Saturday, 9 January 2016

GSOH: The comic itch I had to scratch

Just how did I get into the modern stand-up comedy scene? The answer was when one of my favourite local pubs, the Horseshoe Inn, decided to put on a weekly comedy night on Sundays.

The idea of there being a regular comedy night just five minutes walk away from my doorstep really appealed to me. However, at the time, I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman in Swindon. I'd spend every second weekend with her in the Wiltshire sort-of-city-but-not-actually-a-city.

The Horseshoe Inn is run by landlady Debbie Dexter, with her husband Nick in charge of a lot of the stage presentation, in particular, sound. Since they took it over in 2005, the pub has a solid reputation as the home of live music in Wellingborough1.

My friends at the first night of comedy at The Horseshoe
Now, this wasn't the first time I'd seen comedy in my hometown. In fact, a local pub - The Royal Oak - put on a monthly night of comedy that my friend Marcus took us along to. The night we attended there was a bit of a disaster, not due to the comedians, but because of some of the drunken clientele really spoiled it. The MC for that night detailed that catastrophic night on a comedian's forum.

This was 2011, Debbie and Nick of The Horseshoe had been scouting around for new ideas. In the wake of the BBC showing stand-up in prime-time with Live At The Apollo and Michael McIntyre's Comedy Road Show, there had been (and arguably still is) an explosion of stand-up comedy across the UK.

Subsequently, pubs found it fairly easy to get a night of cheap entertainment with semi-pro comedians and open spot acts. Debbie and Nick saw such a night over in Northampton and approached one of the organisers of it to do the same thing for them.

Tweed-jacketed Will Morris may not have been the typical idea of a comedian, but he took charge of Horseshoe's comedy Sundays. The format was established in that around ten open spot comedians would do five minutes each on one Sunday, in a gong show. The following Sunday would be pro and semi-pro comics. Three in total, finishing on a decent 30-40m headliner. It'd alternative like that.

Being a huge fan of comedy, I came back early from Swindon to see the Horseshoe's first stand-up night, which was all open spot. This is where I had my comic epiphany. It is the reason why I'm doing comedy now, running two monthly nights, compering, booking acts, designing posters and being a prat in daft costumes.

More from the front row...
The moment came when one comedian asked the audience a question...

"What's the collective noun for slags?"

I instantly yelled out "Wellingborough", which caused everybody in the pub to erupt with laughter.

The comedian had to proceed with his planned answer - which was "limousine". Not a bad gag at all. Yet I had the bigger laugh. I'm not saying I was the better comedian, I just managed to think of something good at the right moment. And what a moment it was, those four seconds where an entire pub is laughing at something you said.

Later on that night I had managed to say something else that got a fairly good round of laughter2. I hasten to add that I'm not a heckler and I do try to keep my gob shut. However, there is something in the water over in Wellingborough which means the regulars do like to 'contribute', something that continues even today.

After about four or five pints and the entertainment ending, the huge lift I had from my spontaneous shout-outs had grown my ego to the size of a George Osborne deficit. I approached Will Morris, asking if I could "go on stage next week".

He looked stunned for a moment, spluttered and then insisted that it'd be a few months before I could have a spot. "And it can't be here. Not in front of your friends and family."

These are very very wise words indeed. However, at the time I was taken aback. I felt I could easily knock up five minutes of comedy and be on stage being the Bill Hicks I imagined I was. Will was already booked up for many of the following nights and in any case, he treated me perfectly. Not that I saw it at the time.

Will insisted that I do his mate's gong night over in Northampton before I could be ready to take the stage at the Horseshoe. I was rather taken aback, but he held the cards. He could green-light me if I did well in a place where I didn't know anyone. I was given a date and had to take it.

The following morning, I woke up, got washed and put on the shirt and trousers for work. On my forty minute trek I realised what happened the night before. I had to come up with five minutes of really funny material in a couple of months' time, or face public humiliation.


1: Very much helped by The Deportees' Rob Matheson's weekly acoustic nights on Wednesdays, plus Trina Breedon bringing loads of punk rock bands over.

2: Don't ask me what it was, I simply can't remember.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

GSOH: Seen and not heard

Kids, eh? Being a child is quite a popular pastime in the UK, especially among the under-16s. I myself have indulged in it. After just over a decade and a half though, you start to lose your natural talent at it and Simon Danczuk's just not that interested in you any more.

I've recently blogged about the first ever gig I did, as a child. That's not exactly the start of my interest in comedy. I was addicted watching slapstick on the television when I was three, with my earliest memories of seeing Laurel & Hardy shorts on Sunday mornings on BBC2; the utter silliness of The Goodies and of course the absolutely untouchable mayhem of Tiswas.

At some point in the infants school, I thought I could actually be funny. (Yeah, an adjective I still struggle to attain these days.) I'd do the Charlie Chaplin walk in the playground. Unsurprisingly, this didn't make me as popular as I thought it would. The kids just wanted to play 'War' as much as possible.

Me, before a crucial stage performance in 1978. I'm in the checked trousers.

