Tag Archives: Ivor Dembina

More comics’ comments on the death of the godfather of UK Alternative Comedy

Malcolm Hardee on his boat (Photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee’s birthday was yesterday in 1950.

He drowned on 31st January 2005.

A few days after his death, I set up an online page where people could post memories of him. 

Yesterday I re-posted the first of those memories by fellow comics.

They continue here…


ALAN DAVIES, comedian – 7th February, 2005

The Tunnel Club in early 1989. I was an open spot. I was 22 but I looked about 12. Malcolm looked worried for me: 

“You’re not going to wear that shirt are you? They’ll take the piss out of you your first line.”

He introduced me.

“Stone him!” they shouted. ”Crucify him!”

Before I could do my first line, someone asked what I was drinking. I held up my glass and said, “Directors”. Then I made a joke about my shirt and did some material before I could get booed off.

At The Tunnel, if you survived the open spot they’d slap you on the back and cheer you loudly. It was that or humiliation. No middle ground.

Malcolm said, “I’ll book you,” which was fantastic for me, just starting out. “By the way,” he said, “it’s not Directors. The landlord’s done a deal with Whitbread, even though it’s a Courage pub”. 

The following month, I did a full spot and soon after the pub was raided and it was over.

Up The Creek was great and I played it a lot but The Tunnel was special – the hardest gig. If you went well they’d virtually chair you off but, if not, a humming noise would start and gather volume as more joined in… ”Mmmm…” louder and louder.

Malcolm would hurry from the back bar. 

“MmmmmMALCOLM!” was the signal for him to rescue the turn.

One night there was a juggler who tossed clubs into the audience inviting them to throw them back.

“Oh no,” said Malcolm,”I’ve only just got them to stop throwing stuff.” The first club nearly took the juggler’s head off but he caught the second and was granted a wild ovation. 

Malcolm gave me loads of gigs, including one in Bungay which I drove him to as he consumed an enormous curry alongside me.

There were stories all the way there and all the way back.

He was the one-off’s one-off.


ALEX HARDEE, Malcolm’s brother – 7th February 

I had just met a new girlfriend, who had never been introduced to any of my family before. She was from quite a well to do family, and I was quite nervous of her meeting Malcolm.

Unfortunately, it happened to be at Glastonbury where the meeting was to take place, so I dragged her backstage to the Cabaret Tent, and said, “Malcolm, this is Claudia,” at which he whipped his genitalia out and said, “Look at this Ultravoilet knob,” as he had painted it earlier with Ultravoilet paint.

A shocked look came across her face and he responded, “Don’t you worry. You should see my wife’s mouth.”

Of course, I am not still with her.

Will miss you loads. The world is a sadder and less colourful place without you.


MATTHEW HARDY, comedian – 8th February

October 2, 1992. I landed alone in the UK, straight from having lived my entire life under Mum & Dad’s working class roof in the sunny Aussie suburbs. A mate who’d been overseas showed me a copy of Time Out and, though I’d only done six open spots in Oz, I decided there was more opportunity in England. Saved money for a one-way ticket cos I was impatient. 

Many calls down the then ‘cabaret’ listings got me nowhere, until Malcolm answered at Up The Creek. My old man had verbally forced me to agree on keeping a diary, despite me saying it was for poofs. The diary entry from Nov ’92, upon meeting Malcolm in the Lord Hood on a Sunday Creek Sabbath, reads: “This weird bloke called Malcolm gave me a gig, met me in the pub next door beforehand, got me to buy him a pint, then told me I’d be shit, but not to worry. Unfortunately he was right, but I’m not worried cos he gave me another gig anyway”. 

Soon he arranged accommodation and a welcoming woman’s number. Hardee hospitality.

Years later, he took my visiting elderly parents out in his boat. 

Goes up the Thames and on the right was some kind of rusted ship, pumping a powerful arc of bilgewater(?) out of its hull, through a kind of high porthole, which saw the water arc across the river over fifty foot. 

I’m on the front of the boat as Malcolm veers toward the arc and I assume he’s gonna go under it, between the ship and where the arc curves downward toward the river itself. For a laugh. 

Just as I turn back to say, “Lookout, we’re gonna get hit by the filthy fucking water” the filthy fucking water almost knocked my head off my shoulders and me off the boat. 

I looked back to see it hit Malcolm as he steered, then my Mum and then Dad. I wanted to hit him and my Dad said afterwards that he did too, but we were both unable to comprehend or calculate what had actually happened. 

Malcolm’s decision was beyond any previously known social conduct. He must have simply had the idea and acted upon it. Anarchy. 

We laugh… NOW!

R.I.P mate.


SIMON DAY, comedian – 8th February

He was my friend, my agent, father figure, dodgy uncle, wayward best mate. He ran the two best comedy clubs of all time. He had a humanity and gentleness which he tried to hide. Above all he was the king of comedy. They don’t make them like that any more. In the end he swam away with his underwater bollocks. Thankyou.


STEVE GRIBBIN, comedian – 9th February

As the man who launched the infamous Tunnel Club, one the two best and fiercest comedy clubs in the whole fucking world, Malcolm deserves to be justly celebrated, but those of us who knew him well will recall his love of a prank and a practical joke, which often shaded into criminality!

