The Maze – Richard Probert, Gary Peterson, Chris Stiles, Matt West, Houssem Rhaiem, Nathan Newton-Willington, David Cox, Jimbo, Sandra Hale, Mo Haroon, Ben Verhoven, Henry Hempstead, Rob Callaghan and Sham Zaman

Tonight I was in Nottingham at The Maze for the Funhouse gong show. It seems like ages since I last went to a gong, so I was really looking forwards to this. There were a bumper 15 acts booked in and since 14 actually turned up, this made for quite a busy night. I’d only seen a few of the acts before and it’s always fun to see new comedians. My only concern was that there were a couple of local acts who had managed to bring a lot of friends with them. This isn’t usually a problem, but if it came to a cheer off we just had to hope they did the square thing and cheered the loudest for talent; something that Mike reminded them of just before the final commenced. The room was initially slow to warm up, but Mike won them over with Lilly proving to be an ideal audience member: one who laughed loudly and often.

Richard Probert

Probert wearing a blazer and a big collar was the opening act, beginning with a standard love child of joke. He gave the room an extended anecdote and then a routine about anal sex; both of which suffered from being overly descriptive and too wordy. They would have benefited from being edited down to just enough exposition to set the scene and then he could have hit the room with the funny and built up momentum. Instead the humour ended up lost amongst the verbiage. Although the pull back and reveal on the party got a bit of a laugh, I think he could have done better as I doubt anyone was hugely surprised by the direction he took. Probert’s delivery was clear, but a little bit more warmth in it to draw people in would have been nice. He didn’t do badly, making the final, but I think he could improve.

Gary Peterson

Peterson has good performance skills and has the confidence to work an audience, referencing them in his set. I was very happy to see that he had been listening to Mike’s compering and could address material to individual audience members by name. This definitely helped him to hold the room’s attention. His material wasn’t bad, but could perhaps do with a bit more work and especially a big pay off. The routine based on local place names was fun, but I don’t think it will travel that well as a lot of audiences seem a bit disengaged with material specific to not their town. The section based upon rectal investigations (Peterson was unlucky being the second act in a row to have an anal based routine) was stronger with the roast line being the stand out of the set.

Chris Stiles

Stiles had a good night with the Barnsley pilot consistently proving to be his strongest material. The plumber was good, but needs a bigger closing line. I do think that tonight Stiles missed a trick by not tying his material into the room, but he did well enough to get through to the final.

Matt West

West began weakly with a joke based around his name; he didn’t speak that clearly whilst doing this line and I think that half of the room didn’t quite catch on that it was a joke at first and even having heard it all myself I’d still say that a rewording of it at the least is in order. The rest of West’s set was better, but it only really came to life with him doing the enthusiastic advertiser type voice. This stuff was good and the audience were onboard with it. He built up a lot of momentum with that.

Houssem Rhaiem

Rhaiem has had a funny old week. Six days ago he made it through to the semi finals of the English Comedian of the Year, which is excellent going, but tonight he failed to make it to the final of this gong show. Rhaiem’s material is good, but his delivery seemed a little bit off his normal self. There was an odd moment where he started a routine and then very obviously bailed on it after about 10 seconds, which was unusual as he’s more polished than this. I was still surprised to see him get gonged off at the final hurdle as his material was good enough to justify him getting through and there were certainly weaker acts that made it to the final.

Nathan Newton-Willington

Newton-Willington was performing his first ever gig, the first of two comedy newcomers on the bill. As is usual under these circumstances Mike not only gave him a supportive build up, but also gave him a sweet spot, going on just after an intermission. I’m not going to say his material was especially original – all of these individual topics: an account of losing one’s virginity, pouting duck face and that there are Ladyboys in Thailand have been covered more than a few times. However, he wasn’t bad and for a first attempt he did alright, with a slightly generous audience seeing him through to the final.

David Cox

Cox had an odd night. He began with material on bears and Yellowstone park, which was a bit weak. Not offensively so, but there were just too many gaps between laughs and he may be better off dropping that as the remaining four minutes or so of his set was a quantum leap of improvement. The remainder of Cox’s material concerned activities in space and this had the feel of good, well thought out material. Unicef was a great line and it was nice to see a callback used. The visual closing gag to it, the money shot of the routine, was extremely good. If all of Cox’s set had had the mirth of the space routine then he would be much improved.

Jimbo

I’ve seen Jimbo twice before, but both of those times he was dressed as if going line dancing and he was absolutely plastered. This was the first time I’ve seen him in a normal suit and in any kind of state approaching sobriety. In contrast to the previous occasions he was funny for all of the right reasons. A lot of his jokes were based on his age, but these were generally creative and they struck a chord with the audience, although the terminal illness did go over a few people’s heads. This was a set with a lot of laughter from the audience.

Sandra Hale

Through a quirk of the running order the two oldest entrants were next to each other on the bill and this may have caused a clash if they hadn’t got completely different approaches. Hale began with a callback to Probert’s set, but as a fair amount of time had passed since he had been on, this didn’t land as well as it might have. The visual May observations were timely, but not especially deep. A lot of Hale’s set concerned sex and this material wasn’t bad, but a lot of the laughter came from the surprise of a senior citizen describing a use for sperm rather than the intrinsic comedy value of the material itself. Hale didn’t do badly, she made the room laugh and made the final, but I think her material isn’t as strong as it could be.

Mo Haroon

Haroon had an excellent night. At first I was a bit concerned for him, as the previous four acts had all been voted through to the final. Usually after a long stretch of winners the judges will be that bit harsher, as they realise that they have to vote someone off and I did think that he would have to work harder to counter this psychology. Haroon has some great material; his set is well written and very well thought out. He also had a good awareness of who was whom in the room, using a lady called India as the fulcrum for some material, making it feel very much of the now and highly relevant to the audience. Haroon was the first and only act of the night to get an applause break, earning not just the one, but three in fairly quick succession. This was a very good set that had a lot going for it and he was a very worthy winner of the night. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him and appreciated the work behind the writing.

Ben Verhoven

Verhoven, the second first timer, opened the final section of the night and he had a lot of support from the audience, with perhaps 2/5 of the room being friends of his. For a new act his material wasn’t especially bad, with the punching above his weight line being the stand out. What let him down was his delivery – Verhoven forgot his lines a couple of times and this really robbed him of momentum. However, he was well supported and did make the final, where luckily his friends did the square thing by Haroon and cheered the loudest for the funniest.

Henry Hempstead

Hempstead made the slowest start to any comedy that I have ever seen. He walked onto the stage, looking almost confused as to what he was doing, deliberately cultivating an air of the unusual. He was silent whilst doing this. He then took a drink of water prior to walking the short distance to the other side of the stage to put his glass down and then a slow walk back to the mic, which he then fiddled with in silence. This was then followed by him dodging behind the Funhouse banner, from where he finally began to speak. This all seemed to take more or less forever. Sometimes a silent stunt like this can build up the comedic tension, but in this case all it seemed to do was make some of the room mildly curious as to what he was up to and a lot, I’d imagine, irritated by it. The purpose of this was a low powered joke that opened a satirical routine about Mike Pence (Vice President of the US). A further problem with this is that Mike Pence and any foibles of his aren’t well known enough over here for an audience to readily get the observations or perhaps even to care overly much about them. This entire act was something that might have read well on paper as an arts student concept, but as a comedy set it was horrible.

Rob Callaghan

Callaghan isn’t the most experienced of acts and this came through in just how stilted and awkward he looked stood on stage. His material about his work colleague would be improved if he cut down the number of towns that he mentions, as this list was really strung out far beyond what the joke warranted and this may have explained his gonging.

Sham Zaman

I’ve had a run of seeing Zaman at almost every other gig during the last few weeks and tonight he was his usual self, surreal, lively and compelling viewing. He held the room and received solid laughs.

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Kayal – Joe Foster, Brodi Snook, Aaron Levene, Martin Huburn, Robert Callaghan, Alex Black, Belle Busby, Dave Fensome, Mark Row, Houssem Rhaiem, Ben Bridgeman, Stephen Catling and Shaun Turner

Last night I was at the Kayal in Leicester for the Funhouse gong show. This started and finished earlier than usual, which is a positive move on a Sunday night, especially so given that some of the acts had travelled up from Brighton. There was a nice sized crowd, comprising a few estate agents, a group of students and a chap from New Jersey who was looking to get into teaching in Blighty. There was an odd moment where Mike caught a person checking his phone and the man claimed there had been a family death or something along those lines. Mike rightly doubted this, but was smart enough not to press the bloke, as that is not somewhere you want to go when warming up the audience.

