Tag Archives: Martin Besserman

April Fools jokes can rebound on jokers

I am doubtful I would make a good woman.

It is April 1st today and yesterday I thought about planting a story I was changing gender and wanted, from now on, to be known as Jean Fleming.

But, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered setting it all up believably and the self-publicity was not necessarily all positive.

April Fool jokes can turn and bite the begetter.

As I write this, it is 09.30am and already April 1st stories have appeared, a couple good, one bad.

At 00.25am this morning, comedy club-runner Martin Besserman posted a Facebook message saying:

An excellent idea, because it is just about believable, especially at 00.25am in the morning. I almost fell for it, because Martin is an increasingly prestigious man, or so he tells me. In any case, what you remember longer-term is Monkey Business being associated with some sort of up-market area.

That man in the white suit on the left is a hologram. Or not.

When I woke up an hour ago, I had a Facebook message from Dan Berg of go-getting comedy streaming company NextUp saying:

Hey John, Hope all’s well! I remember you sat in the front row for our gigs so thought you might like this – a lil bit of NextUp technology which launched today so the front row is never too far away… http://lologram.co.uk

It was touting a new concept in which you can project video holograms of comedians in any location.

Exactly the sort of thing he and NextUp might do and it projected a PR image of a futuristic forward-thinking company. A comedy hologram called Lologram sounds like a great name. Good PR for NextUp.

Detailed but backfiring?

I also received an email from the Edinburgh Fringe which announced that they are building a roof to cover the area of the Royal Mile sponsored by Virgin Money… and they want you to fork out money to crowdfund it… So they have a financial sponsor (Virgin Money) and they want punters to help finance the financial sponsor.

A good April Fools joke – maybe – but one which rebounds as bad PR for the Fringe, given that it makes you wonder yet again what Virgin is actually sponsoring. Not the Fringe Programme, where a 40-word entry costs £300-£400 for 40 words and costs an arm-and-a-leg for a quarter page ad.

The seed is also planted in your brain (even though you know it is not true) that Virgin Money are calling themselves sponsors but do not have enough money and are asking ordinary people for crowdfunding to make what they do seem better.

April Fools jokes should be jolly, but not leave a funny PR taste in the mouth or egg on the face.

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Martin Besserman, Margaret Thatcher, a Jewish Christmas and a chicken poem

Martin Besserman at Monkey Business yesterday

Martin Besserman was up to more Monkey Business last night

Comedy promoter Martin Besserman of Monkey Business has been staging Jewish Christmas shows for around ten years.

“This year,” he told me, “it’s in the Glasshouse Room in the Holiday Inn, Camden. And I’ve booked the room for New Year’s Eve as well.”

“A Jewish Christmas show?” I asked.

“Jews traditionally love going out on Christmas Eve,” he explained. “I don’t know why that is. They drink Coca Cola or coffee, not alcoholic drinks. They love their entertainment, then they go home and eat cake.”

“They eat cake?” I asked.

“They eat cake,” repeated Martin Besserman.

“How do you make the show Jewish AND Christmassy?” I asked.

“It’s primarily Jewish acts – Adam Bloom, Lewis Schaffer, Lenny Beige, Simon Schatzeberger as Woody Allen – and it coincides with it being Hanukkah. It’s not compulsory to be Jewish to come in. I mean, we’re not going to check your schmekel…”

“Schmekel?” I asked. “What’s a schmekel?”

“It’s exactly what you think it might be,” Martin told me.

“You’ve been in the show business a while,” I said.

“When I started off,” Martin told me, “I was 15, I joined a theatre group, performing in Parliament Hill. I always wanted to entertain. You’ve blogged about my days at Speakers’ Corner. Then I was in a band. We were put on with guys like The Pretenders and Depeche Mode.”

“You were glam rock?” I asked.

“I’ve done punk, everything,” said Martin. “My first gig was at the Electric Ballroom in Camden: I was the only support act for Adam & The Ants: we had the same manager.”

