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Stand up for small gigs

Trudie Robinson on the smoke, sweat and fears of small venues.

Published on June 18th 2007.

Stand up for small gigs

There’s something a bit special about a gig in a small, intimate venue. Being able to taste the smoke rising from the Marlboro Light of the guy stood next to you (though not for much longer passive smokers, get it now whilst you can), savouring the salt sweat of the person on the other side and being so close to the guy in front, you spot the onset of his male pattern baldness before he does.

There’s a thrill to be had with the stadium gig but that’s largely derived from reaching the top of the stairs in the gods and seeing everyone laid out in front of you. For a fraction of a second, time holds still whilst you imagine they’ve come to see you; then a worrying thought crosses your mind, what the hell will you do to amuse them? Juggle with a Braeburn apple, a matchbox and your Nokia? Sing (you immediately dismiss that one recalling the last disastrous karaoke night)? Oh well, if all else fails you can always take off your clothes…

It’s at that point you remember with relief that they haven’t come to see you and slip into your seat 50 feet up in the air where you have to squeeze your eyes almost shut to vaguely make out the silhouette on the stage.

It’s no surprise then that even a well established act prefers the confines of a bijou gig. Though many are seduced by the larger venue; more punters equating to more dosh and increased adoration, there are a handful that like to perform in a small room. Admittedly the first time Stewart Lee played the perfectly formed XSMalarkey two years ago it was in a return to stand up comedy after a few years break it and the decision was more to do with being unsure as to whether there would still be an audience for him than a liking of small nooks.

“(When I toured) in 1999/2000 after I’d been on the telly you’d get booked into half full places that were massive. When I wrote it (‘90s Comedian’ his 2005 show) I had no reason to assume that there would be anyone who wanted to come and see me.”

Despite appearing on the telly in the nineties with Richard Herring in Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy plus the subsequent blasphemy furore of his co-written musical Jerry Springer the Opera Springer, Lee’s still not confident in his popularity. “When I did XSMalarkey in Feb 2005 it sold out both nights, then I did the next show at the Lowry and that didn’t do as many as XSMalarkey did.”

But he’s not particularly bothered, “there’s an optimum size for stand up and I think it’s about 200 people, possibly 300 in a half moon shape. I think it’s better closer, I think most things are actually.” Plus there’s the old adage of quality over quantity. “I connect more directly with people at XSMalarkey. There’s something about smaller venues with a cultivated following, you can have a conversation amongst friends where you can afford to be frank. It’s nice to know that you’re understood and I’m past the age where I’m bothered about fighting battles against people. If you’re playing to 200 people they probably know a little bit about who you are or they’re big comedy fans but when you play larger places inevitably the audience gets more diffuse.”

Which can be a struggle, and there’s the additional danger of them not being on the same wavelength. “When you go and see Ricky Gervais on tour half the people there are just vile and you worry about what they take away from these acts. When he’s being ironic you just think I don’t know if it’s being received as that, who are these people and how have they arrived at seeing you?”

So if you’re on the same wavelength as Stew you can be sure the compact experience will be well worth the smoke, the sweat and even the baldness.

Stewart Lee performs a preview of his Edinburgh show 41st Best Stand Up at XSMalarkey on Monday 25 and Tuesday 26 June.

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