Admittedly, it’s not a typical environment for children’s entertainment: a dimly lit basement in the west end of Glasgow, the air rich with the lingering aroma of bleach and last night’s spilled alcohol.
There is also a distinct lack of any of the paraphernalia usually associated with kids’ entertainment. There is an absence of colourful, flashing lights, no stalls of break-as-soon-as-you’ve-paid-for-it plastic tat and no-one dressed in an oversized animal costume. There isn’t even the faintest whiff of a balloon animal. All in all, it wouldn’t be unfair to say this is the last place you’d expect to find a group of eight to 12 year olds laughing their way through an afternoon of silliness.
The subterranean venue is housed beneath the headquarters of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) in Woodlands Road and is home to The Stand Comedy Club, a venue which can lay reasonable claim to being the very embodiment of the city’s funny-bone.
Mention children’s comedy and flashes of entertainment stalwarts such as the Chuckle Brothers or The Krankies invariably spring to mind. However, the performance about to begin on The Stand’s small stage on this autumn Sunday afternoon could not be further from those catchphrase-laden cliches. Instead, a series of professional, respected stand-up comics will deliver child-oriented routines as part of the club’s recently launched Glasgow Kids Comedy Club. It’s a new venture for The Stand and already proving popular.
The previous evening the comedians who graced the same stage may have unleashed a verbal volley of expletive-filled one-liners on the topics of sex, drugs and politics. Today, the themes are likely to be about school, games consoles and Winnie-the-Pooh.
On this particular afternoon at the weekly club, which was launched last month, the average age is eight, with a large birthday party outing making up a significant slice of the crowd.
While stand-up comedy for children is a new concept for the young audience members, it’s also uncharted territory for most of the acts handed the responsibility of getting a giggle out of them.
This afternoon the person charged with conducting the entertainment is compere Sian Bevan. A full-time comedian and writer, Bevan’s not entirely new to keeping the little ones amused. As well as performing for teenagers in the past, she recently staged her own children’s show at the Fringe in Edinburgh, the imaginatively titled Mildly Terrible Revenge Of The Slightly Evil Brainwashing Puppet. But, says Bevan, that show was aimed at five to nine year olds and the expectant crowd taking their seats today are a more challenging mix of ages.
“The Fringe show was a good learning experience, all about using your imagination, but this is new territory,” she says, taking a peek behind the curtain. “There’s such a big difference between an eight year old and a 12 year old.
“That’s what’s making me nervous,” she laughs. “It’s a huge age range, but we’ll see how it goes. You have to think of something a bit more creative. Because I’m compering I’ve got more time to chat. It’s sophisticated because this kind of comedy isn’t that visual, and a lot of kids’ stuff is.” But is it worth dragging children to a comedy club – what does Bevan think they’ll get out of it?
“I think it’s a good thing to introduce kids to comedy at a young age and show them it’s a different way of expressing yourself,” she says. “It will be interesting to see them concentrating on one person.”
There is the danger, admits Bevan, that the children will laugh because they think they’re supposed to and not because they find something particularly funny.
“I remember being very small,” she says, “and watching ’Allo ’Allo! I didn’t get it at all but there was canned laughter so I just laughed when that came on.”
Bevan isn’t the only one feeling the pressure. Graeme Thomas, an observational comic on the Scottish circuit, is pacing back and forth, keeping a keen eye on proceedings. It is, he says, about educating children to see comedy as an art form. “It’s like starting all over again,” he smiles nervously. “It’s like doing my first gig.”
While the concept of stand-up for children isn’t completely new, it is one which Tommy Sheppard, director of The Stand, says they were encouraged to pursue following a successful trial during this year’s Glasgow International Comedy Festival. “We tried the idea of a kids’ comedy club in March,” he says, “and it worked much better than we could have imagined – not only in the numbers, but in the enthusiasm of the young audience.
“It was clear also that 10 or 11 year olds already have a good grasp on life, and could see the funny side of things without needing to be talked down to. That’s why we tell our comedians not to rewrite their material, but to select a range of stuff they could do to an adult audience as well. Obviously we get them to strip out the smut and specifically adult material, but otherwise most of what they’ll be performing at 3pm you could also see at 10pm that evening.”
Stand-up comedy for children is commonly attributed to James Campbell, who first combined storytelling with comedy 15 years ago. For the past four years his London-based Comedy Club 4 Kids has attracted large crowds and high praise. The club was also a hit at the Fringe and the Glasgow Comedy Festival. The idea of comedy suitable for younger audiences, he says, has existed since time immemorial. “People would credit me with inventing the genre but I think there’s always been comedy for kids. Most decent comedy is suitable for children. Look at Morecambe and Wise and Monty Python. Kids loved that.”
