Jonny Collins on the struggles and successes of launching a safe space comedy show in 2019

Tell us about you/your act.

My act is a shouty mess of genderqueer social politics with occasional bursts of absurdism. I talk about dicks a lot too.

How did you get into comedy?

I’d always been interested in sitcoms and sketch based comedy. My early stand-up gigs I was mainly using as a way to (unsuccessfully) promote my YouTube channel of short films and sketches.

My first interest in performing live comedy occurred in my early teens when I discovered the big acts of the time, like Lee Evans, Jack Dee, Eddie Izzard. Channel 4 used to broadcast stand-up specials every Thursday evening, I never missed one. Many of the acts who sparked my interest in comedy aren’t people I’d cite as influences now, but my exposure to them made me aware of stand-up as an art form.

I didn’t do my first gig until I was 16. Some of my mates were doing comedy performances and took me to an open mic night. I wasn’t planning on performing, but I had been working on stuff for about a year. I’d already started doing that annoying thing comedians do where they engineer conversations in directions where we can drop new lines to test the waters. I knew that my jokes were at least slightly funny in a social context. My mates convinced me to put my name down and the reception was really positive.

In hindsight the set wasn’t good. There’s nothing from my early sets I still use. I didn’t know what I was doing. There were a few one liners, mostly revolving around the fact that I was a socially awkward virgin (original), and a few anecdotes from school that wouldn’t have resonated with anyone over 18. But everyone was nice and seemed to enjoy it for what it was, a teenager trying stand-up for the first time.

It’s worth noting that for the first two years of my stand-up career I was underage. Only one venue took the time to ID me and refused to let me in. I wasn’t buying booze, but none of them noticed or cared that the comedy clubs were sneaking in a teenager. I am very grateful for that. My first years of stand-up were objectively bad, but it gave me a headstart by the time I actually started finding my voice and honing my act.

What’s the best gig you’ve ever had?

I can actually answer this as I keep record of every gig I do and work out percentages of jokes that landed vs those that didn’t! It’s not a fool-proof method. I’ve noticed the longer I’ve been doing stand-up the higher my standards for what constitutes “landing” are. In the early days, the average percentages are a lot higher, purely because I considered any amount of audience reaction a win.

The best gig I’ve done recently is definitely the Blizzard Comedy opening night – both on a personal level and on a gig level.

The night itself was wonderful with a great line-up, and me as a compère of this new safe space night went really well. I had some new stuff which killed and is now a staple of my set. Very rarely does a new bit work so well first time. It’s polished more now, but it was in a good state of finished at Blizzard. It was such a fun night, and I think that is in part due to how aggressively we marketed it as a safe space, queer friendly, alternative gig. I got the exact audience I wanted to perform to, and they all got the exact comedians they wanted.

Other gigs that have successfully done that are Quantum Leopard, XS Malarkey and Trapdoor Comedy. And I’m so happy that on our first attempt, I managed to run a gig that I felt was on par with these absolute veterans.

What’s your favourite thing about working in comedy?

I guess my favourite thing is the great people I get to perform with and meet and the new comedians I get to discover! If I wasn’t performing, I’d still spend most of my time at comedy clubs. I love the atmosphere. I love seeing all this superb talent you wouldn’t get on TV.

What challenges have you faced working in comedy?

I’ve been lucky. I haven’t struggled much. I like doing alternative clubs because they’re my kind of audiences, but also there’s something intensely satisfying about winning over a mainstream audience who was apprehensive when they first saw you.

Since I’ve become more politically aware and outspoken, I am far more picky with gigs. Partly because I don’t think they’d like me, but mostly because I don’t want to. I could tone down my act or adjust it to suit different audiences. Many comedians like me do. I don’t want to.

I make a point of keeping my set adjustments to a minimum regardless. The only real changes are certain language I use when talking to largely queer audiences and those who are less knowledgeable on terms and context. I don’t change points I make or soften the political bits, just alter the language so everyone can follow. That doesn’t always work, and there are plenty of high-paying gigs I know I’ll never break into without compromise, which I’m not willing to do.

It’s entirely on me, but I’m okay with that. I have no issue with acts like me who do play to those gigs. It’s an incredibly difficult skill, and max respect to acts who can kill at both mainstream clubs and alternative nights. But it’s not a thing I can do or really want to. It’s not ideal from a career perspective, but for my own personal satisfaction it’s doing me a lot of good.

How do you think that comedy as an industry can better address these issues?

This is all on me. There are plenty of issues the industry needs to work on, but my personal challenges are almost entirely self-made.

The industry needs to work on how whitewashed it is, outside of London, at any rate. Gender balance is improving but still needs a lot of work. Gay male representation is pretty high, although the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community is vastly under-represented. It’s all well and good nights going “Oh I book funny people, regardless of gender/sexuality/race”. Fine, but all of the big comedy clubs are incredibly white and cismale. Just because one of them likes bumming, or you booked a woman of colour six months ago, doesn’t mean you’re helping the problem of under-platforming and -representation.

Also, while not specifically the comedy industry’s problem, the Manchester circuit needs to work on venue accessibility. Purpose-built clubs aside, there are almost no venues in Manchester with decent access for wheelchair or walking aid users. Most venues are either up or downstairs, with no alternative access. This is an issue of the service industry rather than comedy, although disabled comedians are another group who are under-represented and often don’t have their access needs met.