Could it be possible to combine the thrill of imitation gunfire and slapstick comedy together? Film director Alan Parker thought so, and came up with Bugsy Malone.

The comedy what I wrote

Anyway, one Christmas, I had a brilliant idea to actually write some comic material. The opportunity came to me when my mum asked me to write a letter back to my uncle to thank him for the Christmas presents I got. I think I was six or seven. I can remember exactly what I wrote, but, it was really nowhere near as funny as I thought it was. It's not funny at all, to be frank.

Now, when a kid tries to come up with an original joke, the results are often confusing. They can result in laughter, but not in the way intended.

Take, for instance, the Tumblr blog Bad Kids Jokes, which catalogues rejected submissions to a children's joke website. Here's a fantastic example:

Q: what do you call a tiger with glasses on?
A: a scientist tiger

That is utterly magnificent. I like the way it ticks some of the boxes for being a joke, like the stereotype for a vocation and the off-beat anthropomorphic attribution. There's a good case for this being labelled as 'meta-comedy'.

A year ago, I was having dinner with the son of a very famous comedian1; plus two writers on classic comedy2. Our conversation turned to the comedic intentions we had when we were young. This led to one of my fellow diners reciting something his six-year-old daughter came up with...

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Crisp who?
Conker crisp!

Well, this one knocks it out of the park on sheer surrealism alone. I could dissect this one, but it's more fascinating for it to be left as it is.

So, what post-Christmas words did my uncle receive from me? Well, a sincere note of thanks for the gifts. You see, my mother took one look at what I originally wrote and stated that I couldn't send that. She didn't find it funny at all, and despite my protestations, I had to write a sensible thank-you letter.

She was bloody right, because this, in all its illogical glory, is what I wrote:

Thank you for the presents, they're better than fresh air. Well, I could do with fresh air because I need some for the tyres of my bicycle!

There's no getting away from how bad that is. There's not even any charm to it, unlike the previous two examples of kids' writing. If I had continued in that vein, I may as well have ended up as chief scriptwriter for short-lived Channel 4 show Tonightly.

1: Nick Emery, son of 1970s telly sketch legend, Dick Emery.
2: Georgy Jamieson, director of the British Comedy Society; Louis Barfe, biographer of Les Dawson and chronicler of light entertainment.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

GSOH: Wildling, you make my heart sing

The stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve saw me in a pub in Leicester, in the company of many local comedians who had just put on a storming end-of-year gig as part of Proper Funny. I was just there in punter mode, but having been introduced to these people throughout the preceding 365 days, ended up as the recipient of many kisses and an invitation to join Daniel Nicholas at his house party.

That was a fitting end to 2015. About a year ago, I was spending New Year's Eve/Day with my friend Monique. At that point, I hadn't performed for nearly two years and had agreed to organise and host a comedy night at a brand new pub in Market Harborough in January.

Monique's not a comedian but she has been locked and soaked inside the cage on Tiswas
I'd never compered before, but had still kept in contact with a few people on the local circuit, so getting the acts was not a problem. Trying to come up with material relevant to Market Harborough - a middle class picture-postcard town with a lot of high-end boutiques - was the tricky bit. Sure, I could go on and do bits of my usual set (I certainly did), but wanted to at least tailor my presentation to the audience for this one-off comedy night.

Slating the town you're in is a thing I'd seen many MCs do. It's a bit risky, so some tend to aim their comic vitriol at a nearby 'rival' town. If you're doing a gig in Newcastle, have a go at Sunderland. If you're in Sunderland, have a go at Newcastle. (Bonus points if you can say the same joke in both cities.)

Monique likes to introduce me to television I wouldn't normally watch, mainly stuff that's huge in America. I'm not entirely sure when the stroke of midnight occurred, but I know we were watching Bob's Burgers, which I enjoyed immensely. She's a huge fan of Game Of Thrones, something I had heard of (you'd have to live on Mars to not know of it), but wasn't too keen to start on.

After about three episodes, I was 1) hooked and 2) realising there was an idea in this. I believed this fantasy world could be partially modelled on Leicestershire.

Lions Eat Ice Cream Every Saturday

If you're not familiar with Leicestershire, well, I'd describe Leicester itself as a fairly decent city with a lot going for it. It is large, grey and sprawling, but with a bit more ambition than Nottingham or Birmingham.

I had dated a girl in Leicester back in 2010, and recall that she arranged a game of bowling for us over in Loughborough. We travelled 12 miles north to this desolate town, and it soon became apparent the sports centre was only host to Crown Green Bowling, not the cool American pin games we had been thinking of. She was mortified. I found it hilarious.

Loughborough is rather glum. It's primarily famous for the Ladybird books and Big Brother contestant Bonnie Holt. Until East Midlands Parkway was built, the town was the way you'd get to East Midlands Airport if you were on your way via train/bus. I spent an hour searching for the right bus stop with a past girlfriend, with some massive suitcases in tow. (Thankfully we did end up in Prague, avoiding the horrifying scenario of a Loughborough-based holiday.)

What has this got to do with Game Of Thrones anyway?

