Monkey Barrel Comedy Club has, in the four years since opening its doors to the public, become a central pillar of Scotland’s comedy scene, building a community for both performers and audience members.
While the venue, on Blair Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town, operates a varied programme of both local and touring acts all year round, the experience and revenue generated from the Edinburgh Fringe is a big part of the Monkey Barrel plan.
It’s fair to say that Edinburgh’s residents enjoy a love-hate relationship with the Fringe. Many like having access, income notwithstanding, to some of the most accomplished live performance there is to see, anywhere. There have been complaints around issues like overcrowding, unethical pay practices and rising costs of renting. Someone, somewhere is making a lot of money out of Edinburgh, but at whose expense and for whose benefit?
Monkey Barrel, it should be said, is not Underbelly and faces completely different challenges to the festival’s more established institutions. When I caught up with Director and co-owner David Bleese, I found that’s something they are meeting head on by founding a record label and enthusiastic expansion of their programme of weird and wonderful shows.
How are you doing David? How has lockdown been for you personally? What has helped you get through it?
I’m doing OK thanks. I think it’s been tough for everyone to be honest. It’s been incredibly busy with managing the financial fallout from the lockdown and having a young family to contend with amongst other things, but so many others have had more to deal with. As with everyone else I expect, it’s just been about keeping healthy and getting through this. Both personally and as a comedy club.
A central part of your community is providing a space for comedians to experiment throughout the year. Covid19 lockdown hasn’t put a stop to that. Tell us more about what you’ve been doing?
We’ve tried to be a community driven comedy club and have always enjoyed working with local performers to build their own nights. Things like Project X and Peter Pancakes [Monkey Barrel’s regular alternative comedy showcases] combine our own setup with more independent formats. We decided fairly early on that we weren’t going to go down the route of streaming ‘as live’ stand-up shows. We felt we wanted to give different formats a go and try to build a few things that would work well back on the live stage. Oliver Coleman and many others have helped develop Today’s World which you can see on our YouTube channel. We started it off straight after lockdown and comics submitted videos with tips and tricks on how to survive in these unique times. Stuart Laws and Julia Masli have been highlights but they’ve all been great and helped to develop this into something we’ve really enjoyed working on.
Another project is Smack Talk, which after a few weeks of us developing as a recorded show is now going out every Friday at 8pm. It takes the traditional comedy roast on a level with having four contestants on the screen at the same time answering questions from our host. Again, it’s one we intend to bring to the stage when we reopen but it works really well as a streamed event, as you still get that live comedy feel with all the contestants having a great time.
You’ve started a record label, releasing Edinburgh Fringe shows from the likes of John Kearns and Olga Koch on vinyl. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that – as you say yourself – the vinyl revival ‘almost exclusively relates to music’. Is this something you’d been planning to do for a while? It seems very much in keeping with your ethos as comedy lovers.
I don’t think it’s too far a reach to say the live comedy industry looks enviously at the music industry in a number of ways. Record stores, venues, radio all seem to have a more mainstream acceptance for music over live comedy, with only a few exceptions. We wanted to do something that both captured the feel of live comedy and make it a bit more tangible for people to buy into. Records are a wonderful thing to own and play. Many people might not appreciate the biggest comedy acts in the 60s, 70s and 80s put their shows onto vinyl.
We’ve wanted to do it ever since we started to grow at the Fringe. Seeing so many great shows on our stages was inspiring and we wanted to find a way to keep that going in a format that would appeal to people without losing the feel of live performance. Vinyl records just felt like a natural step and something we’ve always enjoyed.
What are some of your own personal favourite comedy recordings? I quite often listen to my (now very scratched) CD copy of Why Bother?, Chris Morris in character interviewing Peter Cook as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling.
There are some great Steve Martin records from the late 70’s I enjoy listening to. I’ve a few early Billy Connelly records which are great. It’s not just stand-up shows. Classic shows from TV and Radio work really well on vinyl and can cover so many genres. Everything from Tony Hancock to Not the Nine O’Clock News. What’s nice is that they aren’t that difficult to get your hands-on, so if you keep your eye on your local charity shops, and even on eBay, you can build a nice little collection fairly quickly and cheaply.
A lot of talk about how the arts will fare post COVID-19 is centred on funding. Where does comedy fit in here? I noticed that when the UK government set up their Events and Entertainment working group, there – initially – wasn’t a single comedy organisation involved. Which seems a bizarre oversight given the contribution British comedy makes to our economy and our culture.
One good thing to come out of the crisis is that live comedy does appear to be getting the recognition it’s been looking for. It’s often quoted that Comedy hasn’t been viewed as an art form by the bodies that help with funding and general recognition but that’s changing now. There’s a long way to go, and a lot to make up on the other Arts industries, but new bodies like the Live Comedy Association will only help to do this. Everything you say is right about where comedy has been positioned by the public bodies designed to protect the Arts, but at moments like this, it’s not hard to argue what part comedy plays not just in keeping people entertained, but in highlighting the big issues of the day.
How much of a blow is it for you to not have the Fringe this year? Are there any positives at all for the city in having a year off?
It was a blow. Not unexpected, but a huge disappointment nonetheless. The biggest shame for me personally is that you get three and a half weeks each year to work with an audience who don’t usually come to see live comedy, and you learn so much during that time. By the time we get to Fringe 2021 it will be 23 months since we last did a comedy festival in Edinburgh, and that’s such a missed opportunity to learn and build on what’s gone on before.
I’m sure there are some positives that can come out of it, but everyone’s working in their living rooms and engaging on small screens so I do worry how connected all the various parts will be when we finally get back together. We operate all year-round in Edinburgh, and as a local, independent, owner-managed comedy club, I just hope that there is a genuine collective approach to how we manage the fallout from this.
It’s difficult to prepare for anything right now but what are your plans for the next few months? Anything in mind for that Fringe-sized gap? Anything you particularly want to get stuck into when the real world resumes?
We just want to be ready to open what we safely can when we can. We will need to ensure staff, performers and visitors are confident in our operation, and that we have a sustainable way of moving forwards. I hope that we won’t have to wait until August next year to create a festival type atmosphere to live comedy in Edinburgh. We’d love to be able to relaunch our year-round programme with something that combines what we do day-in-day out with what we put on during the Fringe. We’d like to link this in with the record label and start off new recordings as soon as people feel comfortable travelling and performing. That would be a nice way of tying in, and hopefully getting a bit of closure, from what’s gone on over the past few months.
You can support Monkey Barrel records HERE