I’m attempting to rectify this with Blizzard, but the most accessible venue we found still isn’t great. There is a ramp, but it’s steep and not sturdy, and the corridors aren’t wide enough for most power/wheelchairs. They try harder than most affordable venues, but the building is not accessible to a large percentage of disabled people, both acts and audience.

Apart from maybe in London, comedy clubs in the UK are more often than not inaccessible. Promoters can only work with the buildings available, but people are not being nearly vocal enough about this issue.

The least we can do is draw attention to this. It doesn’t help that the government doesn’t give two shits about disabled people living, let alone going out and enjoy life.

This is an issue bigger than comedy, but we can play our part.

What made you want to launch Blizzard?

Basically – to help diversify line-ups, give platforms to acts that struggle in comedy, and to provide a more anxiety-friendly space for audiences and acts alike.

One of my favourite comedy clubs in the country is Quantum Leopard. It inspired many aspects of Blizzard, including the content ethos and audience interaction consent policy.

I’m trialling a content warning system where potential triggers in the show are declared beforehand. So far I don’t think anyone has made use of it, but I’d rather have it and not use it than need it and not have it. It’s in the early stages, so I’m sure it’ll evolve and hopefully work better in future, but as far as I know no other clubs have implemented this. I’d love to get it working and become more of a standard, at least for safe space clubs, if not the wider circuit.

My long term goals are to improve accessibility, and disabled representation – which will unfortunately require a new venue. The management and staff at Gullivers are ace, but the building is too limited accessibility-wise. I’d love to get BSL interpreters for every show once we can afford it too, but these things require a lot of money, so aren’t feasible yet.

Take us through the key values at the core of the show?

I want audiences to feel safe at our gigs, whether that’s by having a strict content ban on material that victimises marginalized groups, having a consent system for direct audience participation, or by having content warnings so that anyone who has a trigger can prepare themselves or leave the room if need be. These aren’t unique policies – most clubs don’t tolerate explicit bigotry – however they will have a differently defined line than we do.

The last thing I want to create is just another comedy club for the same audiences as every other club. From a purely business point of view it makes sense to appeal to people who like comedy but don’t feel safe in comedy clubs, rather than competing with other clubs. Although I don’t want to sound like a capitalist, so that’s where the next value comes in:

Pay What You Want/Crowdfunding: Part of having an accessible comedy night is having an affordable one. Poverty is rife, with most people on full-time, minimum wage jobs being significantly below the poverty line. There’s a culture of people slightly over the poverty line being really shitty about people on the other side when they spend money on something that isn’t essential, like a game or a phone, or even just going out. I call bullshit – there’s more to living than surviving. As someone below the poverty line technically myself, I know how important it is to be able to go out. Putting a price tag on that wouldn’t be fair.

There are plenty of cheap comedy nights out there. But a lot of free ones don’t vet their acts whatsoever, which would absolutely not be conducive to the safe space I’m trying to create. I needed to make Blizzard free. Obviously we still need to fund it, and people donate what they can. We even have a few Patrons who pledge between $5-20 a month, for access to exclusive merch and video content, but mostly because they like what we do and want it to carry on.

We also think it’s important that all our acts get paid. Particularly in the case of middle spots which are often unpaid. It’s easy to get stuck doing those spots without much hope of progression. We’re all doing our best to survive, and I don’t want to pay our artists in “exposure” or “opportunity”.

We make a point to platform under-represented acts. We do not need another comedy club with four interchangeable middle-aged white dudes on the poster. It’s better for everyone if there’s a variety of acts from different cultures, backgrounds, etc. Sometimes we struggle with this one, but we always do our best to have a mixed line-up.

Our ultimate goal is to provide an accessible night. Upsettingly Manchester does not have many accessible venues outside of big theatres and large music venues. But we are constantly looking for ways to make our shows more accessible to everyone – new venues, facilities and clear accessibility details. At the very least we’re providing accurate information about accessibility to those who need it.

Gullivers are excellent for making everyone aware of their accessibility. It’s not 100% accessible, but they try harder than most. It’s sad that that’s something that needs to be said, but it is unfortunately a rare gem.

How do you feel about the show now that you’ve done the first handful of shows?

Feedback from audience and acts has been overwhelmingly positive. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about it from a financial perspective. But all the responses I’ve got from audiences (including a handful of dedicated regulars!) and all the acts who’ve expressed support for the concept, and their desire to get involved is better than I could’ve ever hoped! It seems to me like this is something the circuit had been wanting for a while, and as long as people want nights like this, I’m going to keep providing them.

What are your hopes for Blizzard in the future?

Improved accessibility. That’s the big one, reliable wheelchair access, BSL interpreters, etc. These might be long term goals, but they’re the most important ones.

In the short term I want more people to hear about us and for people to continue enjoying us. I’d like to create a community hub of acts and fans to share similar things and to help our favourite acts film their full shows to release.

I want people to keep making use of what we do and enjoying it.

You can follow Jonny’s work by checking out their Facebook and Twitter.

You can help to support Blizzard by coming to a show or inviting your friends. We also accept donations via PayPal and anyone who wants to offer ongoing support can visit our Patreon page.

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