Opinion: Harry Deansway On A London Comedy Legend

“Don’t give too many flyers out, they are quite expensive. Also don’t give any to Spanish people, they won’t come”

A small bald man, wearing a two piece suit, with a garish yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a chimp over the top of it says to a flyerer in matching outfit. He continues: “Don’t really push the first show, it’s not very good and a couple of acts have dropped out”

It later transpires the flyerer will be performing at the show he’s just been told not to promote. And that concludes a motivational speech that Donald Trump would be proud of. I make my presence known to Martin Besserman, promoter and host of Monkey Business Comedy Club.

“I didn’t see you Harry, would you like to perform at the first show tonight?”

“No thanks, I’ve heard it’s not very good”

“Who from?”

“The promoter”

At its 15 year nadir on the eve of a make or break relaunch I’ve decided to check in with one of the original independent promoters from the comedy boom of the late 90s. In his latest venture Besserman as he is affectionately known has crawled out of Camden Lock into the Holiday Inn situated on its banks. 

Monkey Business Comedy Club started in 2002 downstairs at a Lebanese restaurant in the Edgware Rd. The owner gave Martin £1000 cash to promote the night and pay the acts. “It was way too much money” he tells me over coffee in Archway. The first line up was Julian Clary, Rory Bremner and Paul Merton . The night was inspired by his regular visits to comedy institution Downstairs At The King's Head  “where you’d see real insane comedians including a man whose act was putting his big belly in a bowl of water” he tells me remembering a less careerist industrialised time. Now you'd be more likely to see an act put their five year career plan in a bowl of water rather than their belly.

No one in their right mind would recommend working over ten years as a comedy promoter. Look into Martin's eyes and you will see behind the jovial welcoming smile is the broken soul of someone who has been ravaged by the vagaries of the job. As a promoter you face a constant battle against the odds. The summer months people want to be outside, you can’t compete with the marketing spends of the higher arts like theatre and cinema. There is little prestige and the economics are negligible for acts and promoters. When an act is starting out they need the circuit to hone their craft and get stage time but when they’ve made it the circuit needs them but by then it's served its purpose. Why play an abandoned nightclub in Hull for £150 when you can do an hour of your own material at a theatre for £10,000?

However, the economics accommodate failure. As a club comedy promoter the only reason you can continue despite the numerous hardships and minimal financial income is it's relatively low risk cost wise. Unless you are a contestant on The Apprentice and the task is putting on a comedy night you’d be hard pressed to lose money on even your most ill-attended nights. You can just about scrape a living together (although that's getting harder and harder). Of course there are promoters who’ve turned it into a career but that’s through signing up big name acts to tour. In the main club comedy is the domain of the hobbyist, on AND off stage, and you need a way to supplement your income. Martin thrives in the wretchedness of it, he’s the pig and the circuit is shit.

Against the backdrop of a crumbling circuit the Holiday Inn is El Dorado in Martin's eyes. The mythical venue he’s been searching for that regenerates audience with minimal effort, has the perfect atmosphere and one where he will never be replaced by a karaoke night.

“So this is where the busy New Years Eve gig was that secured me the venue,” Martin says as we stand in the Glass House, the Holiday Inn’s main function room. The operations manager comes striding over.

“Last time I saw you was at the busy New Year's Eve gig, ” Martin repeats for my benefit.

“How’s it looking tonight?” The ops manager asks, having no time to reminisce, it’s June.

“I’ve got a party for you in July that want 80 portions of fish and chips,” Martin says, making no attempt to answer the question. Classic promoter speak, reframe the quiet night. Mention a busy one. Step away from failure being anything to do with your promotion efforts. There is a tube strike, it’s Champions League tonight, anything but it’s my fault.  As with most venues the only thing standing in the way of you being a long term tenant is the ops manager. Your friend in the busy times, the concerned onlooker during the bad ones and a complete stranger who will pretend they’ve never met you when you are out on your arse traipsing the streets looking for a new venue.

“That might surpass the busy New Years Eve gig,” I say, using my ten years as a promoter to get us back on message.

“Hopefully,” they reply in unison. He leaves. It’s time to find out the truth...

Read the full article here.

For Monkey Business events click here.

Illustration © Harry Deansway.

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