I’ve been lucky of late. Comedy gigs I’ve done have largely had good tech, stage, publicity, even audience members (which of course is thanks to the publicity). It helps that I’ve been doing a vast amount of solo shows, in arts centres, churches, school halls… All fully equipped with everything you need: seats facing the right way, quality PA, and in many cases a regular loyal crowd.
A couple of days ago I visited what can only be described as a beautiful circuit gig: Moonrakers in Devizes is the perfect low-ceiling, huddled eager audience in a basement bar. Throw in a brick-wall backdrop and you’d be in a US comedy club in its heyday… but with the unmistakably British pubness there in all the right ways.
But a Great British pub does not a great comedy club make. At a recent gig, I walked in to hoping to find a function room, or an encouraging sign reading ‘Comedy upstairs’. Instead you see the speakers set up next to the toilets and your heart sinks.
No ticket price
No seats facing the (non-)stage, no front row
…At some gigs, for whatever reason one or two of these might need to be the case. For a great gig, you obviously want all of these things to be intact, though I’ve had lovely gigs at places that unfortunately don’t have a stage, or where the audience haven’t paid to get in. But when every item on the checklist is lacking, there is no chance, and no gig.
So at the recent gig (non-gig), where there the audience hadn’t paid to be there (so had no vested interest in the night, and valued the show at £0 – in fact many were just there for a drink), with no lights or stage (so there was little to draw focus to us), with no front row, just seats around tables as a normal pub night (so the few who did want to listen had to really strain to see the comedian)… it was the perfect storm. It was the nearest I’d come in my stand-up career to refusing to go on. Some gigs (non-gigs), just aren’t worth putting yourself (and the ‘audience’) through twenty minutes of shouting jokes in the hope someone may hear them.
Perhaps I should have just left. But I gave it a pop. In part, yes, I wanted to get paid. But also, you think “Well you never know, we might get something going…”.
The MC went on and got the attention of two tables, but he had to roam and pace to grab just their attention. I went on and quickly realised that I just couldn’t be heard. Banter, jokes, you try the lot and it’s a losing battle. There was no heckling – oh for some heckling – just ignoring of the comedian even being there. I got laughs from the handful listening and applause when I left, only to find then that the headliner had done what I’d thought about – he’d gone home early. If roles were reversed and I’d seen him vying for attention from a Friday night pub that just wanted to be a Friday night pub, maybe I’d have done the same.
Some gigs aren’t gigs. If you’re running a show, you need to make sure there’s a mic and lights and sightlines and a stage and a ticket price. If you absolutely vitally need to not have one of these things, the others absolutely have to be in place – and even then you might find the show’s a non-starter. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, but you do need the eggs to begin with. Tell a comedian to just stand by the Ladies toilet and start talking at everyone in the pub who’s trying to have a drink, and you’re making us just look a bit weird. There’s a reason Live At The Apollo has lights, sound and a stage, and isn’t filmed by a pub loo. If not, you might get an episode when Michael McIntyre hosts it saying, “Apollo, please welcome your headline act… Oh no he’s gone home.”