The Gig: The Ha Ha Club, The Sparrowhawk, Fence, Lancashire.
The Date: March 15th 2011
The Line Up: Myself MCing for Rhys Jones, Lewis Phillips Calvert, Peter Otway & Andy Watson
Say what you want about comedians but we were carpooling long before it was cool. I’d love to say that it’s driven by some sort of ecological responsibility but it definitely isn’t. Anybody that thinks this game is a quick way to make a fortune will be rapidly disappointed. Your rookie years as a stand-up will invariably involve the hemorrhaging of money from all kinds of angles. The onus, therefore, is on getting as much stage time as possible for the minimum possible outlay. Thus I spent many a journey packed into an economical three door hatchback with four other comedians, thankful that my 6’2″ frame generally landed me shotgun based on practicality alone. In the summer of 2004 I spent consecutive months travelling across the M62 in Dave Ingram’s Nissan Micra for the ill fated Leeds Comedy Store’s version of King Gong. Five comics and the gong itself packed into a tiny car. If we’d lost it somewhere along the way we might have had an easier time of it.
Time went by and, bit by bit, I clawed my way up the circuit. Then I fell back down it. Then I clawed my way back up a bit. I found myself doing less of the open mic nights that neccesitated a busload of acts to make them economically viable. The carpooling continues but it’s generally myself and one or two other comedians rather than four or five. Pro comics are more inclined to drive themselves if they can so as to spend less time hanging around at gigs.
There was, therefore, a decidedly nostalgic feel for me as I drove to Burnley with four other comics in my car. Thanks to the logistics of public transport it worked out for the best if everyone grabbed a lift with me. Comedic carpooling at its absolute finest. As my trusty Skoda Fabia pulled into the car park of the Sparrowhawk pub I wondered whether we’d look like a funny car of clowns when we spilled out onto the asphalt. Fortunately the four other comics on the bill weren’t built like me or we may have had problems. One advantage of driving is that you pretty much always get the front seat.
Andy Watson, the headliner for the night, had been considerate enough not to play the comedy pecking order to call shotgun either. He squeezed into the back with Peter Otway and Lewis Philips-Calvert like a trooper. City Life Comedian of the year or not, he was most assuredly keeping it real. We disgorged ourselves from the vehicle and, once three of our number had massaged feeling into their limbs, went inside to check the place out. The Sparrowhawk, in the charmingly named village of Fence, was yet another pub that I’d gladly have as my local. Warm, cosy, friendly and definitely a place to go for a meal or a pint of something interesting. The comedy was due to take place in the function room upstairs as well, a definite plus for a pub gig.
Bryan, the promoter, was there to greet us and keep an eye on the night. The room, cosy with rows of seating for around eighty people, had been set up brilliantly. The combination of a proper sound system, a proper set of lights and a backdrop against the far wall made this feel less like a pub gig and more like a touring show. Simple touches but they work. Neville, our tech for the night, clearly knew his stuff and had a real passion for what he was doing. So much so that we had an array of effects far beyond your usual pub gig. It’s not often you have a smoke machine and a laser box for instance. Neville turned the laser box on briefly and, like the big kid I am, I was mesmerised by the myriad of dancing lights around the room. I begged him to turn the smoke machine on so we could see the lasers too. He did, probably happy to showhis gear off. It was awesome and I giggled like an imbecile seeing his first card trick. Unfortunately we then realised the inherent problems involved in using a smoke machine in a tiny room over a pub. The good folk of Fence had come for a comedy night, not to be gassed in the name of showmanship. Neville and I grudgingly accepted that we couldn’t use them during the show and I’m not entirely sure who was more disappointed.
In a radical departure from recent gigs, we didn’t use the pub’s kitchen as our green room for the night. Instead we relaxed in the pub office, conveniently located right next to where we would be performing. A brew was provided and I was a happy compere, my diva-like needs satisfied immediately. Earl grey too, I’m moving up in the world.
With the exception of Andy, everyone else on the bill was at least ten years my junior and I started to feel a little like Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black. Not exactly like him of course. If I had been then my car would have gotten us there an awful lot faster. I sat back and listened as Rhys, Lewis and Philip discussed new act competitions and their respective plans for the Edinburgh festival. Full of enthusiasm they talked about all manner of venues I’ve never been to and acts that I’d never seen. I found myself thinking back to the time I’d sit with my fellow comics discussing the logistics of all the competitions I’d entered or was about to enter. This particular act was good, this particular act wasn’t, this particular act had a bad night, this particular act was winning everything… At the time it had seemed so, so important but in hindsight seemed like quite a lot of fuss over nothing. I was jerked out of my nostalgic haze when I was asked if I had any competition advice. My response was fairly blunt.
“They mean fuck all in the grand scheme of things. Don’t take them too seriously.”
