Molly Stewart

Ben Tonge interview

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Manchester’s most inexhaustibly cool monthly comedy club Sham Bodie has only existed for just over a year, but suddenly on the eve of a radio show and a music festival, the next few months look incredibly exciting for them. Host and co-founder Ben Tonge very kindly answered our questions and gave us the headlines.

Hi Ben. How have you found the move to Kraak?

Really, really beneficial. We loved the Castle [Hotel]; but having the bar in the same room, and with more space – it’s just added a nice social element to the whole thing. So yeah, I love it. It’s really good.

Was the move quite a big thing?

Physically it was pretty demanding in that we’ve suddenly got to supply our own chairs. But yeah, it’s been coming for a while I suppose; just because we were starting to sell out and not really have the room for people.

Which must have been very nice – that you were selling out and needing to move somewhere bigger.

Yeah, that was great. I mean, we’d only been going for twelve months. To have to make that decision there was cool. The whole thing of having the bar in the same room just made it feel more like the comedy club I’d always wanted it to be; you know, you can have tables and… it’s just a bit more of a social, socially viable thing at Kraak.

If you want a drink you can just get up in the middle of the acts – at the Castle there was lots of door slamming and ‘excuse me, excuse me, excuse me’ sort of thing.

What made you want to start a comedy club in Manchester? How did Sham Bodie come about?

I didn’t get into stand-up until about four months before we started Sham Bodie. For years I’ve wanted to do it, and finally I got pushed over the line by doing a couple of weeks of a comedy course. I’ve already got kids so, you know, to go down the traditional stand-up route of touring the country, sleeping on floors in Norwich and Ipswich and Edinburgh every week: it wasn’t viable. So our plan was sort of, let’s start our own comedy club and we can get our audience to come to us.

So you hadn’t ever done stand-up at university or anything like that?

No, no. I’d done loads of performance, plays and sketches and stuff; but I’d never done any stand-up until… I think I’d done maybe three or four gigs before Sham Bodie.

That’s amazing. That’s madness.

So the hosting side of stand-up is the heavy half of what I’ve done really, in I suppose eighteen months of stand-up.

Which is very impressive, because that’s quite a big undertaking given you hadn’t really done any stand-up before.

Yeah, thanks. I suppose I’m learning the ropes as I go about really. And sometimes that prompts… sometimes my hosting fails catastrophically, sometimes it can be great; and I suppose, I guess that’s sort of part of my hosting style now. As I’m learning.

I think also, you said you’d done lots of performance; even though it wasn’t stand-up it meant that you already had that confidence on stage.

There’s still nerves, but I suppose I can put on a bit of play experience.

Sham Bodie is so different to any other comedy outlet in Manchester – was it a decision you made to create something that was alternative?

To be honest, I think when John [Stansfield] and I dreamt it up… we were both such fans of TFI Friday when we were younger, and had the notion that variety shows – particularly that show – were so influential to us. We’ve always loved Manchester music, so that was always part of our thinking: that it would be nice to include – because our bands are always Manchester-centric.

That’s something that makes it really different, because there aren’t any other comedy nights with such a place for music.

Typically when we’ve spoken to stand-ups since we’ve been doing Sham Bodie, historically stand-ups and musicians don’t really like gigging together. A lot of the time – two or three stand-ups in particular have said they’ve been gigging when a popular band have been on the crowd have just come to see the band.

Unless you get the right audience, people seem to be there either for the comedy or for the music.

Keeping the bands’ sets a similar length to the comedy sets really does make it nicely balanced. It does feel like we’ve got a nice balance. I don’t suppose we set out to try and be different from everyone; but we thought, you know what, we think this will be cool. Let’s go with it and see what people think. I suppose we’ve got quite a nice response to that variety so far.

You’re going to be involved in Sounds From The Other City in May – which is incredibly exciting. What’s that looking like for you?

We’re really excited. The venue – The New Oxford – is a really nice little venue for us to play at. I feel honoured that we’re the only non-purely musical space, stage in… Yeah, it’s an honour for us. I think John spoke to them a while back, and it feels like we’re breaking new ground there, which is exciting. We haven’t tied PINS down yet, but we’re hopefully going to get PINS back in. They’ve actually got some stuff going on in Glasgow, so that’s not official just yet but we’re not far off. And I think Brown Brogues are also going to play; but because we’re going to do sort of two Sham Bodies back to back, which sounds quite chaotic.

