Working Comedian

PHIL EVANS BLOG UPDATE – FEBRUARY 7TH 2011

 

In my last blog I started to tell you about my initiation into the world of television studio audiences. But linked to that, I forgot to mention a story I’d  heard about that great natural clown, the comedians comedian Tommy Cooper who, just before a recording of one of his tv shows made at Thames Television in Teddington, walked on to the set unannounced, holding a small two-bar electric fire. 

 

The audience were surprised and delighted to see him so early in the evening and when the appreciative applause had died down, he gave one of his trade-mark huge sighs and, looking at the electric fire in his hand, said “ They told me to come out  here and warm you up! “. 

 

The laughter that greeted this daft line could be heard all the way from Teddington to Torquay.

 

Okay, maybe you had to be there.  In fact if you were there, maybe you could get in touch with me and confirm the story is true?  And if you weren’t there, but have a two-bar electric fire for sale, you can get in touch too please? The radiator in our back bedroom hasn’t worked for weeks.

 

As I mentioned last time around, my very first attempt at warming-up a tv studio audience ( without an electric fire, convector heater or hot water bottle I might add ) was for the ITV sketch series “Barry Welsh Is Coming“ starring John Sparkes as the hopeless, hapless and talentless chat show host-with-the-least…Barry Welsh.

 

Barry was a great comic creation, as funny in his way as Steve Coogan’s monster Alan Partridge was a few years later.  Both characters were unsuited to hosting a talk show for different reasons.  Partridge was a talentless, paranoid, self-serving egomaniac with a bizarre command of the English language, as proven by the awkward, clunky way he constructed his banal questions. Questions that he wasn’t much interested in hearing the answer to.

 

I think Jamie Owen and Richard Madeley might have gone to the same school.

 

Barry Welsh, on the other hand, was a bit of a twonk, only happy when he was slipping innuendo after innuendo into his script.  In fact I remember him telling me about the time he went into a chemists shop and asked the female assistant for a large double entendre.

 

 So she gave him one.

 

There’s no doubt that the tone of the show was rather on the crude side. This is not a criticism, purely an observation. Not many people tuning in after ten-thirty at night would have been offended by its content. Quite the opposite, because it ran to several series which all did well in the ratings. 

 

But as the shows warm-up  man, there was no way I was going to walk out there before the  recording started and  start  hammering the audience into their seats with a tirade of blue jokes . That wasn’t and still isn’t my style. I’m no prude. I enjoy hearing the odd mucky gag. I enjoy hearing mucky gags that aren’t odd, too. But I don’t want to be known as a comedian who relies on dirty gags to get laughs. 

 

Side-note to the up and coming comic. Young man or young lady, it is a truth universally acknowledged ( Okay I admit  I’ve never actually read Pride and Prejudice, but I’ve experienced both those emotions  –  usually when I’m in the queue for the check-out in Asda and I take a sneaky look at the contents of the persons basket in front and compare their heart-clogging, cholesterol–choked crap with my healthy greens, fresh fruit and skimmed milk ) that if you pepper your act with four-letter words, no matter how weak or rambling it is, you’ll doubtless get laughs. 

 

But, here’s the thing. I know it’ll put some of your noses out of joint – although having met one or two of you, that can only be an improvement –  in the grand scheme of things-comedy, that means nothing.

 

Look, I could walk out on stage and shout “B*ll*cks to the Queen!“ and it would get guaranteed laughs. Not at a Royal Variety Performance, obviously.  But most other places.

 

Getting laughs with clean, clever, sharp and witty material, now that takes experience and brass nerve in equal measure.  If you can do twenty minutes to half an hour without making jokes about your sexual preferences and not use a single swear word, you could become a good comic.  You may even become a great one.

 

Yes, yes, yes, I know Frankie Boyle is rich and famous because there is nothing he won’t say on stage. He’s so outrageously, permanently, blood-vessel poppingly angry at the world, isn’t he?

 

Um… I don’t know for sure. No one can go through life really being that angry about everything.  He’d have a very short life if he did.

