Sunday, 31 December 2017

GSOH: Just Twenty Seventeen, Part One Of Four

Over the past twelve months I've told jokes in a miniskirt to two hundred and fifty people; helped raised over £500 for local food banks and ended up winning a certificate at the Edinburgh Fringe for a style of comedy I've never tried before.

That's not to say it's all been rosy. I'm entering New Year with a fairly uncertain future through no fault of my own and I still have yet to construct a festival show. No time to rest, frankly.

The year did kick off in a very astonishing way. Beerhouse Comedy was absolutely packed, in circumstances very similar to its first show, thanks to a certain Dave Hall. Likewise, Chuckle Pit had a very respectable audience number. This is all in stark contrast to the fag end of last year, where one particular night had as few as five people for the most of it.

Beerhouse is utterly rammed
Putting on comedy nights where you've only got a single figure audience is a big kick in the balls. I know it's almost the norm for many open spot nights in central London, but I feel absolutely guilty to the comedians who travel miles to perform, as well as the venue if all I can pull is a crowd that can be counted on the fingers of a leper.

I had mused to my other half on New Years Day that it was about time we threw some of the money we were making, at gaining a serious audience. When you're getting over the excesses of Christmas, it's tough to find the finances at making such a kickstart. This is probably why a lot of resolutions end up broken.

Chris Norton-Walker commands the Chuckle Pit
Thankfully we didn't need to do much for January's Chuckle Pit, where we had a very good audience number and they were the right crowd, well into the performers and I'm pleased to say headliner Chris Norton-Walker properly smashed it. The cries for an encore were heavily repetitive. That was the gig we wanted every month and we knew we couldn't coast it anymore, so plans were put in place to take the club to another level.

Turning to the comedy I perform as spots, I'd been doing my female character act Trisha Timpson very well throughout 2016, bolting on new bits and formulating a pretty damned tight ten minutes.

That's not to say I didn't get tired of it. As much fun as it is to play a character - especially an idiotic one where you have carte blanche to say massively ridiculous things - there are some drawbacks.

Trisha is technically a drag act, albeit there are no glittery dresses, fishnets or high heels. It's not camp, it's not kitsch, I'm not acting sexually promiscuous nor do I mime to Shirley Bassey. Yes, I am a man dressed as a woman and literally every layer of clothing and make-up I have on during this is feminine. It's just fairly subtle compared to the majority of drag.

I like to think Trisha Timpson is like a long-lost character from Viz comic, my biggest comedy influence. The laughs are not from the act being a man in a wig, although I do note that some audience members appear to assume I'm gay and/or transgendered and expect something high camp. It soon becomes clear that Trisha - a barmaid from a prolific high street pub chain - is jaw-droppingly stupid.

Anyway, I gave Trisha an outing over at St Albans's Comedy In The Crown and what do you know? I won the Crown! Alright, I jointly won the Crown. As you can see in the pic, I have tied with an actual XX-chromosome-owning comic, the wonderful Maggie Kawolski.

Joint-winning the crown with Maggie Kawolski
My intention was to wind down the character in 2017. The hassle of transforming into a woman takes at least thirty minutes, so it limits the gigs you can do unless you leave work early or take the day off. There's no glamour in acrobatically contorting yourself into tights in the confines of a toilet cubicle and a bra is mild torture.

However, that night in The Crown was the first time I'd won an accolade in comedy, and the aforementioned Chris Norton-Walker was in the front row, having made the trip especially to see this new character act. He encouraged me to keep at it, and well, I'm glad I stuck with it.

Trisha has earnt me quite a few paid spots. I think it's the best ten I've ever written. I get to tell the kind of gags I couldn't as my real self. I've kept the character away from the misogynistic overtones that can sometimes be evident in drag. To flirt with audience members or portray Trisha as a slag would be an easy shoe-in, but I wanted to rise well above the level of hack.

In Trisha's set, there are lashings of political satire, wordplay, and digs at soulless corporate pubs. The original intention was to make Trisha a very nasty character, really hateable and sneery, on the basis I'm genuinely opposed to the chain she works for. (The inspiration was a post-gig visit to one such pub where I was astonished at the couldn't-give-a-shit attitude of some workers.) 

Of course, being a villain doesn't really work in the confines of a comedy spot. You have to do it very very over-the-top, to pantomime levels, or not at all. You can't win an audience by stating how you hate them at the start of your act.

This is why so many comedy sets - from open spot to arena-filling television-level - begin with the performer taking the piss out of him/herself. We are jesters, not bullies.

Brand awareness, in physical form
I play Trisha like a loveable idiot. There is nothing to hate about her. In a few ways, she's smarter than her clientele. I also smile almost throughout the entire set. It is 180° different to me. A lot of straight stand-up comedy involves putting on your 'too cool for school' persona as you rage against the injustice of society, occasionally frowning or portraying confusion.

To put it on one line, Trisha Timpson is just Stan Laurel in a skirt.

