I went to see The Comedy Store Players’ improvisation show last night. They perform twice weekly at The Comedy Store in London. Before the show, I chatted to Neil Mullarkey, one of the founding members, in the dressing room.
“In the old Comedy Store in Leicester Square,” said Neil, “there was no toilet in the dressing room. There was a sink you could pee in. Sometimes a woman would say: I’m going to have a pee; do you mind leaving the room? And we did. Otherwise they’d have had to go all round and queue up with the punters. But now we have a toilet.”
“Most comedians,” I said, “are barking mad, but you’re now a businessman, so you can’t be that mad.”
Neil runs improvisation workshops under the name Improv Your Biz – “using improvisational theatre to enhance people’s skills in communication, leadership and innovation.”
He told me last night: “I apply the skills and ethos of improv to business people, but I don’t consider myself a business person. I still do the Comedy Store Players, but that’s about the only showbiz I do these days. I really enjoy teaching people and looking at how organisations run. I have made my choices and I feel very pleased by them.
“The idea of getting in a car or a train and going to some distant place and doing a gig to some people who are drunk and not that interested and then coming home again does not appeal to me greatly. In how many professions do you want the customer to be inebriated? I can only think of two – gambling and prostitution.
“It drives me mad sometimes when I do a corporate gig and they tell me: It’s cabaret seating. And I say: No, what you mean is it’s catering seating. I tell them: I would like a theatre style, if possible, so the audience can be as close to one another as possible because laughter is social. You need to be near someone else laughing, facing the stage and not at a table where you’re half looking over your shoulder. And I also say: Can I go on before dinner?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the audience then is not drunk and tired. A friend of mine says the audience loses interest exponentially every minute after 9.30pm. That’s at a corporate gig where they haven’t invested to come and see the show. In a club it’s slightly different because they have decided to come and watch a comedy show.”
“Which audience is more drunk, though?” I asked.
“In the 1980s,” said Neil, “when the Comedy Store Players did corporate gigs and asked for suggestions from the audience, I was shocked by the level of filth the audience would shout out. These were people in front of their boss! But those were the days when there was an unlimited bar, so all social convention went out the window.”
Neil used to be in a double act – Mullarkey & Myers – with Mike Myers, who went on to appear in Saturday Night Live on US TV and to write and star in the Austin Powers movies. There is a YouTube video of Mullarkey & Myers in their 1985 Edinburgh Fringe show.
“The Comedy Store Players started in 1985,” Neil told me, “and around that time I used to host the Tuesday night and Mike and I did a longer 40-minute version of our show. We were on the bill with people like The Brown Paper Bag Brothers (Otis Cannelloni and John Hegley) and then, starting at 10.00pm or 10.30pm was the Open Mike Night and, by 2.00am, it was very odd. You had people with musical instruments talking about their time in mental health institutions.
“An Open Mike night at a comedy club back then did attract a certain kind of strange person. Now they have social media and other places to say what they might want to say. But that’s what the alternative comedy circuit was like in the 1980s. You’d be in some dodgy pub, there would be three people in the audience and twelve people performing and you would split the door take of £3. It was great fun.”
“Sounds much like it is now,” I said. “but there was maybe more of a variety of different types of act back then.”
“There was The Iceman,” said Neil.
The Iceman’s act – as previously blogged about – was simply to melt a block of ice. But he usually failed.
“I remember,” said Neil, “being at Banana Cabaret – a vast space – and there were three people howling with laughter at The Iceman – me, Mike Myers and Ian McPherson – all performers. All the ‘normal’ people were thinking: Where’s the entertainment in this? What’s going on? What’s the point? It was just brilliant, wonderful. It was such a riposte to showbiz smoothness and slickness that it was a joy to behold.”
“Did he have the repetitious music?” I asked.
“I can’t realise you love me,” sang Neil enthusiastically. “And the sounds. Shhh-wssshhhhh. With the thunder and the rain. And then, after about 15 or 18 minutes it was I can’t realise you love me – But I don’t love you! – What?
“That was a joy to us. A joy. Because we had seen boring, hack performers.”
“Even then?” I asked.
“When I started in the 1980s with Mike Myers and Nick Hancock and occasionally on my own,” said Neil, “there would be a room above a pub and the other acts were weird non-professional stand-ups in their work clothes. Mike and I had rehearsed and put on different clothes to do the show. We did theatrical sketches that asked you to create the fourth wall.
“I remember one time in the mid-to-late 1980s seeing this very talented young guy – an open spot – who had incredible stage presence doing characters. He ran offstage between characters to change his costume and he had his manager with him. A manager! I had not heard this idea of having a manager. Surely you just turned up and took the cash? The act was a man called Steve Coogan.
“Now there are people who were born after I started who leave university or college and say I want to be a comedian and they have a manager who will give them £50 a week and get them on the road and they can get better at their job and make a career. That was unheard-of in my day.
“When I started, there was The Comedy Store, Jongleurs, the Earth Exchange, a few student gigs and CAST New Variety. So there wasn’t much chance of making a career of it until, gradually, people like Off the Kerb and Avalon started opening up the idea of student shows and clubs outside London.”
“Aah! the Earth Exchange,” I said, “there’s the story of some act who threw meat at the audience and was not booked again.”
The Earth Exchange in Archway Road served only vegetarian food and the room was so tiny it felt as if the performers were almost sitting on your table.
“Steve Bowditch of The Greatest Show On Legs,” remembered Neil, “used to do a show called Naff Cabaret with a guy called Fred and the story is that, at the Earth Exchange, he pulled a top hat out of a rabbit.”
“Presumably a stuffed rabbit?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Neil. “It was one of those stories you hear.”
I think both of us hoped it was a real rabbit.
I asked Steve Bowditch about it this morning.
“Did you really pull a top hat out of a rabbit?” I asked him.
“Not that I remember,” said Steve. “But I might have done…”
Memory fades after a career in surrealism.
Neil also remembered: “They had a toilet onstage – Naff Cabaret – a toilet! and there would be showbiz music and – Ta-Daaah!! – they would pull a sausage out of the toilet as if it was a poo. Freud would have applauded this because comedy is We’re laughing at death and poo is death. Scatology is our escape from the inevitability of mortality.”
“I didn’t go to Cambridge University like you,” I said, “so I’ve not heard the idea that Comedy is laughing at death before.”
“Who knows?” said Neil. “Something like that. I haven’t read it myself, but I’m prepared to quote it. Why do we want laughter?… Is it to purge ourselves of the dark thoughts we have – and so the clown, the jester, the comedian brings out the darkness and makes it somehow acceptable?
“Howard Jacobson writes wonderfully about how Comedy should be gritty and earthy and bring out all the snot and filth, because that’s its job. I dunno that I agree with that, but I can see there’s a role. You could say Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr are bringing out all the stuff that we dare not speak in regular discourse and making it entertainment, making the world somehow cleansed or purged.”
… CONTINUED HERE …
Comedian Nick Revell tells me that the ‘Top Hat Out Of The Rabbit’ routine was done by Lumiere and Son in their 1980 show Circus Lumiere… and the act banned from the Earth Exchange for throwing meat was The Port Stanley Amateur Dramatic Society (Andy Linden and Cliff Parisi).