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Sheffield’s rich comedy scene

Sheffield is not well known for comedy. But then again, where is? Our hotspots all bustle with the ubiquitous clamour of live music. Much like in every other metropolitan area, venue managers are falling over one another to celebrate our city's uniquely rich and diverse live music scene. Comedy, by contrast, is far less useful to a venue. People are required to sit quietly and listen to what one person has to say. To this end drinking is less encouraged and distractions like music or noise at the bar damage the overall performance. It's a demanding medium for a venue.

But the simplistic staging and the apparent carefree nature of professional comics will always entice opportunists. You only need amplify someone's voice to a convocation of expectant listeners, tell some jokes and hey presto - 90 minutes have flown by and you're immensely popular and rich. Perhaps it's the easy access to comedy production that creates so many flash in the pan disasters that serve only to dishearten and weary a would-be comedy fan, making so many more reluctant to risk it for their evenings out. Nothing is quite so exquisitely awkward as a comedy gig gone awry.

Despite this, these risks have been braved many times over - sometimes even successfully - and in 2013 Sheffield can proudly boast a comedy scene more varied and vibrant than ever.

Our story begins in the mid 80s, when ‘alternative comedy’ hit Sheffield. Before this there were only the large scale variety acts, working men's club comics and the lesser-known folk comedy circuit. But soon there came an insurgence of nights dedicated to the craft of stand-up and those who wrote and honed their own material - stand-up comedy as we know it today - and these quickly shot to prominence. One of these nights, Fool's Paradise, became a regular event at Sheffield Memorial Hall by 1989.

By 1992, Tony Allen, creator of the London Alternative Cabaret alongside Alexei Sayle in 1979, did a run of five gigs in five pubs over five nights as part of the Sheffield Festival. The alternative comedy boom had hit and in the same year promoters of Fool's Paradise began a collaboration with smaller local night The Red Grape Cabaret to create a long-term weekly alt comedy showcase in Hunter's Bar called The Last Laugh. Expanding across both city and county, The Last Laugh, accompanied by Toby Foster's smiling face, has become the most iconic and recognisable player in Sheffield comedy.

In 2012, I was interviewed for a piece on Chortle.co.uk called 'Where Are All The South Yorkshire Comics?' as a token voice of dissent in a foregone conclusion; that there was no comedy in Sheffield. We may not have the bustling circuit of Manchester or Leeds, but there is a wonderful array of nights and performers across the city. They simply lack exposure. Perhaps this is why they are so readily overlooked, even by journalists tasked with looking for them. It can't help to be operating in the shadow of the Last Laugh monolith, notorious for threatening to blacklist acts that play any other Sheffield clubs. With this in mind, I would like to redress the balance and talk about the wealth of smaller nights that punctuate and colour Sheffield's comedy scene.

Firstly, there's Abbcom. Originally based at Abbeydale Picture House in 2007, Abbcom has been another major Sheffield success, whose nights you can now attend at The Ale House in Woodseats, The Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge and The Fleur De Lys in Totley. Abbcom stands out as a franchise that provides a platform for new acts and new material in addition to hosting more established names from the professional comedy circuit. Amongst their ranks are other larger regional and national promoters like Stagefright Comedy (Dronfield Arms, Dronfield) and Fun House Comedy (New Barrack Tavern, Penistone Road), both of which run similar nights in Sheffield.

Recently, we've gained a new high-budget professional showcase in the form of The Leadmill Comedy Club, showing that Sheffield can support two big name clubs. If the big name showcase isn't your thing, there's Square Hole Comedy at The Red Deer on Pitt Street, a wonderfully intimate gig served up alongside complementary homemade cake. Lastly there is my own night, AltComCab, created to promote the more eccentric and eclectic side of the circuit at monthly nights at The Riverside and Harrisons 1854.

To many, the perception of live comedy in the north hasn't budged from the working men's club imagery of rotund men spouting spite against their spouse. I'm not saying that doesn't still exist, but comedy contains such diversity right now that all I can do is urge you to try it. Maybe you too will find yourself supporting local comedy.

Abbcom

Stagefright Comedy

Fun House Comedy

Leadmill Comedy Club

Square Hole Comedy

AltComCab

Next article in issue 65

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