• Gabriel Featherstone

"Performing Comedy Is Currently Illegal": The Monkey Barrel Comedy Club Vs. Covid

The Monkey Barrel Comedy Club in Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s most exciting and beloved comedy venues. During its five-year history it has won three Scottish Comedy Awards and been instrumental in launching and developing the careers of some of Scotland’s most creative and experimental alternative comedians. The club champions and supports new talent and unconventional performers by providing multiple platforms for them to develop their material, including Top Banana (a new material night), Free For All (an open-mic night), Project X and Peter Pancakes (the club’s chaotic and unpredictable experimental comedy nights.) It’s a hugely influential and important part of Scotland’s live comedy landscape. Iain Campbell is a co-owner and the Head of Operations at Monkey Barrel Limited, which also operates The Department of Magic Escape Rooms, The Magic Potion Tavern and Scrapheap Golf. He is also a stand-up comedian and the regular host of Project X. Describing the club’s origins and development, Iain said: “A charming man called Ben Verth started a comedy night above the Beehive Inn. I won’t be able to tell you all the dates and times for all this, because I am a dyslexic man with the memory of a Tory goldfish. “Ben Verth and Rick Molland started this Friday and Saturday show at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. They ran that night for a wee while; a couple of years, I think. I worked the door a couple of times and I also performed. It was a tough gig! My worst death as a comedian was in that room. Top floor in The Beehive, performing to just stags and hens, doing my posh boy from Edinburgh material and pretty much getting booed offstage. "Fairly soon after that I was running a new material night when I was approached by Monkey Barrel to come onboard to their new custom-built venue and run their new material night. The night was originally called Japes, which was my idea, but we changed it to Top Banana because it was not a good idea. Nobody liked the name Japes. It’s gone through a few different mouldings and shapes since then. “We’re about to be having our fifth birthday. Or we’ve just had it, I can never remember. We turned the downstairs room into an escape room, which has been massively successful for us. It’s really helped us to relax and run the comedy club that we want to run, and focus on developing acts, which is something we’ve always been very keen on.” Ross Foley is an alternative comedian who credits the Monkey Barrel as being an invaluable part of his development as a performer. He said: “From my perspective Project X is the best comedy thing that I’ve been involved in. It’s an open invitation to come and do something as experimental or good or bad or ambitious or half-arsed as you want, pretty much every week. “When I first did Project X it was probably only six months after I’d started doing comedy. Maybe even five months. I pretty much did Red Raw at The Stand and then got into doing Project X. So one of the biggest things for me has just been the experience. To perform once a week as a new alt-comic is pretty rare. Just having the chance to go up and fail and do really ludicrous crap material and take something out of it that might be worthwhile is pretty unique. “I think the first time I remember being really hit by ‘okay, this is the kind of thing I want to watch and participate in’ was seeing Oliver Coleman do his piece about being confused with Olivia Coleman. It was such an incredible performance, not just because of the quality of the writing and how strange and surreal the writing was, but also because Ollie is such a strong performer. He’s such a physically energetic, confident performer. If I’d found this at The Fringe I’d have been raving about it to all my friends. “And then subsequently I saw other alt-acts who did stuff that was of a similar ilk. People like James McIntosh, who, again, I was just totally taken with from the first time I saw him because he just sort of read the strangest diary entries that you could ever imagine from a black notepad. Sometimes you’ll get an alt-act on a standard comedy night and it’s this little explosion; a break from the monotony. But Project X is non-stop that.” Unfortunately, due to the ongoing pandemic, the comedy club has been totally dormant since March last year. This has created a number of challenges and anxieties for the Monkey Barrel team. Iain said: “No company can survive without income. There are outgoings, there are incomings and there’s a cashflow that keeps the business going. If this goes to zero instantly, in a day, the engine runs out pretty quick. “I’d never been more aware of how the economy worked than when I saw everyone’s income just go to zero. Is The Monkey Barrel in trouble? Absolutely. We’re a comedy club and performing comedy is currently illegal. It’s not good for the business. We’re not thrilled about it. On paper, it’s catastrophic, and there is no clear recourse. “The reality of the situation is a bit different. The main benefit of Covid is that its affected everybody. If you could only catch Covid in comedy clubs we’d be in a much worse state. But because everybody’s in trouble, everyone understands what’s going on, and we’re all waiting to see how long people can be charitable and accommodating. We have done absolutely everything that we can to keep every single member of our staff on, but the furlough scheme is not free money. It’s something we apply for and we cover the rest of; there’s contributions that have to be made along the way. There’s always outgoings. We’ve not had much coming in for a very long time.” The Monkey Barrel team haven't been entirely unable to make money during the pandemic. When restrictions were less severe the organisation’s other ventures – the tavern, escape rooms and miniature golf course – were able to operate at reduced capacity. The Monkey Barrel have also made a small amount of money from producing online comedy content, and have started selling vinyl recordings of comedy shows. However, the loss of regular income from the comedy club has been a major blow and the cancellation of the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe was devastating. Iain said: “The Fringe is vital. It’s absolutely our business model. I couldn’t tell you the exact percentages, but something akin to 50% of our business is done in one month of the year. It’s why we’ve opened a comedy club in Edinburgh and not a more comedy focussed city. “Last August we had 100,000 people come to Monkey Barrel. We do not know at all what’s going to be happening with the upcoming Fringe. Everybody’s waiting to see what’s going to be happening with vaccines and whatever. There were some discussions before this lockdown about some pilot scheme, to see what performances would look like. That’s not just for comedy clubs. This was for theatre clubs and music venues too.

