32 Counties, 32 Gigs part 19; Westmeath
Westmeath! BOOM; right in the middle of the country, and the destination for the next step of the No Punchline journey, where I was booked in to gig alongside FJ Murray and Alison Spittle. Being as I was the only one travelling from Dublin, I gave the headliner, Patrick McDonnell a lift. Now, being in comedy a few years means that I’ve had the chance to meet pretty much all the bigger names on the Irish scene. It’s nice to be on the bill with a well-known act, but at times I find it hard to know how to act around them. Remember that before I was a comedian, I was a comedy fan, so I’ll confess that when I get to meet some familiar faces it can leave me a wee bit starstruck. I have been from the word go been a huge Father Ted fan, and as such will always associate Patrick McDonnell (regardless of his peerless stage act) with Eoin McLove, a brilliant character from one of my favourite episodes. Fast forward to present day, and here we are on the road to Mullingar to do a gig together. You try to be stoic about the whole thing and act like a professional and not like some giddy pleb, but I have to admit that it was one of the more surreal moments I’ve had in comedy when Patrick turned to me on the journey and asked, in a voice that I’ve known from the telly for years;
Now the man that was bringing us all together in Westmeath was comedian, writer and fellow Pale-Horse Alan Gernon, who for the past year has started to build quite the comedy empire. Starting with Backrooms Laughs, a once-a-month comedy night he runs in Navan, Alan is becoming one of the busiest guys on the scene. Many people take on with running comedy nights, but how many can lay claim to successfully running seven (SEVEN!!) nights across three different counties? Shit, if Alan continues at this pace and I don’t fall out with him, I’ll be able to complete the 32 County challenge with clubs run by him alone.
Now just looking at that picture is making me feel seriously fucking lazy; that’s seven venues, meaning seven venue owners wanting returns, seven different promotional campaigns to run, and seven sets of comedians to book, all before Alan gets to tell a joke. Me, I can show up and tell a few jokes for a while and after that, I’m useless. Some people are built for event promotion and love the logistical challenge of organising comedy nights,and it struck me that if I’m going to complete the 32 counties task I’ve set myself then I’m probably going to have to take matters into my own hands and run a few comedy shows myself. But before I go trawling through the Yellow Pages to find pubs in Roscommon to play in, let’s take a look at just what makes up a good comedy night…
First up, where are we going to run our night? Of all the people that I’ve talked to that organise gigs around the country, this is the bit they seem to enjoy the most. Finding the right town and the right time to run a gig. Some guys I know get REALLY in-depth with this, looking into census figures to see the population and demographical break-up of the town. Are there a large number of 18-35 year olds living in this town? What is there for them to do in this town; do they have a cinema etc., or would they be looking for something new to entertain them? Is this town more rural, or developed; what acts will go over here well? And what date should we run our night; is there an upcoming local event that this coincides with? If we’re running close to a local celebration or bank holiday, will the people be able to afford to come to our night too; how are the employment figures in this town?
And if you think that that’s in-depth, you’re not even taking into account the business end of things, where guys approach suitable venues with breakdowns of how financially viable a comedy night can be; with statistics of bar sales from previous gigs in similar venues, average door takes, repeat business… running a great gig takes a lot more than having a few too many in your local and asking the guy at the bar if he’d ever consider putting on a comedy show some Friday.
Of course, you don’t always have to approach a venue owner; sometimes, they’ll come looking for you. At this point, if you’re looking to run a gig for them, the very least you can do is VISIT THEIR FUCKING VENUE. The amount of times I’ve been driving to a gig and rang the promoter to ask directions only to be told that they aren’t sure where exactly the venue is as they’ve never actually BEEN to it, and that everything was done over the phone… well, it’s actually a small number of times, but each of those times was car-crash central. There’s nothing so soul-destroying as arriving at a “venue” (read; bar) with not even the most rudimentary aspects of a comedy club. For instance;
a) People don’t realise there is a comedy night on. You’re not in a separate area of the bar; you’re just put out in the lounge with the regulars who’ve been drinking here for years. Guys who, let me tell you, don’t take too kindly to all-of-a-sudden being asked to be quiet by some lad who just appeared out of nowhere with a microphone and started to tell jokes. But fear not, regular drinkers; if you don’t like the comedy, some bar-owers are kind enough that while the comedian is working, they LEAVE THE FUCKING TELEVISION ON.
