The 50 most memorable gigs of the decade

Chortle founder Steve Bennett looks back at the Noughties

It's hard to believe, but Chortle is ten years old next month. What started, for me, as little more than a hobby and an exercise in how to build web pages has, incredibly, become a full-time job… and then some.

And what a job! Travelling Britain and the world, watching comedy and becoming a part, however incidental, of the most creative, diverse – and fun – art form of them all.

Over the past decade, I’ve made many great friends in comedy and met countless talented writers and performers, but stand-up is all about the gig – and I’ve had more than my share of fantastic nights over the years, too. This, then, is my list of the top 50 most memorable gigs – for better or for worse – I’ve witnessed over the last decade.

There are some fond memories that predate this – my parents taking me to see the Two Ronnies live in Birmingham when I was a child; the almost-violently volatile atmosphere of Edinburgh’s Fringe Club bearpit held in what is now the Gilded Balloon’s Wine Bar in the mid-Eighties, or seeing the powerhouse that is Lee Evans in a room above a pub near Victoria Station, the home, at the time, of the Chuckle Club; or Harry Hill in the similarly intimate surroundings of the Meccano club.

But these all date from the Noughties – now let’s see what the next ten years of comedy will bring…

50. The Kids In The Hall
Place Des Arts, Montreal July 2007

Comeback gig for Canada’s answer to Monty Python proved an hilarious introduction to this surreal quintet’s back catalogue.

49. Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People
Bloomsbury Theatre London, December 2009

Comedy and science-based geekines, two of my favourite things! But more memorable for childhood hero Johnny Ball being booed off for his bizarre rant against what he saw as global warming scaremongering.

48. Frank Sidebottom
Dancehouse Theatre Manchester, October 2006

Actually, the man with the papier mache head is probably best seen in the open-air summer festivals, but this was a great, if all-too-rare, chance for fans to indulge in a bit of hero-worship (including Ross Noble on this night), and casual audience members to be entirely baffled by call-and-responses such as ‘Guess who’s been on Match Of The Day? I have in my big shorts’.

47. Garth Marenghi's Fright Knight
Pleasance Below, Edinburgh, August 2000

Hammy over-the-top spoof gorefest that brilliantly combined stilted acting with portentous arrogance.

46. Messin With Mr Trellis
Clubhouse Hotel, Kilkenny June 2008

Ardal O’Hanlon, Kevin Gildea and Barry Murphy re-formed their sketch group to arse around with cheap props, ill-fitting wigs and forgotten lines. Beautifully chaotic.

45. Ten Best Stand-ups In The World Ever p1: Johnny Vegas and Simon Munnery
Bloomsbury Theatre London, April 2008

This gig was rather overshadowed by the Guardian reporter who thought Vegas had gone too far in his awkward fumblings with one girl plucked from the front row, though it was typical of Vegas’s often uncomfortable, but always unique, performances. Not only that, the show featured a very welcome return for Munnery’s misguided Alan Parker: Urban Warrior, all compered by Stewart Lee.

44. Ivan Brackenbury's Hospital Radio Christmas Show
Pleasance Upstairs, August 2008

Brash, stupid, punny - this was hardly a sophisticated show, but the onslaught of daft, and occasionally inspired, gags was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

43. Sammy J And The Forest Of Dreams
Bosco Theatre, Melbourne, April 2008

Sweary muppets – briliant! But Sammy J's show was more than that; a full-on musical extravaganza with hummable songs and fantastically warped characters.

42. Dara O Briain
Pleasance Above, Edinburgh, August 2002

Full-throttle, laugh-a-minute stand-up, with a cleverly disguised intelligence underpinning the comedy – this was one of the first shows to help the consistently strong O Briain on his way to becoming a household name.

41. Andre Vincent Is Unwell
Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, August 2002

Vincent took a potentially maudlin subject – his own kidney cancer – and fashioned an hilarious show out of it. Despite the deeply personal nature of the events he described, he kept the mood light and pathos-free, keeing the focus firmly on the laughs, which came readily.

