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Return of the quiz

Thursday saw my first performance of How To Win A Pub Quiz in 18 months. When I last performed it, I was in Wellington, NZ, and would start off making jokes about the thing called Covid-19 that I’d been hearing about in the news. What’s all that about?

While so much has changed within the past year and a half, there are some things that haven’t changed – namely my material. Admittedly, I have dropped the Covid opener. What also hadn’t changed was my show’s magical ability to sell out venues, provided there’s a cap at 60 people.

Although this isn’t quite the full story. As it was almost as local as physically possible, about half of the audience were people I knew – either school friends or neighbours – and knowing so many people in the room certainly heightened the nerves after such a long break. But the other half of the audience were people I had never met before.

It was a real luxury to do a gig within walking distance of my house, which isn’t something I’d done outside of festivals since my days running that delightful Friday night gig in Walthamstow. There is something joyous about staying in the venue for a couple of hours after the show for a few pints, before stumbling home and not having to worry about potential road closures and diversions on the drive.

But there were some technical issues. When I arrived at the venue, no one could figure out how to get the sound come out of the speakers. The volumes and other levels were controlled by a tablet. Give me a clunky old analogue mixing desk any day of the week, where you can’t alter the settings by the mis-swipe of a finger. Once that mystery was solved, I had to figure out how to fix the microphone that was cutting out every other word. I switched to another cable and changed the mic, it worked better but some problems with sound and acoustics did persist.

The windows on the left of the room were all open to let in some much-needed fresh air and get the germs out. However, the trade-off from this meant that it also caused some sound to escape. As a result, people at the very back of the room found it difficult to hear what I was saying for the first part of the show. Not only this, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying to me from the back of the room. And this is kind of crucial for a show that is so interactive and aims to allow everyone to add something to proceedings.

It was also really hot, to the point where I was sweating profusely from my forehead and that then flowed into my right eyeball. Cue stinging.

Yet despite the sound issues and the heat, people who came along all seemed to enjoy themselves. They even said so when I was within earshot unbeknown to them, which is normally when you would get slagged off. Others also came up to me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed it. Plus the people complaining that they couldn’t hear ended up coming a very close second in the quiz. It’s possible they were just getting in their excuses early. So there is certainly an element of me being too hard on myself.

The problem with performing the show to a particular standard or level is that when it doesn’t quite reach the level you know it can and has done, it always feels slightly disappointing – even though it shouldn’t.

I felt a little rusty, but I settled back into it again. And by the end, it felt like I had never been away. There is definitely still life in the old pub quiz dog yet. Just how much life remains to be seen, but it is a very difficult thing to leave behind.

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Another gig

I had my second gig on the Covid comedy comeback trail on Monday. It was in Swindon, so only 40 minutes drive away. This is considered local in comedy.

Despite being about twice the distance away as the Cirencester gig, it was much less hassle to get there. The roadworks that Highways were doing on my route had ended and I’m pleased to report that there were no issues – other than trying to work out how Swindon’s famous Magic Roundabout actually functions. The trick is to not think too much about it. The more thought you give it, the more confused you’ll get.

As a result of no delays or diversion, I arrived at the venue much less stressed. And I was on first after the first break instead of opening the show, giving me a bit more time to relax and get my set and thoughts together instead.

Pre-Covid, arriving at a venue stressed and going pretty much straight on wouldn’t phase me too much – see Newcastle gig in October 2017 with the five-hour journey and two solid hours of delays. But after ten months without a gig, I could definitely feel the rust.

Monday’s gig had much less rust. They were a great crowd and it was nice to see another full room. I did a lot of riffing around the material, which is always when I have the most fun. I tried the two new bits I’d first aired in Cirencester the previous week.

Some bits went better, some bits didn’t. But it felt much better on the whole, and not quite so much of a shock to the system as my absence from the stage had been four days, as opposed to ten months.

It still feels a little odd to be around crowds and I think I was the only person in the venue wearing a mask. I was convinced that I had picked up Covid after the gig, so went and got a test. And it turned out to be negative. So suck on that, you respiratory illness with a pretentious spiky crown.

After some uncertainty about whether I want to continue with stand-up, I want to do much more of it. I just need to get more gigs in the diary and get back into the habit of booking admin. In fairness, it has been about three years since I have done much of that, and that was after getting incredibly lazy with it for a few years preceding it. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where the gigs are and how to get a spot, but I’ll get there.