One time we were in Aberystwyth University and had to change in the kitchen. Malcolm saw a huge 15 foot square block of cheddar cheese in the fridge. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said: “Oy Oy… let’s have it!”

It took five of us to carry it into the white Ford Transit van that Malcolm had ‘borrowed’ off Greenwich Council. 

The next day a very irate official from Aberystwyth University rang up Malcolm screaming abuse down the phone. 

“You thieving bastard, I know it was you!”

Malcolm denied all knowledge, ending the phone-call with the immortal words: “Sorry mate, got to go now, me cheese on toast’s ready!”

For every tear of sadness that’s shed for his untimely demise there will also be an accompanying one of laughter. Malcolm was like that.


STEVE DAY, deaf comedian – 9th February

Malcolm helped me more than anyone else in my comedy career and when no-one else was interested. It used to be three good open spots at The Creek then you got a paid half spot – none of this perpetual open spot and competition rubbish. 

I had only done two when this happened – :

“The next bloke is a deaf bloke. I know he really is a deaf bloke cos I offered him a paid gig, but he didn’t hear me. So here he is for free… Steve Day”


IVOR DEMBINA, comedian – 9th February

Affectionate tales of Malcolm’s thieving abound, yet here’s one of an attempt of mine to steal from him. 

When I first saw Malcolm compere at his club, the Tunnel, I was so impressed by everyone’s reaction that I decided to ‘borrow’ his style of showmanship for my own comedy club in north London. 

My theft was doomed to failure because I wasn’t nearly as funny as Malcolm nor blessed with his gift for making strangers love him. 

My fruitless larceny taught me a painful lesson: as in comedy as in life, be only yourself, say what you think, do what you feel and stick to your guns. 

Malcolm Hardee was the living embodiment of that lesson and it’s a profound sadness to me that I never had the opportunity to thank him before he died.


KEVIN McCARTHY, ‘THE MAN WITH THE BEARD’, comedian – 10th February

For starting me off in this business – I thank you.
For giving me my name – I thank you.
For bouncing countless cheques on me – I forgive you.
For owing everyone on the circuit at least a tenner – I forgive you.
For swallowing a two bottle decanter of vintage port in one go and then redecorating my car with it – I forgive you.
For turning up at a meeting at the BBC as my manager with gravy down your tie and looking like a sack of shit – I forgive you.
For dying aged 55 – …


CHARLIE CHUCK, comedian – 10th February

I met Malcolm and played Up the Creek in 1990.

A man was sat on the steps with his head in his hands. 

I said to Malcolm: “What’s up with him?” 

He said: “it’s Jack Dee. He’s on next”.

Jo Brand, Lee Evans, Simon Day, John Thomson, Bill Bailey, Harry Hill, Johnny Vegas, Mark Lamarr, Boothby Graffoe, Bob Mills & the rest, you know who you are. Without Malcolm, The Creek and his pioneering, it may never have happened for some. He got the media to his club, he could have signed many a comedian, could have exploited them and made money out of them. Malcolm was not that kind of man.

He was deeper and kinder than you know.

For me, Malcolm saw me and pulled me out of a bolt hole in Nottingham. I auditioned for him re TV at that time. I didn’t have a clue.

He put me on a show called The Happening with Jools Holland. I died on my arse. I should imagine Malcolm felt bad about it. He took a chance on a twat like me. He said to me: “I’ve got Vic Reeves on at the Creek on 15th November; meet him”. The only Reeves I’d heard of was Jim Reeves. So, instead, I didn’t listen & played the Sandiacre F.C in Longeaton, Derby. Where?

During the Edinburgh Festival, at half one in the morning two men were locked out of a car; the only place open was a bread shop. They went in and borrowed some baking implements to break into the car. It was so funny. Me and Malcolm howled.

Anyway, fuck it!

Joke No 1. Malcolm told me he had a terrible day; he woke up at 9am and a prawn cocktail slapped him in the face. That was just for starters.

His memory will live on.


SIMON MUNNERY, comedian – 11th February

I first met Malcolm when I was doing open spots at The Tunnel. I’d been booed off before, but never booed on. I loved the place, and I loved Malcolm. I remember two blokes chatting in the toilets. 

Says one: “It’s been a good night.” 

Says the other: “Yeah. But if Malcolm gets his bollocks out it’s going to be a great night.”

And that was true.

I regarded Malcolm and his wife Jane as my adopted parents and one night they dropped in to my flat in Stoke Newington. Malcolm was drunk – hold the front page – and after a bit had to go to the toilet. 

Malcolm used to steal – hold the front page – particularly from bathrooms. I knew this, Jane knew this and we could hear him crashing about in an exaggerated fashion for ages. 

When he at last returned I said, “Alright Malcolm, what have you nicked?” and he goes “Uh… uh… sorry,” and gets out this tiny pot of my girlfriend’s aromatherapy oils.

But it was too quick. 

I said “Yes; and what else?” 

He goes, “Oh, sorry,” and gets out another. And so on, and so on until, half an hour later, the entire contents of the bathroom were spread out in the living room and he swore there was nothing else. 

