Reinventing myself

Autumn 2017

It’s been a long summer hopping on and off the ships but a very enjoyable one. I will admit that not all shows have been stormers, one or two were a little challenging and I am sure there has been the odd complaint. As any of my loyal Facebook friends will know, this comes with the job. I know that! I am probably the only comic to get ninety complaints and only one of the complainers was on the ship. That’s the power of a fan club of a legendary singer who’s nose I made a harmless joke about but I made it through the rain!!

It’s never easy to be constantly busy in show business which is why most of us comics have to keep reinventing our selves in order to keep a full diary. This came to mind last week when I heard the sad news that the comedy club chain Jongleurs had finally gone out of business. I say finally as there had been times where they had to close a few of their clubs yet they managed to battle on until last week. I felt particularly sorry for the comics who are still relying on the comedy circuit for their living. Many who started off on the circuit and worked Jongleurs regularly have moved on to become well known comedians on TV who fill arena’s as well as theatre’s. Those I remember working with from this group include Michael McIntyre, Mickie Flanagan, Paul Chowdrey, Jimmy Carr, Lee Mac and Jim Jeffries.

I will always be grateful to Jongleurs as they booked me for eleven years in to all of their venues, I even ended up headlining shows for them which for me felt like a big achievement as I had to reinvent myself to become a comic that could work their clubs and the comedy circuit. This used to be called the alternative circuit but by the time I got to work the circuit it was the new mainstream in my opinion.

The way I reinvented myself as an ‘alternative comic’ has been written about a few times but just incase you haven’t heard the story I would like to repeat it. Back in September 1999 I was a TV warm up man. I had been working almost constantly as a warm up for the previous ten years apart from the odd cruise, pantomime’s and corporate gigs. I was warming up on average six nights a week and day time shows as well. I warmed up for shows like The Generation Game, Pebble Mill, Barrymore, Parkinson, This Is Your Life and many more. Towards the end of my warm up career it started to feel like I was no longer a comic. It got to the point where I would feel like I was going to a factory rather than a TV studio to entertain audiences. I needed a change, my wife was pregnant and I could not see much of a future for myself if I didn’t like my job (I love my job now!!) At the same time many of the shows I worked on came to an end at the same time. My volume of work was reduced dramatically.

I was working on the show ‘Ready Steady Cook’ I was warming up food!! Well, that’s how it felt somedays even though I did enjoy the job. I knew my days were numbered on the show as there was so many other comics chasing after warm up gigs and not enough jobs so I decided it was time for a change. I had always been a big admirer of the comedy club comics as I loved comics who would write their own material. I often went to the London clubs to watch these comics and I had got to know a few great comics over the years like Arnold Brown, Bob Mills and Nick Revell. I used to scan a magazine in London called Timeout and on my night off I would go to Jongleurs or The Comedy Store to watch the shows. One day at the Ready Steady Cook studios, I was in between shows and I noticed an ad in Timeout advertising a comedy course run by a comedian called Michael Knighton. The course was being run one night a week at a club in Hammersmith called The Cosmic Comedy Club. I told Michael I wanted to have a go on the circuit but the problem being I was a thirty nine year old ‘main stream comic’. He told me that he would be very happy for me to join the course. At the course on the first night in that dark empty comedy club I can honestly say I felt excited for the first time in a few years. The students were a mixed bunch, there was a talk radio producer who I knew straight away would go on to do well, his name was Mark Dolan who’s now an extremely established TV presenter/comedian. There was an Australian lady called Pam Ford who went on to become a busy comic and still is. There was a couple of guys who worked at The Cosmic, Dave Russell and a guy called Steve. Micheal asked us to write atleast a couple of minutes of material each week and we would have to perform it on stage in front of the other students each week. At first this was a daunting task for me as even though I had always tried to write material for my act I was also guilty of including a few old pub jokes in my act. Within three or four weeks I was absolutely loving the challenge of writing to a deadline. I made a few calls to old mates like Matthew Willetts (He was now corporate booker for Jongleurs) and Martin Beaumont who had been on the circuit for years. Both told me to get out and do some open spots. Then Dave Russell asked me if I would be interested in doing the open mic night at The Cosmic, I would only have to do five mins and it would be a challenge for me not to panic and go in to my old act.

