Tag Archives: Off The Kerb

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.

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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

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Agent & manager Addison Cresswell & the colourful world of British comedy

Here is an extract from the late Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. It refers to an incident when comedians Ian Cognito and Ricky Grover had a falling-out at the Edinburgh Fringe:

An excellent performer called Ian Cognito was there and he was very drunk, as is his wont. When he’s drunk, he gets aggressive. Part of his Italian upbringing, I think. 

Ricky had worked with him before, so said hello to him and Cognito grabbed him by his collar and said: 

“You’re a fat cunt!” 

Ricky doesn’t mind that sort of thing at all. He’s used to it.

So, not getting a reaction, Cognito continued: 

“You’re a fat cunt and you’re not funny!” 

Ricky still didn’t react, so Cognito added: 

“And your wife’s a fat cunt as well!”

This upset Ricky, because he’s one of those traditional people.

“Did you mean that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Ian Cognito said.

“Can you repeat it?” Ricky asked.

Cognito said: “Your wife’s a fat cunt”. 

And, with one blow, Ricky just knocked him out. Unconscious. Displaced his jaw a bit. The lot. Ricky’s a professional, so he knows exactly where to hit someone.

Standing three or four yards away was Jon Thoday, who runs the Avalon agency. I looked over at Jon and said: 

“Oh, have you go that £500 you owe me?”

Funnily enough, the cheque arrived in the post about two days later.

While Ian Cognito was still unconscious another well-known agent rushed over and told Ricky Grover he shouldn’t hit comedians and that he, the agent, could have people killed. 

This bloke’s gone a bit funny. 

He behaves as if he’s a ‘villain’ for some reason. His father is actually a distinguished academic. He comes from a very posh family but he likes to be ‘laddish’ and he’s gone one step further now. He’s got the black Crombie, the waistcoat: everything the well-dressed villain should have.

I met a real villain who had seen him walking about in the West End of London and the agent told this bloke he was one of the Brindle Brothers. At the time, there was a bit of a feud, including occasional shootings, going on in South East London between the Brindle Brothers and the Arifs.

The un-named “well-known agent” at the end of that anecdote was Addison Cresswell of the Off The Kerb comedy agency.

Yesterday it was reported that he died in his sleep, aged 53, on Sunday night and is genuinely much-lamented. Whereas other agents might occasionally rip-off their own clients, I never heard anything bad about Addison in that respect. He was always said to be “hard-nosed” in his negotiations on behalf of his artists (which was his job) – but always in his artists’ interests.

In a 2008 Guardian profile, Kevin Lygo, then Director of Television & Content at Channel 4, described Addison as a “big, flamboyant character in the showbiz comedy world… In the end, you can judge how effective and how good agents are by the long-term relationships they have with their clients. In other words, is their client base always changing or not? Addison has managed to keep his clients for a very long time, which is an indication how good he is for them.”

Addison was oft-quoted as saying: “I don’t see us (agents) as in any way different from the people who run the (TV) channels. They’re complete bastards as well, but we all have to work with each other.”

The Daily Mirror yesterday wrote that he was “seen as a no-nonsense, forceful and larger than life character by many in the industry”.

In the 2008 Guardian profile, Kevin Lygo said of Addison: “With broadcasters, he can be volatile – but my experience with him is that he is straight, and you always have the feeling that he has his client’s best interests at heart. He has an understanding of television, and is a hard negotiator but also fair.”

I only encountered him in person a few times in 1995 when I worked on Jack Dee’s Saturday Night show for ITV1. Addison’s TV company Open Mike produced the show. He talked fast and usually seemed coked-out-of-his-head in a long dark coat. He cultivated a hard-nosed image but seemed to be honest in the sense that, as far as I ever heard, he did the best for his acts and, unlike some other agents, financially screwed companies for the benefit of his acts – he did not financially screw his own acts.

Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography, from which the Edinburgh Fringe story above is taken, was published in 1996. This is an entry from my diary two years after that:

Sunday 30th August 1998

In the evening, we went to (Malcolm Hardee’s comedy club) Up The Creek, re-starting its Sunday night shows after a summer break.

Malcolm was extremely drunk in a dysfunctional way when we arrived. At the end of the show, he was so drunk that he fell over and had to be replaced by Simon Fox – one of the comics on the bill – who wore Malcolm’s jacket & spectacles and told three of Malcolm’s jokes.

I drove Malcolm and a girl back to his former home in Fingal Street (which he still rents out to people). The girl was some sort of groupie, mid-20s, glittering hard eyes caused by drugs, drink or cynicism. 

During a break in the show, Malcolm had told me how he and (a friend) had had tea with comics’ agent Addison Cresswell in Covent Garden. Malcolm and (the friend) were “stone cold sober” but Addison was heavily coked-up. He kept telling them how he was now a millionaire and how much he loved them. 

Around the same time – I guess the late 1990s – I heard two other stories.

I had a chat with someone who was thinking of buying Addison’s home. He had gone round to see the property and had been surprised to find, he told me, that the kitchen had bullet-proof glass in the windows.

A stand-up comedian with a colourful past also told me Addison had taken to carrying a gun which he would occasionally take out and wave about to appear macho.

“You shouldn’t do that, Addison,” the stand-up comedian had told him. “If you get into an argument with naughty people (the phrase he used) they may hit you. But, if they know you’ve got a gun under your coat, they’ll just shoot you straight off.”