Joe Foster opened by asking everyone how they were doing and generally saying hello. Whilst this may have eased him into his set I felt that it added little of comedy value. The bulk of his material concerned a works health and safety course, before he moved on to other topics. The material was pretty good and despite the fact that he had no links between different topics he was speaking fast enough for this jumping from area to area not to feel too jarring. I enjoyed his ad lib, as did the audience, judging from the applause break. Foster’s delivery was forceful, and he seemed to over emphasise what he was saying, as if he were addressing a rally and wanted his points to be crystal clear. Over five minutes this manner of speaking worked quite well, but over ten minutes or longer I’m not sure it wouldn’t outstay its’ welcome. There was a moment where Foster lost track of his material, but he’d done well and the audience forgave him this short lapse and he made it through to the final.

The Australian Brodi Snook was up next. Her set was very good on more than one level. It was funny, but it was also one that I could enjoy on a technical level, too. This was a well constructed set, with toppers and added reveals. The material was largely autobiographical, but it didn’t have the self-indulgent feel of some sets that are personal, nor did it skate along the edge of telling us more about her than what we really wanted to know. Snook’s delivery was calm and perhaps if I was being very picky, more competent and capable than inspired. The only part of her set that I thought fell below a very enjoyable standard was the inclusion of the line ‘so that’s going well’ which is very much overused on the circuit, even though as ever, it received a big laugh when she used it. Snook made it through to the final and is certainly a highly credible act.

Aaron Levene followed. He began with a few lookalikes. This kind of material is a bit of a staple opening and whilst it isn’t that creative, it can be relied upon to get an easy laugh and tonight it helped to establish Levene with the audience. Levene’s night could be divided into two halves, pre and post Holocaust. The material prior to the Holocaust was decent enough and the audience were going with it, despite the S&M reveal whlst not being exactly predictable, the actual type of reveal was. When it came to his material on the Holocaust Levene lost the room. Not massively, but enough to make all the difference needed to go off at a gong show. Although I liked the Eva Braun line, I’m not convinced that even a Jewish act has a lot to gain by attempting to mine the Holocaust for material. I think that Levene would do better to rethink that section as comedically it seems more of a liability than an asset.

Martin Huburn began with clever line about New Jersey, which owing to the presence of the New Jersey native in the room had a feel of immediacy to it, especially so when he tied it in to Leicester. This was an early audience pleaser. From here Huburn gave a largely different set to what I had seen on Thursday night in Stoke and one that felt fresher and lighter in tone. I was especially happy with his ‘down with the kids’ line, which like many a good gag worked in more than one way and it took me a few seconds to get the full impact of the joke. Despite Huburn’s habit last night of saying ‘right’ a lot, this was a set that generated a lot of momentum as he delivered it with passion. After having received all green cards, Huburn just managed to lose the room over a new bit of material and was a surprising late gonging.

After the intermission we resumed with Robert Callaghan occupying the sweet spot, which as he was doing his first ever gig was pretty fair. Mike gave him a supportive build up and he came to the stage with the audience feeling well disposed towards him. Unfortunately Callaghan didn’t repay this trust with a lot of laughs. Even for a virgin act in front of a crowd willing him to do well he struggled. He began with an anecdote that concerned an unremarkable conversation on a night out and then talked about Theresa May and bikes, where he lost the room.

Alex Black rebuilt the atmosphere with an enjoyable set that with a bit of luck ended on a natural high at the five minute cut off. It was nice to see Black being happy to banter with the audience and move away from his set before returning to it. This helped to keep the gig feeling fresh. Black’s final minute was absolutely spot on with the timing and a joy to see.

Belle Busby was disappointing. She opened with lookalikes, where she was unlucky with Levene having done his version of this prior to her. Following this, she commented on her unusual accent before a brief foray into her job and then a large section about her luck in relationships. The accent material and occupation were both very brief and didn’t seem to have much depth beyond a few comments and I’d liked to have seen either given enough attention to make them feel less than throwaway comments. When it came to discussing relationships Busby was on a sticky wicket. Being rubbish with the opposite sex is a topic that has been covered so many times it is extremely difficult to make it fresh or for it to stand out and Busby’s material on it just didn’t feel like anything we’d not heard a version of before. With different material she would be much improved. Busby was confident and her delivery was fine so I’d like to see her again. On a personal level I was impressed by her taking her gonging in very good heart and thanking the audience for listening – she was a good sport.

Although Dave Fensome didn’t win, he was the act that impressed me the most. He had the look of an experienced act and had a plausibility about him that few other entrants had. I enjoyed his material, there were a lot of well thought out lines – the house rabbit reveal was a lovely surprise. His delivery was that of a man angry with the world and his ageing position in it. However, he had the level of bitterness right. He wasn’t that angry to alienate the room, but he still had enough to carry conviction and give weight to his material. This was a very good set.

Mark Row had a good night, winning the contest. Row had some good material and a fast engaging delivery. There were a couple of areas where I guessed the reveal before he said it (hospice collection and shag list), which was a bit disappointing, but this was more than balanced out by some very good stuff. Pot Noodle was great and Trumped was an example of an actual witty Trump gag. Row is quite a wordsmith and it was enjoyable just listening to his command of the English language. Row won the vote off in the final by a large margin.

Houssem Rhaiem usually makes a strong showing in gong shows, but last night went out late into his set. On the plus side there was evidence of improvement with the substitute gag being reworked so that it is now pacier. On the other hand the two Trump gags felt a bit superficial. I was very surprised when Rhaiem lost his place in his set, as this is very unusual for him.

Ben Bridgeman opened with a local reference about Kasabian which fell flat. His set made a slow recovery from this and he looked likely to be an early gonging until he was saved by a reference to an American. His set came to life at this, but not enough to save him from being gonged off at the last hurdle. I wasn’t very happy to see him come off the stage, grab his jumper and then leave the room not saying cheerio to anyone with perhaps a ten second gap between these actions. I’ve seen people move more slowly when there has been a fire in a room. This seemed to be a bit bad tempered and unsporting.

Stephen Catling didn’t have a great night. He took to the stage wearing a big coat and if my Gran had seen him wearing it indoors the first thing she’d have asked him was is he staying or leaving soon. The answer was leaving soon. Catling isn’t visually funny or imposing and he needed to say something within the first twenty seconds to give the audience a reason to listen to him and want to hear more. Instead he gave the room some whimsy, which no one seemed to want to engage with. If he had used more that was immediately funny he might have been given a chance to take the audience with him, but it was not to be.

Shaun Turner was the final act. He does well at gong shows, regularly winning or making the final. He has a confident delivery, holds the room well and tonight he seemed a bit sharper. However, apart from cock or balls all of his material is based upon him having cerebral palsy and I find it gets repetitive very quickly. I’d very much like to see him broaden his approach. Last night he was runner up.

The Rigger – Tim Cullen, Dominic Harasiwka, Claire Keegan, Mark Woodrow, Martin Huburn, Grace Green, Howard Anstock, Michael Hartless, Brian Bell, Josh McAuley, Mark Richardson and Ben Turner

Tonight I was at The Rigger in Stoke Newcastle Under Lyme, for the Funhouse gong show. This is a rock pub with an ambience similar to The Maze in Nottingham and it was pretty full. There were a lot of acts from the Northwest and I was hoping that they wouldn’t repeat what I once saw in Derby. There a group of Mancunians and a Liverpudlians were performing and half of them did material on how rough it was where they were from and after the third description of, ‘if you’ve ever seen Shameless…’ I despaired as probably did the Northwest Tourist board if they were watching. Fortunately tonight was very different. Mike, looking like a New Romantic in his black Guardsman’s tunic, started the night off with a faux pas when he said how nice it was to be in Stoke, which the denizens of Newcastle Under Lyme were quick to take issue with. This led him nicely into some good material about a wall. There was then a lovely moment when someone on the front row was silly enough not to have turned their phone off and Mike answered it. Upon mishearing the girl’s name, Ocean (not a name at the front of anyone’s mind, admittedly), as O2, Mike proceeded to try to sign the chap up to a more expensive package. This was a lot of fun and before long we were ready for our first act.

Tim Cullen opened, with a low energy delivery. He had some nice bits, such as where he referenced the audience and a few callbacks which added sparkle, but the pacing on the jacuzzi routine was out and it didn’t feel as if it was going anywhere. Cullen’s delivery contained a lot of ers and erms, which in a new act is fair enough. He was a late gonging and owing to it seeming to take an age for the 3rd red card to go up, it seemed almost cruel.

