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Col Howarth chats with a true comedy craftsman about his amazing 30-year career in stand-up, from early-day motorway slogs with Eddie Izzard to being listed as one of the top-100 comedians of our time, and being hand-picked to perform at Barry Cryer’s birthday bash.
‘I was standing at Stockwell tube station and this couple came over. And they were very nice. The bloke said: We were both at one of your gigs about 15 years ago but on different tables. On the night, we got talking about your show and how much we’d both enjoyed it. I ended up asking her on a date. Now we’re 12-years married with two kids.’
‘My first foray into comedy was at an impromptu talent night at the University of London student union where I was attending. I had a desire to do stand-up and that was the first event I did proper. I did about 5-7 minutes. It went ok. It didn’t take the roof off but it wasn’t shit either. I got the feeling that if I worked at this then it could be something I’d actually want to do.
‘Within a few weeks of that I went to the Comedy Store when it was in Leicester Square. And that was it. It was one of those Damascene conversions. I went along that night and thought Yep. This is it. This is definitely it!’
John Moloney’s career in stand-up spans an incredible 30-years in which he has witnessed scenes, styles and movements come and go, and the comedy world change massively. From variety and musical beginnings, through the politically-charged 80s, in which he fondly remembers the endless motorway slogs, John has emerged a true craftsman who is roundly respected by peers and by critics alike.
‘I used to play at the Irish Centres around the East End of London. My first incarnation as a comedian was as the Angry Young Accordionist (John started playing when he was 8 and plays another 6 instruments). So I used to do a bit of music and tell a few jokes. It wasn’t so well structured but it was a bit different to everyone else.
'Back then there was more variety, so you’d have a stand-up and a musical act, and you might have a juggler and someone reciting some poetry. It wasn’t as it is now with just four stand-ups on a bill. So that’s how I got my work when I first started, as nobody was doing what I was doing.’
But it was John’s hunger and tenacity that would see him climb the ladder combined with his left-wing political leanings, and his admiration for the likes of Paul Weller and The Jam. By the mid-80s Billy Bragg’s Red Wedge collective of musicians (which included Weller at the movement’s forefront) sought to affect political change in Britain. It aimed to use music to engage with and galvanise the political youth of the day against Thatcher’s government, and in support of Labour. After several major musical tours, in 1987, the year of the general election, Red Wedge organised a comedy tour featuring the likes of Lenny Henry, Ben Elton and Phill Jupitus, and John made sure he took his chance.
‘I just badgered the guy who was organising the tour to let me on. I offered to even play in the interval and said you don’t even have to put me on the bill. I think he just thought This kid’s got some balls. I was only 20 and he could see that I really wanted it, and wanted it bad, so I went from being a bit of an interlude musician to getting on the bill and holding my own with the rest of the acts.’
In the 1980s it also paid to have an ideology.
‘It was all about let’s hate Thatcher because that’s what everyone was doing. It was your passport into a lot of the clubs because a lot of the club owners were liberal left-leaning, so if you went up there and said Hey! I support the miners! Fuck Margaret Thatcher! you’d get booked again.'
So how much of this was enveloped within the burgeoning alternative London comedy scene?
‘Well, I was part of the second wave of alternative London really. The first wave was the so-called alternative comedians: people like Ben Elton, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Basically posh people trying to be dangerous. There was nothing alternative about it really, just that the emphasis turned from one university to a different one for a little while. I was always slightly suspicious of the word alternative anyway because everyone who thought they were alternative, when compared to me and others like me, were actually really posh. They’d all been to private school and university and weren’t as cutting edge as they looked. They were nice people but they weren’t at the front of the vanguard supporting the proletariat on a Saturday evening. They were in a nice wine bar.’
By the mid-80s the first modern mini circuit of alternative comedy clubs was established in London by Claire and Roland Muldoon. Their 8 venues had evolved from their underground alternative political theatre group CAST established 20 years earlier. CAST performed politically-charged multi-cultural comic plays fuelled by socialist themes. For a taste of this slice of fascinating alternative theatre and stand-up comedy history have a look at the series of clips named CAST 1967-2005 on YouTube.
