Yesterday, I talked to comedy club owner Noel Faulkner via FaceTime. It was raining heavily. He couldn’t be bothered to go out. I did not blame him. I was getting drenched coming back from Iceland. The supermarket, not the country.
Noel ran the Comedy Cafe club in London’s Shoreditch for 27 years. It closed in January this year but, next Saturday (16th September) it re-opens in Shoreditch in a different location.
“We talked to a lot of venues,” Noel told me, “but most of them didn’t understand what the fuck it was we wanted to do. Most of them wanted hundreds of pounds in rent every night. They just didn’t understand that comedy is not the big money it used to be.”
“But now you have,” I said, “found somewhere.”
The new Comedy Cafe – at the Miranda Room in Shoreditch
“Yes. The Ace Hotel in Shoreditch High Street – in the Miranda Room, a nightclub basement room with a nice atmosphere for comedy – it’s a lovely room. Holds 100 people. Lovely restaurant upstairs; great food.”
“Are you going to make money on it?” I asked.
“We’re not going to make any money,” said Noel. “We just want to keep it going because we enjoy what we do. And I have a really good promoter working with me. His name is Steve McCann. Us Irish have to stick together.”
“What have you been doing in your time off?” I asked. “Writing your book?”
“Shake, Rattle n Noel? The famous book I’ve been writing for twenty years? I’ve done 40,000 words so far.”
“I’ve been sailing on a chartered yacht in the Greek islands.”
“You could be the L.Ron Hubbard of your era.”
“More like the Howard Hughes of comedy. I spend all my time on my yacht and in my penthouse with the curtains drawn. That’s the image I want.”
“So did you miss comedy?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you the truth coz you’d fuckin’ print it!”
The bar at the new Comedy Cafe in Ace Hotel, Shoreditch
“Can I print that?”
“You can print that.”
“Did you miss comedians?” I asked.
“Yeah. Like the time I had fuckin’ herpes.”
“Do you want to re-phrase that?”
“I missed comedians like I miss haemorrhoids”
“I will,” I told him, “add in that you were laughing when you say that.”
And he was.
“But I can tell you,” he continued, “and you can put this in too – that I WAS very impressed by the amount of serious and good comics who called me up or came up and talked to me and asked me if everything was OK and how I was doing.
Posters at the old Comedy Cafe, including one for Noel Faulkner’s autobiographical show
“The opposite side of that is, since we said we were opening again, I’ve been getting hundreds of Facebook requests. To me, Facebook is for friends. Becoming my ‘Friend’ on Facebook will certainly not guarantee you a gig at the Comedy Cafe. There’s a lot of shallow people in the business, like all businesses.
“But a lot of people have been very good and kind to me and very concerned, like Alan Davies and Ed Byrne. Alan Davies is kicking off the new Comedy Cafe on opening night. With Jimmy James Jones and Lauren Pattison – and Greg Faulkner is MCing.
“Is Ed Byrne playing the Cafe soon too?” I asked.
“He wants to, but he’s a bit busy at the moment. He asked me before I asked him.”
“Are the shows going to be monthly or weekly?”
“Weekly. Saturdays and Tuesdays, at first… Tuesday is the ‘new act’ night. We used to have the best new act night in the country.”
“Why was that?”
“Because we always had 100 people in the room. You didn’t have to bring a friend and you didn’t have to buy two drinks if you were a comic. We really had the best new act night in the country and nobody ever gave us that recognition.”
“So,” I said, “a new start in Shoreditch.”
Comedy Cafè opening night in Oslo – (L-R) Greg Faulkner, John Fothergill, Bjørn Daniel Tørum, Jimmy James Jones
“We have also opened a Comedy Cafè in Oslo,” Noel told me.,“in Norway. Same logo and everything.”
“Yes, Last week was the first one. We were approached by Bjorn-Daniel Torum. It’s once a month right now, so we can see how it goes.”
The Facebook announcement of the new club read: “One of London’s most iconic standupklubber through 27 years is coming to Oslo.”
Noel is clearly the unsinkable King of Standupklubbers, which made me think…
“You should,” I suggested, “open a comedy club on a yacht sailing the Greek islands. You would have the best of both worlds.”
“I thought about that when I was out there,” said Noel. “There was fuck all to do in the evenings.”
“I’m going to send you a decent picture,” Noel said. “You always take shit pictures of me.” This is his.
Natural Born Storytellers went theatrical at The Lost Theatre
Comedy clubs in the UK are said to be on the decline. But storytelling is teetering on the brink of the possibility of becoming the new comedy.
Nowadays, by and large – especially at the Edinburgh Fringe – comedians do not perform traditional gag routines. They tell stories with laughs. Some – often the more interesting – do not even tell funny stories. They tell serious stories in a way that makes people laugh. I often say that my very talented chum Scottish comedienne Janey Godley does not tell funny stories: she tells stories funny.
A couple of weekends ago, at The Lost Theatre in London, I saw a Natural Born Storytellers show – their first in a theatre. It was packed. Their normal monthly shows are at the Camden Head pub. The next is tomorrow night. It is like sitting in some Icelandic hut thousands of years ago, listening to short sagas. Fascinating and entirely successful.
Natural Born Storytellers is run by comedians Michael Kossew and Matt Price. I talked to them at Soho Theatre yesterday.
“Storytelling clubs could take off big,” I told them. “But it’s a marketing problem. The word ‘storytelling’ is not as sexy as the phrase ‘stand-up comedy’.”
Matt Price (left) & Michael Kossew at Soho Theatre yesterday
Michael said: “If I tell people it’s a true storytelling night, they want to know more. I think the themes help to get people in.”
“We have a different theme every month,” explained Matt. “And it’s the ‘true’ element that attracts people. It’s true, alternative, raw storytelling. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Michael said: “I did Natural Born Storytellers at the Burning Nest Festival in May and I told one story. The rest of the 1 hour and 45 minutes was made up by everyone sitting round in a circle taking turns to tell their own stories. I thought This works! This really works! – in a festival environment, in a theatre environment. It works. People are really interested.”
“And in a corporate environment,” suggested Matt. “I am not lowering ourselves quite to the level of karaoke but, if you’ve ever seen a karaoke night, once one person has a go at singing, everybody else wants to have a go. We find our audiences stay behind after the show and people are telling stories. It’s a different vibe to a comedy night. Everyone has a story. It’s no different, really, to sitting round the dinner table. The difference is we are in a club and you have to walk into a building with strangers but, by the end, people become inspired and want to hear more stories and tell more stories.”