Now, my attention goes to Thursday when I perform HTWAPQ for the first time in 18 months. It will be at Stroud Brewery, so nice and local. I had no idea how many tickets I’d sold, as I’m thankfully unable to access the link. I found out a few days ago that have sold 41. This is a good number for the show and I have about 19 left to sell, so reckon I should get a few more in. Now I just need to see how much of it I can remember.

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Gigging again

On Thursday, I performed a stand-up set at an actual physical comedy gig for the first time in ten months. And it was also back in Cirencester, where I had my vaccine and don’t know if I’ve mentioned it a lot on here, but it’s where I used to work as a reporter for the local paper.

It was only ten miles away, which is a real luxury for a comedy gig. Now, one of the things I detest about performing comedy is driving to the gigs. And there’s nothing that makes my heart sink more than road closures and diversions, which are especially stressful if you’re on your way to the gig. But it’s also infuriating on the drive back afterwards late at night, where you just want to get home as quickly as is physically possible.

Given that my gig on Thursday was only ten miles away, I never thought there would be any difficulties with this. But Highways England managed to find a way, by closing the main road I take into Cirencester. I would expect Tom Tom to be deceived, but I was surprised that Google Maps didn’t pick it up.

I had to take a detour through the narrow back roads, where there’s often only enough room for one car to pass. This meant waiting for what seemed like 20 cars all coming the other way.

I arrived at the gig way more stressed than I should have. But I thought I may be on later in the night as I lived so close by. However, I found out that I would be opening the show in 20 minutes. Cue one trip to the toilet. Then three minutes before the show began, I felt the need for a second visit. Or number two number two.

I felt a little rusty and my cursed throat also threatened to sabotage one or two punchlines at the vital moment. I’d planned to try out some new material in the middle of my set, which didn’t all work. But there was I could feel the new bits clicking into place on stage and even ad-libbed some callbacks to the new stuff later on. And the tried and tested stuff was well received.

It was a great gig. The lads at Barking Toad had packed the room out, with people resorting to watching the gig from outside of the room as there was no space inside.

For the drive home, I was at least prepared for the diversion. Then the next day, I woke up at just after 5am to let my dog in the garden. But I struggled to go back to sleep again. My brain was going over the gig and figuring out what worked, what didn’t, and what would work better.

Stand-up comedy is sort of like a cross between a drug, depression, and a life of crime. You can never truly leave it behind. It’s always there, gnawing away at you somewhere. And just when you think you’ve got out of it and are clean, it drags you back in again. While I was giving some serious consideration to quitting during the past year, I now want to do more gigs. Stand-up comedy has taken its grip on me again, but just for how long remains to be seen.

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In the diary

I have an actual comedy gig booked in this next week. Although after a ten-month absence from the stage, my admin skills are a little rusty. I was convinced it was on Tuesday, but it turns out that it’s on Thursday.

The extra couple of days will prove useful, as it gives me more time to turn my half-formed ideas into hopefully functional jokes. Then again, as I’ve written on here many times over, you never truly know if a joke works until you try it out on an audience at a comedy gig or two.

It remains to be seen how many of these half-formed ideas will turn into successful jokes, but that’s part of the excitement and I’m looking forward to getting back on the comedy stage that was the one constant in my life for ten years; before the dark times, before Covid-19.

These past couple of weeks marks the first in a while I have started missing being on stage. This is partly due to seeing crowds at the scaled-down version of Edinburgh Fringe that is taking place this year; particularly seeing that back room at the Kilderkin full with people standing at the back. It brought back fond memories of that phenomenal run I had there in 2015 when I didn’t realise how much possibility lay before me. It didn’t bring back fond memories of the 2018 stint I did there, as I don’t have any of that run – just pain and sadness.

Edinburgh Fringe has always been the one thing that has kept me doing comedy, throughout the tough times – even bizarrely enough through the tough times at the Fringe as there is nowhere to run and demons must be confronted.

When you take Edinburgh Fringe away, it takes away a lot of my focus and incentive for doing comedy. I am now looking forward to returning there next year in whatever form that may be, possibly even with some of the new jokes I may try on Thursday.

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Edinburgh sensations

A few things this week have made me think of Edinburgh Fringe. One thing, strangely enough, was the EdFringe website itself. Odd, that. I had a look to see what shows were going ahead this year and seeing that website layout brought about rumbles of terror in the bowel area, along with a compulsion to check ticket sales and panic I’ve not done enough previews.

