Just the Tonic comedy club founder: ‘Johnny Vegas got into a wheelie bin at a gig. It was mayhem’
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Running comedy clubs can be like herding a particularly wayward gaggle of cats
Not only does Darrell Martin deal with hecklers, but the acts don’t always behave themselves either.
Martin, who started Just The Tonic above a Nottingham pub 20 years ago because there was no comedy night in the city, says: “One legendary night, by the time Johnny Vegas turned up for his gig it was only 10 minutes until closing time, so we went out the back of the pub, he got into an industrial wheelie bin, quite drunk at this point.. and auctioned off his belongings. He wore an audience member’s bra, and got everybody singing in the car park, It was mayhem.”
After stints running clubs at Leicester Square Theatre and the Tufnell Park Tavern, he’s just taken over four former Jongleurs clubs, including one in Camden Lock.
“I started from scratch, went down to London, talked to some comedians, got some phone numbers and bunged it together with £300 I’d saved up,” says Martin of the initally lossmaking venure.
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As the sole manager, living in a squat and teaching English to make ends meet, he booked the likes of Ross Noble, Daniel Kitson and Ricky Gervais.
“I’d found something I loved, something I was willing to put all my energies into. I kept hearing from comedians it was a good club but I didn’t know why. Other clubs were badly run by promoters who wanted to be stand ups themselves. I thought about lighting, sound, went out with flyers to promote it.
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“I let them do what they wanted. Lots of people wanted to play it, and I could book the best acts that were about. Ricky did his first stand up for us. It could have been a bloke from the telly having a go but I couldn’t believe how good he was.”
Over the years the scene has changed: “There’s much more awareness of who the public want to see. Fifteen years ago, there were a few big names on the circuit but you just turned up to a club to see what was on. Now they’ve seen someone on YouTube and know who different acts are.”
He loves Sean Lock, Spencer Jones, Vegas “unbeatable when he is on form”, Noble for “improvisational silliness” and tips Leo Kearse and Eric Lampaert as ones to watch.
And while he’s seen more women in the audiences - and on stage – instead of stand up being the goal, it’s often now a means to a TV career.
“Comedy was a world infiltrated by nutters and headcases who couldn’t believe their luck at getting gigs. Now they have a career planned, it’s a stepping stone and a lot of agents come in looking for the new, young, fresh thing to stick on a panel show.
“That hothousing means they don’t get to mature or get experience. The reason the UK has one of the most creative circuits is because Edinburgh forces comedians to be creative and come up with a new hour every year. Watch phenomenal stand ups like Stewart Lee and no 23-year-old is able to do that because it was developed from years on the circuit.”
Audiences have also changed: “People used to talk loudly among themselves they’re better at listening now. You still get hecklers: a good one is brilliant but the annoying ones who won’t shut up and keep interrupting, we just throw them out. “They say: ‘I’m helping the comedian’. No you’re not mate. He writes jokes for a living, you don’t, just pack it in.’”