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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Worth a Toss vs. Utter Shite: Scottish vs. American Comedy Clubs

Posted By on Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge RICHARD FREEMAN
  • Richard Freeman

I spent last week performing in Scotland at the Magners Glasgow Comedy Festival, and it was awesome. I had never been to or performed in the U.K. before, and this was certainly a crash course on how to do it. I did eight sets in five days, three on the first night alone.

click to enlarge RICHARD FREEMAN
  • Richard Freeman
I did sets in the basement of a bar, the foyer of a bar, the back room of a bar, a weird room in a casino in the middle of the day where old people ate soup, and at one of (if not THE) greatest comedy clubs in which I have ever performed, The Stand in Glasgow.

I had seen the Stand before in the Youtube clips of my latest comedy crush, Stewart Lee. Stewart is an English comedian who has made a point of filming all his DVDs in Glasgow and at least one at the Stand. Stewart's act is a mix of silly and heady and definitely not for the punters*, and l love him. In a strange twist of fate I was invited to the festival in Glasgow only a year after discovering him.
The Stand is the best (lemme back up here so I can still get work in the Bay Area:) one of the best comedy clubs I have ever played for one reason: Tommy Sheppard**. He owns the Stand in Glasgow and in Edinburgh. And Tommy has managed to do something that most comedy clubs in America have yet to figure out: the Stand puts the audience's ENTIRE focus on the show. How does he do it? Simple: There are no cocktail servers. People buy their drinks before the show and during the two intermissions, called intervals, during the show. By the way, they laugh at our two-drink minimum. As Scottish comic Des Clarke says, in Scotland they don't need minimums; they need maximums.

click to enlarge kkkimg_20110410_045335.jpg

In another brilliant move, the Stand REFUSES to book bachelor/bachelorette parties (stag/hen parties, in their parlance). They simply won't book them. If one tries to sneak in, as soon as they're found out, they get tossed out on their arses. This is because, as we've covered here before, those parties suck for comedy.

The amazing thing about how great the audiences are in Glasgow now is that apparently the city used to be known as a real tough and sometimes violent crowd. But clearly Tommy has cultivated not only a respect for but also a love of stand-up comedy among his crowds. All the other shows I did in Glasgow were okay. (Well, actually, the soup show was great.)

click to enlarge old_soup_eatersimg_20110409_141722.jpg
But the Stand was in a class by itself. The crowds really listen, and when they participate it is only out of genuine excitement, as when they were trying to explain to the naive American comedian what exactly was in their "brown sauce." This was after he told them that "brown" wasn't a flavor and he suspected that it was made from Indian and/or Pakistani people.***, ****

The one thing I was most afraid of was that the Scottish audience wouldn't get my American references. Turns out, my fear was my biggest problem. The more comfortable I was, the better the shows were. They get all our references because American capitalism wouldn't have it any other way. They have our movies at the same time we do. They have Pizza Hut, Krispy Kreme, KFC, even Quiznos. They even have a sweets store called Americandy where they keep our cereal.

click to enlarge candy_cereal_img_20110409_171427.jpg
We shove our culture down their gullets, and in return we only take Ewan McGregor and Sean Connery ... and only as long as they clean up those pesky accents a little.

Tommy has very specific and progressive ideas about which American comedians he brings to the Stand. I was really struck at one point when I realized that of the four Americans on my "America Stands Up Showcase," there were two women (the equally dangerous and top-notch Jena Friedman and Leah Bonnema), a gay man (the pro's pro Jim David), and a black guy (the me). And the show wasn't called something odious like "The American Diversity Showcase!" Tommy just likes good comedy. I feel privileged that I was included in that definition. You know what? Maybe Glasgow's audiences aren't as good as I think. Maybe it's just that Tommy Sheppard should run every comedy club in the world.

*This entry is rife with UK slang. Enjoy!
** And his awesome staff, especially Sarah Watson.
*** That riff was such a hit, I'm thinking about when I return to Glasgow booking myself as W. Kamau "Brown Sauce" Bell. Seriously.
**** The other great convo was the one I had with the hilariously wry Northern Ireland comic Elaine Malcolmson. She took me on a tour of the posters in the club, giving me the skinny on which comics were worth a toss and which were utter shite.

"Kamau's Komedy Korner" is a weekly blog column about San Francisco comedy. Check back next Wednesday for more.

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W. Kamau Bell

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