Getting To Know…Hilarity Bites Promoter Neil Jollie | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Hilarity Bites are a massively vital part of the North East comedy scene; running gigs since 2007, they’ve established a reputation for booking some of the best stand-up comedians on the circuit while still giving a chance to newer acts. With the annual Darlington Comedy Festival, their yearly new act competition, and plenty of gigs on the go, we were delighted to be able to have a conversation with founder Neil Jollie; who explained how he got started, what keeps driving him forward, all things comedy and a lot more besides.

So, Hilarity Bites is now a mainstay of the North East comedy scene, how did you get started in comedy promotion?

To be honest, I was called out by a venue after I suggested they should run a comedy night! I knew the live bands booker at Inside Out in Darlington, and after several years of going to the Edinburgh Fringe as an audience member, I suggested to him that they should run a comedy night as I thought it would be popular. About a week later, I was invited to a meeting with the regional manager, and he asked me to book a night, and they would take all the risk in terms of the financial aspects; without that support and little push, I’m not sure I’d have got started. Obviously I was pretty green at the time, and didn’t have any real contacts, but thanks to the power of MySpace (the social media site du jour in those days) I managed to get a line-up of Gavin Webster, Nik Coppin and Dan Nightingale for our first gig – looking back, it wasn’t a bad booking at all! Queue the first night, and just about anything that could go wrong did – the venue supplied a wireless microphone, and the batteries ran out in the first section of the gig, and they didn’t have any spare – so I spent a good 15 minutes running to the nearest shop and back with replacements; and then in the second half of the night we almost had to evacuate the building because of a gas leak in the cellar. After that baptism, I’ve generally felt able to deal with anything that is thrown at me when running a gig!

Could you tell us a bit about the range of gigs you run?

We run pretty much a full range of gigs I think – we have new material nights twice a month, which gives us the opportunity to see newer acts from around the country, whilst giving established acts the opportunity to try new material in a supportive environment; we try and run at least one touring show each month, featuring the likes of Gary Delaney, Nick Helm, Alun Cochrane, etc; we run an annual new act competition, where 48 of the best new acts in the country take part in a competition with a supportive audience (and no gong!); we run Edinburgh preview shows in the run-up to the festival, both at our regular gigs and through the Darlington Comedy Festival; and then there’s our “bread and butter” gigs, which are the weekend shows with some of the circuits best comedians, always presented by some of our favourite comperes – but always with room for one of the best new acts that we’ve seen recently, as we always try to provide a platform to allow people to improve and progress within the comedy industry.

It’s really nice to now be able to run gigs and look at an audience and realise that you barely know anybody in the audience; you might recognise them as being regulars that come to gigs every month, but they’re there because they really enjoy what we do.

How do you think Hilarity Bites has lasted so long, and kept pushing on?

Honestly, through a lot of hard work and commitment, and through working with some really great venues with supportive venue owners and staff, working with some of the best comedians on the circuit, and also through the support of family and friends. In the early days, many of our gigs were supported by the attendance of friends, and it’s really nice to now be able to run gigs and look at an audience and realise that you barely know anybody in the audience; you might recognise them as being regulars that come to gigs every month, but they’re there because they really enjoy what we do, not due to a sense of purpose. I think the other main reason is that we try to be fair to everybody in the process – I’ve heard horror stories of promoters taking massive budgets from venues and then spending a small fraction of that on acts and pocketing the rest; we work with venues to find a budget that suits them and that they’re comfortable with, and they we find the best acts that we can for the budget we have available, whilst trying to match the acts to the audience, and ensuring that acts are paid fairly for their work – there are a lot of gigs that I see that are booked by someone just using internet forums, and those that reply quickest are given the gigs, but we try our hardest to curate things a little bit more, so that the audiences and venues get the very best acts we can put on stage on the night, whilst the acts themselves are looked after, and therefore want to return.

Your annual new act competition is a wonderful opportunity for emerging comedians, how did that come about, and is there another edition this year?

When we first started out, one of our aims was always to be able to support new acts, and give opportunities to help those acts progress, and holding an annual competition seemed like the right way to do it. Having attended a variety of competitions, I was sure from the start that I didn’t want to make it a gong show, as I was keen to let acts that were travelling have as much stage time as we could afford. It’s since become a mainstay in our programming, and it’s always great to see people rise through from those competitions and go on to become big name comedians; some of the acts that applied in the first few years are now professional comedians, acts such as Chris Ramsey, Daniel Sloss, Kai Humphries, Andrew Ryan, Sam Gore, Andy Fury and Tony Jameson. We’ve just confirmed dates for our 2016 New Act Competition, with the heats taking place every Monday night in June, and the final on July 25th.

What makes you laugh most?

