Friday, 17 June 2016

MONKEY KINGDOM



“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. The flyerer vanishes into the throng of Camden Market and 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 90’s. In his latest venture Besserman as he is affectionately known has crawled out of Camden Lock into the post apocalyptic Holiday Inn situated on it’s banks.

TWO CLOWNS DISCUSS MONKEY BUSINESS 



Twenty years ago riding the crest of the Newman and Baddiel playing Wembley wave stand up comedy became “cool” and very profitable.Eddie Izzard kicked off the playing arena craze, Live At The Apollo and Mcintyre's Roadshow were two of the most popular shows on telly. It trickled down and small venues fell over themselves to have a comedy night in their back room. Why have the hassle of some degenerate band with all their instruments and equipment when you can just plug in a microphone, book a couple of comedians and boost your bar take with much less risk. A big plump carcass had been felled and agents swooped from high to pick at it, PR’s swarmed and gnawed at it’s bones. Now the independent comedy circuit is rotting.  Staffed only by the lost and the doomed, performed at by ambitious tragedies and attended by scavengers clinging to the wreckage. But back then anyone could set up a comedy night and Martin Besserman did.


Monkey Business comedy club started in 2002 downstairs at a Lebanese restaurant in the Edgeware 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 Clarey, 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 Martins 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's 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 it's 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 he will never be replaced with at 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 Years 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 desperate unison. He leaves. It’s time to find out the truth.


“How is it actually looking tonight?”


I ask.


“Not good, I haven’t sold many tickets, the free comedy nights are killing me, being black listed by Time Out has really not helped. I submitted the listings to Listeria, but the new system is very complicated”


“Listeria?”


Martin looks at me like I’m the one who thinks it’s fine to submit comedy listings to bacteria.


“I need to go and flyer If you want a free coffee just head to the bar and ask.”


I do want a free coffee. They have no idea what I’m talking about and look at me like I’m the one who thinks it’s fine to submit comedy listings to Bacteria. I pay for the coffee. Showtime in one hour.


"ONE OF THE BEST MC'S IN THE BUSINESS" MARTINS WORDS OF COURSE 





There are two shows at Monkey Business. The more traditional one on stage and the avant garde performance piece that is Martin dealing with the thrills and spills of live comedy promotion. The complicated comic narratives he weaves behind the scenes are like if Mr Magoo was written by the team behind The Wire. It can be complicated with several plot twists or just something simple like him introducing an act, going to sit down, missing his chair and lying on his back like a tortoise unable to get up. Despite Martin’s great taste in acts I always prefer the Martin show as it’s real and unplanned. I’ve been at gigs where he’s done anything from stand on his head mid act to holding an audience of Norwegian school children prisoner by not allowing an interval as “there are not enough audience members and you might leave.” This was shortly after the Anders Breivik massacre. As the old adage goes comedy is all about timing.  Sadly Skynet is not online. The comedy genius has no self awareness.


Before Martin fell down the rabbit hole that is comedy promoting he sold net curtains in the market. In the evenings he was a poet who had Adam Ants manager. He opened for The Pretenders and Depeche Mode. Whilst on the weekend he’d speak at Speakers corner,a hobby he continues to this day. Monkey business has had to deal with the vagaries of freelance promotion. It’s testament to Martin's resilience that it’s existed at upwards of twenty venues. There have been many highs including regular appearances from Harry Hill, Russell Brand, Stephen Merchant and Stewart Lee but also lows which include being accused of “introducing an act as a prostitute” and “being seen as condoning an audience member throwing a shoe at an act.” Mentioning his name can elicit responses from “passionate Independent maverick who supports new talent” to “crazed sex pest who doesn’t pay acts enough.”

“In 14 years running the club I may have asked a couple of acts out but any suggestions that I’m a creep or don’t know the boundaries is completely ridiculous. Also a lot of the accusations are from acts who’s material is very weak. I’ve never exploited an act, I’m very transparent. In the history of running Monkey Business I’ve paid an act via cheque once, when I’ve not had the money on the night. The acts see the busy nights and not the quiet ones, promoters are seen as the greedy pigs of the industry. I’m entitled to make a good living as I work hard and if I do well the acts will as well.”

Lets just say if Monkey business had an HR department there would be lots of complaints. But that would be a reflection of today's politically correct corporate culture rather than an admission of wrong doing.



A BUSY EARLY SHOW 

It’s time for show one. Morrissey's very sombre You Were Good In Your Time Blares out of Martin's I-pod. He is out flyering as 15 audience members wait for “The not very good show.” to start. It’s very much the atmosphere of a Holiday Inn. The acts do well and the gig has a nice vibe. Martin returns in time to deliver his marketing message to an audience who enjoyed the first show. “That show was very low quality” he states despite having not watched it and with the acts who have just performed at it standing at the back of the room. “The next show is going to be a lot better. There are some TV names and one of the acts is pregnant, so she could give birth on stage which could be really interesting. Also a mentally ill man has present for one of the performers so do stick around.”


I know you are dying to know what happens. Will Monkey Business survive to the end of this article? Is an act actually going to give birth on stage? And why won’t Spanish people like the night? All questions that will hopefully be answered later but for the benefit of the reader  the following week I decide to perform at Monkey Business, can it really be as challenging as it looks from the sidelines.




