Letters To A Young Comedian

Monday 9 February 2004, The Stage

Everyone should have a local comedy club and luckily I do. The Banana Cabaret at the Bedford Pub in Balham, south London, is one of the country’s oldest and most successful venues and, judging by the plethora of photos at the entrance, every comic alive has played there. The main room is circular and has a balcony that makes me think of it as a latter-day Globe. It is a proper arena and yet it retains an intimacy that makes it hard to believe that it has a capacity of 300.

I know this last fact because I have just spoken on the phone to the wily playboy Chris, who is the pub boss and who, on learning that I am writing this, immediately offered me a free dinner for two at his nearby pub the Tim Bobbin in Clapham.

This shameless and successful attempt to bribe me will not prevent me from challenging the Banana policy never to have a compere for shows. As a former secretary-general of the Union of Comperes, I have to protest most strongly at this continued persecution of myself and my fellow union members. What have you got against us? Are we not human as other comics? If you prick us, do we not bleed and make an announcement about the fire arrangements?

The thinking behind the MC ban is something like this - comperes distract from the beauty of the acts. A simple introduction to the comedian from the club manager is purer than the brouhaha which a compere inevitably brings. It allows the comics to do a touch longer and means you can pay them more.

It is true that a bad compere can make a good bill look bad. Some useless sod blethering away between acts can ruin an evening. Any comic momentum a good set gives a show may be lost at the reappearance of someone who was irritating you at the start of the gig.

Every one of the union members has experienced this and it’s all very unpleasant for everyone concerned. Above all for the compere, who must endure a lengthy torture. If an act has gone badly they can be in a cab speeding away before the boos have died down and the booze has kicked in. If as MC, you’ve bombed in your first appearance, you can’t just go home. You have to go back on again. And again. And again.

More often a compere will make an average bill good and a good bill great. By their introductions they will present the oncoming act with a situation where they can shine. They can also bring the tempo down if the occasion demands. Usually, though, a decent MC is liable to be upbeat and inclined to improvise. It is not a role all comics relish. Jimmy Carr told me recently he didn’t rate himself as a compere - he felt it required him to come out of character and he was uncomfortable with this. There is very little mateyness to his act.

Anyway I’m not too bothered about the Bedford position since a good compere will never be short of work, even if it’s only as a bingo caller. Also, I want to introduce an exciting new postscript which will henceforth feature at the end of every column.

PS) Words to be forbidden. Number One - Extensively. How often have I heard: “He has travelled extensively,” or “she has worked extensively in this field”. It is a fudge word which is vague, meaningless and adds nothing to a description beyond making its author seem lazy. Two out of ten. See me. I’ll be lunching at the Tim Bobbin.

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