Darrell Martin opened the first Just The Tonic comedy venue back in 1994 and over the last twenty five years they’ve become one of the most esteemed comedy clubs across the UK. Now a new club is opening in Leamington Spa on Saturday 8th of February with comedians Andrew O’Neill, Guz Khan, Matt Richardson and Reginald D Hunter on the bill, and a top of the crop line-up already booked over the next few months with names including Daliso Chaponda, Diane Spencer, Gary Delaney, Hal Cruttenden, Lou Conran and Paul Foot. With only just a few days before the new club launches we asked Darrel about the challenges of opening a new venue, what makes a great comedy club, the highlights of the last two and a half decades, how the comedy industry has changed over that time, and much more.
Comedy To Watch: What inspired you to open the very first Just the Tonic comedy club?
Darrell: A love of comedy, a lack of comedy and a recession that gave me very little hope (early 90’s).
CTW: And what have been the highlights and challenges of opening the new venue in Leamington Spa?
Darrell: The highlights are yet to come, because so far it has been booking, advertising and organising and that is not exactly fun, is it? Ask me after the event and hopefully I will say ‘a room packed with laughing faces, a stage with top talent and the joy of putting on a great event’. The challenges have been getting together such a great line up, parking in Leamington, convincing everyone in Leamington to come to this great event (but that is promoter nerves… it is going to be ace).
CTW: Can you tell us a little about what you have planned for the club?
Darrell: The best line-ups I can muster. A monthly gig that can hold 500 people means we can afford to get some really great comedians. But, to be honest, some of the best nights are when an audience has realised they can trust your booking and are coming along and just see a line-up of totally unknown acts – and everyone has a great night. With the bigger names there is always an expectation. When people just come along it is great when they are presently surprised. There are so many great comedians in the UK at the moment.
CTW: What type of qualities do you want in a comedian that works your stage as a MC / support / headliner?
Darrell: MC – chat to the audience, muck about, make the night unique for everyone in there. The ability to go with the flow. A good compere needs to become friends with the audience, not just talk at them.
Support acts – I guess just come on and ease the crowd in with your jokes. For the first act the audience is still cold, and they want to be eased in. I wouldn’t say there are any qualities I am necessarily looking for, but there are ones to avoid. Such coming in with the dark and hard stuff, too much unnecessary swears. But there are no rules…
Headliners – just be funny. And have skill to be able to change approach if things are not going your way. Audiences will not notice, but a decent headliner can feel the room and will be able to shift gear accordingly. It’s a good comic that can pull things back from the brink should things go wrong. But, overall… be funny, without that… why?
CTW: And in your opinion, apart from the acts, what makes a great comedy club?
Darrell: The audience: A room full of nutters is no good. A responsive, clever, not too sensitive, up for it crowd. If you are reading this and think that by it we mean that as an audience member it’s important to shout and chat, then please stay at home. Let the professionals do the funnies.
The management team of the venue: If the staff don’t care, then the club is doomed. Staff chatting, noisily filling shelves during the show, not putting loo rolls in the toilets, letting the bar downstairs boom out loud music… caring staff make a huge difference in making a club successful. Audiences notice that.
Layout of the room: there are tricks and tweaks to make sure the audience get the best night. First rule: make sure the front 3 rows are filled with people!
CTW: Both on and off stage, can you tell us about a few of the most memorable times over the time you’ve run Just the Tonic?
Darrell: On stage: Being with Ross Noble having a hair cutting competition, where we both had scissors, a member of the audience, some dodgy chef coats to look like barbers and an insane notion that it was OK to cut peoples hair to a cheering crowd. The one with the worst hair walked away with over £100 though!
Off stage: Supporting Johnny Vegas on national tour in 1999. Too many tales, too much fun… what happens on tour stays on tour… mainly because I can’t remember much of it.
CTW: How would you say the industry has changed over the years? And are the audiences any different too?
Darrell: It has got a lot more serious (which I know sounds odd) and more commercial. Not sure about audiences, as my club in 1994 was on a Sunday night in Nottingham. Jongleurs did a massive expansion and that brought in a lot more mainstream people, and, regrettably, the idea that a comedy night was a good idea for stag or hen nights (if you are reading this and going organising a stag or hen night, please do not go to a comedy night… go somewhere to actually talk with your mates). So, it started off underground for me, then it all went massive. But loads of people now spend their money at arenas because they know the Sarah Millicans, John Bishops, Flanaghans and Howards from tele. Some of them come to the little clubs, like us. But everyone should come, because these acts started here, and little clubs are far better than aircraft hangar arenas (and much cheaper too!).
CTW: What’s your opinion of hecklers, and do you have a policy as to how to deal with them at the venues?
Darrell: A heckle from someone can be fun, two heckles from someone can be a challenge and fun, 3 heckles from same person gets boring, 4, 5, 6 heckles means too much booze, too much attention seeking and probably means get out.
A good heckle can just be a funny addition to the night, but sometimes you just get people that really think that their contribution to the night is helping this person on the stage, the person that does it for a living night after night, when that heckler is not there. Shut up audience member, let us hear the jokes. Save it for the office where everyone already thinks you are an idiot.
CTW: Where do you see for the future of stand-up comedy heading?
Darrell: Netflix… no… who knows.
CTW: What would you like to see change about the comedy industry?
Darrell: Audiences realising that arenas are a bit sterile and that they should take a punt at their local comedy club. 3 – 4 live professional performers for the same price or less than a recorded film at the cinema. Come on! Get out, get social. Get off the sofa and take a risk.
CTW: Is there an act that you loved that never got the acclaim you thought they deserved?
Darrell: Ricky Gervais… underrated. Oh no, hang on, I cut and pasted that from an interview in the 90’s.
Pete Bennett… an act that was doing open spots when I was doing gigs. Me, Matt Forde and Pete used to go to gigs together. He was a postman, and I think he did comedy to get out of his house (unhappily married). He was totally hilarious, but never really played the game properly. He was totally surreal and loved it all. But then he got divorced and stopped doing it. Didn’t need it as an escape any longer. I know he is a happy man now, but he could have been a happy man, and a happy comedian.
CTW: And finally, if you could interview yourself, what question would you most like to ask? And what would the answer be?
Darrell: Q: Hey Darrell, what went wrong? A: Nothing, you rude idiot… life never goes to plan… and I never had a plan, so this seems OK.