“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.”
“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…”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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…”
“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 …