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The future of UK comedy according to a grumpy comic and a grumpy club owner

(Shorter versions of this piece appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian site We Speak News)

A grumpy Lewis Schaffer forces himself to smile

In yesterday’s blog about the alleged crisis in the UK comedy business, I quoted an anonymous club owner who disagreed with comedian Lewis Schaffer’s opinion expressed in a previous blog that “comedy club owners want repeatability. They should not want people coming out of shows and saying It’s always good. No, they should want ‘em to say Oh my god! Something fucking amazing happened there!”

Yesterday’s anonymous club owner claimed:

Lenny Bruce said you can be amazing AND be consistent – the two are not mutually exclusive and this should be the aim of all performers in comedy – aiming for an 80% wow rate. Anything lower and you aren’t a pro standup.”

This annoyed British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer yesterday.

“I am not going to continue talking about this,” he told me, “but never trust anyone who doesn’t want to be quoted, ever. And, John, you should never quote anyone, especially in such depth, who refuses to let people know where he stands unless you have a blog post to get out.

“I don’t remember reading Lenny Bruce saying You can be amazing AND be consistent. In his later days he was hardly consistent and not that often amazing, and rarely booked. And not just because he was being arrested all over the place.

“I would bet that the person you quoted so extensively would never, ever, have booked Lenny Bruce. And no comedy booker would tolerate a comic who was amazing only four out of five gigs – 80%. If you die once out of ten you’re on very rocky ground. If you die in the first three or four gigs you can kiss that club goodbye.

“This is the last I am talking about this as it seems self-serving and I have a show to do tonight.”

Shamefully, I did not go to Lewis Schaffer’s show last night. I was going to go to the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society’s show but I never saw that either. I got side-tracked talking to Noel Faulkner at his Comedy Cafe Theatre venue.

The successfully diversified yet rather grumpy Noel Faulkner

“What do you think about dependable repeatability versus brilliant but hit-and-miss comedians?” I asked, adding: “I prefer the hit-and-miss ones myself.”

“Unfortunately,” Noel replied, “club owners have to have a guaranteed act but, as regards putting together a good show, you do want the guy who’s hit-and-miss and taking risks.”

“So, is the UK comedy business in crisis?” I asked.

“Huge crisis,” said Noel firmly. “I think what’s happening to the comedy business now is what was happening to the music business when the internet and downloading got up-and-running. But at least in the recording business they knew it was the world of computers that was sabotaging their business. At least they knew where it was coming from. In the comedy business, other than the recession, we don’t know why it’s gone downhill.

“With the comedy business, the saturation of talking head comedians on television has done some damage. But you can’t walk up to a comic and say Oh, by the way, I wanna keep live comedy very pure with the masses crying out for it and I don’t want you to do six weeks on television and pay off your mortgage and feed your wife and kids.

“People are saying If you put on a good club and put on good acts… but that’s not working.”

“One way to survive is to diversify?” I suggested.

“You can diversify,” said Noel, “but ice cream just doesn’t sell that well at Christmas. We’re a comedy club, how much diversity can you do?”

“Music, comedy management?” I suggested.

“The punters who are coming to the comedy club just want to see good comics,” argued Noel. “I’ve already diversified. I’ve shrunk the comedy room. I have a huge building with huge rent and that’s why I have diversified.

“We’ve turned the main room into a music venue because it’s more profitable and helped keep the doors open. If we hadn’t done that – because of the decline in the comedy audience – we would have had to shut down. I’ve taken in a music partner, a very strong promoter, who’s become a partner in the company and he’s really pushing the music side and now we’re the only live music venue in Shoreditch. We don’t give you one band: we give you three or four bands.

“And I’m back in the management game. I handle four strong acts.”

“You once told me,” I reminded him, “you were not going to go back into management, because you couldn’t face acts phoning you up after midnight with their personal traumas.”