b) No Stage. Just stand at the same level as the crowd, sometimes IN the fucking crowd. Maybe, MAYBE if you’re lucky, you can stand on a staircase. There is no clear line of vision. People can’t see you. Forget adequate seating arrangements with lowered lighting for the crowd and raised lighting for the stage, I’ll settle for people facing in the same direction.
c) No sound. Look, we can work around a crowd that has no interest in comedy. We can work around a crowd that aren’t looking in our direction. But fuck me all day, if they can’t HEAR what we’re saying, we’re dead in the water. Comedy isn’t music. It can’t be background noise, a crowd MUST be able to hear us. Which means we NEED a proper sound system. I could write a bittersweet hour long tragi-comedy playbased on the reactions of comedians when they realise there’s no sound in place (which would include a fifteen minute segment about musical comedians realising there is no Mic stand and that someone will have to stand beside them as they play guitar, holding a mic up to their face like a quadriplegic being spoonfed). And don’t get me started on the harbinger of doom that is a wireless mic.
When you see a wireless mic coming out, it’s time to go warm up the car. I was at this gig one time where when we asked what the sound set-up was, the lady behind the bar rustled through a drawer and took out a wireless mic, switched it on, tapped it a few times (to no sound) and said “There should be a few spots around the lounge where that’ll be picked up, if you find them, stand still and you’ll be grand”. I could feel my Psoriasis flaring up with every word she spoke.
Ok, so you’ve approached a venue owner (or been approached by one), you’ve been to the venue to see is it suitable (I repeat; YOU’VE BEEN TO THE VENUE TO SEE IS IT SUITABLE), and you’ve got a date in mind. So now it’s time to let the people know you’re coming to town. Now I’d be of the opinion that the burden of promotion should be shared equally with the promoter and the venue owner; it’s in the promoters interest to get a good crowd in, so that he can run gigs there again and again, and it’s in the venue owners interest to see a return on his investment. The first thing that needs to be sorted out is how much should it cost to get into the venue. There are two schools of thought;
a) Charge a fee in, and make your money on the door, or
b) Free in, and make your money at the bar.
Some venue owners don’t like the idea of charging people to get in, and I can see their point… It’d be hard to turn to a regular customer and say “look, I know you’ve been coming here since you made your Confirmation, but there’s a comedy night on this Friday and it’s a tenner in”. That’s an easy way to lose custom, one thing barmen can’t afford to do right now. So a lot of nights have no entry fee, and the bar won’t lose money because a bigger crowd will be more inclined to show up because it’s free, and they’ll spend that money drinking anyway. And comedians can look at it from the point of view that there is a bigger crowd in, meaning more people to play to; people who wouldn’t have paid into a gig in the first place.
The flipside of this is that if people wouldn’t have paid into a gig in the first place, then those people have fuck all heed in comedy to begin with. Which means they’re more likely to be disruptive and disinterested during a performance. If you haven’t invested money in the night then you sure as fuck won’t invest your interest in what’s going on, which is why I’d always think look; set SOME entry fee, some cursory amount that means that if the thoughts of paying this small fee turns you off coming in, then DON’T COME IN. The people who attend will be the ones that saw that fee and thought “that’s not bad value”. I’ve played at as many free gigs as I have at ones with entry fees, and at the end of the night, it’s usually the free-in ones that I’ve driven away from thinking that the night would have been improved without the disruptive faction of the crowd that were obviously only at the gig because they didn’t have to pay in.
So with an entry fee in mind, it’s time to start getting the word out. Mainly this comes down to posters, and going back to the opening of this blog, I’ll give a big shout out to Alan for the work he puts into his posters; colourful, vibrant, eye-catching. Well laid out; the time, the date, the acts, the entry fee. Of course a poster is only as good as where it’s hung, and again I have to credit Alan for going into each town weeks in advance to pu them up in every chip-shop, newsagents, Service station… Alan puts posters EVERYWHERE.
The promotional campaign for comedy nights are part of what makes comedy work in small towns, where fuck all usually happens and people are waiting for something like this… The posters (and sometimes appearances on local radio stations) create a buzz around the water-cooler (note; there are no water-coolers in small town Ireland; please substitute the words “Londis check-out”) which leads to bigger audiences. Now, in addition to posters and the like, what you can also do is promote your night online, on Facebook and twitter and Entertainment.ie and the likes…. but for fuck sake, don’t use that as your ONLY form of promotion.
