Tag Archives: talent spotting

The Museum of Comedy’s Monday Club – “London’s best ‘new material’ night”?

In London, there are loads of free ‘new material’ comedy nights. This often means inexperienced comedians turn up with half-written, half-baked half-ideas and the evenings can sometimes be more endurance test than entertainment.

One exception is the (in my experience) consistently good and – amazingly – free Monday Club show, held in The Museum of Comedy on – well – on Mondays.

The Museum of Comedy is a random collection of comedy memorabilia and a well-designed performance space in a crypt under St George’s Church in Bloomsbury.

It (The Museum of Comedy not the church) is owned by the Leicester Square Theatre and this coming Monday is the 1st anniversary of The Monday Club.  

So yesterday I chatted to David Hardcastle, who (with Tony Dunn & Patch Hyde) organises The Monday Club and runs comedy competitions for the Leicester Square Theatre and the Museum of Comedy.


David Hardcastle and (top) Tommy Cooper

JOHN: The majority of new material nights in London are – well – not very good but you always maintain a high quality. Genuinely.

DAVID: I hope so. It’s mostly invitation only – some people get in touch, but they have to be of a certain level. Because a lot or some of the acts know each other, there’s a sort of support group AND competitive element in it: they HAVE to write something new for it, otherwise people will know they’ve been lazy. 

JOHN: What is your actual title at the Theatre and Museum?

DAVID: Artist Development. 

JOHN: And comedy competition supremo…

DAVID: Well, originally, at Leicester Square, we just ran the one competition and now it’s the Leicester Square Theatre AND the Museum of Comedy AND the Great Yorkshire Fringe – and there are four competitions within them, so I’ve sort-of invented my own job.

One of the reasons for The Monday Club is we used to have people coming in through competitions but then we had nothing else to give them; no way of supporting them by giving them stage time unless they came back and rented the space to do a preview. So it’s hopefully a way of keeping those people in the loop and involved in the venue.

JOHN: You have a New Comedian of the Year competition, but you no longer have an Old Comedian of the Year competition.

DAVID: Now it’s called the Not So New Comedian of the Year.

JOHN: And the title was changed because…?

DAVID: A lot of people refused to enter a competition that had the word ‘Old’ in it. It is for comics over 35 years old and people argued 35 is not old enough to call anyone old!

JOHN: I say just give it to Lynn Ruth Miller every year: she’s 85!

DAVID: Well, she MCs it every year now.

JOHN: You sometimes MC at The Monday Club yourself, but not always.

DAVID: I quite enjoy it when I do it, but I never particularly want to do it.

JOHN: You’re not frustrated by putting acts on but you’re not one of them?

DAVID: You perform comedy and you reach a stage where you are sort-of competent but, if you’re not aged 23, it’s very hard to get further than that.

My full-time job is comedy admin, so I don’t have the time to perform as well, really. And I’m too lazy to perform. I’ve not written a joke in four years.

JOHN: Before comedy, you were doing what…?

David’s poster for US comic Doug Stanhope

DAVID: Graphic design, which I still do. I still do the design work for here and Leicester Square Theatre.

JOHN: Graphic designers and stand-up comics surely have a different mind-set?

DAVID: I think, if it’s a creative thing, that’s… Well, weirdly, there are a lot of comics from an art and design background. They start popping up online at this time of year saying Do you want poster designs for your Edinburgh Fringe show? 

I did fine art originally, at Bradford College of Art.

JOHN: You are from Bradford.

DAVID: Yes. Then I did an MA at Camberwell in London. There is no money in doing fine art, but you can make a living doing graphics. So I started doing that by accident.

JOHN: You used to run a night called Get Happy in Farringdon.

DAVID: My girlfriend at the time and I had both done Logan Murray’s comedy course and running Get Happy was an easy way to get stage time.

JOHN: You did Logan Murray’s course because…?

DAVID: I think stand-up comedy is one of those things where you always fancy giving it a go.

JOHN: Not me.

DAVID: I had always fancied doing stand-up.

JOHN: So you started in…?

DAVID: Around 2007, I think.

JOHN: And now you are in theatre management and Artist Development… So do you get a hard-on by finding new talent? I will think of some better way of phrasing that when I transcribe this.

DAVID: I’m spunking my pants even as we speak.

JOHN: Perhaps I will leave it in, then, if that’s the phrase.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum… of Comedy

DAVID: I know what you mean, though. When I first started running my own comedy night, I actually found that there was more satisfaction in putting an entire night together that works than there was going up myself and performing. I just found there was something really nice about the fact that people would come into a pub and watch something for an hour and a half and go away happy.

