The show must go on... where?
Updated: Jan 18, 2022
The first comedy show I put together was in the mid-eighties as part of the first ever Comic Relief Day. Tight plastic red noses for a quid weren’t a part of it yet... it was early days for both the event and my attempts at being publicly funny. I remember the red curtains of the school stage slowly swishing open to reveal an audience of my peers in Year 1 and 2 of Castle Hedingham Secondary School and then, well... my mix of stolen jokes from Monty Python, C4’s Who Dares Wins and a rather rude one liner from Julian Clary were met with an epic bemused and unimpressed silence that seemed to last for an amount of time infinity would be jealous of.
My first joke about the accident-prone science teacher Mr Radcliffe being ‘perfectly safe’ (followed by an explosion sound effect) ironically bombed. Grabbing a toy rifle to shoot an SDP candidate – a gag I had seen do well on BBC 2 – just got no response at all. I didn’t understand. Somehow my premiere performance seemed to last forever and at the same time be over fast. As the last painful skit drew to a close, I am still haunted by the only response to my attempt at being amusing; a sarcastic heckler shouting ‘Ha, ha. So funny’. I was followed by some 6th formers doing a tribute to The Young Ones which went down so well you could barely hear it over the laughter, a noise I had not achieved.
Looking back, I know where I went wrong (aside from my lack of timing and talent and not listening to the dinner lady who caught my only rehearsal and told me to slow down) – it was the venue. I was never popular at school, so the audience (if they did know who I was) had little time for me and those who didn’t know me didn’t care. The choice of material was wrong – Monty Python was not very fashionable, and the style of the time was alternative comedy – but essentially, I had played to the wrong crowd in the wrong venue. So, how could I do better next time?
Almost ten years later, I found myself hosting The Comedy Cupboard at the Norwich Playhouse, for local group Crude Apache. It was in the bar and I introduced a number of local acts who did their turn to an audience of their mates and their family. The friendly audience meant everyone went down really well regardless of their material, but although I was enjoying myself wandering onto the stage in a massive cardboard TARDIS, wearing a diving helmet or throwing sweets into the crowd, it felt to me slightly disappointing to perform only to people who were going to laugh and applaud you regardless.
In the days before YouTube and podcasts, if you didn’t have a venue, you didn’t have a show and the first twenty or so years of my comedy career were filled with endless searches to find places to perform that were free or cheap, and crucially came with the right kind of audience
In the early days I had had some success sneaking into a university improv group – the infamous Klustafux (whose poster had to be changed to Klustafox, which I still think was a funnier title). I decided to assemble an impro troupe of my own and have a go at the friendly Playhouse bar as Y.C.M.A (Yesterday's Comedy Made Awesome). We had a dance routine to start each show and auditions/workshops/early drinking sessions would take place in my bedsit regularly every Saturday morning. Successful? Mostly yes – partly because at that point ‘Comedy was (still) the new rock ‘n roll’ and funny was cool. The problem with free venues though is they only last as long as there’s a gap to be filled or you know the bar staff and we were replaced every Tuesday by a lo-fi DJ playing dense ponderous beats to the now half-empty bar that we had filled with laughing drinkers.
A few years later and I was experiencing the other end of the scale in Mark’s Vietnam comedy Apocalypse? Wow! at the Canal Café – the first time I’d been in a show where real money had been put down to hire a ‘name’ venue. It meant you were officially on the circuit and you were effectively paying for the hope of being seen by someone who would sweep you up and take your show to the big time (Edinburgh), but what it actually meant was months of saving and almost no chance of getting your money back... and you still ended up playing to friends and family that you had badgered into buying tickets. The whole run was odd – I got a part in the play despite a terrible audition after drinking too much Lucozade and my ad libs on Mark’s script impressed him enough that I got the lead role when another actor dropped out at the last minute (he had a drug-induced moment of confusion on the tube that maybe the play wasn’t actually real – it’s happened to us all...) and Mark and I became firm friends and decided to write together.
I was determined to put on a show, and I was equally determined not to spend money I didn’t have on it. I lived in Kilburn, which had zero comedy nights, so clearly it needed one and I set forth up the High Road, chatting to bar staff in every pub until I found one that agreed to let us put on a show upstairs for free on my assurance it would bring in mid-week drinkers in the form of our audience. I still hadn’t resolved the issue of how to get an audience, but while Mark and I recruited various actors from Chamber Live, plus my future brother-in-law, and wrote a show (a mix of down-to-earth and out-there sketches and monologues), I had my girlfriend design and print us flyers and put the traditional adverts in Time Out. Handing out flyers to uninterested commuters in the rain is one of the most dispiriting things you can do on a weeknight in Kilburn – watching printed paper you paid for and carefully cut to size being dropped straight into puddles made me think there must be a better way to do this. Getting a show off the ground solo in an unknown venue felt like an impossible task.
I can’t remember why we called the show Freak Weather Conditions (we sounded like an experimental jazz band) but the show went on. The first venue was The Kilburn PH, on Kilburn High Road in Kilburn. Somehow people still seemed confused as to where the show was taking place. We very briefly considered calling the show Kilburn Komedy Klub, before backing away from that set of initials. I still think we had a good show with sketches including Santa and Death being best mates, a psychic medium being possessed by the not-dead-yet, and Brian Blessed and Alan Whicker being persuaded to do anything for money. We wrote some characters for that show who stayed with us in various guises for years and our efforts were rewarded when the small but enthusiastic audiences of friends, acquaintances and Yes! some actual Members of the Public, enticed upstairs from the bar, laughed at our material, making it all feel worth it.
We kept it up for a couple of years, first at The Kilburn and then a bit further down the road at the Southern Cross (conveniently next door to my flat, but inconvenient for everyone else in London). We renamed ourselves as Aroused and Confused and added an impro second half and I even managed a very short run for much less money than usual at the Canal Café by dint of getting a job there in the box office... but it was always an uphill struggle getting anyone to come in and see the show and that starts to wear you down. So free venues didn’t come with an audience, I didn’t have the money for the more expensive ones, and trying to promote a solo show was like shouting into a very noisy void. What to do? The answer turned out to be Camden... tune in next time for Camden Obscura, the Fringe Festival and Come on Punk, Make it Up at the Etcetera Theatre
Oh – and that first show in Kilburn? We brought the house down but a couple of actor colleagues from Tussauds who didn’t much like me told me in the bar afterwards how bland the material was and that it was ‘just what you’d expect to see above a pub’. So even when it’s going well, there will be someone determined not to laugh.