The Gig: Comedy Night, Unnamed Pub, Blackburn.
The Date: July 31st 2010
The Line Up: Myself MCing for Carl Hutchinson, Kate McCabe, Tim Bradbury and Dave Twentyman.
One of the most important tools in a comedian’s toolbox is the ability to maintain a cool, calm and collected exterior in the face of chaos, whether that chaos is within or without. Comedy is a con trick first and foremost. If you give off the impression that you are absolutely in control regardless of the situation then people will have faith in you. If you stand on stage umming, ahhing, looking at your feet and recoiling after every punchline as if you’re expecting a backlash then it doesn’t matter how good your material is. Nobody will believe in you. Eyes and teeth people, eyes and teeth…
The same can be said for how a comic conducts him or herself offstage. I used to be a horrendous pacer before a gig, walking back and forth like a polar bear in captivity until it was my turn to take the stage. It wasn’t until a promoter told me that this was a tell, a sign of nervousness that was best eliminated. Show no fear. Since then I’ve tried my best to keep any outward signs of concern to myself whether onstage or off. My inner monolgue before a gig has often been little more then “Aaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhhhhh!” but I would hope this wasn’t immediately apparent from the outside looking in. No sense in taking the chance of freaking out yourself, the other acts if they’re newer or even any audience members that are within earshot. Stoicism is definately the word of the day.
Dave Twentyman walked into the gig, took a look around.
“For fuck’s sake…”
In a voice that carried to the various patrons around him. Not that it wasn’t absolutely, completely and thoroughly justifiable. The pub in the outskirts of Blackburn was probably a lovely place to have as a local but, to the five assembled, it looked to all intents and purposes like we had walked through the gates of comedic hell.
I’d been asked, about a month and a half previously, whether I would like to open the first night of a new comedy night by Colin Manford, whose brother people may have heard of. He’s a good kid with a lot of potential, could go far. Same goes for Colin. The new night was in a pub in Blackburn that wanted to expand it’s entertainment programme beyond live music. To me, this is often a good sign. A venue with a track record in putting on bands will often have a little more nous about them than a venue that just deals in pints, pies and peas. The Cricketers’ Arms in Keighley is a perfect example of this, already possessing a stage, lighting, sound equipment and the right attitude towards putting on any sort of show. As such, it sounded positive and I was driven to say yes by the idea that I might be able to help a brand new comedy night take its first tentative steps.
Oh yes, and the money was right too.
A couple of weeks beforehand the first of a series of cracks began to appear. Thanks to a scheduling conflict it turned out that Colin would actually be away on holiday for the night. All of a sudden we were without a point man on site. Not, in itself, a huge problem as I’ve often found myself in this position. Promoted to MC I was now essentially going to be in charge on the night. The money went up a bit to reflect this too so no complaints there.
A couple of days beforehand it became apparent that Colin had not been to see the venue at any point and wouldn’t be in a position to scout it in the last forty eight hours. Everything that Col knew about the venue was second hand but not to worry, it’s a lovely space apparently. Had some great music nights on. Has a real festival feel to it. A real festival feel? I hoped this meant we’d be walking into an easy going atmosphere of peace and love where we’d be treated like rock stars. I couldn’t shake the feeling this might mean we’d be faced with disinterested punters off their tits on whatever they could get their hands on in a venue that reeked of human waste products. Still, the booking’s made and you just don’t know until you get there. How bad could it be?
I carpooled with Carl and Katie from Manchester, driving my fellow comics. At the conclusion of our gig the previous Thursday in Keighley Katie had confessed to being hooked on my gig diaries. In fact she occasionally found herself wishing I’d have more weird gigs so that I’d subsequently have weirder experiences to document. You know what they say, be careful what you wish for.
The pub seemed perfectly fine from the outside. It seemed perfectly fine from the inside too. A nice little local boozer. Admittedly it felt like a very local pub for locals but that’s not neccesarily a bad thing. There was even a poster on the wall bearing the likenesses of Dave Twentyman and myself to publicise the comedy night. According to Tim, who’d arrived first, they were expecting about a hundred people along to the gig tonight. Sounds promising. Let’s take a look at the room.
I say room.