“I have concerns that a socially distanced festival isn’t really possible. I don’t really know what that looks like. We’d have to go through a pilot process, which we’re very keen to get started. It’s so up in the air. We’d have to be out of the top level here before anybody would even think about accepting a proposal for a pilot scheme for putting on a show, and then after that a huge amount of work would have to be done to make it work. I don’t see this festival going ahead, and I think 2022 is going to be some odd socially distanced thing.” The Monkey Barrel received a grant from Creative Scotland in 2020, after a period of uncertainty about whether or not the funding body would be offering support to comedy. Iain said: “To be told we were artistically significant was helpful for us. At the time I almost felt selfish saying ‘please help our comedy club, it helps hundreds of people survive’, because I thought ‘what about all the theatres? Everyone’s in trouble. This is just so terrible.’ “But obviously you have to stand up for comedy and say this is a very real and viable artform that hundreds and hundreds of people work in. We’ve got thirty-seven people on furlough at the moment who work directly for Monkey Barrel, so it would be hard to argue that we’re not absolutely an integral part of the arts scene in Edinburgh.” The Monkey Barrel’s long-term future is still uncertain. Its closure would be a tragic loss to the Scottish comedy scene. Discussing the potential consequences of Monkey Barrel’s demise, Ross Foley said: “It’d be terrible, particularly for the alternative acts throughout Scotland. We’re lucky to have several permanent comedy clubs over a fairly small proximity between Edinburgh and Glasgow. They all do really good stuff, they all attract good touring performers, they all have good Fringe programming. The Stand, Monkey Barrel, Glee, they all have their merits.

“The Stand certainly books really good alt-acts. The Stand was the first place that I performed and they’re not in any way antagonistic to alternative acts. But I think Monkey Barrel proactively seek to illuminate local alt-acts. And I think that’s because the owners and the past owners have been champions of a style of comedy that’s somewhat unusual, and that’s reflected in their Fringe programming. “I think, crucially, they’ve asked local acts who make up part of the regular weekly programming, particularly Project X, to be part of their Fringe programming. People like Soup Group or Amelia Bayler. And I think if you took that away, if you took the institution that is actively championing alternative comedy, it would be a real struggle for alt-comics to be heard. "It would be a huge blow to people who do comedy that is unconventional, but it would also be a huge loss to people who do comedy that is conventional. There’s really great comics who’ve spent a lot of time honing their material at Monkey Barrel. Stuart McPherson and Amy Matthews are two examples of really good comics who don’t necessarily do alt-comedy but clearly have developed their stuff at Monkey Barrel a lot. “The alt-scene would be devastated without the Monkey Barrel playing the role of a central hub, which it does. But I think the effect on comedy in general in Scotland would be pretty momentous, given that there’s four comedy clubs that are permanent in the central belt: The Stand Edinburgh & Glasgow, The Monkey Barrel and Glee*. So, patently, if you took one of those away it wouldn’t be great. It would be bad, is my deeply sagacious insight.”

If you want to support The Monkey Barrel you can donate to their crowdfunder and purchase their excellent comedy vinyl records here. *There's also The Rotunda Comedy Club in Glasgow.