40. Chortle Student Comedy Final
Pleasance Dome, August 2008

In 2007, Simon Bird had delivered a stinging attack on the clauses sponsor Revels had put into the terms and conditions of our student competition. And, already emerging as a star thanks to the Inbetweeners, his offering in this year’s final was no less audacious – a custom-written routine daring judges not to let him win by offering the prize to charity. In the end, he lost out by a slither to Jack Heal – but it doesn’t seem to have done his career much harm, given that he was named best comedy actor at this year’s British Comedy Awards.

39. Lee Mack's New Bits
Pleasance, Edinburgh 2000

More proof that you don't have to be clever to be funny, Mack's unremittingly daft series of sketches - in which he was supported by Catherine Tate and Dan Antopolski – would go on to form the basis for both ITV's The Sketch Show and BBC One's Not Going Out. The scene in which Mack played an incomprehensibly high-pitched jockey can still brings a smile to my face, just from the memory.

38. Maxwell's Fullmooners
Comedy Store, London, November 2005

I probably missed the best of Andrew Maxwell’s underground late-night gigs; by all accounts his nights on Edinburgh’s Carlton Hill and the Ghost Theatre in Alexander Palace were unforgettable. But his nights at the Comedy Store were always a treat, thanks to the secretive, cliquey atmosphere the host engendered among the night owls – not to mention the calibre of the headliners he attracted to these exclusive gigs.

37. Jason Cook: My Confessions
The Stand, Edinburgh, August 2007

Heart-rending comedy to bring a tear to your eye, this sentimental yet funny marked a coming of age for the Geordie comedian.

36. Jerry Springer: The Opera
National Theatre April 2003

Though I’d already seen this at Edinburgh the previous August, the full-scale production offered by the National, plus a rejigged second half, really brought Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’s flamboyant ideas to life. It was a great loss when the sourfaced Christian zealots brought this fun and engrossing musical to an end.

35. I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue recording
Playhouse Theatre London, March 2002

There’s always a convivial atmosphere of old pals together during these recordings, and the 30th anniversary show – recorded in the theatre where it all started – was a greater celebration than ever. Memorable mainly for Stephen Fry’s alternative definition of ‘countryside’: ‘To murder Piers Morgan’.

34. Laughter In Odd Places
Museum of London, July 2008

Always good to see comedy somewhere different, and this was a great, if somewhat geeky, mini-festival, held on various ‘stages’ amid the exhibits with the likes of Pappy’s Fun Club, Wilson Dixon and Terry Saunders, who co-organised the gig with Tom Searle. Like Night At The Museum – but funny.

33. Hotel D'Comedie
Hotel Maiyango, Leicester Comedy Festival, February 2009

Another strange location; this time in a hotel with compere Holly Walsh guiding us round the rooms, each of which contained another act: a cosy chat with Carl Donnelly, brilliant use of the location with the Idiots Of Ants sketches, and finally Jason Cook got us all to sing belated Christmas carols to a tramp. But in a good way.

32. King Gong
Comedy Store London, September 2001

The revival of the gladiatorial format that made the Comedy Store's name revived the boisterous dynamic of stand-up. Though not always easy on the new acts and no-hopers bold or foolish enough to brave the judges' three red cards, the brutally spirited atmosphere makes for an excellent night out – for the spectator.

31. Amp'd
Theatre Juste Pour Rire, Montreal, July 2008

A brilliant blast of musical comedy – about as far from the easy lyric-swap antics of the lazy that you can get - thanks to the likes of Australia's Tripod, Canada's Jon LaJoie, American teenage sensation Bo Burnham and the truly bizarre Million Dollar Strong. A real party show

30. Brendon Burns: So I Suppose THIS Is Offensive Now
Pleasance Dome, August 2007

A coup de theatre, pulled off with a flourish, wrongfooted most of the audience here; but the build-up to the big reveal played daringly with the audience’s instincts, making for an audacious show that walked on the knife-edge of what is and isn’t acceptable in comedy.

