Hanging around with comedians

OK, let’s just get it out in the open. I like hanging around with comedians. I always have done. In the Edinburgh entry below, I explain how I hung around with medical students, including the future Harry Hill, in the late 80s after I’d left college and stowed my way into their amateur dramatics group, appearing in and co-writing their comedy productions, one of which we took to Edinburgh. (The only play I ever wrote solo was performed at St George’s, Play It Again, Woody – it was a huge thrill and really gave me confidence to write.) It was around the same time as all this theatricality – we also made a short film called Heads Together – that I landed my first job in “the media”, laying out pages for the NME. This, as you probably sick of hearing by now, led to me becoming a professional journalist and writer, after constant badgering of section editors.

Because future-Harry and my friend Rob were at that time courageously trying out a nascent double act, the Hall Brothers, on what was then called the London cabaret circuit – a thriving scene in the late 80s after alternative comedy had opened it up like an oyster, and by then moving out into other cities – I went to an awful lot of comedy gigs in rooms above pubs: the Banana, the Chuckle Club, various nights run by Screaming Blue Murder, Jongleurs of course, rooms that I’ve forgotten the names of. I was captivated by the constant stream of comics I saw, some of whom went on to be famous, most of whom didn’t. It was a heady time. American comics, like Bill Hicks, would appear in West End theatre package shows – I saw one hosted by an unknown Jack Dee, and another by Phill Jupitus, then moving away from this Porky persona. And, as a known comedy fan, I was often asked to review these gigs for the NME. Just as record companies sent out tapes of bands, I was starting to get PR-ed about new comedians, invited to meet them, go to recordings, review their comedy cassettes etc. I wish it had been me who observed that comedy was the new rock’n’roll – they were on the money. It was.

Avalon, one of the emerging new players of the comedy industry, saw me as a way in to music press coverage for their newer acts, such as Rob Newman, David Baddiel, Stewart Lee, Jim Tavare and others. I struck up a good relationship with them. I remember seeing Mark Steel at the Garage in Highbury (he had a moustache then), thinking he was really good, and interviewing him for the NME. Just like that, really. Same with Mark Thomas. And Eddie Izzard, who I’d seen playing for free in the street in Edinburgh in 1989. (James Brown, then features editor, also liked comedy, but he had his sights set much higher, on the crossover potential of Vic Reeves, so he was happy to let me do the indie stuff while he went off on tour. Nobody else at the NME cared much about comedy. Good.)

When the ill-fated but well-meaning Vox magazine started, I was given my own comedy section to run for a while, and indulged myself by setting up interviews with those comics who were now finding fame on Channel 4 – I remember going up to Paul Merton after a gig at the Banana and getting his phone number; I went round his house (he lived near me in Streatham) and we sat in a bistro on Streatham High Road. In the piece I wrote for Vox, I had to explain that he was the one who wasn’t John Sessions or Mike McShane on Whose Line Is It Anyway? (I believe the headline was, Paul: The Other One.) I even wrote an early feature about Harry Hill for the NME, at a point where he was just about to sign with Avalon and go big time. He actually asked my advice. I said do it.

When I moved to Select magazine in 1993, I used all my comedy contacts to write a big feature about comedy being the new rock’n’roll, calling upon Eddie Izzard, Sean Hughes, Phill Jupitus, Stewart Lee, Punt and Dennis and Jon Thoday of Avalon to help build a picture of the industry. We virtually made Sean Hughes Select‘s pet comedian, and put he and Mark Lamarr on the cover. I did a lot of hanging around comedians then, and many of them came to the same indie gigs we went to. I recall having an intense conversation with Steve Coogan after a Blur gig at Wembley, because we’d interviewed him for the NME with his more famous brother, Martin of the Mock Turtles! (As Stuart and I made headway into radio, and then TV, we met even more comedians, and fantasised about being comedians. Well, I did. When Clive James asked us to be his sole co-writers on his final ITV end-of-year extravaganza, we felt like real comedy writers for the first time. I suppose by definition we were. Whether we were a comedy double act is more debatable, as we never “played” live, merely presented radio shows in an amusing manner, but we certainly developed a comedic rapport.)

