Q & A with Stand-up Comedian James Meakin

10 years ago I moved to England to do my third year of undergrad at the University of East Anglia. I arrived a day early to an empty campus. I didn’t know anyone so I did the most British thing I could think of — I went to the pub. Timidly, I struck up a conversation with a trio of guys outside. One of them was American and the other two were British and both named James (I quickly learned one in three males in the UK are named James). That night they introduced me to rollies, snake bite and banter. When it was time to go home, like a grade school child, I asked, “Tonight was a lot of fun, I don’t know anyone at this school or even this country, can we be friends?”

Thankfully, they didn’t laugh at me and the next year was one of the best of my life. One of the Jameses is now a stand-up comedian in London. I was able to catch up with him and ask him some questions.

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Doing stand-up comedy is really hard and pretty thankless — what motivated you to start performing?

I really love performing, for basically my whole life, from acting in school and university to playing in bands it’s always been a passion. Over the last few years it fell by the wayside a bit and I needed to find a creative outlet that would enable me to get in front of a crowd again. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the sharpest musician around and had a gig at a small festival doing acoustic covers and was rehearsing constantly in the lead up to the gig. My girlfriend asked me if I ever practice what I was going to say between the songs.

This question threw me because this is really the only bit of a music gig I can do without really thinking about it, she told me that people literally practice the between song banter because it makes them nervous. This blew my mind, so what I could do is just mash all that time up, drop the songs and just talk for five minutes. This would also mean carrying things, turning up for band practice and relying on other people would be a thing of the past.

Carrying stuff is crazy boring. I was also getting into a few comedy podcasts at the time and the kind of DIY punk rock ethos of the whole comedy thing really hit home. It would be up to me how hard I worked on my act, how many gigs I book and how much stage time I am willing to do and that really appealed to me. Work hard, get better at something, have fun.

I did my first open mic, I didn’t tell anyone where I was going or that I even did it, bombed horribly but was instantly hooked. It gave me something to think about and work on and take my mind off working a day job.

You’re coming up on your hundredth gig. I’ve been following you on social media and it seems like the stand-up scene in London is a grind. Can you explain to me what a bringer is?

Loads of people ask me this who follow me on Facebook and it’s a weird word. A bringer gig is basically an open mic where anyone performing is obligated to bring a non performing member of the audience and a pretty contentious subject in the scene. What it means is you are always playing to a full room and the pub can make more money on beer if there are more people there.

The nights tend to be quieter midweek nights in pubs wanting to make more money. In all reality, it’s a necessary evil. I would much rather perform to 30 people than 3 (which has happened, and to be fair wasn’t that bad). The people who put on bringer nights range from incredibly strict, dropping you from a night and potentially banning you to kind of giving you the benefit of the doubt or allowing you to ‘Be Your Own Bringer’ for next week’s show. It makes the whole thing really stressful because non performers can, and are fully in their rights to, bail at the last minute leaving you in trouble. You can also get another comic to come with you if you can get them back for one of their shows.

This is also hard because if you are gigging three times a week and take another night to see someones act that’s another late night. There are a few non bringer open mics that are incredible but for the most part the more people in the room the more fun the night.

In other cities you can do two or three shows a night, in London it tends to be bring someone and stay to the end. If I had to choose then I would take the bringer system, one solid set in front of a busy audience feels more beneficial than banging through your jokes to no one with everyone leaving straight after their set.

In Canada we have comedy on the CBC and then most of our exposure to comedy comes from the US. When I moved to the UK you introduced me to Live at the Apollo and other comedy panel shows. For the first time I was introduced to a culture of comedy and banter that was mainstream. How has your perception of comedy changed now that you’re doing gigs?

I honestly thought you do it like music, so you do some gigs then do a tour and then tour until it’s your job. I think now I kind of get the impression that the Live at the Apollo thing or the spot on the panel show is the goal for a lot of people and that reflects in their comedy and it tends to be a bit safer. I prefer American comedy in that the goal is just to be as good as you can and sell tickets and work the road. I think the panel show format is on the decline with the rise of Netflix, a British comic can get by without being on these shows. But really I don’t have a clue, there’s people who were doing the gigs I am doing last year now on these shows which is awesome to see but it’s not something I think about.

I just want to not bomb on a cold Tuesday night somewhere in Zone 4. Also, my perception of edgy/shocking stuff has changed. I used to do a bunch of stupid edgy jokes that hit maybe 1 in 4. I think people see successful comics do shocking material and think they can do it right away without learning the nuance of the craft. People at open mics barely want to be there in the first place and now you are saying horrible shit because someone on TV did? Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer that everything is funny or nothing is but actually making a joke about a Taboo subject work is crazy hard.

Back when we were in school we had to search long and hard for comedy specials on torrents. Now everyone is spoon-fed specials on Netflix. How has that changed the comedy landscape?

I think it is incredible, the choice of acts is mindblowing. It used to be that you had to pick up DVDs or someone you knew had a copy of some rare concert, now you can access so much instantly it can’t possibly be a bad thing. It also gives more people access to stand up comedy who may not have had it before, kind of like when Live at the Apollo started, it brings it to people.

This means more people at shows, more people buying tickets and more people actually trying to do stand up. There’s always an argument of the idea of quantity over quality but I think the choice is a good thing. If you don’t like a comic, don’t watch it, move onto the next.

Now that you’re coming up on your hundredth show, what are your goals moving forward?

My goals when I started this was to try and get good enough for this to be my job. That goal has completely changed and I just want to know how to do it. I want to know why something works one night and doesn’t the next. It’s a big puzzle I want to try and solve. I enjoy doing longer sets so maybe get up to a 30 minute set by the end of 2019, maybe do a split bill at the Edinburgh festival. I would like to get out of town and do some shows away from London and I definitely want to head out to the states and Canada to do some shows over there.

Who are your comedy heroes? One mainstream legend, one guilty pleasure and one peer.

I think Dave Chappelle is the funniest man in history but my comedy hero and probably my biggest inspiration over the last year has been Tom Segura. His delivery and storytelling is perfect and his podcast is incredible, always keep em high and tight.

As far as peers go, you make so many awesome friends doing this because you see other acts a few times a week and you are all in the same boat. I would probably say Jamie Allerton, he constructs really great sets that have a beginning/middle/end and is fucking hilarious. He was also on my 5th or so gig and was a good example of how its done. Jamie is also letting me close his night, Rubber Shark Comedy for my 100th gig so I am fully stoked about that.

I don’t believe in ‘guilty pleasures’ either something makes you laugh or it doesn’t, same thing with music or movies, just enjoy whatever you want. That being said, I laughed my balls off watching Mr. Blobby on YouTube last night. So any cerebral, meta, intelligent comedy can be beaten by a blobby monster from the 90s. So Mr fucking Blobby.

Here are my gigs coming up for the end of the year. Basically all at the South Kensington Comedy Club at the Hoop and Toy in South Kensington.

29/11/2018 Mustard Comedy, Effra Social, Brixton 7:30pm

30/11/2018 Rubber Shark, Hoop and Toy, South Kensington 7:30pm

5/12/2018 Happy Laughcraft, Hoop and Toy, South Kensington 7:30pm

13/12/2018 Jetway Comedy, Hoop and Toy, South Kensington 7:30pm

14/12/2018 Rubber Shark, Hoop and Toy, South Kensington 7:30pm

15/12/2018 Happy Laughcraft, Hoop and Toy, South Kensington 7:30pm

Matthieu Foreman

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