Memories of the UK comedy circuit | Papa CJ, now based in India, recalls his formative years

Memories of the UK comedy circuit

Papa CJ, now based in India, recalls his formative years

I started doing comedy in October 2004 in London. In those days, you started with a five minute set. Then depending on the club, you moved to a seven, then a 10, maybe a 15 and then a 20. 

In most cases it was a jump straight from a 10 to a 20. I say jump, but if you’re a new comedian, you will know that it is not a jump but a colossal leap. You could spend months of your life creating a ten-minute set that works, impress a booker and then have them invite you to do a paid 20 at their club…when you have no more than 12 minutes of material that you know works! 

It’s a conundrum many a comedian has faced. Do you tell them that you’re not ready and risk that you may not be called back for years. Or do you try to come up with a 20 by the time you hit their club – once again taking the risk that you might bomb and never be called back again. 

Along with Patrick Monahan, in my early days in comedy, I was probably one of the hardest working comedians in the UK. I gigged every day. Not almost every day, EVERY day. 

I remember one road trip to Manchester where I did six gigs in three nights - The Comedy Store, The Frog and Bucket, XS Malarkey, Iguana Bar and a couple of others I forget. That was also the trip where the comedian who was driving us back to London was so stressed after his gig, he smoked a joint just after starting the drive down. Yes, in those days there was a risk of dying off stage as well. 

You might think that six gigs in three days is not much to talk about. But when you’re on a circuit with 500 new acts vying for the same five minute spot at a comedy club, it requires a serious amount of hustle to get those many dates in the diary. And when I say ‘hustle’ I mean a little bit of talent (or maybe just a little more than a little), a larger amount of grovelling and equally large amount of luck. I did 250 gigs in my first ten months. 700 in my first three years. 

In those days, the way to get a gig was to open London's Time Out magazine, and see which clubs were s offering open spots. And of course to talk to other open micers. 

The out of town gigs were normally nicer gigs because you’d be the middle spot, doing up to 10 minutes, to a reasonably large crowd (anywhere up to 500 people), in exchange for driving the other acts from London. Keep in mind, you weren’t getting paid at all, although the other comics would pitch in for petrol. 

However often you’d spend more than 10 hours on the road to do a seven minute spot. I remember driving all the way to York once, probably a seven-hour journey, to do a university gig. We reached there to find that the students had exams and only three people showed up for the gig. Oh and in case you’re wondering, we had been on the road for seven hours, you bet your ass we still performed! 

The London gigs on the other hand were a different breed. You had no idea of the quality of the gig or the audience. There were some rooms that were always nice. Like Downstairs at The King's Head at Crouch End. A lovely gig but a pain to get to because it wasn’t really walking distance from a Tube station. 

You had to call Peter on the landline on a weekeday between 10am and 12pm to book a spot. The room had low ceilings and a light that shone right above your head. At almost every gig I did there, at least one woman would ask me afterwards which shampoo I used. My hair isn’t that nice, it was the lights. 

A lot of the other gigs were a lottery. There were at least 12 gigs within a 15 minute walk from Leicester Square. Big Night Out had two gigs, one on in the basement and one on the first floor of the Comedy Pub on Oxendon Street. I was once booked to do both gigs - a night where I learnt a valuable lesson. I first played the basement which I absolutely destroyed. 

It didn’t strike me at that time that as a performer, you build momentum over the course of a gig.  At the start, if you’re an unknown, you need to win over the crowd. Once you do, they grant you the right to be a cocky little shit by the end. Not realising this, I walked off after destroying the basement to do the middle spot on the first floor. The adrenaline was pumping and I started my set to the new audience as a cocky little shit – without first proving that I was funny. They of course were having none of it and I died on my arse. 

There were tons more gigs. There were comedy rooms all over London including  some that were notoriously tough to play: Up the Creek Comedy Club in Greenwich that was infamous (I shared the bill with Flight Of The Conchords when I did a spot there), Pear Shaped in Fitzrovia (which marketed itself as ‘the second worst gig in London’) and Malcolm Hardee’s infamous Wibbly Wobbly Boat, a tough tough room, where I did my first ‘official’ gig. 

As a new comic on the London circuit, there were three people you wanted to impress. First and foremost, Don Ward, owner of The Comedy Store, the most prestigious comedy club in the UK and the hardest to get into. Getting a weekend at the Store announced your arrival as comedy royalty. I practically lived at the Store in my early days of comedy, watching as many acts as I possibly could. I still believe it is one of the best comedy clubs in the world. And the staff there were wonderful.

The first time I went to The Comedy Store was on Monday  October 25, 2004. My friend Pete was performing at the King Gong show and a few of us went to support. At the show about 25 new comedians take the stage and try to last five minutes. The audience is told that if they like the comedian they should clap and cheer, and if they don’t they are welcome to heckle and boo. 

Three people in the audience are randomly given red cards and appointed judges. If they don’t like a comedian or feel the crowd don’t, they raise the red card and the comedian gets ‘gonged’ off. 

The host riles the crowd into a frenzy and the show begins. It is brutal. On average a comedian lasts 90 seconds. I’ve never seen more than five comedians get through five minutes. It’s normally two or three. At the end, between the comedians who make it through five minutes, the audience cheers for the comedian they liked the most and that comedian is pronounced King Gong.

