I thought Martin Besserman must have been running comedy clubs in London for the last 25 years. He seems to have been around forever.
I was wrong, as I found out when I talked to him last night.
He currently runs two Monkey Business comedy venues in north west London – in Belsize Park/Hampstead and in Kentish Town – the first for higher profile acts; the latter mostly for newer acts.
“Initially,” said Martin Besserman, “I ran a club in Kentish Town at a bar called O’Reilly’s which, when you go in, it looks like everyone’s done something bad in their life.”
“And they probably have,” I said. “It’s your ideal comedy audience.”
“I was upstairs there for about a year,” continued Martin, “and then their former manager recommended me to the Sir Richard Steele pub in Hampstead. And they were very impressed because, within the first month, I had acts like Harry Hill and Omid Djalili and they were bewildered and really impressed that I managed to build it up so quickly. I’ve been there eight years now.”
“I’m still bewildered,” I said “that people like Harry Hill try out new material at Monkey Business.”
“He did four shows with me last year,” said Martin.”He’s a very nice man and he remembers his roots. If they’ve had a good time at your club, then they remember you. People sometimes take a chance on you and, if you form some sort of bond… I mean, we do come from different backgrounds.
“My background was doing what my father did – selling net curtains at East Street market in the Elephant & Castle to sexually-frustrated middle-aged women. In fact, I worked next to Jade Goody at one time. She got sacked for nicking a quid about one year before she became famous on Big Brother.”
“Monkey Business,” I said, “is a very well-known club now.”
“I think because I’ve been running it for such a long time,” said Martin. “People have said there’s no other promoter like me, that I have a certain style and I don’t try to copy any other club. So maybe there’s a uniqueness, because the philosophy of the MC and the person organising the club is certainly significant.”
“What’s your philosophy?”
“It’s all about individuality,” explained Martin. “People go to expensive workshops and think that they can learn to perform. I’m sure sometimes it can help them develop whatever potential they might have but, at the end of the day, you just have to have natural funny bones. There has to be something about you that is special.”
“I suspect,” I said, “that workshops give people who have ability the confidence to do what they could do anyway. And, if you have no ability, you will still have no ability at the end.”
“You still do that?”
“Yes, in the summer. I occasionally drag performers there – I dragged Reg D.Hunter there. For all the black guys at Speakers’ Corner, he was the new Obama, although Reg wouldn’t get up until I bought him a bottle of vodka.”
“And you go there in the summer because it’s sunny?” I asked.
“I prefer it when it’s warm,” agreed Martin.
“Has it changed?” I asked.
“It has lost,” said Martin. “a lot of great orators like Lord Soper (a prominent Methodist minister, socialist and pacifist at the end of the last century) and lots of interesting eccentrics. But, for me, it’s still important because it’s a symbol of our democracy: the fact one can go there and express what one feels to be fundamentally right or wrong with Society.’
“So what’s your soapbox schtick?” I asked.
“I learnt from Lord Soper when I was 16 that, if you want to convey a message, you should always do it with humour. There IS a serious point I’m trying to make there: Make Love, Not War, though you would have to listen to me for a long time to work that one out.
“It’s difficult because I’m Jewish and there are a lot of Moslem people at Speakers’ Corner – you’ve got Edgware Road close by, which is mainly Arabic – so Jewish speakers tend to have a fairly hard time – they’re heckled fiercely. There are some people there – not all – who are quite radical in their opinions and you have to address that. So, for me to convey a message which is not about taking sides but about uniting… it really amounts to me trying to get them to laugh with me – to buy in to my humour.
“I started my first comedy club in Edgware Road at a bar called the Hanging Tree. In those days, you got a lot of support from people like the Evening Standard and Time Out. I got 250 people turn up for the first gig.”
“Did you always want to be a club owner, as opposed to a jobbing comedian?”
“No,” Martin replied. “It happened by mistake. I used to enjoy comedy at the King’s Head, Crouch End. I knew that I liked it. I knew I wanted to be part of entertainment. I was in a band. It happened because I split up with a girlfriend and I wanted to impress her, so I started a comedy club. I thought there was more to me than just being a market trader.
“I had no idea that, eleven years later, I would still be running a comedy club which is one of the more well-known clubs.”
“At the moment,” I said, “the economic climate is very bad for comedy clubs. They’re closing down all over London and all over the country and you’ve just decided to open one in the heart of the West End of London. Have you gone mad?”
“It’s out of necessity,” explains Martin. “Eventually, they will be turning the Sir Richard Steele pub into flats and my time there is limited. It could be in a few months or a few years – getting the planning permission, the builders and all that – but it is going to happen.
“I’m a survivor. I’ve got a taste for the business. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to leave a club. I’ve had all sorts of things – I’ve had managers trying to hijack my club, I’ve been replaced with karaoke. It’s very difficult when you have to start a new club and have to build up your reputation all over again. But I feel confident in the West End.
“The other possible venue is above a very beautiful Turkish restaurant in Covent Garden – Sofra in Tavistock Street – two of the chefs there used to cook for the Royal Family – and they are going to let me do a trial show on New Year’s Eve. The room accommodates 100 people.”
“So,” I asked, “if that works well, you would be running a Leicester Square club AND a Covent Garden club?”
“Yes,” said Martin. “I have operated two clubs on a Saturday night before. It’s difficult. You have to trust the staff at the other venue. You can’t be at both.”
“Being a compere at a comedy club,” I said. “…People seem to think it’s easy, but it is very, very, very difficult. I have seen very good comedians try to MC and it can be a disaster – if they just tell gags – because it’s not about telling jokes between other people’s jokes.”
“Well,” said Martin, “there’s no rules about being a good MC. The testimony is if the audience have a good time. Sometimes I’m on form; sometimes I’m not. The MC can make or break a show. The job is not to hog the stage. An MC should have a minimum amount of time on stage, unless you’re Michael McIntyre. The job is to relax the audience. If the MC doesn’t deliver, all the acts he introduces will have a harder task, no matter how good they are.”
“When you compere,” I said, “you don’t really perform, you schmooze; you chat to the audience.”
“The audience should be your friends for the evening,” explained Martin. “You should act familiar with them, but you’ve got to know the boundaries of how far you can go. I have seen other people compere and they can be crude.
“Sometimes you can be crude but not if it doesn’t suit your personality: if it all seems out of place. I’m not saying I’m crude, but it’s tongue-in-cheek humour and I would like to think it’s not offensive.”
“All comedians manipulate the audience,” I suggested, “but the compere more than anyone is manipulating the atmosphere for the other acts.”
“It’s like boyfriend/girlfriend,” said Martin. “The relationship has to be that you have to feel comfortable in that other person’s company.”