Scots sketch comedy: Something completely different

As the Glasgow Comedy Festival approaches, Jay Richardson discovers that a new generation of Scottish sketch acts is more cabaret rap than Cambridge Footlights

‘USUALLY, the first thing someone says afterwards is, ‘When I heard there was a sketch group on I thought this’ll be terrible,’ ” Chris Forbes reflects. “It’s a surprise for them. They don’t even know they like sketch.”

With How Do I Get Up There?, Forbes, James Kirk and Kevin Mains are that rare thing, a sketch group with the ability to cut it in a comedy club, performing on stand-up bills and hosting a monthly variety night at The Stand in Glasgow. They recently signed a development deal with The Comedy Unit, who previously made Limmy’s Show and Burnistoun.

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“For ages, it felt like we were the only sketch group in Scotland,” Forbes recalls. “Which was good and bad because there was little competition but very few ­places for us to play. In Glasgow now though, there’s the likes of Stockholm Syndrome and ­Endemic coming through. It’ll be great if it lasts.”

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Currently shooting a BBC Three sitcom, Secret Dude Society, in BBC Scotland’s Pacific Quay studios, London trio Pappys provide the template for any aspiring sketch group. Establishing their name at successive Edinburgh Fringes, and winning a Comedy Award nomination last year, Matthew Crosby, Tom Parry and Ben Clark have nurtured their fanbase with regular podcasts and constant gigging in London, developing a gag-laden, ­energetic style that works for both stand-up and sketch-only nights.

“We quickly realised we couldn’t write sketches where we spent lots of time setting up situations for the big punchline,” explains Parry. “People won’t listen that long.”

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“But there are no hard and fast rules with sketch,” explains Crosby. “On a stand-up night, you’re often dealing with an atmosphere created by the person on before, a strange challenge if they’ve done objectionable material. If you’re running your own night, it allows you the freedom to be creative, to set the tone yourself.”

These are invariably the parameters of the Fringe and London’s ­vibrant sketch scene. Gus Beattie, producer of Radio 4’s Sketchorama, which has featured Pappys and How Do I Get Up There?, calls the metropolis “an embarrassment of ­riches” for scouting new talent.

“They’re moving further away from stand-up bills, which can sometimes be a loud, leery crowd,” he says. “They’re organising their own nights and getting a different, sketch-friendly audience.” He wonders if a small but similarly co-operative process might flourish in Glasgow, a city which, after all, produced Scotland’s most popular comedy of recent times, the sketch show Chewin’ The Fat. “I definitely think there’s a market for something like that, a little bit different.”

Striving to make it happen is Gerry McLaughlin, who’s launched the Mouth Comfort Sketch Social nights at the Universal. A showcase for Mouth Comfort, the Burnistoun actor also invites other sketch outfits, while attracting actors who are shooting in the city plus students from the nearby Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Prior to this, it seems a shame that The Ginge, The Geordie and The Geek, who studied at the academy and recently recorded their BBC Two sketch show at Pacific Quay, were never a regular live fixture in Glasgow.

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Recently arrived from Manchester, McLaughlin reckons that sketch in Glasgow has been uncoordinated and “too random”. Stockholm Syndrome, Endemic, How Do I Get Up There?, Improv Dogs… “they all know each other but they’ve not touched palms, it feels like medieval villages to me.”

He envisages a scene distinct from the Scottish stand-up circuit and from London too, “which reflects the Fringe I think”, suggesting instead a system of “cooperation through conflict”. He likens sketch groups to bands with a committed fanbase, assembling at irregular intervals for the cabaret equivalent of a dance-off or rap battle. As with New York, Glasgow is an easily traversed, grid layout and subway city. Mouth Comfort’s Comedy Festival show takes the form of a tongue-in-cheek turf war with ­rival groups, inspired by the cult US gang movie The Warriors.

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“I love the idea that part of the city could be Endemic territory for example, it’s stealth marketing,” he laughs. Stand-ups certainly derive plenty of mileage from Glasgow’s violent reputation and tribalism. But a “scrappy” injection of raw, punkish flexibility might sustain sketch too. And the band devotion analogy needn’t end there. Mouth Comfort deliver occasional “covers” of classic sketches, like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, while Sketchorama is reuniting the legendary Absolutely for their 20th anniversary in Glasgow next month.

“I don’t think we’re going to attract passing trade at the moment,” McLaughlin admits. “So it’s all about building loyalty and word-of-mouth, which is easier if you’re inviting your audience to put themselves forward.”

Previewing Pappys’ last show, Parry recalls “seeing Sheeps for the first time and thinking ‘f***ing hell, they’re brilliant’. I didn’t want to go on stage after them. I was flustered for the whole 15 minutes. But that’s great because it inspires you to keep going, it’s really important 
to stay in touch with other ­performers.”

With more people involved and fewer stage opportunities than stand-up, “sketch is really hard to make ­financially viable” admits Clark. “It’s not a young person’s game especially, but young people are more likely to do it when they come out of university.”

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Undoubtedly, ever since Python, Beyond The Fringe and The Cambridge Footlights, sketch has tended to be associated with a studenty elite. Forbes remembers feeling “on the outside of other groups that were overly arty or actory, doing their ­classically trained warming-up backstage while we were milling about or having a pint”.

However, the arrival of YouTube and social networking has democratised the genre. Neil Bratchpiece – better known as stand-up character The Wee Man through his online videos – joined Endemic’s loose collective after discovering their shorts. Like the very visual How Do I Get Up There?, which Forbes maintains ­underwent a steep learning curve for radio, the three-minute online format encourages “snappy, fast-paced, attention-grabbing” comedy, a style that feeds back into Endemic’s live performances.

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Bratchpiece declares himself “really, really impressed by the high quality of everyone” at The Mouth Comfort Socials, admitting it was “interesting to measure yourself against them and see that foundation of a work-in-progress environment.

“I really hope it doesn’t get genuinely cutthroat though, there’s enough of that between stand-ups.”

Ultimately, McLaughlin wants to host groups from Edinburgh, Manchester and further afield, appreciating that Glasgow is conveniently placed for Fringe preview season. And he has an eye on attracting broadcast interest. “I would love it if production companies were saying, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a really good sketch scene in Glasgow isn’t there?’ It just needs us to believe it, that wee bit of word, and then it’s true.” «

• Mouth Comfort play Vespbar, Glasgow, 21 March; Endemic appear at the Art School Union, Glasgow, 24 March; How Do I Get Up There? are at The Tron, Glasgow, 29 March. All shows are part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival.

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Twitter: @jayirichardson

Five festival highlights by Andrew Eaton-Lewis

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Josie Long

Another outing for last year’s enjoyable Fringe show, in which Long, above, ruminates on turning 30 and getting political. Stand Comedy Club, 31 March

Fred MacAulay

The genial comic celebrates 25 years in the biz with a greatest hits set, including, we’re promised, early material about how he might be losing his hair. Citizens’ Theatre, 30 March

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Mark Thomas

Thomas brings Bravo Figaro, last year’s tremendous, Fringe First winning show about his opera-loving father, to Glasgow. He’ll be testing out new policy ideas too. Oran Mor, 19 March

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Chris Addison

The Thick Of It star performs his The Time Is Now show. Citizens Theatre, 27 March

Harry Hill

In which Hill sets out to prove God exists with help from a giant sausage. King’s Theatre, 22-23 March