For stand-ups appearing at It Might Get Ugly, London’s darkest new comedy night, there is just one rule: they must be honest “to the point of regret.” No whimsy, no cosy old anecdotes. Comedians must expose themselves mercilessly – even more so than usual.
That explains why Harry Hill, headlining the night at London’s Pleasance this week, chose to take to the stage in a blue all-in-one decorated with the logo of his recently defunct West End show I Can’t Sing. His opening line? “I co-wrote a musical about The X Factor and all I got was this lousy onesie.”
For the next half hour, Hill performed a rare, hilarious and jaw-dropping monologue about the blockbuster musical, which lasted just six weeks in the West End despite the backing of Simon Cowell. “I’ve yet to meet anyone who bought a ticket”, he admitted revealing that he learned the bad news when a joke on the phone backfired. “I had a missed call from the producer so I called her back and said, ‘I thought we’d get longer than a month!’. She said, ‘How did you know?’”
The laughs came from gossipy titbits – about Cowell’s veto over who played him (“It had to be someone younger and better-looking than him…”), the disaster-prone set and the glitzy opening night party, at which the cast were excluded from the VIP area. The interest came from seeing Hill, stripped-back and self-lacerating: no big silly collar, no platform shoes and no bursting into song – unless you count the desperate rendition of the musical’s title track with which he finished his set.
It Might Get Ugly was founded by Karl Schulz, 27, in December last year. As MC, he sets the bleak, anything-goes tone - his opening routine on Monday was about a teenage suicide attempt. “When it started it was about people subverting their usual posture. It has taken away every ounce of arrogance I ever had as a comedian”, he says. “I often get a call on the day from acts saying, ‘What am I going to do?’”
Terrifying it may be, but Schulz has stand-ups like Bridget Christie, Joe Lycett and Brett Goldstein queuing up to take part. Hill has appeared twice, calling it “the most uncomfortable and hilarious time I’ve spent in a comedy club.” On Monday Trevor Lock revealed his existential angst while Sara Pascoe talked candidly about the jealousy that plagues her relationships. The next show, on Tuesday [1 July], will feature John Kearns, Phil Nichol and Liam Williams. In August, it will take up a late-night residency at the Edinburgh Fringe for the month.
Risk aside, the cathartic appeal for comedians is clear – a chance to confess or vent on a topic that might not fit their usual set or fanbase. As for the audience, it’s a chance to see a stand-up’s vulnerable side. “What’s more edifying than someone opening up to you?” ask Schulz. Laughing while they do it, of course.
1 July, The Harrison Bar, London WC1; 30 July – 24 August, Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh (www.twitter.com/itmightgetugly)
Discovering diamonds in the rough is the great joy of the Edinburgh Fringe. Four years ago I was one of 10 in a room watching a young woman in a check shirt talking – with fierce, funny, poetic grace – about surviving the London bombings. A year later, I came across John Peel’s Shed, a charming, offbeat one-man show about winning a box of the late DJ’s records on a radio phone-in.
The two performers in question were Molly Naylor and John Osborne. This week filming began on a new six-part sitcom they have written together for Sky 1, starring Ardal O’Hanlon and Jaime Winstone. After Hours will be directed by Craig Cash and is set on a barge that doubles as internet radio station. If it’s anything like their early Fringe work, I’ll be watching.
Ones to Watch
The comedian’s surprisingly revealing stand-up tour continues.
Brighton tonight, Plymouth tomorrow.
The Bafta-winning star of Eric and Ernie performs an hour of wonderfully barmy sketches “Berk in Progress”.
Monday 30 June, 9.30pm, The Invisible Dot, London N1