The Gig: The Comedy Balloon, The Ape & Apple, Manchester.
The Date: March 9th 2011
The Line Up: Chris Tavner MCing for Richard Batt, Carl Gillespie, Rachel Lancaster, Nathan Hudson, Lee Peart, James Ferrington & myself
The cancellation fairy hadn’t just visited in March, she’s pretty much decided to move in. As the weeks unfolded I watched gigs drop out of my diary left, right and centre. By the second week of the month I was down somewhere in the region of four hundred and fifty pounds worth of work. The last minute gig in Sunderland was a blessing in no uncertain terms as it helped me claw some of that back. Aside from that the week was looking rather poorly. My Friday night gig had been pulled, I had nothing in for Saturday and I’d not had any confirmation or contact for the Thursday gig. Unless something came in, I was looking at a very poorly paid week and a sizeable gap between gigs to boot.
I noticed that Neil Smith, aka Spider, was short of a closer for The Comedy Balloon on the Wednesday. I volunteered my services, thinking that I was better off gigging than not if I could. After all my talk of writing new material and putting it to use it was also high time that I actually did it. Talk is cheap. Spider booked me in and I swore blind that I’d spend Wednesday afternoon stockpiling fifteen minutes of embryonic Brooker gold for the delight of everyone at The Ape & Apple.
Of course I didn’t. I pissed Wednesday away doing nothing in particular. On the plus side an old friend, Katy, was in town for a few days and it looked like we’d get a chance to catch up. In typical fashion I scrabbled a few half formed ideas on a pad, stuck that in my pocket and headed out. It was amoebic rather than embryonic but better than nothing. Well, hopefully. I’ve certainly written stuff that’s gone over so badly that three minutes of silence would have been preferable.
I picked up Katy on the way. The poor lass was suffering, having just come out of hospital a few days previously. As a consequence of her stay she was in quite a considerable amount of pain. As a consequence of the pain she was taking an impressive cocktail of painkilling and anti-inflammatory medication. As a consequence of this she was in a very floaty place and likely to enjoy the night’s proceedings on an entirely different level to anyone else. I also got lots of hugs though I hope this wasn’t entirely drug induced.
The bill at The Balloon comprised mainly of acts I’d never seen before with my bitter, sworn friend and fellow beard-wearer Chris Tavner at the helm. The night was in pretty safe hands as I’ve found Tav to be a sorely underrated compere. There was a carload of acts down from Middlesborough, namely Richard Batt and Carl Gillespie. Those North East boys, hardest working guys in the business. There was also a fairly respectable audience present, very few empty seats throughout the room. Tav had a lot of fun chatting away with them. They proved to be a good audience too, laughing when they were amused but being patient when they weren’t. It’s pretty much what you need as a new act taking your first steps or as an ill-prepared pro act throwing any old shit out there in the hope it’ll work.
Not there weren’t a few slightly gobbier audience members keen to make their mark. A table of students in the centre of the room featured a couple of girls that needed admonishing from time to time for their chattiness. There was also a lad hailing from Grimsby that got a little excited whenever someone mentioned Yorkshire or the North in general. That said, it rolled along nicely and they were never too much of a nuisance. Richard and Carl, the first and second acts respectively, set the room up nicely at the start. Rachel Lancaster, the second act, provided a really change of pace with her deadpannery and showed a lot of promise. Nathan Hudson was confident and assured with enough proper gags in his set to make me wish I’d written some.
Laini Johnson, another friend I’d not seen in far too long, had come along to see the show and catch up. I probably should have spent the sole break of the evening actually getting my material in order but I slacked off and socialised. By the time the break ended I had a sheet of paper with a collection of words on it and almost no idea what any of them meant. So much for mixing things up. The second half of the show began with Lee Peart, who proved to be sickeningly natural at this comedy lark. A hugely promising act with immense charisma to boot, he won the audience over quickly and easily and didn’t let them go for a second.