It was the beer garden. This was the festival feel, it was outdoors. The beer garden behind the pub had a stage set up in it. In fairness, as stages go, I couldn’t really fault it. Tim, having arrived early, had set up the P.A. he’d collected from Col’s house. Oh yeah, that’s right. The day before Colin mentioned that the venue didn’t have a P.A. of it’s own. Could we collect and take his? Tim drew the short straw and ended up with the duty of ferrying the entire sound setup to the gig. Fair play to Tim, his kid was ill but he still came along, ferried the sound equipment and set it up for us. It also meant he couldn’t stay for the gig. I was a little envious as he headed off…
The outdoor stage, on second examination, looked a lot like it had been knocked together in an afternoon by a competent yet slightly rushed workman. The Gazebo that provided cover for approximately half of the outdoorspace had a roof angled in such a way that heavy rain would provide a sheet of water between performer and audience. A sheet of water that would probably provide an interesting pyrotechnic effect when it came into contact with the spotlights that looked like they were hung with cable ties. It could turn out to be the first time I’ve ever performed as a combined comedian and water feature. This was a world far beyond planning, risk assessments and rules about health and safety. There were an awful lot of loose wires and cables running about. I made sure not to trip and pull any of them out in case I inadvertantly blacked out two thirds of Blackburn.
At this point we had yet to meet the pub’s landlord, let’s call him Gavin. According to Colin he was our contact and would be paying us at the end of the night. Arriving at a gig without a point of contact always makes me feel slightly uneasy. There’s always a sneaking suspicion that it might turn into waiting for Godot. You also never know quite what kind of person you’ll be dealing with. With this setup, in this pub on this night you couldn’t guarantee that we were going to have good gigs. It’s not unheard of for a landlord to turn around at the end of a ropey night of comedy and refuse to pay the acts so it helps when they turn out to be decent sorts. Fortunately Gavin arrived before showtime and turned out to be a nice guy with a friendly, down to earth attitude. He greeted Katie, Carl and myself enthusiastically and then, with equal enthusiasm, confirmed something that Tim had alluded to earlier.
“A couple of lads were murdered just over the road this morning.”
Start the car. Actually, in an odd way, I found this reassuring. My twisted logic suggested that if someone had already been stabbed to death in the locale then maybe people would have gotten it out of their system for now. Katie and Carl looked as though they wanted someone, somewhere to beam them up and the fuck out of this place. Gavin also said that the karaoke would be stopped while the comedy was in. Yep, it was a comedy and karaoke night. This was a minor plus as it meant I wouldn’t find myself duelling for attention with someone intent on putting “I Will Survive” to death less than a hundred yards away.
This was the point that Mr Twentyman arrived, took one look around, saw that this was the equivalent of a stand up gig on the set of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and let loose his honest and understandable exclamation. I filled him in on the details of the night and reminded him, without a great deal of enthusiasm, that these gigs were character building. We also watched some of the punters file out into the beer garden to take prime position ahead of the show. You try not to judge. You really do. All the same I got the distinct feeling that this wasn’t a political polemic, whimsy or light-hearted anecdote crowd. I had more hair than every other male in the pub combined. A lot of close cropped hair, a lot of branded sportswear, a lot of fake tan and an awful lot of staring at the selection of outsiders. This was going to be interesting. That said, never assume. I’ve had gigs of late where an audience I might have been initially inclined to write off as a bit simple has surprised me. Yes, there’s a lot of talk about parts of Lancashire being full of backward, thuggish bigots but that can’t be all true.
“Go look at the mirror in the toilet.”
Carl was insistant. I’d already been into the gents once for my, erm, pre gig ritual and confirmed my suspicions where there was no lock on the cubicle and I’d had to hold it shut with my foot. That said, I did then spot the missing part of the door bolt afterwards and actually managed to fix it. That’ll last a day or two… I was reluctant to wander back in just to have a peek so Dave went instead and took a photo of what it was that had caught Carl’s attention.
It was a sticker bearing the likeness of a woman in a burkha with a line through it, much like a no smoking sign. The wannabe Guardian reading part of me hoped that this was someone suggesting an end to the oppression of women through religion across the world, no longer holding them responsible for men’s failings and forcing them to cover up. I knew, of course, that the message was much more straightforward and wasn’t a badly drawn sign suggesting that ninjas weren’t welcome. Part of me wished I had a burkha in the car as well. If we’re going down…
By this point I wasn’t feeling especially positive about the gig. It didn’t help my overwhelming sense of foreboding when I went onstage to give a five minute call and received at least three heckles from various young knuckle-draggers. Nothing clever either, just base-end assertions that I was shit and that I should, indeed, fuck off. That said, this is clearly what passes for wit around here. Part of me wondered if there was murderer in the audience tonight, out for a celebratory pint after a kill well made. Eyes and teeth…
Five minutes came and went and it was time for me to kick the show off. The complex lighting array was controlled by a household dimmer switch that hung on the side of the building from a wire. Part of me was quite open to the idea of a near-lethal electric shock that would have gotten me off the hook. Forty eight hours earlier I was playing the nicest gig in the country in a small pub in Yorkshire in front of a crowd that was there to enjoy comedy. Now I was wading through a mire that had the potential to become my own personal vietnam in a small pub in Lancashire in front of a crowd that may have been there because they’d run out of brown people to set fire to. Here goes nothing…
I did alright.