29. Scottish Comedian Of The Year Final
Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, July 2009

An odd experience in that character act The Wee Man – whom I'd unfavourably reviewed at the previous year's final – came bounding down from the stage to the judges' table – and delivered a surprisingly sloppy snog....

28. Louis CK
Metropolis Montreal, July 2009

Consummate stand-up from the embattled everyman brings an irresistible edge to observational stand-up. A class act.

27. Ken Dodd
Hexagon Theatre Reading 2002

A true legend of comedy, he certainly has longevity – and not just in his career. This energy-sapping night lasted more than five hours, and included an array of dreadful, dated cabaret acts that you’d throw yourself off a cruise ship to escape. But Doddy himself, for all the corny old gags, is an irresistible force, and ultimately wears down any resistance with his daft, often self-deprecating, gags. A throwback to an earlier era, certainly, by far more than a museum piece.

26. Britcom
Club Soda, Montreal, July 2007

Memorable not so much for the fact that Frank Skinner, newly returning to stand-up, died on his arse (though he did recover his mojo in future gigs); but for the powerhouse performance of Michael McIntyre, a comic I'd previously considered too bland for my tastes. But he grabbed this difficult gig by the scruff of its neck and soon turned the previously moribund mood around into one of easy hilarity. Wonder whatever happened to him...?

25. Fast Fringe
Arts Theatre London, July 2008

The first large-scale gig Chortle promoted, this was an organisational nightmare, trying to coral 28 acts to the stage on time in a theatre with no real dressing room. I saw very little of the stress-inducing show – but more than my assistant producer Corry Shaw valiantly trapped in the wings – but it was a success, by all accounts, and is now a regular fixture in the calendar. Look out for 2010's...

24. Joe Rogan
Charlie's, Manchester, April 2007

Far too many drunk people packed into an intimate subterranean bar led to something of a bearpit atmosphere, and the heckling did, at times, overpower Rogan. But this was provocative material, powerfully delivered, from an all-too rare visitor to the UK.

23. Chris Rock
Hammersmith Apollo, January 2008

Easily one of the best stand-ups of his generation, Rock didn't disappoint with the inspired social commentary of his No Apologies set... Well a men vs woman riff did a bit, but this was still a night to watch a master at work.

22. British Comedy Awards
London Studios, December 2006

This was my first visit to the comedy awards, as the guest of a friend, and it was impossible not to feel a sense of occasion and excitement walking in on the red carpet. After all, I was in the same room as Madonna! Even after 20 years, the awards are still THE highlight of the comedy calendar, and for the last two years I’ve been honoured enough to be one of the judges. And still there’s a frisson of excitement as you walk into the studio because even in these compliance-sensitive times, it’s still a place where you can’t be 100 per cent sure what will happen.

21. Ross Noble
Regents Park Open Air Theatre, July 2005

Noble’s freeform gigs are always such a treat, but this was probably my favourite due to the unusual setting. An open-air glade was perfectly apt for Noble’s magical flights of fancy.

20. Bernard Manning
Glee Club, Birmingham, December 2002

Memorable for all the wrong reasons. The accepted wisdom is that Manning was a great comic with vile material; a master of timing who was playing the racism card for notoriety, and in defiance of the alternative comedians who had made him such an outcast. At this show, less than five years before his death, Manning was a clearly unwell spouting foully offensive material, lots of boring old pub gags, and dewy-eyed 'love your family' sentimentalism that sat uncomfortably with the vile hatred he spread. If Manning had once been the master of timing, it wasn't on display here, just a wretched comedian, in every sense.

19. Eddie Izzard
Amused Moose Soho May 2001

I’ve seen Eddie in theatres and stadiums – but nothing beats the atmosphere of a big star performing in an intimate space. He performed here as a warm-up for the We Know Where You Live Amnesty International fundraiser, which was rather disappointing. But his 2009 show Stripped marked a return to form.

