Interview: Eric Scarboro
After starting stand-up in the early nineties, Eric Scarboro quickly gained a reputation both as an anarchic comic and a successful promoter of his many nights across the North East. But, after a serious car accident that left him with a broken back, Scarboro departed the comedy industry and set up the Sensational Independent Wrestling Federation alongside fellow comics Steffen Peddie and Lee Kyle. Now Scarboro is making a comeback, hoping to replicate his reputation in the early nineties and resume his comedy career. Andrew Dipper went for a chat with Eric Scarboro to find out how North East comedy has evolved in the past twenty years – and whether it has changed for the better.
AD: Hi Eric – how does the current Northern scene compare to the one you worked in the early nineties?
ES: In the early nineties there was barely anywhere to perform. Simple as that. Occasionally there were gigs in Berwick, Leeds, Carlisle, but up here (Tyneside/Wearside) there was the Chirpy Chappies Club in Newcastle, which was a great club, but of very little use to new, local comics.
The generation just ahead of me had solved this by creating their own work. ‘Near the Knuckle’ promoted their own tour and had a lovely little co-operative thing going on for a year or two. They also ran the Crack Club, which was comedy’s answer to punk. The atmosphere surrounded the Cumberland Arms like a bad smell (which the Cumberland also had). People were actually getting up and having a go. I felt totally at home and decided this was for me. The vast majority of us got on just fine and we mixed with poets (Steve Melville, Brendan Cleary, Martine D’ellard) and jugglers/Tightropewalkers/singer song writers/ventriloquists, (Chris White, Bell and Bucket and many more). There was also a nascent racist, but we weren’t to know – he’d go on to be a Publicity Officer for the National Front. Having said that, while we didn’t know, most of us were goods pals of his and said he was very funny and I hope nobody’s going to backtrack on that now. The important things can’t just be re-written willy-nilly. (Yes, I’m playing silly phrase bingo!)
Anvil [Springstien] and Vlad [McTavish] were very good to me and young Gavin [Webster] in the early days when we worked as a sometime double-act. I made good friends then whom I still respect today. I seem to bump into John Fothergill every ten years and he’s always very complimentary.
The area just belched out comedy talent in those days: Gav Webster, Ross Noble, Steffen Peddie, Anvil Springstien, Vladimir McTavish (whom I had watched in Wireless Wireless, gradually becoming a solo performer), John Fothergill, Mike Milligan, etc etc. Then of course there was Tony Mendoza. The funniest man I ever met but sadly also the laziest. He’s not with us anymore but I can’t dress it up, if he could have had a blood transfusion from Michael McIntyre, Tony would have taken over the world.
Now, things are very different, as you would expect, but not always for the better. There is so much going on. Newcastle has about five venues with eight or nine shows a week sometimes, Sunderland has three regulars, and Teesside is very well catered for. Yet there is little camaraderie. Some of the early nineties survivors waste so much energy being negative about each other. They could do worse than reflect on why it was so great to begin with, and who the real enemies are. There’s a certain “promoter” who I’m honestly sick of, but with genuine reasons to be. Over the last two years, I’ve trawled just about every venue in every accessible town and village in the North. In most cases they don’t want comedy (‘ever again’ in some cases), as they’ve booked with him in the past and had a frankly, shoddy deal. It’s not impossible to clinch a deal, just far more work than it should ever be. For example, my gig I run at the moment. It took around 12 months of negotiation to stage the first gig. Just up the coast from Whitley Bay it’s been more than 12 months now and I think I’m eventually giving it up as pointless. These are the people who should have been told a long time ago, ‘No. Pay me what I’m worth.’ Meanwhile these ‘Promoters’ with no skills other than administration have cleaned up, while comedians have been too self-interested to stop them. We need a union. [Rant over].
AD: Is there a different style of comedy around these days? If so, why do you think that is?
ES: [New rant begins] Most Comedians think that the X-Factor generation have taken over. Young people who get up to perform but haven’t a clue. Not about comedy, about things in general. It’s certainly true that the system is clogged up with very poor young comics, but who can blame them? They see career comics go from Uni gong show, to two dozen gigs, to radio, to copies of ‘Have I Got News For You’, to stadium tours, and complain if it takes longer than five years. There are always good new performers trying to emerge. We just can’t see them for all the deadwood. Harsh? Yes, but most of these open spots will not make comics no matter how much encouragement we give them. I’ve been very impressed recently by newish acts like Ian Edington and Eddy O Dwyer but there are also ‘acts’ who are lifting routines word-for-word. Promoters should be giving them one warning, then putting the word out on them. Of course some promoters don’t care, don’t know much about people’s material, and in some cases don’t even attend their own gigs, as we’ve discussed.