In 1986 Claire and Roland Muldoon, and the members of CAST took over the Hackney Empire. Suddenly, performing stand-up comedy was becoming a valid way of making a living!
‘They ran these nice gigs that gave people like me a chance to do half an hour and put a week’s rent in my pocket. They had funding from the Greater London Arts Council because it was a time when people thought it was good to support up and coming artists. Back then, people were given a few bob to see if they could find their own way and eventually become self-employed. That all went with Thatcher and the rest. The last thing they wanted was for people to have independent thought. The last thing the Conservatives want is people enjoying themselves.’
Then into the story stepped Richard Morton and Reg Meuross, who are presenting John as their headliner at the Convent Comedy Club in Stroud on 4th December (2015) as part of the Panic Brothers Presents series.
‘This was when I first met Rich and Reg. A charming and funny musical act like that would easily fit on a bill beside a stand-up. That was the nature of it then. You could play the circuit quite regularly. Every 6 weeks or so. From there I did open spots at the bigger clubs. I’d just come off the Red Wedge Comedy Tour and promoters would say right come in then! Other comedians would provide references. I could ask a promoter to contact someone like John Hegley and he’d say yes, I’ve worked with him.
'In some of the clubs I missed the whole open spot stage because of people like John, and I’d get offered a paid half-spot. John was always very much in my corner. In those days it was that easy. A promoter could call another comic and say look this guy’s badgering me, should I have him in?
'There weren’t as many acts at the time. Now everybody’s a bloody stand-up! I find it odd when people stand on stage and say As a comedian I think... You’re not a comedian. You’re a bloke or a woman standing on stage. I have been at it for 30 years and I don’t really think of myself as a comedian. I think the word comedian is bandied around a bit too much. You’ve got to go up and down the motorway for a few years, dying on your arse, coming home with a fiver, and getting stuck in the middle of a town you’ve never heard of with no money in your pocket, wondering if there’s a night bus. That’s where people should be cutting their teeth.’
For many of us, John’s recollection of the groundwork will ring strong and true today. How many of us reading this have travelled for three or four hours each way to perform a 5 or 10 minute unpaid spot; playing in a pub we have never visited before in an unfamiliar town, to 6 punters who didn’t know there was comedy on that night, whilst a promoter reassures us that it was much busier than this last month? Arriving home in the early hours with the prospect of work after just a few hours of kip!
How many of us get home shattered, dazed and broke while our non-stand-up friends wonder why the hell we do it, disbelief from their fresh, fully-rested faces? How many of us shrug and go yeah, I know. And then go out and do it again the following night! It is a hard slog, but for John these were the heady days. A life on the open road. Skint. Tired. But working and learning, and living the rock and roll life.
‘That’s the real groundwork. By the time I was 25 I was established but I don’t regret one minute of those five years knocking on doors, and trying to improve, finally getting the door open and then hopefully doing well enough to get repeat bookings.
'I’m a big fan of Paul Weller and The Jam and there was a documentary on recently where the interviewer said to Weller what part did you enjoy the most and he said the very early days when we hadn’t made it yet, when they were all in the van driving up and down the motorways to shit-arse little pubs. Then they would be doing a residency at a pub, and then within months they were doing six nights in a row. That early build-up of passion and of lone determination. I don’t regret one minute: of standing on my own at 1am in a town where I didn’t know where I was, wondering whether I was going to get home or find a place to stay. That was part of the passion of it and the excitement.
'We were all like that. We had no money in our pockets. I used to travel around a lot with Bill Bailey. We’d go down the motorway and we’d pick up Eddie Izzard in Putney, and we’d go off to Cardiff. That was part of the camaraderie of it, like we were all in this together and that’s why most of us remain mates. I saw Eddie Izzard last night and I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years but it was like I’d seen him the day before.’