I probably came across as the cranky old bastard woken from his nap in the corner. Pesky kids… Nonetheless I stand by that statement. Winning precisely nothing in my time trawling through the various comedy tournaments hasn’t stopped me from making a living at it. A win might have helped but it might not have. I know plenty of acts that won a few competitions, were hailed as the next big thing and then spent years rebuilding themselves after failing to meet the artificially high expectations that greeted them afterwards. I didn’t get to where I am by winning a competition. I did it by being abysmal for two years and then realising how funny it was to replace the word “Dance” with the word “Wank”. At the time, I liked to think of myself as the battle scarred veteran attempting to impart a sense of perspective. In hindsight I probably ranted away like a pensioner in Subway. Fortunately I didn’t hit the point where I called anyone “kid”. I’d have needed a slap for that, followed by a nice sit down with a hot, milky drink.
There was a respectable turn-out for the gig when it started. This was in spite of the unexpected competition supplied by a Burnley FC fixture. According to Bryan, their local following was enough to dog any event that happened to clash with them. An unfortunate coincidence. Still, there were more than enough for a gig and if we gave them a good time then they’d be back with their mates once the footie crowd returned.
Those present turned out to be a lot of fun at the start of the show. A lively bunch with more than their fair share of characters spread about the room. I spoke to Dave, a chap at the front row and asked what he did for a living. He turned out to be a full-time dad of two. I asked him which one was his favourite, a question that generally leads to laughter and an embarrassed silence from the parent in question. He thought for a moment and then said it was the older one. Now that’s some honesty. The average audience age was somewhere in the forties and one of the acts had expressed concern about whether the age-gap would affect how his stuff went over. I thought back to the cricket club the previous week and told him to just go for it. Funny is funny.
The gig rolled along nicely and Rhys Jones was up first. Fresh faced, lively, intelligent, charismatic and funny with all his own hair to boot. He did a stellar job kicking the night off. Before the break I couldn’t fight the urge to ask Neville to turn on the smoke and lasers just because we had them. I told the fifty or so present that they were getting a light show more akin to a Jean-Michelle Jarre concert than a Lancashire gastropub. They were patient enough to humour me too but I defied anyone to not get at least a tiny kick out of it.
The compering was going alright and I was enjoying myself. I’d hit a couple of potential sticky patches with one or two characters that seemed intent on taking any banter around in circles. Rather than going back to them, I left them well alone and the night flowed nicely. They’d laid on free chips for the audience and one of them was gracious enough to offer me one at the start of the second section. Mistake! I’d not eaten and hadn’t been hungry until I ate a single chip and a chasm opened in my gut, growing like the sarlaac pit in anticipation of some fresh Han Solo.
Lewis had asked to introduced as Lewis Philips rather than Lewis Philips Calvert and I was slightly paranoid that I’d get it wrong. So paranoid in fact that while I’d managed to introduce him by the correct name I failed to announce him in the correct order. Peter was supposed to be on first and then Lewis but I did it the other way around, no doubt lighting a fire of panic in the green room. If Lewis had been rattled by the sudden change it didn’t show on stage at all. He had a great gig too, as did Peter in his impropmtu role as second act in the second section. I apologised profusely to all concerned for the slip in my concentration as MC. You wouldn’t have had that from a competition winner.
I was mildly disappointed that we didn’t get to hear the banshee-style vocal warm ups I’d seen used by Andy at a recent gig. Either he decided they weren’t needed for a smaller room or vaulted over a few fences and howled at the moon in a nearby field. There would be some nervous livestock around Fence that night and probably few nervous people too. In the final section one of the younger lads in attendence piped up and asked if I was using a Rock Band microphone. There was a bit of red tape around the end and this, to his mind, made it look like the toy mics you get packaged with the popular music simulation video game (Available across all platforms now…). I decided to defuse the situation in case Neville took this affront personally and strangled him with with a length of cable. For the next couple of minutes I ribbed him, much to the enjoyment of his mates, over his need to put down the controller and venture into the real world. No, this wasn’t Comedy Hero. If it was then there would be a screen at the back with jokes projected on them for me to read out as a bar scrolled across. If it had been then I’d be losing. I never tell any jokes.
Andy went on and despite not replicating his offstage antics from the Blackburn gig he soon replicated his onstage success. Once again he had them right from the start and didn’t let up. I went back to the green room and just about managed to resist the urge to scavenge some leftover gherkin from an abandoned plate there. Bryan and I chatted about the gig. The night was still in it’s relative infancy but ripe with potential to grow into a fantastic addition to the circuit. Around this time we were joined by Andy, the pub’s manager, who had popped in to see how the night was going. He seemed more than pleased with it and genuinely full of enthusiasm for the gig in future.
Andy had left a Mars bar backstage and I was eyeing it enviously by this point. Fortunately he wrapped up before it vanished in mysterious circumstances. I went on to finish up and everyone got a great response as I name checked them off. I made sure the lasers and smoke came on the end naturally…
Our work done we piled ourselves back into the car and headed off in the direction of Manchester. I was really enjoying the run of work at fledgling gigs, hoping that I was playing a small part in their growth. After all, that’s my job as a self-rightous grizzled veteran that had acheived intermediate levels of success on the UK comedy circuit. That and telling newcomers how easy they’ve got, how hard they’ve got it, how much the circuit has changed and that petrol was less than a pound a litre when I started.
Now, how do I get to Subway? I need to get something off my chest.
Gig Score: 6/10
Lesson Learnt: Don’t eat on stage, at best it makes me hungry and at worst I end up digging bits of chip out of my molar.