This is what Ben Schofield refers to as my superpower. As a compere I can walk on to almost any stage, grab almost any situation and turn it into something that at least resembles a gig. I would hope there was no fear in my eyes or my stride as I kicked off this outdoor fiasco which was a cross between The Embassy Club, Strummercamp and Scrapheap Challenge. The young knuckle draggers tried to heckle en masse, I took them down one by one making sure their mates had a good laugh at their expense. I chatted to a pair of slightly more mature ladies in the front row, one of whom I dubbed the cougar of the night, and had some good banter.
I even managed to extract something resembling comedy from one older chap who fancied himself as the pub’s answer to Frank Gallagher and described himself as such. Sorry fella, Frank Gallagher’s a wonderfull observed character in a sitcom. You’re just a bit of a dick that didn’t get enough attention as a child. A heckler determined to join in on everything and refuse to acknowledge that anyone or anything else could possibly be more deserving of everyone’s attention than him. Sat with arms folded, refusing to look directly at me when I spoke. He smirked at something I said. I consider that a win. I also had a chance to chat with a couple getting married two weeks later who turned out to be lovely. Turned out they were having the reception somewhere else which led to an amusing exchanged between myself, them and Gavin. Part of me actually started to wonder if things were going to be alright.
First challenge came from the gravel that made up almost all of the floor outside. It was impossible for anyone to move across it without it becoming a focal point. During the night, or two people realised this and decided to disrupt the proceedings by marching across it as loudly as possible. Heckled by aggregate, brilliant. I referenced this early on in the hope it might stop. It didn’t. That said they were receptive to the old cheerleading gimmick and, before bringing Carl on, they managed to give him a half decent welcome.
It then became apparent that one of our audience’s flaws was an attention span slightly shorter than a hungover goldfish with things on his mind. Carl is a brilliant comic with a laidback, deadpan approach and sone wonderful observations. They do, however, require an audience to pay attention for more than thirty or forty seconds at a time. Carl had them at the start but, as his set progressed, we hit the limit on half the audience’s ability to pay attention and not talk amongst themselves at around the ten minute mark. Carl’s extremely good but his deadpan musings were not to the taste of those in attendence. I also felt the colour drain from my face when Carl mentioned the sticker on the mirror in the gents and went on to suggest this was in danger of becoming a BNP rally. Big, big cheer for that. I thought Carl had some huge balls for walking onstage and addressing it as it was the kind of conversation that could turn a room, especially when the onstage and offstage politics are so different. Turns out Carl didn’t realise that this part of the country was such a BNP stronghold. Doh.
You can’t blame Carl. You can’t really blame the audience either. Carl does what he does and the audience likes what they like. It falls to the booker to scout a venue, ask pertinent questions and fathom the sort of acts that would probably go down well. In this case I was starting to get the impression that this was an audience that wanted quickfire gags about everyday subject and comics onstage that they could identify with. They wanted local humour, they wanted someone that saw the world the way they did, they wanted familiarity…
Next up was Katie McCabe, a gay comic from America. A triumph of booking.
Katie, having gigged with me aplenty, is no slouch in the comedic sense. There’s some fantastic stuff in there about being an American in the UK, local place names and talk of how she’s perceived for her sexuality. As soon as she opened her mouth the audience switched off for the most part. Clearly they were as baffled by this strange woman with short hair and a funny accent as they initially were by the strange man with long hair and a funny accent. She was, as you might expect, advised to return to America by a heckler. Witty stuff and very welcoming. Kate clung on for dear life in the face of rising apathy. An out lesbian comic in front of a BNP audience, brilliant. You could almost see the confusion in the face of some in attendence. “A lesbian? She looks nothing like the ones on that DVD.”
The break came and it was time for the karaoke to be started and the curry to be served. Yes, there was curry too. Comedy and curry for £2, you couldn’t fault the value. It looked alright too, Carl and Katie indulged and seemed to quite enjoy it. I probably shouldn’t have suggested it was probably the flesh of an act that went down badly there the previous month. It could quite conceivably have gone a little bit Royston Vasey. During the break I wandered into the bar for a coke and heard one half of the soon to be married couple blasting out “I Will Survive”. She didn’t murder it but it hardly seemed the best choice of track for the beginning of their life together.
