The beginning of my last year at the Last Laugh

This was the beginning of my last year at the Last Laugh. By this point, the compèring had become a lot easier than it had been initially. I had built up a certain amount of affection in the audience, and I could do the job well pretty much every show. I mainly used topical material, which wasn't something I particularly liked doing, but it seemed like an obvious choice - the news was a kind of renewable source of subjects that could be jokes about. The only problem was when something hideous like the Bosnian situation dominated the headlines for several weeks, meaning not much gag potential and not many new news stories coming in. By Autumn 1996, I'd started to recycle material for compèring, because I realised that the same news stories - or very similar ones - crop up again and again. Mad cow disease in the news again? Great, I can wheel out my mad cow disease material! It was the same with seasonal gags - I had Christmas material, Valentine's Day material, and so on.

A couple of years after starting at the Last Laugh I started taping my opening compèring slot every week, and listening back over it. Ironically, that coincided with a series of some of the worst performances I did there. Every Friday morning I'd listen back over them and cringe. However, the advantage of taping was that you'd be able to judge the audience's reaction to a particular gag more accurately. Memory alone is much less accurate. If you liked a gag, you'd tend to remember it having gone down well; if you thought it was cheap, you'd remember it going down badly. I had a killer bit on mad cow disease, but I only put it into my main act after I noticed the brilliant reaction it had got from the audience the second time I did it at the Last Laugh.


I've put bits of my Last Laugh compèring recordings up on the website. Listening back to some of the worst performances, I'm struck by how wrong I was in my approach. Instead of being fixated on material, I should have been braver in experimenting with my relationship with the audience. I did go through a phase where I got into that - I developed a Bruce-Forsyth-style catchphrase. I'd explain to the audience that some of the jokes would be rubbish, and when I hit a gag that died, I'd put my hand up, and that would be a signal for them to shout, 'Hey Olly, where's the punchline?' That in itself was normally good enough to get a laugh, but it also gave people the chance to pre-empt the signal and shout it even when I did get a laugh. That got them a laugh and gave me the chance to play with the situation.


The other thing is that I wish I had done less topical material. I always put bits of topical stuff from the compèring into my main act, but it was never my best material. The best things I came up with in the compèring weren't topical - the Clash song parody, the hood double bass, the drum machine routine, the stuff about going to America, etc.


A couple of acts worth mentioning here.


First Mark Hurst, who was originally known as Mark Miwurdz and used to do ranting poetry on Channel 4's early music show, The Tube. Mark was from Sheffield, and although he'd lived in London for years by the time we were running the club, he was still something of a local hero. His act was a lovely meat-and-potatoes observational comedy hotpot, and what I particularly liked was that sometimes he'd do a quiz as an encore, where he'd test the audience's knowledge of his material.


Second, Hovis Presley, a magnificently deadpan miserablist from the Manchester area, who did melancholy poems which led to huge, great belly laughs. Apparently, he died in 2005, which is a real shame. I once did a bizarre little gig in a bar under the Manchester Royal Exchange to a small and oddly hostile audience. It was the first time I'd seen Hovis, and he was compèring - very badly. I think he'd decided the gig wasn't worth bothering with, so he was just introducing the acts in his usual deadpan style with no attempt to do material or even engage the audience. There were so few people in the audience that the venue hadn't even bothered putting any staff behind the bar, so Hovis went behind it and handed out free drinks. As an extra bit of strangeness, I seem to remember than Caroline Aherne and Peter Hook were sitting at the front - both properly famous people. At the end of the night, Hovis gave me a copy of a little booklet of his poems, which he'd signed. 'To Olly, love Hove.' Wish I still had it.


Thursday 26 September: Junior Simpson & Pierre Hollins

Thursday 3 October: Terry Alderton & Rory Motion

Thursday 10 October: Ian Stone & Martin Davis

Thursday 17 October: Helen Austin & Paul Thorne

Thursday 24 October: Steve Gribbin & Anthony King

Thursday 31 October: Andy Parsons & Danny Brown

Thursday 7 November: Nick Wilty & Mandy Knight

Thursday 14 November: Mark Hurst & Mike Hayley     

Thursday 21 November: Paul B Edwards & Noel James

Thursday 28 November: Ivor Dembina & Mike Milligan 

Thursday 5 December: Dave Spikey & Hovis Presley

Thursday 12 December: Paul Zenon & Dave Gorman