Despite my adamant predictions that Ed Fringe wouldn’t be going ahead this year due to Covid, it is proceeding all the same. I’m still convinced it’s not a good idea. But I have a few friends who are going up and I hope they have good runs. I’m just glad to be sitting this one out. Saying that, I said to Langton that I’m convinced that the versions of us from 2011 would insist on going up and nothing would stop them from doing so, not even a global pandemic. Audience apathy is much more potent and they could take that all day long.

The second thing that made me think of the Fringe was the weather today. After the heatwave, the temperature cooled dramatically today. And that combination of a cold wind blowing in warm air and a few specs of rain instantly take me back to the Scottish capital. It is a much cheaper way of doing it.

Then the third thing was also today. I had some posters printed for my show at Stroud Brewery on 9 September (tickets are available on their website, here endeth the plug) and took them to the venue to get some put up around the place. That was it. Nothing poetic or evocative, just posters.

In other news, I had my second jab of the Covid vaccine this week. Originally, it was booked for mid-August in Cirencester. No doubt I would then reminisce about my awful time as a reporter there. But I got an email from the NHS saying I could book an earlier appointment. And it turns out that there was a walk-in place two miles away in Stroud. So that’s what I did. From arrival to injection to exit, it only took barely 20 minutes. There wasn’t even much of a queue. Just one of many reasons why Stroud is better than Cirencester.

Anyway, I’ve not had any real side effects, other than it hurting when I raise my arm and the area around where the needle went in is a bit red. This also means I can now finally get a haircut. I had planned to not get one until the pandemic was over, but that doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon. I can’t control how long Covid will last, but I can control how long my long hair will – sort of.

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Back on the road

This week, it felt like I was heading to a gig. And by that, I mean that I had to get to the motorway during rush hour.

But it wasn’t to a gig. I was on a rescue mission. My sister’s partner had been up in the Lake District with his parents for the weekend and their car had broken down on the M5, so I had to go and pick him up while to take him back to his house in Bristol while his parents waited to be towed home to Plymouth.

To mark the occasion, there were delays; albeit nowhere near on the scale of getting out of Manchester or on the M6. And it got me thinking.

When I was in London, I always envied comics with cars. Or as they’re known in the trade: “a London driver”. If you have a car, live in London and are a half-decent comic, then you instantly get more gigs because you can drive other comedians to gigs – usually the headliner.

But when I moved to Manchester, and was thus a Manchester driver, I found that I actually really hated driving to gigs. I’ve been thinking about how many different stresses were involved with the drive before I even got to a gig. The first stress was getting back to my flat from the city centre. There weren’t normally any delays on the trams, unless I had a gig to get to.

Stress number two was getting my car out of the driveway on one of the tightest imaginable roads, with cars often parked on both sides. What made this worse was if the arse bag who lived next door was blocking me in and was out when knocked on his door to ask him to move it. Thankfully, this only happened once. But even without that, it was often a really tight road if enough people had got back from work.

The third stress was getting out of Manchester, with delays and congestion on seemingly all routes out of the city. Then there was the myriad 50 mile an hour limits, reduced lane sizes and speeding lorries.

Stress number four was motorway driving during rush hour, or the winding roads of the Peak District. Snake’s Pass is one of the most terrifying places to drive in the world at night, and is even worse during bad weather.

Stress number five was finding somewhere to park when I got to the gig. And stress number six was the general race against the clock to get there on time.

So by the time I’d endured all these stresses, it was time to go on stage. It’s not surprising that many of the gigs I did during this time didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

But that wasn’t the end of the stresses. The seventh stress was getting home again, battling motorway lane closures, diversions along one-track back roads, and just trying to stay awake.

Then the eighth stress was parking when I got back to my flat. There was enough room in the driveway outside my flat for two cars out of the three flats. And there was also technically enough room for the arse bag next door to park on the driveway outside his house. Unfortunately, he almost always strayed over to our driveway, thus depriving one of the people of their parking space – because he was an arse bag. Then getting back and finding there was nowhere to park meant trying to turn the car around in the ridiculously tight road, with mere millimetres to play with to avoid scratching one of the parked cars.

With all these stresses encountered regularly, it’s little wonder that in the summer of 2018 that there was what felt like an apocalypse raging on in my bowels.

