Last night I was at the New Barrack Tavern for the Funhouse hosted Sheffield heat of English Comedian of the Year. Every heat I’ve been to has been a cracker and this one was no exception. The NBT is a great venue, with an audience that allows the acts time to show they are funny, instead of making an instant decision, which is always welcome. Strangely the room hadn’t sold out, which was odd, as this is usually one of those places where it’s useful to book a ticket well in advance. As with all of the heats, the voting was heavily skewed towards the top three acts. The format is that every audience member votes for their favourite three comics and this means that 75% of the comedians who thoroughly entertained the room, but weren’t in anyone’s top three go home with very few votes. It must be quite disconcerting to have perhaps been the 4th favourite of 20 people and pick up hardly any votes just through not being in their top three. The running order was chosen by picking cards with lowest to highest in the suite choosing their slots first. This inadvertently led to most of the more experienced and stronger acts going on later in the night and all three ladies picking to perform in the middle section, which did give the show a bit of an unbalanced feel. Mike, in his jazzy shorts, had fun compering the gig, discovering a man with the unlikely profession of currency trader. This prompted a useful correction from Kev the landlord of ‘money launderer!’
Paxton didn’t have a great night. He began with 20 seconds of silence whilst he looked around the room and fixed a few people with his stare. This built up a bit of tension, but the time could perhaps have been better spent using material. He followed this with a not too bad ginger joke and some one-liners, all said in an accent that probably had a lot of people trying to work out where he was from and which he may have done well to address. Paxton delivered his material looking directly at certain members of the audience, rather than staring off into the middle distance and this could have helped him to build a connection with the people sat there. Unfortunately a lot of his material wasn’t that strong and he had a slight defensive vibe to his set, where he’d comment on how much he liked his jokes and I think this pushed people away from him. He had the feel of someone who is heavily influenced by American stand ups, but hasn’t yet really mastered how to make it work for him. At around the five minute mark of the seven minute slot, Paxton acknowledged that he wasn’t going to go through and announced that he was just going to do his favourite jokes, which got a great laugh from everyone, especially Mike, who looked in danger of falling off of his chair. Although Paxton didn’t do well, he can learn from his experience and improve for the future.
Triscott, wearing a nice shirt and jacket and polished shoes was visually a cut above most of the contestants. Looking smartly dressed doesn’t make a comedian any funnier, but it can give them an air of seriousness and often an audience will sit up and take note of that. This initially helped Triscott establish himself as he delivered a set that was a mixture of one-liners and short routines. The material was something of a curate’s egg and would benefit from some editing. There were some very good lines, the number plate routine built up very well indeed and the twist at the end was extremely good. However, for every good joke in the arsenal, there was another that wasn’t quite up there. The rake description was ok, but as it needed an explanation, it lost pace and perhaps did more harm than good to the overall set and this was true of a few of the short routines that were just slightly overly wordy. Not massively so, but just enough to rob them of the impact they may have had if they had been more punchy. This wasn’t a bad set, but it was one that with a few tweaks could be a lot better. The framework is there for something rather good.
Harper was another act who would be stronger with an editing of his material. He got laughs, but the gaps between the punchlines were too long for him to really gain any momentum and when he did an extended anecdote there was a palpable feeling of the room slipping away from him. This was an act who ran out of steam before his time was finished. However, there were a lot of positives, too. Harper has a nice smile and looked happy to be there and the audience responded well to this by being equally happy to see him – even when he began to lose traction the audience were still cordial towards him. There was evidence of some quick wits in his retort when he was corrected over Dawn’s name and there was a welcome twist on having a girlfriend. With more experience Harper will be an improved act, perhaps an obvious point, but still a valid one.
Wearmouth was a relaxing presence with his a slow delivery and whilst this didn’t excite the room, he certainly held everyone’s attention. There were some lovely lines, such as sleeping bag and Buckeroo which managed to paint a vivid picture and be surprising at the same time. The bit about odd laws of the Isle of Man was a missed opportunity, as the example given was more of an example rather than being something intrinsically funny in itself and this could be improved upon. Wearmouth has improved since I last saw him and whilst he entertained the room, he just needed that bit more.
I’ve only ever seen Conran twice and both times she’s impressed me on and off the stage. Simply put, she’s one of those rare people who can just brighten up a room by simply being there. Last night she gave a smashing performance and was the first act to have the entire room rocking with laughter. She mixed good material, great timing and solid performance skills. Conran would address material directly to audience members (remembering people’s names from Mike’s compering), spreading this out amongst those sat at the front and this really brought everyone onboard quickly. Her material is largely based on orifices and over seven minutes this didn’t outstay its’ welcome. The result of this was that she gained bags of momentum and went through to the next round as winner of the heat.
