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What comedy club owner Noel Faulkner REALLY thinks of the comedy business

(Versions of this piece was also published by Indian news site We Speak News and in the Huffington Post)

Noel Faulkner two days ago at the Comedy Cafe

Yesterday Noel Faulkner, Irish owner of London’s Comedy Cafe in London’s trendy Shoreditch, left for two weeks sailing off the west coast of Ireland. Before he left, he told me what he really thinks of the state of the current comedy business in the UK.

“The game is really played-out,” he told me. “I think ‘arena comedy’ has really done it damage, because 60,000 people at a time can go and see comedy now.

“I’d say the average comedy punter used to go to a club maybe four times a year. But, when they go to these arena shows, it soaks them up and they don’t bother coming to the little places. They go to an arena show and see ‘him off the telly’ and they’re able to boast about it at work on Monday morning: It was amazing. We were right against the big screen! Really up close!”

“But also,” I suggested, “they pay to see a known quality at the O2 whereas, if they go to a club, it may be hit-and-miss.”

“Not if you come to the Comedy Cafe,” said Noel. “We always had good comics. We still do.”

“But, in general, you think comedy clubs are going down the tubes?”

“Yeah. Clubs which used to run Fridays/Saturdays are only running on Saturdays now. And this summer is just chaos. No-one knows if the Olympics in London is going to be a huge success or what the effect may be.”

“What effect did the Euro 2012 football on TV have on attendances?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied. “comedy was already devastated and Euro 2012 didn’t help. We got loads of calls from comics whose gigs had been pulled at other clubs. There’s not even the money now to pay cancellation fees. The money just isn’t there.”

“Yet you’re going back to stand-up comedy yourself,” I said. “You started off performing comedy in America…”

“Well,” he corrected me, “I started out as a dancer in Ireland and, because I have Tourette Syndrome, it’s easy being a dancer because of the twitching. And then I came to London and started acting. And then I went to drama college in America and acted in Chicago, San Francisco, New York.”

“So why are you going back to stand up?”

“One of the reasons,” explained Noel, “is that, in the last four or five years, I’ve seen so many bad, hack, middle class comics trying to break through and some of them have made it all the way to telly. Twenty minutes of talking on stage doesn’t mean you have a comedy set. Talking, in itself, is not comedy.”

“So what’s wrong with middle class?” I asked.

“It’s fucking boring,” Noel said. “It just seems there’s a lot of middle class twats because they can afford to try and become comics when everyone else is working in a call centre trying to make it to a club. I’ve seen quite a few Edinburgh Fringe previews this year and I know they improve before they reach Edinburgh but – Jesus Christ! – Very shallow on jokes.”

“But you’re middle class…” I said.

“Oh totally middle class. My father was a bank manager in Ireland. But I’ve fucking lived a life.”

“Indeed,” I said, “You’ve worked on fishing trawlers, you were on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list…”

“Mainly because of my associates,” interrupted Noel.

“And,” I continued, “spent time in some jail I’ve forgotten.”

“No,” he said. “I’ve only spent nights in jail – in Costa Rica and the States.”

“So are you allowed back into America?” I asked.

“No.”

“So, if you got big as a stand-up, you couldn’t play the chat shows over there?”

“I could,” he said, “because I could afford a big fucking lawyer and he’d sort it all out for me. I am no longer ‘wanted’ in America. I got bail and probation.”

“And,” I said, “all that was in your one-man show Shake, Rattle and Noel at the Edinburgh Fringe four years ago…”

“…Five years ago. It was about how I discovered I had Tourette’s Syndrome and why I became a marijuana smuggler in order to pay for specialists to try and sort me out. I may bring the show back again. Might do it in London. Nobody’s really seen it. I did it in Edinburgh five years ago and that was it. I’d like to do it at Galway Arts Festival next year.

“Are you thinking of taking it back to the Edinburgh Fringe next year?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know,” mused Noel. “But, if I did do Edinburgh, I don’t want to spend £10,000, which is what it costs. I mean, it’s £1,500 for an ad in a fucking brochure. £400 to get listed in the Programme. It’s just obscene. And that’s even if you play the Free Fringe or the Free Festival. And £10 for a baked potato just to exist.”

“Well,” I said, “somebody must be making money out of the Edinburgh Fringe and money out of comedy, even though you say the clubs are dying.”

“Agents,” said Noel. “The big stars. What’s happening now is everyone’s trying to get on a ‘talking head’ show and then they’ll get their own tour on the back of it.. But, last year, half the tours were empty. Only the really big names sold. All the guys who’d just been on telly a little bit… their agents thought We can tour on the back of this… but they weren’t selling that well at all.

“The whole thing is imploding. It’s because of the big arena gigs and also a lot of the pubs have cleaned up their acts. On a Friday night, you can get a nice slap-up meal out. Twenty years ago in a British pub, you got warm beer and a cold smile.”