Things are off to a frantic start as I turn up and Martin comes running over when I arrive.


“I gave the flyers and a monkey business t-shirt to a 17 year old Spanish girl and and I haven’t seen her since”


Why did you do that Martin?


“She needed the money.”


Doing Monkey Business is like the comedy equivalent of level 21 on the bleep test. Everything is stacked against you. The microphone doesn’t work, Martin Takes a picture of you mid-set (with flash on), you're lucky if he says your name in his introduction, often you’ve got to help put the chairs out, you are usually in a weird room in a weird location. Why make an act feel at ease when you can tell them that all of the evenings marketing materials were randomly given to a destitute teenage girl, but Martin is not a traditional promoter and that's what makes him relevant.


Alas, Besserman’s attempts to sabotage his own night have been in vain as an audience begins to form including a family with two young children. Their presence brings an air of tension over the backstage area. I find Martin and pull him to one side.


“Hi, I’m doing a blue set tonight I really don’t think it’s suitable for Children”


“ Don’t worry about it, I’ll go and speak to the parents”


He says marching over to the unsuspecting family before announcing


“One of the acts is doing sex comedy, is that ok with you?”


I go and hide in the toilet and cringe  By the time I come out of hiding the show is going ahead and the children are still sitting there. Martin has vanished, I assume he’s gone to look for the 17 year old Spanish girl. I’ve had to re-calibrate my sexually explicit blue set for an audience that contains minors. At one stage one of the children is visibly distracted and the mum audibly says “ pay attention to the comedian” If I was ever going to hear a parent tell an infant to pay attention to my act it was  going to be at Monkey Business. Against all the odds I had a fun gig and I’m a better comedian for it as I had to improvise and and adapt to the difficult circumstances. It's certainly not to everybody's taste, but the unique atmosphere at Monkey Buisness is original, dangerous and authentic. It’s not affected, it’s guerilla comedy that tests your mettle whether you are performer or an audience member. I’d call it “real” comedy.

It’s late at night now I leave, on my way home I realise I’ve forgotten my keys, I’ve been touched by the
A CROW PONDERS WHAT I MIGHT BE DOING WITH MY LIFE
hand of Besserman. Rather than wake my flat mates up I decide to spend the night in a 24 hour McDonalds. I feel like It’s what Martin would do. Perversely there is a weirder atmosphere at Monkey Business. I log on to the Monkey Business web-site on my phone to kill some time. In my sleep deprived state I feel like I’m now digitally immersed in the cracked, warped psyche of Besserman. Is it real or am I dreaming? Blurred pictures of acts taken mid set with quotes from them in the jokerman font in bright colours burn into my retinas, reams of email testimonials from audience members that old father time wouldn’t have enough hours to read clog my mind. There are Listings of the nights with either the wrong picture of the act or a very strange description of them, sometimes both. The crown jewel is a yearly diary that contains anything from Martin's insights on the night to under the heading of “news stories” updates about leaving voicemails on big name acts answer machines about them playing Monkey Business (If you are interested a voicemail was left for Noel Fielding in 2009 which has not yet been replied to).  I fall asleep or did I just wake up. I look out the window and instead of my reflection I see Martin Besserman’s, I scrunch my eyes now my reflection is the Monkey Business Chimp. Maybe I was Martin Besserman all along I blink and a crow is staring at me from the car park. It’s time to sleep.


THE AUDIENCE MARTIN DESERVES




Good news Monkey Business has survived till the end of this piece. It’s time for the main show, the one we’ve all been waiting for. Martin returns to oversee the door. We’ve heard about it in the marketing, we’ve been given the flyer and now it’s finally here. The doors are open. His mum stands by his side. The ops manager peers over the balcony. The first customer arrives  A man dressed head to toe in full Barnet football club merchandise. “Mum, this man has had his penis mutilated like me” Martin says. The man stands there awkwardly before saying “who wants to hear a joke” No one says they do but he does it anyway.


The TV names start arriving one by one. All but one of them asks to go on first which Martin agrees to. I do the maths, this will not be mathematically possible. The room starts to fill up it looks like it’s going to be a busy one. I can’t believe it.  Ten minutes before the show there is a great atmosphere. Martin takes to the stage. There aren’t enough chairs for the audience so TV names start putting seats out as Martin is busy MC’ing the show. The show starts off by him realising that he’s still got chewing gum in his mouth, he takes it out and puts it on the speaker. The he goes into some light racism before saying out loud that he is very good looking. Some underage children walk in. He then introduces the only act who didn’t ask to go on first.No one comes to the stage, so the acts decide amongst themselves who’s going to go on first. I survey a sold out Monkey Business. The audience are loving the chaos, it’s going to be fine. I sneak out whilst the acts are still deciding who should go on first. As long as there is an empty room in a venue that needs filling on a Saturday night there will always be Monkey Business. The thought pleases and terrifies me in equal measure long may he reign in the Monkey Kingdom.

Monkey Business is every Thursday at the Camden Eye and on Saturdays is at the Holiday Inn. See web-site for listings. http://www.monkeybusinesscomedyclub.co.uk/

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