Anyway, that went on a bit. I didn’t have to worry about most of these stresses for my rescue mission, where I was rewarded with beer for my troubles. And it just so happened to give me a chance to visit the highly regarded Gloucester Services for the first time. Service stations are a big part of the travelling comedian’s life and Gloucester Services is a firm favourite for many comics. But as I only need to come off at pretty much the next junction, I never had a reason to visit before.

I have now, and I can confirm that they’re really good. Although my heart will always be with Tebay Services, which always felt like a post-Edinburgh treat just before returning to the real world.

Visiting services stations for the sake of it isn’t something I intend on doing, although I may consider it if I need a new hobby if I ever permanently turn my back on comedy and feel there’s a lack of overpriced food and petrol in my life.

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Ale

This week, I planted some ale hops. I received them from Stroud Brewery as a reward I paid for in their recent crowdfunder to survive the turmoil the pandemic has sent its way.

Admittedly, my track record with plants isn’t that impressive. A few years ago, at least two new cacti I bought for my flat died fairly quickly. One was called a Magic Cactus. The magical powers weren’t specified and it is possible that they consisted of the ability to die significantly easier than other cacti.

But I’m hoping these hops will have better luck. Provided everything goes according to plan, the grown hops will be sent back to the brewery in September as part of the community ale that they brew every year.

Fortunately, there are load more people around Stroud who also have them growing in their gardens and the pressure isn’t solely on me. I’ll also receive nine pints of the stuff as another part of the crowdfunder reward.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch them grow, as the hop plant is something of a mystery to me. In fact, ale is still largely a mystery to me. I love a good pint of the stuff, but wouldn’t be able to tell you what was in it or how it was made. Though I should know more later on this year, as another reward I paid for in the crowdfunder is for me and a group of friends to have a brewing lesson at Stroud Brewery, where we’ll make our own ale.

I may have spent far too much money on rewards in the brewery crowdfunder, but I’m glad I can help a really worthwhile business survive these difficult times. Plus, I get beer in return for my philanthropy. I’m just glad that my tastes have evolved from that rancid snakebite and black that I drank far too much of in my first year of uni.

Fortunately, the brewery hit its target quite comfortably. I’ve spent countless hours there with friends in the last decade, drinking some fine ales and eating amazing pizza. And I look forward to doing so again once the Covid madness has run its course.

And on the subject of Stroud Brewery, I can announce that I will be performing How To Win A Pub Quiz there in September. Half of the ticket price will go to the brewery, with the other half helping me to recoup some of the funds I spent on the crowdfunder. I’m fairly sure that Edinburgh Fringe isn’t happening this year, so it’s nice to have something in the diary. The hypothetical diary that is, I haven’t bought a physical diary since 2019.

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Shaped like a pear

I returned to performing this week, sort of.

One of my favourite ever comedy nights, Pear Shaped, has recently moved online. It was an institution of the London circuit and really helped me to discover the joy that can be gained from dying on my arse. The clue’s in the name, it was a night where it was fine for everything to go wrong; and it frequently did, in the best possible way.

The audience often wasn’t that big and it wasn’t uncommon for there to be no audience at all. Or if there was a crowd, you were never quite sure how long they would stick around for. But sometimes, just sometimes, downstairs at that pub in Fitzrovia in that weird wooden room that smelt a bit of toilets, it would be a full of paying punters and it could be a lovely gig.

And after saying nice things about the gig on Alison’s podcast recently, I received a message from Brian asking if I’d like to perform. Now, I have a rule that I only do online gigs if I’m asked. So it was nice to do my first one.

I decided to pre-tape my bit, just to avoid any technical difficulties in a live broadcast. Plus if I know there’s not going to be much chance of hearing laughter anyway, I might as well do my set at a convenient time and relax later on when the show was being broadcast. And is it weird to perform a stand-up set without a crowd? No, at Pear Shaped it certainly isn’t. In fact, it feels the most appropriate gig to do online.

Another reason I’m glad I pretaped it is because it took me about seven or eight attempts to get it right without fluffing my lines. I’ll claim it’s because I’m out of practice, but then I know really that I am prone to fluffing lines on stage.

After a couple of run throughs, a weird thing started happen to my throat. It is a condition I like to call ‘weird quivery sheep throat thing’, where it’s difficult to talk without being interrupted by my faltering vocal cords. It started happening in 2019 and then returned when I was trying to talk on stage in October. I normally have a throat lozenge before I
perform, so perhaps my throat muscles aren’t used to it after such a long absence. Anyway, I gargled with some mouthwash and pushed through.