Later, we were helping him down the stairs when I noticed an overpowering smell. 

“What’s that smell?” I asked. 

He had emptied a bottle of perfume over his coat.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, UK

The Edinburgh Fringe: where shows with no audience can get 4-star reviews

Red Bull - Not to be encouraged in Edinburgh

Multiple Red Bull usage – Not to be encouraged in Edinburgh

I arrived in Edinburgh for the Fringe on Monday morning at 7.55am and got into my rented flat at 3.15pm. Don’t ask. Just don’t ask.

I got very little sleep on the journey up, was mentally dead by the time I got into the flat and failed to rectify the matter with three Red Bulls. All they did was make me even sleepier. And the mental torpor did not abate yesterday, not even with – or possibly because of – three more Red Bulls.

I was already behind on six interesting blog chats which I had had last week and which I had been going to post in the days leading up to my arrival in Edinburgh.

For example…

Ivor Dembina feels a right tit

Ivor feels a right tit; I have no caption shame.

I had a chat with long-time club organiser and comic Ivor Dembina about one of his three upcoming Edinburgh Fringe shows. (Yes, three this month.)

“On the last day before registration,” he told me, “an Edinburgh venue got in touch with me and said an act had pulled out so there was half a run free if I wanted it. So I said Yes I’ll fill it. I didn’t have a show, but they didn’t seem to mind.

“For the last two or three years, I’ve been running something I call a Comedy Drop-In – a fortnightly meeting point for anyone in comedy who just wants to get together and talk about what they’re doing and show some stuff. From complete newcomers who’ve never done a gig to seasoned club comics.”

“So it’s not like a six-week course?” I asked.

“That’s the thing,” said Ivor. “I don’t really set myself up as a teacher, more just a fund of information, as someone who’s been performing and running comedy on the circuit – fairly near the bottom of the food chain – for the best part of 30 years.”

“So that’s your show this year?” I asked.

IshouldHaveListenedToIvorDembina“Sort of. I also noticed that, having done other courses and having been interviewed by the press, there is a fascination out there with the job of being a comedian. And, over the years, I’ve found myself being asked the same questions over and over again. So what I thought might be an idea for this year’s show would be me answering these questions in as interesting and entertaining and funny way as possible. When I started off, all I had was a title – I Should Have Listened to Ivor Dembina.

“One of the beauties of the idea was I could go on stage knowing I knew what I was talking about but not having to write a word. I’m also taking my show Old Jewish Jokes up to Edinburgh – the fourth year I’ve taken it up.”

“With new jokes?” I asked.

“No,” said Ivor. “The clue’s in the title. And I’m doing a third show this year – City Cafe: Late Nite & Free – a compilation show I’m compering.”

So Ivor Dembina is taking one of his shows – I Should Have Listened To Ivor Dembina – up to the Fringe by accident. And comedian Philip Simon is up here by accident too.

I accidentally met him on a train out of Elstree last week (we both live in Borehamwood).

Philip Simon on a Thameslink train with no bull

Philip Simon with invisible Andy Zapp – on a Thameslink train

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To an Equity Comedians’ Network meeting. We’re strengthening the industry through support of the union.”

“Oh yes?” I asked. “And what else have you been up to?”

“I got married last week.”

“To the woman you’ve been living with for two years?”

“It seemed easier.”

“You going up to the Fringe this year?”

“I’m doing a show with Aaron Levene: The GILF and The BuJew. But, in my case, The Guest and The BuJew. Aaron is really supposed to be performing it with Andy Zapp but, for the first ten days, Andy can’t be there.”

“What is on the flyers and posters?” I asked.

“My head on Andy Zapp’s body,” said Philip.

“With you Photoshopped in?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Philip. “With Andy Zapp’s everything, except his head. It’s even his wrist.”

Andy Zapp (left) and Philip Simon (right) with Aaron Levine

Andy Zapp (left) and Philip Simon (right) with Aaron Levene thanks to the magic of Photoshop

“And, after that?” I asked.

“I’ll be in an Enterprise Car Rental commercial. I’m being a tourist. I get chased by a bull. They flew director Dawson Marshall Thurber over from America. He wrote and directed the movies Dodgeball and Central Intelligence.”

“Is the bull going to be added in on CGI?” I asked.

“No. It was real. We have already shot it.”

“You didn’t die?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.,” said Philip.

Italian Luca Cupani represents the UK in

Italian Luca Cupani represents UK in Canada

I also had a chat with Italian comedian Luca Cupani who – in a double whammy of surreality – was about to go off to Canada to represent the UK at the Just For Laughs festival along with Japanese comedian Yuriko Kotani.

Unfortunately, I have taken so long not writing this blog that Luca is now back in the UK and his show – Luca Cupani: The Admin of Death and Other Confessions – starts tomorrow.

At the same comedy dementia show (yes it was) last week where I met Luca, I also had a chat with Steve Jameson aka excellent character act Sol Bernstein (who keeps reminding me I claim I don’t like character acts although I like his).

He remembered an Edinburgh Fringe gig which had been reviewed by Kate Copstick.

