Call this a gig?

Diane Spencer on terrible comedy venues

The professional stage lights remained unlit, as they were reserved for music gigs or, as the pink tie-wearing venue manager put it, ‘real gigs’. Comedy gigs got the sidelights, which mainly illuminated the wall where the toilet door was. These sidelights were programmed to flicker in time with the music so as the comedians spoke, the room would flash with lightning, horror-film style, occasionally illuminating someone in the act of running to the toilet door as though they were caught on speed camera.

Some acts have that magical ability to generate laughter through a pause, the careful set-up unfolds within the minds of the audience, and in that moment of silence, a ripple of laughter spreads and grips the room. It is heartbreaking to see such talented people wrecked by a microphone that cuts out, while only being lit by a blue light positioned directly overhead, which lights nothing except hairlines and bald patches. It’s all good experience, people say. My question: ‘Good experience of what?’

Gigs have problems. Usually they are hecklers, who can be useful, especially when they force you to create a punchline you never would have thought of alone, but sometimes the venue itself is the problem and, in true poltergeist fashion, you can feel like dark forces are at work to thwart your chances of getting a laugh. Go on to Masterchef with all the ingredients for a five course dinner, but if they tell you only the toaster is working, you’re going to be eating raw broccoli and ramming potatoes in the slots with a wooden spoon.

At the very least a stand-up needs good sound. During one gig I used a cordless mic which we were not allowed to turn off as the bar was sharing the same bandwidth as the local taxi firm. Ignoring this at my peril (being sick of sticking the damn thing under my armpit) on reactivation I opened my mouth and a male voice boomed out: ‘Pick up for four at Esplanade’. At best, I was a convincing ventriloquist, at worse I was a medium through which Death was announcing his ‘to do’ list.

I have seen some wonderful bar staff politely refuse to make a noisy cappuccino or the loudest cocktail on the menu until the break, but some actively prioritise their job over yours – during my set one bar staff member wanted to ‘use the shortcut’ to empty the glass bottles into the skip outside, which meant jolting her way through the tightly packed crowd with a wheelie bin then using the emergency doors, which triggered the fire alarm, though that could’ve been my suppressed rage heating up my brain and making steam whistle out my ears.

Sometimes, having dealt with the crumbling technical set-up, and just about commented on every facet of the disastrous gig, if you are brave enough to wander into material it can be a jarring experience for the audience. It is the equivalent of having a chat with someone, then that person suddenly rambling off into their own fairy world of Amusements which had no relevance to the conversation, which makes you look uncomfortably nuts.

In the end, the responsibility rests with the venue managers, some of whom will admit they want to make a quick buck, others are genuinely interested in comedy though seem content with a ‘well, the others managed’ attitude. There are the managers who insist on placing the stage facing a column right in the middle of the room or who expect punters to pay for comedy in a room that curves round to one side, seating half the crowd out of sight of the stage, so you get the view of a line of heads ‘resting’ on a wall like Henry VIII’s décor during one of his darker days. In Hungary, the promoters decided not to police the door and a loud platoon of locals swaggered in, none of whom were interested in the foreign woman at the other end of the bar barking out what must have seemed, a mildly amusing lecture about climate change or such, given as I was still wearing a scarf and smelt of the hotel’s sandalwood shampoo.

Fighting against the elements makes a gig less about the material, more about survival through pure blistering communication and using automatic triggers like key controversial words to get the audience in the headlights like an outraged, Daily Mail reading deer. I sometimes picture the gig where the string quartet went down with the Titanic. Those are the ultimate bad gig conditions and admittedly the people they were trying to reach had other things on their mind, like lifeboats. But if you’re really keen on making a gig like that work, you would need shock tactics. If the quartet had dropped their trousers, held each other’s instruments and stuck the bows up their backsides, making some kind of sawing daisy chain then potentially fewer people would have made it off the ship. That is, literally career suicide and ending on a bum note is not ideal.

The pink tie venue manager re-filled the ice bucket during the opener’s set and over the crashing noise barked at me: ‘Once these nights get more people in, I mean there’s only 40 people here, then we’ll think about using the proper lights.’ I simmered in the darkness as the flickering lights added menace to my thoughts, like some faraway thunderstorm was answering my rage.

What am I getting from these experiences? The urge to glass morons in the face, the habit to only swear in my car and the knowledge that I would’ve used the cello case as a buoyancy aid.

Published: 5 Jan 2011

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