Comedy Prodigies - Success till Now

This article is dedicated to Alix for her support in its personal making from the start. 





I confess it. Initially I didn’t know the slightest thing about stand-up comedy, nor was I ever intrigued by it.  On a blue moon occasion where I would catch a similar British program being aired at midnight, I would make out this form of entertainment to be nothing but a bunch of loud mouth guys strutting around in fake strides, thinking they’re all that, telling ‘jokes’ that I would hardly find funny or entertaining. I would stare at the bloke on that screen, on my armchair, arms crossed with a poker face expression that can be easily read as an echo of Lauren Cooper’s catchphrase, “Am I bovvered?”.

But then, somewhere in mid Summer 2012, I perceived before me what seemed, and later turned out, to be the start of a new form of theatre in one meeting (of many) over drinks between my two friends Erin Stuart Palmier and James Ryder, who are now acclaimed on our humble islands as The Wembley Store Boys. I was most intrigued by the plans and enthusiasm expressed between them back and forth in that little get-together, and got a better understanding of stand-up comedy as an art from their first Hard Rock Bar Comedy Club gig at Valletta Waterfront.


      

The occasions when I went to see their gigs (consisting of both local and invited foreign acts) got me engrossed into the uplifting surroundings that one performer managed to create from their own humorous style; presenting their own personality and comical characteristics onstage, with the intention of succeeding to bring about, to an immediate crescendo, an orchestra of boisterous laughter, enabling this with precision and timing. As an actor and theatre lover myself, I was also drawn, in my view, to the comedian’s ability to take hold of their audience and take the mick out of personal situations, of themselves and of their own flaws (my personal favourite kind of a laugh-inducer to date).  Copyright © Diandra A. 2013

Their success in bringing over two foreign comic acts in a span of a few months earlier this year showed confidence, progress and boldness on their part. The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre last February made a fan out of me, watching a pair of nearly worn-out talking socks leave the entire audience clutching their midriffs, in the lower deck of The Black Pearl at Ta’ Xbiex; their second greatest hit in bringing over Alan Anderson with his Whisky Fir Dafties tour, an educational, interactive comedy show, was just as fun and musical, and which got me pleasantly picked on four times, getting me into the experience of this theatre art on whole different levels.

After this intrigue towards The Wembley Store Boys’ take and presentation of stand-up comedy, I see it, and still feel to this day to be a worthy experience for every actor, to take on the challenge and gain that extra skill, confidence and second skin in performance, in front of an audience.  Copyright © Diandra A. 2013

It’s been worth the pains to write this article after seeing and following how far they’ve come, and to inquire on their profession - and them personally – as now a well-steady partnership, rather than seeing them still be placed under the media spotlight as new faces to the scene doing their thing.

I only hope this tribute to The Wembley Store Boys and to their well-earned success till now would do them justice, as I humbly present to you, my blog readers, my enlightened interview with them, censoring only the many “ums”, “uhs”, stutters and stammers from all three of us.      Copyright © Diandra A. 2013 

..-..-..-..

Why stand-up comedy?

Erin: When we started off, the plan wasn’t so much stand-up comedy as creating a concept of a show. It was definitely going to be comic related but the idea to start off was more a troupe scenario, that we would have a group of actors getting together - very Monty Python-esque, very Edinburgh Fringe Festival kind of thing. To create an ongoing series, so the idea of a series was engrained from the beginning; where it would be reoccurring number of people who would contribute originally written work. But it was never solely stand-up. What we had in mind was a kind of ménage of different styles that would range from music to sketch material, to some improv, to comedy. So the idea was eventually to create more of a review show to start off with.

Eventually it turned into stand-up because we realised that this was the one niche that wasn’t so much catered for. We realised there are some certain shows like burlesque - the way that they are run, which isn’t so much in a burlesque kind of fashion, more like a sketch show in itself - we thought maybe that it could be interesting that we approach stand-up comedy. It was a risk to start off with because it was also something that James had tried before, but we didn’t know too many people who also had tried it before. So really it was in order to put our stamp on something new, something that hasn’t been tried, and to get away from the needless rivalry between theatre companies all kind of opting for the same thing or being the best at the same thing.

You guys offer auditions to new people. You look for new talent who would eventually perform onstage at your Comedy Club gigs at Hard Rock Bar. What are the top qualities you look out for in future comedians for your gigs, especially from newbies who are suddenly drawn to stand-up?

James: The qualities we look for mostly are confidence, good material and diction. Basically those folks with the ability to speak well have good material, and have a good sense of execution. Sometimes we even accept two out of three, maybe one out of three because in that case, I myself being quite experienced with stand-up comedy, I’d be able to even take them under my wing, hone their weaker skills in order to make them a little bit more stronger in the art, and then put them up at the Hard Rock Bar Comedy Club, which is where we start off all our new comedians. In terms of quality we don’t look for anything that specific really, because basically stand-up comedy is the art of freedom of speech. So we can’t be too specific - as long as they know what they are doing and they know how they’re doing it we’re not fussy.     Copyright © Diandra A. 2013