So I pitch up on a wet Wednesday evening and the Cosmic looked completely different to me as of course there was an audience, there was a buzz about the place. Dave then informed me that the comics would all have their names on a board and at the end of the show the audience would vote for a winner. Suddenly I felt that this might not have been such a great idea. After all, I was an experienced pro and if I died on my arse and came last this would not look good for me. I told Dave this and he asked me to make up a name then no one would know. I agreed to this and told him my name for the night would be Harvey Oliver.

I went on stage that night with an attitude of a middle aged man who was not happy getting older. I delivered two rants that I had worked on about docusoaps and living in London and to my surprise I got big laughs. The five minutes went by so quickly and I felt I had found a new voice!! I went to the bar, I was buzzing, I forgot that the show was also a competition. Then I hear a big cheer and someone said ‘Harvey, you’ve won’…….I won £20 but it felt like £20,000!!

Within weeks I was going out as Harvey Oliver doing open spots, half spots and very quickly Mathew Willetts had got me an open spot at Jongleurs Camden club. I did one open spot and I was in thanks to Julia Chamberlain and Donna Burns and the owner Maria. The diary filled up with Jongleurs clubs three nights a week up and down the country, I also played so many great clubs like The Cosmic. Up The Creek, The Comedy Cafe, The Glee, Frog and Bucket, and three clubs I still enjoy playing Downstairs At The Kingshead , Headliners and The Bearcat. This was all as Harvey Oliver, I even got to play the Middle East a few times and did a few Jongleurs cruises. At the time I didn’t want it to end , it was so nice to work with other comics but sadly the comedy clubs just like the music halls and cabaret clubs started to close. Jongleurs changed hands and the clubs were changing as well as the audiences. It was time to reinvent myself yet again which is why I retired ‘Harvey Oliver’ and I went back to being Jeff again.

Working the circuit was great for me as it made me realise that I can write and so now when performing on ships I can write new material about the ship or the ports as well as observational material.  The ships are now ‘ the circuit’ for me and many other comics. The cruise ships are getting bigger, the theatres are like Broadway or The West End and if you are prepared to travel and adapt to working to Americans, Canadians and Australians then the world is your oyster. There are still a few comedy clubs open and doing well, The Glee, Frog and Bucket, Kingshead, Bearcat and Headliners and of course The Comedy Store a club which sadly I never made it in to further than a half spot but that’s a story for another blog.

I am sure that I will have to reinvent my self yet again some time in the next few years, when that time comes I will embrace the challenge yet again. Thanks for reading this blog and I am sorry if its a little long and grammatically incorrect. I’m a comic!!

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3 comments

  1. Tony Dowling · 18 Days Ago

    You made the transition Jeff, all credit to you, a lot of comics of that era didn’t. It can’t have been easy because when it’s not going well there is the temptation in going back to material that worked for you, I often did that when I had written a new 5 minute piece and it wasn’t working I ‘gabbled’ on to get to a gag(s) that always got laughs, trouble was, they didn’t, so did the sensible thing and got off. I don’t think you are old enough to have done the Douglas House in London, the American serviceman’s club, good training ground working to the Yanks( can you still say that) especially if you got to work the American based in Germany for Gisela Gunther. There is no doubt Jeff you are a good pro and a good comic and long may it continue. See you on the ‘Oriana’ and looking forward to it, I’ve got a suite so you can sit on our balcony and sunbathe.

    Like

  2. Martin Kelner · 15 Days Ago

    Good stuff Jeff. You probably don’t remember, but I interviewed you on one of the ships for a travel piece I was doing for the Mail On Sunday, and have probably interviewed you on the radio once or twice. Always good value. Cheers

    Like

    • ilovemyjobsite · 15 Days Ago

      Of course I remember Martin, I’m a big fan and still read your book now and then. Hope you are well sir and thanks.

      Like

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