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: 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: 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…
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.
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.
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