Barri had the tricky job of following Conran. Sometimes it is possible to ride the wave created when going on after a strong act, but this works best when the comics are very different in style and last night the differences weren’t marked enough for Barri to really benefit from the running order. In fact, if anything it probably hurt her night. On the positive side Barri has a clear delivery with good diction. There were no ums and erms or awkward pauses. Her material was decent, although she did lack a knockout joke. However, what I felt let her down was the lack of surprises or twists in a lot of her reveals. Whilst the specifics of the reveals weren’t always obvious, the type of punchline was. If you assumed she was heading towards a celebrity nonce, then you might not have got the right prison cell, but your guess was probably in the same wing of the prison. With a few more surprises Barri would make a bigger impact.
Zaman is an high energy act whose delivery reminds me of Tim Fitzhigham. They both talk nineteen to the dozen, repeat a few lines here and there and both build up a lot of impetus. Zaman gave the room fifteen minutes of material in seven, talking directly to the odd audience member. He is a bubbly presence and although sometimes it’s possible to lose track of the odd sentence due to how fast he speaks, Zaman has a great rhythm in his delivery and remains funny even if you may be hard pressed for the specifics of why you are laughing. This was a fun set that the room enjoyed a lot.
Sheffield born Todd had the accent to match the venue, talking about her ‘fern’ rather than phone, which tickled me for all of the right reasons. I found her accent to be very endearing and it definitely adds to her presence. Todd was an act who built up a lot of momentum as she delivered a set that included some great one-liners and some impressions. The impressions were all of celebrities whom I’ve never ever heard speak, but because Todd spoke the words that you could easily imagine these people saying they still worked very nicely. This kept her set fresh and added a nice touch of variety to her act. This was a very enjoyable performance that gained a lot of laughter from the audience (all apart from one lady who was the exception, not laughing at anything) and seemed to end all too soon for my liking. After Conran Todd had been the most popular act of the night to this point.
On any bill Quinne would have to be a serious contender. Over twenty minutes I’d consider him quite possibly unbeatable, but I was curious as to whether seven minutes would be enough for him to build up a head of steam. As it happened, he powered through the room making it through to the next round and being the act I most enjoyed. He began with a fairly long set up, which seemed to eat time until he got to the funny bit which amply justified the investment in it. This was just the start of a performance that included three or four routines that all landed knockout blows. Any one of these routines would have stood out for quality and squeezing them all into the one set was highly impressive. The delivery fully did justice to the material, being slightly camp when talking about his sister and having great tonal quality. It’s lovely when an act manages to place the stress on the correct syllable of certain words to get the maximum emphasis of what they are saying – it’s a subtle touch but one that massively adds value and clarity to their delivery. Also, it is usually the comedians who speak quietly that draw the audience in, but Quinne managed to achieve that by talking loudly, which is pretty exceptional. This was a stand out performance that saw Quinne through to the next round.
Taylor is a delightfully surreal act who is consistently very good. He is also perceptive when it comes to constructing his set and this is demonstrated in the quality of his work. In seven minutes he managed to find time for some sharp observations about the room, some great jokes and some lovely short songs and this was seven minutes that went by rather quickly. What I appreciated the most about this set was that he constantly wrong footed the audience. They would follow the set up and reach one conclusion, whereas Taylor would then reveal a punchline that was unexpected and which landed all the more because of it. I don’t think that there was a single line or moment that didn’t add mirth during this performance. Taylor comfortably made it through to the next round.
Graham was a comedian whom I think everyone saw as a real contender to make it through to the next round. Unfortunately despite putting in a strong showing he didn’t make it and this could be due to a paradox in his material. Masai is at his best when he is doing dark material, yet his darker stuff slightly split the room. Not massively so, but I think it just stopped enough people voting for him to hurt his chances. Naturally if he’d been squeaky clean he wouldn’t have been as funny as he was, so it’s a bit of an Hobson’s choice. Masai got a lot of laughs from the off with his joke about the cat and there were some fantastic gags in his set. The new chemist based joke worked well on facebook and works even better live, being a highlight of the night. It’s superb how Masai let the audience think they’d got to the punchline before him and then proving otherwise. This was a great performance from an act who did very well.