Well, for my first few minutes of hosting Beerhouse Comedy, I pretended to take a phone call from a very late act. I was giving them directions to Market Harborough - a town I decided they had not heard of, enabling me to describe the place.

"It's very posh. Full of Daily Mail reading farmers. They have Radio 4 played out from speakers on every lamp-post. And the streets are paved with tofu."

This went down well with the 70-80 Harborough residents who had turned up for the comedy night. I wasn't finished there. I continued with the phone conversation, ensuring that my (non-existent) comic foil wasn't even familiar with Leicestershire.

Having established my phone-based counterpart was a big Game Of Thrones fan, I then used its mythical world to describe Leicestershire. In the south, you've got Kings Landing, all posh, classy and where the wealth is. A bit north up from that, is Leicester - or should I say Winterfell - on account of it being cold and grey.

And anywhere further north from that? Beyond The Wall? It's all filled with zombies and incest. The perfect analogy for Loughborough.

I got a big round of applause for that one. I'd like to say I carried on with this hilarity for the rest of the night, but that wouldn't be true. Quite a few ideas I had, just flopped, but there was enough in there that established me as an adequate MC. The acts we had were pretty solid, and there's one final bit which had ensured a large audience and was a fantastic end. Pub owner Jon Pollard decided to set it as a monthly night - every third Thursday - which it continues to be.

In another time, I'll go into more detail into why that first night was pivotal in me having 2015 as a great year of comedy.

For anyone who is from Loughborough and is offended at my negative portrayal of their area, I give you the caveat that I describe my hometown - Wellingborough - as "the Loughborough of Northamptonshire". It's crap and we know it.

Friday, 1 January 2016

GSOH: Do you remember the first time?

Theoretically, your first gig is your worst gig. A newbie comedian starts off all shaky and nervous, does a few more, then ends up on Live At The Apollo and selling millions of DVDs. That's the idea, anyway and I'm sure I'm just a couple of gigs away from that success.

I'm not going make chronology a factor in the order I write posts in the GSOH blog, but I guess I have to start somewhere.

If people ask me about my first stand-up gig, I tell them it took place in 2011 in Northampton. Technically, that was my second gig. The first time I told gags to an audience was back in the mid-1980s.

Wellingborough's Victoria Junior School as it looks today
The third year at my junior school was fairly refreshing, as some of the more creative members of my class had the freedom to put on shows. Only about six girls really took part, along with myself.

One day we had decided to put on a talent show. I'd be telling jokes; Heena would be singing the Theme From Fame and Rebecca - my first ever girlfriend - did... well, I can't remember what she did. That's probably why I'm not with her now.

The class got to vote for their favourite act at the conclusion of the show. This was probably inspired by The Fame Game on ITV, something that's barely-remembered these days, but it was like a predecessor to Britain's Got Talent, although probably closer to Opportunity Knocks.

I reckon the big gender split in the voting had caused me to win. This was the time of your life when girls were all soppy, stupid and had fleas, after all. Although Heena's diabolical rendition of Irene Cara's sole hit probably helped.

My set was 100% unoriginal. It was a load of gags I took from the joke books of the day. Plenty of them were Irish gags. Come to think of it, a lot where of that "Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman" trope that you never get any more. These went down really well with the class and the teacher. There you go, early signs of institutionalised racism.

Of course, these days I wouldn't dream of using a joke I've never written, but this was a simpler time, I was modelling myself on the old school bow-tie-and-velvet-jacket comics you'd get on the telly of the day. These pre-alternative comedians would use a 'pool' of gags and routines.

What went down really well for me, was a really childish shaggy-dog story- one with the Irishman being the victim of course. I'd told it in the playground many times, and even though everyone knew it, I stormed it with this utterly immature shaggy dog story...

There's an Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman at the top of a slide (entirely plausible, I'm sure it's a common occurrence) and God tells them that whatever they say on the way down, they will land in.
The Englishman has the first go, and shouts "money!"
He lands in loads of coins and notes. He's a bit battered and bruised, but hey, he's rich, and he leaves.
The Scotsman is next, and he shouts "whiskey!" 
He lands in a big pool of whiskey and is happy. (See? Scots are all alcoholics. That's just the first hilarity, wait for the big pay off up next...)
The Irishman has a go, and he shouts "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
See? It's hilarious. I had learnt to end the gag there, because I knew when others told it, they added the unnecessary description of the Irishman landing in a vat of piss. Never telegraph the gag.

So yeah, first ever gig, smashed it. What could be funnier, in the minds of the assembled 10-11 year olds, than a man plunging into a load of urine? Nothing, really.

I suppose there is one exception. Another routine that did the playgrounds was the story of three schoolkids, respectively called Fuck Off; Manners and Shit. I very much doubt I'd get to utter such profanities in front of Mr Fisher without a ruler being thrown at me and a summoning to the headmaster's office, so this is why I decided to opt for the safer conclusion of a piss-drenched Irishman.

I'd like to assure you that, nowadays, my jokes are my own and they're politically situated a lot further to the left than the feeble Bernard-Manning-style material I cribbed in order to storm that vital Class 6 gig at Victoria Junior School.