. I thought I was Greek like his character in Shirley Valentine.

No, monkey. If anything you're Scottish like my grandad. Anyway, getting ahead of ourselves. Mum put everything into the performance, even though her arms would have been aching, held up as she squatted from view.

As I wish you would.

Nina Conti

2 The Warp

I was working with Ken Campbell. A maverick underlord of British theatre, known to seekers of psychedelic enhancement, classical stagecraft and counter culture.

Who?

He was putting on a 24-hour long play – that’s 22 hours too long – to awaken our lizard brains into giving more ‘real’ performances. He noticed I was trying to be pretty and boring and lead-lady-ish, so he sent me to get some false teeth made. They interrupted my face in a way that freed me. I went from a careful self-conscious performance to gnashing those gnashers and getting my tits out. It was my first mask, and hence a huge liberation.

False teeth and sleep deprivation – a winning combo.

3. As You Like it / the RSC

I was thrilled to join the acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company.

But you quickly turned into a naughty ungrateful hungover wench…

Well it was hard standing in the background in a corset holding an embroidery cushion I never got to stitch and pretending to be interested in what the speaking parts were saying.

This was an inverse catalyst to do something completely different.

Nina Conti

4 Kitchen Video Diaries

At Ken’s behest I tried ventriloquism, and suddenly I felt like I was doing something that matched the pattern of how I thought.

You don’t think in monologue, you vacillate. And you can hide in the shadows of inconsistency instead of having a single formed opinion.

I started making ventriloquism videos at home on my digicam.

They usually ended with me dry humping an inanimate object, most often a pint glass.

I made a fat bunch of VHS tapes and sent them to all kinds of people I’m embarrassed to recall.

Bill Bailey was confused, but Arthur Smith was encouraging.

5. Banana Cabaret

Arthur Smith alerted me to a new act night at his local pub in Balham. It ran as a competition, judged by the audience.

You only had one joke which you’d found on the internet: ‘Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because he was dead.’ That wasn’t gonna last the five-minute set length.

“The Monkey humping the pint glass is good” reassured Arthur. “Do that.” It was scary, standing up in a pub. They might not listen. They might boo.

You looked at me in the bag and made me mouth ‘Don’t worry Nina, I got this.’

I needed reassurance; I was the only girl for starters.

Slut.

They didn’t talk to me, they’d been doing it longer, they didn’t know it was my first gig. I was nervous of fainting or puking. My hands were trembling.

Inside me.

When I walked up to the mic my blood was over-pumping. And when I got you out my bag there was an uneasy shift in the crowd..

Uh-oh it’s a girl with her teddy: this is gonna be shit.

But the internet joke paid off and I heard laughter. I was so relieved it wasn't just me that found you funny.

By the time I started humping the pint glass your hand had stopped trembling and was giving me a confident ramming.

I remember thinking; we’ve done it Monkey, we’re safe. I might even be OK in life.

And when the votes came in, my humping won the night.

And £20 cash.

Big time, Nina.

Thanks, buddy.

Don’t mention it, bitch. 

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To see Nina perform live this March, go to artstheatrewestend.co.uk

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