I swear, if I had a euro for every time I’ve arrived at an empty comedy venue where the promoter is sitting around wondering where the fuck are the 200 people who said they were attending when he posted a Facebook invite, I’d have at least seventy euro.
Last but not least, we’d better get a few acts on! Going by the template that seems to be working for Alan in all his gigs, you need;
1) A headline act, someone of high profile who would be known to the public either from their work on TV or their experience in comedy, a name that will generate interest and sell tickets. we all know that there are sterling headline quality acts up and down the country that will have a crowd ceaselessly rocking in the aisles but who don’t sell tickets due to the fact that they just aren’t known to people who don’t regularly go to gigs. After a gig has been running for a while and the crowd trust that they’ll get a good night, you can put these guys on to headline and still draw a crowd, but in the infancy of a Comedy Club, no-one puts arses on seats quite like that guy off the telly.
2) A support act, maybe two. Either one guy doing a long support set or two guys doing shorter ones, usually people who don’t clash styles with the headline act (as in, don’t have two musical acts on the same night). Sometimes, you might have a reasonably local act on as support in the hope that he might draw in a few extra punters, sometimes you might book the guy who has plagued you the most for a gig, or sometimes you just need someone to give your headliner a lift to the venue so you book the guy who drives. In any instance where Alan has booked me, I’ve been all three.
3) An open spot, for added value. As I’ve said in earlier blogs, these are the most sought-after spaces on the card, from newer acts who want to get a foot on the ladder. Alan usually has an open spot for each gig, and did I mention he runs seven gigs? If anyone wants his number, just send me an e-mail and I’ll give it to you, wuh wuh wuh!
And that layout up there WORKS. Support acts first half, Headline act second, with a break in-between to let people smoke or go to the toilet or buy drink. The night doesn’t go on until half one. Everyone has a good time, they go home happy and recommend it to their friends. Barmen in nearby towns hear of the success of the night and consider maybe putting on a night of their own. More comedy nights spring up. More comedians get more work. More punters become comedy fans and go to see more shows. That’s the end result of a good night, run well. The flipside of this of course, is a night run badly; where instead of a support-headline structure, you have eight or nine people doing short sets with NO headline act, fuck all promotion and a shit sound/stage set-up. Now I’ve done countless shows in my early days like this and I’ve been thankful for them, the opportunities they gave me and the things I’ve learned at them, so despite my best efforts this will probably sound like me looking down from my fucking Ivory Tower saying “It was great when I was at it, but now it’s UNACCEPTABLE”… well, there’s not much I can do about that. All I can say to new comedians is this; be careful who you gig for.
When I started comedy, there were people (who thankfully have mostly all fucked away off from the comedy scene) who booked nights where a bunch of us open-mics were sent to the slaughter in once-off venues where we didn’t get paid a cent, and the cash brought in at the door went straight into their pockets. They didn’t give a fuck if they made people laugh, they just wanted to make a few quid off the back of the comedians hard work. In the end, the night would fold, and two weeks later spring up elsewhere. As new comedians, we didn’t have anywhere else to play (and I for one was seriously naive about the whole thing anyways and didn’t realise I was being taken for a fucking spin) so we just went night after night getting mangled and embarrassed in shitholes while they pocketed the door. These weren’t guys who were running gigs in their hometown (and I have to give special mention to people who run gigs in their hometown, they have the massivest of massive balls and the nights, although usually short-lived are almost always a great time), nor were they trying to put on a good show so that comedy as a whole would prosper around the country, these were guys running Smash-and-Grab gigs designed to make them a few quid; a Scorched Earth Policy that would do nothing except hinder guys like Alan who WERE trying to put on a good night, people who are in it for the long haul. Going into a town trying to sell comedy to venue owners not long after some idiot had run a terrible night, and the whole town had heard how fucking awful it was?
As for myself, will I be running any nights? Well, looking back over this whole blog, it’s obvious the work and effort that goes into a night before one joke gets told. Can I put that time and effort into making sure a night I would run would be a success? Almost definitely not, which is why I’ll be sticking with the joke-telling end of things. There are unsung people up and down the country that go to great effort to run brilliant nights while we comedians walk off with al the glory, so I’d like to take this as a chance to salute them and the great work they do.
Oh, and *COUGH*bookme*COUGH*.