“Yeah,” Noel agreed. “When I quit the management business, I vowed I’d never go back in because of acts phoning you up at midnight asking which train they should be on. The truth is I don’t fucking care, mate. But then I stumbled across Prince Abdi and Kate Lucas and I couldn’t resist wanting to have a hand in their careers, because they really have great potential. And then Nick Sun and Jimmy James Jones came along. So I got seduced by their extreme talent.”

“Someone won £136 million on the EuroLottery last night,” I said. “What would you do if you won the EuroLottery?”

“I’d write a letter to everyone in the business and tell them to fuck off,” replied Noel.

“That’s good,” I said.

“No, if I won the Lottery,” Noel continued, “I’d put out a free Edinburgh Fringe brochure and buy a tower block in Edinburgh, rent it to students at reasonable rent all the year round and then, in the month of August, I would give it to all the comedians for £150 a week.”

“You would be a popular man,” I said.

“I would have a lot of people at my funeral,” Noel agreed. “I mean, £1,500 to put an ad in the bloody Fringe brochure is outrageous! It’s crazy! People with no money having to spend £10,000 just to struggle through Edinburgh hoping that some brainless 21-year-old talent scout from the BBC will spot you doing your show and you can make your millions in the land of television.

“I think if anyone wants to get a TV show now, the way to go is paedophilia. If you’re a paedophile, you’ve got a great chance of getting into television and the BBC will be behind you all the way.”

“So will you be going up to Edinburgh next August?” I asked.

“If I’ve nothing else to do,” said Noel, “but I might do something more productive. I’m thinking of knitting all my family scarves for Christmas.”

“There are lots of young comedians up there,” I prompted.

“A lot of the up-and-coming skinny-jean comics,” said Noel, “are just annoying, irritating, not funny and have no life experience so have nothing to talk about. Sure they can end up on telly fast, because the TV researchers are all in their early twenties. They see a cute middle class twat in skinny jeans and think Oh, he’ll be great! and they’re not interested in the big fat guy or girl who really has something to say.

“I ran a comedy agency many years ago and, maybe twelve years ago, I remember my partner in the agency, when I approached her about Milton Jones back then, she told me Oh! He’s past it! 

“It was the happiest day of my life when Milton finally broke big and now he’s definitely in the Top Five comedians in England. And, besides that, he’s a fucking diamond geezer.”

“There’s no one definite route to success,” I said.

“Well,” replied Noel, “in Hollywood, if you wanna succeed, you gotta suck seed. The future of comedy though is – if you have a good act – you have to build up your own audience, your own fan base, keep tending that audience, keep your act fresh, so they keep coming back and, eventually, you’ll have enough of them to fill the O2. Forget about whoring yourself to television.

“Be a comic with something to say, take care of your audience and that is the way forward. You have to look ahead to when your breasts are saggy and you’re not right for television because all the talent scouts are 23 without a brain in their heads. They wouldn’t know fucking talent if fucking Elvis sang to them. The aim of the business is to have longevity. You gotta look ahead to when you’re fifty and you want to still have a following and still be booked.

“It’s very difficult to be funny when you’ve got £5 million in the bank. It’s really hard to wanna write jokes then. As much as you can use other people to write, you really need to have the initial inspiration and give the ideas to the writers. If I had £5 million in my pocket, I wouldn’t be talking to John Fleming. I’d have learnt Russian so I could speak to my girlfriends in the hot tub. Have you seen Jimmy James Jones?”

Jimmy James Jones performs at the Comedy Cafe last night

“No,” I said.

“Stay and see him,” urged Noel. “He’s on here tonight.”

So I did.

When Noel Faulkner last had an agency, it made Jimmy Carr into a star and ‘discovered’ Daniel Kitson.

I have seen endless comedians. Many are extremely good. But it is rare you see someone with real knock-you-down charisma and star potential which screams through your eyeballs and your ears.

Jimmy James Jones was that last night.

Perhaps UK comedy does have a future.

When you see it, you recognise it.

And Noel Faulkner, unlike most, is not a bullshit artist.

He can spot real talent.

He has in the past. And now he has again.

Long may he be grumpy.


Filed under Comedy, Talent, Television