There’s still a lot of good stuff around of course. One is Jamie Sutherland, who was new to me. Another, well I can’t really call him new, but hopefully Ian Fox won’t get too annoyed if I call him new-ish. He has a refreshing attitude to comedy that I’ll let you sample when you meet him, without any clues. He was telling me about his slideshow of pictures he’s debuting in Manchester soon. It sounded fresh and FUN. Then I realised it sounded just like the Tour Of Gateshead slideshow I did in The Town Hall – which brings me onto Marc Lucero and Wes Zaharuk.
These men are wonderful. Kids should watch them. Why? They haven’t forgotten how much fun it is to be daft. Michael Palin asked the question recently – ‘Whatever happened to just being silly?’
AD: You spoke about how, stylistically, comedy is a lot different in 2010; but how has the circuit changed?
ES: Tons more work, little decent money. Every little village has a gig these days. We used to have to drive to Manchester, sometimes for nowt. Why? Because The Buzz was the nearest gig that promoted new talent. John Marshall would also cover your petrol costs for you just out of the goodness of his heart, if you had the bottle to ask for a gig. And at The Southern, Agraman had the most comedy literate audience in the North, always a pleasure to perform for.
AD: Do you think it is better or worse?
ES: The circuit still has a good solid skeleton. Take Ten Feet Tall. Professionally run, and a model for promoters to aspire to. Then take Inkey Jones.
Then someone tell me how a major web-site comedy company doesn’t get life for piss-taking? I saw one of their gigs in London pays £80. That’s £80(!) between three acts, and they ask you to drive someone to the city and back as well.
Also the Etiquette has changed. It was the ‘done’ thing to get to a gig as soon as feasible, in case the running order changed, and not to leave until the gig was over. I remember myself and Dave Gorman doing a spot each at the Buzz, and then potentially having to close the night as a double-act. Then at quarter to eleven, Andre Vincent and the Rubber Bishops came running up the stairs. It was Christmas Eve 94 (or somewhere thereabouts) and they’d not tried to book a car in London until teatime, and had no luck at all.
It can be legitimately argued I suppose, that doubling up is doing comics out of work. How so Eric? I’ll tell. If one gig a night, three or four times a week isn’t enough, maybe you should be getting more cash per gig. Every time you double, that second gig could be going to a comic who isn’t working. Therefore, isn’t it once again a problem to be placed at the door of the slack-arsed promoters? Whatever next? Comedy clubs being synchronized to all start together so that a few dozen acts can open, middle and close?
Twice as many comics out of work, thanks to the new practice of tripling, but at least no bugger’s worked out how to do that and bloody compere as well. (After a fashion).
The other big change is the technology, but more importantly the access this gives the audience to Comedians. Wrestling supremo Vince McMahon was asked what he planned to do about the relentless slagging he was getting on the internet. “Nothing,” he replied, ” Who gives a shit about 200 armchair generals?”. There is no such thing as bad publicity. Unless it’s bad publicity.
This links in to your role here at Giggle Beats. If you want to be taken seriously by Comedians, you have to tick certain boxes. I’m talking straight here, and from experience. As Commissioner Eric ‘Snakebite’ Scarboro of the Sensational Independent Wrestling Federation, I came across some very unsavoury characters. The most pathetic of them would eat Dodgy Comedy Promoters for breakfast. Two of them slagged me off relentlessly. I played a long game with one of them. Everyone I worked with, knew me and trusted me and sent me copies of the libelous filth being put around about us. I kept them all for two years until I had a folder full. As this ‘computer genius’ had been so dim as to send everything from his home computer, we had his I.P. address on everything. I threatened to take everything he had. I still have his written confession somewhere, promising never to do it again. The civilised approach worked, I’m glad to say.
The other one I threw down the stairs.
And so to you. If you want to be taken credibly, you have to realise that the first question everyone will ask is: what qualifies them to judge people in this business? Seriously. When I suggested to you that you have a C.V. section, I meant for you, not for the comedians. I’d love to set-up a Downhill Slalom website, and holiday in St Moritz, watching the slopes and drinking egg-nog around the fire all night, wearing my Christmas Jumper. But I’d never criticise the Skiers as I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about. Watching won’t be enough. I’ve watched the moon-landings but I’ve no idea how long a fart hangs around in zero-gravity.
Over to you.
AD: Are there more comics around?
ES: Hundreds more! But hundreds more of the right species at least. The W.M.C comedian is an endangered species. Pass me my elephant rifle. We should keep a few of course. In zoos or museums.