“What were you called?” I asked.

young Martin Besserman - man of music

Young Martin Besserman… was a glam man of music

“Just Martin Besserman. Sometimes I had a backing band. Sometimes I went on as a solo poet. I even went to 10 Downing Street and complained about my housing conditions to Mrs Thatcher. She made sure I got re-homed. Her Press Secretary got in touch with me and told me she had looked at my housing situation and, three weeks later, I was offered a new place to live.”

“What was wrong with your housing situation?” I asked.

“I was four flights of stairs up,” explained Martin, “and every time I needed to go to the toilet I had to go downstairs but sometimes I couldn’t be bothered and did it in a bottle and poured it out the window. I did a lot of campaigning poems in those days. I did one about chickens in Petticoat Lane, because I was a vegetarian.”

“When did you start being a vegetarian?”

“In my twenties… In those days, chickens were sold in public and people would grab hold of the chicken and mishandled and I was very upset about that as an animal lover. It was horrible. They would chop their heads off in public in Petticoat Lane. So I got in touch with the Daily Mail and I also got publicity on Capital Radio. I wrote a poem about it:

I’m a poor little helpless chicken
Imprisoned in a cramped box made of wood
I can hardly breathe in this chosen environment
If only they understood

There is no Valium to calm me down
I’m hungry and thirsty too
I’ve got a broken wing and there’s not a vet around
If you were a chicken it could have been you

There is a death smell from my murdered mates
I’m sure my turn is near
The slaughterer’s hands will soon be around my throat
I suppose it could at least end my fear

I understand I must make tasty food
After all I’m a beautiful creature
But now I’m on show
As part of a Petticoat Lane tourist feature

…I can’t remember the rest, but…”

“So you were a vegetarian?” I asked.

“I am,” said Martin. “I love animals. I don’t feel we have the right to abuse them in the way we do. I often see people campaigning for Corbyn – all the injustices in the world – and some of those injustices that they’re talking about have a lot of credibility. I understand that. But they’re the same people who will think nothing about being part of the mass murder, suffering and exploitation of animals. I don’t want to be part of the pain and suffering.”

Besserman Jewish Chrisrtmas

Have a Besserman Jewish Christmas…

Besserman Jewish New Year

Have a Besserman New Year’s Eve…

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Comedy promoter Martin Besserman on sexism, Harry Hill and the Holocaust

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

I saw Harry Hill perform at Monkey Business last night.

Martin Besserman’s Monkey Business comedy club has been running in London since 2002. At the moment, it runs Thursdays and Saturdays in Kentish Town with other occasional forays – this week, they staged the special Harry Hill show at Camden Lock. It is not the first time Harry Hill has appeared for Monkey Business.

“You get big names,” I said to Martin Besserman.

“We have a relationship,” he told me. “I have known Harry for many, many years. When I used to work in the market, he was always inquisitive about that. He is a decent, genuine guy. I think performing at Monkey Business takes him back to his roots. I’ve got Bill Oddie coming to Monkey Business on 20th May, because it’s for a charity he believes in – Angels For The Innocent. He’s going to host the show.

“Bill and I come from very different backgrounds, but what we share in common, incredibly enough, is that many many years ago, we had the same girlfriend – not at the same time. It wasn’t a threesome. I was eighteen. I was her next boyfriend after Bill Oddie. Some things stick in your mind.”

“You were telling me,” I said, “that you thought you might have had a reputation for being sexist as a comedy club MC, but that you have reformed yourself.”

“I don’t think it’s a matter of reforming myself,” Martin replied, “because I don’t believe I was ever sexist. People love to gossip, often to disguise issues they are dealing with themselves – and the easiest way of doing that is to criticise other people. It’s very unfair because I think that, over the years, I’ve been very supportive of some of the individuals who are now troublemakers and manipulative gossipers. There’s no credibility whatever in anything they’ve said. I can be clumsy on stage – I admit that – but I have addressed it and I think I am getting better. People are telling me I am getting funnier.”

“What,” I asked, “does ‘clumsy’ mean in this context?”

