Tonight I was at the Lyric Rooms in Ashby for one of the Funhouse Comedy hosted English Comedian of the Year semi-finals. Despite this being a venue that easily sells over 100 tickets for the monthly comedy night, numbers weren’t that high tonight and that’s a shame as people missed some brilliant acts. Present in the audience for Spiky Mike to chat to whilst compering were a few interesting people, such as Doug (not to be confused with Doug Lumley of Derby) who had been raised in South Africa, a PE teacher and a professional wrestler who had made a career in Kentucky.
The quality of acts is always great at these nights and tonight was no exception. There were perhaps a couple of comedians who might be expected to do well, but all things being equal, the vast majority of the acts were in with a chance if things fell right for them. As is always the case, the audience were to vote for their favourite acts of the night and this meant that whilst someone could have been high up on everyone’s list, but no-ones top pick, then they would end up with very few votes.
Tony Cowards – 41 votes
Rahul Kohli – 39 votes
Both make the final
Stephen Carlin (28 votes) may get a possible wildcard
Simmonds volunteered to open which was a risky strategy. However, he got the gig off to a flying start. He opened with a callback to the wrestler that Mike had been chatting to during his compering and then followed this up with a strong line describing the non-disabled. I especially liked how Simmonds had been listening to the compering, because he was able to address Doug in the audience by name and this always goes down well. The material was original, well thought out and it built up momentum very nicely. Automatic was a great line, the toppers added a lot to the set, as did the asides and the closing routine about an encounter in a train station was delicious. Simmonds was high energy and went down an absolute storm. I was expecting him to place highly in the votes, but this time that wasn’t to be. Perhaps if he had gone on later he would have been a finalist, despite that, this was a great set by someone to remember for the future.
After Simmond’s strong start, I don’t think that anyone was really relishing going on next, but this task fell to Rahul Kohli, one of the favourites to go through. He had smashed his heat in Sheffield and so it was reasonable to expect more of the same tonight and he didn’t disappoint. He saw Simmond’s energy level and raised it, hitting the room like a whirlwind. This set contained a lot of great stuff as Kohli mixed established material with new, got the right town for the dodgy dealers, chatted with various audience members and even managed to get applause for the topper to a joke that had just received applause. He was very sweary for an Ashby audience, but whilst this might have held some acts back, this didn’t seem to make any impact on Kohli’s appeal. Everyone was probably laughing too much to really notice the mofos. There was a potentially tricky moment where he asked a member of the audience a question and he was badly left hanging for perhaps ten seconds whilst she racked her brains for an answer. However, Kohli bounced straight back from this, which was good going. His closing routine which was a lot more wordy and not as punchy as his earlier material, but again, he pulled it back with a great callback to close on. This was an extremely strong set from someone who is in with a good chance of winning the final. He went through in second place tonight.
Rahul was also responsible for the funniest part of the night. Earlier Aaron Simmonds had commented about how able-bodied people would always sit in his wheelchair and it would just topple back because it is very light. Rahul spotting the empty chair located in a convenient position to see the stage sat in it and was immediately tipped backwards as if the chair had spat him out, going arse over tit and landing on his arse. Whilst painful for his coccyx, it was an amazingly funny but accidental piece of physical comedy. You probably had to be there.
Little was disadvantaged by the running order. After two high energy acts had been on, a change of pace to a lower energy and more measured delivery wasn’t ideal and if he had raised his own energy level then it would probably have been too much of the same for the room to have a great appetite for. Little started with some material about crisps, which he tied in nicely to someone who had just finished a pack off, but unfortunately this didn’t grab the audience. I’ve seen Little a few times and he’s got a belting routine about animal feed (not the most likely of subjects, but it really is good) and I did wonder if he might have been better opening with a cut down version of this, as it would have been relatable to everyone there, instantly gettable and it would have established his credentials. Little’s set came to life with Wordsworth and then took off when he was talking about the longest word in the English dictionary. From here he built up impetus and ended well. I think Little is an act that would have benefited from a longer slot, doing fifteen instead of ten as this would have given him more time to build with. Tonight he didn’t really show the room just what he is capable of.