“It’s massive in America,” said Michael. “There’s a thing called The Moth.”
The Moth storytelling outfit has taken off in the United States
“The Myth?” I asked.
“The Moth,” said Michael. “It is like a fly-on-the-wall, but it’s a Moth. I’d never heard of them until we had been going a few months, but they do very similar things to us.”
“And there’s also RISK!” said Matt, “and CRINGE. I think raw and honest is the direction we want to go in although we have room for everybody – so long as their story has a beginning, middle and end. That’s what drives me mad sometimes. It’s such a simple concept and I can’t understand why some people don’t get it.”
“Even comedians?” I asked.
“Especially comedians,” said Matt.
“Surely in comedy,” I said, “comics are used to heading towards a strong end – a punchline?”
“But,” said Michael, “they are looking for laughs. They are not so comfortable with telling an eight-minute story – we have an eight-minute time limit – with no-one laughing. People can be sitting on the edge of their seats absolutely enthralled and then the comedian slips in a joke just to hear a laugh and the audience loses interest because it feels too contrived. People will laugh if it’s a funny story, but it’s a more natural laugh coming from empathy with the person telling the story. Not because there is a punch line. You don’t need that.”
“I guess,” I said, “that most of your current storytellers are comedians or showbiz people because of your contacts?”
“We’re looking to find a wider variety of storytellers,” said Michael.
“I don’t know if we want comedians, really,” said Matt.
“Some do get it,” said Michael. “They get on stage, use their normal voice and tell a story. That’s what we’re looking for. People to be themselves on stage. If you can’t be yourself, it’s going to be hard to tell a true story.”
“And you’ll hate it,” said Matt. “And the audience will hate it.”
“Eight minutes is not some arbitrary number,” explained Michael. “It’s pretty much the exact point where people will start losing interest in a short night. If you keep it to eight minutes, you’ve got them gripped the whole way through.”
“And the storytellers are restricted to the monthly theme…” I said.
For the last 18 months, a stage for Natural Born Storytellers
“The themes are designed to be flexible,” said Matt. “So, for example, with My Hands Were Tied there was the moral decision element, the sado-masochism element and we even had a guy who was a former escapologist who talked about the politics of being an escapologist.”
“In a future show,” said Michael, “we have a story about a man who boiled a parrot.”
“Perfect,” said Matt.
“I’m going to make up a special theme,” said Michael, “just so he can tell that story. It is one of the funniest stories I have ever heard in my life.”
“But,” I said, “the stories do not necessarily have to be funny.”
“Oh no,” said Matt.
“We have had people crying,” said Michael.
“It’s lovely to hear a gasp followed by a laugh,” said Matt, “and then people even crying.”
“Sounds like a synopsis of my sex life,” I said.
“There have been one or two occasions,” said Michael, “where events have happened almost too close to the person getting on stage and telling the story. To them, it’s more like venting and that’s not really what we’re about. We want a coherent story rather that a psychiatrist’s couch.”
Matt said: “We like to think of ourselves as alternative storytellers. We’re so modern, we don’t even know where we are going.”
“How can you develop it?” I asked.
“At the Camden Head,” said Michael, “we’re going to do a live podcast.”
“And,” I suggested, “although people don’t want to listen to the same jokes again and again, they will listen to the same song lots of times and still enjoy it. It can be the same with good stories.”
Dangerfield’s Edinburgh Fringe show – quite a story to tell
“At the Edinburgh Fringe this year,” said Matt, “I went four times to see Chris Dangerfield’s show. The reason was because it felt like going back to listen to a really good music album. It was not radically different every night, but it took on a different tone each night. With stories, they evolve as you tell them. Some of the best stories are ones you can hear again and again and you actually gather more each time you hear them.”
“Well,” said Michael, “with any story, the more you tell it, the better you are going to get at telling it. I’m going to run a three-hour storytelling workshop starting in November – about techniques and figuring out how to elicit stories from your past and how to construct them. But every person tells stories completely differently. It’s mostly about constructing an atmosphere for sharing and constructive feedback between a group.”
“But if you can do workshops,” I said, “it implies there is no such thing as a natural born storyteller: the technique can be taught.”
“There are natural born storytellers,” said Matt, “but you may have to bring that natural talent out.”
“Some people,” said Michael, “need a little bit of coaxing out of their shell. It’s also about structure. Finding what is relevant. What is the story REALLY about?”
Can storytelling clubs ever become as widespread or as populist as comedy clubs?
At the end of each edition of BBC TV’s highly popularGraham Norton Show featuring ‘A’ List stars, he has ordinary members of the public tell stories in ‘the red chair’. If the story is not interesting enough, they get tilted out of the chair – a bit like a storytelling Gong Show.
Storytelling clubs could catch on now that the appetite for pure gag-based comedy appears to be waning.
The story told by Matt Price at Natural Born Storytellers in the Lost Theatre show is on YouTube.
My eternally-un-named friend suggested I should post one about the origins of Shia and Sunni Islam.
Instead of that, here is an old diary entry about a visit to Malcolm Hardee’s Up The Creek comedy club in South East London – on Sunday 4th October 1998.
A very small audience of about 50. Terrible start with a non-comedian and would-be surrealist who might go down well at retro-Sixties rock festivals to an audience of heavily-stoned revellers but who went down to total silence at Up The Creek.
In the second half, the show perked up with an extraordinary Open Spot from a man who strode the stage talking about Jesus, revealed a picture of a white stallion on an easel and a picture of a hedgehog which he said was “the people of Kosovo” – in the largely Albanian-populated Serbian province currently being attacked by Serbian forces. The act was screamed-at and yelled-at but not forced off the stage.
Phil Nichol (left) in Corky & The Juice Pigs in the 1990s
This was followed by Canadian (in fact, he was born in Scotland) comic Phil Nichol (of Corky & The Juice Pigs), whose act soared from good to brilliant as he ad-libbed and played off members of the audience. In particular, he spotted a drunken man who had tried a slight, amiable heckle and whom he decided to call Boris the Russian.