Erin: I think one thing that is quite pertinent over here is that we indeed had started with Hard Rock as the platform for new comedians, but reaching a good development on our side is that we have an ongoing series of seven venues now. Although we have Hard Rock, which is constantly based on a standard - and we have standardised our work, which is something I like to claim to this company (because other companies don’t exactly have a standardised system by which they work). We would have four established comedians or semi-established comedians every time and two newbies, and so far, even after nine shows in, we’ve always kept to that. Now we do have other venues then that we can create the likeness of a circus – because in a place so small as Malta it’s difficult, but our intention is to create the likeness of a circus where they can repeat their work. As James would be able to say also it becomes an audience laboratory: you work with the audience, and the only sense of how good you are only comes when you are faced with an audience, and some audiences work, some audiences don’t. It’s really good to be able to try, let’s say the same set-out fifteen times at our private commissions, and then at two different venues, and eventually at Hard Rock.   Copyright © Diandra A. 2013

It has been since January 2013, since your first comedy gig - and I’m personally happy & proud to note that you guys are still going strong. Have recently gained experiences made you wiser? How do you feel about the success till now?

James: The feelings are mixed. For the first few months we felt lucky. At the first show we had at the Hard Rock Bar, the first ever local comedic line-up, we only expected a handful of people to come and we were surprised to see that not only for the first show but for the following handful of shows, if you turn up half an hour late you would not be able to cram yourself in. Afterwards we felt a bit more experienced, enough to tackle on new venues, new ideas, new forms of comedy, and we’re still going at it now. We still feel that there’s a lot of stones in the comedy world could be turned.

Erin: Along this line, it’s only when we were confident with that one venue we started from, that we opted to move on to other venues. In that sense we were able to tackle different venues, and then would tackle different demographics and audiences with more finesse, than if we had started straight away whoring ourselves out across different venues. Now to say that we have seven venues, it isn’t as simple as just us working as an agency - which we are an agency, but we’re not only an agency. It is not as simple as just putting people in a venue and telling them, “Do your thing”.    Copyright © Diandra A. 2013

I’m gonna give you an example: Hard Rock has a very wide demographic, that’s why it was good to start there. Wignacourt is a place that is owned by the Church. Therefore the kind of comedians that we would get there are comedians that we would feel need to have a more wide appeal, maybe less ‘punchy’ than our comedians like Steve Hili or Malcolm Alden, and therefore can offer something that the crowd that would usually go to the Café Wignacourt and Wine Garden would still enjoy, whereas still pushing the anti a little bit.

Then we have crowds like in the Maya Beach Lounge, which we’re lucky now to have an ongoing series there aswell with our second show coming up soon. That is mainly a tourist audience. So while we found out that the Hard Rock works extremely well on a local level with local audiences, a British audience won’t necessarily understand a lot of the local references we make. That is why we found that putting on more ‘general’ comedians who can tackle subject matter, or themes, would work better than simply putting on someone who we just think is funny. So really we research each venue very well even before we choose such a venue.

You guys took part in some small way in the concert of the Maltese rap and hip hop band No Bling Show last April – could you talk about that a bit?


James: What we did there was something different from stand-up comedy – that was a project directed by Erin, I myself was participating just as much. Basically we were acting; we were animating the elements that No Bling Show was presenting to the concert audience.



        



Erin: It was interesting because it was a good idea to be ‘Erin and James from stand-up’ and to prove ourselves that we don’t only stick to the one thing, so it was like an animated theatre performance that time. We like to think of it as even more than animation, in the sense that we weren’t just wearing Spongebob suits – and we both have very good experiences  . . . of that. [chuckling] Well -     Copyright © Diandra A. 2013

James: [glaring dangerously] Some more than others.

Erin: So at that point basically, it was good to try out something different and also to be so in tune directly face-to-face with the audience. It’s good to mention also that we had collaborated with No Bling Show again. This time for John Mallia - the front man of No Bling Show - for his charity NGO Breaking Limits, and we participated this time with stand-up comedians in a charity event; because, apart from the paid events where you know, someone has to pay for the big boy’s lap dances [hinting slyly at James], basically we also do our fair deal and we like to do our fair deal for promotional as well as charity events aswell. So this is why we find this particular thing important.

Final important question . . .  are you guys still at each other’s throats?

James: [grabs the recorder, probably wishing the gadget was a weapon, eyeing Erin with stern and ‘slightly’ suppressed annoyance, by now clearly fuming] More than ever.

[Erin laughs]

James: When the work piles on, so does the stress. Not from my part obviously, I’m quite a passive guy, but that’s also one of the major problems of the company. It’s the case where, if someone drops out, Erin’s throwing plates and I just couldn’t give a damn.

Erin: [pauses with a gleam of Irish devilry in his eye, analyzing with precision and deliberate intention what vengeful verbal response to throw and to exasperate him further] James is to comedy, in this sense, what the sedated elephant is to the zoo. It is fun to look at, but then you realise he’s sleeping . . . and bored out of his mind.  [Laughs]

No - no honestly, I think the reason why this works is because we both have very different qualities that we both bring to the table. One of my major flaws for example is although I am very business-minded and exact and disciplined, I’m also extremely panicky and nervous. What James brings to it is a sense of control, of being able to tackle difficult situations, and to be on top of things. Also one other thing that he would have and I wouldn’t is people skills - as simple as that. James is the person who is constantly in contact with all of the comedians and usually has the “likeness factor” in meeting; whereas I am the guy who is usually negotiating people out of their livelihood. So this is why this partnership works, in my opinion.


Copyright © Diandra A. 2013