Next was Dominic Harasiwka, the owner of a name that is likely to be causing problems for comperes for a few years to come and also a remarkable resemblance to Tormund from Game of Thrones. I was surprised that he referenced neither of these, not that they were elephants in the room in any kind of way, but it did seem almost natural that they’d get a mention. Harasiwka gave the audience a very strong set with original material that had a nice fresh feel to it. The ounces section was decent and reverse euphemisms is a great premise that I was very impressed with. I did think he missed a chance for improving a line when talking about the mean streets of America, as this had an almost throwaway feel to it and just making it the mean streets of wherever he is on that night would tie it in to the audience and get a laugh – more so if it is somewhere incongruous. Harasiwka’s delivery was a touch on the hesitant in places, but not massively so. He was a well placed finalist and I feel that he is an act that has potential, especially so given the strength of his material.

Next was Claire Keegan who had an unwise choice of material. Cancer is a difficult topic to make funny. It is also something that pretty much everyone has lost someone to and there is always the risk that an audience member will have suffered recently so this makes it more trouble than it is probably worth as a comedy topic, especially for a non-pro act whom the room don’t know well enough to trust to lead them into somewhere funny with it. As a result Keegan’s set veered from being bleak to just being depressing and it definitely needed more in it that was funny to make it seem worth investing in listening to.

Mark Woodrow gave the performance of the night and was a worthy winner of the show. He came onto the stage sounding happy and was a breath of fresh air after Keegan. He began well with tying his opening into her set and then doing a small bit of room work – all of this showed that he was very much wide awake. He did continue the 100% record of Ulster acts having a joke about bombs, albeit his approach was from a different angle and didn’t involve using his accent as the mainspring of the routine. The lollipop man routine was stronger. I especially enjoyed Woodrow’s delivery, which fluctuated nicely in tune with his set, being dry almost deadpan one moment and then a smile or grin beaming out at just the right moment when he delivered the reveal. This was a cracking set.

Martin Huburn had a good night. He hit the room with 2 puns and never really looked back. He took a risk in poking a bit of fun at Newcastle under Lyme, but had enough charm to be able to carry on. He was unlucky in a shout out ruining one joke, but he turned it around with a quick retort. The gypsy material is a bit of a two edged sword. On the downside, it momentarily gives the wrong impression of Huburn’s character, but on the upside it leads into a nice little routine. This was a fun and upbeat set that saw him through into the final.

Grace Green was easily the liveliest and most bubbly act of the night, making the final easily. She delivered a lot of her material crouched forwards slightly and there was a very strong element of performance in her set. Green’s act was an odd one in that she managed to be very entertaining without her material being massively funny. She had some good word play, the dinosaur impression wasn’t without its’ charm and the dog tickling was fun, but the material definitely lagged behind her skills as a showman. I enjoyed what I saw and with material to match the delivery she will be a very strong act.

Howard Anstock was pleasant with decent material (potato waffle being the stand out), although he was probably wasting time by mentioning a couple of stories and then just writing them off with saying time constraints meant that he couldn’t tell them. Luckily this didn’t hurt him too badly and he made the final. I was very happy with his ability to think on his feet and ad lib when the speakers gave two knocks, or if he had engineered this, to make it look natural.

Michael Hartless made the final more on his smooth delivery than his material. His material consisted of him complaining about his job in a call centre and slagging off the one dimensional characters that inhabit it. This felt more like someone with a job they hate taking advantage of a captive audience to moan to than actual comedy. Simon Wozniak has a routine where he complains about his job in a call centre, but that is injected with originality and a lot more depth than this.

Brian Bell started well, but then came to a total grinding halt when he forgot the next bit. Bad luck on his part and a long 15 seconds of near silence for the rest of the room. He almost recovered with the Moors/Shipman material, which is good, but he went off at the first vote.

Josh McAuley opened his heart to the room with some very personal material which made it feel like he should have been on a couch, rather than on a stage. Personal material about misfortunes of life is fine, but it also needs to have some lightness and more importantly something that is immediately funny to buy the act enough time for this set up to get to the point where it generates a return. McAuley didn’t last that long, going off to a split decision.

Mark Richardson didn’t have a great night. I’ve seen him three times and each time he has had a different set. On one level this is highly laudable, but on the other hand, the first batch of material was very good and he may be better off working on improving that, as the last two outings have been poor in comparison. His delivery had a flamboyant physicality, but the room just didn’t go with him at all and off he went.

Ben Turner had the feel of an experienced act, but a couple of bits of his material felt a bit old hat. Remarking on what gives people the right to come up and look at babies in a pram and looking at photos of exs on facebook have been covered a lot of times and he didn’t really add anything not already said. Fingers was clever, but I think that only half of the room twigged on to it, which was a shame. Turner’s delivery was interesting. He stood leaning back and spoke in short sentences. With a full stop. Almost after every few words. Making it seem quite staccato.

The Maze, Oscar Reed, Alex Black, Salim Sidat, Chris Stiles, Orrion Kalidowski, Anna King-Jackson, Dave Luck, Anthony Burgess, Ben Shannon, Sue la Rue, Matt West and Bambam Shaikh

Tonight I was in the Maze in Nottingham for the Funhouse Gong Show. This is a pleasant contest in a rock pub and there was a decent sized audience there to see it. Originally the glow sticks were hard to see in the dark, but Spiky Mike wisely swapped these for the easier to see cards during the first intermission. Mike had a fun night compering, with a repeat slip of the tongue when he encouraged the audience to put their hands in the air, rather than in the clapping position.

Our opening act was Oscar Reed, who when I had seen him in Sheffield, had given a good performance. Tonight he had rejigged his set and whilst his opening routine isn’t there yet, the rest of his set holds promise. His material about being a philosopher was great and it felt like he reached a higher gear with this section. Unfortunately he was gonged off before he had a real chance to shine.

Next was Alex Black whom I’ve seen three times in the last year or so and it is pleasing to say that he has made a visible improvement in that time. His strongest material is about children, but it was nice to see some local material utilised, which gave his performance a more bespoke and personal to this gig feel than many. Ghandhi was interestingly, but requires more before it becomes stage ready. In contrast to when I saw him last, Black achieved better pacing with the minute allowed for the final, but hasn’t quite got a killer punch for that bit. Black’s delivery was good, but he did have an unfortunate habit of commenting about the occasions when a joke didn’t quite land, which I thought put him in danger of persuading the audience that he was doing badly when he wasn’t.

Salim Sidat, our first one-liner comic of the night was next. I have mixed feelings about him, as some of his gags were good, such as a play on his resemblance to Keith Vaz and an Escort. However, he used a joke about a camel with four humps being a Saudi Quattro, which is all over the internet. A few of his gags had a familiar ring to them and I’d much rather comedians ensure that all of their set is written by them.

Closing the first section was Yorkshireman Chris Stiles, an act whom I don’t see gigging as often as I’d like. I enjoyed the Barnsley pilot and the subsequent routine about posh plumbers, but he was a surprise early gonging. Stiles hadn’t done anything to alienate the audience and looked to be building up nicely when he was voted off out of the blue.

Orrion Kalidowski has a strong West Country accent that made it hard for me to understand what he was saying at first. He looked confident on stage as he opened by talking about his name, but although he made the final, I was surprised at this as the gaps were too long between him saying anything funny. This was a set with a lot of talking, but not a lot in the way of punchlines

Anna King-Jackson was the standout act of the night. This was a performance that combined an engaging delivery, material that held together well and some good writing. The choice of priest for one reveal was nicely novel and King-Jackson was on the verge of an applause break for the affordable holiday. During the minute allocated for the final she went with some dark material that could have split the room and risked losing the goodwill of the audience, but fortunately her earlier sterling work won through. This was an impressive performance and I’d like to see more of her.

Dave Luck, on his second gig, had a very good night delivering one-liners. He rushed his first one, not leaving enough of a gap for the period reveal to land with full force. However, after this, things went more his way, although at first he didn’t have much linking his gags. Towards the end, though, he had a string of linked gags and built up a lot of momentum with these. There was a great time delay on sales/sails, as half of the room thought it out before laughing. The quality of the gags was a tad variable, but for a second gig this was extremely encouraging performance. Sales/sails, bag for life and counterproductive were all excellent.

Anthony Burgess promised more than he delivered. He looked plausible and seemed confident, but was an early gonging. He began with a you are what you eat gag, but this was one that the self-appointed workplace funny man would say rather than being anything no one had heard before. This was followed by a premise stretched too far and off he went.