18. Flight Of the Conchords
Victoria Hotel Melbourne, April 2003

No one could probably have predicted just what worldwide cult stars these New Zealand folk parodists would become, but their fantastic award-winning show in a small Melbourne bar certainly planted the seeds for the underplayed musical comedy that made these uniquely talented duo.

17. Are You Dave Gorman?
Pleasance Above, Edinburgh, August 2000

I never really warmed to Gorman’s previous documentary-style show, in which he tried to make the world a better place based on newspaper readers’ suggestions; but this showed the true potential of the genre he made his own. A pointless, but ambitious quest to meet his namesakes was given a compelling narrative by Gorman’s geeky analysis, and brought to life with his charming storytelling skills. It was a defining point in comedy, and a hugely entertaining story to witness.

16. We Are Klang: Klangbang
Pleasance Beside, Edinburgh, August 2006

The second outing for the manic trio's cavalcade of stylish, energetic nonsense was a start-to-finish riot. This was a joyously subversive romp from the juvenile attention-seekers that packed more laughs into an hour than most comics do in a career. It was big – not clever – but brilliantly hilarious.

15. Ealing Live!
Ealing Studios, London, October 2003

This collective of talented sketch performers felt like a genuine movement in British comedy, and it’s a shame their collaborations left no lasting legacy – although most of people who took part, including Lucy Montgomery, Simon Farnaby and Katy Brand have all established their own comedy paths.

14. La Clique
Theatre Juste Pour Rire, July 2006

Single-handedly reinventing cabaret, this weird and wonderful collection of acts made a splash in comedy festivals around the world and in its London residency. Highlights of this performance included contortionist Captain Frodo, a brilliant physical comedian; sultry sword-swallower Miss Behave and chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan.

13. Kim Noble Must Die
Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, August 2009

Unforgettable in much the same way as seeing a maggot-infested corpse would be unforgettable; Noble's visceral, uncomfortable journey through his depression proved a difficult emotional ride, fleetingly very funny but certainly redefining the limits of comedy, as well as searing some indelible images in the mind.

12. Tim Minchin
RMIT Kaleide Theatre, Melbourne, April 2005

It was easy to see Tim Minchin would be star, even in these modest surroundings of a small university theatre. A brilliant virtuoso pianist and a bright, quirky and hugely entertaining comedian, he produced an awesome show – and has continued to deliver ever since.

11. Brendon Burns
Glastonbury, July 2005

The only comedy gig at which magic mushrooms – soon to be criminalised – were handed out to the audience before the show. But Burns had got high on his own supply, too, and gleefully clambered up the marquee's central pole before realising he didn't know what he was going to do when he got there. He then, ill-advisedly, decided to call an ex – but couldn't get through. A shambolic mess of a performance, but certainly unrepeatable.

10. Johnny Vegas Gameshow
Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, August 2000

This was my first first-hand experience of Vegas's vitriolic self-pity; made all the more unforgettable as he plucked me out of the audience, not only to be a contestant on his warped game show, but also to embrace rather too passionately, trapping me on the marquee floor under his full 18 stone of idiot....

9. Rhod Gilbert And The Award-Winning Mince Pie
Pleasance Cabaret Bar, August 2008

A virtuoso display of indignant anger at trivial issues, Gilbert's vein-popping tirade against the empty soul of the customer service industry rightly made him a star, after years of being a Fringe must-see.

8. Daniel Kitson: 66a Church Road
Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, August 2008

I could have chosen several Daniel Kitson shows for this run-down, but settled for his wistful monologue about his London flat. Beautifully staged, with miniature scenes concealed in suitcases that littered the stage, this articulately explored his social awkwardness, the power of memory and the joys of the simple things in life. Typically touching, typically funny.

7. Mark Watson's 24 Hour Show
Hi-Fi Bar, Melbourne, April 2008

Watson had done long shows before – longer than this even – but away from the demands of Edinburgh this was the only time I could sit in for the whole event, rather than just a couple of hours. Stamina wasn't what made these shows so memorable, however, but the incredible community spirit Watson engendered among his audience during the extended lock-in. That everyone would so willingly contribute to whatever tasks were on the agenda was a genuinely life-affirming feeling.

