Jongleurs Memories

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

First of all, in medieval France and Norman England, a jongleur was an itinerant minstrel who sang songs and told stories. That would have certainly applied to me in most of my adult life. In UK, Jongleurs was a chain of for a time very successful comedy clubs that began in 1983 with a club in Battersea, SW London, and closed for the final time in October 2017. The Battersea club at the start was fairly close to the definition of its name, as its shows offered a variety of entertainments. By the time I emerged onto the UK comedy scene in 2001, Jongleurs already had eight rooms operating, and within a few years there would be 17.

My history with them began in November 2000, when I did a 10-minute freebie on a Saturday at their room in Camden, North London. The night before I had showcased at The Comedy Store in Leicester Square in London, which most of the comics rated their favourite room in all of UK. I had the misfortune to be scheduled right after a guy with a guitar, who stormed it. After my set, which I didn’t think, given the circumstance, went that badly, the owner met me in the dressing room and said, “Well, I have to figure out how to fit you in,” which I immediately took (correctly) as a no, even after he went on to say, “but you were excellent, and you know that.” By contrast, the reaction from the Jongleurs crowd and the bookers was “How soon can we book you?” I was disappointed I couldn’t say I was a regular at both the LA and London Comedy Stores, but what Jongleurs offered more than compensated. For the next eight years, I would work an average of three weeks a month for them.

I had no idea things were going to change so quickly in my life. I didn’t know Jongleurs was expanding much the way The Improv did in the US comedy boom of the mid to late 1980’s. Back then, it was easy to make a living in comedy in the US, as every town of 100,000 or more seemed to have a full time comedy room that paid for lodging for out of towers. Comics could actually be the US version of a jongleur, as they made their way from town to town, telling dirty jokes to help sell drinks. Those fun times died for me around 1993. In the early 2000’s it was UK’s turn, and Jongleurs was a growing business where the rooms outside London did shows three nights a week and paid for our lodging, plus the pay was equivalent, through £/$ exchange, of close to $300 for a 20-minute set. I defied anyone without TV credits to match that in any US comedy club.

Not that it was all wonderful. Every December, they had Christmas shows which ran as many as six nights a week and paid either double or 1 1/2 times regular pay, depending on the room. That was the good news. The not-so-good was the fact that large office parties often dominated the rooms, resulting in little or no attention being paid to the acts on stage. I was once greeted with “Show us your cock,” but also over the years would hear such critiques as “Fuck off, Yank,” “Bring back the last guy,” “You’re shit,” “Tell a joke,” and the perennial, “When does the comedy start?” I certainly wasn’t the only target, as the poor MC’s had to be there the whole night and try to maintain order. Most of us just looked forward to December 23, as that would signal the last of the Christmas shows and we’d compare war stories later.

The rest of the year was usually painless, but most of us in this profession tend to remember the bad ones nonetheless. My worst ones tended to happen in the Midlands, at venues in Birmingham, Nottingham, and Leicester. Nottingham was a 400-seat acropolis that the club tended to fill with stag and hen parties of 20-30 people, mostly drunk on arrival. It looked so imposing, yet it was one of only three of their venues where I ever got an encore. Birmingham was where “Fuck off, Yank” happened, from which I couldn’t recover, and more people started yelling equally vile stuff, while the club couldn’t eject people quickly enough. The best compliment I got was after the set, when someone offered to buy me a beer and assure me that not all his townspeople were like this audience. “Show us your cock” was in Leicester, from an office party of bankers, which is Cockney rhyming slang for “wankers.”

There were some consistently good ones, too. Their rooms in Oxford, Reading, Southampton, Leeds and Bristol I can’t ever recall having anything resembling a bad time. But just as the bad ones stay in my memory much longer than the good ones, Jongleurs management tended not to forget them either. The last year I did Christmas shows for them was 2011, and I was pretty sure that I was going off their radar after that. I did my last weekend of shows for them in 2012 in Edinburgh, in a venue that had been moved from a better one in town centre. It was a year later that stories began to surface of them not being able to pay, with comics waiting years for checks that in some cases never came. If there was one thing I could be relieved about, it was that I was already history and wouldn’t have to deal with that.

Still, the club holds a soft spot in my heart. When I first began gigging in UK, I was about $17000 in debt. After three years of working Jongleurs and an assortment of other gigs (in February of 2004, I had a total of one day off), that debt was completely gone, and I have pretty much stayed out of any serious debt ever since.  I don’t miss the gruelling schedules and the hassles getting to and from gigs, especially when I was relying solely on public transit, but I will remember fondly those days when I was doing what I love, with Jongleurs providing the venues to help me live my version of the dream.

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