Andrew Dipper

Behind The Curtain – with Hilarity Bites promoter Neil Jollie

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Our feature on the top comedy promoters in the UK continues, as we talk to Hilarity Bites founder Neil Jollie. Since 2007, Neil has programmed hundreds of shows in the North East and North Yorkshire featuring comedy giants such as Tim Vine, Sarah Millican, Chris Ramsey and Russell Kane, as well as the annual Darlington Comedy Festival. He chats to Andrew Dipper about his very first show – booked via MySpace! – the key to longevity, the decline of live stand-up, moving into act management and more.

Hi Neil. Tell us about Hilarity Bites…

Hilarity Bites Comedy Club started life in June 2007. Prior to promoting comedy, I spent several years going to the Edinburgh Fringe for my summer holidays. In late 2006 or early 2007 I was talking to the band booker at a local nightclub, and I suggested that a comedy night would be a good idea for the venue – I didn’t expect him to call my bluff and ask me to book one!

At the time, MySpace was the social media du jour and I managed to book a line-up of comedians by basically being cheeky and sending messages over social media – although, now I’m on the receiving end, getting endless Facebook messages from new acts!

That first show featured Gavin Webster, Dan Nightingale and Nik Coppin, and we had all sorts of challenges. We had a full-house for the show, and the venue had provided a wireless microphone, but unfortunately the batteries ran-out within 5 minutes of Gav being on-stage, and he had to spend about 15 minutes shouting to the audience whilst I literally ran around Darlington town centre looking for a shop that was open and sold batteries on a Sunday night.

Later in the gig there was a gas leak, and the venue asked me to evacuate everyone, but fortunately it was discovered that it was just CO2 in the cellar before we got everyone out. After a first night like that, there’s not much that phases me now!

In the early days we used to promote one monthly gig, in Darlington, but we’ve now grown to promoting 10-15 gigs a month, whilst also managing a small stable of acts, producing a weekly radio show, running one of the biggest new act competitions in the UK, booking acts for corporate and charity events, running shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and also organising the Darlington Comedy Festival, so things have grown massively from those early days!

Comedy nights come and go all the time but you’ve been around for some time now – what’s the key to longevity?

If I knew the definitive answer to that then I wouldn’t worry so much about booking gigs and hoping that audiences were going to arrive! I think one of the major things is that we always book the best acts available (and within budget) in order to make the show the best that we can for the audience.

We have quite a loyal following, and many acts look forward to playing our gigs and seeing some of our regular audience members – such as Jenny and Tony Adams, a retired couple who travel around the North East (and to Edinburgh!) to sit in the front row of our shows. I think having a really good relationship with acts means that there’s never a shortage of quality comedians that want to gig for us, and providing the best quality acts means that the audience will trust who will be performing, even if it’s a name that they don’t recognise.

What makes you laugh?

Pretty much everything! It’s difficult to pin-down my favourite type of act. At college I was a massive fan of Harry Hill, and that sort of surreal humour is still very much my cup of tea, bringing it up to date with the likes of Ross Noble and Tony Law. However, I also love sharp one-liner acts like Gary Delaney, story-tellers, variety acts and just about everything else. I used to have a real aversion to sketch comedy, but having been introduced to Pappy’s by my other half Julie, I’ve since got a real taste for sketch, and there’s some really excellent acts that we’ve worked with like Gein’s Family Giftshop, Ginge, Geordie & The Geek and Idiots of Ants.

What’s been your highlight so far as a promoter?

That’s a difficult one, as there’s been so many. We’ve worked with loads of big name comedians – Sarah Millican regularly comes back to perform warm-up gigs for us, and Gary Delaney dropped into our new material night a couple of weeks ago to try out some new stuff. Our second ever gig featured an Edinburgh preview by a relatively unknown John Bishop, and he returned to play a little 40-seat vegetarian restaurant only a couple of weeks before his prime-time Saturday night show aired on BBC1.

Working with lots of great comedians, that I now have the pleasure to consider friends, has also been a big highlight, and working full-time in comedy (I left my day job in July after seven years of promoting in my “spare” time) is a dream come true.

One of the gigs that really sticks out was a couple of years ago at The Forum in Darlington, where we had a sold-out gig with Gary Delaney and Nathan Caton on the bill. About a week before the gig I received an email from Russell Kane’s agent to ask if he could do a short-set in the middle to try some new material. We’d kept Russell’s performance quiet from the audience, and when he was announced on stage I saw some member’s of the audience stand-up and high-five each other, which I thought only happened in the movies. The energy in the room that night was unbelievable, and Russell totally ripped the roof off the gig, in a way that I’ve rarely seen before or since!

Another memory that is a real highlight was in the early days when Carl Donnelly and Chris Martin came to do the show. They’d brought Benny Boot with them to do a middle-spot, but they’d also brought a mate from university with them, and asked if I could squeeze him on-stage for 5-10 minutes so that he could get a bit of experience; that young lad was Chris Ramsey, and from that first meeting he went on to become our first regular MC, hosted our new act competition for several years and is now obviously a massive name on the touring circuit and on TV, and it’s been great to follow his career from that night onwards.

What are the main challenges in putting on a show in small towns like Bedale and Newton Aycliffe compared to, say, a big city like Newcastle or York?

That’s a difficult question to answer, as we tend to stay away from running gigs in towns and cities that already have a good offering. We have a really good working relationship with other promoters, like Peter Vincent at Ten Feet Tall and David Hadingham at The Hyena, and we don’t run gigs that will impact on each other’s audiences. In the early days we did run a few gigs in Newcastle, but with the rise of The Stand, it feels pointless to try and compete with them, as they offer such a good night to their audiences and it’s exactly the sort of club that I would want to go to myself.