“Well,” said Martin, “maybe not being aware of the consequences of being spontaneous. But, for some people, there’s a certain charm in that. Obviously, some people will get hurt when you make business decisions that are not in their favour.”

“You mean,” I asked, “if you see their act then don’t book them a second time?”

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Martin Besserman – Everybody has their own interpretation

“Yes and they have their own interpretation. At the end of the day, everybody likes to feel that they are special and their contribution to comedy is appreciated. So, if a promoter gives them the elbow or doesn’t give them the welcoming warmth they feel they deserve, then sometimes some of them get bitter. That can happen. But the amount of female acts that perform at my club is greater than at most other clubs. I try to be fair, both with the sexes and also I try to make it multi-cultural.

“There are a lot of good, funny female acts and there are a lot of good, for example, Asian acts. There’s a new-ish act called Hari Sriskantha who was so impressive that I put him on with Harry Hill this week and I’ve also got him on at the Amnesty gig.”

“That,” I said, “is The Secret Policeman’s Ball gig you are programming on 6th June.”

“Yes. I think it’s the first time Durham University have done it. Interestingly, there were some people who criticised me for getting involved with Amnesty. Some Jewish people who said: Mmmm… Amnesty doesn’t like the Jews.

“I am sympathetic to the Palestinian people but, as a Jewish person, I’m equally sympathetic to the Jews. My father was a Holocaust survivor. I don’t think it matters what side of the fence you are on – the objectives are identical. You want peace. You want people to love each other. Both sides have done wrong things and it would be hypocritical to not be aware of that.

“All I know is my father was 14 or 15 years old and he saw his father being led to the gas chambers in 1945. About three weeks ago, I saw a photograph I’d never seen before of my father, just as he came out of the camp with his name: Maurice Besserman. The idea was that newspapers would have photographs in case any of the relatives would recognise any of the people who had survived.”

“What did he do after the War?” I asked.

“He was a very good auctioneer in the market.”

“And you helped him?”

East Street market in London, where Martin worked

East Street market, London, was subsidising comedy for years

“Yeah. I never really knew what my vocation was going to be. I was very confused. We were poor, so I never had an academic education, but I was inquisitive and intelligent and quite wise to the world.”

“And you said Harry Hill was interested in your work at the market?”

“Well, he always used to ask me about it.”

“This was when he was a doctor?”

“No. When he had become a performer. He used to ask me about the market where I worked, in East Street, near Elephant and Castle.”

“He knew you before you went into comedy?”

“No. The market was subsidising comedy up to about six years ago. I was there for years. It was a fantastic business. I made a lot more money out of the market than I did out of comedy, though eventually comedy was subsidising the market because that market – like all the markets in London – got competition from the pound shops and changing cultures and bureaucracy from local councils and went into decline.”

“What were you selling?” I asked.

“Initially jewellery,” said Martin. “Then I incorporated vibrators.”

“Do they have the same buyers?” I asked.

“I was younger then,” said Martin, “I was selling loads of vibrators until the market inspector closed me down. He said: You cannot sell sex tools in a market. I told him: It’s not a sex tool. It’s a massager. He said: No, my wife’s got one of those. Those were his exact words. I don’t think that would happen today.”

“Are you still speaking at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park?” I asked. He has been speaking there since 1978.

Martin at Speakers’ corner recently.

Martin explains at Speakers’ Corner recently.

“It’s not as good as it used to be,” he replied. “The great characters and the great speakers have been replaced with a lot of religious fanaticism. I used to go there as a poet. I’ve been speaking since I was 16. My message now is Make Love Not War. In itself, it’s not controversial but, then, everybody else is talking about segregation, about how great their religion is. There tells to be a little bit of an aggressive theme there now.”

“What was it like before?” I asked.

