The annual Chortle Awards are held tomorrow night at the Café de Paris in London’s West End.
The Chortle comedy website has been running since 2000.
I asked Chortle’s originator and editor Steve Bennett about the first Awards ceremony.
“It was basically just a piss-up in the Comedy Cafe’s bar,” he told me, “and I’d home-made them with the Chortle logo spectacles just nailed to a bit of wood.”
“And now they are…?”
“Better,” said Steve. “And the Chortle Awards are the only ones that cover live comedy nationally, really. The British Comedy Awards used to have a stand-up category but don’t any more.”
“When you started Chortle, you were a sub-editor for the Mail On Sunday...” I said.
“No,” he corrected me. “I was a local newspaper editor for the Informer free group in Surrey and West London. There was the Informer group and various other titles. We had the Surrey Herald for a bit.
“So I thought The internet is the way forward but the company weren’t that interested in websites. So then I thought What am I interested in? and I liked music and comedy and films and there were already music sites and IMDB and Empire but there was no site dedicated to comedy.”
“That was very smart of you,” I said, “That was about five years before other people twigged print was really dead.”
“After I’d been going a couple of months,” Steve explained, “I got signed up by a ‘proper’ dotcom company – they had seed capital and all that – so I gave up my newspaper job and went to work for them in a trendy brewery in Brick Lane. They lasted two months. They took me to Edinburgh in August 2000 and then they went bust in September. They pissed away a lot of money because they had all these grand ambitions. They wanted to do everything; it was towards the end of the dotcom bubble.”
“But you carried on with comedy because…?”
“Because, if you looked in the Comedy section of Time Out, you just saw a list of names with odd adjectives, but it didn’t really tell you what they were like; there wasn’t enough space. On a website, you could click on a link and get more information.”
“And also,” I suggested, “you can get comedy advertising from clubs, TV, video companies, movie releases, festivals, management, agents… it’s more than just one advertising stream.”
“I didn’t think that through at the time,” said Steve. “I wasn’t that commercially-minded at all.”
“It was presumably not financially viable from the start?” I asked. “It took – what? – three years?”
“No, a lot longer. Obviously, that was the advantage of being a journalist: you could pick up freelance work. So when the dotcom went bust, I was picking up freelance work at the Mirror and the Mail On Sunday.”
“And journalists have pretty thick skins.” I said. “People must slag you off over bad reviews on Chortle.”
“Not to my face so much,” explained Steve. “I know it goes on, but what can you do? The thing I get all the time is Oh, he’s a failed performer! They think everyone wants to do what they do, but I don’t.”
“You’ve never performed comedy?”
“No. It would be a horrible car crash. I don’t really like it. I have to present Chortle Award winners at the end of the student heats, but I just look awkward and uncomfortable and it’s not my skillset. I do what I do. I get to work in comedy, I get to play to my strengths. Why put myself through it? And also the more you know about comedy, the more you know you can’t do it. If I thought I had an aptitude – which I don’t – it would still take four years before I could stand on stage and be OK. I like comedy, but I don’t like being in the spotlight.”
“So you must like to be hated for giving bad reviews?”
“It’s probably not very nice to be written about, especially if you get one star. But there’s no answer to that. You can’t go round being nice to everybody and giving them all 4-star reviews. You have to be honest about it and hope that, over 13 years, people know that I’m trying to give an honest reaction.
“I’m also quite happy that I’m not just a reviewer. The website is used as a resource and has news on it. That’s mine. I made that. I’m proud of that. It would be weirder if my whole job was just being a critic.”
“So you’re proud of being an editor rather than just a critic?”
“Yeah. I think I have created something.”
“So who reads Chortle? Just comedians?”
“It’s not just comics and the comedy industry. If they all used it, that would just be about 5%-10% of my audience. It’s comedy geeks as well. Just as the NME is read by all the up-and-coming musicians but also by all the people who are interested in up-and-coming and established musicians… so are we. We are the comedy industry’s version of the NME.”
“I’ve written film and comedy reviews in the past,” I told Steve. “But I tended to write features and interviews, not reviews, because then I didn’t have to say some things are shit.”
“The difference between writing film reviews and comedy reviews,” said Steve, “is that you’re not going to see Tom Cruise in the bar afterwards whereas, in comedy, you’re immersed in it. People are around the whole time and I’m on the circuit three or four times a week; you bump into people.”
“Have you had people attack you?”
“Not for a while. A long time ago there were a couple of people. Verbally. But they tended to be people who were, for want of a better word, a Jongleurs act. They’re very good at crowd control; they’re very good at doing that specific comedy job, but they may be treading water. Especially when I first started, people would say Who’s this guy? Why’s he saying this isn’t very good? I’ve been doing comedy for twenty years!
“All I can write is whether I enjoyed it or not and explain to the best of my ability why I felt that way.”
“So when you write about an act, you don’t try to criticise it but to be constructively objective?”
“Ye-e-e-es…,” said Steve. “There are probably about 3% or 4% of shows I see that are just awful and appalling and I can’t think of a good word to say. But mostly you try and say… Well, it’s like being a director, I suppose. If you asked me my advice, this is what I would tell you, right or wrong.”
“So writing a review is not like being a heckler,” I suggested. “It’s like giving Director’s Notes to an actor… Objective insight into a performance after it has happened.”
“I would hope so,” replied Steve. “But you give the notes very publicly and everyone sees them. You also want to write entertainingly and write for a general audience.”