Meanwhile, February saw us put Chuckle Pit and Beerhouse Comedy to decent numbers. No investment was visible, mainly because most of our time was taken up by attending shows at the Leicester Comedy Festival.

Speaking of which, yes, Rob Kemp's The Elvis Dead really is worth seeing. Of course it does not make much sense on paper and initially, I was no fan of the concept as Ian Hall raved about it. Elvis did not appeal to me at all, yet I like the Evil Dead films as humans-acting-as-Itchy-and-Scratchy. Plus Rob Kemp is a very decent and loveable guy, one of the friendliest people you'll meet on the midlands comedy scene and one of the best.

We went to that second showing, over at the Sound House, where just about anyone who is anyone from the scene was there, on word of mouth, and that was a textbook "storming it" gig. We've seen the show a few times since it really is that superb.

Oh, there was a thing through a Twitter conversation where I nearly became the booker and promoter for a regular paid comedy night in Northampton. Someone at a private members' club was definitely keen on the idea and I did have a meeting with him, but ultimately, it never came to fruition. It did get my mind ticking on expanding what I laughingly call my 'comedy empire'.

From the earnings of the first two Chuckle Pits, we thought it time to secure the decent numbers with a flyering campaign across Wellingborough. A thousand A5 flyers I designed ended up on the doormats of local residents.

A handful of promotion
One of my bugbears with some comedy nights is that you can turn up and the acts will outnumber the actual audience members. This is particularly prolific in London, yet I have seen it across the UK. In this blog entry, I've already outlined how a few of my 2016 nights had a tiny smattering of people, so I'm not immune to being complacent and expecting hordes of mirth-seekers to fill the seats.

A few hundred quid was allocated to Chuckle Pit's first serious promotion. A couple of pull-up banners established much more of a 'stage presence' and turned us from being "some comedians in a pub each month if you like that sort of thing" to being "we are the pub's monthly comedy night".

While it stakes out a 'territory' and improves the night, stage furniture alone doesn't bring in the punters. Hence I had to wear out some shoe leather shoving glossy leaflets through letterboxes.

This definitely had a postive effect on numbers. I had sensibly included the next four months worth of Chuckle Pit details, so these were a long-term campaign. Also, we don't have the luxury of a fixed date. We're usually on a Friday in the latter half of a month. The flyer helps act as a reminder.

Kanned Komedy winner Marshal B Anderson
Of course, I don't want to get ahead of myself, blow smoke up my arse and say what a genius promoter I am. Numbers were only gently increased and I think my mistake was to target the main roads going in/out of Wellingborough. A lot of these are middle-class residences and Chuckle Pit's venue is largely focused on the working class.

Looking back with hindsight on those Saturday mornings where I walked past several cars on a long gravel drive to shove in a flyer, it was clear this kind of people were unlikely to drink in Wellingborough, more likely some upmarket places in Northampton, Milton Keynes or Leicester.

However, I did enough of the places that were more my level. Being working class, I've attended the venue for over 20 years and actually enjoy a bit of spit-and-sawdust atmosphere. (Okay, the Horseshoe isn't that, and recent refurbs have made it a bit classier, but it's not a go-to for a skinny latte and cracked pepper over avocado toast.)

Juggling the monthly Horseshoe and Beerhouse comedy nights had been my comedy life but I fancied the challenge of taking stand-up to quirkier venues. I had long been a fan of local business Hart Family Brewers, who had some responsibility for me instigating comedy promotion ages back.

Good deeds
Comedians tend to be a rather left-leaning lot, and 2016 was a pretty dark year with the narrow win for the UK to exit the European Union and of course, a 10-year-old-girl-fancying racist narcissist winning the presidency of a major country.

I had wanted to do my bit for good, aside from having once manned the phones for Comic Relief; doing a charity abseil down a shopping centre and getting Chris Tarrant to pen an anecdote for a brilliant Dr Who charity book, I hadn't done too much of this 'pay it foward'.

Food banks are on the increase and it seemed a pretty worthy cause no matter what part of the political spectrum you reside on. I set up Kanned Komedy as a sporadic comedy night that took place in unusual venues, raising money for the local foodbank.

By rounding up six great local comedians and plonking them in a lively brewery (which has occasionally been the place for music gigs and a biking velodrome) in front of a nearly 60-strong crowd, we raised £368. All of that sum went straight to the Wellingborough Daylight Centre.

A lot of it was down to charging a fiver - I had never charged entry to any comedy night I had put on, so this was new territory for me, and also the idea of getting people to donate money as a 'vote' for their favourite comedian of the night. Chesterfield's Marshal B Anderson won it, plus we had plenty of food donations on the night.

This enabled me to make the undeniably modest boast that I could organise a piss-up in a brewery. I had also to buy a stand-up microphone for about £100 of my own money, as the venue didn't have their own. Which means I have stepped closer to being able to set up a comedy gig where I like.

This hasn't been a bad quarter for throwing myself into comedy even further. Part Two will be looking at how I tackled April, May and June. My 'empire' would expand again...

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