Gloomy, lonely, not a smile in sight – and these are Britain's funniest men and women. When Dave Brown, erstwhile member of The Mighty Boosh, set out to photograph his fellow comedians for a new exhibition, he was determined to show the dark side of stand-up. Not for him the cheesy grins, microphones and lurid colours of the gag-masters' gig posters; this is the face of comedy when the laughter dies – furrowed brows, three-day stubble, smeary eyeliner and all.
"It's a tough old business, trying to make people laugh", says Brown, 39, who is best known for playing Bollo the Gorilla in the surreal sketch show. "And it's a lonely job. Travelling around the country on public transport to places where people have painted 'Comedy Club' on a sheet and hung it above an upturned beer crate. And then you have to stand there with a dodgy sound-system performing your hard-worked, heartfelt material to people who aren't listening."
For Tough Crowd, Brown asked his subjects – over 30 of the UK's finest comedy talents – to forget their successes and think back to their worst moments on stage. "Everyone has really related to it. I say, 'I want you to think of that gig where four people turned up. And only one of them laughed. And then you got a one-star review.' It's easy for them to go to that place", he says. "At some point in their careers they've all been heckled by a drunk, dropped by an agent, cancelled on a bill and delivered a punchline to total silence. I wanted to capture these thick-skinned, complex, moody characters and show them in a different light."
And so the usually cheery Bill Bailey broods in moody monochrome on a desolate urban estate, Lenny Henry glares out from under the hood of a dirty yellow raincoat while Jimmy Carr cuts an unsettling moonlit profile, his shadow lurking behind him like a ventriloquist's dummy. Brown's portraits are intimate, many of them in uncomfortable close-up, shot in the comedians' bedrooms or intruding on the introspective moments after a show.
Harry Hill is captured in his dressing room after the final TV Burp recording, trademark glasses glinting in the gloom. Tony Law, flushed with exhaustion, checks his phone, minutes after walking off stage at The Stand in Edinburgh. There is no limelight, no greasepaint. These are nocturnal creatures, caught in the shadows, lit only by backstage neon or the harsh light of the morning after the night before. Among the bleaker images are those of a bleary-eyed Sean Hughes, who mopes on his unmade bed as daylight peeks through unopened curtains and Alice Lowe, who weeps, her eyes red, her cheeks streaked with mascara.
Chris Addison, Sara Pascoe, Adam Buxton, Bob Mortimer and Julia Davis are among the other big names who have allowed Brown to shoot them in extremis. They trust him because he has been there himself.
As a student at Brunel University, he would trail around open mic nights, giving moral support to his best friend and then fledgling stand-up Noel Fielding. After university, when Fielding and Julian Barrett started The Mighty Boosh, Brown would step in to help out his housemates. "If they needed someone in a stupid costume", he says. "I'd do it." As the troupe took off, winning the Perrier Best Newcomer Award at Edinburgh in 1998, Brown joined the circus full time as Bollo, starring in their third live show AutoBoosh in 2000 and a subsequent decade of radio and television series and tours.
"There's no glamour, even when you've won awards," he says. "I remember one preview in Whitstable. We didn't have an ending to the show because we hadn't written it yet. It was lashing with rain, I was in the back of the van with all the props and Noel and Julian had just had a massive row. We turned up and there were six people, four of them grandmas who had season tickets. So we were trying out stuff we'd just written to six blank faces and their candyfloss hair. That was a low. You can look back on it now and laugh, but at the time the pressure was huge."
Over the years, Brown, a graphic designer by training, took on the Terry Gilliam role in the Boosh, creating its anarchic visual identity. In 2006, he set up his own company, APE (of course), and now designs books and DVDs for the Boosh and other comedians, including Jimmy Carr and Tim Key, out of his studio in Hackney. Photography has always been a passionate sideline: "I do like being behind the camera. But it's hard not to enjoy standing on stage in front of a sold-out O2 Arena", he says.
"If there was another Boosh tour, I'd be on it like a shot. But it's never been a cash cow." Fielding and Barratt both posed for this show: might a reunion be on the cards? "There is still lots of material – scripts that haven't been seen, film treatments, live show ideas. If the time was right, it could come together very quickly. It's not like we're a band who have split up – we're just doing our solo projects. The chemistry is still there."
In the meantime, Brown isn't tempted to try out his own comedy material. "Not at all. I know how difficult it is. You're either the king of the world or the lowest of the low", he says. He won't even go to see comedy, if he can avoid it. "My idea of hell is going to a club where I have no idea who is on the bill. It's the fear of someone not doing very well. I've sat there and watched people die and wanted to crawl out of the room myself. There's nothing worse."
After the exhibition – at which prints will be on sale for £50, with proceeds going to Afrikids – Brown intends to continue his series and make it into a book. There's no shortage of tortured souls for him to shoot, after all. "There's always the end of a show or a series when the comedian has to go back to a blank piece of paper and start writing new material. So the fear is always there. There's always the possibility of dying on stage, the awful silence after a punchline."
'Tough Crowd', Strand Galley, London WC2, 4 to 16 December (020 7839 4942)