The final act of the middle section was the up and coming Ben Shannon, who was along with Jay, the only act who didn’t really need a microphone. I like Shannon, as he has a real joy of being alive and he brightens up gigs. His material is quirky, but it stays on the funny side of this and remains accessible. The ham based routine was enjoyable and I was expecting him to go through to the final. However, Shannon misjudged his timing and finished his material 30 seconds or so before his time and left in limbo without enough time to jump into a routine and he went with a couple of shorts which the room didn’t go for and so was a late gonging.

Sue la Rue (with Peter Ningita on guitar) opened the final section. Musical acts don’t often do well in gongs, but la Rue bucked this trend by making it through to the final. She began by singing a song about vaginas before doing another about vaginas and then carrying on with a third vaginal song and then during the final treated the audience to another vagina song. Although the line about weetabix was good, this was most definitely a performance that the room enjoyed more than I did. I’m not a fan of musical acts, but an act that sings just about vaginas for 5 minutes plus another 60 seconds in the final is much more than I’d like on a comedy night. It wasn’t so much crass or anything, it just got very samey quickly and it made la Rue seem more like a novelty act that a comedian.

Matt West had a topsy-turvy night. He began weakly by talking about nerves (from a new act this bit didn’t inspire confidence, even when it is put on), although in fairness this did lead into some darker and much funnier material. West then got into a bit of a rut with a joke about the beach. In context, I can understand repeating the joke in full, although he could have got away with just the first line second time round, as it was quite a time eater, but to repeat it in full a third time was certainly overkill. West then made the fatal mistake of turning his back on the audience whilst delivering some material and this broke the connect with them just as a vote came up and off he went.

Bambam Shaikh closed the night in style. Bambam is a quality character act who delivers an intelligently structured set with something in it for pretty much everyone. As is to be expected this was a strong performance by Jay and it was a joy to see him again.

New Barrack Tavern – Mark Richardson, Oscar Reed, Lewis Decker, Daniel Triscott, Spleeny Dobson, Lois Mills, Liam Elcoat, Luke Martin, Billy Lowther, Lauren Welsh, Brian Bell and David Smith

Last night I was at the New Barrack Tavern for the Funhouse gong show. This is a venue that never disappoints; it has a great atmosphere and the landlord has a cracking sense of humour, as seen in his choice of T-shirt with its’ timely film based slogan: ‘Choose life, Choose NBT’. Spiky Mike explained the rules and the format, making it clear how the show was going to work and chatted to the audience, warming them up and finding out enough about the people in the room to allow the acts to try to tie their material into the audience. He was lucky in finding a couple of people who had jobs that he had material on and this landed well. The room was soon warmed up for our first contestant.

Mark Richardson had made a strong showing the last time I had seen him, but tonight, performing with a cold, he had a more mixed reception. His opening line referencing his cold and tying it into the two pharmacists sat in the front row did well, demonstrating just how big a dividend could be had for connecting material to the audience. From here, though, he seemed to be swimming up hill with his monologue about the differences between the sexes, which morphed into a conversation between sperm. Last time, his delivery had been buoyant, this time, not so much and I think that may have hurt his appeal. He didn’t do badly, but I think the judges were a tad generous in keeping him on until the final vote.

The next act was Oscar Reed who had a laboured opening routine about strangers that didn’t really add anything to his set. He was on firmer ground when drawing an analogy between gong shows and his sex life and the room enjoyed this. From here he went on to discuss online dating (funky was great), buzzfeed and it was quite confessional in tone. I was pleased that he managed to avoid using the hack phrase, ‘I’ll tell you a bit about myself’. This was quite a good performance and there was the feeling of an actual set here, with things building up nicely. Reed’s delivery was conversational and he engaged the audience well, feeling like he was on the verge of an applause break a few times. Ironically in contrast to his promising 5 minutes, when it came to the final, his 60 seconds was surprisingly mundane and robbed him of any chance of winning.

We had a change in style with Lewis Decker, who came over as more cocky and high status than any of the other acts. He delivered his material with swagger and fortunately enough charm to stay on the fun side, which helped to ensure that his comments about the audience being too old for some of his references did not alienate anyone. Although I wasn’t too sure about the comparison between realmice and computer mice making great material, I did like nectar points and the One Direction joke. The stunt involving the paper was nice. Whilst this wasn’t the best set of the night, it was fun and with more stage time Decker will have something. He made the final where he gave the room a groaner of a pun.

Daniel Triscott, who performed wearing a scarf that might have been on loan from Tom Baker, has improved a lot since I last saw him a couple of years ago. Back then he did routines which weren’t bad, but didn’t really stand out from any other comedian. This has changed for the better. Last night he began with puns before utilising short and snappy routines and these were very good indeed. Bag for life was great and sofas and Poundland extremely good, with the topper ramping up the humour. There was a lot of laughter throughout this impressive set and it was very enjoyable. During the final Triscott gave the room a clever pun. He was runner up on the night, but from what I saw he is definitely going up in the world.

The middle section was opened by Spleeny Dotson, who with beard and mostly bald head, looked like a slimmer version of Bob Slayer. He gave the room a short sketch, which on paper probably looked good. The concept was that he had an overactive self-conscious and he basically had a conversation with himself. This was unusual enough to interest the audience up to a point, but whilst there were giggles, there wasn’t really anything funny enough to land heavily and he was voted off. With tweeks to the material so there are a few bigger laughs earlier and stronger performance skills, he could probably make more of this concept.

Lois Mills of Frasco Fools was the most unusual act on the bill, largely doing am-dram to the audience, mixing small scenes with characters and visual jokes. The room went with this and she got consistent loud laughs and an applause break; they especially enjoyed the screams. Despite the set being well thought out, I was less enamoured than the rest of the audience, as to me, the set felt too much like it had originated in a university drama group. There is room for drama in comedy, Liam Webber does this extremely well, but he seems to find the funny first and then add the drama, whereas this felt like the drama had been first thought of and then a joke added after. Mills easily made it through to the final, where she acted out a small character monologue for her 60 seconds. Whilst not for me, the audience thoroughly enjoyed it.

The low energy Liam Elcoat made a nicely offbeat start with his Paul McCartney impression. I liked his fish years joke, as I thought the reveal was clever, but it probably deserves a better set up (I did wonder if he thought up the reveal first and then looked for a set up for it after). Elcoat came unstuck with his account of a Twitter conversation, which got more surreal with every message. Unfortunately this was strung out for too long without a big reveal and he was gonged off before we reached the climax. That material might work on a night where he has the time to get to the end, but it wasn’t punchy enough for a gong show.

Luke Martin looked confident as he paced the stage, but his performance never really felt like it was a comedy set. Instead it came over as if he was introducing himself on a team training day and throwing in the odd anecdote to brighten it up. He referenced his unusual accent, but didn’t add anything funny to it beyond a brief explanation of how he had been in a few countries and this largely sums up his material – there were far too few jokes for it to really take off. His near death story started well, but I’ve heard a few variants on reversing around an island and so ultimately the reveal was disappointing.

Billy Lowther, one of my favourite acts, was there to showcase his set to Spiky Mike. He received an applause break for his opening line and never really looked back. Lowther has a wonderful slow and deliberate delivery, as he does one-liners and this is a real strength; although I was a tad concerned that his pacing would prove a disadvantage in a gong show, I was quickly proved wrong. Lowther cleverly tied his fries joke into the audience by using the pharmacists on the front row as the people in question and this landed extremely well, as did the entire set. In the final Lowther went with the memory foam mattress joke which was a wise choice. He was the winner and I look forwards to seeing him again.

Lauren Welsh, performing in front of her family and friends was next. This was a fast moving set, that began with Welsh impersonating Brooklyn mobsters before moving on to act out Trump and his wife’s reactions to farts. Welsh did well with getting an audience member to demonstrate his rain face and made it through to the final. For her 60 seconds in the final she acted out a method of deterring people from sitting next to oneself on the bus – what this lacked in originality, she made up for in charm. Welsh’s set was good and I’d like to see her continue to write material and improve on what she’s got.

Brian Bell didn’t begin very well and I thought he would be an early gonging. When discussing age and sex he was too far between reveals and really needed more that was immediately funny. Local serial killers and his age in respect to them was the stand out of his set. He did well when talking about middle class and making an analogy between this and drugs. He was helped no end when discussing humus by Spiky Mike noticing a lad sat on the front row asking what it was, which Mike pointed out to a big laugh. Bell rode this laugh through to the final, where he continued along the line he had begun earlier. Bell improved as he went on, but his delivery wasn’t strong, it was quite bland. There was no real sense of it actually being delivered to a live audience and he may as well have been reading it off a sheet in front of a mirror. If Bell can improve his performance skills he will be a stronger act.

