We chat to comedy club founders and promoters to get their perspectives on how to launch a successful event
Everything great and wonderful has to start somewhere small. Vic Reeves' Big Night Out began its life in a small London pub, moved to TV shortly afterwards and kicked off three decades of comedy glory. Kevin Bridges, inspired by Frank Skinner's autobiography, began telling jokes in various Glasgow clubs as a teenager, within a few years he was headlining arenas. All that's needed sometimes is a platform: whether it's the chance to take the plunge in a supportive environment, or a space to get weird and bizarre.
Maybe you're an aspiring comedian trying to figure out your style, an established act who wants to explore the more surreal, silly fringes of the performing arts, or someone who's passionate about bringing funny people and an enthusiastic audience together, but you could start your own night too.
Some pointers might come in useful though and we've taken the time to chat with some comedy promoters who know what it takes to run a successful night. Dave Perkin is the Director at Manchester's award-winning Frog and Bucket, Ben Verth is one of the co-founders of Edinburgh's thriving Monkey Barrel Club, Nev Nada is the 'co-daddy' (his words, and who are we to tell him otherwise) of Glasgow's foremost alternative comedy collective CHUNKS, and then there's The Stand; we spoke to Kenny O'Brien, Jen Lavery and Anthony Dorman, who're all heavily involved in their flagship night Red Raw and have given us some tips using their collective consciousness.
Listen carefully, and no heckling!
What was that made you decide start your comedy event?
Dave Perkin (Frog and Bucket): There wasn't a dedicated comedy club in Manchester at the time, and only the Buzz club running in Chorlton. The first night we opened we had Tony Burgess perform.
Ben Verth (Monkey Barrel): A love for comedy, and people really enjoying the shows we put on! We started off as two nights, Friday and Saturday, above a pub, The Beehive on Grassmarket, and that expanded to three nights, then four. We decided to grab our very own premises and now we're running seven nights a week, with the majority of shows completely sold out!
Nev Nada (Chunks): When me and my oldest friend Jamie Rolland (currently setting up the Argentinian chamber) began CHUNKS our intentions were to create a zone dedicated to utter brazen silliness. We wanted a place for total nonsense, somewhere to be really really stupid with all our like-minded comedy comrades we'd met doing the bars and clubs. We'd allow anything on as long as it's funny, it's short and it wasn't stand up.
The Stand Comedy Club/Red Raw: When we started 20 years ago there simply weren't enough jobbing comedians around Edinburgh to sustain a programme seven nights a week. We started Red Raw to develop a local talent pool so we wouldn't have to import all the acts on a weekend lineup from down south.
Red Raw's first appearance in The List's hallowed listings (April 1998)
What was the first night like and who was in the lineup?
Ben Verth: It was beautiful chaos. We were literally still painting the new place, cleaning it and installing chairs until 10 minutes before we flung open the doors. It was fraught, but so incredibly worth it for the reception we received when people started coming in. We were packed out and we'll never forget the atmosphere of sheer positivity and giddiness (it was probably down to the paint fumes). On the bill that night was former Scottish Comedian of the Year John Gavin, regular tour support for Tom Stade, Robin Grainger, and London comedy circuit favourite Mickey Sharma, with our resident weekend host Rick Molland as compere.
Nev Nada: Show #1 took place in June 2014 in The Halt Bar (RIP, sorely missed) and included acts called Old Codge, The Boy With Walnuts for Eyes, Blaine Champagne's Dickonomics & Sasquatch's Acting Masterclass. It was total chaos and very much thrown together at the last minute (a business model we've stuck to in the 48 shows since).
The Stand Comedy Club/Red Raw: It's so long ago I can't recall precisely. The compère would have been Lee Anne Ellis I think (she had red hair and the talent was raw, hence red raw). Initially we put the shows on in the wee 60 seater we had in what is now backstage so we could run the gig with a total of two staff, one to stay on the bar and the other to sell tickets, tech, manage the show and help on the bar in intervals. There were so few comics we would ask everyone who was on the bill to bring a couple of mates for nowt to fill the room. Often we would ask the acts to take turns at being the audience themselves! But it was never an open mic night, you couldn't just turn up and get drunk enough to have a go there and then, it had to be booked through the office. It was only ten bob for ten comedians, and we always booked a decent headliner to do 20-minutes at the end, so even if everything else was awful, the headliner should always be worth the price of admission.
What makes for a good comedy venue and is it important to have a regular platform?
