‘We would sometimes bet to see how long a comic would last on stage. We amused ourselves but they were never joyful – they were horrendous!” Dave Johns, standup and star of the film I, Daniel Blake, is detailing his experiences of a string of lucrative but excruciating shows at Christmas time. “The minute I went on, 300 drunk people started singing I Will Survive,” he adds. “I stood on stage. I never said a word. When they finished singing they started throwing sausage rolls. It was the last show of the Christmas period so I said: ‘I’ve been Dave Johns. You’ve been two weeks in the Maldives!’ And I went on my holidays.”
Christmas gigs are dreaded by many comedians. Earlier this week, Nish Kumar had to cut short his unpaid performance at a charity do after his jokes about Conservative politicians and Brexit drew heckles. I was a standup for several years and the festive period was one of the reasons I chose to stop performing as my diary seemed to be full of unplayable venues. The worst gig was at a golf club where a man in a Santa hat threw peas at me throughout my set. All comedians have stories such as this.
In the festive season, comedy clubs can get hijacked by audiences who see standup as on the periphery to their big night out with work. They’re distracted, drunk and unaware of the etiquette. Some corporate gigs, such as an awards dinner, pay well but comedy clubs are not as flooded with funds as they were in the 90s when Johns was paid well enough to afford his Maldives trip. And comedy is often far from the audience’s thoughts. “Most of them want to chat and get off with Debbie from accounts,” reckons Johns, who realised that these sorts of gigs weren’t worth the cash boost and decided to refuse bookings years ago.
The Jongleurs chain of comedy clubs, which went into administration two years ago, were known for a bear-pit atmosphere and for welcoming Christmas work parties. Standup circuit regular Maff Brown has a diary full of festive gigs, or “loomers” as he calls them, including one corporate gig where he will earn a four-figure sum. He worked regularly at Jongleurs. “They phoned me to say: ‘It’s not happening, we’ve gone broke, but you’re still getting paid.’ I was delighted. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation!”
But at least one standup is celebrating this year. After success at the Edinburgh festival and with a recent appearance on Live at the Apollo and a Soho theatre run booked for next year, Jessica Fostekew can afford to turn down these sorts of gigs for the first time in an 11-year career. She did a Christmas night in her first week of standup. “It was a gig that’s normally completely lovely,” she says. “But it was entirely taken over by 60 teachers. In their day-to-day lives they’re so used to wielding control over unruly kids that they then have to become the thing they most hate on a work night out. Teachers are the absolute worst.”
She’s now philosophical about them. “That horrible thing you get, especially if you’re a woman in comedy, is that people say to you all the time: ‘You’re so brave’ and you’re like ‘No I’m not! I’m a narcissist and a clown!’ But actually, performing at Christmas gigs you are a bit brave.”