“Is it possible to regain the audience for comedy?” I asked.

“Well, the Recession is really kicking ass,” Noel replied. “And now we’re in the middle of summer time and there’s the Olympics. So many factors. And so many great free festivals – and pay festivals. You can see big names for free or for the cost of a weekend ticket that covers everything.

“More festivals are having comedy tents, which is good because it’s keeping the comics employed but my big concern is for all the comics who are over 40 and married with kids. They can’t really change career. At the moment, at the Comedy Cafe, we’re trying to be loyal. We only encourage new young comics in if they’re brilliant.

“Before, we used to be able to slot in an up-and-coming comic to give them experience, but now… Well, we try… I’m got a couple I’ve got my eye on… but we’ve run out of nights, you know?

“At the moment, we’re doing Wednesdays with open spots, Thursdays for Edinburgh previews, we’ve dropped Fridays for the summer and we are doing Saturdays.”

“But,” I suggested, “with your set-up, if comedy is going downhill, you will still make money from music?”

In the Comedy Cafe building, the upstairs Bedroom Bar (a DJ area) was half the size of the downstairs Comedy Cafe. Now the two have been swapped over. The Comedy Cafe is upstairs in the smaller room, with music downstairs in the Bedroom Bar.

“Yes, said Noel, “we have comedy upstairs now and music downstairs and the whole place turns into a two-floor, three room music venue after ten o’clock when the comedy’s finished.”

“And,” I said, “you’ve re-branded the Comedy Cafe as The Comedy Cafe Theatre…”

“…because,” said Noel, “we’re trying to get away from hack comedy.”

“Which is why you’ve gone back to stand-up yourself?” I asked.

“We re-started the Comedy Cafe talent agency,” said Noel. “and the people running the agency persuaded me because there’s only a handful of old farts my age on the circuit.”

“So the agency has intentionally not signed middle class wankers?” I asked. “So who have you signed?”

“Well,” said Noel, “there’s a girl called Kate Lucas who writes very clever, very funny songs. She has a really sweet voice and you really don’t expect her to come out with the profanities she does.

“We have a Somalian guy. He’s got one eye, a hooked hand, a wooden leg and some great jokes: he’s a pirate… No. There’s a Somalian comic called Prince Abdi who is a hugely tall, good-looking guy, very charismatic and definitely got what it takes.

“We’ve got Lee Camp, the voice of Occupy Wall Street. He’s all over the internet. He does great rants and raves. George Carlin’s daughter said he was the best comic she’s see in America at the moment: the only one who’s on the ball.

“There’s Jimmy James Jones, an outrageous black kid.

“And we have Dag Soras, who’s Norwegian; and three Swedes – Fredrik AnderssonTobias Persson and Magnus Betner who is playing the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Plus, of course, Nick Sun, who’s very alternative and is also in Edinburgh this year.”

“And you are bringing over the Canadian comic Graham Clark this month?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Noel, “He’s amazing, hard-hitting. He’s performing his one hour solo show here at the Comedy Cafe on 27th July, the opening night of the Olympics.”

“That’s very brave of him/you,” I said.

“He’s very good,” Noel said. “It’s a genuine UK exclusive for 2012: you can’t see that show anywhere else this side of the Atlantic this year.”

“So there’s light at the end of the tunnel?” I asked.

Noel shrugged.

“Shoreditch is a good, trendy place for comedy,” I said.

“The Shoreditch crowd are shit for comedy,” said Noel. “Because the skinny people in Shoreditch riding their skinny bikes with their skinny pockets and their skinny brains photographing skinny fucking cigarette butts in the gutter are too cool to go to comedy because they’d have to laugh and not be fucking cool.”

“Are you happy to be quoted on that?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Noel. “I say it on stage. You’re basically getting my act.”

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Spending Christmas 1998 with Malcolm Hardee in Sarf Eest London

It was 22nd December 1998 and the comedian Malcolm Hardee (who drowned in 2005) was still living with his wife Jane. The record label Beggar’s Banquet were just about to release a CD single by his stepson’s rock group The Llama Farmers. It was two years before the turn of the century, with the Millennium Dome (now the O2 Dome) still a new structure. This is an extract from my diary…

***

I spent the afternoon with Malcolm, who has developed a habit of making a wet sound with his mouth, as if tasting his own saliva.

At the end of Malcolm’s road, a house-owner has put a new tiled name on their house: Dome Vista.

“But all you can see from the back windows of his house,” Malcolm told me, “is the bloody great flyover from the Blackwall Tunnel standing at the end of his garden. You can’t see the Millennium Dome. Fucking Dome Vista!”

I had been going to take Malcolm out to lunch but, on the way, as is often the case, he had “a better idea” and we went to the warehouse office of the three brothers who co-own Malcolm’s Up The Creek comedy club to pick up Malcolm’s weekly cheque. Two of the brothers plus wives and five or six staff were having a Christmas buffet meal with lots of seafood and champagne. On the walls of the room in which we sat were drawings of various property developments, including a new Greenwich shopping centre: they already own two existing Greenwich markets.

