The tummler is back

How Paul Savage rediscovered an old art

A few months back, a comedy acquaintance advertised for actors wanted for Christmas work. I am no actor. I can’t learn lines well. I can barely remember my own material, which is why new stuff needs to be scrawled on my hand before gigs.

But it was work at Christmas, which as I’m a poor student, training to be a youth worker, would come in very handy. I decided to send my CV on the off-chance, because what could go wrong? This is the same reasoning behind my application to MI6, how I once was interviewed about life as a stand-up on Kerrang! radio after my 15th gig and how I ended up having sex with a student nurse.

I was surprised to get the role, which was listed as ‘host’ for a variety night/disco/works Christmas do. A camp guy rang me up and explained I would be dressed as a gangster, talking to guests as they came into the hotel. So far, so normal for an thespian, I assumed. This was based on my previous experience as an actor, which was wearing a teatowel on my head to be a shepherd, while trying not to cry or pee my pants. Twenty eight, I was!

I was introduced to a guy called Daffyd, who I gave the gangster nickname ‘Jonny Acapulco’ partly because it sounds badass, and partly because there probably weren’t many Italian-Americans called Daffyd. Together we were to form a double act on the door. Turns out, the company I was doing this for had run this sort of entertainment at another branch of the hotel, and they’d found the door hosts too quiet. We were told to ‘really go wild’.

We stand on the door, and the guests have been sent an email telling them to say ‘We’re here to see Tony”, then we let them in. That’s the idea. Most never saw that email, half are too embarrassed to do so even if they did, and most of the remainder just want to get pissed. So instead, me and Jonny just insult them.

Back in America in the 30s, Tummlers were the forerunners of amateur comedians. If you wanted to become a comic, you went to a Catskills resort, where you met people, dealt with their stuff and insulted them humourously. Over time, as you developed material and stagecraft and patter, you’d get given slots in the evening performances. A good tummler was part club-rep, part tour guide, and all comedian. George Burns, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis all cut their teeth on the crowds up in the Catskills mountains.

This is what me and Daf somehow turned into. With no scripts to work off, and the ‘friend of Tony’ banter we were given hardly ever working, we’ve just been making it up on the fly. The Chicago accent I’m supposed to have has slipped to Borscht Belt. I’ve subconsciously picked up something from Sol Bernstein, which is if you are going to insult someone to their face, call them ‘sweetheart’ first and add ‘Nah, just kidding, you’re beautiful people’ afterwards.

Dressed like John Dillinger and Al Capone, we have a nice back and forth banter with the guests. Women wearing a bit of bling are asked if they held up a jewellery store. Women dressed as flappers are greeted with, ‘Oh, the evening’s entertainment’s here’ and offered to be frisked. Men carrying toy machine guns are reminded that it isn’t the size of the gun but what you do with it that counts. An office junior wearing a trilby was greeted with ‘Pete Doherty, I love your work but calm down on the smack.’ I’m not sure I’d not get away with this in a straight comedy environment, but it seems to work here.

The last few years has seen a shift back to variety. These nights have a burlesque artist and a contortionist as their featured act, and we go around doing daft things like proposition bets to people at the bar, while the MCing doesn’t stretch to more than doing a cheering competition for a bottle of free champagne. Could this be the way forward for comedy clubs? The purists might hate it, but at the moment, I love it.

Published: 17 Dec 2009

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