2017 minus 45: Comedy… almost every night

Posted: 17 November 2016 in 2017 minus

One of the pleasures of living in London is that almost every night – if you want to – you can go and see live comedy. 

It’s not news, I’m sure, that comedians sometimes tour a show; often, but not always, it’s a show they created for The Edinburgh Fringe/Festival and then expanded for the full tour. And it’s rare indeed that comedians on a tour don’t play London at some point. So…

No, wait, a small digression. Something I knew from my days as an entertainment accountant*, but which many folks don’t realise: theatres book comedians and musicians and bands. Comedians – let’s stick to them – don’t book the venues; the venues book the acts. In other words, if you want a comedian to play your locality, ask the theatre, not the comedian.

(*As I’ve mentioned before, big difference between an entertainment accountant and an entertataining accountant… worth reiterating though.)

Ok, digression over. London. So, yeah, there are at any point, comedians doing their tour gigs, but there are also regular comedy nights. Doesn’t matter what kind of comedy you’re into: slapstick, improv, musical comedy, standup, sketch comedy… it’s there. All you have to do is go look for it… and go see it. Live comedy is always, always better than seeing it on telly, or listening to it on a podcast.

And the huge range of comedy means that whatever comedy you like, there’ll be some playing this week, in London often tonight.

I like smart, clever comedy. If it’s topical, even better. And, I think, I have a fairly wide range of comedy that I enjoy. Sadly, slapstick doesn’t fall within that range. I’m quite prepared to accept that it’s clever, and funny for many, but not me. Improv, I kind of go up and down with. If I’m in the mood, I’ll thoroughly enjoy it, but I really, really have to be in the mood. Similarly, it’s rare that I enjoy character comedy. I’ve seen many characters acts and only three really stand out for me: Gemma Arrowsmith is far more talented than she has any right to be, and the multiple characters she inhabits blow my mind every time I see her. Pippa Evans is just wonderful. I’m a huge admirer of her work, and she hits the improv/character mark perfectly. And then there’s Jess Robinson. I’m not sure it’s fair to include her as a character act as she’s a vocal impressionist, but her impressions are so damn good, it’s hard for a moment to remember that it’s Jess in there, when you hear her sing in 100 voices in 10 minutes…

But I’m going to talk about ‘comedians I like’ in another entry. I was talking about comedy evenings. Now, obviously, pubs and clubs put on ad hoc comedy evenings all the time. But regular comedy nights in London? Let’s talk about four of my favourites…

I’ll start with the newest – to me, although it’s been running for six years. Lolitics is a political comedy night run by Chris Coltrane, a comedian I’ve been kind of aware of for a few years but only saw for the first time a few months back at a benefit gig. I became an instant fan. Clever, relaxed and bang up to date material, that describes Chris as well as Lolitics. You may have heard about the evening when the Daily Mail had a poop at it last weekend. Amusingly, and entirely unsurprisingly, the things the Mail didn’t like about Lolitics were like a tick list of things I did like about the evening. I’d been meaning to attend since even before I saw Chris for the first time, but… stuff always got in the way. However, a couple of nights ago, I managed to get up to Camden and spend a couple of hours in great company, watching enjoyable, funny comedy. Half a dozen comedians, some I’d never seen before, doing whip smart comedy about – this time – El Presidente Trump in the main. It’s in Camden, third Tuesday of every month, and I recommend it without hesitation. 

Additional point: I referred to the tick list earlier, only semi-jokingly. As I’ve written before, and I know many comedians disagree with me on this, I hate, hate, hate the ‘picking on the audience member’ game of standup comedy. My detailed thoughts on it are here, but basically it comes down to: I think it’s bullying. Good comedians immediately get that an audience member isn’t ‘into it’, and don’t pick on the poor bastard who’s given his name as “Tarquin” or his job as “tax inspector” etc. But there are too many comedians who do, and if the MC has identified the aforementioned poor bastard and every comedian then picks on him? Yeah, I think it’s fair to call that bullying.

Lolitics bans that outright. That doesn’t mean there’s no callout, back and forth, between the comedian and the audience, but there’s no picking on someone… And I wish every comedy club was the same.

Moving on.

I’m not sure how long Old Rope has been running. However long I guessed, I bet it would be longer. It’s a new material night, for established and new comedians to try out material they’re working on. Yeah, sometimes the gags don’t work. Sometimes, a gag doesn’t work as well as the comedian wants it to. But the audience gets to see maybe ten acts over a three hour period… 

Why ‘Old Rope’? because there’s literally a length of rope hanging from the ceiling that the comedian can hold on to if they’re losing the room and need to get them back with some established material they know works. (The rope is removed for the headliner; they can use/mix old and new material however they like, and they’re usually on for 30 minutes as opposed to about ten for everyone else.) 

It’s a great evening: you get to see established, famous, comedians trying out their new material, and more often than not, you’ll enjoy ¾ of them… and that’s a win in anyone’s money. How each comedian treats Old Rope is also interesting. I’ve seen Milton Jones turn up, spend five minutes reading out 50 gags he’s written the past 48 hours, judging how each one goes down and then say “that’s it for me, bye!” And vanish until the following week, with a fresh 50 gags… a dozen of which are gags he tried before but didn’t work, so he’s reworked them. I’ve seen comedians try new styles (for them) of delivery, some comedians trying political material for the first time, some political comedians trying out observational material. And I saw Rich Hall try out some US politics material last time around, before the 2012 election. It didn’t work. He was back the following week; same kind of material, slightly different take on it. Again, didn’t quite work. Again the third week. Again, the same result. Fourth week – fourth week – he came back, with a bit from column A, etc. Every line worked, every gag worked, every word perfectly judged. Brought the place down. The value of try-outs, folks.