The closing act of the night was David Smith who gave an impressive performance. Despite being from Hull he opened with a local reference that immediately gave him comic credibility. From here he delivered material that was relatable, funny and went beyond merely referencing something from our shared childhoods. Not decided yet was a cracking line. There was a strong visual element to this set which worked well. The stunt with the T-shirt was a nice touch and if he were to get something printed on the back to add as a topper or a callback then he would benefit strongly. Smith’s delivery was very strong. He is a bouncy energetic presence and seemed to engage with the audience better than most of the acts on the bill, which added no end to his performance. For his final 60 seconds he gave the room a fast momentum building routine. Although Smith didn’t win tonight, I feel he is an act to look for in the future.

New Barrack Tavern: Lewis King, Alex Black, Pip Mason, Grenville Glossop, Josh Barker, Mark Richardson and Liam Tully with Steff Todd and Roland Gent doing showcase 10s.

Tonight I was in Sheffield at the New Barrack Tavern for the Funhouse Gong Show. This was a night that had sold out and Kev, the landlord, had to play tetris with the audience to ensure that all of the parties were seated with no odd chairs left for the last in to be split between. Unusually, this was a crowd where a fair proportion hadn’t been before and so the customary buzz that this venue has, whilst present, was a little bit muted. Owing to illnesses a few of the entrants had dropped out, leaving space for a couple of established acts to do 10-15 minutes spots at the close of the night. Our Compere, Spiky Mike, hit the room with more material than usual, taking advantage of the fact that he hasn’t MC’d it for a while, and this did well, getting good laughs and setting the room up for the show.

The opening act, Lewis King, strode to the stage, drink in hand and began with a lookalike gag. Standard fare, but as is usual, it worked well and quickly established him. He then hit a slight rough spot where he tripped over a couple of words and had too long a gap between jokes when discussing television, but in a new act this isn’t the end of the world and he remained credible. At this point, he struck gold, with a routine about something that is a factor in most people’s lives, but which I haven’t heard a single comedian mine for comedy, despite the fact that in hindsight it is certainly a very good target for mirth. I was very interested in seeing where he was going with this, as I could anticipate something good coming, but unfortunately the judges voted him off, which seemed unfair and resulted in the judges themselves getting booed by the audience.

The next act was Alex Black, who had a lively and confident delivery that built momentum. He began with a timely routine about Christmas cards which resonated well with the audience, before moving onto a solid performance concerning childhood, which whilst personal to him remained accessible to all. In five minutes Black delivered a strong set that earned him an applause break and included a very nice callback. In the final he was unlucky in misjudging the 60 seconds and succeeded in delivering the set up, but not the punchline before his time was up. Black had the feel of a open 10 spot who was doing a gong show, rather than that of a gong show entrant.

Pip Mason closed the first section, delivering a brand new set since I saw him last. His mum and dad were sat in the front row, which gave him space for a wonderful joke about tricks on how to speak in front of an audience. This was followed by his disappointing Christmas, which had a very nice twist to it and then he lost momentum over two things. He had to refer to his hand a few times, which isn’t the end of the world, but it left a few breaks in his delivery, which whilst small did mount up and then he went up a blind alley when he talked about peeing with no obvious punchline. This was enough to ensure that he was a last minute gonging.

We resumed after the intermission with Grenville Glossop, resplendent in a Christmas Star Wars jumper. He opened with topical material about wrapping presents, which whilst not massively funny, was amiable enough, before moving on to talk about Mr Men and Trump. He was a surprise gonging at the first vote. Whilst he hadn’t really hit the ground running, I felt that his set was interesting enough to keep him on for longer.

Next was Josh Barker, whose delivery was a bit hesitant and understated and with a few erms, but who also definitely got stronger the longer he was on stage. Very much to his credit, Barker wasn’t worried about interacting with the audience and when at first they didn’t want to answer his question, he wasn’t fazed and when a chap responded to his second question and received a big laugh he rolled with it and carried on building his set. This was a good performance and whilst there being one knob head in a group of friends is a well established trope, he managed to put a new spin on the joke and I enjoyed seeing him.

Mark Richardson, on his third ever gig, began with material about Gogglebox, which I felt wasn’t the most original of subjects, but he quickly improved with some good material about what women want in a chap. He moved well from subject to subject, with the links flowing well and his set had a feeling of logical progression to it. His delivery was unusual, but in a very positive way. He has a strong Barnsley accent and sounds like he should be working down the pit, but his stage persona is flamboyant and overacts what he is saying. The juxtaposition between the two adds a lot of value to his set and not only helped him to stand out, but made him a crowd pleaser.

Liam Tully was an act who dealt with topics that have largely been done to death: online dating (including swiping faces in real life), taking pictures of meals and uploading them onto facebook and embarrassing bodies. These are all highly familiar subjects and last year I saw more comics than I want to remember talking about tinder and plenty of fish. However, despite this hurdle, Tully got a lot of laughter out of them, being funny, explicit and forming the mood of the room. To manage that is no small achievement. His rating a wank material was very good and he was the winner of the night. With less well covered topics he would be a lot stronger.

The first of the showcase 10s was Steff Todd. Ironically I had been chatting to Fran Jenking the night before and he had been singing her praises, so it was wonderfully timely to see her perform for the first time the very next night. Todd is a good act, who ticks a lot of boxes. She blends one-liners, short jokes and impressions well to create a mixed set where time passes quickly. The jokes are strong, admittedly with the odd miss, but these were very much the exception and there were instances where she deserved an even bigger laugh than what she received. Todd’s stage persona is endearing and her mannerisms all contribute to her performance. I enjoyed watching her and I can see her doing well – she is someone to watch for the future.

Roland Gent, whom I had last seen at Field Mill, closed the night and definitely ripped it. The audience warmed to him from the off and he proceeded to dominate the room, building a lot of impetus as his material hit home. He was smart enough to work in a lot of local references and these all went down a treat and his closing routine about names was a definite standout. I especially appreciated his delivery, which was fast and he hardly seemed to pause for breath. This was an extremely good performance.

Blessington Carriage – Nick Mellors, Adam Jaremko, Rob Cucan, Ben Hamer, Phil Yates, Winter Foenander, DJ Mitchell, Sandra Hale and Neal Sullivan – feat. Jay Islaam and Scott Bennett (new material)

Last night I was in Derby for the Funhouse gong show at the Blessington Carriage. One of the best things about this gig is the crowd. There are a lot of regulars and it has a powerful feeling of inclusivity. There is one regular who wears shorts all year round and I was curious if he’d still be doing this on the coldest day of the year – he was – a fact that got a round of applause when Spikey Mike got him to show his legs off whilst he was compering. It didn’t take long for Mike to have the room warmed up before he brought on the first act.

The opening act was Nick Mellors, of whom I was beginning to wonder if he was a figment of my imagination as we’d been at a few shows and events in Nottingham at the same time, but never actually met until tonight. He began with a playfully controversial opening and developed his set from there. Mellors partly improvised his material, working elements of Mike’s compering from 2 minutes before into his performance as he alternated between talking to the audience and doing material. His ability to think on his feet was highly impressive and there were some very nice segments, such as Bosch and Kinder, which it was probably too early on in the night for. Goats milk was clever, perhaps a bit too clever, as he had to explain his workings to the audience and unfortunately this was too close to a vote to enable him to recover. This was an intelligent and fleet footed set.

Next was Adam Jaremko, doing his first ever gig. He looked confident and had a nice habit of talking to himself, giving a running commentary of how he was doing. This held his set together, which was a collection of stand alone jokes and short strings of gags. His material was very good and well it might be, as buying a very cheap door (there must be a catch) and vajazzle/diamond in the muff are well known jokes. The rest of his material had a whiff of google about it, with nothing being personal to him, it sounding like a random collection of gags and all being just that bit familiar, even if one couldn’t say exactly from where. He made it through to the final.

Rob Cucan, a man brimming with a sense of humour, gave a brave performance, ad libbing with the room, which he usually does well with. However, his reference to a new film about a plane crash went over the heads of most of the audience and his explaining of it just ate up time without ever seeming to get off of the ground. It was nice to see something different, but this was a performance that failed to fly with the audience.

