Heard the one about the barrister who quit his job to become a stand-up comedian? According to his mother it was no joke, but more than two decades on Felix Dexter has no regrets about swapping the courtroom for the comedy club.
“My intention was to go the bar – I’m still a member of Gray’s Inn,” says Dexter. “Then, in 1984, I was in a passionate relationship with an American woman, so I decided to go to Stanford University in California and study for my Trinity [term] exams there. I ended up spending more time on the beach than in the library.”
When Dexter returned to London he decided to give his bar exams a second go, but then the comedy circuit called. In 1986, while he was resitting, he did his first stand-up spot at Jongleurs Comedy Club in Battersea.
“It was a disaster,” he recalls.
Yet the club liked his routine and invited him back. From there his reputation began to spread and within a year he was asked to appear on television.
“The media attention made me question my path,” says Dexter; and despite protestations from some of his family, he finally plumped for comedy.
“Ah yes, my mother has that in her arsenal of caustic comments,” he says fondly. “I can’t ever moan about anything to do with this job because she’ll say, ’You’re the one who decided to do it’.
“I suppose that some people think the bar gives you social legitimacy. If you’re working class and black you have lower social points to signify who you are. Law provides a pathway into a higher social echelon. That’s not my view, but it was the view of some of those around me.”
Dexter says he did enough of the bar course to recognise certain similarities between advocacy and stand-up.
“When I was doing my finals we had to do forensic training exercises like cross-examination,” he explains. “It’s important you win over the jury and create empathy with people.
“In relation to a stand-up gig, you’re aware of the audience and what they like. They may not like an attacking style. You have to have that connection.
“The state of mind you have to create in both circumstances isn’t so different. If I were to go back to the bar now I’d be better equipped for it. An essential part of both advocacy and stand-up is being able to be confident in front of people.”
Dexter says he has no regrets about not joining the bar, believing it would not have sustained his interest in the long term. By contrast, his comedy career has blossomed and he has also branched out into acting.
He appeared in the West End version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest alongside Christian Slater and almost ruined the production after giving the star chicken pox ahead of the opening night.
Dexter was also involved in the recording of Radio 4’s Down the Line with Paul Whitehouse, where he created a barrister character based on his legal experiences.
The comedian also dabbled in acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company (a job his mother did approve of), appearing in The Winter’s Tale and Pericles.
All this is a far cry from a stand-up gig he once performed in front of inmates at a maximum security prison.
“I turned up to do it for charitable reasons,” Dexter explains. “Then the governor told me I’d be performing in front of murderers, multiple murderers and people with personality disorders. I was in a state of anxiety, but I was locked in and had no option but to go on.
“After the terror of feeling trapped I became completely relaxed. It turned out to be a good gig, although I didn’t take the mickey out of people.”
Had Dexter chosen a career at the bar his mother might have been happy, but he would have been full of regrets. Instead he has chosen to draw on comical experiences from his past in his performances – and barristers, with their wicked wit and quick-fire banter, have proved a great source of inspiration.