Phil Nichol in a more recent performance
He kept playing off this guy who eventually moved in embarrassment to another seat. Further into the act, Boris, drunkenly got up on stage without invitation and Nichol very bravely and – as it turned out – very sensibly kept him on, getting him to perform Elvis impressions while still retaining control of the act.
Boris could barely stand and was wobbling on his feet. On a yell from someone in the audience of “Do the Full Monty!” – taken up enthusiastically by the rest of the audience – he did a drunken attempt at a seductive lowering of the trousers, mooned, turned and then pulled them up again. Immensely funny.
Nichols eventually encored, had Malcolm up on stage playing his Blues harmonica and was able to ad-lib apparently genuinely made-up songs when Malcolm unexpectedly stopped and held the microphone to Nichols. An extraordinary example of someone at the peak of their abilities.
Malcolm Hardee died in 2005… back headlining in 2014
When I talked to Chris Dangerfield for yesterday’s blog, he gave me a photo of an interesting comedy poster.
It was interesting because it was for a gig billed two weeks ago in London –
ZIP ZIP COMEDY WITH MALCOLM HARDEE
I would have paid a large amount to see this gig because Malcolm Hardee drowned in 2005.
Also on the bill were Ellis and Rose (billed as Ellie and Rose), Lee Kern, Rob Pybus and Tom Webb. As far as I am aware, they are all still alive.
When I asked Ellis (aka Ellie) this morning, he told me: “Ha! That gig was cancelled!”
Rob Pybus told me: “Ha! Yes – this was a bit of mistake by the publicity people at The Proud Archivist (the venue). Not only did they have the date wrong, but a line up that was a tad impossible. I wonder if anyone went? The proper night happened the following Friday and was great.”
So I asked Poppy Hillstead, who organised the gig.
Poppy Hillstead in a selfie taken this morning
“I’m unsure if anyone turned up for the gig,” she told me, “as I had the poster down quite quick! We didn’t even have a gig on that night: we actually had Trevor Lock headlining the week after. The Proud Archivist does its own posters for my show, I have no idea how they managed to get not only the wrong date but the wrong lineup – with Malcolm Hardee headlining!
“When I went in to speak to them, the staff said: We’re really excited about tonight’s show! I said: That’s great, but it’s not on and the headliner has been dead since 2005…
“They said: Aaaaw. Yeah, we should change that. And also I also pointed out that ‘Ellie’ and Rose don’t exist haha. We were meant to have a gig on that date with (Malcolm Hardee Award winners) Ellis and Rose and two other acts but it was moved to the next week because Ellis got ill and had to drop out. I don’t know how The Proud Archivist got it so wrong haha. I think they had a new poster maker in.”
“I see they also used a photograph of Malcolm,” I said, “which I took myself in about 1995.”
“They must have Googled it,” said Poppy.
Bob (left) and act Paul Currie ‘finger piping’ from Paul’s show (Photograph by Poppy Hillstead)
If she had not told me the whole thing was a mistake, I might have thought it was a publicity stunt because, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Poppy helped run (Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award winner) Bob Slayer’s two venues The Hive and Bob & Miss Behave’s Bookshop.
I asked Poppy about her experience of working with Bob this year – It is always an experience.
Poppy told me:
“The Hive smells but Bob Slayer wore the same Electric Eel Shock T-shirt every day of the Fringe and not once did it smell. By far the best smelling act was Chris Dangerfield. Nobody smells better than Chris Dangerfield, whose show Sex With Children did incredibly well. But it also meant I had to announce at the bar each night: Anyone for Sex With Children? Come on through for sex with children! Thiswas met with disgust by people just out for a regular drink.
Bob Slayer (left) presented Wilfredo at last month’s Fringe (Photograph by Poppy Hillstead)
“Other highlights included, every night, fetching Wilfredo‘s specially-purchased step, which prevented his bollocks getting crushed in his ridiculously tight trousers as he stepped up on stage.
“A major highlight, though, was watching Bob Slayer get his prostate checked by a lady with a very dirty industrial rubber builder’s glove.
“Now I’m back to running my own Zip Zip Comedy Night at the Proud Archivist. We want the night to be a mix of animation and live stand up from more alternative acts on the circuit. The first gig was mental: we tried to create this 3D compere which motion tracked comedian Rob Pybus‘ face in real time, projecting him as a Max Headroom type character onto the stage. But it was very complicated and deeply terrifying. We will probably bring him back at some point.
“Now we showcase a new episode of Rob’s Living Cartoon series each month. Using his skills as an animator, he projects cartoon environments and characters around him. You have to come down and see it. I will try and get Malcolm Hardee to headline it.
Trevor Lock (left) and Chris Dangerfield… by Poppy Hillstead
“Another night that I’m doing, which I’m proper excited about is Tell Us a Secret hosted by Trevor Lock with Chris Dangerfield and a showbiz pal on the panel. Comedians and the audience are asked to tell a single secret before the panel. This is going to be a good one. It is on the 17th of October!”
Maybe the whole thing with the Malcolm Hardee poster WAS a cunning stunt.
Sybil Soan, in hat, with Edwardian animal impersonator Vincent Figgins
At the weekend, I went to see Pull The Other One club owners Martin and Vivienne Soan. Their daughters appeared to be wearing lampshades. This sounds rather odd but actually looked rather trendy.
More to the point, there was a man who shall be nameless who is thinking of starting a new comedy magazine – in print, not online. This is interesting, if foolhardy. Comedy magazines in print have come and gone – Mustard, The Fix, Heckler.
At the weekend, Martin had a February 1992 edition of Heckler.
There was a piece about him inside.
At the slim risk of getting sued for copyright infringement by the long-dead magazine, this is what it says:
THE GHOST CLUB
The cover in 1992 – note Stephen Fry, top left
From Thursday February 6th the planes will align in an Aspect and House that has never before been witnessed by Mankind. This is the reason that Time Out Award-Winner Martin Soan has decided to open a brand new club which will run for eight weeks on Thursday evenings. Mr Soan assures us that for this period the aforementioned cosmic alliance favours great spiritual and paranormal activity. The chosen venue for this venture is The Comedy Cafe which it just so happens is on the very site where two lay lines cross: one from Mecca to Glastonbury and the other from the Holy Isle to the Lost City of Atlantis.