One of these days Dave Twentyman and I will get to do a nice, normal gig together. I suggested he not open with the line “When I get back to Manchester and tell people I’ve played here they’ll tell me it’s not possible. That pub burned down six months ago.” We learnt our lesson about that in Bridlington. It also wouldn’t surprise me if it had been but then rebuilt inside of a fortnight.
I struggled to get their attention for the final section but just about got them. Apparently one of the punters had said they’d seen seen three acts but not heard any jokes yet. Yet more confirmation of my initial thoughts. I introduced Dave to close the show and, yes, he opened with a proper joke. He also won them over because, as one punter said, “At least he’s English…” The proper gag he began with was a pub joke that he then followed with a couple of personalised twists of his own. This pretty much brought the house down. “Brilliant!” I thought to myself. “He’s got them.” He did indeed but they didn’t want to play nice at this point.
Dave is a superb comic with a unique charm that you can’t quite put your finger on. I can watch Dave perform, love every second of it and not be exactly sure why I laughed so hard for as long as I did, knowing only that I had a great time. Audiences seem to agree with me. He’s also a really sound guy offstage and watching him come into his own as a professional comedian has been both brilliant and inspiring. On this night I thought he had them. Dave thought he had them. It turns out that he didn’t. Their attention span was now so diminished by the late night, the cold climate and their intake of alcohol that wouldn’t tolerate any sort of set up at all. The heckling started, not meant maliciously, but enough to mean that every time he started a piece of paterial that someone managed to derail it. Thus his payoffs didn’t get anywhere near the reponse they deserved.
Ever the pro, Dave kept going in the face of a progressively weirder gig. People marching across the gravel. People trying to join in constantly. At one point the landlord’s girlfriend started wandering around taking pictures. Not pictures of Dave, no. Pictures of the punters. She had no respect for the ongoing gig, choosing to stand between Dave and the audience with her flash on. There was no way to work around her either, she couldn’t have been more distracting if she was naked and on fire. Completely ignorant to Dave’s good natured attempt to get her to wait until afterwards as well, she kept snapping away. Frank Gallagher Lite saw this as his opportunity to run up next to Dave and get his arse out for the camera. The gig was falling apart, Dave soldiered on and tried to set up his stag night set piece to finish.
At this stage a fairly big bloke walked to near the front of the stage and said, drink in hand, that Dave wasn’t funny and challenged him to make him laugh right away. A nasty, blunt, unhelpful heckle at the best of times which was compounded by the manner in which the mood of the place turned. Dave, to his credit, stood his ground and told this upstart to fuck off. It appears that, amongst the carnage, the bulk of the audience had respect for Dave because they were on his side. The arsehole eventually backed down when he realised that he might end up being the day’s third statistic. Sadly there was no rescuing the gig at this point. Dave wound his set up, I wound the night up and decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Let’s get paid and fuck off.
I caught up with Gavin to sort out the readies while Carl and Katie broke the PA down for me. Any worries I may have had about the money were unfounded as Gavin paid us in full for all the acts, even those that had struggled. By which I mean all of us. We chatted a bit about the night and I tried to put as positive a spin on things as I could. In future, I suggested, maybe a more mainstream comic that did a couple of sets of traditional pub gags. Gavin agreed. “We need someone a bit more like Bernard Manning. Definately need some racist jokes for the regulars.” I bit my lip, took my money and walked away like the dirty little gig whore I am. Discretion was the better part of valour.
On the way out we were accosted by a couple of people that had actually paid attention. They said how much they enjoyed us and suggested that we might be a little too intelligent for the locals. I didn’t want to say it. The landlady, now hammered, had followed us out to the carpark to say goodbye. During her farewells she managed to mention her disdain for “pakis”. I couldn’t have gotten out of their fast enough.
Jules from The Last Laugh’s words echoed in my head. Everyone got paid, nobody got stabbed. Especially pertinent tonight as there were moments when I thought the outcome could have been the complete opposite. These gigs are character building. I told myself that over and over, still slightly pleased that I actually managed to do anything resembling a compere’s job in this gig where most would fear to tread.
On the way out of town we passed a sign at the side of the road.
“Lancashire. A place where everyone matters.”
Yes, so long as you’re not wearing a burkha. I was rather proud of myself and my fellow comics. Any one of us could have started on some dodgy, racist diatribe and won many of the audience over in an instant. We didn’t though. Looks like there’s some principles in there somewhere after all.
Gig Score: 6/10
Lesson Learnt: Lessons about scouting venues and booking sensibly. Promoters do your homework!