Occupying the sweet spot after the intermission was Haroon, who has been having a good year, making the finals of a few competitions and progressing from open middles to paid closing spots for small rooms. Tonight he began with a few callbacks to Kohli’s set before going into his main material. Haroon is a writer of talent and there were a lot of insightful lines in this set. The taxi driver material is a crowd-pleaser that everyone can get on board with. Europe was insightful and the section on Britain stronger for excluding Wales. The comments about Russians were timely and Islamic Estate has a lot of potential, even if it isn’t yet the finished article. There was an odd moment when Haroon said ‘tell the difference’ and from the rhythm of his delivery I and perhaps a few others were expecting a punchline there, but there wasn’t one. The material on the unification of India was clever and the bus shelter was fun, with a possible improvement involving putting messages on walls. This was a promising set. Haroon can clearly write formidable material, but he may benefit from working on his delivery and presence a bit more to get the most from it. Considering the intelligence of his writing, I’m wondering whether wearing a suit would help with establishing his comic persona for the audience?
Next was Faye Treacy, the only comedy trombonist in the country, if not the world. Treacy is certainly adept at playing the trombone, but the comedy isn’t as well developed. Her material was largely autobiographical and because she has an interesting backstory it is pretty fascinating, but unfortunately it doesn’t have a lot of comedic bite. Moon crawl was a good line, but seemed to be mostly overlooked by the audience. If she were to work on her writing then she would be a stronger act. However, Treacy is enjoyable and she entertained the room and there is definitely room for unique acts like hers in the comedy world.
Next was Carlin, the most experienced act of the night. Carlin was smartly dressed and looked imposing on stage, which when combined with his polished material made for a good performance. He gave the room largely the same set that he had used in his heat in Ashby, but that was long enough ago not to be an issue. The material was good, with meal deal and priest both being strong lines. Tonight he came third with the chance of a possible wildcard to the final.
Looking dapper in his suit, Cowards was the only one-liner comedian on the bill and he had a blinder of a gig. His well paced delivery and very powerful jokes generated consistent loud laughs. Tony would repeat the odd line during the set ups, partly to make it clear what the scenario was, but also perhaps to let people’s brains catch up with his jokes, which were all erudite. Rampant Rabbit and blood groups were both huge hits, but nothing missed, he got laughs for everything. Tony demonstrated his tactical flair by opening up the floor to the audience and inviting them to suggest topics for him to pun on. This was a formidable ploy, because it put him on his mettle. Having an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of jokes is great, but all it takes is one bright spark to double six him for it to all become awkward and of course, for the audience, that is all part of the challenge. On the other hand, it really emphasises Tony’s talent to everyone and goes down an absolute storm when it goes well, which it invariably does. Tonight’s suggestions were South Africa – response: a great joke about Cape Town, Football: two gags for the price of one, Germany: a fast comeback relating to kinder eggs that hit home hard and (unbelievably) the Sinclair C5: a joke concerning a crash on the road. The last one was the only gag that was a bit of a stretch, but Tony got laughs for pointing out the crowbar he’d used to get a joke based on the Sinclair C5. This was a set that was joyously different to the others and got a hell of a lot of laughs. Tony was the winner of the semi and will be in with a chance to win the final, especially if he opens it up to the audience again.
The closing act was Hawkins whom I last saw in Ashby, where he had had a very good gig. It’s always nice to see how Harvey is getting on, because he has the potential to become a very good story telling comedian. He has mastered the ability to tell a story with the utmost sincerity, sketching it out in such a way that without being verbose, he still manages to make you feel that events are unfolding before your eyes. Even with the room’s energy being low at this point everyone was hanging on his every word. His opening story built up loads of comedic tension that was released with a big laugh. The next few routines were shorter, but played with the comedy conventions and went down a treat. This was a very good performance that tonight didn’t get him through, but in a year or so, I can imagine him being a contender.