After five years of being about the darkest and dirtiest comedy club in London, the Decapitated Puppy’s tail has finally stopped wagging. Co-founder Bobby Carroll explains why.
Brendon Burns is sitting atop a high stool on stage to 40 people, barking away about something horrible. Getting laughs on a hot summer’s night.
To the regulars and the curious who came and sat on the Intrepid Fox’s broken furniture, stolen from churches or made up of cast-iron car parts, he is doing exactly what they bought a ticket for. Performing an intelligent, eloquent set but for adults happy to hear naughty words, controversial concepts and downright disgusting verbal images they might not agree with, might not feel comfortable laughing at in front of their mum or little brothers. Suddenly, the growling air conditioner, smuggled out no doubt from some Eastern bloc country just before the Berlin Wall came down, gives off a sputter louder than even Burnsy mid-stream. From above him a massive pint of coolant is expelled from the machine. The brilliant, insightful and unflappable Aussie comic misses out on getting an onstage chemical bukkake by about two inches. Then three ceiling tiles fall down to emphasise the ramshackle nature of the Fox. This was the highpoint of The Decapitated Puppy, and its five-year long, dark and rude comedy reign as London’s only exclusively transgressive and adult comedy show. And last night we put the old girl to sleep.
So why after five years did we take the Puppy into the woods?
Maybe it was just because we got old … Tyson Boyce and I started the gig after a moderately successful run on the Free Fringe six summers ago. We took a midnight show up to the Free Fringe in a venue so far from the main hub that we had to give up flyering. Ever tried to direct market a show called “Someone Will Leave Pregnant and Bleeding” to the muggers, lost drunks and exit audience of the Ladyboys Of Bangkok in the middle of the pitch black Meadows at 11.45 at night? It is a hiding to all manner of unsavoury sexual advances.
Yet with no reviews or PR buzz we managed to fill the last week’s run on mere word-of-mouth from locals and returning customers bringing all their friends. We saved all the bucket money from these surprise successes and decided to funnel it into a hometown gig where we could develop and promote confessional, controversial and unsafe comedians. And when we got back to London, the legendary Intrepid Fox had just moved from its old Soho granite cornerhouse to a hidden black conservatory underneath Centre Point. The upstairs seated 50, and we figured that’d be about the uptake.
We were bang on the money. Well, for the first few years we were. Three or four groups of regulars came every month, ideal headliners like Andrew Lawrence, Cogs [Ian Cognito], Richard Herring and Tom Stade graced the stage. We aggressively repeat-booked popular acts like Nick Helm, David Trent, Henry Ginsberg, Harriet Kemsley and George Ryegold. Every few months a coach group of undergraduate scientists came from Oxford … Things were as rosy as a well-licked clit.
Fast forward to 2013 and Tyson is married, has sired a lovely little chap called Xavi and is enjoying a real life away from the gutters filled with broken glass of the Fox. My full-time job is comedy but now putting comedy into venues like gastropubs, private members clubs and golf club functions suites. He’s settled down, I’m part of the establishment (at a minimum wage if everyone pays their invoices on time kinda level). Even our original doorgirl Natassia has moved on to be one of the founders of the hyper-successful ARG Festival. She outgrew us. We got boring. Only 32 of those 50 original seats in the bar are still intact, but unreplaced. And then there’s the audience …
Do I love the bunch of malcontents and losers who were our repeat custom? No. But I’ll miss them. And walk away with lesson learnt that the sort of fuck-ups who are loyal to a gig like the Puppy for years are not the most investable of customer bases. Our road-tripping students graduated or dropped out, went on with their lives, no longer a cohesive whole with nothing better to do. The metallers found their loyalties tested when the venue moved us to Wednesdays and we were now in direct competition with a long-established metal club night in Camden.
Too many familiar faces turned up unexpectedly with new girlfriends or boyfriends one night. “Great” we thought “one extra sale that night for sure” but also we soon recognised a regular fuck was the lit fuse to that once awkward loner eventually having better things to do on the second Wednesday of the month in the long run. The most fervent attendees were the most financially unstable; moving out of their parents houses, dipping in and out employment to the point where we were sneaking some in at ridiculous discounts or for nothing if they claimed hard times. Three of our most committed groups have become comedians themselves and I’d be an utter dick to charge them to come watch a show when you know they are slogging it out on the London open mic circuit every other night. The regulars disappeared and dwindled – two audience members attended 54 out of 55 shows Thanks Mark Holbrook and Daryl Golden but your efforts were in vain. “Welcome to the loss making enterprise that is the Decapitated Puppy!” became a well-worn introduction to the show. As a demographic, people who like rape jokes and the word cunt are unstable at best.
The random ticket buyers were worse. Some where couples and groups who took no due care to check the theme of the show. Alfie Brown, Helm and Trent have all screamed at a crowd at many an awkward juncture over the years: “It’s a gig called ‘The Decapitated Puppy’ for fuck’s sake, what were you people expecting?” Other times oi-oi lads lads and city boys (same thing, different costumes) expecting Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle slick, arena show nastiness (we’d have loved to have booked ’em but a £150 budget only stretches so far) left annoyed and unrefunded when we counterprogrammed the likes of completely out-there acts such as Tony Bournemouth, vaudeville charmer Ray Presto (RIP) or bleak performance poet Gary From Leeds. We were a truly alternative gig before the likes of Weirdos and Alternative Comedy Memorial Society did it all much better and well marketed.
Perhaps the fact we started to regularly book the like of those three plus Simon Munnery (middle photo), Paul Foot, Tony Law, Ed Aczel and Marcel Lucont exposes how we got bored of our own disturbed brief very quickly. Comedy has changed very rapidly in this half decade. Dream acts like Jim Jefferies, Glenn Wool, Craig Campbell, Louis CK and Anthony Jeselnik only play international concert venues now. The room-above-a-pub gig, where people pay and the profits are split between the names on a weekday, has been replaced by popular free entry shows created from the bottleneck of proper comedy venues not offering new acts open spots which lead to development and progression. The ignored mass of new talent out there have created their own stagetime, undercut the mid-level to guarantee an audience. Pearshaped Comedy (Wednesday nights, Fitzroy Tavern) is all that’s left of the old model. Who’d have thought Pearshaped would become the only night where a newer act might move on from a good five to a paid set? Well done, Pearshaped. Either way, the demand for dark, rude weird comedy is supplied by Ticketmaster and the big agencies. Not ramshackle little, bleeding heart in the wrong place ventures like the Puppy any more. To be honest, I prefer silly and fun acts like Pat Cahill, Dr Brown, Paul F Taylor these days … as does most of the circuit, comedy press and industry. But hey, they all played the Puppy too.
Last night, our last ever night, filled me with pride though. Half full, we had a good show. Nothing slick or professional happened, a punter who asked if we took credit card on the door was laughed at. The audience got on board quick, the acts had fun and Alfie Brown closed with his new preview. Shocking statements were followed charming discourse, political insight became neighbours with confident pussy jokes. He is exactly the type of act the Puppy was set up to give a home to. If you like dark and rude comedy it is currently homeless, but Alfie Brown is the bag lady with a trolley bursting with hope for smart but dirty (let’s not use the word “edgy”) stand-up’s future. If you are reading this thinking “I wish I went to that gig at least once”, we wish you did too, but catch Alfie or any of the names above when they do their next hour at the Soho Theatre and you’ll have yourself a little whisper of the Decapitated Puppy’s bark, and a nibble of its bite.
Bobby Carroll continues to run clubs across London, see www.comedyknights.co.uk