London's live comedy scene is the best in the world. That's a fact! Admittedly, it's not a fact that I can back up with evidence, because I've only ever been to one other country. And to be honest, it's not so much a fact, as something I often hear other people saying, and that I have copied. But doesn't it feel like it should be true?
After all, last Monday alone there was over 20 different comedy nights in London. At the weekend, there are dozens more, catering for almost every taste; from observational to improvisation, from surreal sketch acts to political commentary. One night in Dalston even caters for dyslexic gay Australians that are allergic to eggs. You'd think it'd be hard for them to draw a crowd, but in a city of seven million people, there really is something for everyone.
As such, there's a possibility that, if a comedian turns up at a club an hour beforehand, they'll be able to chance a five minute spot. So it was last week when, with nothing better to do, I paid a visit to a fairly new open mic night, to try to tickle a cheeky five minutes out of the compere.
It was a warm and pleasant Sunday evening, and I didn't mind the long walk from the tube station. Of more concern to me was the fact that, when I arrived, the pub was closed. The windows were boarded shut, and the doors locked. You could be forgiven for assuming it to be an ex-pub. By complete chance, as I turned to leave, the landlord and his wife pulled up in their car - it turns out they'd been out all day, drinking beer. I'd never thought about it before, but it seems that when a publican fancies a pint, he goes to the pub.
They opened up, and invited me in. It was a theme pub. The theme was "stinking old men". The ceiling was as low as the prices were high. Lifeless paintings complemented the brown walls, and rotting wooden floor. Unfortunately, the promoter had chosen not to brighten up the place with posters advertising the fact that they hosted a comedy night, and this lack of promotion was re-enforced by the eight seats which awaited the lucky audience. It was almost as if they were ashamed of the event.
As the other nine acts turned up, it soon became clear that we were the audience. Now, an audience of nine people would be fine. You can banter with them, LITERALLY bounce ideas off them, and it's all good. But an audience of nine other comics is an entirely different kettle of bastards. You see, comics at open mic nights don't laugh. It's not out of rudeness, mind - to many of the comics, this is one of their first ever gigs, so instead of watching the act on stage, they sit in silence, playing their own set back in their head. I tend to stand out at such nights, because my laugh is louder than a lawnmower. I'm not sure what's worse for a comic: nine people all staring at the floor, or eight people staring at the floor, and one guy laughing maniacally in the corner.
Despite the picture I'm painting, nights like this are useful. Sure, given the choice, we'd all prefer to play to an audience. But it's good to just say new material out loud in front of other people, even if it doesn't get a laugh, because you can then take it to a real audience, and present it with confidence. Besides, you get to socialise, and it can be fun if the compere tries hard. On this night, the compere did just that. He was a kind, warm and friendly host, who did his best to spruce up the room with singalongs and joyous, camp, colourful banter. He did a really onderful job of lifting the room.
Unfortunately, the landlord had other ideas....
The compere had invited a particularly successful Asian comic to headline, who barely got a chance to finish a sentence as cries of "where's the punchline?" and "tell us a joke!" from the very back of the room brought the atmosphere crashing down. But it took a much darker tone with the landlord's final comment.
The comic, not realising that the heckler was also the landlord, said "Who do you think you are?" to which the landlord replied "I'm the one that's paid for your mic." "You bought the mic for me? Great!" the comic delightedly screamed, as he unplugged the mic and put it into his pocket. Everyone laughed - apart from the landlord, who shouted something which, I confess, I did not hear. To my ears, it was the slurred ramblings of a lunatic. But it angered the comic enough to call upon the other comics to get out of their seats, and leave the building! In solidarity, we scarpered, leaving an astonished landlord to attend to an empty pub.
As we left, I found out what he said. It was words to the effect of - and you'll forgive me for paraphrasing - "there are too many Asian comedians." I'm not entirely sure I understand what that means. How many is too many? Three? A thousand? What does "too many" even entail?
"You know what these Asian comics are like, coming over here, stealing our jokes and our gigs."
As we drank in a modern, spacious, bright and friendly pub just down the road, the thought occurred to me that ill-prepared, under-promoted comedy nights might actually be damaging the London comedy scene that I love so dearly. If I'd been in the audience, and that was my first experience of a small comedy club, I'd probably decide to stick to The Comedy Store. If that had been my first gig, I expect I would have given up. The lack of audience wasn't a problem; a small audience can be bantered with, and if there's no audience, the night becomes a workshop. Nothing wrong with that. But when the room is drab, the acts aren't paying attention, and the landlord is a racist, the only benefit of an evening like that is that I get to a blog about it.
Still, a gig's a gig, eh?
by Chris Coltrane
Image adapted from Chiceaux's Flickr photostream.