Carlisle did not need a comedy night, Carlisle didn’t have any comedy clubs and the main venue in the city very rarely put on any comedy shows. Rather than see this as a kind of sign I saw it more as a challenge. I thought that way a lot more when I was 22.
Down the road from Cafe Sol sits Cafe Solo (opened by the same two guys originally, hence the similarity). Solo sits on the corner between The Crescent and Botchergate. For those not in the know about Carlisle’s extensive nightlife, Botchergate is the part of town that houses the larger Weatherspoons pubs, Walkabout and many other drinking establishments. As a general rule of thumb if you’re over the age of 22 and want a good night out without any trouble then you head towards the castle end of town. If you’re under 22, want to drink until you can no longer stand and enjoy shouting at police officers on a Saturday night then you head down to Botchergate. Solo escaped the bulk of it though being as it was right at the top but it did have a wonderful window onto the chaos outside. Sol was sold off so any comedy night I was trying to organise had to be done in Solo. I went on an intrepid adventure in promotions. I’d managed to get into the local paper beforehand to hype up the night by saying it had a very open mic policy. I’d discovered stand up comedy almost by accident and I wanted to see if anybody else wanted to follow me. There was an open call for people to walk up to the microphone and have a blast.
Nobody wanted to.
Well, nobody apart from my mate Adam who decided he’d try it out so his name was added to the bill. Also on was Alan Whittaker who is known locally as ‘The Wizard Marra‘. I’d met Alan at the last gig I had done with the coconut and wanted him along for the ride. I called the night ‘Has Anybody Seen My Iguana?’ because I’d been listening to The Breeders a lot at the time and fell in love with this song.
This did involve putting up posters around Carlisle that were adorned with a picture of an iguana and the word ‘MISSING’ across the top. Apparently staff in Cafe Solo were amused as one of the older visitors to the establishment had apparently suggested whoever put up the posters should look after their reptiles better. I had invited the local paper and the student newspaper to come down and cover the show. This was surely going to be a triumph.
It was anything but.
I was halfway on the walk to the venue when my girlfriend phoned me to tell me that Alan wasn’t going to make it due to illness. I’d spent the day thinking that Adam would do five minutes, I’d then do about twenty and then Alan would carry us through to the end with a headline set. Now I was stuck with an audience, a guy who had never done stand up before and myself on my third gig. I actually had a small prayer on the way hoping that nobody would turn up and we’d have minimal people to turn away at the door. The law of sod struck, we had a full house. I found myself faced with a harsh choice, especially since I’d charged £2 for a ticket. I had to either cancel altogether, give everybody their money and wish them well or we just went hell for leather with everything we had and at least put some kind of show on. After five minutes of soul searching we went for option B.
Adam did brilliantly for his first ever gig. He has a really goofy sense of humour which went down really well with the gathered crowd. Tragically I can’t remember much about his set because I was far too busy with my notebook in the corner trying to work out how to extend a twenty minute set into something a bit more substantial for the last slot of the night. By the time I hit the stage there was a certain feeling of unease, it felt like being led to the gallows.
Looking back, ten years later now, I still have no idea why I thought this was a good idea. Maybe it seemed like the noble option, perhaps I wanted to give people something to go home with. If I cancelled out this night on short notice, the opening night no less, then I’d have no hope of building any kind of all conquering comedy extravaganza in the frozen wastes of North Cumbria. Every single tiny idea I had in the notebook, most completely under developed, came out to play that night. If it came through my head at a moment’s notice then it came out my mouth three seconds later. It was around the time when Tony Blair was contemplating marching us into Iraq so I had a completely under researched section of Colin Powell’s evidence to NATO. It was taking the traditional, reactionary student line of not wanting any war and I remember calling him ‘Colin The Barbarian’ and comparing him to Arnie.
I also have a memory of bringing my Dad into it. At the time he was recovering from cancer and I’d been to visit him in the high dependency unit in Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary. There are many good shows that extract comedy from illness (‘Andre Vincent is Unwell‘ being one) but it’s usually the performer’s own. Here I was being a complete idiot by using my Dad’s struggle for the entertainment of an audience. Of all the sheer bollocks that streamed from my stupid mouth that night, that section is the one I regret the most. It was the first example I found of comedy turning me into, for want of a better phrase, a complete cock.
I actually waffled on for about an hour, towards the end my mic started to cut out which must have been a sign from the gods for me to shut the hell up. The audience streamed out towards Botchergate, probably with the feeling that being glassed by a knucklehead was preferable to listening to me for another five minutes. I was left, sitting on the stage, nursing a really sick feeling like I’d just ripped off an entire room full of people.
Matters got worse when the student paper printed their review of the show. It had been labelled a complete mess (which it was) but then the knife had been stuck in beyond all that. I realised that the guy who had came to review the show had sat at the furthest possible seat away from the stage with his back to it. He’d also reviewed Adam saying ‘it would have been nice to hear more from Adam Houghton’ without knowing that it was Adam’s first gig and he had nothing left in the tank beyond that. The bad review didn’t annoy me half as much as the fact the guy had no interest from the outset. I approached him the next day in the college canteen wanting to give him his £2 as he was supposed to get a ‘press ticket’. He visibly recoiled when I sat next to him and suggested that I ‘probably wanted to punch him now’. I didn’t but the fact he thought I would told its own story.
Has Anybody Seen My Iguana went back to Cafe Solo the next month, this time with Alan Whittaker performing in character as a 1960’s drop out. I did another set that night although nowhere near as long to about a quarter of the audience we had on opening night. My attempt to run a comedy night had lasted two months, I had no desire to organise another.
As a side note I’d like to say Carlisle did go on to have a very successful comedy night circa 2005 at The Brickyard Club on Fisher Street (note, it’s near the Castle with reference to what I said earlier) called ‘Don’t Mention The Floods’. There’s also an open mic night at The Source on Nelson Street which, whilst mainly music based, does apparently do some comedy. Also many mainstream comedy acts such as Ross Noble and Rhod Gilbert have played The Sands Centre so there is a growing appetite for live comedy now that wasn’t there in 2002.
Nobody told me that at the time.
I’ll write Part 3 of this sorry tale later which will no doubt take in Edinburgh and the field full of agitated hippies. It’s worth the wait I promise, if only because this is saving me hundreds on therapy.