“A stand-up gig can quickly become a hostage situation,” says Barry Ferns, Chortle Award nominee. “I once followed an act who had made the entire audience so uncomfortable I had to make them sing ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ to lighten the mood.”
While having to resort to the nuclear ‘Disney song’ option is certainly bad, it’s far from the worst experience the veteran comedian is aware of. He tells me the apocryphal story of a stand-up who was the only entrant in a competition and won the cash prize by default, only to have it immediately taken back once the audience heard his set.
“You can’t just stroll up and be a stand-up,” says Ferns. “It takes application and hard work.”
Barry has certainly put in the time: as MC for the Angel Comedy club in Islington he plays to crowds of between 80-120 up to seven nights a week, warming the audience up for the acts he has chosen. The dedication has paid off, as he has been nominated for Best Compere at the 2014 Chortle Awards.
“My job is to keep the crowd friendly,” he explains, though he also sees it as a way to hone his craft. “I try to do 70 per cent new material each night, and that’s entirely based around that particular audience. You’ll probably hear me do my ‘I look like Richard Branson at a Bee Gees convention’ line again if you come back, but apart from that it will be mostly new.”
I went along to Friday’s gig. The five acts Barry had lined up have all made names for themselves on the national circuit and based upon the crowd’s enthusiastic response to their sets it’s easy to see why they were selected. While they all perform material which is fairly well-trodden ground – Ikea furniture, Australia’s arachnid population and mortifying sexual encounters – they do so with a new spin that makes it all feel original.
First up is Elliott Quince, performing under the guise of ‘Olaf Falafel, Sweden’s eighth funniest comedian’. His assumed accent swings between South African and German, and if it touches upon Swedish at all it appears to be by chance. After the gig he tells me the accent and the jumpers are a way to alert the audience to the fact he’s about to be very silly.
Ruth Cockburn is the only female comedian on the bill that night and immediately gains the attention of the audience with the vast disparity between her friendly, almost-plummy demeanour and her rueful admission that in her youth she relentlessly bullied someone for being Christian. Utterly at-ease on the stage, she tells ghastly real-life anecdotes with a blitheness and cheeriness that makes it difficult not to laugh along with her although you know you should be appalled.
The last act before the half-time break, Gerry Howell, is a study in successful improvisation. With seemingly nothing prepared he approaches the microphone almost sheepishly but rapidly begins riffing off the audience. Within a minute his set has ranged from discussing Australian wildlife to his love life, and despite his manic energy it becomes apparent that he is very intelligent and collected. He appears to formulate a joke on the fly and then subverts the punchline even as he says it, keeping the audience guessing.
After the break Alasdair Beckett-King takes to the stage, noting that he wants to change the hyphen in his name to a comma. In the most memorable section of his set, which is primarily based around his life as a vegan, he unfolds a postcard from Germany prior to World War II which shows Hitler petting a fawn and proceeds to berate the audience for eating meat which ‘loved Hitler’.
Finally, Hyde Panaser takes to the stage, making some near-the-knuckle opening jokes about racial stereotyping. He discusses his life in an inclusive way which encourages the audience to laugh along with his accounts of being a London-born Sikh, and the best gag of the night might have been his honest confusion about being racially abused by a man who had ginger hair: “I turned round and was like, ‘what? But you’re ginger!’”
Angel Comedy takes place seven nights a week at the Camden Head, Islington. Details on each night can be found at angelcomedy.co.uk. Entrance is free but donations are appreciated.