Campbell’s ethos is, he says, to steer clear of any condescension. Under no circumstances should a performer patronise the children.
“I have a lot of friends who are stand-ups and I used to watch them and think that, if only they removed a few swear words, kids would love it. They would understand completely what was going on.” Campbell, who says he’d love to see junior versions of comedy clubs such as Jongleurs and The Stand, also claims children make tougher but ultimately better audiences than adults.
“They’re much easier because they’re sober,” he says, “which means you can do much more complicated comedy. A lot of comedians tell me that when they’re rewriting their stuff for kids they have to put so much more effort into making the comedy better. It has to be better. In a Glasgow comedy club on a Friday night, you can say anything and people will laugh. Everybody’s drunk and the beer is flowing and everyone wants a laugh. It’s the easiest room in the world and [the comedy] doesn’t have to be that good.
“With adult comedy you mainly have large groups of people with maybe one person who likes comedy and has dragged their mates along. The children are here because they want to be, and you have families who have decided this is what they want to do with their afternoon. You have to raise your game.”
It’s a measure of how much respect is given to the young audience when you cast a glance at the comics The Stand has persuaded to take part, including Australians Brendon Burns and Ro Campbell, as well as homegrown talent such as Susan Calman and Steven Dick. It’s clear The Stand’s booking policy is paying huge respect to the junior fans.
‘Funny and cool’
Back on stage, Thomas has finally hit his stride and is sending the children into fits of laughter with a string of gags about vomit, The X Factor and school. “What was Tigger doing in the toilet?” he asks. “Looking for Pooh!” Thomas has obviously found the audience’s level. A few more gags delivered in his quiet and gentle style, he playfully teases a few members of the audience and leaves them wanting more.
By the time Bevan bounces back on stage, the youthful audience has warmed to the idea of watching one person with a microphone with no props or visual distractions. Thomas’s earlier declaration that this afternoon is about educating children in stand-up comedy is proving to be true.
However, just when the youngsters begin to get a clearer idea of what watching stand-up entails, Mrs Barbara Nice, a caricature housewife created by actress Janice Connolly, who played Sheila Wheeler in Coronation Street, hits them square between the eyes.
When Mrs Nice, “a woman of a certain age”, canters onstage in a tight-fitting leopard-print dress singing Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You, there aren’t many, children and adults alike, who can prevent their jaws dropping. A circuit veteran, described as a cross between Mrs Merton and Victoria Wood, Connolly is no stranger to performing in front of a young audience. “Hiya!” she announces in a thick Lancashire accent before launching into a series of gags about life as a Stockport nan, her latest bargains from the charity shop … and the arrival of aliens.
It’s a measure of the quality of this line-up that the parents are having a ball too, some even being dragged reluctantly on to the stage to help Connolly with her musical crescendo. One embarrassed father is ushered into the spotlight to act as “the leader of the alien race”, much to the amusement of his daughter and the rest of the audience.
The show over, the children and their parents stream out, chatting excitedly about the show. For nearly all the children, this has been their first experience of stand-up and, while a few are a little bewildered, most are clearly delighted.
“I loved it,” smiles nine-year-old Charly Thomson. “It was really funny and cool. I’ve never been to anything like this before.”
Her mother Brenda, an occasional visitor to The Stand, agrees. “I think it will be very popular, it’s fantastic,” she says. “It was a good laugh and I’m sure the kids will want to come back next Sunday.”
Another parent who promises to return is Steven Inglis, who treated his eight-year-old daughter Sophie to her first comedy show.
It makes a difference, says Inglis, a regular visitor to Jongleurs comedy club, from the usual visit to the Glasgow Science Centre or Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
“I saw this advertised and thought we’d try something interesting but I think I enjoyed it more than Sophie did,” he says. “She’ll have to learn what comedy is but we’ll come back.”
Sian Bevan, meanwhile, is still recoiling from what she describes as a “terrifying” experience.
“I think all the acts got the hang of it the more the show went on,” she says.
“All the kids seemed to enjoy it and were brilliantly confused. I loved it because I could let my imagination run away with me. You can let go and be a bit more weird than you can in a normal comedy club.”
Bevan’s isn’t the only imagination which has been fully stoked this afternoon. It’s a safe bet that many of the jokes heard this afternoon will be repeated in the playground tomorrow.
Glasgow Kids Comedy Club takes place at 3pm on Sundays throughout November at The Stand, 333 Woodlands Road, Glasgow. To buy tickets, priced £3, visit www.thestand.co.uk or call 0870 600 6055.