The whole venue is to be given over to the power of the supernatural with no limit to the amount of ghostliness and weird occurrences that will take place. Soan’s previous ventures have always been highly innovative and genuinely original in concept and practice. This has the makings of continuing that tradition with features like ‘This Is Your Plant’ – a spoof of This Is Your Life where the life of the house plant is examined. Also to be included is the Mind Fantasies Machine, The Incredible Floating Head and The Worst Double Act In The World.
This is highly recommended before it has begun because Soan’s ingenuity is well worth an evening of anyone’s time.
They don’t write publicity like that any more…
…or do they?
Below are Lewis Schaffer’s (so far) two press releases for his upcoming Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Success Is Not An Option.
PRESS RELEASE ONE
The ever-optimistic British-based American
My Edinburgh Festival Fringe show for 2014 is called “Success Is Not An Option”. My show will not be a success because:
1. I’m using the same business model as last year, which didn’t work.
Under the Heroes of the Fringe “Pay What You Want” model, punters can pay £5 for tickets in advance or come in free at the door which makes absolutely no sense. As of today, I have sold nine tickets. Nine.
2. Most reviewers don’t like to go to free shows because they cannot be guaranteed a seat, and that can mess up their viewing schedule. And they don’t get something that regular people are paying for for nothing, which is the whole point of being a reviewer.
3. This is my seventh consecutive year at the Fringe and I have gained zero traction. 22 years in comedy and I am still doing these poncy shows in dingy subterranean bars.
4. There is always some American comic nobody has ever heard of riding into town, selling out every night and then leaving the country once the festival is over. Leaving is always sexy. My ex used to tell me “You used to chase me!” and I’d say, “You used to run.” I’ve stopped running. I’m not leaving the UK. I am stuck here with a knackered act, two kids, and nobody chasing me.
5. You could have seen me in London where I do a weekly show at the Leicester Square Theatre and two free shows a week at The Rancho Grill at any point over the past five years, but you haven’t, and I know you haven’t, so you’re not going to make me a success in Edinburgh either.
6. If my show is a success, I will have been a failure in predicting its failure. If my show is a failure, I will have just been a failure. So no matter what happens, I’ll have been a failure.
7. I have waited until three weeks before the festival to send out a press release, and have no promotional budget to pay a PR to tell me that this level of self-flagellation in a press release is a terrible idea.
Be prepared. Lewis Schaffer isn’t. An hour of your life you’ll never get back. A lifetime of his completely wasted.
PRESS RELEASE TWO
The frolic-filled funster success factory that is Lewis Schaffer
My last press release was “nothing short of genius” according to Simmy Richman in the Independent on Sunday. Read his piece here.
Here are four more reasons why my show “Success Is Not An Option” will not be a success.
9. Most people, upon having a piece of publicity material described as “genius” by a national newspaper, would then try to follow it up with something bigger, better and totally fresh.
I’m just rehashing the same thing and hoping that those of you that ignored me last time will pay attention to me. Einstein supposedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I’m not insane, because I know that this is going to fail; you people never pay attention to me. I’m just desperate. Please pay attention to me.
10. My poster doesn’t have any quotes or stars from reviewers.
You, from the The Times, The Guardian, and The Telegraph, have never reviewed any of my shows.
My biggest supporter in the press, Kate Copstick of The Scotsman, has only ever given me four stars even though we had the closest thing to a sexual interaction that I, as a crumbling 57-year-old man, am capable of having with another human being. You can read about that on John Fleming’s blog here and then give me five stars to save yourself from the same fate.
11. I decided against using Stewart Lee’s quote about me – “Naked hostility and self-loathing” – or Daniel Kitson’s – “The logical conclusion of all stand-up comedy” – or Marc Maron’s – “Very bitter and weird” and “Not that good” – because name-dropping is the lowest form of self-promotion and I value my integrity.
12. The Relatives wrote a song about my going to Edinburgh and said the Number One reason I would fall at the Fringe was that I was “jerk”. They performed the song on my radio show Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer, broadcast on Resonance 104.4FM. Watch here – it is brilliant.
Here are the lyrics to sing along with:
Success is not an option.
Lewis was writing his Edinburgh show Knew in his heart no one would go Hasn’t got a bob for publicity, no Only got five quid to blow Success is not an option
Success is not an option Success is not an option He’s gonna bomb at the Edinburgh Fringe
He’s written a list why it won’t work But he missed the number one “He’s a jerk” The other comedians are going to smirk Looks like he’s going to have to learn to twerk Success is not an option
Success is not an option Success is not an option He’s gonna bomb at the Edinburgh Fringe
Well, what’s gonna happen to his radio show? Its been five years but nobody knows The team of five are ready to go But does he ever listen? The answer’s “no” Success is not an option
Success is not an option Success is not an option He’s gonna bomb at the Edinburgh Fringe
Success is not an option Success is not an option He’s gonna bomb at the Edinburgh Fringe
Thank you for reading this far. If you tell me you have read to the end I will buy you drink up in Edinburgh. If you are alcoholic, I will spend five minutes commiserating with you over how long the Ramadan fast is this year.
Stephen K Amos hosted last night’s show in the Purple Cow
My abiding memory of last night is of my chum Scots comedian Janey Godley biting my shoulder halfway through a comedy act. “I am being Luis Suárez in the World Cup,” she told me.
This is how it started…
At 6.05pm last night, I was sitting quite happily on my sofa in Borehamwood when I got a phone call from Janey asking me if I could get down to the Underbelly’s upside-down Purple Cow on London’s South Bank by 8.00pm to be a judge in the final of the English Comedian of the Year competition.
Janey has often mentioned to audiences that she can get someone killed for the price of a bag of chips (she is a Glaswegian with contacts), so I thought it best to agree.
When I got down to the upside-down Purple Cow, I found out that the other judges included Chortle comedy website editor Steve Bennett. His review of the evening appears on the website.
Ever jolly Janey Godley has given up smoking
But I also found that Janey had given up smoking four days ago.
This was not good.
She tried to attack me with a fork.
During the judging, she bit me on the shoulder.
I feel I got off lightly.
Promoter Alan Anderson’s Scottish Comedian of The Year contest has been running for almost a decade in Scotland, but this was his first English one.
300 comedians applied. We saw the last, best ten. The carrot which attracted them was a £1,500 prize, a trip to perform at the Adelaide Comedy Festival and, of course, the title English Comedian of The Year 2014.
