Mark Kelly amplifies tales of bad clubs
So I was talking to comedy scriptwriter and author Mark Kelly, who used to perform as a stand-up comic under the name Mr Nasty and this is what he told me:
Gigs can go wrong for all sorts of reasons, sometimes because of human stupidity.
I once did a gig at a really big student venue in Central London with a brilliant new sound system. We did a sound check and it was really, really good.
I was on first and there were about 350 people in the audience.
I started off and it was absolutely fine, but I started losing people at the back. It was a bit odd: people turning away, talking and leaving, but it was only at the back. Then I started losing more of the people now left at the back.
You can lose an audience, but why would you start losing them sequentially?
I was going very well to the people down the front but completely lost the people at the back. I did about half an hour. By the time I finished, there was a semi-circle of people round the front – maybe only about 30 people – who really, really liked my act. Everyone else had given up.
It turned out the students running the venue had forgotten to switch the sound system on. There was no foldback, so I hadn’t twigged I wasn’t being amplified.
I remember turning up at a another gig at another student venue where they were really, really proud of their brand new sound system. They showed me the speakers – Yes, they look really new and good – and they showed me the microphone – Yes, that looks really good….
But there was nothing in-between.
I said: “Where’s the amp?”
And they just looked at me.
“Oh,” they asked. “Do we need something else?”
“Yes,” I said, “you can’t plug microphones into speakers. You need an amp.”
It was quite a big venue and I had to do it without a microphone.
But worse than that was a nightclub near King’s Cross in the 1980s, when comedy was becoming popular and a lot of places decided to start hosting comedy nights even though they weren’t necessarily physically suitable.
This was the opening night and, as it turned out, the closing night as well.
There were three acts and I had opted to go on first but was also compering.
When we turned up, there was no obvious performance space. They said they would clear a circle on the dance floor: they would put a microphone on the dance floor with a light on the microphone.
So the first problem was that we had to perform in the round, which isn’t ideal for comedy, particularly not with one microphone, because I had a guitar as well.
What happened was they ejected everyone off the dance floor – and the people dancing were not best pleased at this – then turned all the flashing disco lights off, put a microphone with stand in the middle of the dance floor and turned the light on to illuminate the performer at the microphone.
But, when they turned the light on, it also turned on the strobe light.
“Can you turn the strobe light off?” I asked.
It turned out they couldn’t, because the strobe was somehow connected to the only lighting which could be used in the centre of the dance floor.
So the choice was to perform in the dark or perform in the strobe light.
Faced with this and the desire to be paid, we decided to perform possibly shorter sets in the strobe light.
I was the first act and I had never performed comedy in the middle of a strobing light. Trying to get your timing right was not easy. I didn’t even make ten minutes. I got a blinding headache and everyone else just abandoned it.
The audience were at best bemused. They’d come for the disco; they hadn’t expected comedy anyway. The idea of some bloke standing there at a microphone with an acoustic guitar round his neck in a strobing light… They just stared at me…
A venue that was even more badly thought-out was a gig I played in Middlesbrough in the early 1990s.
I turned up at this pub which had been running comedy gigs for a few weeks and I was going to be headlining with a local act supporting.. The pub had bouncers outside and looked like a bit of a heavy pub, but not too bad.
I got the train up from London, got there early and wandered round the pub, but couldn’t find anything that looked like a stage area. It was a very big pub and there were lots of different alcoves where small groups of people could drink. Scattered around the pub were maybe 20 small CCTV-type screens which were showing the best bits of various comedy shows – big laugh, short clip stuff.
It turned out that they had one small alcove into which no more than half a dozen people could fit and they set up a microphone on a stand in this alcove with a camera in front of it.
In order to do the gig, you had to perform to the half dozen people in the alcove and to the camera. This was relayed round the pub on the small CCTV-type screens.
So the idea of the ‘live’ comedy performance was, essentially, just performing to a camera.
The local support act was on before me. So, suspecting what was going to happen, I walked round the pub when he was performing and, sure enough, no-one was taking the blindest bit of notice of him because they’d already had all the laughs they were going to get from the comedy clips.
He came on. The sound was terrible and the camera was not at the best of angles. No-one was taking any notice of him.
So I went on and had to do nearly an hour performing to, at most, five people I could actually see and I pretty much opted to perform to them and, if anyone watching on the screens decided to enjoy it, it was entirely up to them.
The idea that live comedy could possibly work in that situation was absurd.
Topping that venue in awfulness, though, was a gig I vaguely remember was somewhere just off the M25 orbital motorway around London and, in fact, it would actually have been easier performing on the M25 itself.
This was again in the early 1990s.
This guy had seen me somewhere, really liked what I did and booked me for the opening night of his comedy club.
He was on the phone to me for a long time and seemed very enthusiastic about comedy. He said he’d made quite a bit of money and had bought this pub. He had decided to re-design it himself because he wanted a ‘real’ comedy venue. He went on and on about how much thought he’d put into it. I was going to love it. I would absolutely love performing there, because it was a custom-built comedy venue.
Three of us – all fairly decent established acts – came out from London for the opening night and there were some teething problems in the sense he had forgotten to do any advertising.
There was actually no audience whatsoever expecting a comedy show. He literally went out into the street and tried to drag people in. However, the pièce de résistance of the evening was his architectural design.
When the three of us walked in, we couldn’t quite spot the stage. It was a very large room with a very high ceiling. As my eyes ran up the wall, about 20 feet up, there was a very large enclave.
You had to go in a door at the side of the bar, up a rickety wooden staircase and into what the guy described as a stage area which had an inbuilt disco console which could not be moved. So, in the actual stage area, although it was quite deep, the actual width you could use was quite small.
The audience that night got to look up the nostrils of three comics who teetered on the edge of the 20ft high performance alcove trying not to fall out, trying to perform comedy halfway up a wall to an entirely bemused audience down below.
There was little applause. He had – literally – had to persuade people off the streets. They were all just standing around drinking and occasionally looking upwards.
My understanding is that was the opening and closing night of his comedy club.
The guy who ran it was very nice, very keen, genuinely loved comedy and had sunk all his money into this. He wanted it to work, but he obviously had not asked advice from any comics.
There’s a lesson there.