Behind The Curtain – with Silly Billies promoter Jack Gardner
Jack Gardner is a stand-up comedian and alternative comedy promoter from Newcastle upon Tyne. Jack runs the rather mental but brilliant Silly Billies comedy nights upstairs at The Cumberland Arms in Byker, with more shows planned for the nearby Live Theatre in 2015. He tells Andrew Dipper why ‘alternative’ is making a comeback.
Hi Jack. Tell us about Silly Billies…
It’s this stupid night I run with my wife and good friend Sam. It’s a cult comedy night that celebrates the anarchic, strange and surreal. I host it with Sam and we take the audience down a rabbit hole of clowning, strange characters and absurd happenings. We also have some of the best alternative comics on the circuit. Worship Silly Billies!
What makes you laugh?
My wife, my friends, my brothers, kids and animals, Tim and Eric, Half Man Half Biscuit and Barry Fox.
How do you define ‘alternative comedy’?
Alternative comedy could be seen as an umbrella term that includes clowning, satire, character comedy, absurdism and anti-comedy, amongst other things – but for me it’s comedy that uses imagination, takes risks and is outside social norms. It doesn’t reinforce stereotypes or use points of reference that incorporate as many people as possible.
The more people relating to one thing the less imagination is being used and a whole audience in agreement becomes less of a comedy gig and more like a rally. In music, film and books I like to be taken somewhere I’ve never been before and for me alternative comedy does that.
The most exciting comedy at the minute is happening in rooms above pubs with freaks and weirdos, not in arenas with Jack Whitehall. That’s the other end of the spectrum, the Emerson, Lake and Palmer, plastic Cliff Richard, cocaine Duran Duran end of the spectrum. The court jesters to the reptilian ruling class agendas or something like that.
As a stand-up you spent quite a bit of time in London. How does that comedy circuit differ to the one that’s currently developing in the North East?
Both are lovely and I’ve made some good friends in both but they’re massively different, mainly down to the sheer number of people there are in London. In London you’re never more than six feet away from a wide-eyed open mic comic. I’d say the North East is good for progression but London is better for practice, if you wanted to you could gig twice a night every night of the week down there but it’s harder to penetrate into the bigger nights.
The North East probably has a greater saturation of alt acts than people think. We’re geographically isolated in this corner of the country, this is the Deep North and like the Galapagos islands we’ve created beautiful comedy plumages. There’s a rich heritage of alt stuff associated with the North East what with Vic and Bob, Viz, Gavin Webster, Ross Noble and Seymour Mace.
The North East is better when it comes to laughing at and celebrating grimness too. Londoners are in denial about toilets of megabuses, pigeons coughing up pork scratchings and waking up in Poundland. They need to wake up and smell the bleakness.
What’s been your highlight so far as a promoter?
Being told by someone that the night is the most exciting comedy night they’ve seen since watching Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out at the Goldsmith Tavern in New Cross. That was good.
You’re starting a new show at the Live Theatre in Newcastle next year – how will that differ from the Cumberland Arms nights?
It’ll be more theatrical, we’ll have fancy lights and projections. We’ll being harpooning in some well-known alt acts from further afield too, that plus more costumes and violence.
Last summer you programmed the Silly Billies Last Stop Before Edinburgh Festival, which featured loads of great acts who made an impact at the festival. Will it be back in 2015?
We had some amazing shows but whilst the evenings were great the days were harder in terms of trying to get folk in. In that respects it was probably a perfect reflection of a free show at the Fringe. I think we’ll just concentrate on Silly Billies shows next year. I also want to make some short films and write Silly Billy Elliott, a play set during the 2013 100% Newcastle art cuts in which Billy, the son of Jesmond based conceptual artists, dreams of becoming a miner.
Do you see any trends in what people want from live comedy? Do you think there’s a big demand for more ‘alternative’ comedy?
My points of references are mainly within the four walls of the Cumberland Arms at the minute, where we’ve built up a steady audience of friends who’ve brought friends who’ve brought friends and so on. I think people are more comedy savvy now, it’s probably the equivalent of 1979 in music years, there are lots of genres to choose from depending on your tastes. If you’re into psychedelic, post-punk, reggae funk comedy then come to Silly Billies.
For any comics reading this, what’s the best way to get booked by Silly Billies?
Come down to a show and say hello and/or email [email protected] with an audio or film clip.
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?
MC – Phil Kay
He’s like a mythical medieval minstrel, the King of Fools, whether he’s got a microphone or not is inconsequential to his ability to find comedy and curiosity in his surroundings. No performance is ever the same.
Opener – Kevin Eldon
I saw Kevin Eldon’s show Titting About and I laughed my little socks off, it was like a Pandora’s box of ideas. He’s such as skilled performer and he makes it look so effortless.
Middle Spot – Dr Brown
Dr Brown the clown, Dr Brown makes you laugh and you can’t explain why, he’s a big old American hippy magic man pulling stupidity out of thin air. One day he rolled into town, he made everyone laugh and cry and then the next day he were gone, never to be seen again. But I’m sure one day, when the wind changes, he’ll return.
Headliner – Hans Teeuwen
I went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 with a sketch group and, at the time, I’d a limited experience of live stand-up, I thought it mainly involved belittling the audience. That summer I saw Dr Brown, Stewart Lee, Paul Foot and Jerry Sadowitz and I’ve been haunted ever since. But the piece de resistance was Hans Teeuwen. I’ve never seen bat shit mania like it before or since. It made no sense whatsoever and it was incredible.