Janey Godley: no change in her behaviour to me last night (Photograph by Steve Best)
Judging which of ten comedians is ‘best’, of course, is a thankless task. The five judges have now made enemies of nine comedians and, interestingly (or not), I said to Janey that I thought the comic most likely to ‘succeed’ was actually one not in the announced top three.
Opinion on contests varies, of course.
How can you say one comic is ‘better’ than another when they are performing different acts?
Well, often, it is not too difficult for the panel of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards to choose our annual winners at the Edinburgh Fringe. But, then, we are in a very niche market. And we have no rules, except…
3 Malcolm Hardee Awards await their winners in Edinburgh
To win the main Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality, your act and/or the way your act is presented has to be seriously weird. If we have seen the format before, you are probably not going to win. Last year, Adrienne Truscott won and, really, the number of shows I have seen in which a performer, naked from the waist down, presents a serious treatise on rape is… well… it was certainly comic originality. A straight traditional stand-up is unlikely to win.
Our annual Cunning Stunt Award for best Fringe publicity stunt last year went to Barry Ferns aka Lionel Richie for printing and distributing around Edinburgh totally fake issues of the Fringe magazine sheets Broadway Baby and Three Weeks which publicised his own show and – to cap it all – he published fake news sheets at the exact time the former Perrier Awards were announced claiming he was a major winner. I saw people avidly reading them not realising they were fakes. An excellent Cunning Stunt.
Rose (left) shows where he punched Ellis’ face
In lieu of any worthy winner of the Malcolm Hardee Award for Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid last year (and because the trophy had already been made) we gave a special ‘Pound of Flesh’ Award (in effect, a second Cunning Stunt Award but using the Million Quid trophy) to Ellis for getting repeatedly punched in the face by stage partner Rose and then claiming he had been mugged in the street by a punter irate at the content of their Jimmy Savile show… all for a few inches of extra publicity.
These were all worthy winners in fields with few competitors, although we did find some worthy also-rans for them.
In theory, you cannot compare two comedians’ acts. But, if the results were worthless, no-one would care. People like to win prizes and titles… and reviewers’ stars… and good reviews.
We started with one Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award in 2007. Now there are three. They are increasingly prestigious.
Malcolm Hardee Award designer John Ward waits
This year, I am thinking of adding a fourth award: the annual Malcolm Hardee Blatant Bullshit Award.
So far, the only competitor would seem to be The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh (which also runs other clubs in Glasgow and Newcastle). The Stand Comedy Club ‘does not approve’ of competitions, although it advertises acts as “award winning” if they actually win any.
He has been vehemently opposed to competitions in comedy, calling them a ‘malignant and destructive influence’ on the artform. Yet last night, The Stand Comedy Club owner Tommy Sheppard welcomed the Deuchars Beermat Fringe competition to his venue in Edinburgh, with heats in Glasgow and Newcastle to follow next week. And, unlike most competitions that keep the commercial side separate, this one insists that all acts must ‘weave’ the name of the sponsor into their set. But Sheppard told Chortle he saw no conflict as the Deuchars competition was across all performance genres: ‘We’re convinced it’s not a comedy competition,’ he said. ‘The majority of people taking part last year – and so far this year – are musicians.’ And the winner of last night’s heat? A comedian, Ross Leslie.
Tommy is an honourable man and the Deuchars competition is, of course, a music competition not a comedy competition. That is why, on their website, they say “whether you’re a professional, or simply someone who has a flair to share that will make us smile, laugh (or cry!), we want to hear about it.”
The winners of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality have included Reggie Watts (2005), Doktor CocaColaMcDonalds (2007), Robert White (2010) and The Rubberbandits (2012) – all of them basically music acts. So I am thinking of re-naming the awards The Malcolm Hardee Fringe Music Competition, running the show in a venue calling itself a music club and insisting that we will ban all performers who do not weave the phrase “increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee” into their acts. This would make the Awards more politically correct and also, that way, the event could no longer be considered a comedy competition nor, indeed, a competition at all – although, quite reasonably, comedians could compete in it.
Of course, I will only do this if someone pays me money to do it.
A couple of days ago, I mentioned going to see a screening of The Tunnel documentary about the late Malcolm Hardee’s legendary comedy club. The screening was followed by a comedy show which included the wonderful Tiernan Douieb who remembered, when he was (even) younger performing at Malcolm’s Wibbley Wobbley floating pub.
“I didn’t have any jokes,” Tiernan told the audience this week.
“I sort-of knew who Malcolm was and I was quite nervous. I turned up and he was very nice to me. He asked my name. I said Tiernan Douieb and he asked how to pronounce it and he wrote it down, made sure he got it all right and he explained how the evening was going to go. I was going to be on first and it all seemed lovely until the gig started.
“There were only about eight people there. Five of them were tattooed skinhead builders on a break and the others were teenagers who had snuck on the boat somehow. Malcolm walked on and went:
“This is a new act night. It’s either gonna be good or it’s gonna be shit and, to be honest, it’ll probably all be shit. Anyway, now here’s some cunt whose name I can’t pronounce…
Malcolm Hardee at work in his Up The Creek office (Photograph by my eternally-un-named friend)
“And I walked on to that. I lasted two minutes, then all the builders started singing – it’s not even a song, but – When the fuck are you goin’ home? When the fuck are you singin’ the song? – They knew all the words and sang in unison, so I very quickly left and all I could hear behind me was Henning Wehn walk on and all of them Sieg Heil! at him because he’s a German.”
Yesterday, I chatted to comedian Matt Price about being threatened by gangsters and getting a stab vest through the post. The blog may well appear tomorrow. But, inevitably, Matt too had a Malcolm Hardee story.
“I met Malcolm years ago,” Matt told me, “when he was running Up The Creek in Greenwich. I was just starting and I didn’t really know what was going on but he said: You’ll be alright. I’ll sort you out.
“He decided to introduce the acts in order of size and he introduced me with the fairly standard He might be good. He might be shit. All the way from over there, that big bloke.
“I walked out, did my thing, got about two minutes in and a guy who used to be a street performer mime artist in Covent Garden shouted out: Why don’t you kill yourself! I thought it was a bit ironic I was getting heckled by a mime artist.
