Local comedian and comedy promoter Graeme Watson talks about his work and the comedy scene in Belfast – Part 2

The first part of this interview is here

So what led you to become a promoter?

I was working as a teacher. That built my confidence regarding standing in front of an audience and connecting with people.

During that period I had been drawn back to stand-up. I had travelled to Dublin to do a few gigs in 2007 and I started to think that it might be worth putting on a comedy night. I thought that Belfast needed something, a regular event where comedians could go to perform.

There must have been something in the air because quite a few people seemed to be thinking something similar around that time.

Paul Currie was running The Big Black Comedy Club in the Black Box and I went there and started to meet people. A man called Paddy McGaughey who I had done some gigs with at Queens years before, Marcus Keeley, who was a poet but had done some stand-up in Norwich, Liam Watson who was no relation to me but was a friend of a friend, and so a series of gigs started up at that time, around 2008.

So you set up a regular event?

Liam Watson and myself co-founded the Pavilion Comedy Club; it is now known as the Monday Night Comedy Club in the Pavilion.

There was Voicebox and there was Peter Davidson in Derry/Londonderry who also started something around that time as well.

Effectively in a short space of time a network of gigs and comedy club nights appeared and to be truthful I had no real interest in being a promoter. Primarily I wanted to be a writer and a performer and yet through necessity the promotion of gigs became something that I did. I had never really thought about promoting at all.

It was a huge learning process. How do you build an audience? How do you promote events and encourage people to come to see local comedy? How do you get beyond just the performers being the audience? How can you sustain an event over time? How do you build relationships with the venues? And it is important to stress here that the comedy scene has never had any financial support. We did this all off our own backs. 

It does seem an extremely difficult situation. How do you maintain your enthusiasm for performing and for promotion?

Firstly we have seen progress.

It is nearly 10 years since the Pavilion Comedy Club opened up and Shane Todd had his first gig I think on the second night of the club and he will be selling out two nights at The Ulster Hall in a few day’s time.

Micky Bartlett is gigging with Tommy Tiernan and Kevin Bridges. Other comedians are starting to build audiences and get recognition for their work.

Probably more importantly though has been the building of an infrastructure. A few of us can say now that we have built an infrastructure for comedians in Northern Ireland. And we can also say that we have come from nothing.

I would argue that there is an audience that exists now that understands that comedy has to go through a development process; that it doesn’t just arrive at The Waterfront or on TV fully formed.

There is an audience which understands that there is a period where things are messy, not fully formed or worked out; often not well performed, but they are prepared to attend gigs and events where this process is taking place.

People have got used to an open mic comedy night, something which didn’t exist in any serious sense a decade ago.

A decade ago you would go to The Empire Comedy Club or you might go to The Waterfront, where obviously the bar is set pretty high. Now there are plenty of steps in between. And I am always thinking, “where does it go from here?” How can we take this process further.

I’m not sure, but I think I might be one of the few people that thinks more analytically about that. I think about the development of the infrastructure so that there are avenues for enthusiastic people to walk down.

Surely though there have always been high profile acts from Northern Ireland that offered inspiration to local comedians?

Yes that is true, but many of them were based in London or had to go away to develop an audience.

There was a period before the Troubles where Belfast had Music Halls and Clubs in the 60’s where people could develop acts and I just don’t know if comedians were part of that,  and I would love to investigate what happened in the 50’s and 60’s and I know some people who I think could shed some light on that period, but for many of the comedians around now, the people who started in 2007-8, the lineage for them would be Colin Murphy, Tim McGarry, Patrick Kielty, the Hole in the Wall Gang. Kevin McAleer and Owen O Neil, two big acts from the Empire period. Yes there were local acts but by and large people worked out of London.

We still needed the regular events, the clubs and the people willing to promote these activities to allow development to take place.

Would you say that being part of maintaining the local comedy scene enthuses you as much as performing?