One of the benefits of putting shows in small towns is that there’s not really a lot of entertainment in the town, so audiences really appreciate that we bring them top quality acts and so attendances are usually really good. We run a show in Crook that has sold out every month, and there are a few people in the audience that have said that they really appreciate it, as it’s a chore for them to travel to Newcastle or Durham to see live comedy as public transport means that they often have to leave before the end of the show.

Hemelvaart Bier Cafe in Bedale has an amazingly supportive audience, and owners, so running shows there is an absolute pleasure as everybody is just so up for a great night, and the same is true at Planet Leisure in Newton Aycliffe.

So much of the success of a show is to do with the support of the venue – we’ve worked with so many places that just think that putting on a comedy night is a way to make a quick buck, but without their support and effort in promoting the show to their locals, the shows never have any longevity.

You also programme the Darlington Comedy Festival, which has been a huge success in recent years. Will the festival be returning in 2015?

Hopefully the Darlington Comedy Festival will return in 2015. I’m already being badgered by a lot of comedians that want to come and play the festival, and the benefit of it running in July is that it is a really good opportunity for acts to come and preview shows before going to Edinburgh. The actual organisation and work required in running the festival is probably the most time-consuming of everything that we do, and it’s really a case of ensuring that I think I’ll have time and energy to do it all again this year!

Talk us through what goes into producing a high-profile show like the Darlington Comedy Festival charity gala. It must be quite stressful…

The Comedy Festival gala is the most stressful show that we run, and it’s always a massive relief when the first act gets on-stage! Filling a 900-seat venue in Darlington on a Monday or Tuesday night is a tough task, and it’s imperative to get a big-name comedian on the bill, which is never the easiest task. The show runs as a charity fundraiser for several local charities, and in the past three years we’ve raised in excess of £20,000 for charities that really benefit from local fundraising.

We’ve had a few instances in recent years where we’ve had some massive names booked to headline the gala, and then at late notice they’ve been offered TV work that they can’t turn down, and it’s a real shame when that happens. However, I’m immensely proud of the line-ups over the past three years, as they’ve always been a real blend of big TV names and some of the most popular acts that have played Hilarity Bites shows since we started. Once the acts are all at the theatre, then running the night from behind the scenes is where I’m at my most comfortable, but the run-up to the event itself, even up to the last couple of hours, is amazingly busy and often very stressful.

For any comics reading this, what’s the best way to get booked by Hilarity Bites?

Don’t badger me on Facebook! The best way to keep in contact is to email via our website, as it’s so difficult to keep everything together when some acts are Tweeting, sending Facebook messages, commenting on forums, etc.

We run two new act and new material nights each month, and these are a great opportunity for me to see newer acts, with a view to progressing them to professional bills (should they do well enough). Our new act competition is also a great way of me seeing newer acts, and we’ve had some real stars come out of those – our first competition had acts such as Daniel Sloss, Kai Humphries and Chris Ramsey apply, and loads of acts that have taken part in our competitions are now professional acts, with strings of awards behind them.

For more established acts, we run gigs with progression for those that do well enough, but I don’t think there’s too many established acts that I’m not already in contact with!

You’ve also moved into act management, which I imagine poses its own challenges?

Yeah, it definitely does have challenges. We set up a management arm of Hilarity Bites in order to help some of the newer acts that we know get more work with good promoters that we had contacts with. Acts like Ray Bradshaw had done really well in our New Act Competition, and had been gigging a lot for us but not getting much more work outside of Scotland, where he is based. Since working with us, Ray now performs at lots of clubs around England, and we’ve helped him out with TV warm-up work, too.

Since we started with management we’ve been approached by a lot of established North Eastern acts to either look after their diaries or to produce tour shows, and whilst we’re still learning I think the management arm will definitely be an area that will expand.

It’s difficult to keep things separate from one another, and we’ve had to be really disciplined as there’s a few agent-promoters that have implied (or explicitly stated!) that they will book our acts for their gigs if I book their acts for my gigs – it’s something I’ve always refused, as the quality of the acts at our shows is foremost, and I’ll never compromise the show promotions.

Do you see any trends in what people want from live comedy? i.e. Do they only come out for the big TV names like Sarah Millican? Are you seeing a decline in numbers because of the current economic climate?

I think there’ll always be the situation where some people will only go to see TV names, as a lot of people aren’t willing to gamble on acts that they’ve never heard of. However, I think the scene in the North East is very buoyant at the moment, with regular shows running throughout the region and showcasing the absolute diversity of the UK circuit.

In terms of audience numbers, January is historically a difficult month but we’ve seen really good numbers at all of our shows this month (touch wood), and hopefully that will continue throughout the year. Eventually, the bubble will burst with TV’s infatuation with comedy, and the live circuit has already started to constrict, but the quality shows and promoters will certainly continue and find an audience.

Have you ever been tempted to try your hand at stand-up yourself?

Never! I’ll do off-stage announcements, but I have no desire at all to get on-stage in front of people. I think my performing days finished when I left primary school and performing in school plays!

Finally then, if you could book a super bill of past and present comics – MC, opener, middle spot, headliner – who would you book and why?

That is an amazingly difficult question to answer. Instinctively, I’d want to book an eclectic line-up with acts that complimented one another, but that may not necessarily be the best acts.

The joy of the Darlington Comedy Festival is that over the past few years I’ve been able to book my personal favourite acts on “super bills”, but there’s still a short-list of acts that I would love to book and haven’t quite managed to yet – topped by Daniel Kitson, who never fails to entertain and surprise with his inventiveness and exceptional use of language.

Hilarity Bites run comedy shows throughout the North East of England and beyond, including a brand new night starting at Port Of Call in Sunderland on Friday 6 February. For more information and tickets, see the Hilarity Bites website.