Monkey Barrel Comedy: ‘a comedian’s comedians club’

With established names and experimental acts, plus plenty of atmosphere and a dash of anarchy, Jay Richardson explains why he’ll be spending much of his Fringe with the upstart primate

Notwithstanding those “who need to play massive rooms”, comedian Liam Withnail maintains that Monkey Barrel is “the club every comedian wants to do at the festival”. Opened in 2017, the year-round venue is “where the cool comedians are and where the interesting stuff’s happening. Just look at their Fringe bookings – it’s a comedian’s comedians club.”

Withnail has been involved since Monkey Barrel was just a series of nights above the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket, and usually hosts four shows a week. “There’s a number of acts at the Big Four venues [the Pleasance, Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly] who definitely had eyes on performing there,” he says. “I’m confident some TV names couldn’t quite get in the door.”

With 70-plus acts across eight rooms at this year’s festival, Monkey Barrel seems on a roll. Embracing streaming in lockdown, it increased its number of shows a night, initially to accommodate social distancing but sustained with demand, adding The Hive nightclub and two rooms in the nearby Carnivore restaurant to its festival base either side of Blair Street. “Most are literally underground and so feel figuratively underground, and the staff have a more hipster vibe,” Pierre Novellie observes. Fellow comic Alex Kealy praises Monkey Barrel’s combination of “the efficiency and infrastructure of traditional paid venues with some of the atmosphere and anarchy of the Free Fringe”.

Attracting festival stalwarts Mark Watson, Josie Long, Kiri Pritchard-McLean and Tony Law, not to mention reigning Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Jordan Brookes and former winner John Kearns, Monkey Barrel also boasts in-demand touring acts such as Catherine Bohart, Lou Sanders, Larry Dean and Alfie Brown, plus international performers including Ismo Leikola (Finland), Ari Eldjárn (Iceland) and Sam Campbell (Australia).

Crucially too, it has “more locals, more Scottish-based acts than any other building,” emphasises Withnail. Unlike many venues “where you never meet your booker, they have a line of communication with comics. It’s something when a club sees you as part of their vision for the future, when they really back you.” With himself and Mark Nelson as two of its more conventional stand-ups, leftfield acts like Campbell, Luke Rollason, Mark Silcox, Rosco McClelland and Zach Zucker offer experimental, stylistic variety.

Another “local” is Amy Matthews. “I couldn’t imagine doing my debut hour anywhere else,” she says. “Much as Monkey Barrel’s grown into this big player during August, it’s been a huge part of making such a healthy Scottish scene.” Line-ups are “curated”, she points out, citing her 2019, 30-minute work-in-progress show commencing 15 minutes after established acts Sanders and Jen Brister. “Their audience overspill was a demographic that worked for me,” she recalls, saying Monkey Barrel are “thoughtful about comedians”.

With tickets capped at £10, acts get 80% of sales and bucket donations. It’s “an artist-skewed set-up”, she enthuses. “It shouldn’t be revolutionary to make money during the Fringe.” Kealy estimates his £6-£9 price would be £11-£13 in a Big Four venue. “As a social democrat melt, it feels good to be part of somewhere with a fairer deal for artists that largely gets passed on to punters.”

Kiri Pritchard-McLean's Home Truths is at Monkey Barrel Comedy until 28 Aug PIC: Drew Forsyth

Once marketed with free bananas for students, “when terrible weather meant stale banana stench in the office”, the upstart primate has evolved rapidly, prospering in the Fringe ecosystem. Sitting in a bar he designed, director David Bleese is ambitious. His annual “icing on the cake”, the festival’s long shadow is his principal challenge too, rather than the Big Four or Edinburgh’s other established club, The Stand, as he seeks untapped audiences to “pioneer a year-round, live comedy city”.

A podcast recording studio is imminent, and cameras are fitted in Monkey Barrel’s main room, live-streaming Fringe shows to remote audiences for the first time. When the pandemic hit, the club released shows by Eldjárn, Kearns, Olga Koch and John-Luke Roberts as vinyl records. More are planned.

“I thought it was the coolest project in the world and still do,” Koch explains. “The venue’s endorsement helps its very savvy audience take a punt on me.”

Eldjárn has a Netflix special but was “more than happy to pitch in to try and keep the Monkey Barrel alive. It is the Fringe to me… I tend to stick with the same people once I’ve found good collaborators.”

Within comedy, Monkey Barrel’s stock is high. Early sales are up on 2019’s Fringe takings. Outwith the festival, the club is attracting “much more” walk-up trade, suggesting audiences remain cautious in a cost of living crisis but value flexibility and spontaneous options. So it’s promoting more smaller, shorter shows.

“Something we’ve noticed from tours we’ve put on is that people aren’t paying to see live comedy. They’re paying to see specific acts, and it’s often their first experience of live comedy,” Bleese concludes. “But we don’t need to be the reason they’re coming into the city. They can fit us around a meal or getting a train back to Glasgow.”

Monkey Barrel’s Fringe programme can be found at www.monkeybarrelcomedy.com/fringe