 

It’s all an act.

 

Isn’t it?

 

Even if he is only being (yawn) ‘ironic’, for him to give his UK tour the title “ I would happily punch every one of you in the face” shows contempt for the people who are happy to hand over their hard-earned, to buy a ticket, to be sworn at for two hours.  Not my idea of a great night out. Not that I’m going to reveal what my idea of a great night out is.

 

I decided to leave the ‘ strong ‘ stuff  to John and his guests and went out there to do the job I’d been asked to do , namely get the audience  in a good mood and keep them entertained.  Even from that very first booking I knew not to go full-pelt, firing off gag after gag from my act, as if I was performing to a club or theatre audience. This is one of the differences between being a stand-up comedian and a warm-up comedian. There are different skills and requirements involved and once the stand-up comedian realises that, and eases back a little, he can enjoy a long career as a warm-up. 

 

One young comedian almost ended his career when he was asked to warm-up the audience for a Big Comedy Stars Christmas special. The comedian may have been young but he’d been around a while and appeared as a guest on many light entertainment shows –  the mention of ‘ light entertainment shows ‘ will give you some idea of how long ago this took place!  Petrol was three pence for ten gallons. You could have two weeks in Benidorm for a fiver. And the DFS sale had just started.

 

Have you seen some of those sofas in the DFS ads on tv?  No wonder the prices are always reduced. They’re bloody hideous. I think they only hire designers who suffer from regular migraines and the moment they see one coming on, they stuff a pencil in their hand and tell them to create a new pattern.

 

Anyway, when he got the call to do the warm-up, like any good pro he decided to take the opportunity, because you never know who could be hiding in the shadows at the back of the set or under the audience seating, watching you working. Maybe the Head Of Entertainment…the Chairman of the BBC….or, as is usually the case, Ada and Doris from the canteen who like to pop in for a quick look before they catch their ‘bus home.

 

So there he was, standing there in front of 300 people, all waiting to see the Big Comedy Star. After he went through the usual instructions about what to do in the event of a fire in the studio ( i.e. Panic and follow him ! ) he went straight into his act, building slowly with giggles and then very soon, huge roars of laughter. 

 

After fifteen minutes the place was rocking. The audience weren’t just warmed up…they were aglow!  This must have been great news for the Big Comedy Star?

 

Nope!

 

He had been sat in his dressing room, listening through the tannoy to the gales of laughter greeting his warm-up man, while getting more and more nervous by the minute.

 

He became so nervous that when his producer told him it was time to go down to the studio floor to meet his audience, he refused. He was sure his material, the lines he had learned and rehearsed over and over until he was word perfect, wouldn’t get the same big reaction that his warm-up mans gags were getting.

 

You have to remember that this man was a huge star in the 70’s and 80’s. His tv shows regularly got 15 million viewers.  These days if your show gets 4 million tuning in, they buy you crates of champagne and offer to fill up your tank with petrol. That’s how pleased they are! Yet he was frightened to go and meet his audience which would have been no more than 300 in number, a small proportion of the crowds that packed the theatres when he was on tour or in summer season.

 

The upshot of it was, it took all the producers charm, flattery and powers of persuasion to get the Big Comedy Star down to the studio floor.  The fact that the Head of Light Entertainment threatened to tear up his contract if he didn’t move his backside, must also have had an effect on him.

 

The show went ahead, the Big Comedy Star recorded the show which, when it went out at Christmas, was another huge success for him. He was on our screens regularly for another six or seven years before tastes in comedy changed and he disappeared into an early, but no doubt comfortable retirement.

 

But during his remaining years in television, he made sure that his shows were never warmed-up again by the comedian whose strong gags whipped that studio audience up into a frenzy.

 

I now make a point of just stopping short of getting my studio audiences into that state. Which brings me back neatly to my warm-ups for “Barry Welsh Is Coming”.

 

Darn it! Look at the time!  I’ve got to rush down to Asda to stare into other peoples shopping baskets…..

 

See you next time and thanks for reading……