Steve Jameson as Sol Bernstein

Steve Jameson as his character Sol Bernstein

“We knew Kate Copstick was coming,” he told me, “so we thought Ticket the place out! We gave away 30-40 tickets and nobody came on the night except Copstick and a guy from Mervyn Stutter’s show. So I did the show because I knew she wouldn’t come back. I called her a hooker, a lesbian; everything I say on stage to people in the audience. I called the poor guy from Mervyn Stutter a faggot – everything I could think of to insult him.”

At the end of the show, I got a standing ovation.

Copstick wrote in her review: He got a well-deserved standing ovation. She gave me 4 stars.

That epitomises the Edinburgh Fringe. Shows with no audience can get 4-star reviews if they are good. And some full-to-the-brim shows are shit.

In my opinion.

But what do I know?

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy

Edinburgh Fringe: suicide & drugs for breakfast, laughter & tears for comedy

So which, I hear you cry, Edinburgh Fringe shows did I see yesterday?

Pasta la vista - Ali Price

Pasta la vista – Ali Brice as his Fringe show alter ego Eric Meat

Ali Brice Presents: Eric Meat Has No Proof, Only Memories of Pasta
Everything you would expect from one of the absurdist Weirdos collective. Plus the chance to take a bite out of an apple.

Liz Fraser: Lifeshambles
Perfect example of a new Fringe genre: attractive, intelligent women (usually not circuit comedians) of around 40 impeccably performing shows about the arrival of their mid-life years.

The Gilded Balloon press show

The Gilded Balloon press show last night

Abigail Schamaun: Post-Coital Confessions
Does what it says on the label and is pitch-perfect. Sexy enough not to disappoint, presented to a mostly middle class audience without them being offended.

The Gilded Balloon Press Launch Show
30th anniversary taster of this year’s shows by arguably the Fringe’s most technically proficient venue. Standout comedy acts yesterday were both Irish – Al Porter and Aisling Bea.

No swinging cats in this shower

No swinging cats in this small shower room


So now today’s blog…

The flat where I am currently staying during the Edinburgh Fringe has no bath, only a cramped shower. This is a drawback for me, as I find it comforting to lie back in hot bathwater and wallow in grains of my own dirt. It is a bit like watching dust particles float in the air through shafts of sunlight – you are literally watching the world decay around you.

Yesterday morning’s shower was interrupted by a phone call from BBC Radio Wales at 10.10am asking me if I wanted to take part at 10.30am in a discussion on learning foreign languages. Well, that is not quite true. I missed the call and picked up an answerphone message at 10.45am, too late to take part in the show. The offer was a tad bizarre, as I speak no foreign languages of any kind. Apparently I was on their list because, a couple of years ago, I slagged-off the frankly unnecessary Welsh language on some BBC Radio Wales show.

Highly prestigious comedy critic Kate Copstick and I are sharing the flat this year. She, of course, is not phoned-up by the likes of BBC Radio Wales. She gets phoned up to do 4 minute interviews on Sky News. This morning, she was dragged out to the Royal Mile at 8.15am to be asked if Dicing With Dr Death was a suitable show for the Fringe.

Kate Copstick on Sky News this morning

Kate Copstick expressed her views on Sky News this morning

In the show – billed as comedy – Philip Nitschke of the controversial suicide advice group Exit talks about suicide. I blogged about the show back in January and February this year when comedian Mel Moon was to co-present it. She and Philip subsequently split over creative differences and she is now in her own show Sick Girl.

This morning on Sky News, Copstick said: “I think everyone ought to have the right to die. We have lots and lots of rights nowadays. I have the right to become a man tomorrow, more or less. But I don’t have the right to be assisted to end my life with dignity and without pain. And I think that’s something we should be talking about… This is comedy to help people. He’s not making fun of anything; he’s not making light of anything. He is putting his information in a more accessible place.”

Kate Copstick’s breakfast yesterday morning

Kate Copstick’s breakfast yesterday morning

Copstick came back to the flat in agony last night.

When I first heard she had the disease lupus, I thought it meant she turned into a wolf on a regular basis. Some of the acts she reviews may have suspected the same thing.

In fact, it is not. It just means she is in pain almost all of the time.

Yesterday was our first breakfast. I had toast. She had six tablets: she needs hyper-strong painkillers for her lupus.

Lewis Schaffer manages to promote one of his while still talking to Ivor Dembina

Lewis Schaffer (left) manages to promote one of his shows while continuing a conversation with Ivor Dembina

After this, yesterday morning, I bumped into comedian Lewis Schaffer in the Fringe Central building and then we both bumped into comedian Ivor Dembina. There is a lot of bumping in Edinburgh at this time of year. I will only repeat one sentence from the ensuing conversation – when Ivor Dembina said to Lewis Schaffer:

“The last thing I want is a lecture on ophthalmics from Lewis Schaffer.”

I think the quote gains from having no context.

Alex Dallas’ Edinburgh fringe flyer

Alex Dallas’ subtle Edinburgh Fringe flyer

Shortly afterwards, Canada-based comic Alex Dallas came and sat with us. Ivor asked for her first impression of Lewis Schaffer, whom she had never met before.

“He is a silver fox with dimples,” she said. “He’s a ladykiller.”