JOHN: Because you had structured it well.

DAVID: Exactly. There are so many comedy nights that aren’t structured and are just a shambles and then they wonder why they don’t work.

JOHN: I think club owner Malcolm Hardee’s rule-of thumb was you end with the best act, start-off with the second best act and have a good solid act at the end of Part One. So what is your template structure?

DAVID: Don’t let people bang on too long and let the audience know what’s happening.

JOHN: The acts all get 5 minutes.

DAVID: Yeah. It’s all about keeping it in manageable chunks, I think. And proper lighting; proper sound.

JOHN: Have the nights got better over the course of the first year?

DAVID: Yes. Because we have started to get some regulars in the audience. People don’t come back every week but, if we ask at the start, usually at least half of them have been before, which means we now have an audience that knows what’s going on and are on-board with the concept. Which is nice. You start with a warm audience, so it’s better.

We want it to be relaxed for the audience AND the acts. One of the reasons we start at 7.00pm and finish by 9.00pm is it leaves time to have a chat afterwards.

Crypt-ic comedy under a Bloomsbury church

JOHN: The acts you have on are good solid acts but not ‘TV names’ or mega names. Are the Big Names too big to play The Monday Club?

DAVID: I think audiences generally are more aware of the concept of new material now. I think once you reach a certain level, you can do a whole hour of new material rather than rock up and do five minutes. The Big Names can do an hour and sell tickets to it. Michael McIntyre has been here at the Museum of Comedy doing new material. Alexei Sayle is on for a week with a new show.

JOHN: When they’re Big and more experienced, they can try out entire shows rather than five minute chunks, which is the Monday Club format.

DAVID: Yes. But Josh Widdicombe has done a Monday Club. Rachel Parris did one.

JOHN: Next Monday is going to be a special show to celebrate your 1st anniversary?

DAVID: Yes, we are going to have on exactly the same people we were going to have on before we realised it was our birthday.

JOHN: But with added free cake, I heard.

DAVID: Oh yes. We’re having cake.

JOHN: Then I’ll be here.

DAVID: We have started describing it as “London’s best new material night” purely on the grounds it is difficult to prove any different.

JOHN: I like your way of thinking.

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Amused Moose promoter and producer Hils Jago on talent spotting comedians

A strangely reticent Hils Jago yesterday at Soho Theatre

An unusually reticent Hils Jago yesterday at Soho Theatre

“Why Amused Moose?”

“I wanted a word beginning with the letter A because, back in the day, everything in Time Out was listed alphabetically. I chose ‘Amused’ and then had to find something that rhymed with it. I thought of ‘Moose’ two weeks later, when I was in the bath drinking red wine… and then comic Mark Watson told me it was a bad rhyme.”

Yesterday, I had tea at Soho Theatre with Amused Moose Comedy boss/promoter/producer Hils Jago. As well as the upcoming Amused Moose Comedy Awards, she runs Amused Moose clubs, tours acts and stages shows.

“Everything’s going through change at the moment,” Hils told me, “so I’m thinking How can I change? This will be our 15th year – before that we did previews and things. I learned my trade by helping run comedy at Sohoho for about five years.”

“I suppose,” I told her, “I should ask you about the fact people are talking about the death of comedy clubs…”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m not even talking about that. The death of comedy clubs is people not having any vision and taking too much money out of the business. You have to reinvest and you have to be creative and inventive. I’m making lots of changes to my business over the next six months. A few people have said Oh, production line comedy! about small comedy clubs. Which I always used to say about the two big comedy chains. I’m fearful that I could be seen quite soon as being part of that production line comedy. I need to re-invent what I do and how I do it.”

“Money,” I said, “seems to be tight all round at the moment.”

Al Lubel, winner of the 2013 Amused Moose Laughter Award

Al Lubel, winner of the 2013 Amused Moose Laughter Award

“Yes” said Hils. “We do two awards. The Amused Moose Laugh Off and the Amused Moose Laughter Awards which come under the umbrella of the Amused Moose Comedy Awards. Unfortunately, the support we’ve had from BBC Worldwide for four years is finishing this year, so I am looking for new sponsors for next year. We could do it much more on a shoestring, but that would show, so I’m looking for sponsors to get us up to the same level we got to with the BBC. The BBC also did a £5,000 prize and that’s one of the things that will obviously have to go if we don’t get sponsorship next year.