David Perkin: The audience is king. Attract the right audience, understand them and book appropriately. Also it's showbiz, think about sound, light, walk on cues – maybe even a smoke machine as they walk on stage if it works. Like any work of art, it's always important how it's presented if it's to be enjoyed to its fullest. It's insulting to expect an established act to perform without a stage or with an inferior mic.
view from the mic at Frog and Bucket Ben Verth: A good comedy venue is made by people who are supportive and passionate about comedy and sharing it with an audience. There's also simple stuff like having a good sound system and theatrical environment, but it really is – genuinely – down to the human element of the night - the acts, the bar and venue staff, the promoters. You could do a show in a tent up the side of Everest and so long as comedy fans had the heart to make it work, it would. Technology might be taking over everyone's life, but there is nothing so heady as a genuine live comedy night.
Nev Nada: Comedy nights work best within a self-containing bubble and this requires a certain hands-off approach from the venues. We've had fantastically supportive venues that understand this. As a rule, I don't know what any of the acts on at CHUNKS are going to do before it happens. This unpredictable energy gives the night a real tension and I think it makes for interesting comedy. Too much input from management can really dampen any creativity. If you've got a room full of funny people, just trust them and it should work out fine.
The Stand Comedy Club/Red Raw: Intimacy and determination to enforce a few simple rules. You want the acts to be able to see and feel the audience, so get the punters tight to the stage and keep the seats as close together as you can. Laughter communicates over short distances, so if you can feel the person next to you shaking with mirth you'll be infected. Make the table size small and seat the punters facing the stage. This might sound blindingly obvious but so many gigs have been set up to try and seat groups of 10 to 20 on long tables at right angles to the stage. That just encourages the punters to chat amongst themselves rather than pay attention to the show, they will feel more that they are their own group and less that they are a part of an audience. Discourage heckling. It is rarely of any help to the show. No one in any occupation does their best work when being interrupted.
How do you promote your comedy nights?
David Perkin: I think word of mouth has been our best marketing tool, It helps being city centre based for sheer footfall, but mostly online via our website and social media platforms as well local and national listings, mailouts, posters and flyers.
Ben Verth: Give an audience a good show (and we do) and their word of mouth, either literally or online, will do the rest, so social media and reviewing platforms are incredibly important. Putting a little money towards SEO and the like helps no end, but creating a great experience right from the off for the people that come through your doors mean they will be your number one marketing assets.
The Stand Comedy Club/Red Raw: Word of mouth is massive, we pride ourselves on providing a great night out at an affordable price. This message is something that has naturally spread through our punters. Our venues and nights often appear in many top ten things to do in each of the cities we operate, hence always attracting new visitors from all over the world as well as locally. We utilise social media as well as our database to spread our message quickly. Due to the nature of our shows – often multi lineups – we find that acts. sometimes with large social media following themselves, will spread and share our content. We also use local publications and digital content platforms, outside distribution as well as the occasional outdoor or screen advertising option.
If you could pass one piece of advice onto an aspiring comedy promoter, what would it be?
David Perkin: Set your fees and be clear of terms and pay for acts to avoid any conflict.
Ben Verth: Do it for the right reasons, whatever that means to you. You'll need to go the extra mile to make the job properly work, so always keep in touch with why you want to do it.
Nev Nada: Surround yourself with talented, creative friends that can bring ideas to your night. What I love about CHUNKS is that it's developed this commune mentality and this punky DIY attitude amongst its members. Our night wouldn't work without all the efforts and enthusiasm of all our comrades. Me and Jamie might be its co-daddies, but the actual parenting and nurturing of the night – along with the annual CHUNKStival – is down to Richard, Chris, David Sandy, Paul, Amelia, (MC at sister-night Komedy), BMR, Gabriel and everyone else involved (too many to mention, but I love you all). All these brilliant funny people are dedicated to spreading the madness.
The Stand Comedy Club/Red Raw: Do it for the love of it, not for money. You're unlikely to get rich unless you make an art form of ripping off the acts. The only reason The Stand has succeeded is because from the very outset Jane Mackay and Tommy Sheppard were content to make enough money to keep going, rather than aiming to make millions. A lot of what you have to do flies in the face of normal, profit focussed business practice.
The Frog & Bucket
102 Oldham Street,
Dedicated comedy club in the heart of the Northern Quarter of Manchester. The ground floor seats 140 cabaret style; the mezzanine balcony seats another 60. There are two well-equipped bars on both floors and a full catering service with a five-star food…
Our long-running weekly new comedy showcase is regarded as the best open mic night in the UK. Catch up to ten new acts – some treading the boards for the very first time. This is where everyone starts and it's your chance to see the stars of tomorrow today. Watch out for older hands dropping in to try out new material too.