How do you mean?

We’ve basically got from half past four in the afternoon until half past ten; so rather than do a single five-hour Sham Bodie, we thought we’d sort of keep our normal set up and just do two back-to-back. So hopefully Pins in one show, Brown Brogues in the other. And then we’ve got… I think Barbara Nice is going to close the night down. So Barbara Nice to close the second show; then we’ve a mixture of Sean Morley, Tony Basnett, Will Setchell – and our mates Quippodrome are going to come down as well. So, we don’t know how we’re going to fit everyone together yet, but that’s sort of our list of people for a crazy bank holiday Sunday.

That’s a really great line-up.

We haven’t had any of them on before – well, Brown Brogues and Pins we’ve had on before, and Jack [Evans] and Jayne [Edwards] on before, but never them as a group. So we’re really excited about that.

So there really seems to be a lot going on for you, and for Sham Bodie at the moment – does it feel like big things are happening? Especially given you have only been going a year.

Yeah, it does. It sort of feels like our regular jobs are getting in the way a bit now. We could work on this twenty-four hours a day, I think. Obviously, we’re once a month with our shows; we’re also doing promos for the shows which I’m really enjoying doing – we just shot our new promo video for our March show yesterday, which is a little different from our normal promos so that’s exciting. We could fill the day building Sham Bodie. We’ve got Radio Sham Bodie coming out.

Yes, I wanted to ask about that – is that in March?

Yeah, I think March the 3rd we’re going to launch it on FAB Radio International. Just sort of sitting with John and the other writers, we could literally sit together and write and record stuff all day, every day, in between shows; and that could be our full time job. So yeah, it does feel like there’s a sort of exciting energy around the group of us. It does feel… there’s always something round the next corner with ‘Sham Bodie’ stamped on it.

Do you think you would look to, at some point, doing it full-time? Doing comedy full-time.

Yeah, you know what, my absolute dream is to do like The David Letterman Show in the UK – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, late-night show on TV with the Sham Bodie format. So that’s sort of the aim in the sky; if we could ever get anywhere close to that then: amazing. But, anything between now and that is great.

What are your plans for the radio show? What will it be?

I suppose it is going to be a microcosm of the live show: we’ll have guests, whether it’s comedians or musicians. I’d like to keep the hotdogs – I think hotdogs on the radio has not been done before. I’m hoping there’ll be lots of listener interaction, so whether there can be some sort of hotdog party happening with us in the studio and listeners in… Australia – that would be exciting. We’re on at eleven o’clock at night, but I figured actually because it’s internet radio we’re actually doing drive-time on the East Coast of America; and we’re doing the breakfast show in Sydney.

So you’ve hit the jackpot, globally…

Absolutely. People thought that it’s the graveyard shift in the UK but you’re right: globally we’ve hit the jackpot for our very first show.

What plans do you have coming up for Sham Bodie, then? Not that you don’t already have a massive amount going on.

Well, March is exciting because – as you know – we’ve tied up with Jameson, and March is St Patrick’s Day month so… not that it’s particularly a Paddy’s Day theme, but we’ve got Nina Gilligan (who, in fact, introduced us to FAB Radio in the first place – we were on Nina’s show, and that’s sort of how we got that gig: sniffing around FAB).

Yeah, we’ve got Nina Gilligan, Tom Little, who we love; and Michael J Dolan. So our stand-up roster for this show is excellent. And then Dirty Heels are our band. So yeah, exciting March. We’re going back to London in May actually. We do our Sounds From The Other City at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club on May the 28th. We did Bethnal Green last May as well, so it feels like maybe once a year go to London and show off down there. We’re not quite tied up with our set list down there yet; we’ve got some exciting names that we’re talking to.

London names? People you get in Manchester?

Well… Trevor Lock I think is going to headline, and we’ve had Trevor play Manchester. We’ve spoken to the likes of Seann Walsh and James Acaster, just because we know James through Gein’s [Family Giftshop] because they’re pals. But you know, I don’t think he’s available; Seann we can’t really book because he’s busy. It’s sort of all up in the air at the minute; we’ve only just got the date. But we’ve got Trevor.

You can follow Ben on Twitter here; and Sham Bodie here for updates. Sham Bodie’s March show is on Thursday 5 March, and Sounds From The Other City is happening on Sunday 3 May (you can find more information on the website). Their show on FAB Radio International starts on the 3 March at 11pm. TUNE. IN.