That’s a tough question – I’ve always had a love of the surreal, and acts such as Harry Hill were amongst my favourite acts when I was younger. That said, my favourite act of the moment is Daniel Kitson, as he’s just so good! He can have you in fits of laughter one minute, and then on the verge of tears the next.

What keeps you inspired and wanting to put on shows?

I think having a love of comedy before I started to promote shows has really helped. However, in the past 18 months comedy has become a full-time job for me, so there’s probably a little bit of a need to do it in order to pay the bills – fortunately that isn’t the main motivator though, which means that I don’t have to compromise with the shows that we produce.

Who or what inspires you generally?

That’s a tough question. I couldn’t point to a book or a motivational poster that turned my life around. I think I am a bit of a workaholic, and at one point I was running comedy events, running a Sunday league football team, was part of a football league committee, and still had a full time job! Thankfully I’m not as busy as that anymore, but my parents were always hard-workers, and I think I’ve definitely picked up something from that. It’s probably too sickly to say that my other half inspires me, but I know that I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now without her help and support.

What does your time away from comedy promotion involve?

In my past career I was a website developer, and I still keep my hand in with the odd website here and there for people – some within the comedy industry. Other than that, there’s so much to do each month for our gigs, that it’s a job that almost takes up 7 days a week! That said, I do try and read regularly, watch DVDs and that sort of thing – recently I’ve started binge watching US stand-ups on Netflix, albeit that’s probably a bit of a Busman’s Holiday!

You manage acts too, how did that come about, and how do you find it compared with running gigs?

The act management strand was really born out of our new act competition, and seeing so many good new acts that needed a little bit of a hand along the way. We were approached by a few acts that were looking for advice and assistance with progressing, and it made me realise that we could do more to help those guys out. Since then, we’ve had some more experienced acts ask to be part of our management stable, which I think proves that we’re doing things right somewhere along the line. I try to keep the management side of things separate from the promotions side, however – there’s a lot of unscrupulous folk out there that only want to offer an act a gig if they can have a booking in return, so it’s difficult to try and maintain the integrity of the gig bookings in those circumstances, but I’m pleased that we’ve been able to do it.

Does your approach differ from show to show?

I think it has to. There’s obviously best practices that will apply to all shows, but every venue, every audience, every different type of show, and every collection of acts is different, so the approach really needs to make sure that we get the best possible result on each night. As soon as you start running on auto-pilot then things start to go wrong, and you start to lose the passion for it.

the scene in the region has never been as buoyant as it is at present

Any North East acts you think we should look out for this year?

Now that is a tough one – there’s a lot of people that I don’t want to leave out! The North-East scene is very exciting at the moment, and with big names like Chris Ramsey and Jason Cook returning to the region, and the success of big clubs such as The StandBig Mouth Comedy, and the Grinning Idiot, and smaller nights like Freshly Ground ComedySilly BilliesHalfpenny Comedy, the scene in the region has never been as buoyant as it is at present. What I really like is seeing people really push on and improve, and as an example of that you can really see how Carl Hutchinson has pushed himself over the past few years – it wouldn’t be a surprise if he nudged his way into some TV work in the near future, as he just seems to smash every gig he performs at. With regards to some newer acts, I’ve recently seen acts such as Dean Moore, Nicola Mantalios-Lovett, and Michael Holford receive great receptions at our new act and new material nights, and obviously the people involved with Jesting About have found a selection of really excellent North-East based acts this year.

You regularly bring tour shows, or acts we might not get the chance to see in the North East often to our region, are there any rarer treats to keep an eye out for this year?

There’s nothing that I can really mention that hasn’t been announced yet, as we’re bound by embargoes for some tour shows, but I’m really looking forwards to seeing Gein’s Family Giftshop on 20th April – it will be the fourth or fifth time we’ve had Gein’s in Darlington since they previewed their debut show with us, and they just get better and better – the dark humour, and short, sharp sketches, are really my cup of tea. I’m also really looking forwards to Nick Helm’s show with us in June – I’ve been trying to get Nick to Darlington ever since I first saw him in front of an audience of 40 or so people at the Edinburgh Fringe, and thankfully we’ve finally been able to get him to us!

What has the rest of 2016 got in store for you and Hilarity Bites?

We’re just going to keep on bringing the best acts that we can to the venues that we currently book, and hopefully we’ll be starting some nights in some new towns and venues throughout the North-East. We’ve got the new act competition coming up in June, the Darlington Comedy Festival will return in July, and then we’re off to the Edinburgh Fringe to run shows in August. Eventually it would be my dream to have involved with a dedicated comedy and arts venue in Darlington, so hopefully we can grow to the point where that would become a more realistic option.

Hilarity Bites run comedy gigs all across the region, and more information can be found on their website, here.

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