I’m definitely happy that you can point to regular comedy events in Belfast. I would say that I am enthused that there is an infrastructure, an essential element of being able to develop as a comedian.

There is a small but loyal audience which understands that comedians have to develop over time and there is a new group of comedians who are building audiences and developing some sort of career through their work.

What maintains your enthusiasm, given that through all that development things are still relatively small scale?

For me I get inspired about the development of ideas. Taking an idea, finding something humorous within the concept and working on that to develop that idea to then be conveyed to an audience.

The art form, or they craft of comedy, and the onstage performance side of that process is enough to maintain my enthusiasm. I have always been committed to that.

I don’t really get highs and lows. I love performing and I enjoy writing and that really is enough to keep me going. I do think once you commit to stand-up it is pretty hard to give it away, to just give up.

Where to now?

We need to develop comedic writers. Not just stand-ups, but people who write sit coms or theatre shows and it is their craft to be comedy writers. This might not be a natural outcome of the stand-up infrastructure but nevertheless I would like to see that develop way beyond where it is now.

I think some of the newer comedians need to become promoters because there is no outside help; no funding, no business people offering to finance a club, no purpose built comedy club that is run as a business.

We have an audience, we need a bigger audience. That audience has an understanding of what needs to be done to develop good acts, we need a bigger audience which has an understanding of what needs to be done to develop good acts. That is a healthy situation to be in.

Yes it is DIY. Yes there is a fragility there. It really is like we have come to a new country and we are the ones cutting the logs, clearing the forests and building the new houses. The houses might need work, but, they will get us through the winter.

You teach a course in Stand Up Comedy. Is it possible to identify key elements which can lead people towards the production of a workable stand up set?

I would say at the outset that if someone wants to work in comedy a sense of humour is going to a necessary attribute. If you have no sense of humour or you have no way of working out what it is that makes you laugh then it is going to be difficult.

The initial element is your natural starting point and then you can be taught a number of delivery mechanisms. Just as most people, a high percentage of people, can learn the rudiments of playing guitar, can learn enough chords to play a few songs, similarly, most people have enough natural humour to open the door to learn how that might be delivered to an audience.

Participants at the beginning of the course start with us finding out about them, what their interests are and we work on developing their ability to speak in public. That is a huge part of the work, overcoming the fear of standing in front of people to perform material.

Then we work on the creative writing. What ideas do you want to convey and what is the best way to deliver those ideas.

We are very much trying in a short space of time to work on a framework that will allow the participants to be able to learn some basic tools to be able to perform.


Do you teach people how to write jokes?

Not really. That might be something that gets touched on. It is much more premise based. Again, what is it that people want to put forward, and we go from there.

It is crucial to allow people to unearth their natural capacities and develop everything from tht point onwards.

We help people polish their material; we work a lot on looking over material and looking in to the material and seeing what can be extracted from the raw material.

And do the participants perform a set?

Each participant performs at a showcase for 5 minutes at the end of the course and this is open to friends and family and members of the public. Now it might not be 5 minutes of killer material but I am always surprised how well people manage to speak and how well they manage to deliver something that they have constructed themselves.

This again is part of building up the infrastructure so that people who are interested in comedy, performance or writing, have an avenue that for people like me when I was starting out just didn’t exist.

It might seem like hard work but it is essential for the people around now and for the comedians of the future.

Graeme Watson is one of Belfast’s pioneering comedy producers and promoters, and has been instrumental in developing new acts as writers and performers since 2008. Cutting his teeth as a promoter and performer by running an open mic night at the Pavilion Bar, Graeme has been producing original live comedy formats at the Black Box since 2010, was a co-founder and programmer of the Belfast Comedy Festival (2012-2016), and is now the director of the annual Comedy Lab summer season in the Cathedral Quarter each July. He also worked with BBC Radio Ulster to develop the award-winning “Live at the Sunflower” stand-up show in 2015. He has his own promotions company, The Infinite Jest, which runs events and showcases local comedians.

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