“He used to live in a mansion next to Rod Stewart in Hollywood,” Malcolm had told me about one of the brothers. When Malcolm tells you a wildly unlikely story, it usually turns out to be true. The more unbelievable the facts, the more likely they are to be true.

“That’s a bit severe,” this brother said of Malcolm’s ultra-close-cropped hair.

“Just had it cut,” Malcolm explained.

“Malcolm,” another brother explained to me, “only has his cut his hair every six months. He lets it grow over six months, so he only pays for a haircut twice a year.”

“No I don’t,” said Malcolm aggrieved and blinking. “I set it on fire at Beggar’s Banquet, in the offices.”

“Why was that?”

Malcolm thought briefly, shrugged and ignored the question. The truth is that he occasionally sets his hair on fire just to have an effect. He set fire to two cinemas in his youth. There has been a lot of arson around in his life.

“It doesn’t catch fire easily but it doesn’t cause any pain,” he mumbled defensively, by way of an explanation about his hair.

“What did Beggar’s Banquet say?” I asked.

Malcolm shrugged and blinked.

“You should make a record like Keith Allen,” I suggested. “You’d get lots of money. Form a group called The Old Lags.”

“I don’t hang round the Groucho Club enough,” he mumbled.

Malcolm recently came back from Australia, where he met his friend Wizo. “Typical,” Malcolm told the brothers, wives and staff over champagne and seafood, “Wizo lost his job the day I arrived and I had to pay for everything. He’d been selling advertising space in the Melbourne Age newspaper. They told him he had to wear a suit, but he got bored and came in one morning wearing a chef’s outfit. They weren’t happy. The good thing about Australia, though, Wizo told me, is that you can be poor quite comfortably.”

Malcolm’s brother, formerly a comedy promoter in Manchester, is now working in Wizo’s old London job – for music mogul Miles Copeland.

“My brother’s throwing a Christmas party for friends and relations,” Malcolm told us. “He tried to charge his guests £70-a-head to come but no-one’s agreed yet, so he’s probably going to invite them for free but have a whip-round for a new washing machine while they’re there.”

The brothers, their wives and staff looked impressed.

After the meal, we drove off to a bank where Malcolm deposited his cheque from the brothers and various other cheques including one for £29 from BBC TV to cover sales to Croatia of a Blackadder episode he appeared in. He was much impressed by the sale to Croatia. He banked about £900 then withdrew £700 and went to a betting shop, allegedly to check if ‘his’ greyhound was running at Catford. Instead, after realising a dog called ‘Oi Oi’ (Malcolm’s catchphrase) had won the previous race and he’d missed it, he bet £50 on a dog at random in the next race… and it won!

“I always win bets on dogs at Christmas,” he told me. “The rest of the year, I lose everything, but I always win just coming up to Christmas.” Then he added unexpectedly: “I part-own a greyhound.”

“You do?” I asked dubiously.

“It’s handled by a bloke who got ‘done’ in the 1970s for greyhound ‘ringing’. He got arrested after he had a very good black dog and disguised it by dying it brown. But, as luck would have it, when the dogs paraded round before the Off, it started to rain and the dye came out.”

This sounded like an urban myth to me.

“Ricky Grover,” I said, “told me a story about the ‘wrong’ dog coming round the final bend at Romford Stadium and someone throwing four footballs onto the track in front of the dogs.”

“Oh,” said Malcolm, never to be out-anecdoted, “I was once in prison with a bloke nicknamed ‘Teddy Bear’. His job was to stand by the rail at various stadiums around the country and, if the ‘wrong’ dog was winning, he would throw a teddy bear onto the track;. The dogs stopped racing, went crazy and tore it apart. His great talent,” explained Malcolm, “was that he could run very fast after he’d thrown the teddy bear.”

After picking up answerphone messages at Up The Creek, collecting mail from a new tenant in his old house in Glenluce Road, attempting to buy his own £7.99 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake in a Greenwich remainder shop for £1 (they had sold out), visiting the kitsch Emporium shop which sells lava lamps and 1960s memorabilia and buying a Christmas tree from a dodgy-looking man in a car park, we went back to Malcolm’s current home in Fingal Street via Jools Holland’s railway station (to see the top of the mini castle tower he has built) and up a suburban back street to drive past Shangri-La – a corner house the outside of which the owner has decorated.

On the side wall of the house, there are embossed metal horses heads and three large garage doors.

“The anvil’s gone,” Malcolm told me, slightly peeved.

“Has he got three cars?” I asked.

“No, he’s got green astroturf behind them,” Malcolm replied as if that explained it all.

“It’s a strange world,” I said.

“Nah,” said Malcolm, making a wet sound with his mouth, as if tasting his own saliva. “This is South East London.”

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