King Gong at the Comedy Store

The Performance Club outreach team visit the Comedy Store

Artist’s blog: Monday 28th April. 10pm: I turn up at the Comedy Store with Becky, a one-time performance poet who, against my better judgement has ditched her gritty lyrics and demanded I help her put together a stand-up comedy act. Some of the stuff she’s been writing recently and presenting in workshop indicates that she clearly means it, so I’m in for the duration.

The monthly King Gong at the Store is a show every aspirant comedian should at least see and preferably take on and conquer. Some newbies, often sign up months in advance for the dubious privilege of appearing in this talent competition where the main opposition is an audience only there for the sport.

In 1980 the gong show was the club’s main format for up to 5 shows a week; I was a regular MC and taught myself the art of crowd control earning £12 a shift plus all the beer I could drink.

We’re late and only catch the end, which involves some sort of play off situation (I don’t remember that). The audience are volatile - there’s shouting, laughing and booing. The atmosphere is intimidating and exciting and at times ugly. (No change there then.)
At the bar I introduce Becky to the Store’s long-standing boss Don Ward; they talk briefly, he buys us drinks and then offers her a spot at the next King Gong in a months time.

A few days before the gig I ring Don Ward and confirm Becky’s spot, he tells me that he wont be there - in Berlin opening another club - which spoils the continuity a bit. I nevertheless blag some freebies (all of them potential gong fodder I assure him) and make sure his Stage manager Alex Rochford expects all of us.

The day before, Becky gets serious cold feet; she’s made King Gong into an important gig and for four weeks has been customising her material and honing her set. Two run-up gigs have been nervous and messy and now she wants out. I’m disappointed and I tell her so, but I also tell her I understand and that I’m going to take the gang to the show anyway. So no pressure.

Artist’s blog Mon 26th May: 7pm. A group of us have planned to meet in the pub along the road from the Comedy Store; Becky arrives first, in good spirits and ready to perform, others call to say they are on their way. Friends are coming from all over London to support Becky’s step into the unknown.

Although we arrive early at the Store, it’s packed and most of the near capacity 400 audience are seated. Becky, Ron the Builder and Gus Lindsay hang out at the bar while I go and find Alex Rochford in the dressing room. I meet a character called Ray Presto who has become a mascot of the Comedy Store; tonight he is doing a magic set in the second half. Rochford, who is clearly in charge tonight, informs me that there’s a spot going in the first half, if any of my guests wants to give it a try. As showtime draws near, Ron confirms this spot and Becky confirms hers in the second half.

Rochford runs the night sat in the control box with the technician overlooking events from the side of the stage, occasionally his dismembered voice makes public information announcements, introduces the evening, and then introduces the MC Jim Jeffries. Jeffries does a raucous warm-up, explains some house rules and then dishies out three red cards to three arbitrary members of the audience by way of appointing them as short-term judges (another new innovation).
The judges don’t get to say anything they just get to raise their card when the entertainment no longer amuses them, when all three cards are raised Jeffries, sat at the side of the stage, bangs a gong and the techie plays suitably ominous sound effects, the audience erupts into 3 secs of controlled mayhem - end of – next! Few last the course; larky lads pushed up on stage by their mates are usually dismissed in under a minute; perpetual hecklers shamed into having a go by the audience are gone in seconds. If a comedian does manage to last the celebrated 5 mins, The Halleluiah Chorus hits the speakers, the controlled mayhem lasts a little longer and the play off round awaits, where, for the winner, there’s a vague promise of an open spot at a more civilised show on another night.

Jeffries is one of those Australians who does little to dispel his national stereotype and with only the faintest veneer of irony is crass, cock-sure and an unmitigated advocate of drunkenness (house policy with happy hour prices available until closing time).

The audience are tough but no mindless mob, despite being shamelessly rabble roused by Jeffries and having their boundaries tested with rape and pedo references, they rightly dismiss offensive, unfunny and indulgent acts but are lenient with those showing wit and attitude. Ron the Builder completely unprepared for the experience lasts 1minute 25 seconds and is quite pleased with himself and definitely wants a return match.

The Gong show is a harsh leveller and if nothing else teaches a comedian the meaning of a ‘tight five’. For a newbie, genuinely starting to get their act together, it is not the suicide dive it appears to be, but it’s no place for complacency.

I suggest to Becky that she find an appropriate opening line. It is important for a stand-up to bond with the room from the moment they walk on stage; at a gig like tonight’s, that homily is ignored at peril. To break the ice it is essential to come up with a killer line that ‘addresses the now’ then hopefully the room is yours, and yours only to lose.

In the interval Sir Gideon Vein and some other friends arrive. I also meet a promoter and he confirms my thoughts about MC Jim Jeffries ‘Three parts pissed and gong happy - Judge Jeffries more like’ Perfect! I pass it on to Becky.

In the second half Ray Presto’s novelty magic act is a strange affair, and involves the consolidation of an unannounced double act that has been glimpsed earlier between MC Jeffries sat at the side of the stage and Stage Manager Rochford sat above him in the control box, both armed with mics and both sniping at, and commenting on, the events on stage. Apart from the patronising attitude towards the innocent Presto, their sneery remarks highlight a dishonesty on the part of Rochford in the proceedings - he has gradually assumed a performing role without ever being introduced to the audience; and more importantly, unlike anyone else, his contributions are in no way subject to the harsh criticism being meted out.

Becky’s spot is decidedly short and sweet at the hands of this double act. She opens with ‘It’s usually much better here; might help if the MC wasn’t so pissed’. Jeffries, sat by the stage, gongs her off. No red cards, no audience disapproval, just a middling talent gate keeper with too much power in a crowded profession. The laughter her line gets is topped by the laughter to his gleeful and cynical response.

I felt for her – the culmination of weeks of work and probably years of low-grade fantasy ends in being dismissed for trying to get it right. She has a glass with just enough water to quench her dry throat should she need it – she turns and throws it over him and walks off. There was enough support from the crowd for Jeffries to mention getting her back on, but by the time I found her she was half way up the stairs being ejected, accused of throwing a drink over the MC. The bouncers who I’ve known for 20 years are presumably acting on Rochford’s orders; but I don’t bother to find out, I’m angry and helpless.

Ron the Builder is stood heckling Jeffries at the front of the stage by the time I return and join in. Sir Gideon has apparently already been up on the stage by then. Several others are heckling supportively but the audience is now in uproar and probably 90% against us. I reasoned that Jeffries needed the soaking that Becky didn’t actually give him, so I slip off, returning immediately with an arbitrarily purloined pint of beer. I am rightly intercepted by Mark, a gentle giant of a bouncer, who somehow places me outside on the street, quickly followed by my mates. I’m no longer angry, I’m embarrassed and very aware that I have never been ejected from premises with such a lightness of touch.

I’m away for a week and it’s 10 days later that I finally manage to get a phone conversation with Don Ward. I start by apologising for my own bad behaviour and then leave a space for him, should he wish, to express regret at the way his MC instantly curtailed the act of one of his guests or how his management rashly ordered her ejection. But no, even though he’d watched a video of the events, there is no such understanding. He is sullen, emphatic and humourless – he closes ranks and defends his staff. And now I’m angry again.

Tony Allen. June 2008