AD: So, what inspired you to become a comedian?
ES: My first taste of magic came at Gateshead Town Hall when I was five. The council bussed every kid in every school in Gateshead in, every year, for a show by The Scottish Children’s Theatre.
Thank you Gateshead Council. Twice! I’m now back at the Hall, compering my own shows. (Nov 20th). It took a long time to find my niche but I’ve had some great times in comedy, and some terrible reviews, ahem! It’s all to be savoured and if it doesn’t kill you… (I need one for a line now)
AD: Has that motivation changed over the years?
ES: Not the motivation. Not an ounce. The opportunities have mind, though, but, man, like. (House! That’s a line up!) I’ve always thought that a little bit of anarchy was alright and I’ve tried to do something unusual at every gig I’ve ever played.
Obviously you could write my next silly phrase for me…sometimes to applause, sometimes to baffled silence, but you know there’s always a chance that they got it on the bus on the way home and fell laughing down the stairs. Well, there is.
AD: How does the Northern circuit differ to the rest of the country?
ES: It used to be that you got a very cold welcome down South. Three of my first four calls to London promoters were answered with the stock phrase, “Nah, ah’ve got two Geordies working dahn here awready.” When you ask if they would say the same about a female comic or a black comic, they put the phone down on you. Nowadays I’m glad to say that’s all changed. You can get just as indifferent a welcome in the North.
Audiences though, are better up here. Fact! And the women are marvellous. Fact!
AD: How can Northern comedy get better than it already is?
ES: Performers promoting. Not bad performers, but good performers who remember to pay the acts the way they’d like to be paid. And treated the way they’d like to be treated.
AD: Do you think comedy is a more respected art form in 2010 than it was in the nineties?
ES: No. There was so much invention then. Risk-takers scare most of this generation. Try to find some footage of The Big Fun Club, or Go see Mr Drayton who is performing again. Anarchy, there’s nothing like it.
We’ve swapped chance-takers for chancers.
AD: What do you think the future holds for Northern comedy?
ES: I hope it will continue to develop. Can’t stop it, I suppose, but look at the last forty years. We’ve dropped all idea that racism was ever acceptable, to the extent that we probably can joke about how it was. Certainly black comics have claimed it back as theirs. I still sit in working men’s clubs occasionally, to meet friends or to have yet another go at booking them some intelligent comedy, and have started prefacing every conversation with something like, “Have you seen those fuckwits at The Bugle? The morons have only gone and burned the Koran!” It puts up a shield whereby people know not to even think about mentioning their Nazi memorabilia collection.
Yes The Bugle is at the bottom of my street! Still you might as well use a book to keep warm if none of you can actually read it. In retaliation, I need a brave cameraman to help me get some footage to post on YouTube. Me standing outside the pub, burning their bible: a colouring-in book.
AD: Why do think there have been so many top comics – Sarah Millican, Ross Noble, Seymour Mace etc – leaving the region?
ES: Because the region is too small to contain them?
Knowing Ross personally, it’s a lot of talent married to sheer hard work – a combination that gives you a good chance. I’ll be completely frank. A lot of Ross’s material isn’t my cup of tea (Full House!), but it’s not meant for me is it? And it won’t stop me having a drink with him next time we meet. It’ll only stop him paying for it.
Sarah is just a funny woman. People would be stopping to listen to her wherever she worked. Good job she’s not a Crossing Patrol Lady.
Seymour happened to be bonkers during the great bonkers shortage – and had the good sense to get to Manchester before the migration.
AD: Who’s your tip to be the next big act?
ES: I do love Andy Fury – fearless and funny. I’ll have a shilling on him.
If you ask me in two years time I might say that I said Lee Kyle, but he’s got no discipline so don’t bother.
I wish it was Ian Fox, but I don’t think he cares really – he might just be happy to go on being quietly brilliant, and impressing aged Geordies.
AD: Finally, what does the future hold for yourself?
ES: More ups than downs I hope. Certainly karma owes me a few sunny hillsides. I’ve had too many health problems since I broke my back, but I’ve gotten over them all, just about, and I’m now fit enough to try to build another little empire. I must have swam 1000 miles over the last ten years and archery is giving me some core muscle strength. I’ll give it a go and see. Or I might go off and become a darts champion as Gav [Webster] predicted all those years ago.
Eric Scarboro will be compering his monthly comedy night at Gateshead Town Hall on November 20th. The full line-up is Sulley O’Sullivan, Wes Zaharuk and Lee Kyle, with MC Eric Scarboro. Tickets are priced at £10 or £7 for concessions, and are available by calling 0191 4336965