The Guardian wrote yesterday: “Cresswell preferred his stars to be in the spotlight rather than himself although the BBC hoped he could rival Simon Cowell on a projected talent show.”

A spokesman for Off The Kerb said: ”He leaves behind a proud legacy in his tireless charity work, initiating and organising the annual Channel 4 Comedy Gala in aid of Great Ormond Street hospital. It was his dearest wish to raise enough to fund the opening of a brand new wing of the hospital, a goal that is now in sight. He is survived by his beloved wife, Shelley, his dogs Bonnie and Nessie and many, many pet fish.”

So it goes.

There is a rather strange report of his death on YouTube:

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Money in comedy: Mr Methane’s problem; critic Kate Copstick’s rant

mrmethanebendsYesterday, I blogged about a discussion at Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival about whether the future of British comedy lies online instead of in live comedy clubs.

After he read my blog, Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally-performing flatulist – he’s farted around the showbiz world for years – told me this:

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I think its already happening, at least in the case of acts like mine.

People no longer have to go out to see some weird stuff anymore. They get sent it over the net by their mates seven days of the week and so, when they go out, they don’t go out to see something bizarre or different. Also the smoking ban has played its part as has the price of beer compared to Bargain Booze & Aldi for example.

All in all, people who want to see bizarre stuff nowadays are used to getting it for free on YouTube and the like: they don’t want to pay for it.

This means I get more exposure than I’ve ever had in the 23 years I’ve been farting around – just one YouTube vid of me has over 28 million views – but it doesn’t translate into more paid gigs.

If anything, it is a declining scale and you have to look to other revenue streams and opportunities the net presents which, when you’re not a Freemason or related to someone high up in the BBC, requires all your ingenuity and a good dose of good luck – This you can only make by doing even more free, web-based, social media publicity.

Possibly I and others like me are in a slow downward spiral. But, all this said, now I’ve had a moan, these are potentially more exciting times – or is that just another word for changing times? Either way, what is happening is a doubled-edged sword.

With regard to the Comedy Store Raw & Uncut film… Remember what happened to the acts that were on The Comedians on ITV. Big exposure but, when they came to do their next gig at a working men’s club, the audience had already seen their act.

The saying Swings & Roundabouts comes to mind.

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davesleicester_logoMaking money from a comedy act was also something discussed by the panel yesterday at Dave’s Comedy Festival (Dave being the TV channel which sponsors the festival).

“I think something ghastly and toxic happened round about the early to mid 2000s,” said comedy critic Kate Copstick.

“In the 1990s, there really wasn’t very much available for comics on television. So, before they all hurtled lemming-like to the nearest 12-year-old commissioning editor with half a Media Studies degree from a jumped-up Polytechnic, they at least had a chance to develop who they were and they had something to sell.

“Then we got the industrialisation of comedy which happened in the 2000s. All of a sudden there were more TV channels and…”

“There were more opportunities,” interrupted Nica Burns, organiser of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. “There were more opportunities for comedians to get on television. There were all these channels and comedy is very cheap. A half hour of stand-up comedy is much cheaper than a half hour of sitcom and a fraction of the cost of an hour of drama. And that is the critical thing because underlying all this is money. They needed to fill up their hours, comedy was a very cheap way of doing it and the comedians were desperate to get a wider audience.”

“It took a long time for that to come around,” said Kate Copstick, “and, in one way it was wonderful when it did. I produced a TV show called The Warehouse and comics were gagging then to get a chance to do stand-up. There were very few places to go on television. Tiny bits-and-bobs. And then, all-of-a-sudden, there was a rush. It think it was something to do with (agent/management companies) Avalon and Off The Kerb not only having a foothold as managers but also as producers.”

“There were a lot of things coming together,” agreed Nica Burns, “in terms of the growth of managers who had career visions for their clients.”

“And none of that,” said Kate Copstick, “was bad until it all kind of turned toxic. Comedy is not a nice business and it’s not got nice people in it. Really, genuinely nice people don’t go into comedy. Comedy always had a career ladder. Now it’s got a bloody express elevator.

“Like I’m 18-year-old. I’m a student comic. I look right. I sound right. I’m fucking lucky. I’m possibly connected. Look! I’ve got five minutes. Good grief – I’ve won a student comedy competition! Crikey – now I’m at the Edinburgh Fringe! Woo – now someone’s picked me up and stuck me on a Stand-Up For The Pointless Pre-Written Gag of The Month TV show. Great! Now I’m back with my own one-hour show with a strap on the poster that says STAR OF the Stand-Up For The Pointless Pre-Written Gag of The Month TV show. Now I’ve won the Best Newcomer or the Panel prize because nobody can think of anybody else to give it to. Next thing you know, I’ve done five heavily-edited minutes of Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow and now I’ve got my own telly series!… and I didn’t ever actually want to be a stand-up comic. I just wanted to be rich and famous and wey-hey! Thanks to luck, ego and Addison Cresswell (of Off The Kerb) and lots of stupid audiences out there, now I am!

“What then happens is that the decent stand-up comics, the ones who do want to be stand-up comics and who want to play the clubs, aren’t getting audiences, because the audiences only go – like a comedic Pavlov’s dog – where there’s a TV sticker on the poster… STAR OF MUFFIN THE COMEDY MULE – Oh wow! That must be good!

“I could shit into a bag and, if some high-powered PR person stuck an As Seen on Mock The Week sticker on it, people would come and see it. They genuinely would! This is not good for comedy.”

(A slightly edited podcast of the panel session is on the Demon FM website.)

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