It was a fine line to tread. I must admit, I did make the mistake of thinking Rob Newman and Sean Hughes were my friends around this time, because I’d been to their houses and to a football match with Sean. Maybe I just picked the wrong two comedians, but both kind of let me down. There are no hard feelings, and I’ve seen Rob socially since. But I learned my lesson: comedians are fun to hang around, but have a unique set of character traits that make them high maintenance friends. Perhaps both sensed that I was hanging around them. (Rob certainly didn’t like the criticisms I made of the Mary Whitehouse Experience book in an NME review, although to be fair, they were mainly criticisms of the sub-editing.)

When Stuart, David Quantick and I boldly took our show Lloyd Cole Knew My Father up to Edinburgh (and subsequently performed it at the ICA in London, and at the Cathedral Arts Festival in Belfast, and at a private party for the Rockin’ Vicar at Yo! Sushi), it was clear to all that we were just playing at being comedians. No threat to anyone, in other words. But audiences were very kind – as were the comics who came to see us, including Coogan – and it mean that, due to a transfer to Radio 2, we got to do our own radio comedy series at the Drill Hall. We even had our own “token woman” to provide the female voices: the great Amelia Bullmore, who was better than the material we had given her. We did a 20-minute version of the show at the Bloomsbury Theatre, supporting a solo Lloyd Cole – at his kind invitation – and we felt a little bit out of our depth, I think. But good to give these things a crack.

Because of my EastEnders apprenticeship, I became known as the writer who could be brought in to work with comedians on sitcoms. First, Simon Day, then Lee Mack – since which I’ve been set to work with Jason Byrne on a project that never saw the light of day, and am in preliminary talks for another comedian who might have a project that needs a co-writer. I’m basically hanging around with comedians for a living now. I hope this is allowed, and that I don’t at some point get found out. My relationship with Mr Richard Herring is a fine example of where hanging around a comedian can get you (although at least he knows exactly what’s been going on and keeps me in my place). I had a lot of comedians as guests on Round Table when I was at 6 Music, as they are usually far more entertaining than musicians: Rich, Stewart Lee, Coogan, Dave Gorman, Scott Capuro, Steve Merchant … the station itself liked to hang around comedians, in fact, giving early shows to Sean Hughes and of course Phill, and getting the likes of Bill Bailey and Iain Lee in to dep, with Russells Howard and Brand, and Merchant, later given their own slots. (Merchant was given most of my slot, in fact!)

On Radio 2 I was drafted in as the straight man to Robin Ince and Jon Holmes on The Day The Music Died, but again, it gave me the chance to play at being a radio comedian. I’m not quite sure why Avalon picked their former NME journalist to present Banter, but I’m bloody glad they did, as it meant that for three series, I got to hang around some of the best comedians in the land: Arthur Smith, Sue Perkins, Barry Cryer, Chris Addison, Dillie Keane, Lucy Porter, Lee, Miranda Hart, the emergent Russell Howard, Will Smith and on and on. For the pilot recording in Edinburgh, and over the subsequent three series, I “warmed up” the audience, which was nerve-wracking, as it felt a bit like stand-up, and I experienced material failing, which was horrible. (Equally horrible having four professional comedians listening from behind the curtain.)

And now, Robin Ince, almost singlehandedly, has been responsible for getting me up on stage to try and be funny for an audience, through his Book Club and School For Gifted Children evenings, as well as the Bloomsbury gigs at Christmas, where I appeared on the same bill as such luminaries as Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Mark Thomas, Chris Addison and Tim Minchin, and told some jokes. Last night, I appeared on the bill for a Book Club Reunion at the Cross Kings in King’s Cross, for our old pals at No Sweat. Once again, I found myself alongside such professionals as Josie Long and Natalie Haynes and Howard Read, and, on this occasion, the legendary Simon Munnery (who, when he first saw me there, reminded me that I used to be his “boss” – in that I commissioned a weekly column from Alan Parker, Urban Warrior for the NME back in the early 90s) and – from an even grander strata of comedy – Alexei Sayle. It seems faintly preposterous that I should have been on a bill with Alexei Sayle, but I was. And it was all down to the good vibes of the comedy circuit, which is not a closed shop after all. I spent the evening hanging around with comedians. And I liked it.

Don’t tell anybody.

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