The monthly-ish Quantum Leopard comedy show in London this Saturday is sold out in advance – as always.
Organiser James Ross does not have a website for the shows. He thinks it would be a waste of time and money. He says: “The Quantum Leopard Facebook group is very much the key mechanism for publicity.”
His shows are also booked solid with acts for the next six months. Clearly, he must be doing something right.
I met James at King’s Cross station in London. He had just returned from a tour of Scotland and the North of England and performing in people’s front rooms in Edinburgh and Newcastle.
“Was that” I asked, “just a ploy to get free accommodation in people’s front rooms?”
“That helps.” laughed James. “Don’t get me wrong. But popping along, doing my show for an hour is a good way of meeting people properly. Interesting places, interesting people and it’s a fun thing.”
“How many people fit into a living room?” I asked.
“About a dozen, which is all I need.”
“How,” I asked, “do you find people who want comedy performed in their front rooms?”
“So far, most are ones I met when I was doing my ‘bucket speech’ at the end of my Edinburgh Fringe show last year. I did one show last Thursday in London. One in Edinburgh on Saturday. And I’m booking some more in.”
“Your policy on comedy material at the regular Quantum Leopard shows in London,” I said, “is quite restrictive.”
“Yes,” James agreed. “The content policy is no racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, chav bashing… No picking on the audience, no rape jokes… And, in return, no heckling from the audience.”
“If you ban all that,” I suggested, “there’s nothing much left.”
“I strongly but politely disagree,” he told me.
“You allow plenty of four-letter words, though.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s fine. That’s yesterday’s taboo.”
“So why this policy on what material comics can use?” I asked.
“The mini-manifesto behind it is that there is an audience for nice, kind, friendly accessible comedy that is not really very well served by a lot of comedy clubs. There are so many people who just get put off going to mainstream comedy clubs. There are a lot of MCs out there who are channeling some really quite barely-controlled rage. And a lot of men who have a problem with women or picking victims and thinking that ‘really horrible’ is the same as ‘funny’. It’s just not on and audiences don’t like it. A lot of the comedy circuit is horrible and our gigs are so much more fun for much nicer people.
“The reason why we get full houses at Quantum Leopard and why people come back month after month is because people know it is a safe place to be. They CAN sit on the front row to have a good view of a nice show and they know they’re not going to have the piss ripped out of them. If people want the ‘intimate bullying’ experience, there are plenty of places that serve it up.”
“Do you have a real job?” I asked.
“At the moment, I’m working for a non-partisan political fact-checking charity. My specialism is media monitoring. I don’t really want to do comedy full time.”
“Because the pay is terrible and it is really insecure. It’s not the sort of wage or stability you can raise a family on, unless you’re happy to live on lentils in the back of your car. Also, a lot of the decision-makers in comedy are really unpleasant people and I don’t want to have to suck up to them in order to make enough money to live. I always want to have the option to turn down a terrible gig or a gig for a terrible promoter.”
“So you really want to do politics?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, really. I think there are enough people like me in politics already – pale, male, Oxbridge.”
“So you are not going to stand for Parliament?”
“No way. You have to be polite to a lot more people than I’m constitutional capable of being.”
“Where are you going to be in ten year’s time?”
“Comedy-wise, I would like to be one of these people who do ‘a fun hour’ every August (at the Edinburgh Fringe) and who gets asked to do the fun gigs rather than having to chase them. A nice second income from something that I enjoy. I don’t want to have to do something for a living that I would otherwise enjoy. If you become financially dependent on it and you have to do it, then it’s much less compelling.
“I think the idea that you must enjoy what you do is an incredibly self-indulgent modern thing. Over 95% of human history, 95% of human beings worked at something they didn’t enjoy and probably died at 30 or in childbirth. So saying: Oh! This job doesn’t creatively fulfil me! is… Well, if you enjoyed your job, you would be paying them to do it because it would then be a hobby. Expecting labour to be anything other than alienating under a capitalist system one of whose fundamental precepts is the alienation of labour is nonsense and foolish and self-regarding hippie nonsense. That’s the type of philosophy you get on the back of a carton of Innocent Smoothies. That’s not a way to live.”
“So you like Mr Corbyn?” I asked.
“Mr Corbyn is brilliant.”
“Sooty & Sweep were my introduction to comedy,” said James. “I was always taken by my parents to Southport. There’s this big Scottish Dancing Convention there and they met while Scottish dancing. In the other big theatre part of this big hall there was always The Sooty Show. So my grandma would take me and my little brother to see Sooty & Sweep while my parents were off doing their Scottish dancing in the other room.”
“Why were they interested in Scottish Dancing?” I asked. “A Scottish background? Or a love of the surreal?”
“I honestly don’t know,” James replied. “I love my parents very much, but I think their sense of the surreal is really quite limited. My dad is a Scout leader; my mum is a Guide leader. They are both pillars of the community. I think they are a little puzzled where this strange changeling child came from.
“But I get my love of admin and organisation from them. The number of spreadsheets that back up what I do is colossal and there’s a bit of Public Service ethos behind Quantum Leopard. It’s got like a mission.”