“Dimples?” I asked. “It’s like flying over Cambodia and seeing the bomb craters left by B-52 bombers in the Vietnam War.”

No-one laughed.

Charmian Hughes spots Alex Dallas

Charmian Hughes spots Alex Dallas yesterday

At this point, comedian Charmian Hughes arrived. Conversation soon turned (I did not introduce the subject) to late comedian Malcolm Hardee. Alex had memories, when she lived in London, of him paying her £40 after a performance, then asking her to loan him £20 to pay another comedian; Charmian said she had untold stories of her relationship with Malcolm in her current show When Comedy Was Alternative (The Laughs And Loves Of A She-Comic).

Before she moved to Canada in the 1990s, Alex had been in the female comedy group Sensible Footwear.

“There were,” she reminisced, “a whole lot of women’s troupes back in the 1980s. There were the Scarlet Harlots, the Frank Chickens, Spare Tyre, the Cunning Stunts…”

Alex Dallas with Ivor Dembina yesterday

Alex Dallas with her old(-ish) friend Ivor Dembina yesterday

“That,” said Charmian, “was the first workshop I ever went with. I had to go in a corner and be a rock for an hour. It was my first dramatic experience. It was the happiest hour I’ve ever had in my life.”

“The 1980s were good,” said Alex.

“That’s what my show is about,” said Charmian. “My tagline is now: Did I get off with you in the 1980s? Did I stalk you in the 1990s? If so, you are in my show.”

Lewis Schaffer and Ivor Dembina left. Then Alex Dallas and Charmian Hughes left. Just as I was about to leave, I got an e-mail from TV producer Danny Greenstone. It was headed: The Phantom Raspberry Blower. It read:


Danny Greenstone

Danny Greenstone – blowing phantom raspberries

Believe it or not (and I couldn’t blame you if it’s “not”) I have been asked to direct my first ever London West End stage play. It’s a staging of a radio performance of what was the last ever written – but unperformed – Goon Show. So it will be a bit like the way Round The Horne Revisited was staged.

The producers have launched a Kickstarter project to raise additional funds for the show – There’s absolutely no pressure and no obligation and no dead fish wrapped up in newspaper will turn up at your door… it’s an opportunity if you’d like it.

Kickstarting for extra funds Goon Show

The un-performed Goons show: Kickstarting for extra funds

If you wish to investigate further, here’s the link.

And there we have it. You, too, can be part of The Phantom Raspberry Blower Of Old London Town which opens its cloak at the St. James Studio Theatre in London on 30th October 2015.


Alice Fraser - a law unto herself

“…all the horrible things that had been happening in my life”

After reading this, I tried to leave Fringe Central again, but I was accosted by someone I did not recognise. It turned out to be Australian comic Alice Fraser, about whose preview show, Copstick raved in last weekend’s Grouchy Club Podcast. Alice had recognised me from the (occasionally videoed) Podcast.

“That show Copstick saw,” Alice told me, “was less of a try-out than she thought it was.”

When Copstick saw Alice’s Savage preview – the one she raved about – Alice had just flown from Australia with a 45-minute stopover in Singapore, got off the plane in London and virtually gone straight to perform the show in Shepherd’s Bush.

Alice Fraser: Copstick raved about the show

Alice Fraser: Copstick raved about the show she previewed…

“I was incredibly jet lagged,” Alice told me yesterday, “so the show was more of a mess than it would normally be, but all the bits were meant to be there. It was like doing it in a dream. The audience were mostly my friends from ten years ago. All these faces from my past, smiling dimly at me while I told them all the horrible things that had been happening in my life.”

Alice’s show has audiences both laughing and crying.

“You were here ten years ago?” I asked.

“I went to university here in 2007.”

“Which university?”

“Cambridge.”

“What did you study there?”

“English Literature. Rhetoric.”

“Specifically rhetoric?” I asked.

“Specifically rhetoric. I did a Masters.”

“What was your BA in?” I asked.

Alice’s show has had audiences both laughing and crying

Alice’s show has had audiences both laughing and crying

“My BA was at Sydney University in English and Law. I used to be a lawyer – I was in corporate real estate – and I quit it to become a comedian. The thing about Law is how do people believe that one thing is a crime and something else is not a crime? How do you make them really believe that?”

“You wanted to be a public speaker?” I asked.

“No. I was just interested in how people communicate and more how people get ideas.”

“What is Rhetoric?” I asked. “Just learning about Greek people and a few politicians?”

“Anything. Comedy is really interesting when it comes to rhetoric. You can break it down in incredibly nerdy ways if you want to. Comedy is persuasive speech in itself. You are persuading people (A) that you are funny and (B) that they should laugh at any given joke. Any joke is persuading you of a number of things both of the content of the joke and that the joke itself IS a joke and that it’s funny and worth laughing at.”

A street poster for Alice’s Savage show

A street poster for Alice’s Savage show

“So,” I said, “you are an ex-lawyer and you are interested in rhetoric and therefore you are very together and therefore you are not the normal sort of mad comedian.”

“I AM the mad comedian,” insisted Alice. “I’m just projecting a shield of togetherness.”

“And your show?” I asked.

“I don’t want easy answers. The show is about somebody offering me an easy answer and how infuriating I found it – to be offered an easy answer to an incredibly complicated situation.”