Matt Price in Camden Town yesterday (Photograph might be explained tomorrow)
“It might have been 12 years ago and my West Country accent was quite thick then, so I’m stood on stage in Greenwich with a blinding light and I can only see the outline of the hostility and, in my thick Cornish brogue, I hear myself saying: You Cockney bastards!
“But I stood my ground and managed to walk off to shouts of Taxi! – Malcolm! – Please, please, Malcolm! – and then he walks out on stage and says: He was alright, wasn’t he? He was alright. Nah, nah. OK. He was shit.
“And that was it. That was the end of my Open Mic appearance at Up The Creek and my one-and-only Malcolm Hardee memory. It’s easy to get all dewy-eyed about it, but…”
“I love Lewis Schaffer,” said Matt. “I was on his radio show recently.
“I remember when he came to Cardiff years ago. They’d seen him before and he was saying: Lewis Schaffer does this thing and Lewis Schaffer was walking down the street… and my friend said: Oh! It’s Lewis Schaffer! Let’s play the Lewis Schaffer drinking game!
“You’ve got to drink two fingers of your beer every time he says the words Lewis Schaffer. He did a 25-minute set and, halfway through, I was well on my way to being hammered because he had said Lewis Schaffer so many times.
“Oh! I like that! he said. Ya gotta Tweet that, Matt! Ya gotta Tweet that about me! Ya think so? Am I more Vegas than Mason? Am I more Vegas? Is that good or bad? What an extraordinary man.
Lewis Schaffer, the Arthur’s Seat of comedians
“The last time I saw him, there were 40 people in the room – There are only 40 of you! he said. The room’s too big! Have you got no friends?
“They were roaring with laughter for the first ten minutes – the funniest thing ever – then he offended someone and this couple got up and walked out, but he managed to talk them back into the room and then he sat down on this guy’s lap and said: Look, should I do the Holocaust material or not? and the couple got up and walked out again.
“It was brilliant.
“At the Edinburgh Fringe, Lewis Schaffer is like the comedy equivalent of Arthur’s Seat. You have to see it and do it and it hurts a bit but you go along anyway and you get a view of something spectacular. You think God! That’s how comedy should be!”
Noel Faulkner in Rivington Street, Shoreditch this week – home to his Comedy Cafe Theatre
Before I interrupted myself in yesterday’s blog, I was about to say that I had a chat over a meal with Noel Faulkner near his Comedy Cafe Theatre in Shoreditch. It becomes relevant, in a moment, that Noel is Irish, so bear this in mind.
“How is Shoreditch?” I asked him.
“More twats,” Noel told me. “More 5-star restaurants. How far can people go up their own asses? I don’t know. It’s not what it was 24 years ago when I started the Comedy Cafe.”
“What was it like then?”
“It was full of thieves and printers. One half stealing money; the other half printing money. It was all printing presses around here. I don’t know why. Before that, it was cabinet makers. I don’t know why.”
“So you are feeling pissed-off?” I said.
“No. I’m very happy.”
“I have three meals a day, my house is comfortable and it keeps going up £100,000 a week in value. I moved to Hackney 13 years ago because I liked the vibe and now all the Yuppies want to be in Hackney. I thought I could live in a neighbourhood where I wouldn’t see pompous assholes but now the only thing my neighbours talk about is the value of their property and how they’re doing an extension and ripping the whole house out.
“I told my neighbours: My house is worth more than yours.
“They said: Oh no no no. Ours has got a garage.
“I told them: Yes, but I don’t have any Irish people living next door to me.”
The successfully diversified yet slightly grumpy Noel Faulkner
“Where did you live before Hackney?” I asked.
“I was sleeping above the Comedy Cafe with a gun that held blanks to keep the thieves out.”
“Yep. The police had a word: We know it’s not you, Noel, but somebody’s got a gun poppin’ off.”
I blew my nose.
“What’s your blood group?” Noel asked me.
“O-Rhesus something,” I said. “A dead common one.”
“Stay off wheat,” advised Noel. “It’ll help your allergies.”
“I think it’s just a tiny bit of hay fever,” I said. “I think I got it in China.”
“You know what they say about dogs in China?” Noel asked. “A dog is not just for Christmas. If you’re lucky, there will still be some left over for Boxing Day.”
“So,” I asked, “at what point did you decide you didn’t care?”
“I never cared what people thought of me… If we can’t be racist, what can we be? The lovely thing about getting older is I really don’t give a fuck. Not one iota. I am thinking of writing my own blog.”
“Bastard,” I said.
“I am going to call it Angry Man On The Roof.”
Noel in his Shoreditch office last year – a man who likes yachts
“I’ve always liked roofs because no-one can catch me there. As a kid, when there was snow, I would convince my mother I was sick and then I’d go up on top of the roof and make loads of snowballs and, when all the kids were getting off the bus, I would pelt them with snowballs.”
“And,” I said, “you’ve been pelting people with snowballs ever since.”
“Why do you want to do a blog?”
“Because people are insisting I should get my wonderful calm persona out there like the Dalai Lama – just give people hope that there is peace on Earth and tell everybody who’s a cunt that they are a cunt, because nobody else seems to want to tell them. Have you heard Jarvis Cocker’s song Cunts Are Still Running The World?
“I’m taking on Jongleurs’ format for comedy,” he told me. “I’m going to open sixty clubs throughout Britain. Any cunt who drinks and pisses and shits can come into the club and make as much noise as they like. I’ll provide lots of work for lots of comics, but I’m not going to pay any of them. I think it’s a great business plan.
Noel this week, paying the bill for our meal
“If comics had any bottle, they would go on strike and say Nobody works for Jongleurs and, the next day, Jongleurs would pay every comic they owe money to. But each comic is thinking: Oh, I’ll keep my head down and I might get some more Christmas gigs off them. The comics are actually helping the dragon devour the babies.”
“But any real plans?” I asked.
“I’m working on a rap song.”
“Seriously. We’re just putting the music down. It will be a video. It’s called The Comfort Zone.”
Noel started rapping:
“Got me a pad I call a home I got a big TV, Twitter on ma phone I watch the president killin’ people with his drone But it don’t bother me Cos I’m in the Comfort Zone”
“So you’re going to re-invent yourself as a rap artist?” I asked.
Noel started rapping another song:
“Fukushima Fukushima I wonder why There is that great big cloud in the sky No fish in the ocean but look at the glow Radiation sure gives you a great light show”
“Are you going to perform on stage?” I asked.
