It was an experience I'll take to my grave. On Saturday, April 29 I was the Best Man at a friend's wedding in Washington and, when it came to my speech, I bombed. We're talking Hiroshima. I even broke out in what stand-up comedians refer to as a "flop sweat": the worse the audience reaction, the more I sweated. By the end of my speech I was standing in a little pool of water which wasn't much fun considering I was only six inches tall. To add to my humiliation, the audience included the editor of GQ, the acting editor of The Times and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
My big mistake was in not making sufficient allowances for the fact that the majority of people in attendance were American. The wedding was between Caroline Bruce, a 29-year-old Hollywood producer, and Sean Macaulay, an old school friend of mine whose sister goes out with Gordon Brown. At American weddings, I discovered, it is simply not done for the Best Man to tell embarrassing stories about the Groom. In particular, any reference to the Groom's previous sexual history is completely taboo.
"It's good to see Sean looking so relaxed," I began in front of an audience of 250 mainly middle-aged Americans. "Apparently, this is the first wedding he's ever been to at which he doesn't feel guilty about having shagged the Bride the night before."
Total silence. I moved swiftly on.
"I'm only going to tell one off-colour joke this evening and I'm going to tell it straight away so Sean can relax. I understand that he and Caroline are going to be spending their wedding night here in Washington and I'd like to offer one small piece of advice..." I reached into my pocket and pulled out an enormous cigar: "When in Rome..."
Deafening silence. A man at the back looked at his watch. I pressed on.
"When I said that was the only off-colour joke I was going to tell this evening that was a shameless, barefaced lie. But, hey, when in Rome..."
Not only did this not get a single laugh, I could sense the audience becoming distinctly hostile. The Bride's father, Edward E. Bruce, is a partner in the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling and the legal profession was well represented at the Chevy Chase Country Club that evening. Mr Bruce and his colleagues didn't seem to appreciate being called liars by a former colonialist.
By now, I knew I'd completely misjudged the audience. The sensible thing would have been to throw away the rest of my speech, utter a few platitudes about the Bride and Groom and sit down. Unfortunately, I was robbed of the power of decision. Successive waves of anxiety had left me lobotomized. I was on automatic pilot. I'd memorized my lines and I was going to deliver them.
"Back in Britain, we're not used to this level of hospitality," I continued. "When I heard how many people had been invited I asked Sean if this was going to be the American equivalent of a British Royal Wedding. He said, 'Absolutely not. Caroline and I intend to stay married for longer than three minutes.'
The centrepiece was a bit in which I pretended that I'd bought a Best Man speech from a Web site called Speech-O-Matic.com. All you had to do was plug in the names of the Bride and Groom and, presto, a fully-written speech was emailed to you 30 seconds later. The trouble was, I'd got the Bride's surname and Christian name muddled up, so instead of "Caroline Bruce" I'd plugged in "Bruce Caroline".
"It's a great honour to be the Best Man at Sean and Bruce's wedding," I began, pretending to read from the text that had been emailed to me by Speech-O-Matic.com. "Being the Best Man at a gay wedding is a little like being the Maid of Honour at a straight wedding: if I'm the Best Man, how come Sean's not marrying me?"
If anyone in the audience found this funny, they weren't about to let on. April 29, I later discovered, is Gay Pride Day and hundreds of thousands of homosexuals had marched on Washington that afternoon to protest about the fact that gay marriage is still illegal in America. What I was doing was the equivalent of standing up in front of a white audience on Martin Luther King Day and telling a series of racist jokes.
"I'd like to thank the Bridesmaids," I continued, "Stan, Gregg, Ron and Paul. Ron is hoping to catch the bouquet today. Earlier he said to me, 'You know what my problem is? Always a bridesmaid, never a groom.'"
"It ends with a toast. 'May your hair remain thick and lustrous, may your union be blessed with a menagerie of very small dogs, and if you're ever arrested, can you make sure it's in San Francisco rather than Washington? Out there, they don't read you your miranda rights, they read you your Carmen Miranda rights. Ladies and gentleman, the groom and groom."
My next "funny" bit involved quoting from a speech Salman Rushdie had given at Bill Buford's wedding in which the Booker Prize winner had compared the chances of finding happiness in marriage to the odds of jumping out of a plane at 50,000 feet and landing in a haystack. "It was the worst Best Man speech ever given," I quipped.
"Until now," Sean Macaulay shouted at the top of his lungs. It got the first laugh of the evening. It was at this point that I broke out in the "flop sweat".
As I struggled on towards the end, sweat falling off me like raindrops, people began to chat noisily among themselves. Some even got up and drifted out of the room. I ended by quoting from a letter Sean had written me in 1984 in which he described his ideal woman. Needless to say, she bore a remarkable resemblance to Caroline Bruce. It was no good. By now, no one was listening. I sat down to almost total silence.
Afterwards, Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, overheard two men discussing my performance in the lavatory. "So that's the famous British sense of humour," one said to the other, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Naturally, my first impulse was to blame the American sense of humour, but Gordon Brown put me straight on that. "You had some good jokes," he said generously, "but you should have taken your audience into account." He's right, of course. In Washington, apparently, marriage is not something to be taken lightly--unless you're in the White House. No doubt that joke wouldn't have got a single laugh either.