As I said, Alice’s show has audiences both laughing and crying. Copstick raved about it. I have not yet seen it. I am going to see it. It is titled Savage.

That’s life.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy

Comedian Ivor Dembina on the comparative pain of Jerry Sadowitz, Frankie Boyle and Lewis Schaffer

Comic investigator Liam Lonergan

Comic questions from Lonergan

My last two days’  blogs have been extracts from a chat Liam Lonergan had with comedian and club owner Ivor Dembina for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

This is a final extract.

____________________________

Liam Lonergan: How long have you been doing comedy?

Ivor Dembina: Well I came into it in the early 1980s. I was the second wave. The first wave was Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, The Young Ones and all that lot. They got going in 1979. I would have come in about 1982, 1983.

Liam: So, since you started stand-up, have you been able to sustain it as a career or have you at any point had to have another career?

Ivor: Well, for thirty years I’ve earned a small living from it. The money has come primarily through running little clubs and promoting gigs. I’ve done the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve been abroad a couple of times. I’ve never earned much serious money from it. I’ve never really sought to. That’s been secondary. But some people have got very rich out of it. No question. I mean, some of ‘em are multi-millionaires.

Liam: Russell Brand.

Ivor: Well, Russell Brand, Russell Howard. Harry Hill must be worth an absolute fortune. Frank Skinner.

Liam: Harry Hill had the golden handcuff contract with ITV where he was getting I think it was £10 million over three years.

Ivor: These are people that, when I last worked with them, I gave them £50. Steve Coogan. Y’know, these people they’re millionaires many times over. And just work it out for yourself. An agency like Off The Kerb, when they got £20 million out of the BBC for Jonathan Ross they got 15% of it. They got £3 million for one deal.

Someone like Russell Howard was charging £40 a ticket for – I can’t remember exactly but – something like an 18,000 capacity venue for 55 minutes work… Micky Flanagan does four nights at the O2. You see a poster with Micky on it. Then a week later you see the same poster only this time it’s a DVD of the show. The people who go and buy it provided the laughter track. Now they’re going to buy the DVD.

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of UK comedy

Ivor Dembina: Was he too left-leaning for TV?

Liam: Did you ever make an attempt to penetrate that side of it? Did you ever wanna get into TV?

Ivor: I was never a gagster. Television never wanted me and I never wanted TV. I thought I’m not bad as a live comic. I’m worth seeing. I think I write quite interesting jokes. I just don’t think telly’s for me. Yeah, there are times when I think I wouldn’t mind some of that. The things that I really envy about people who have made it on television are they don’t have to bust their balls to get an audience. People will turn up because they’ve been heard of. And they get to play in nice venues because, obviously, if you’re playing a West End theatre, the whole atmosphere is designed to make you look good. You’ve got perfect sound. The lights are great. The audience is comfortable. You haven’t got people walking in and out of the bar. You haven’t got a PA that’s gonna collapse on you. You haven’t got a group of drunks in the front row. You haven’t got to deal with it. You just go on and do what you do. To me, it’s the only incentive for fame: that you’d get invited to play in nice rooms.

Liam: So what would be a really good night for you?

Ivor: Well, I was up at the Edinburgh Fringe last year playing a small fifty seater venue and it sold out throughout the run. And I was amazed. I was genuinely shocked that fifty people wanted to come and see me every night. I’m not being modest here. I thought: Bloody hell. Well maybe my show’s not that bad. I’ve just got used to failure. I don’t resent it. These are choices that I’ve made. A lot of the people who have had good television careers, they’re very talented, they’re very funny. I mean, Frank Skinner’s an incredibly funny guy. And, in his way, so is Michael McIntyre. It’s not my taste but McIntyre’s great.

Liam: With that sort of demographic.

Ivor: It really works, yeah. But I’m more interested in comedy as an art form where, basically, you’re communicating something human to the audience or sharing something with them. I think that tends to work, roughly, in auditoriums up to about a maximum of 200 people. This arena comedy, I just don’t get it. One of my favourite comedians of all time is Woody Allen. If he came over here and did a theatre I would do my best to get a ticket. But, if he was on at the O2 Arena, I wouldn’t go. What’s the point?

I think what’s happened with me is that, in London… I’m a bit like Lewis Schaffer. Quite a lot of people sort of know who I am. Quite a lot of those like me. They might come and see me again.

Liam: You’ve got your own dedicated following, as Lewis Schaffer seems to have. The thing I found quite remarkable with Lewis was that everyone who was coming up to the door he knew their names. Instantly. He was instantly on first names terms. And it was like he’s cultivated this atmosphere that was, sort of, a tree house gang.

Lewis Schaffer: creating a cult

Lewis Schaffer: creating his own cult?

Ivor: You used the word cultivated. It’s interesting. If you break down the word cultivated you get the word cult. What he’s trying to do is create a cult of Lewis Schaffer, which is beginning to work a bit but ultimately his problem now is… we’re not in that main world of agents or TV or…

Liam: Well, that’s my main angle. It’s people who are just outside of…

Ivor: At the moment people like me and Lewis qualify. You could say that Stewart Lee is very interesting to observe at the moment because he was in that position but now he’s got his own TV series and he’s had his show on at The National Theatre. Mark Thomas is a bit like that. On the one hand he’s Leftie, he’s got his credentials. But he’s ‘appy to knock out a DVD or pop up on telly. Jerry Sadowitz is another one. He’s great. He’s way outside… He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s fantastic.