Jimmy James Jones performing at the Comedy Cafe Theatre
“I’ll be the oldest Irish rapper. I’m going to do a video with me and comedian Jimmy James Jones on YouTube. I’m in my suit; he’s in his hip hop gear. He’ll push me out of the way; I’ll push him out of the way and then, in the last scene, he’s in my suit and hat and I’m in his gear and baseball hat.”
Ivor Dembina: At the moment you have a lot of these free gigs. There’s a reason for that. Most people are not going to local live comedy clubs because they’ve been persuaded the only stuff worth seeing is the stuff that’s been on TV. And, as soon as anyone half decent turns up who has a bit of talent, they disappear off the face of the earth…
Liam Lonergan: …onto TV.
Ivor: Yeah. They get signed by an agent and you don’t see them on the club circuit anymore. So the quality of the clubs goes down. So, this is a bit of a drag. But someone goes to a landlord and says: “Look, you have got an empty room up there on a Tuesday night.”
And the landlord says “Yeah I have.”
So you go: “Would you want me to fill it?”
The landlord says: “Yeah. What you gonna do?”
“I’ll put on a free show. I’ll get fifteen comedy acts and they’ll all bring at least one mate. So that’s thirty people. Maybe another ten people will wander in. So I’ll get you forty drinkers. You give me £50 and I’ll organise it.”
So the landlord thinks: “£50… forty drinkers… I’ll ‘ave some of that”.
The landlord don’t give a fuck about the quality of the show. All he cares is that there’s forty people drinking his beer in an otherwise empty room. And that’s why you’ve got all these… There’s no quality control… And any comedian who is any good will soon get depressed by that arrangement. The most each of the fifteen acts can do is five minutes. You never develop. You never get any real critical feedback. The audience aren’t a real audience because 70% of the audience are either other comics or their friends. So no-one’s going to come up to you and say: “Actually. That wasn’t really very good mate”.
The thing about a comedy club is you have to build it.
Anyone – any cunt – you can put this in your thing – any cunt can fill a comedy room. For one night.
But can you fill it so they will come back next week? And will they still be coming back in six weeks’ time?
The answer is… That’s harder.
Not only have you got to have consistently interesting and good quality entertainment but you’ve got to the have the audience leaving thinking: I’m coming back here.
And now people have so many entertainment choices that how often do you go to the same place every week? Also the idea of local entertainment – We always go down to Ivor’s or to Andy’s or to Liam’s on a Tuesday night – that has been kind of eroded by the internet, by TV, by going abroad.
People think: “Where can we go?”
Well, they can go down to the West End or spend Saturday night in Rayleigh or Portsmouth. That, Ah, this is a bit local has gone.
Also what is interesting is that somewhere in the history of this the idea came up that you have to see comedy accompanied by alcohol. There’s now a myth that, in order to enjoy comedy, you have to have a drink. It’s bullshit.
In a way that came about because, in the early days, if you were gonna put comedy on you needed a room and the people who had lots of free rooms were the pubs. So, there was a quid pro quo. You take the money on the door, pay the acts and make a few quid for yourself and they’d sell their beer. So the association between alcohol and comedy got embedded very early on.
But it’s nonsense! You don’t need to be pissed to have a laugh. It’s absolute rubbish. Of course brewers recognised this, so then they reinforced the (mythical) link with all these sponsorship deals and of course the final apotheosis was the Fosters Award.
Liam: So you reckon, even before all the agencies and producers came in and tarnished it all – well, not tarnished it but corporatised it – you think the brewers were…
Ivor: The idea that the more you drink the funnier it will seem is just bullshit. But I’m not blaming the brewers. We collaborated in it. That was the deal. I mean at the Hampstead Comedy Club, my club, it’s still it’s the same. I get the room free because I’m gonna bring in sixty or seventy people who are gonna drink beer. That’s the deal, y’know?
Liam: I was talking to Bob Slayer about his Heroes of Fringeand the percentage of ticket prices that he shares with performers. At the Hampstead Comedy Club… You don’t actually have to answer this, if you don’t want to…
Ivor at Hampstead Comedy Club in January
Ivor: I don’t mind. I don’t care who knows. I pay guarantees. I’ll tell you exactly what the economics are. I have three acts whom I pay £80 each. There’s a compere – who I admit is usually me but if I isn’t it’d be someone else – and I pay them £100. So that’s £340. I pay a door person £60. So that’s £400. I pay the booker £30-£40 a show. So I have costs. The costs of the show are around £450. There is a £10 ticket price. So I have to sell 45 tickets to break even.
Liam: What’s the capacity?
Ivor: Well, it’s just gone down, as it happens. My capacity is now gonna be sixty five. So I’m risking £450 to make £200. So, I’m not doing it to get rich.
Liam: Lewis Schaffer told me, “It’s all still about paying off the Inland Revenue and paying off the mortgage,” but then Bob Slayer said, “If he wanted to do that he could be a salesman and he’d be a very good salesman.”
Ivor: It’s true. But you can get lucky. I mean, over the years certain people they found themselves with a room of, say, two hundred people in a location where people will go and and they’ve kept going. In the past, some promoters have made serious money but not now I don’t think.
Liam: What’s the criteria for booking acts? Or is it just people that you’ve seen and you’ve thought were…
Ivor: Well, when you’re running a club, it’s not the acts. It’s the venue. Do the punters enjoy going there? Obviously you’ve got to put on the best possible entertainment that you can but once people start going to see the acts rather than specifically coming to your venue, the club is finished. You want them to go to your club because:
Oh, Tuesday night we go down the club. They usually have something good down there. Let’s go down the club.
That was the ethos on which the comedy circuit was built.
It is now crumbling away for the various reasons that I’ve described.
In some blogs this year, I have posted extracts from chats Liam Lonergan had with me and with comedian Lewis Schaffer for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.
Yesterday, Liam sent me a transcript of a chat he had with comedian and club-owner Ivor Dembina, whose weekly Hampstead Comedy Club celebrates its 20th anniversary next month. Here, with Liam’s permission, is an extract in which Ivor talks about the early days of British alternative comedy and the changes since.
Liam Lonergan: I don’t know if you know much about the contemporary student scene.
