Fall about laughing

The best comedy comes from dark times and in the coming season there’s a whole host of events – online and in the real world – to help you laugh off lockdown

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It’s been a tough few months for the comedy industry. The scene has been largely shut since March and had to fight to qualify for a share of the government’s arts funding but it proved infinitely resourceful, with clubs and performers going online to connect with their audiences. Then, as the restrictions lifted somewhat, outdoor gigs began to appear, followed by clubs finally being allowed to open their doors, albeit at a much reduced capacity.

For those who are unwilling to head out there is still plenty to view online. The likes of Manchester’s XSMalarkey comedy club are still putting out a weekly show from the safety of living rooms across the world. The Comedy Store has archive shows on its website plus the gong show King Gong is online each month on Facebook Live. Comedian James Cook’s Board Game Smackdown – a particularly successful online format online where comedians play board games on Zoom – continues on YouTube and on Facebook. Virtual comedy club the Covid Arms is back on 19 September with a fine line up, including Harry Hill and with Manchester’s Kiri Pritchard McLean the resident compere. Elsewhere Oldham’s Mick Ferry continues to conduct snappy interviews with fellow comedians in Two Minute Chatshow and Comedy Sportz improv troupe run by the Salford-based Brainne Edge have been posting four shows a week on their YouTube channel.

As the seasons change outdoor comedy gigs’ days might be numbered but there’s still Manchester-based Nodding Dog Comedy putting one on at Flixton Cricket Club on
25 September, with prankster Simon Brodkin headlining. Rob Riley who runs Didsbury Comedy Club in Manchester, has moved proceedings into a field with the camp luvvie Troy Hawke headlining and Justin Moorhouse compering.

Remarkably Southport Comedy Festival will go ahead but in the Covid-safer confines of a marquee. Running 8-18 October by comedian Brendan Riley and his promoter wife Val Brady, the event will feature performances from Jason Manford, Russell Kane and Rich Hall.

This time of year would ordinarily have loads of touring shows booked into theatres across the region. As it is there are some tentative bookings with Jen Brister on 18 October at the Lowry Salford, Jimmy Carr on 9 October at Leeds Town Hall, Tony Law at the Wardrobe in Leeds on 19 October, Joel Dommett on 2 November at Storyhouse Chester, and Alan Carr at the Barbican York for four nights in December. Fingers crossed.

Leeds based Silky’s monthly gig at Seven Arts is back on 30 September with a special solo show from the man himself and the mixed bill line up returns the following month on 28 October. He also hopes to take himself on a mini tour of Yorkshire.

Then there are the comedy clubs that have opened their doors under the new regulations. Liverpool’s Hot Water Comedy has been back in the building for a few weeks now. Manchester’s Frog and Bucket, where the government put on a successful pilot show, is finally allowed to open after local restrictions were lifted, now with reduced capacity audiences viewing their regular line-ups. Plus Manchester’s open mic night Comedy Balloon hopes to be open by the end of this month. Nodding Dog Comedy is also currently open at reduced capacity in Northwich and Chorley while it plans to open a new regular gig at Theatre Impossible in Manchester in October, restrictions permitting. Meanwhile Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre is back with its monthly stand-up gig on the first Friday of the month. In October Archie Kelly and Njambi McGrath will be performing.

Director and resident compere of the newly reopened Comedy Station in Blackpool, Ryan Gleeson talks about the lockdown experience

What were your initial thoughts when you had to shut down in March?
Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!! We’d only opened our new venue in March 2019 and since then we’d been struggling with a very costly legal issue. When 2020 arrived it was looking to be the best year, financially, since we first started in 2002, so we were very positive about the future. When the shutdown was enforced we thought we just had to sit tight and ride out the next three, or four weeks. We were very naive back then!

You didn’t go online like some clubs, so how does it feel to be back open?
Much better than I thought it would! There was a buzz in the room. The atmosphere was like playing to a crowd who’d saved up for years to see their favourite comedian or band. Everyone was feeling more back to normality, almost like a war had just ended.

What have been the logistics of being back open?
The constantly changing measures. Trying to understand what’s law and what’s guidance, learning what we have to enforce, have all been mentally draining. We can now only operate at two-fifths capacity, so we’re finding it much easier to put the “sold out!” signs up, but the cash registers are suffering. As far as social distancing goes, we now have to devise a seating plan in advance, as well as contact customers to advise them of their arrival window but our biggest issue is ensuring we aren’t closed down for non-compliance due to customers deciding what’s the law and what isn’t!

Have some people been making the rules up themselves?
I’m spending most of my time explaining to customers that masks work better on the face than wearing it like a corsage. They somehow think that coronavirus hovers at a height of around five feet and the law doesn’t apply once you’re sat down.

Despite the gloom in the last few months have there been any funny or particularly uplifting moments along the way?
The one thing I’ll remember, more than anything else during lockdown, was the instant pulling together of the comedy community. Both the Live Comedy Association and especially Jess Toomey from the Frog and Bucket comedy club in Manchester have built a very knowledgeable and approachable point of contact and changed us from a group of gigs to something that feels like a proper, corporate, standalone industry. Also, for the first time, my wife Jen, who runs the venue, actually now feels part of the circuit. Considering the Comedy Station and the Frog and Bucket are both run by women, it’s been so uplifting to see her become mates with Jess too. Looks like blokes’ days are numbered!

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