Next was Jay Islaam, who was performing a ten spot of some new material as himself, rather than as a character. This was quite novel, as the only time I’ve seen Jay as himself on stage was in Edinburgh. This routine concerns the true story of Jay being booked to do a Muslim comedy night. It had a bit of a slow start, but built up very nicely. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the references, even the niche ones. He has definitely got something with this routine and if he gets booked for a few more gigs from hell, then that will be his Edinburgh sorted.

We resumed after the intermission with Ben Hamer, another first timer, who gave the room a monologue about his quest to determine how many different kinds of breasts there are. It was an interesting concept albeit a bit light on humour, with the occasional bit sagging a bit. He did well to stay on until the final vote. This was material that needed an uplift to make it more perky.

Next was Phil Yates on his 3rd ever performance. This was a solid set with well thought out material. The pole reference was very timely and showed that he wasn’t on auto-pilot and ‘lickle’ was very relatable to the room. I enjoyed his shoulder shrug on sat-nav, as I felt that little bit added a lot to what he was saying. I wasn’t too sure about the pelvic lunging, though. During the final I was very happy at the callbacks to his earlier material. This was a very good set and he was a worthy winner, making his stats, 3 gong shows, 3 finals, 2 wins. Pretty impressive, whichever way you look at it.

Winter Foenander gave a charismatic performance,speaking fast and building a lot of momentum. His first joke had quite a long set up, but he held everyone’s attention with the build. I liked the section about the fire service and this shows promise. He received an applause break for a splendid pun about being Caucasian. However, despite a promising start, he misjudged his pacing in the final and never got to the reveal on a routine he began. I had him as a close second.

The last act of the middle section was Scott Bennett, who was doing a ten trying some new material. This was intermixed with existing material to give it context. To begin with Bennett gave an uncharacteristically slightly political performance, with lots of references to Brexit and questionable views. However, as these were delivered through the medium of his legendary dad they were extremely relatable. The section on ear piercings has been expanded and is building into a very nice short routine. There was one slip, where Bennett said ‘supermarket’ instead of hospital, but his recovery was so fast and so aptly funny it was almost tempting to believe that this was a deliberate slip. I don’t think the new material is the full finished article quite yet, but it is already tremendously good. This was a set that seemed to be on the constant verge of an applause break all the way throughout.

We began the final section with DJ Mitchell, who was performing under painkillers to nurse his broken arm. Under the circumstances his delivery wasn’t bad, perhaps being just a little bit too matter of fact to draw people in – I did enjoy him breaking the 4th wall about the bus trip, though. His material concerned him having epilepsy and whilst parts of it showed promise, there was perhaps just too much on the one subject to hold the room.

Sandra Hale gave a lively and enthusiastic performance as she delivered a set that focussed on her age. This went down well with the room and she was an easy finalist. There were some nice touches, such as crotchless knickers and the topper to it. However, despite the charm with which it was delivered, she didn’t seem to be saying anything that any other act who has used their advancing age as material hasn’t said already.

The final act was Neal Sullivan, who was unlucky in the running order, as his opening line about being epileptic lost impact due to Mitchell doing a set about being epileptic earlier. The line about Shipman was a definite standout in this set, although Fort landed nicely, too.

The Rigger – Andrew Marsh, Nicholas Steinberg, Jennifer Banks, Jack Topher, Joe Bains, Rosie Francis, ‘Dougie’, Harry Sanders, Valerio Sara, Liam Webber, AJ Hill, Phil Yates and Tom Oliver

Last night I was in Stoke, at a rock pub called the Rigger for the Funhouse Gong Show. This is a nice pub, with plenty of space, a decent sized stage, a cracking sound system and a good atmosphere. There was a fair sized crowd (1 of whom made off with a pair of judging cards, the bounder) which verged towards the harsher side of the spectrum, gonging off 8 out of the 13 acts. Although there was a strong Notts/Leics contingent performing, it was impossible to spot the likely winner from the acts present. Spiky Mike began his compering with a bit more energy than usual and this was in keeping with the ambience of the room. He gave the audience a moment of joy when an innocent questioning of a couple led to the response from one of them to their partner of ‘Don’t tell him!’ Although I think the entire room wanted to know what we weren’t meant to know, Mike was smart enough not to push on this, as by the time he had dragged it out of them, any victory would have been pyrrhic. The format and the rules were explained and we were ready to begin.

The opening act was Andrew Marsh, who took to the stage, wine glass in hand. He was halted within the first 2 seconds by the sound technician (nice to have one at a gig), who had to adjust a level or titivate a filter or finish his tea or whatever these chaps do and then he was given the nod to begin. This could have upset a few acts, but Marsh seemed to take it in his stride. He began by asking for a cheer from the people who were drinking, which seemed to me just to be duplicating the work of a compere. From this he had a brief bit about his home town, Wakefield, which he ran down and then it was the main body of his set, which concerned being unemployed, porn and day time telly. He lost momentum when he got to Spongebob and was gonged off. Whilst his delivery was slow and deliberate, this set never really seemed to get going. The material was pretty uninspired and had an air of the basic about it – when Marsh was discussing the denizens of Wakefield, for instance, it just seemed very rudimentary. This was a set that would benefit from being stripped down and begun anew, although the guess who bit was nice.

The second act was Nicholas Steinberg whose material was largely based on old hack 1970’s style gags, apart from Scousers saying hey hey, which is vintage 1990’s hack. There was a Take That song gag (apt for Stoke), but the set up was too long for a gong show and combined with a few bad puns that Steinberg opened with, was enough to ensure an early gonging. There is room in comedy for acts doing retro style comedy, but the performance has to have an air of panache about it (Steve Royle does this very well) and by starting with dodgy gags it wasn’t clear at first whether Steinberg was being ironic (like Bernard Righton, but without the twists) or if it was to be taken at face value, perhaps if he had made a stronger start, we may have found out more.

Jennifer Banks made an interactive start, before becoming the 2nd act from Yorkshire to play shit town top trumps, as she ran down her home town of Bradford (by this point I was envisaging the Yorkshire tourist board gaffer doing his nut). There was then material about a hairy back, with a predictable reveal, but in fairness this did lead to good spot of material about separation, although I did think there was possibly room for a gag about static electricity. Banks had an A3 folder full of pics to illustrate her material about internet dating. I like A3 sized props, as the room can see them, which is in contrast to A4 print outs, which always have the air of having been done at work when no one is about. Unfortunately this routine was another one that was a tad predictable. When Banks was discussing a potential date who liked animals and singing I don’t think there were many people who didn’t expect to see a picture of Rolf Harris. This was a shame, because despite the material, which I think would stand a bit more work, Banks gave an engaging performance and I was glad to see her make the final. With stronger material she will be a lot better.

The final act of the opening section was Jack Topher, an act who really should gig more if he wants to climb the comedy ladder. His material was well written and had a number of clever elements, such as when he played with the audience, letting them fill in the punchline when discussing his lightweight brother and there was a great pause on stoned to death as well as little, almost playful touches like being out drinking with Latoya. Interestingly, His set contained some pathos, but this had just the right tone to lift it and to make it funny, not easily done. Topher was the eventual runner up.

Following the intermission, we resumed with the confident looking Joe Bains. He began by talking to a chap on the front row, asking what he did, but as Spiky Mike had spoken to this chap twice already and his details were known, asking again didn’t go down that well. Bains had some nice touches in his set, such as the nods of his head when discussing his name, being happy to break the 4th wall and his material on virgins and terrorists was strong, gaining him the first applause break of the night. However, other elements were not so strong and when he was discussing a visit to the Taj Mahal I think a lot of people got to the punchline before he did, although in fairness, it still got a laugh. It perhaps would have been to Bains’ advantage to have referenced the call centre worker sat at the bar (only spoken to by Mike five minutes earlier) when he did material on call centres, as this would have made this section a lot more relatable to the audience. Bains made it through to the final, where his 60 second end piece involved an interesting concept, but which wasn’t really pacey enough to end with. This was a set with a lot of nice things about it and I look forwards to seeing Bains again.

Rosie Francis was next. I’ve found her to be a creative act, who can cover a lot of different approaches and styles without the disparate elements of her set feeling as if they have been glued together by blu tak. Instead, it feels quite natural as she moves from holding a sing-along to prop work and so on. Generally, I’d have said that getting the audience to have a singsong in a gong show is madness, but she managed to get the room singing back to her, which is no mean achievement, although if she’d gone on first, I think the challenge in this would have been trebled. I was enjoying her performance and there was a feeling of a set building nicely, but unfortunately she lost her connection with the audience when she began reading from a book at the moment a vote was called and off she went.