Ivor Dembina used to cultivate students
Ivor Dembina: Well, no… I used to. When I first came into comedy, I helped, if you like, to cultivate the student audience. I used to take little packages of comedy around the universities and colleges. That would have been late 1980s. But I wasn’t the only person doing it because students were seen as a fertile source of income – the universities had money and they didn’t have direct contact with comedians, so they’d pay someone – an agency – to put together and package a show and I did it more or less all over the country. I did that for several years. The attraction was they would pay you a guarantee. It was quite an attractive market and the big agencies – or what have become the big agencies, notably Avalon and Off The Kerb – they kind of built their foundations on those types of tours. And then what they’d do is they might sign someone up – y’know, Performer X – and say to the student unions: “Well, if you want Performer X you’ve got to have our other performers too”. It’s quite a cynical way of doing it but…
Liam: But it’s a big part of the business.
Ivor: Well, that’s the way they operated. Whereas I did it much more on a one-off basis. But I kinda lost interest in it because what happened was gradually… Well, in those days, students were still regarded as a good audience. They were interested in the world and they had what could be regarded as an alternative outlook which complemented the attitudes of the performers. In more recent years…
Liam: Well, anyone gets into university now and there’s a more… I dunno what you’d call it…
Ivor: It’s a much more corporate place, much more money-based. They’re becoming… the universities now are basically much more right wingand comedy has just become the Wednesday night entertainment after the football and the rugby and a lot of drunkenness. A lot of bad behaviour from the students. Part of the attraction used to be performing to kids who might be interested in the state of the world.
Liam: Going back to what you said about Off The Kerb and Avalon, do you think the current production agency monopolisation and the Big Four at the Edinburgh Fringe… Do you think they are taking over fringe comedy?
Ivor Dembina – even younger than today
Ivor: Well, they have. it’s like any market. Once a market for a product develops – it doesn’t matter what it is; it could be selling coffee beans or ashtrays – then someone will come in and do it professionally and aggressively and it just happens to be Off The Kerb and Avalon.
Basically, students are lazy. Avalon and Off The Kerb spotted this. They would say: “You don’t have to worry about getting in touch with comedians. We’ll build a circuit. We’ve got these famous people and a fancy brochure. Just give us a date and we’ll send along a package. Just make sure you’ve got a cheque at the end of the night”. And the student union person thought: “Blimey. This is alright. I only have to put a poster up in the end of the bar”… Most of them just didn’t want to do any work.
The other reason it expanded was most of these student union officers were dealing with bands and bands are a nightmare. Are they gonna’ turn up? Are they gonna want a sound check all day? They want a big rider and cocaine and birds and all that. All this kind of thing. They’re just a fucking nightmare. Comedians are very easy to deal with.
Liam: So there’s not really much ego with comedians?
Ivor: Well there is but, from the point of view of the university, comedians are dead easy to deal with. All you’ve gotta do is put a microphone up, the comedian turns up… They’re an absolute godsend. They’re mostly all young, fit, fairly sober individuals and they’re just so easy to organise. Whereas, with these bands, there will always be some people who didn’t like this band or they want R’n’B and they don’t want Soul. You’ve got about five people in the band and one of them is going to be outta his nut. Comedy was and is just so much easier to put on. And relatively cheap. Much cheaper than to put on a well-known band.
Liam: Do you think comedy holds some sort of cachet now? It doesn’t seem to be low status anymore.
Ivor: I’m not sure it was ever low status. There just wasn’t as much of it then as there is now. I don’t think people look down on it. I think theatre people look down on stand-up comedy but I don’t think anyone else does. How old are you?
Liam: I’m 24.
Ivor: With people of your age, it’s now a much more widely-perceived route to showbusiness success. When I was your age, if you wanted to get famous through showbusiness, basically, you were talking about getting hold of a guitar… that was it. Or becoming an actor and then gradually… Now, people think: “Oh, if I become a comedian I can get on telly and then I can get cast in either a sitcom or maybe even a play and then…” I mean, Jack Whitehall is a classic entertainment role model. He was a pretty average stand-up, but he looked good on TV. The girls like him. He’s quite funny. He’s everywhere.
Liam: Yeah, he’s ubiquitous.
Ivor: Even more so Russell Brand. Whereas, when I came into comedy it was a bit underground. Well, underground’s not the right word. It was alternative. Now it’s part of the mainstream entertainment landscape. People visit London. They go to Madame Tussauds. They go to Camden Lock. And then they go to a night at The Comedy Store. It’s part of…
Liam: You said it’s not underground anymore… Is there a sort of notable underground scene? Is there a sort of group, a collection of comics that you can see now who…
Liam: Not at all?
Ivor: No. I think the new comics are shit. Underground? They should be underground. They should be under the fucking ground. What you are getting with the new comics is a derivation of what they see – and a pretty pallid imitation of what they see – on TV. Because it’s all now television led. You’ve got these kind of mutations of Mock The Weekand Have I Got News For You – people thinking that comedy has become about showing off.
Liam: Or the other side of it. They’re doing Stewart Lee. I’ve seen quite a lot of people trying to do Stewart Lee as well. They’re trying to be underground.
Ivor himself at Hampstead Comedy Club
Ivor: To me, comedy is about being yourself. And that’s what it is. The kids who come into it now… At university, they received an email or got a flyer saying: “We’ve got Joe X coming next week whom you may probably have seen on Mock The Week.”
They’re getting this all the time. So they assume that exposure on television is some kind of verification of status. Sometimes it is. I’m not saying everybody on television is crap. That’s not the case. But they begin to associate being in TV with being good.
So they think: “What do I have to do to be good? I’ll do something that is akin to what the people on TV are doing”. So they come up with their own variation of what is already out there and, of course, it’s shit.
If you go round the bottom rungs of the live circuit (in London, anyway. I can’t really speak for out-of-town) there’s very little that’s exciting or innovative. You’ll get gimmicks. You’ll get things like comedy and wrestling. Or comedy competitions. Or get-up-and-tell-your-best-joke. Everyone does two minutes. One comedian is gonna do another comedians’ material. The Gong Shows. Layering on excitement where no excitement really exists. We’re going to have a Bald Night. Or a Ginger Night. Or a Woman Who’s Got Three Bollocks night. Y’know, anything just to give it a spin. But there’s nothing inherently useful or, dare I say, artistic. It’s commercial gimmickry.