But of course the slog isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Did John ever encounter acts who were ruthless in their pursuit of progression?
‘Oh yes! There were also people around who would kill their mother for fame. They were blindly ambitious. And you would hope that they would hurry up and make it so you wouldn’t have to work with them again. You would think Please! Someone! Give him a break so he’ll just fuck off!’
For those who are new to John the best advice is simply to check him out. If you can’t get out to a show then check him out on YouTube, and go straight to his bit about taking Edward, his cat, to the vet - one of the most beautifully written bits of stand-up you may ever see. Then, once you have seen that, and you are entirely converted, go and see him at The Convent in Stroud on 4th December (2015) with the Panics.
Whilst I have sat and sulked and rattled my brain through several comedy identity crises, in which I have wanted to be every other stand-up, having watched this specific bit dozens of times, I finally realise that I just want to make people laugh. I want to focus on the craft, and tell funny stories. I don't want to be weird. Or cerebral. I want to do what John does. I want to be a great stand-up! So where did he get his inspiration?
‘We all learned from each other to a large extent. Eddie was always good for that. You would do a routine and you’d be heading back in the car and Eddie would be saying why don’t you look at it like this or like that? And you’d think you know, you‘re right. People actually helped each other as we were all still learning on the job.
‘When I was about 16 I saw Dave Allen’s show at the Garrick Theatre. He was just mesmerising. Oh my Lord! One bloke on a stool for two hours. He had 2000 people on the edge of their seats. I loved the absolute power of that as well. One person holding everybody in the palm of their hand was a beautiful dynamic and an amazing thing. Not just that but just being funny for two hours. You go to a play and it’s great but the bottom line of being a comic is that the audience has to be laughing constantly or they haven’t done their job.’
In his 30-year career John has gathered a rich stream of accolades and acclaim. Reviews consistently refer to the economy and efficiency in his material, stripped down and clipped with barely an ounce of fat (The Times). His performances are described as Masterly (The Herald), and always intelligent, sophisticated and unpretentious. So is there a formula within all of this that John can reveal?
‘For me, it is about being meticulous with the wording. A word that gets bandied around a lot is that I’m a craftsman. I take that as a compliment. I think it’s worth agonising over material because you can find that one key word that turns a funny sentence into a very funny sentence. About my performance last night Eddie Izzard said that every word was just beautiful, and coming from someone like Eddie that’s such a huge compliment.
‘If I’m trying to put something together I spend a long time just thinking about it. I do a routine about taking the cat to the vet and instead of putting the cat into the box I pour him into the box. Those little things are what keeps momentum in a routine. I try and let the material do the work. I don’t pace up and down and I’m not one of those love me, love me, love me comics.’
Listening to his story about Edward the cat’s trip to the vet is like watching a film unfolding. The story is simple, and one that anyone will understand, but the trick is in the writing, the editing, the telling, and its deft handling by the auteur. John’s are simple stories brilliantly told, and it isn’t until you really squint that you sense the hand of the writer. The writing is poetic and rhythmic, and above all hilarious.
‘Barry Cryer called me up to do his birthday tribute. I was honoured. He said it was on the proviso that I do the cat routine and said it was one of the most incredible pieces of comedy writing he’d seen in years. He’s seen as a craftsman himself. So I said it on stage last night, that the master asked me for the routine, and the apprentice delivered. I gave him the compliment he deserved.’
And there will always be Balham! John is the organiser of the Balham Comedy Festival which attracts comedy royalty each year.
‘We can always pick big names because we’re on just before Edinburgh. People can try out stuff for their Autumn tours too. Al Murray’s done it a few times and Marcus Brigstocke has done it every year because he has had a new show every year! Sean Lock contacted me to say he was doing Latitude and needed somewhere to try a new section. We had Lee Mack a couple of years ago, and Tim Vine last year. They are all good people.’
Check out www.johnmoloney.com
All photography used with kind permission of
Andy Hollingworth Archive