Famous for 20 minutes

It's rare for a stand-up comic to perform a set that's any longer than that. Why? It doesn't have to be that way, as the Red Rose Comedy Club's Ivor Dembina tells Andrew Martin
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The Independent Culture

In mitigation of much of what follows, it's worth mentioning that Ivor Dembina is one of the funniest - if most downbeat - comedians around. I've seen him several times, including once on the stage of a small club off Pigalle, in Paris, where he entranced an initially distracted Anglo-French audience with slow burners such as: "I was doing some DIY at home, so I went to the library and said, 'Have you got any books on... shelves?' "

In mitigation of much of what follows, it's worth mentioning that Ivor Dembina is one of the funniest - if most downbeat - comedians around. I've seen him several times, including once on the stage of a small club off Pigalle, in Paris, where he entranced an initially distracted Anglo-French audience with slow burners such as: "I was doing some DIY at home, so I went to the library and said, 'Have you got any books on... shelves?' "

He's a mid-ranking comic, sometimes known as the Woody Allen of north London. He does look like Woody Allen, and he could be a lot better known if he took up offers to go on television. Having got to know Ivor slightly over the years, I would urge him to stop referring to television producers as "an ignorant breed" and do just that; he could clean up. Instead, he stands apart from the comedy mainstream, which, by and large, he considers to be "bollocks", frequently condemning, via his bilious website, its commercialism and eagerness to please.

Now, Ivor has found a special focus for his ire, and it is the main thing that characterises the comedy boom of the Eighties and Nineties: the 20-minute set.

He's not just talking about the need to give comedians a longer time on stage; he's actually in a position to do something about it. Dembina hates to be described as a promoter ("When I hear that word, I always think 'boxing gangster' "), but he is, shall we say, the booker of acts at one of London's leading independent venues, the Red Rose Comedy Club in Finsbury Park, and as of this winter, instead of putting on half a dozen acts each doing 20 minutes on a Saturday night, he'll have two doing an hour apiece, or even one doing two hours.

Dembina analyses the pernicious rise of the 20-minute set with the sociological rigour you'd expect from a man with Marxist leanings. "In the late Seventies, you had the first round of cuts in public subsidy. Fringe theatre was decimated, so you had all these talented, leftie, middle-class-type drama people looking for an outlet for their creative energies." Many of them, he says, became comedians.

"Thatcher provided the template for their careers: the small businessman; she also supplied the target. The yuppies were doing well but they were scared; the welfare state was being swept away. They knew there was no safety net, so people needed to keep their heads down all day in the office. After work, though, they needed a safety valve, and stand-up comedy was it."

It was thought that these early gigs of the comedy boom should be high-energy events; a fast turnover of performers fuelled that energy. The trouble, according to Dembina, was that the format of the 20-minute set crystallised into a cliché.

"The form began to define the content. The paradigm was this: half a dozen quick gags to warm up, then some slightly longer jokes with a few one-liners thrown in, followed by a two- or three-minute, set-piece storming finish. There's an old showbiz cliché about going off with a song, and some people would literally do that. It made me cringe."

Dembina doesn't think the 20-minute set is always necessarily bad. Some comedians, he concedes, use it beautifully, like masters of the haiku or sonnet. One is the Canadian Mike Wilmot, "who in 20 minutes gets across this mixture of filth and vulnerability that makes him the best nightclub comedian I've ever seen". But mainly Dembina believes that 20 minutes turns the comedian into a soulless gag-machine.

"I can do it myself," he says. "I'll come off, and the buyer of laughs [ie, promoter] will come up and say, 'Well done, Ivor, you really delivered. You did the business' ...and he's using the language of marketing."

Dembina first realised the value of the longer set - saw "its ability to affect an audience, to move them, touch them" - at a Dave Allen show in the Seventies. "I was sitting there, really enjoying it but thinking: I don't need to laugh at him." It was as if laughter was an undignified response to Allen's intelligence. "I mean, laughter", he says, "is overrated." But then he laughs himself, because he is a comedian, after all.

Dembina likes humorists who don't "spoonfeed you laughs but trust you have a sense of humour": drolls such as Woody Allen or, for that matter, Harold Pinter or, from the current London circuit, Milton Jones, who'll say, in a dazed voice, "I'll tell you what seems to cause a lot of accidents... People leaving flowers by the side of the road", and then stare blearily around the room for what seems like ages.

The longer Milton Jones is allowed to speak such lines, the funnier he gets, because you gradually tune into him. Ivor says the same about Simon Munnery, aka The League Against Tedium, whose impersonation of a mid-European boffin works in direct proportion to how much time he's given.

Of course, not all comedians have to do 20-minute sets all the time. Sometimes, in midweek downtime at comedy clubs, they are given longer, as they are at the Edinburgh Festival, which Ivor calls "a festival of the arts turned into a trade fair for stand-up comedy". He likes the festival's longer sets, though, which he believes have given prestige to breaking the 20-minute barrier.

But he is aware that lots of comedians can't do it. They don't actually have more than 20 minutes of material. According to Lee Mack, who will be performing for an hour at the Red Rose later this year, "You can earn maybe £50,000 or £60,000 a year with a good 20 minutes, and some people just go around with the same 20 minutes for ever."

Accordingly, Dembina has had to be careful about who he puts on at the new-style Red Rose. On the first night of his long-gig season, a couple of weeks ago, he had Owen O'Neill and Boothby Graffoe. Although known as a raconteur rather than a gag man, O'Neill started hesitantly, as though intimidated by the luxury of the hour stretching before him. "I've been travelling around the, er, world..." he said in one early, rather desperate attempt to get going; but after 10 minutes he got into a groove.

Boothby Graffoe clicked immediately. His spiralling surrealisms resemble those of Eddie Izzard (who follows in the footsteps of Ken Dodd as a true master of the long haul), and much of his act consists of talking to himself. At one point he said (to himself): "We've never gone on for this long before, have we?", but nobody was watching the clock.

Andre Vincent, who is also upcoming at the Red Rose, welcomes the chance to perform for longer but he's more relaxed than Ivor about the short set. He respects its pedigree. "Until they got on TV," he told me, "Morecambe and Wise apparently did the same 13-minute set for 15 years." Good job they never met Ivor Dembina, is all I can say.

On 17 October, the Red Rose Comedy Club (020-7281 3051) presents an evening with Rich Hall. From 31 October Lee Mack hosts the FHM Comedy Tour (08700 778877)

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