Liam: Lewis Schaffer said he thought Jerry Sadowitz was good but he thought he lacked humanity. He thought he was just… just pitbull teeth. [Lewis Schaffer disputes he ever said this – SEE HIS COMEBACK HERE]

Ivor: I don’t agree. I think Jerry has got a great humanity. Whenever I see Jerry I never think You’re cruel. Never think that. I get that sometimes when I watch Frankie Boyle. I think he plays to people’s cruelty. But I just think Jerry’s dead funny.

Liam: Jerry seems real. Someone who’s quite embittered. Someone who’s got a chip on his shoulder, who’s punching upwards.

Ivor: He’s letting us see his pain. And that’s fine. Whereas I think with someone like Frankie Boyle it’s more of a case of What can I say that’s going to really wind people up? And he does it and he does it very well. But if you go look at a Frankie Boyle video and you cut away to the audience, they’re exactly the same sort of people who are laughing at Michael McIntyre. It’s cruelty for the masses. Whereas Jerry is showing us his pain and making us laugh at it at the same time. What I think Frankie Boyle does is Let’s have a laugh at the pain of others. Big difference.

Liam: That’s why I thought it was good with Lewis Schaffer because even though it comes across as quite polished like Mort Sahl or the old…

Ivor: The old vaudeville…

Liam: … there is a neediness. There is that sort of ‘revealing himself’ that I think is very attractive.

Ivor: He just needs to relax a bit. Relaxation isn’t his strength.

Liam: Do you feel, in your own personal… Do you think pathology… does that feed into, into your act?

Ivor: One of the myths in comedy is that all comedians are somehow depressives or manic depressives. It’s just bullshit. Obviously some people have definitely experienced mental health problems. Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock. Russell Brand has been very open about his addictions. But when we were talking about Jerry Sadowitz… he puts his pain on stage. He allows you to see it but it’s got nothing to do with mania or psychosis or mental health.

It’s about putting pain onstage in a way that other people will appreciate. Not to upset them. Peter Hoopal once said to me: “You can show ‘em the scars but never show ‘em the wounds”.

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Psychology

How to start & run a successful comedy club – by Ivor Dembina (who knows)

Liam Lonergan: man of comedy

Liam Lonergan: laughing is a serious business

In yesterday’s blog I ran an extract from a chat Liam Lonergan had with comedian and club owner Ivor Dembina for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

In this further extract, they talk about running comedy clubs.

Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club in London celebrates its 20th anniversary next month.

______________________________________________

Ivor Dembina

Ivor Dembina – club owner and promoter

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 Fringe and 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 his Hampstead Comedy Club in January

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.

… CONTINUED HERE

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Drink

Comedian Ivor Dembina on how money & TV altered British alternative comedy

Liam Lonergan meets a man with answers

Liam Lonergan talked academically to Ivor

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

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 wing and 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 back in the day

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…

Ivor: No.

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 Week and 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.

Being himself at Hampstead Comedy Club

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.

… CONTINUED HERE

1 Comment

Filed under 1980s, Comedy

Old Jewish Jokes and why comedian Ivor Dembina gets hate mail from Jews

I was partly brought up in Ilford in East London and went to school near Gants Hill which was, at the time, extremely Jewish. When there was a Jewish holiday, class numbers were so depleted that teachers at my school tended to abandon the lessons and have general knowledge tests. One of the bonuses of going to my school, though, was that I got endless top-notch Jewish jokes told by Jews.

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Next week, Wednesday to Saturday, comedian Ivor Dembina is performing his show called Old Jewish Jokes at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.

“It came about because of my previous solo show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy,” he told me yesterday. “That was a story with jokes about the Israel-Palestine conflict seen through the eyes of a North London Jew.

“Some people complained it was ‘too political’. So I came up with the idea of preceding it with a 20-minute curtain-raiser called Old Jewish Jokes. Then I was going to have an interval and perform This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy.”

In fact, Ivor never did this. Old Jewish Jokes developed into its own one-hour show.

“One day,” he explained to me, “I did a gig at a Jewish venue and, before the show, the organiser asked me: You’re not going to do jokes about the Holocaust, are you? That slightly threw me – not because I actually do jokes about the Holocaust, though I do jokes about the way people use the Holocaust to fit their own agenda – about people appropriating history for their own purposes. I think that’s fair comment for the current comedian.

“But there was something odd about being asked beforehand about material I was not going to do. So I have worked that idea of being told by a venue owner what jokes not to tell into a narrative in which to tell the old Jewish jokes: Jews and Israel, Jews and money, Jews and sex. There ARE lots of jokes, but it’s underpinned by this story of what it’s like being a modern Jewish comedian when you’re given a shopping list of things you’re not allowed to talk about.