“There were a lot of eccentrics. Years ago, even the religious speakers were loveable eccentrics. They put on a show. That, unfortunately, is not the atmosphere now. But it’s still a place where you can get up on a platform and express whatever you think is fundamentally right or wrong with the world and nothing will happen to you. Of course, there have been isolated fights there, but you won’t be arrested for speaking against the monarchy or whatever. That’s a freedom that should never be trivialised. This Sunday, a film crew want to include me in some filming there.”

“What’s it about?”

“I don’t know. It’s definitely about comedy and it’s written by a Danish guy. They sent me a script. I don’t think I have to say too much, but they tell me it’s very important… and they’re going to have the Monkey Business logo in the background…”

On YouTube, there is a 2-minute news report of young Martin Besserman at Speaker’s Corner in 1985.

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Comedy club owner Martin Besserman: from sexually-frustrated middle-aged women to increasing monkey business

MartinBesserman1

Martin Besserman last night: “They were bewildered”

I thought Martin Besserman must have been running comedy clubs in London for the last 25 years. He seems to have been around forever.

I was wrong, as I found out when I talked to him last night.

He currently runs two Monkey Business comedy venues in north west London – in Belsize Park/Hampstead and in Kentish Town – the first for higher profile acts; the latter mostly for newer acts.

“Initially,” said Martin Besserman, “I ran a club in Kentish Town at a bar called O’Reilly’s which, when you go in, it looks like everyone’s done something bad in their life.”

“And they probably have,” I said. “It’s your ideal comedy audience.”

“I was upstairs there for about a year,” continued Martin, “and then their former manager recommended me to the Sir Richard Steele pub in Hampstead. And they were very impressed because, within the first month, I had acts like Harry Hill and Omid Djalili and they were bewildered and really impressed that I managed to build it up so quickly. I’ve been there eight years now.”

“I’m still bewildered,” I said “that people like Harry Hill try out new material at Monkey Business.”

“He did four shows with me last year,” said Martin.”He’s a very nice man and he remembers his roots. If they’ve had a good time at your club, then they remember you. People sometimes take a chance on you and, if you form some sort of bond… I mean, we do come from different backgrounds.

East Street market in London, where Martin worked

East Street market, London: net curtains & frustrated women

“My background was doing what my father did – selling net curtains at East Street market in the Elephant & Castle to sexually-frustrated middle-aged women. In fact, I worked next to Jade Goody at one time. She got sacked for nicking a quid about one year before she became famous on Big Brother.”

“Monkey Business,” I said, “is a very well-known club now.”

“I think because I’ve been running it for such a long time,” said Martin. “People have said there’s no other promoter like me, that I have a certain style and I don’t try to  copy any other club. So maybe there’s a uniqueness, because the philosophy of the MC and the person organising the club is certainly significant.”

“What’s your philosophy?”

“It’s all about individuality,” explained Martin. “People go to expensive workshops and think that they can learn to perform. I’m sure sometimes it can help them develop whatever potential they might have but, at the end of the day, you just have to have natural funny bones. There has to be something about you that is special.”

“I suspect,” I said, “that workshops give people who have ability the confidence to do what they could do anyway. And, if you have no ability, you will still have no ability at the end.”

“I think so,” said Martin. “I did go to Tony Allen’s workshop in the late 1980s which was good but, before then, I was a public orator at Speakers’ Corner.”

“You still do that?”

“Yes, in the summer. I occasionally drag performers there – I dragged Reg D.Hunter there. For all the black guys at Speakers’ Corner, he was the new Obama, although Reg wouldn’t get up until I bought him a bottle of vodka.”

“And you go there in the summer because it’s sunny?” I asked.

“I prefer it when it’s warm,” agreed Martin.

“Has it changed?” I asked.

“It has lost,” said Martin. “a lot of great orators like Lord Soper (a prominent Methodist minister, socialist and pacifist at the end of the last century) and lots of interesting eccentrics. But, for me, it’s still important because it’s a symbol of our democracy: the fact one can go there and express what one feels to be fundamentally right or wrong with Society.’

“So what’s your soapbox schtick?” I asked.

