My last two days’ blogs have been extracts from a chat Liam Lonergan had with comedian and club owner Ivor Dembina for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.
This is a final extract.
Liam Lonergan: How long have you been doing comedy?
Ivor Dembina: Well I came into it in the early 1980s. I was the second wave. The first wave was Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, The Young Ones and all that lot. They got going in 1979. I would have come in about 1982, 1983.
Liam: So, since you started stand-up, have you been able to sustain it as a career or have you at any point had to have another career?
Ivor: Well, for thirty years I’ve earned a small living from it. The money has come primarily through running little clubs and promoting gigs. I’ve done the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve been abroad a couple of times. I’ve never earned much serious money from it. I’ve never really sought to. That’s been secondary. But some people have got very rich out of it. No question. I mean, some of ‘em are multi-millionaires.
Liam: Russell Brand.
Liam: Harry Hill had the golden handcuff contract with ITV where he was getting I think it was £10 million over three years.
Ivor: These are people that, when I last worked with them, I gave them £50. Steve Coogan. Y’know, these people they’re millionaires many times over. And just work it out for yourself. An agency like Off The Kerb, when they got £20 million out of the BBC for Jonathan Ross they got 15% of it. They got £3 million for one deal.
Someone like Russell Howard was charging £40 a ticket for – I can’t remember exactly but – something like an 18,000 capacity venue for 55 minutes work… Micky Flanagan does four nights at the O2. You see a poster with Micky on it. Then a week later you see the same poster only this time it’s a DVD of the show. The people who go and buy it provided the laughter track. Now they’re going to buy the DVD.
Liam: Did you ever make an attempt to penetrate that side of it? Did you ever wanna get into TV?
Ivor: I was never a gagster. Television never wanted me and I never wanted TV. I thought I’m not bad as a live comic. I’m worth seeing. I think I write quite interesting jokes. I just don’t think telly’s for me. Yeah, there are times when I think I wouldn’t mind some of that. The things that I really envy about people who have made it on television are they don’t have to bust their balls to get an audience. People will turn up because they’ve been heard of. And they get to play in nice venues because, obviously, if you’re playing a West End theatre, the whole atmosphere is designed to make you look good. You’ve got perfect sound. The lights are great. The audience is comfortable. You haven’t got people walking in and out of the bar. You haven’t got a PA that’s gonna collapse on you. You haven’t got a group of drunks in the front row. You haven’t got to deal with it. You just go on and do what you do. To me, it’s the only incentive for fame: that you’d get invited to play in nice rooms.
Liam: So what would be a really good night for you?
Ivor: Well, I was up at the Edinburgh Fringe last year playing a small fifty seater venue and it sold out throughout the run. And I was amazed. I was genuinely shocked that fifty people wanted to come and see me every night. I’m not being modest here. I thought: Bloody hell. Well maybe my show’s not that bad. I’ve just got used to failure. I don’t resent it. These are choices that I’ve made. A lot of the people who have had good television careers, they’re very talented, they’re very funny. I mean, Frank Skinner’s an incredibly funny guy. And, in his way, so is Michael McIntyre. It’s not my taste but McIntyre’s great.
Liam: With that sort of demographic.
Ivor: It really works, yeah. But I’m more interested in comedy as an art form where, basically, you’re communicating something human to the audience or sharing something with them. I think that tends to work, roughly, in auditoriums up to about a maximum of 200 people. This arena comedy, I just don’t get it. One of my favourite comedians of all time is Woody Allen. If he came over here and did a theatre I would do my best to get a ticket. But, if he was on at the O2 Arena, I wouldn’t go. What’s the point?
I think what’s happened with me is that, in London… I’m a bit like Lewis Schaffer. Quite a lot of people sort of know who I am. Quite a lot of those like me. They might come and see me again.
Liam: You’ve got your own dedicated following, as Lewis Schaffer seems to have. The thing I found quite remarkable with Lewis was that everyone who was coming up to the door he knew their names. Instantly. He was instantly on first names terms. And it was like he’s cultivated this atmosphere that was, sort of, a tree house gang.
Ivor: You used the word cultivated. It’s interesting. If you break down the word cultivated you get the word cult. What he’s trying to do is create a cult of Lewis Schaffer, which is beginning to work a bit but ultimately his problem now is… we’re not in that main world of agents or TV or…
Liam: Well, that’s my main angle. It’s people who are just outside of…
Ivor: At the moment people like me and Lewis qualify. You could say that Stewart Lee is very interesting to observe at the moment because he was in that position but now he’s got his own TV series and he’s had his show on at The National Theatre. Mark Thomas is a bit like that. On the one hand he’s Leftie, he’s got his credentials. But he’s ‘appy to knock out a DVD or pop up on telly. Jerry Sadowitz is another one. He’s great. He’s way outside… He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s fantastic.
Liam: Lewis Schaffer said he thought Jerry Sadowitz was good but he thought he lacked humanity. He thought he was just… just pitbull teeth.
Ivor: I don’t agree. I think Jerry has got a great humanity. Whenever I see Jerry I never think You’re cruel. Never think that. I get that sometimes when I watch Frankie Boyle. I think he plays to people’s cruelty. But I just think Jerry’s dead funny.
Liam: Jerry seems real. Someone who’s quite embittered. Someone who’s got a chip on his shoulder, who’s punching upwards.
Ivor: He’s letting us see his pain. And that’s fine. Whereas I think with someone like Frankie Boyle it’s more of a case of What can I say that’s going to really wind people up? And he does it and he does it very well. But if you go look at a Frankie Boyle video and you cut away to the audience, they’re exactly the same sort of people who are laughing at Michael McIntyre. It’s cruelty for the masses. Whereas Jerry is showing us his pain and making us laugh at it at the same time. What I think Frankie Boyle does is Let’s have a laugh at the pain of others. Big difference.
Liam: That’s why I thought it was good with Lewis Schaffer because even though it comes across as quite polished like Mort Sahl or the old…
Ivor: The old vaudeville…
Liam: … there is a neediness. There is that sort of ‘revealing himself’ that I think is very attractive.
Ivor: He just needs to relax a bit. Relaxation isn’t his strength.
Liam: Do you feel, in your own personal… Do you think pathology… does that feed into, into your act?
Ivor: One of the myths in comedy is that all comedians are somehow depressives or manic depressives. It’s just bullshit. Obviously some people have definitely experienced mental health problems. Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock. Russell Brand has been very open about his addictions. But when we were talking about Jerry Sadowitz… he puts his pain on stage. He allows you to see it but it’s got nothing to do with mania or psychosis or mental health.
It’s about putting pain onstage in a way that other people will appreciate. Not to upset them. Peter Hoopal once said to me: “You can show ‘em the scars but never show ‘em the wounds”.