James Harkness performed as the only character act of the night: ‘Dougie’. He played Dougie as an oddball, who had been put up to performing by some less than well meaning ‘friends’. He was dressed very down at heel, with a baseball cap pulled low over his face and he was hesitant, with a delivery that was all over the place and he kept getting distracted from what he was saying. He gained a lot of laughter within the first two minutes, but it wasn’t obvious if the audience were laughing with him or at him, pegging him for a hopeless act. I think it was a little bit touch and go whether he was voted off at the first vote, as it was far from clear whether the room had twigged this was a character piece or were perversely voting to keep him on to watch what looked like a car crash of a show. During this middle bit, it became apparent to the audience that this was indeed a character piece and that there was a lot of creativity behind the facade and the audience were soon laughing with Dougie, giving him the 2nd applause break of the night. He deliberately ran out of steam in the last minute, but he had enough stage presence to make the most out of this awkwardness. Dougie was the eventual winner of the night and this was in a lot of ways a fun set. I’d be curious to see if it would work over ten minutes or so, though.

Harry Sanders was doing some new material tonight and he made a promising start by tying his opening lines into the rock n roll music that had been played during the intermission. His set was tightly written and he is a comedian whom I’ve never heard say erm, or ah, between words. However, his bit about Trump got nothing back, as did geography. Southern rail was a nice piece of satire, which I got as a regular reader of Private Eye, but which I think flummoxed the good people of Stoke. Sanders was an early, but not unfair gonging. I rather think he was primarily giving the new material a run out and if he’d have won the show, it would have been just a nice bonus to him.

Valerio Sara is a nicely different act. He is a man who knows the value of a long silence. He is also a man who is brave enough to risk long silences at a gong show. He began with a drawn out silence, as he stood staring at the audience, almost daring them to look away from him. He would then deliver a set up and following another pause, there would be an offbeat reveal. A lot of this verged on anti-comedy, with set up and reveal seemingly from different jokes and the result was a lot of laughter. It was a shame when he was gonged off, as I was enjoying his performance.

Liam Webber began well, remembering that Matt sat at the front, was a dog trainer and he started by chatting to him, asking a question that would have led into his sketch about dogs in space. Unfortunately when Matt bungled the answer (Laika the space dog), this threw Webber a touch off stride and considering that he was visually unwell, shaking as grasped the mic stand, looking dizzy it was little surprise that his set faltered from there and he soon left the stage, looking like he’d seen a ghost.

AJ ‘Hillbo’ Hill opened the final section, resplendent in sailor’s hat and water wings. He began with some knowingly bad puns that had a nautical bend and luckily he had enough presence to pull these off. This was followed by a bit of audience work and a sea shanty, but he failed to strike a chord with the audience and was gonged off. I think that Hill suffered a bit from the running order, as we’d already had acts doing bad puns and a bit of singing and whilst not a character piece like Dougie, Hill certainly seemed almost as unusual and I think all of this played a part in his gonging. Hill’s performance was tighter than when I had last seen him.

Phil Yates gave an impressive performance. He looked plausible from the beginning, with his dry delivery and wearing a suit made him stand out and led to a lovely and under appreciated throwaway line about him being on a bus. He began with a visual gag and then moved on to a prop based routine, with grammatically mangled words on A3 pieces of paper. During this section he looked like a man who would have benefited from a third hand, or perhaps a volunteer on the stage holding the cards for him. This set flowed very nicely and although there was a hiccup when he lost his place and had to fish his set list out of his pocket, he maintained his cool and in a new act this is eminently forgiveable. Yates made it through to the final, where in the 60 seconds he had to make his final push for victory when most acts pull out something short and snappy, he made the bizarre decision to perform World in Motion (I thought it was the Anfield Rap) – a song with zero comedy value.

The final act was Tom Oliver, who began with a few long and convoluted set ups. These were overly wordy and he hardly paused for breath. Unfortunately he then lost his place in his set, his mind went blank and unlike Yates, he wasn’t wearing a suit with an inside pocket containing his set list. Oliver then floundered until the first vote sent him off. Oliver’s set was a disaster, it was one that he handled with a lot of charm.

Kayal Gong – Neal Sullivan, Timothy Montague de Flerie, Valerio Sara, Sean Sellers, Ross Smith, Michelle Harrison, Trisha Timpson, Sarah Johnson, Jack Topher, Ben Warrington, Pat Robinson, Bennett Kavanagh, Marvin Alan and Shaun Turner

Last night I was at the Kayal in Leicester for the Funhouse gong show. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a gong show and so I was looking forwards to seeing what was on offer. Gong shows have a reputation amongst the general population of being filled with the mad, bad and delusional, but this is far from the reality. My experience is that one is more likely to find semi-pro acts trying new material, hoping to catch the eye of the promoter, than you are to witness a car crash of an act. Last night we had 14 acts performing, most of whom were unknown to me, on an international bill that was extremely varied, covering music, magic, character acts and stand up.

Our opening act was Neal Sullivan, whose high energy walk to the stage contrasted sharply with his slow start. Sullivan, who looked happy just to be present (and this was very warming to see) had some nice reveals, especially the apt murder a nan/naan, but the set ups weren’t really punchy enough for him to survive long. With shorter set ups he would have done better.

Next was a character act, Timothy Montague de Flerie, who played it as a high status toff. Wearing a wig and physically resembling a cross between Richard Branson, Noel Edmonds and Hans Gruber, this was someone who definitely stood out. On the positive side he was a convincing caricature, the performance hung together well and ‘Timothy’ had no problem projecting his voice, which was a bonus. However, this was light on laughs and the best line, ethical sweatshop, seemed to be missed by many in the audience. The root problem was that the character was one that it was easy for the audience to feel deeply unsympathetic about and that the humour needed to be especially strong to win people around. There was enough in it though, for him to get through to the final.

The Neapolitan, Valerio Sara, followed. His enunciation was interesting, sounding a touch like Bela Lugosi and this added a lot to his delivery. He began by dragging out the silence before talking about an alternative evolutionary path. I enjoyed his line about an omelette, as this was a nice clever line, but it was perhaps a little bit too subtle for the audience. His singing in Italian ate up a lot of time, but the reveal was decent, although it did rely more on his stage persona than being intrinsically funny in itself.

Sean Sellers began with room work, which led into a short routine about his style of fashion. He received his first (of two) applause breaks for this. The routine about Trump was good. Sellers was one of the more polished acts of the night and gave the impression of having a decent amount of stage time under his belt. I found him to be enjoyable and wasn’t surprised when he became a finalist.

Following the intermission we resumed with the act that made the biggest impression of the night on me: Ross Smith. To begin with he presented a strange sight. His mustard coloured t-shirt matched both the colour of the Funhouse banner and the curtains behind the stage and this made it look as if there was a head floating on the stage. Immediately after Smith had made a clever start, this floating head business ensured that he earned the first shout out of the night. However, this interjection didn’t derail his set, on the contrary, he returned the comment with interest and gained a nice applause break for his quick wits. From here Smith went on to borrow a pair of glasses from a chap in the front row and used it as a prop to illustrate his various looks. This physicality added another layer to what was the outstanding set of the night. This was a very varied and enjoyable performance and I was surprised to see him as runner up, rather than winning the night.

Michelle Harrison was on her second gig, fresh from winning a gong show on her opening foray into comedy. Her tone was pleasant and conversational and she gave a very engaging monologue. She was totally disarming in her delivery and I think everyone wanted to hear more from her. I felt that the material was a bit lightweight, but I can picture her becoming a good act with more stage time. She easily made it through to the final.

Trisha Timpson is a character act with potential. She is played as a dim-witted barmaid who is able to get the wrong end of any stick. This was a well delivered set and the look was in synch with the character. The material was good, but suffered from two factors. One was that it was hard to make out the minge reveal and so last night this didn’t land as well as it could have done. The other issue was that over the short time we had with Trisha, the character, although fleshed out with a backstory, didn’t show any depth beyond being dim-witted. This is a facet that would probably be addressed over a longer set, but over 4 minutes or so it did make her feel a little bit one note. If she was more nuanced with some misdirection over her being dim-witted then she would be stronger.

Sarah Johnson was a confident presence and her observational style went down well with the audience. Although the set held up nicely and the links were pretty smooth I felt the material was a little bit pedestrian. She made it through to the final easily.

