Almost the last laugh

In 2003 I was hosting shows in Kuala Lumpur for British comedians Mike Best and Steve Gunn. After the last show we fought the temptation to party and went to bed early because we had a very early flight to Jakarta the next morning. Just before dawn we checked out of the hotel, climbed into a taxi and headed for the airport. I took the front seat and told the very large Indian man wedged into the driver’s seat to take the toll road, and he grunted at me in grim acknowledgement. He was obviously not a morning person.

About half an hour into the journey I was gazing blankly out of the window, still half asleep, when I noticed the sound of very heavy breathing in the car. I assumed that one of the guys in the back had nodded off so I didn’t take much notice, until the sound started to get louder and then turned into heavy nasal snoring. I looked round at Mike and Steve in the back seat to see who had dozed off, ready to make some smart “lazy b**tard” remark. However Mike was busy reading a newspaper and Steve was gazing absent mindedly out of the window. My eyes swung quickly back to the driver… There he was, arms straight out in front of him holding the steering wheel, head flopped forward with his chin resting on his fat chest, his eyes closed and the breath from his nostrils parting the hair on his chest as he exhaled. He was fast asleep.

My eyes jumped to the speedometer—we were doing 120 km per hour and it was climbing steadily as his foot relaxed onto the accelerator. I panicked for a second but fought the urge to shout at him (or punch him in the face, which is what I really wanted to do), knowing it would shock him into consciousness and cause him to jerk the wheel one way or the other and send us hurtling off the road into oblivion. I thought quickly what to do while silently “shushing” Mike and Steve as their eyes rapidly widened in realisation of what was happening. I steadied the steering wheel with my left hand and placed my right hand lightly on the driver’s voluminous shoulder, gently rocking him awake, and saying “Hello… Hello…” very softly until his eyes slowly fluttered open. When his brain had processed what was happening, his eyes turned instantly into saucers and he blurted out a rapid succession of unintelligible Indian swear words as the car, despite my efforts to steady the wheel, swerved wildly across two very luckily empty lanes. He eventually regained his composure and repositioned the car on the straight and narrow in the slow lane, and I looked back to check on Mike and Steve. They were completely frozen in terror, their ashen white faces in mid scream, making them look like a candid snapshot taken on a rollercoaster ride.

I opened my window all the way and asked Mike and Steve to do the same, and I tuned the radio to an Indian station and turned it up full blast. By the time we reached the airport the driver was smiling, singing, and vigourously bobbing his head around to the sound of Bollywood.

I imagined what the headlines in the next day’s newspapers might have been had we crashed and died that day… “Last laugh for British funny men.” Nearly!

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