Tag Archives: Hils Jago

Learning to be a comic: “Maybe there are more mad men than mad women.”

Trish Bertram at the London Olympics

Trish Bertram – stadium announcer at the London Olympics

I probably first met Trish Bertram in the 1980s when she was freelancing around the UK as a voice-over on TV trailers and as an announcer.

More recently, she was the live stadium announcer for the London Olympics, the Baku European Games and the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar.

Even more recently – just a couple of weeks ago – she finished an Amused Moose comedy course run by Logan Murray. She took the course not because she wanted to become a comedian but because she was interested in comedy techniques.

“It was a cross-section of people from all walks of life from their 20s to their 60s,” she told me. “We did eight Sundays of 5-hour afternoons. I wanted a challenge. I wanted something that would scare me and I hit on this idea because I’m a big admirer of stand-up comedy because I think it’s very brave.”

“But surely,” I said, “if you die on stage in front of 15 people in the upstairs room in a pub, that’s not as bad as buggering up an announcement in a stadium of 100,000 people and a TV audience of several million.”

“Well,” said Trish, “Whenever I do voice-over work – and I’ve worked for you – I’m sitting in a studio, I never see or smell the audience, I read a script – I don’t have to learn it – and, with the Olympics, I conned myself that I was in a television studio and, when I looked through the window, I was just looking at a TV screen.

“With stand-up comedy, you are completely naked and exposed, you have to remember what you’re going to say AND you’ve got to make people laugh. That is terrifying and I wanted to see what that felt like. If 15 people in the room in a pub hate you, you have nowhere to go.”

“And you have never been an actress, live on stage,” I said.

Trish Bertram on stage at the Amused Moose showcase

Trish on stage at the comedy course showcase

“No. I was a stage manager at the National Theatre, Royal Court, Young Vic. I blagged my way into telly from nowhere. So live performing was a big new thing for me.”

“At the end of Logan Murray’s course,” I said, “you performed in a showcase…”

“It was the weirdest feeling,” said Trish. “I have no memory of having done it. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. In my head, I can see myself doing it, but I can’t remember what it felt like.

“My biggest fear beforehand was, amazingly, not standing on the stage – and it was not talking into the microphone, because I do that all the time. My biggest fear was my memory, because I’m not used to learning material. I was terrified I was going to forget it. I had just seen Stewart Lee perform. How does he remember his act? How does Janey Godley remember her act? How do they all remember an hour of material?

“Logan Murray told me: If you try and learn this like a Shakespearean soliloquy, you will come unstuck. I was trying to learn my five minutes word-for-word. But the audience doesn’t know what they don’t hear. And, when it works, people don’t realise it’s a script. They think the comic is just chatting to them.”

“I’ve got bored,” I told Trish, “of comedy bills that are just four or five competent male comics doing much the same material as each other and, if they’re new, talking about wanking. It used to be that women comics were just as bad – they all talked about periods and how awful men are. But now women have a tendency to be more interesting than men because their material is more varied.”

TrishBertram_headphones

Shared angst builds confidence?

“On the course,” said Trish, “the women were much more open about admitting to each other they were struggling with it, whereas all the boys were very stoic and that’s a male thing in general: Don’t admit your weakness.

“The boys looked like the confident ones at first but towards the end the women – I think because they’d all shared their angst with each other – were actually more super-confident on stage than some of the boys.”

“There is that cliché,” I said, “that men are interested in things and women are interested in people. I think there’s a bit of truth in that. And, if it’s true, women are going to be inherently more interesting doing comedy because ‘things’ are not really funny. People are funny – or people and their interaction with ‘things’.

“Women are more interested in psychology and emotions. Comedy plays with the emotions and, for that reason, maybe the most interesting comedy is about tragedy and, because women are more interested in emotions and men don’t so much show or express emotions, women have more interesting material. Maybe women are more attuned to getting comedy out of tragedy and men are not.”

“But men ARE funny,” said Trish. “There was a perception for a long time that women aren’t funny. Maybe because there was no culture of female comedy.”

“Well,” I said, “there is a problem because, on the circuit, you’re basically talking about rooms above or below pubs. Lads’ drinking culture. Not pure comedy clubs. Pubs that have comedy shows within them. I think originally there were fewer women because they weren’t attracted to the milieu. That has changed a bit.”

“What the course has done for me,” Trish said, “is give me renewed respect for every comic I see, whether they’re massively famous or new.”

“You haven’t met them off-stage,” I said. “They’re all barking mad. Maybe there are just more mad men than mad women.”

“People assume,” I continued, going into auto-gabble mode, “that comedians have to be self-confident extroverts to get up on stage, but they’re actually on stage because they are insecure. They want the validation of laughter and clapping and being in control of other people’s emotions.