“I learnt from Lord Soper when I was 16 that, if you want to convey a message, you should always do it with humour. There IS a serious point I’m trying to make there: Make Love, Not War, though you would have to listen to me for a long time to work that one out.

“It’s difficult because I’m Jewish and there are a lot of Moslem people at Speakers’ Corner – you’ve got Edgware Road close by, which is mainly Arabic – so Jewish speakers tend to have a fairly hard time – they’re heckled fiercely. There are some people there – not all – who are quite radical in their opinions and you have to address that. So, for me to convey a message which is not about taking sides but about uniting… it really amounts to me trying to get them to laugh with me – to buy in to my humour.

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

“I started my first comedy club in Edgware Road at a bar called the Hanging Tree. In those days, you got a lot of support from people like the Evening Standard and Time Out. I got 250 people turn up for the first gig.”

“Did you always want to be a club owner, as opposed to a jobbing comedian?”

“No,” Martin replied. “It happened by mistake. I used to enjoy comedy at the King’s Head, Crouch End. I knew that I liked it. I knew I wanted to be part of entertainment. I was in a band. It happened because I split up with a girlfriend and I wanted to impress her, so I started a comedy club. I thought there was more to me than just being a market trader.

“I had no idea that, eleven years later, I would still be running a comedy club which is one of the more well-known clubs.”

“At the moment,” I said, “the economic climate is very bad for comedy clubs. They’re closing down all over London and all over the country and you’ve just decided to open one in the heart of the West End of London. Have you gone mad?”

“It’s out of necessity,” explains Martin. “Eventually, they will be turning the Sir Richard Steele pub into flats and my time there is limited. It could be in a few months or a few years – getting the planning permission, the builders and all that – but it is going to happen.

“I’m a survivor. I’ve got a taste for the business. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to leave a club. I’ve had all sorts of things – I’ve had managers trying to hijack my club, I’ve been replaced with karaoke. It’s very difficult when you have to start a new club and have to build up your reputation all over again. But I feel confident in the West End.

MonkeyBusiness_logo“There are two venues in question. One is Leicester Square – that’s only a 65-capacity venue, one minute from the tube station. Because it’s not a very large room, it would be quite easy to fill up.

“The other possible venue is above a very beautiful Turkish restaurant in Covent Garden – Sofra in Tavistock Street – two of the chefs there used to cook for the Royal Family – and they are going to let me do a trial show on New Year’s Eve. The room accommodates 100 people.”

“So,” I asked, “if that works well, you would be running a Leicester Square club AND a Covent Garden club?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “I have operated two clubs on a Saturday night before. It’s difficult. You have to trust the staff at the other venue. You can’t be at both.”

“Being a compere at a comedy club,” I said. “…People seem to think it’s easy, but it is very, very, very difficult. I have seen very good comedians try to MC and it can be a disaster – if they just tell gags – because it’s not about telling jokes between other people’s jokes.”

“Well,” said Martin, “there’s no rules about being a good MC. The testimony is if the audience have a good time. Sometimes I’m on form; sometimes I’m not. The MC can make or break a show. The job is not to hog the stage. An MC should have a minimum amount of time on stage, unless you’re Michael McIntyre. The job is to relax the audience. If the MC doesn’t deliver, all the acts he introduces will have a harder task, no matter how good they are.”

“When you compere,” I said, “you don’t really perform, you schmooze; you chat to the audience.”

MartinBesserman2

“You’ve got to know the boundaries,” said Martin last night

“The audience should be your friends for the evening,” explained Martin. “You should act familiar with them, but you’ve got to know the boundaries of how far you can go. I have seen other people compere and they can be crude.

“Sometimes you can be crude but not if it doesn’t suit your personality: if it all seems out of place. I’m not saying I’m crude, but it’s tongue-in-cheek humour and I would like to think it’s not offensive.”

“All comedians manipulate the audience,” I suggested, “but the compere more than anyone is manipulating the atmosphere for the other acts.”

“It’s like boyfriend/girlfriend,” said Martin. “The relationship has to be that you have to feel comfortable in that other person’s company.”

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