“What we need is to find people who are either philanthropic or who see us as a good way of doing their scouting for them… which we have been doing, because we did find Jack Whitehall and Sarah Millican and people like that.”

“How do you spot talent?” I asked. “For large-scale success, what you’re actually looking for is bland, middle-of-the-road, unoriginal acts…”

Amused Moose winner Sarah Millican

One of the Amused Moose ‘finds’ Sarah Millican

“No you’re not,” said Hils. “I’m looking for people who have some style and pizzazz about them and can write a decent line or two. I knew within 15 seconds when Jack Whitehall walked on stage. I probably had a pretty good idea before he even walked on the stage. How he carried himself as a person. Same with Sarah Millican. It was obvious she was head and shoulders above the other people in her heat.”

“Years ago,” I said, “I heard you say to someone – it might even have been me – that, if you’re a manager/agent, it takes three years to launch a comedian.”

“Oh, it does,” said Hils. “And normally, from when someone starts, it takes seven years to get a DVD out – to be ‘DVD famous’ enough to be ready to sell a million. DVD companies want to sell a lot; they can’t just send out tasters, like you can with YouTube.

“This whole thing that’s happening now which Louis CK kicked off three Christmases ago by putting his stuff online for $5 – people were sending them as Christmas cards to people! – I can’t believe that no-one else has actually commercially got this model going.”

“Are the winners of your competitions tied to you, like Simon Cowell?”

“No. I don’t like managing people. I don’t like being responsible for other people’s livelihoods. I hate it.”

“But you have managed acts in the past.”

Jerry Sadowitz on a holiday with Richard Wagner

Jerry Sadowitz – immense talent but could you manage him?

“Yes. I managed Jerry Sadowitz for 15 months.”

“Bloody hell! That must have aged you.”

“It taught me a lot. I’ve managed a lot. I think you can spot talent. But it’s also actually finding people who’ve got the drive and determination to succeed and who have some sort of appreciation of how the business works, because it IS show BUSINESS. I don’t mean to say you have to do business, but you have to understand people need to make money and you’ve got to understand the constraints people are working under. If you look at Jimmy Carr, who was in our first final, he’s very aware of marketing.”

“Was he genuinely an oil executive,” I asked, “or is that PR bullshit?”

“Yes,” Hils told me. “He left with a racing green company car which they gave him with wire wheels – that’s how nice a car it was. Top of the range. And he was driving it round for about two years as an open spot, giving top comics lifts and they were saying: Where did you get this from? Leather seats, wooden dashboard, the whole thing. Superb.”

‘Moose’ rhymes with ‘Amused’? Opinion varies.

‘Moose’ rhymes with ‘Amused’? Opinion varies.

“The thing about comics,” I said, “is that they’re so phenomenally insecure and tend to be dithery and can’t manage themselves. Irresponsible by nature, which is what makes them good comics.”

“It’s just,” said Hils, “a matter of finding someone who’s got all the right character combinations. We all make allowances for comics, of course we do. The other problem is that, when you are a comedian – generally – you disclose a lot more about yourself than you would if you were a ‘real’ person. So everyone thinks they’re insecure and bonkers but, actually, they’re no more insecure and bonkers than the rest of us – but the rest of us can hide it.

“They show their insecurities and their vulnerabilities on stage. They have to, in order to charm an audience. Because that’s what makes them loveable. You can get someone who is a brilliant wordsmith and delivers very well, does all the tricks, but actually does not make it happen because they do not have any warmth about them. There has to be some warmth in there. Even if they’re a comic who does dark material, there has to be a twinkle in the eye.”

“Jimmy Carr ,” I said, “got terrible criticism for a joke about gypsy moths which I thought was unjustified. I never heard him tell it live but, in that cold cynical Jimmy Carr persona, he is able to deliver all sorts of potentially dodgy gags and they are fine.”

Jimmy Carr was a man with a car

Jimmy Carr was a man with a car

“Well,” said Hils, “Jimmy developed that style. He started off doing just one-liners which were not acerbic. It took him two or three years and it wasn’t until he did his first Edinburgh Fringe show and he had to work out how to do an hour that he started changing how he delivered.”

“I do think, though,” I said, “that if you are looking for someone who will become genuinely successful across the board, you have to look for someone who is not totally original.”