He was followed by James Ferrington, a man that epitomised the spirit of The Comedy Balloon. The Balloon has seen acts over the years that have been brilliant and acts that have woeful. It’s seen acts that have gone on to greatness and acts that have no doubt been sectioned for the good of the community. I saw a middle aged man have a mid-life nervous breakdown live before my very eyes. I’ve seen acts shout, scream, weep, plead, sing, dance, caper and even threaten in an effort to elicit laughter. The open door policy means that anyone can get up and do their thing for five to ten minutes so long as they don’t start a fire or hurt anyone other than themselves. Often this is where you see the most wonderfully unique acts you’ll ever lay eyes on. James was certainly one of them.
He stepped up to the mic with a wad of what appeared to be business cards in his left hand. It soon turned out that they weren’t business cards or playing cards. Each one had a joke on it, a one liner or an observation. James’ act was as straightforward as it could be. He would read the joke from the topmost card, put it to the bottom of the pack and then read the next one. This was a disarmingly charming approach in and of itself and some of the gags were absolutely brilliant. That said, some of them were painful and some of them were simply baffling. For every gag that got a huge laugh there was one that left everyone rather confused. The net effect was absolutely brilliant and the lines were unrelenting. A pattern started to emerge. If a gag went well it went to the bottom of the pack. If it didn’t get a response it was torn neatly in half and dropped on the floor. This soon became almost heartbreaking, no matter the quality of the line that met it’s demise on the carpet of the Ape & Apple. There was an noticable “Aww…” every time a card was ripped in two by the end.
Like the rest of the audience I was in a state of low-level confusion after James’ unique approach to comedy. Unlike the rest of the audience I had to on stage prett much immediately so I had to get my game face on. James’ was the cult hero of the night, eliciting huge applause when he decided he’d read enough of his cards. Lord only knows what Katy’s prescription addled mind made of him. Charming, likeable and quirky. The Comedy Balloon had embraced him. Now it was my turn. Follow that dickhead!
Tav, as a friend, was more than happy to take the piss out of me as the night went along. He explained that the purpose of The Comedy Balloon was for new acts to take their first steps and for established acts to try new material out. He said that the final act of the night theoretically fit into the latter category but, as he was more than aware of my shoddy work ethic, I’d probably be pedalling the same old shit. I’d show him. Show him he was right…
As it turns out I did about half and half between the same old shit and stuff that I’d only roadtested a couple of times. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. I chatted with a student called Jess, on a performing arts course, and used it as an excuse to try out the School Of Dance stuff I’d not gone near in years. I soon remembered why. Part way through my set a gag pretty much died on it’s arse and I described it as a transitional gag between better stuff, much like The Iron Sheikh was a transitional champion between Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan. This was an entirely self-indulgent line and I said it just because I could. Imagine my surprise when it actually got a laugh from several people in the room, especially Richard and Carl. Grimsby boy heckled me with “Fucking bullshit!” and I was about to have a pop until I realised he was impersonating one of The Iron Sheikh’s famous outbursts of the modern era. At least he didn’t threaten to break my back and make me humble.
Of an audience of twenty five to thirty there were maybe four people that knew just what the hell I was on about. I decided to try my luck anyway and launched into the long dormant piece involving my girlfriend and an Undertaker tee-shirt. This was only the third time I’d tried it onstage and, along the way, managed to hit a few interesting asides that stopped it from just being a lengthy joke about wrestling. The payoff to the bit isn’t nice and certainly won’t be something I’d consider for a clean comedy set. That said it seemed to go down alright. I just need a payoff that won’t just appeal to people of a similar geek status to myself. Everyone seemed to enjoy the ride though. That’s filed away for more attention once the diaries and done and dusted.
The Comedy Balloon gig was a minor landmark too as it was my two hundreth gig over the twelve months from April to March. Kind of nice for that to happen at one of the clubs where I did most of my early gigs in Manchester as well as my first ever compering spot. This particular night had featured everything you’d want in an open-mic comedy night. Plenty of laughter with a healthy dose of good-natured chaos along the way. I’ll definitely be back again as the year rolls on and this time I might actually have some new stuff.
Gig Score: 6/10
Lesson Learnt: If you book a night to do new stuff it might help to actually learn some before you go onstage.