6. Malcolm Hardee Tribute Show
Up The Creek London, February 2005

The funeral of this alternative comedy legend was probably one of the gigs of the decade, but this wake in the venue he founded must run it a close second. A suitably raucous celebration rich with reminiscences, gags – and, of course full-frontal male nudity, the line-up included Arthur Smith , Jools Holland, Jimmy Carr and Chris Lynam, with his traditional firework up the backside.

5. Late N Live
Gilded Balloon Edinburgh, August 2001

Everyone mourns the loss of the old Late N Live, when it was the only late-night gig worth being at – and countless nights could have made this list. But August 23, 2001 was probably the most memorable, thanks to Russell Brand during his most hedonistic drug-raddled days. He took to the stage with no material, but goaded the audience into throwing beer glasses (and real glass ones at that) at him. He grabbed a shard of glass and started cutting at his arm producing what turned out to be fake blood, though it seemed convincing at the time. And after that debacle, the band... Sean Hughes, Johnny Vegas and Daniel Kitson forming an ad hoc trip to murder a couple of disco classics. You rarely see chaos like that any more.

4. Doug Stanhope
Soho Theatre, London, October 2006

Stanhope is a great intellect, trapped in the spirit of a wastrel. Many comics pretend to be outsiders, but Stanhope’s the real deal, with tales of drink and drug-fuelled debauchery on the road having more than a ring of authenticity. But he’s also an imaginative, oblique thinker, fearlessly posing logical, if morally unappealing, solutions to the world’s ills. His lifestyle means his shows can be hit-and-miss, but on press night of this London run, he seemed determined to be on his best behaviour. It was a note-perfect showcase of the heights that this flawed prophet can reach. His shows always demonstrate flourishes of his brilliance, but this sustained from start to finish.

3. Bill Cosby
Place des Arts Montreal, July 2006

Charisma of a very restrained type from the comedy veteran. He, too, was in an immense venue at the Montreal festival, but rather than ranting and raving his way into the audience’s attentions, Cosby sat quietly on a chair and told home-spun tales of his domestic life. The material was mild and affectionate, too slight – on the face of it – to have much substance. But he drew the audience in with his mesmerising delivery; every one of those 3,000 people were leant forward in their seats, listening intently to a monologue that had the intimacy of a chat on the verandah of a grand Midwestern house on a languid summer’s day.

2. Tommy Tiernan
Theatre St Denis, Montreal July 2004

Comedians are often spoken of in terms of ‘stage presence’, that immeasurable charisma that cannot be taught. But if you wanted a gold standard, by which all others would be judged, Tiernan’s performance in the unforgiving auditorium of the Just For Laugh festival’s showcase venue would be it. The Montreal festival’s gala shows can be soulless, a parade of seven-minute acts designed more for the TV show than the live experience. But Tiernan’s rant on religion, delivered with vein-throbbing fervour, was a powerhouse performance in a league of its own. It’s the first – and only – time that I’ve sensed a vacuum once he left the stage; a Tiernan-shaped hole that the act following could never hope to fill. It was a performance that established his reputation in North America.

1. Stewart Lee: 90s Comedian
Underbelly, Edinburgh, August 2005

This was visceral, passionate – sometimes uncomfortable – comedy at its most powerful. Enraged at the religious right-wingers whose aggressive campaign effectively scuppered his acclaimed musical Jerry Springer: The Opera on the flimsiest of reasons, Lee decided he would have nothing to lose in generating the most offensive extended routine he could find. His ensuing tirade of contempt and fury did, indeed, go into extreme, taboo areas. Provocative and passionate, he took the audience on a journey they probably didn’t want to go on – and had them laughing on route. One of the most audacious routines of the last ten years, but one which never lost sight of the comedy.

Published: 4 Jan 2010

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