Worth pointing out that an evening like this, a decent comedy evening, requires a first class MC. And Old Rope has that in spades: Tiffany Stevenson usually helms the evening and she’s superb. She’s one of the ‘good’ comedians I mentioned earlier: yes, she’ll do the whole ‘chat with the audience’ thing, but she knows if the audience member doesn’t want to take part in it, and moves swiftly on. She’s also, by the way, a superb comedian in her own right, and her Edinburgh shows the past few years have been must sees. Old Rope is on [almost] every Monday at the Phoenix in Cavendish Square. Again, highly recommended.

Like many people, I guess, I became aware of the Irish comedian Gráinne Maguire last year when she decided that since the Irish Government took such an interest in women’ reproduction, she’d tweet details about her period directly to the Irish Prime Minister. It became A Thing with global recognition. (Get her to tell you the tale; she does it incomparably well.) Then I saw her pop up on this thing and that, often supporting Jeremy Corbyn, which didn’t exactly delight me, but she did it with charm, sense and It turns out she’s very, very funny. I discovered she ran a topical comedy evening in Camden once a month so went along, both because I wanted to see her live and, as I might have mentioned, I like topical comedy. It turned out to be one of the best comedy evenings I’d had in ages. Genuinely funny, smart, silly and topical. Again, this describes the host as much as the evening. What Has The News Done For Me? has a gorgeous concept; like all concepts, it’s simple and clever: with all the news blasting at you 24/7, you can’t, you just can’t take it all in. So here are three comedians to convince you that their story, their choice of the news you might have missed, is the most important story of the past month. Usually, you get one comedian who takes one of the bigger stories, one comedian who’ll choose a ‘lesser known but you might have heard of it’ tale, and the third will take a tiny, probably you missed it story, and build it up so it could well be the most important story of the past month. Add in Gráinne’s ‘I’ve received a letter from a famous person asking advice’ bit and her ‘can you identify the news story from the internet comments below it?’ And you’ve got a couple of hours of sheer fun, sheer silliness and a truly enjoyable evening of comedy. What Has The News Done For Me? is on at The Camden Head, second Wednesday of every month. Go and laugh your socks off.

OK, the biggie. And an admission of bias here. It’s no secret that Mitch Benn is one of my closest friends. And I’ve enjoyed musical comedy since I was a kid, back from listening to comedy songs on I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, discovering Flanders and Swann and Victor Borge, and oh gods, the genius like talent of Richard Stilgoe…

I’d been a fan of Mitch from when I discovered him, when listening to early series of The Now Show, and first ‘met’ him on Twitter, then in person in 2010. And we’ve been close friends since.

Sometime in very early 2011, we were walking back to his house and he mentioned an idea he’d been playing with, a monthly evening of musical comedy. Thing is, as Mitch pointed out, you never get two musical comedy acts on the same bill. because, obviously, all musical comedy acts are the same. Just as all stand ups are the same. And all women comedians are the same. And all improv is the same. And all sketch comedy is… oh, you get the point? Ok.

Which means that not only do audiences never get to see more than one musical act at a time, musical comedians rarely get to see each other. Well, Mitch wanted to change that. Bigly, as I believe we’re all obliged to say now. 

So he, together with his band The Distractions (Kirsty Newton and Ivan Shepherd) and Matt Blair, started The Distraction Club in April 2011. And with the exception of every August, it’s run every month since, first Tuesday of the month. The rules of the club are simple: music is part of the act. That’s it, pretty much. Kirsty, a musical genius of the nth degree often does a bit of her own, and has MC’d on occasions; she’s clever, silly and wonderful. Also, talented in a way you really need to see to appreciate. And you really need to see Ivan’s ‘pop song trailers’ to understand how gloriously silly and glorious such a thing can be. There’s nothing I can say about Matt Blair’s take  on superheroes, and sf and nerdery of all types that can do justice to its fun. Seriously, go. See. Laugh. Applaud. 

There’ve been people who’ve appeared at The Distraction Club who just do comedy songs, comedians better known for standup who do some standup but also do comedy songs, folks who tell funny stories… to musical accompaniment… rappers, improv, musical character acts, and Guy Pratt did a set where he told tales from his days of touring with Pink Floyd… And Neil Innes has headlined. Neil. Bloody. Innes. 

The Distraction Club is without doubt my favourite comedy evening, ever. Of the half a dozen acts – plus headliner – you’ll see every month, I usually enjoy all bar maybe one, and often I enjoy every bloody act on the bill. The Christmas Show is coming up – first Tuesday of December – and like the other Christmas shows, it’ll be a belter. Everyone who’s appeared on stage during the year is invited to return… as well as anyone else who’d like to turn up. Instead of the half dozen acts, you get to see 20 or more, all of who do one song then vanish… for a bit. But they’re all back for the finale.

I’ll post some Distraction Club videos this Saturday as part of my usual Saturday Smile, but in the mean time, here are the Christmas Finales. You can play “spot the musical comedian”. I usually do. Meanwhile, The Distraction Club, first Tuesday of the Month, at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square.

Distraction Club, Christmas Show, Finale – 2011

Distraction Club, Christmas Show, Finale – 2012

Distraction Club, Christmas Show, Finale – 2013

Distraction Club, Christmas Show, Finale – 2014

Distraction Club, Christmas Show, Finale – 2015

Come on… you don’t want to miss 2016’s, do you?

Something else tomorrow…

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

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