Jack Topher, who has impressed me when I’ve seen him, had a good night. He was a little bit unlucky in the running order, as the judges had been quite lenient, letting a lot of acts through, and I felt that they had woken up to the fact that they had to vote someone off sooner rather than later. However, instead of being the fall guy, Topher sailed through to the final. He received a big laugh for idiot and then an applause break. This was a well constructed set that was delivered with a nice line of patter. To progress further, though, Topher will need to get more stage time.

The smartly dressed Ben Warrington was a little bit low on laughs and was voted off long before he had the chance to make an impression on the room. I would have liked to have seen more of him, as it was hard to get much of a feel for his set from the brief bit I saw.

Pat Robinson benefited from the fact that a lot of the material she used was that old that it was now new to many people in the audience. Jokes such as how do you make an Essex girl laugh on a Sunday were done to death in the mid 1990’s and I’d rather see unique material, rather than someone remembering jokes from the Sun. I was also less than impressed with the material about facebook/twitter and uploading photos of meals as sets about social media fads were ubiquitous a few years ago and I don’t feel that she is saying anything not already said by 30 other people. However, the audience enjoyed Robinson’s performance and in fairness she built up momentum. With different material she would be a far better act.

Bennett Kavanagh was an interesting act. He began by riffing with variations on his first name, which was fun, although the ultimate reveal was a bit of a let down, as I was expecting something far more original than just a standard ‘teachers’ gag. Like Smith earlier, Kavanagh was the victim of a shout out, but like Smith, he handled it well. This was a very good set, with a lot to like about it. The material was strong, the piano added something a little bit different and the jokes were pretty smart.

Marvin Alan added to the bill by being a magician. However, he had a nightmare 3 minutes and died by a thousand cuts, as everything he said or did went wrong. He lost time at the start by asking for volunteers and then he dropped a vital prop before seeming to struggle with the physical set up of his first trick. By this point he had lost the room and was promptly voted off before he had chance to recover with a quick ‘Just like that’.

Shaun Turner, the winner of the night, was last on the bill. Turner has some nice lines, such as parking and swimming, but the mainstay of his set is him having cerebral palsy and it quickly became easy to predict the type of punchline, if not always the exact wording of it. Apart from a routine about WKD, everything came back to CP. Over 5 minutes this didn’t seem to matter so much, but over a longer set he would need to introduce more variety. As it was, the rest of the audience enjoyed him and he emerged as a clear winner.

Blessington Carriage – Adele Cliff, Ric Wharton, Harry Sanders, Kevin Caswell-Jones, Matt Adlington, Simon Wozniak, Mark Dennett, Ryan Lewis, Radu Isac and Alf

Tonight I was in Derby for the Funhouse Champions’ Special gong show. This featured ten previous winners of gong shows battling it out with 7 minute sets for a £100 prize. I’d seen a lot of the acts before, so had some inkling as to whom I expected to place well, but there is always a large element of uncertainty with audience voting. Two things I did know, though, one, the audience were in for a treat and my end of month recommendations list is likely to be a bumper one. This was a packed out gig, with Brent having to manually check for spaces to get all of the crowd seated. The compere was Spiky Mike, who quickly found an engineer in the audience, as Derby is always full of these and then a student teacher, which led to some good laughs, especially his questionable claims as to the status of Derby Uni. The opening act was Adele Cliff.

Cliff was an act that I expected to make a strong showing in this contest. She delivers one-liners and puns swiftly and the vast majority do well. These can be divided into two categories. Ones that are clever and get a laugh and ones that are groan worthy and get a laugh. Whilst no one would wish to open on a night, I thought she had the best chance of it not interfering with her set, as she tends to build momentum and would be swiftly rattling along. I was partially correct in this. The atmosphere was rather flat, which was odd as Mike had done well with the MC side. As a result, Cliff didn’t seem to get the response that she should have got. She was voted off just after she had received an applause break, which was a real shame as she is a very talented comic.

Ric Wharton was next. A lot of his material was autobiographical, which can make a set seem self-indulgent. In Wharton’s case, this was never a possibility, as he kept everything light, funny and relevant. His set contained routines about his degree, his job searching and his father, all of which went down nicely with the audience. Wharton has an open personality and is expansive, which combined with his Geordie accent results in an engaging delivery. He was easily voted through to the final.

Harry Sanders was the final act of the first section. Sanders writes good quality intelligent material and I felt that tonight he would be in something of a race to establish his credibility quickly enough to gain the time for his writing skills to shine. A longer set would probably have suited his style more than a gong show, although having said that, he has done very well at every gong show I’ve seen him in. To begin with, his night was almost over before it began, due to a technical malfunction sounding the music to leave the stage, but this was soon rectified and he resumed. He had some clever stuff about bacon and then went into some darker material. It is hard to write smart material that is dark but also funny, yet Sanders has managed that, especially the great dignitas line. He was picking up laughs as he went, but was ultimately voted off, which was unfortunate. He may have benefitted from a bit more audience interaction, but either way, I enjoyed his set.

The urbane Kevin Caswell-Jones opened after the first intermission and he was another act I had as a likely contender. I did wonder if having won a gong show in that room in Autumn would affect his chances, but I didn’t think it would make a material difference. He began well and made a quick impact with the audience. His joke about Cameron and the pig shows that this is certainly the gift that keeps on giving. Similarly his reference to Quadrophenia was very vivid and wonderfully easy to picture. Caswell-Jones is a smart chap and unlike an act I had seen on another night in that room making a reference to Leicester being the local rival city to Derby, he had done his homework and correctly named Nottingham for the disparging comparison. Throughout his set he received big laughs as he enunciated his material to perfection and he went through to the final, where although I had him down as being a real possible contender, the voting wasn’t in his favour.

Matt Adlington followed and his set left me with mixed feelings. On the debit side of the equation, I don’t think I’ve met a chap with a bald head and a beard who hasn’t made a comment about their head being on upside down – Adlington didn’t break this trend. Mentioning a girlfriend and then saying ‘thanks’ in an ironic way has also been done to death and much the same could be said of the phrase ‘because I’m a winner!’ However, despite my thoughts on these, all three received good laughs from the audience. On the more positive side, Adlington has a good delivery and he has a nice way of emphasising certain sylables in a word that gives added impact to them. His tale of medicinal side effects (including nice flourish as they are unveiled) was very good as was the playstation call back and he made it through to the final.

Simon Wozniak was the comic that I had as the likely winner. Tonight he did extremely well, with an improved delivery and some excellent material. His shoplifting routine was very well acted out, which added no end to its’ reception and his crack about Sunderland was very timely and earned him a laughter break. Wozniak had lots of little asides that he’d address to the audience, which served to bring them into the act and made it feel very inclusive. He built up a lot of momentum and was the eventual 2nd place after 2 close counts of hands. This is a comedian who has obviously got a future in the industry.

Mark Dennett closed the 2nd section and he may have misjudged his pacing. He began with a routine about how the colour pink came to be called that. This was a bit convuluted for opening a set at a gong show with. He may have been better advised to start with something a little bit more punchier, as I felt that he was on the verge of losing the room before the first vote. The routine did come alive with The White Diplodocus, which was a nice touch and I think there may be a good section based upon just that alone. From this Dennett moved on to going clothes shopping with his wife, concentrating on lingerie shopping. This did have a touch of Father Ted about it and whilst not a bad section, it is a topic that has been covered a number of times by other comics and I think this did detract from the strength of what he was saying himself. Dennett made it through the first votes, but was ultimately voted off.

The final section was opened by the versatile Ryan Lewis. Lewis mixed songs, audience work and material into his set, with the result that it was never in danger of going stale. He was quite a performer and worked the room marvelously. Some of the material felt a touch lightweight, but it was performed so well that this didn’t seem to detract from his set half as much as it might have done. I especially enjoyed his take on a PM with a Brummie accent. Lewis made it through to the final three.

Radu Isac, the winner, made a good start by discussing his being Romanian, although I did wonder if some of the audience members thought he was a character act at first. He quickly addressed what may have been an elephant in the room involving Meerkats and got a strong laugh for doing so. He had a lovely line about 20 fights that landed extremely well. His timing was very good and he received strong laughs throughout. Although his winning was a close vote, he was still the winner of the night.

Alf (Chris Leworthy) closed the night. His set contained a bit of everything. Props, puns and music, making it look at times that he would need a third hand just to handle all of the paraphenalia. He gained a lot of laughs, but in an unfathomable vote, he was sent off early by the judges, much against the mood of the room. He seemed to have a lot to offer and it would have been nice to see more of him.