“It depends,” said Hils, “They can be offbeat… if that’s the way the trend is going… It’s that thing about catching the wave at the beginning. If there is no wave there, then you are a bit buggered. At the moment there IS… I think, in the next two or three years, we’re going to see a new breed of people coming through. Even some of the people who only go out to comedy clubs on a Saturday night are beginning to say: Excuse me. This is comedy by rote.”

“So what is this new wave?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“The original alternative comedy,” I said, “was stand-up, jugglers, music, magicians, poets…”

“It was Variety,” agreed Hils, “I think that’s one of the things that may be coming in. There will always be stand-ups, but I think we might see a wider variety.”

“Did you ever try stand-up yourself?” I asked.

“No.”

“Because?”

“I was a teacher and lecturer for six years and keeping a disinterested audience occupied for five hours was quite enough.”

“In what subject?” I asked.

“Business and IT. I trained for science but there weren’t any jobs. My degree was Earth Sciences.”

“I’ve never known what that means.”

“Geography and Geology and bits of stuff like that… You don’t want me going on for hours, because you’ve got to type it all up.”

“You are very shrewd,” I told Hils.

“Well,” she said, “I’ve been a journalist. I’ve done all sorts of things. I’m old. I go back to rock ’n’ roll. I used to drink with Jimi Hendrix…”

“Did you?”

“Yes. I knew Jimmy Page when we were both at school.”

“Oh Lord,” I said. “I feel another blog coming on…”

… TO BE CONTINUED … MAYBE …

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A classic comedy venue + extraordinary news of an unknown comedy legend

It is very sad that, the last couple of years, Brian Damage and Krysstal have not been running their Pear Shaped venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was always a heady mix of the talented and the eccentric with their own late-night Pear Shaped shows reserved for occasionally gobsmackingly odd acts.

Last night, Brian Damage told me they had stopped “because it had become a job. It wasn’t fun any more.”

They – or, rather, Pear Shaped’s glamorous éminence auburn Vicky de Lacey – had an extraordinary track record of talent spotting good acts for the Pear Shaped venue in Edinburgh, climaxing with Wil Hodgson winning the Perrier Best Newcomer award in 2004 and Laura Solon winning the main Perrier comedy award in 2005.

I was at the weekly Pear Shaped comedy club in London’s Fitzrovia last night – the grand daddy of Open Mic nights – and it was, as ever, eclectic.

Co-host Anthony Miller managed to define a typical Pear Shaped evening by explaining: “It’s like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme – sometimes people die, but that’s not the intention.”

Anthony Miller can do no wrong in my eyes because of his enthusiasm for the brilliant US OCD detective series Monk which I make no apologies for having blogged in January was “the most consistently funny situation comedy currently screening on British television”. Last night, Anthony was beaming with happiness when he asked me if I had seen the final episode of Monk which, indeed, I had: a triumph of quirky humour. Which is something that can also be said of Pear Shaped though without the hand wipes and obsessive cleanliness.

The attraction of Brian Damage & Krysstal’s weekly club is that there is no visible quality control. It is a true open spot evening. Two or three may die; others may be brilliant.

Intermingled in last night’s line-up of thirteen (unlucky for some, lucky for others) were a couple of extremely dodgy acts plus a couple of surprisingly strong acts which had only been performing for two months and for one year. But also on the bill were the strongly up-and-coming Sanderson Jones and – amazing – the overwhelmingly original and always brightly-attired Robert White, winner of the 2010 Malcolm Hardee Award for comic originality. He was trying out new material and there is almost nowhere better to do that than Pear Shaped with its heady mix of ‘real’ audience and comedians watching other comedians.

The most extraordinary thing last night, though, was kept until the end, when Anthony Miller and plucky Al Mandolino told me that eternal open spot legend and anti-comic Jimbo has a new character called Tony Bournemouth and is going to unleash it/himself on an unsuspecting and entirely innocent Edinburgh Fringe audience in a 30-minute show this August.

Al and Anthony told me they thought Jimbo’s Tony Bournemouth incarnation might turn out to be the dark horse at this year’s Fringe.

Mmmmmm…….

Jimbo has been on the London comedy circuit for around twenty years and remains triumphantly unknown except by aficionados of seriously bizarre comedy.

But he is appearing as Tony Bournemouth at Pear Shaped in Fitzrovia either in a fortnight or possibly next week. Pear Shaped is ever unpredictable.

And THIS I have to see.

It could be another triumph for Brian Damage and Krysstal, eternal purveyors of unexpected and occasionally under-appreciated acts to the comedy world.

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