 The real prize however, other than every open micer on the circuit finding out who won, is that you get noticed by Don Ward, and if he thinks your material is half decent, you get invited to do a five minute open spot on a Thursday night.

That honour doesn’t let you sleep all night because you want to call their office first thing in the morning and book a spot. Only when you call to you find out that the next available spot is eight months later!  

What I didn’t know when we went to see Pete, was that in the middle of the King Gong show, the MC asks if anyone from the audience would like to give it a try. And I thought, 'what the hell, I’m going to give this a go’. I had been writing some jokes in preparation for my first official open spot, and I thought there really could be no downside. I knocked back two Jack Daniels and volunteered to get on stage in the second half. I don’t remember how the time flew when I took the stage but I remember hearing the ‘Hallelujah’ soundtrack when I finished five minutes on stage… and if that wasn’t surprise enough, at the end of the night, I won!

The second person you wanted to impress was Geoff Whiting, who runs the Mirth Control Comedy empire. I say ‘empire’ because at one point he was booking 111 rooms all over the country. One hundred and eleven! If he saw you and liked you, theoretically he could put you on stage every night of the week. Geoff himself MCs quite a few gigs so ideally you wanted to be on one of those so he could see you live.

Geoff saw me for the first time at my third ever gig. It was at London Metropolitan University on Holloway Road. He was hosting the show and luckily for me, I did well. Over the next three years I did maybe 300 gigs for Mirth Control.

The first money I got paid was also at one of his gigs. I wasn’t supposed to be paid. It was my ninth ever gig in a pub in a village about three hours drive away from London. The pub owner liked my set and gave me a £10 tip! After a while, when I started doing well at most of the gigs, I demanded that I start getting paid. 

While the money was never great (I’m talking £40 to £75), I got something much more from the Mirth Control gigs. In the three years that I performed in the UK, I must have spent more than 2,000 hours in cars with more than 500 comedians who had been doing comedy for more than 15  years.

I saw how they prepared, I saw how they worked a room, I heard them analyse their performances afterwards and I begged them to see my set and give me feedback afterwards. That was Comedy University right there. 

The third person, or people, you wanted to impress, were the people who ran Jongleurs where got paid upwards of £150 per show for a 20 minute set  at their clubs across the country. Also if they booked you for a weekend, you had hit the jackpot. That meant a gig on Thursday, one on Friday, one on Saturday. Some clubs had two gigs on Saturdays and, if I remember correctly, Leeds may even have had two gigs on a Friday. 

In comedy terms, that was a LOT of money. And they gave you a hotel room for the weekend. Far from a glamorous hotel but a hotel nonetheless. If you got in with Jongleurs, you could make a living doing stand-up. 

But there was a catch: what Jongleurs wanted more than anything was an act that was reliable; who would consistently deliver a solid performance. However, Jongleurs gigs were not easy to play. Some of the rooms were lovely but some were not. The format of most nights, ending in a  disco, meant that very often you’d get people who hadn’t come for comedy. They’d come to get shitfaced, dance and try and get laid.

So you’d get a bunch of hen nights and stag dos who were not interested in listening to the comedy at all. And even if they were to start with, they would get so drunk they had the attention span of amoeba. And these were rooms where you had hecklers – both coherent and incoherent. 

What this meant was that as a comedian, you had to be able to do two things. You had to be able to deliver a punchline every 20 seconds to hold their attention, and you had to learn how to deal with hecklers and command the attention of a rough room. It was like taming a wild tiger. 

I remember a particularly rough night in Cardiff. They had two stag nights in, four hen dos, one works do of 45 female prison wardens and the World Cup football playing on the television at the back of the room! It was a gig from hell. I struggled doing my spot. 

In the break, the bouncers kicked out the prison wardens for being too disruptive. The brilliant Jeff Innocent who was headlining, stopped 15 minutes through his set, put the microphone back in the stand and said: ‘You guys aren’t worth it’ and walked off stage. 

I did my first five-minute open spot for Jongleurs Camden in London in around June 2005. Having done the Gong Show so many times and never having been gonged off, I was able to not only handle the boisterous crowd but also deliver a solid set. The next thing I know, they asked me to do a paid 15.  Nine months into comedy, a chain that could take years to break into, had started giving me paid work.

The Jongleurs chain has just shut down. But I’m incredibly grateful for the gigs they gave me during my time in London – even the shitty ones. Their gigs gave me money when there was none around, a thick skin when they kicked my arse and a lot of learning – not only by watching other comedians work those rooms but also by learning how to work those rooms myself. 

From the little I understand of what is happening in the UK now, I believe that TV comedy is making it very hard on the live circuit. People are either not stepping out for live stand-up, and if they do, they want to see the guys they’ve seen on TV. This is making it hard for new guys trying to get up the ranks. 

But fortunately new comedians have the internet – a democracy where anyone with talent can get noticed.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been on the UK circuit at a time when it was possible as a new act to gig every single day of the year. I’m incredibly grateful to all the promoters who gave me work, to all the comedians who kindly took the time to give me counsel, and to my wonderful manager and agent Brett who took a gamble on me. 

Finally, to all the acts in the early stages of their comedy careers, don’t forget to hustle; work on your talent, put yourself out there and hope you get more than your fair share of luck so you have to do less than your fair share of grovelling - or hopefully none at all. 

• A version of this article first appeared on Papa CJ's Facebook page. He tweets here.

Published: 7 Nov 2017

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