Trish Bertram abseils down a building in 2000 (don’t ask)

Trish was abseiling down a building in 2000 (She likes risks)

“If your gig is a big, big success, there is the fear that your next one can only be less good. If your gig fails, then you know the audience knows you’re as bad as you think you might be.

“There is no upside at all. It’s all downside. If you are a success, you are about to fail. If you fail, you know that’s because you are not good enough. The only positive psychological ‘hit’ is at the specific point when you get the adrenaline rush if the audience whoop and laugh and love you. Insecure people get addicted to performing comedy.

“It really is like a drug. You feel bad; you take a drug; it gives you a sudden, brief high; then there’s the come-down afterwards. But you keep wanting to re-experience that big adrenaline hit so you keep taking the drug.”

“At the start of the course,” said Trish, “Hils Jago (of Amused Moose) told us: This is not therapy. this is a serious business. But, actually, it was therapy. Every person I got to know a little bit on the course had some therapy shit we were working out. Everyone seemed to be there because of some inner angst or a confidence anxiety thing or whatever. Comedy is a kind of a weird therapy.”

“Except for you?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Was I…? I did freak out.”

“But you didn’t want to be a comedian?” I asked.

“No, I don’t want to be a comedian. I’m too old and I don’t want to be one. But I like comedy and I like laughing and I’m interested in how the world works. I’d quite like to be Hils Jago.”

“So, as you don’t actually want to become a comic, you will never do stand-up again?” I asked.

“I might.”

“Why? Have you got the bug?”

Trish at London Weekend Television

Trish in the continuity suite at London Weekend Television

“I don’t know. I was so stunned that people laughed. I had about seven mates there at the showcase and they all laughed. Now I just want to know if they were being kind. So I might do one more at an open mic night and see if I can make total strangers laugh. I might do one more out of curiosity. Just one more.”

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Amused Moose promoter and producer Hils Jago on talent spotting comedians

A strangely reticent Hils Jago yesterday at Soho Theatre

An unusually reticent Hils Jago yesterday at Soho Theatre

“Why Amused Moose?”

“I wanted a word beginning with the letter A because, back in the day, everything in Time Out was listed alphabetically. I chose ‘Amused’ and then had to find something that rhymed with it. I thought of ‘Moose’ two weeks later, when I was in the bath drinking red wine… and then comic Mark Watson told me it was a bad rhyme.”

Yesterday, I had tea at Soho Theatre with Amused Moose Comedy boss/promoter/producer Hils Jago. As well as the upcoming Amused Moose Comedy Awards, she runs Amused Moose clubs, tours acts and stages shows.

“Everything’s going through change at the moment,” Hils told me, “so I’m thinking How can I change? This will be our 15th year – before that we did previews and things. I learned my trade by helping run comedy at Sohoho for about five years.”

“I suppose,” I told her, “I should ask you about the fact people are talking about the death of comedy clubs…”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m not even talking about that. The death of comedy clubs is people not having any vision and taking too much money out of the business. You have to reinvest and you have to be creative and inventive. I’m making lots of changes to my business over the next six months. A few people have said Oh, production line comedy! about small comedy clubs. Which I always used to say about the two big comedy chains. I’m fearful that I could be seen quite soon as being part of that production line comedy. I need to re-invent what I do and how I do it.”

“Money,” I said, “seems to be tight all round at the moment.”

Al Lubel, winner of the 2013 Amused Moose Laughter Award

Al Lubel, winner of the 2013 Amused Moose Laughter Award

“Yes” said Hils. “We do two awards. The Amused Moose Laugh Off and the Amused Moose Laughter Awards which come under the umbrella of the Amused Moose Comedy Awards. Unfortunately, the support we’ve had from BBC Worldwide for four years is finishing this year, so I am looking for new sponsors for next year. We could do it much more on a shoestring, but that would show, so I’m looking for sponsors to get us up to the same level we got to with the BBC. The BBC also did a £5,000 prize and that’s one of the things that will obviously have to go if we don’t get sponsorship next year.

“What we need is to find people who are either philanthropic or who see us as a good way of doing their scouting for them… which we have been doing, because we did find Jack Whitehall and Sarah Millican and people like that.”

“How do you spot talent?” I asked. “For large-scale success, what you’re actually looking for is bland, middle-of-the-road, unoriginal acts…”

Amused Moose winner Sarah Millican

One of the Amused Moose ‘finds’ Sarah Millican

“No you’re not,” said Hils. “I’m looking for people who have some style and pizzazz about them and can write a decent line or two. I knew within 15 seconds when Jack Whitehall walked on stage. I probably had a pretty good idea before he even walked on the stage. How he carried himself as a person. Same with Sarah Millican. It was obvious she was head and shoulders above the other people in her heat.”

“Years ago,” I said, “I heard you say to someone – it might even have been me – that, if you’re a manager/agent, it takes three years to launch a comedian.”

