Tonight I was in Derby for the Funhouse Comedy night at the Blessington Carriage for the English Comedian of the Year heat. These are good nights with a wide mix of acts on and tonight was no exception. There were ten acts (three going through to the next round), ranging from the highly experienced Vince Atta to acts who have only been going for a few years. One thing I have noticed in all of these heats is that since the audience can only vote for their favourite three acts there are definitely some injustices done to acts whom they have laughed at, but who haven’t made anyone’s top three. This was particularly true in two cases tonight, where talented acts failed to reap anywhere near to the number of votes they deserved. Spiky Mike received a gift from the Gods in the form of Brad and his friend. When Mike asked if they were together, Brad replied yes, they were dating. Mike then asked Ash about their relationship and she informed the room that they were not together and he was very firmly friend zoned. This was something that the room really enjoyed, but which will no doubt make for a few awkward moments for Brad and Ash when they are both at work for the same company tomorrow. Mike was less lucky with his material about Guinness where in response to his question of who had been out drinking on St Patrick’s Day a room full of fibbers stayed silent, leaving him hanging. This got a big laugh in itself.
Drawing first place on the bill was Thomas Rackham. Rackham’s a decent act who began with a bit of room work before moving into his established material. I’ve not seen him for a while, but it was nice to see little improvements here and there in the wording and I enjoyed his short section on his recent birthday. There was some good material in evidence, but also a few bits that weren’t quite on the same level, but this was still an enjoyable set.
Next was Clayton Jones. I felt that he began slowly – I’ll tell you a bit about myself is probably the most overused line in comedy, apart from my girlfriend, yes she is real. Following this, the African version of his name was ok and it got a laugh, but I felt it a bit obvious. The Pat Jennings reference was nice if you are of a certain age and it was useful that most of the room got the joke more from the context than the reference. At this point Jones began to talk about his two children, one nice, one demonic and at this his set kicked into gear. The tale of being tripped was well acted out and very convincing and easy to relate to (we’ve all had that escalating series of looks at one time or another) and the reveal on the final part of this was very good. This was topped by the correspondence with Durex. Whilst I didn’t rate the first part of his set that highly, the second half was great and this saw Jones through to the next round in 3rd place.
Phil Pagett, whom I regard as a very sharp writer of jokes was next. He gave the room his trademark one-liners, which included a musical gag, which despite the long-ish set up was well worth the pay off. I and the rest of the room found the callback to Brad to be very funny. There are definite shades of Delaney in the quality of Pagett’s writing, the only thing that is missing is Delaney’s sheer joy in getting to deliver jokes. Pagett is quite dry and cerebral and it’s possible that if he were to capture that sheer infectious joy that Delaney has then his performance would receive a massive boost.
We resumed after the intermission with Harry Sanders, another good writer. My only worry with Sanders was that he has performed in Derby a few times and familiarity may have worked against him on the night. Sanders began well with a good lead into his material on Loughborough. Sanders is strongest when he is doing darker material, which is risky in a contest and so he stayed away from this, mostly going with material that would appeal to all. This led to a set that had some good stuff and some not quite there yet stuff. I enjoyed the presents material, but that could be cut down to just showing the titles for the joke to work and maintain the pacing, as the chapter headings were fun, but didn’t add a lot that people didn’t expect. I’m looking forwards to watching Sanders grow as a comic.
Sean Turner opened by asking if everyone was all reet in a strong Geordie accent, which momentarily made me wonder if he was going to do a set full of references to him being a Geordie. Instead he gave the room something a lot more creative. The watch was nicely visual and set up a fun callback for later. The reveal on Hitchiker’s was unexpected and worked very well. Turner even did well with material on having had his prostrate examined, which has been done by 4-5 male comics his age. In style he reminded me of Gavin Webster, as both will tell a joke and then go for a second bite of the cherry by slowly explaining it. This was a very good performance that the room warmed to very quickly. I was very surprised when Turner didn’t make the top three.
Stephen Cookson would perhaps benefit from mixing up his approach to writing a little. A lot of his jokes involved taking something commonplace, such as a saying and then applying the literal meaning to it. Some of these were good, such as static caravan, but over time he suffered from this largely being one joke reworked too many times. It got to the point where not only did the law of diminishing returns kick in, but I think a lot of the audience were playing guess the punchline to the set up. Having a few that aren’t literal would break this up. Cookson’s delivery was low energy and he seemed to be focussed on a spot 2′ above the heads of the audience which wasn’t the end of the world, but I don’t think that it helped him form a bond with the audience during this contest.
Tom Young with his big smile made a lively start and instantly engaged with the room. He had a timely callback to Mike’s compering and since Pagett and he were dressed in the same coloured waistcoats, 6’7 Young had a wonderful line about being a king size version of Pagett. This made for a very energetic start and Young was definitely doing well. However, his actual material was a lot weaker than the stuff he had made up during the last half hour, lacking punch. This was definitely a case of him having stronger skills with delivery and ad-libbing than with writing. It would have been interesting to have seen Young do more room work, as he was on firmer footing there.
The final section was opened by Vince Atta. Atta was more or less a shoo in to do well in this contest, the only question I had was over the length of the spot, as I doubt Atta has done anything less than a 20 minute opening or closing slot in years. Atta began by explaining how beat boxing worked at top speed before doing a highly abbreviated version of his usual set. I was sorry he didn’t do resting bitch face, as that is my favourite routine of his. The routine where Atta used Derby was absolutely perfect for this heat and went down a dream. Everything that Atta said or did received a laugh – the meaning of his name in Urdu getting a huge response. Vince brings a real feel good factor into the room and I felt that tonight if just one person had given him a standing ovation the rest of the room would have joined in. This was a great set and he went through as winner of the night.
The hard job of following Vince Atta fell to Sam Pressdee. Pressdee’s set can be split into two halves: The Black Country and things that are personal to her. The Yam Yam translated into English didn’t achieve a lot, as no one really seemed that interested in a dialect that wasn’t local to Derby or far enough away to be exotic. This bit was more factual than comedy. The potted history of the Black Country and how it got its name would fall under this heading, too, although staying in that area, the line about benefits was decent enough. The other half of the set concerned an ex of Pressdee’s and a condition that she has. There wasn’t a lot of comedy in this; it felt like she was just making the most of the chance to talk about her ex in front of people rather than it being material. Pressdee’s performance would benefit from sounding less like a read through and more like an actual delivery.
The final act was Harriet Dyer, another favourite to go through. Dyer gave a very memorable performance. She was never still for an instant, jerking this way and then the next, almost as if she had been given a new body that afternoon and hadn’t quite worked out the instructions yet. This proved to be highly engaging and the room were quite fascinated by her. In addition to this, Dyer seemed to have three different people trying to do a set at once, with innumerable asides and tangents being followed. This was a case where no one had any idea what would be said next and it worked extremely well, with her totally holding the audience. The jokes were good and no one could have predicted anything that she said. Dyer easily made it through to the next round in second place.