I enjoyed doing it and it was good to see catch up with some old faces again. Plus the journey home after the gig was really quick and I didn’t have to worry about getting delayed by motorway lane closures.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2021?

Is Edinburgh Fringe going to happen this year? Well, the short answer is that I don’t know. Thank you for your traffic, I appreciate you stopping by.

I will give some further thoughts now. I should add that I am not privy to any inside information and have no scientific qualifications relating to disease, or indeed any scientific qualifications whatsoever. Thus making me the perfect person to give an opinion on the matter.

I am also aware that I mention Edinburgh Fringe more than anything else on this site. I don’t even have to look that up either. Since I first visited the festival in 2010, it is what I have planned my years and entire comedic focus around. So while I don’t know what is being discussed with organisers at the moment, I do have enough knowledge and experience of the festival to give me an idea of the practicalities of running things in the post-Covid world.

Firstly, I should add that I hope Edinburgh Fringe does happen this year. And here comes the ‘however’. However, it is difficult to see it happening this year even with the vaccination roll-out.

As far as I can tell, about half a million people come to Edinburgh every year during August. And they come from all around the world, from counties all with varying infection rates and different action by respective governments.

Were the Fringe to go ahead, it is likely that there would be some social distancing measures still in place. And this is where everything falls down. Many rooms in Edinburgh are small, cramped and sweaty. If one of these rooms had a pre-Covid capacity of 50; then for post-Covid with social distancing this could easily reduced by ten times. And being in one of these tiny rooms will hardly be appealing to an increasingly health-conscious population. On the plus side, it would be easier to sell-out and I have also performed to audiences lower than five during my time up there.

Post-Covid, having hundreds of thousands of people all mixing in cramped conditions is a recipe for disaster.

The other factor is financial. The majority of performers in the UK have hardly been able to perform within the last 12 months, thus depriving them of money. And Edinburgh Fringe is an expensive endeavour, to say the least, meaning that a lot of performers will be unable to afford it through lack of revenue.

And this financial factor also includes audiences. While the fortunate have been able to save a load of money on commuting, not everyone currently has a job and unemployment is soaring. People may end up choosing to save what money they have, or choose to spend it to go somewhere else on holiday instead.

Therefore, Ross Kemp: The Musical may not be making its debut in August. Although there is always a possibility that it could be performed towards the end of the year. As with everything at the moment, it’s just a matter of wait and see.

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Standing up and locking down

The other week, I had my first comedy gig since 7 March. They say the secret to comedy is good timing. And I suppose it was, as England would be back in lockdown less than a week later.

It was the same venue in Bristol I performed at in May 2018, when I was in rich vein of form and had one of my best gigs from that year.

What a difference two and a bit years make. This time, the audience was socially distanced and there were no intervals, which is not ideal for a comedy gig due to the bladder needs of audiences. But such measures are necessary all the same.

The audience got very heckley towards the end of the opening act who had done 20 minutes. Not nasty heckles, just a bit weird and persistent. As a result, I arrived on stage and they were a little restless. I had to try and get things back on track and manage the people who were having their own private conversations.

I felt rusty and so did my throat, with it threatening to stop working at certain points due to the number of muscles I’ve neglected in the last eight months.

With so much going on, I wasn’t entirely happy with how my set went down. Certifiable gold fell flat in places. But the second half of my set went much better than the first half, which is always the better than the reverse.

It’s never a great feeling to return to the scene of a great gig and not doing as well the next time. Nevertheless, it was nice to be back on stage and it takes several gigs in over a number of weeks or months to return to form. I was expecting to feel the adrenaline again that you can get immune to if gigging regularly, although it never really kicked in.

I certainly hadn’t missed driving to gigs. In fact, the experience reminded me just how much I hate the driving side of things and the multiple stresses involved, not to mention motorway lane closures on the way home. And in all honesty, I haven’t missed the regular grind of the circuit in the slightest.

I don’t have anything else booked up and with the way things are going, it seems wise not to. As things stand, I have no idea when I’ll do another gig.

At the moment, my main priority in comedy is writing my Ross Kemp musical. That may seem like an absurd sentence because it is. The entire project is absurd, but I believe in the idea and have a good feeling about just where it might lead. The last show I had a similar feeling about ended up doing pretty well indeed.