“I tested the show out last August at the Edinburgh Fringe – on a small scale at the Free Festival – and it sold out on the second night and then every night throughout the run. What was clear and heartening was that at least 75% of the audience was non-Jewish. So I thought I’d try it in London. The tickets for the Leicester Square Theatre show are selling really well without any great PR. If it works well there, I’ll probably take it back to Edinburgh again this year, maybe in a bigger pay venue.”

“The title is great,” I said. Old Jewish Jokes. You know exactly what you’re going to get.”

“Yes,” said Ivor, “People don’t come to see Ivor Dembina, by and large: they come because of the title.

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of UK comedy

Ivor Dembina: “a typical alternative comedian”?

“I’m just a typical London-based alternative comedian. I’m used to writing stories about myself or whatever. But I’ve found actually standing on stage telling jokes is really hard. You could tell the best jokes in the world for an hour but, about 10 or 15 minutes in, the audience’s enjoyment will start going down. Which is why it’s so important to have the story in there. It gives the audience a breather and an additional level of interest because it becomes not just about the jokes themselves but about ethnic minorities having a fear of people making jokes about them.

“Black people can make jokes with the word ‘nigger’ in. White people can’t. Jews can make jokes about being mean with money and use the word ‘Yid’ but non-Jews can’t. What’s that all about? All those issues are kind of bubbling underneath and I think that’s what makes this quite an interesting show. The old jokes are great. I don’t have to worry about the jokes. But hopefully the audience may go away thinking about acceptability. Why are some jokes acceptable and others not? Why is the same joke OK in a certain context but not in others? It just stirs it up a little and I like that.

“In London, the Jews still have something of a ghettoised mentality; they tend to live in North West London or Ilford. Most Jewish entertainers work the Jewish community – the culture centres, the synagogue halls. Which is fine. But no-one – particularly in comedy – has yet stuck their neck out and consciously decided to try and take Jewish humour of an English kind out of the community and target it fairly and squarely at the ethnically-mixed audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. Instead of Jews just telling these jokes to each other, the whole culture of Jewish jokes could be opened up to a much wider audience.”

Ivo Dembina at Hampstead Comedy Club last night

Ivor Dembina at his Hampstead Comedy Club last week

“But surely ,” I said, “Jews have been telling jokes about Jews forever? There’s that whole New York Jewish thing.”

“Ah,” said Ivor. “That’s America, Over there the whole Jewish schtick is much more widespread.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “There are loads of British comedians who are Jews, but I can’t think of a single famous comedian over here who you could describe as doing his or her act as ‘a Jewish comedian’. Bernard Manning was a bit Jewish. Jerry Sadowitz is a bit Jewish. But you couldn’t describe either of them as being ‘Jewish comedians’ in the genre sense.”

“Mark Maier does a bit about it,” said Ivor, “and there’s David Baddiel, but you wouldn’t say he’s a specifically Jewish comedian. Lenny Henry was the UK’s ‘black comedian’ but there has never been a comic who became Britain’s Jewish Comedian.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“America’s a much bigger country,” said Ivor, “and they have a predilection for ethnic assertiveness – I’m an American black! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Jew! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Italian! – I’m proud! Jews in America see themselves as American first and Jewish second. In Britain people see themselves as Jews first and British second.”

“Really?” I said, surprised. “I’m not English, but I’m Scottish and British equally.”

“In my opinion,” said Ivor.

“Lewis Schaffer – a Jewish New York comedian,” I said, “surprised me by saying he was brought up to distrust Gentiles.”

“Well,” said Ivor, “I was brought up to fear Gentiles.”

“They are shifty, untrustworthy?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Ivor. “You can’t trust them. That was what I was told. In a way, the reason why Israel is so important to the Jews is because they see it as a bolt hole to go to if anti-Semitism gets too bad.

Ivor’s Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

Ivor’s 1996 Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

“I think what drives most Jewish behaviour is fear. Because of the experience of our past… I was brought up to think You can’t trust non-Jews. Obviously you find that same mentality in Israel: You can’t trust the Arabs. Shoot first. Ask questions afterwards. And, in the diasporait’s even more so. If anyone begins to raise a dissenting voice within the community, you get labelled as a traitor. I get hate mail just because I’ve dared to question the prevailing ethos through my comedy and through my very low-level political activity.”

“How did Jews react,” I asked, “to your show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy? It was about you actually going to Palestine and what you saw there. Did you get hassle about being perceived to be pro-Palestinian?”

“I get loads,” Ivor replied. “Hate mail.”

“Even now?” I asked.

“Not so much now,” said Ivor. “What happens is they try to marginalise you. Its main function is to intimidate you. Life would be easier if I kept quiet. Or to provoke you into doing something or saying something outrageous that will make you look stupid or like a villain. To get under your skin, to make you angry. I’m used to it now. I don’t take any notice of it.

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall at St James’s in Piccadilly

“I don’t do much. I took part in that Bethlehem Unwrapped thing where they did a replica of the wall separating Palestine from Israel at that church in Piccadilly. I did a comedy show with Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and a couple of other Jewish comedians. And there was a line of people outside complaining Ivor Dembina makes jokes about the Holocaust! Which I don’t. But they’re very organised these Zionist people. It’s like banging your head against the wall.”

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Israel, Jewish, UK