“Oh, it does,” said Hils. “And normally, from when someone starts, it takes seven years to get a DVD out – to be ‘DVD famous’ enough to be ready to sell a million. DVD companies want to sell a lot; they can’t just send out tasters, like you can with YouTube.

“This whole thing that’s happening now which Louis CK kicked off three Christmases ago by putting his stuff online for $5 – people were sending them as Christmas cards to people! – I can’t believe that no-one else has actually commercially got this model going.”

“Are the winners of your competitions tied to you, like Simon Cowell?”

“No. I don’t like managing people. I don’t like being responsible for other people’s livelihoods. I hate it.”

“But you have managed acts in the past.”

Jerry Sadowitz on a holiday with Richard Wagner

Jerry Sadowitz – immense talent but could you manage him?

“Yes. I managed Jerry Sadowitz for 15 months.”

“Bloody hell! That must have aged you.”

“It taught me a lot. I’ve managed a lot. I think you can spot talent. But it’s also actually finding people who’ve got the drive and determination to succeed and who have some sort of appreciation of how the business works, because it IS show BUSINESS. I don’t mean to say you have to do business, but you have to understand people need to make money and you’ve got to understand the constraints people are working under. If you look at Jimmy Carr, who was in our first final, he’s very aware of marketing.”

“Was he genuinely an oil executive,” I asked, “or is that PR bullshit?”

“Yes,” Hils told me. “He left with a racing green company car which they gave him with wire wheels – that’s how nice a car it was. Top of the range. And he was driving it round for about two years as an open spot, giving top comics lifts and they were saying: Where did you get this from? Leather seats, wooden dashboard, the whole thing. Superb.”

‘Moose’ rhymes with ‘Amused’? Opinion varies.

‘Moose’ rhymes with ‘Amused’? Opinion varies.

“The thing about comics,” I said, “is that they’re so phenomenally insecure and tend to be dithery and can’t manage themselves. Irresponsible by nature, which is what makes them good comics.”

“It’s just,” said Hils, “a matter of finding someone who’s got all the right character combinations. We all make allowances for comics, of course we do. The other problem is that, when you are a comedian – generally – you disclose a lot more about yourself than you would if you were a ‘real’ person. So everyone thinks they’re insecure and bonkers but, actually, they’re no more insecure and bonkers than the rest of us – but the rest of us can hide it.

“They show their insecurities and their vulnerabilities on stage. They have to, in order to charm an audience. Because that’s what makes them loveable. You can get someone who is a brilliant wordsmith and delivers very well, does all the tricks, but actually does not make it happen because they do not have any warmth about them. There has to be some warmth in there. Even if they’re a comic who does dark material, there has to be a twinkle in the eye.”

“Jimmy Carr ,” I said, “got terrible criticism for a joke about gypsy moths which I thought was unjustified. I never heard him tell it live but, in that cold cynical Jimmy Carr persona, he is able to deliver all sorts of potentially dodgy gags and they are fine.”

Jimmy Carr was a man with a car

Jimmy Carr was a man with a car

“Well,” said Hils, “Jimmy developed that style. He started off doing just one-liners which were not acerbic. It took him two or three years and it wasn’t until he did his first Edinburgh Fringe show and he had to work out how to do an hour that he started changing how he delivered.”

“I do think, though,” I said, “that if you are looking for someone who will become genuinely successful across the board, you have to look for someone who is not totally original.”

“It depends,” said Hils, “They can be offbeat… if that’s the way the trend is going… It’s that thing about catching the wave at the beginning. If there is no wave there, then you are a bit buggered. At the moment there IS… I think, in the next two or three years, we’re going to see a new breed of people coming through. Even some of the people who only go out to comedy clubs on a Saturday night are beginning to say: Excuse me. This is comedy by rote.”

“So what is this new wave?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“The original alternative comedy,” I said, “was stand-up, jugglers, music, magicians, poets…”

“It was Variety,” agreed Hils, “I think that’s one of the things that may be coming in. There will always be stand-ups, but I think we might see a wider variety.”

“Did you ever try stand-up yourself?” I asked.

“No.”

“Because?”

“I was a teacher and lecturer for six years and keeping a disinterested audience occupied for five hours was quite enough.”

“In what subject?” I asked.

“Business and IT. I trained for science but there weren’t any jobs. My degree was Earth Sciences.”

“I’ve never known what that means.”

“Geography and Geology and bits of stuff like that… You don’t want me going on for hours, because you’ve got to type it all up.”

“You are very shrewd,” I told Hils.

“Well,” she said, “I’ve been a journalist. I’ve done all sorts of things. I’m old. I go back to rock ’n’ roll. I used to drink with Jimi Hendrix…”

“Did you?”

“Yes. I knew Jimmy Page when we were both at school.”

“Oh Lord,” I said. “I feel another blog coming on…”

… TO BE CONTINUED … MAYBE …

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