Lorne Jackson talks to a comedian and promoter with a serious message for ‘fly-by-night’ funnymen.
A couple of days after interviewing Phil McCullough in a Birmingham pub, he’s on the phone to me.
“I’ve been thinking about those things I told you,” he says. “I’m not going to come off sounding like some sort of asshole, am I?”
I can almost feel him squirming down the line.
“Not at all,” I say, confidently. Though when I get off the phone I glance over my notes, just to make sure.
Phil the a-hole? Not really. Though I do have quotes from Phil the fireball, Phil the fury.
McCullough is a stand-up comedian, who tells it like it is – on stage and off. A large part of his time is spent dragging his funnybones round Brum, making a name for himself in a tough market.
But he’s more than just a performer. Phil’s also one of the top comedy promoters in the region. Want to make a name for yourself on planet chortle? Then Phil’s your fellow. Though perhaps it wouldn’t be such a good idea to impress your CV on him at this very moment. New talent niggles him, these days.
McCullough claims the scene is being destroyed by fly-by-night funny men. He’s so enraged with the attitude of certain performers that he recently used the internet to name and shame one comedian who let him down badly.
Phil ranted on the West Midlands Comedy Forum website: “There is nothing more annoying than when, as a promoter, you are pestered by acts for months on end. Then, when you give the act a spot, he cites ‘family problems’ on the night of the show, and doesn’t turn up.
“Whatever reason he may give – ‘My car broke down’; ‘I forgot I was booked’; ‘I have another gig’ – this does not help the promoter, who has spent time, money and effort into putting on a night.”
In the same diatribe, Phil published a text message he received from one particular act who failed to turn up for a gig at a local Birmingham pub.
The message read: “Phil, I ain’t gonna lie. I got to the place, have seen the people that are there, and don’t fancy standing there with my fairy jokes and then getting stabbed.
“I don’t care if you think I’m chicken****. At least I’m not telling you I twisted my ankle or some b******s. Sorry it’s leaving it so late but if you have eyes and ears, you know my dog and pony show isn’t gonna fly there at all.”
Phil, from Kings Heath, entered the industry two-and-a-half years ago, and stands by his warrior words on the web. He believes all stand-ups – including those starting out – should have a professional work ethic.
“Those fly-by-nights really get to me,” says the 32-year-old, shaking his head. “I’m always willing to give somebody a chance, or even a second chance.
“If somebody really has a good excuse, then, of course, I’m okay with that. But the excuses are just getting limper and limper. Then I got that message, and that sent me over the edge. I got the text from the guy just eight minutes before he was meant to go on. I couldn’t stop thinking about it all night. Then I just opened my laptop and let rip.
“There was nothing new in what I said. People on the circuit talk about it all the time. But nobody had written it on a public forum before.”
The glory, guffaws and gruesome gags of the comedy circuit are under increased scrutiny at present, thanks to new reality TV programme, Show Me The Funny.
An X Factor for comedy wannabes, it proves that making people laugh isn’t such a laugh. Phil knows this better than most.
When he isn’t promoting other acts, he’s a keen gigger on the giggle circuit. And he admits he’s had a few rough moments on stage, especially in the early days.
“The worst thing that can happen is when nobody laughs,” he says. “And that has happened to every comedian at some time or another, including me.
“I remember once saying, ‘Thanks for not laughing,’ to the audience. But when I came off, someone backstage said, ‘It’s not their fault they’re not laughing, is it?’ I had to agree. Now I just throw all my best jokes in, and try to get them rolling in the aisles.”
What made him decide to become a stand-up in the first place?
“You know how it is,” he says. “Like everyone else who gets into the game, I was always having a laugh and a joke with friends. What changed things for me was watching some terrible comedian on TV. At that point I thought, ‘If this bloke can get gigs on the box, anyone can do it.’
“Then my missus got tired of me dragging her from gig to gig, all the time, saying: ‘I want to do comedy, I want to do comedy.’ To shut me up, she paid for a comedy workshop in London.
“Now she’s very supportive of the whole comedy obsession. She doesn’t complain. Much.”
Like many stand-ups on the circuit, Phil can’t yet make a living from humorous observations. That’s why he also has a money gig, selling fish. Though the comedy dream continues.
What makes him continue pushing onwards in such a difficult arena?
Phil flashes a rueful grin, along with half a shrug. “Essentially I have to keep going, because people know I do it, now. If I stop, they’ll think I’m a failure. So I’m trapped in comedy – I have no choice!”
* Phil McCullough is performing at the Lamp Tavern in Dudley on August 11.