Darrell Martin Celebrates 20 Years of Just The Tonic

Photos: David Baird
Interview: Ali Emm
Wednesday 01 October 2014
reading time: min, words

Just The Tonic founder Darrell Martin can boast giving the city a comedy scene worth shouting about and is due to celebrate twenty years in the comedy club game. But not before he gets back from running 120 shows a day for a whole month at the world’s biggest arts festival...

Just The Tonic has been around for some time – how did it all start?
I came up to Nottingham in the recession of 1991 after graduating from Birmingham University. There wasn’t any comedy going on, so I decided to put on a club myself. I didn’t know what that involved, but I taught in Barcelona for a year and saved the ludicrous sum of £600. I started it with James Baillie, who ran Venus Nightclub, he didn’t have much interest in comedy, but we came up with the name together. Within three weeks we were losing so much money he pulled out. I carried on; I lived in a squat and taught English at Clarendon College to support it.

How did your passion for comedy first develop?
My first memory of really laughing was when I was about five or six and watching something like Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges on telly - I wet myself laughing. I got in to Monty Python, Derek and Clive and Spike Milligan at about twelve or thirteen, and then The Young Ones came along and that was our stuff, our time. When I was at university, Alan Davies had taken over compering from Frank Skinner. He was so good and looked so natural. I thought he just got up there and talked, but I saw him after ticking off a check sheet of the stuff he’d done. It was a real eye opener for me but a massive disappointment that this bloke wasn’t as funny as I’d led myself to believe. So that’s my early memories of it all…

Being disappointed.
Nah, not being disappointed, just learning the trade.

You did stand-up yourself…
I started the club really because I wanted to do stand-up but I didn’t know how. I was terrified because I was in this small town and out promoting, my biggest fear was going on stage, being rubbish and then having to walk around town and people telling me I was rubbish.

How did you get past that?
I did a course down in London two years after I started the club. I was seen by Rich Hall’s manager and she let me drive him around on tour and do five minutes for him. That was my first gig and I was doing big theatres. I did philosophy at university so I’d written this really clever bit monologue that was funny if you were in to philosophy or were a Sunday night crowd in Just The Tonic, but for a Friday or Saturday night drunken crowd it was just rubbish. I went on tour with Johnny Vegas in about 1999 and he said, “Why don’t you just be the person you are who takes the piss out of his mates after your club?” So I did that for a bit, but then I went on tour with Ed Byrne and he said, “What you doing that for? I want the metaphysical stuff!” So I went back to doing that. I still compere and do stand-up sometimes, but I’ve had a rest for a while.


Was it a struggle getting JTT off the ground – you must have had some breaks?
There was a night that Phil Kaye did in 1995. He’d cancelled on me in 1994, in the third week of the club, to film an eclipse in South America for the BBC. I managed to get his personal phone number, so I rang him and said, “Hello, it’s Darrell. You cancelled on me, I’ve been told that if I rang, you’d come and do it.” “Oh yeah, sorry about that. How much were you paying me?” He was originally booked for something like £700, so I went, “Pfft, £300…” It was the first night that probably sold out. I gave him more money than I said I would but he got me out of debt.

Jo Brand was the first celebrity I got - everyone else, you’d know who they are now but at the time they were nobodies. It was my first year at Edinburgh, I was drunk and I saw Jo Brand sitting on the floor. I went up to her and said, “You don’t know me, my name’s Darrell and I run a shitty little club in Nottingham. Do you want to do it?” She went, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” She only charged me £200 and she was massive at the time, it was really good of her. She’s a very generous woman, she didn’t have to. Once you get agents involved you never see that kind of thing. If you can get one little favour it makes the whole thing sustainable.

Do you find that most comedians are pretty decent then?
Most of them are, yeah. They’ll come back and do your club as a favour, it won’t be greedy because without clubs like Just The Tonic they wouldn’t have anywhere to start. So they need to keep that going. It’s becoming harder because agents are putting them in to theatres.

And arenas…
People just go so that they can say that they’ve been. If you’ve not been to a live stand-up gig then you don’t know what you’re missing. All you’re doing is seeing something you’ve seen on television. If you go to one of our gigs, you’ll see someone ten years before they’re at the Arena. There was a time when I paid John Bishop £150 for a Sunday night and within eighteen months he was on at the Arena. It’s that quick.

Do you appreciate the competition?
Not at all. If I said what I thought about them and their actions I would probably be sued.

JTT has moved around quite a bit. Do you miss your old haunts?
I miss The Old Vic. It was very down to earth, it was dirty, everyone was on stools, and it was a Sunday night so you could do what you wanted. I’ve had three attempts at trying to get the lease on that place but they wanted too much money for it. They were really nice at The Approach but when Jongleurs re-opened in town, I had to react and go in to a big weekend club or I’d be swallowed up. I got bullied in to the mainstream. I can’t do the specialist stuff I want to because the crowd’s spread too thin.

You spread your wings to Leicester, but that’s club has now closed down. Are they just not up for a laugh there?
Leicester kind of dies after May, going out-wise, it’s a nightmare. I went in too keen and I should have stood back and done a bit more maths and been more realistic about it. I did some research, I asked the Leicester comedy festival, was there enough people out there. People said it was sustainable, I didn’t do enough scientific market research, but you can never… I had to go with the gut instinct. As a comedy club, it worked. If I was an independent promoter putting on a Friday and Saturday night comedy club, I would have been successful. But I took on a lease and basically had a full-time venue running two nights a week and it was very difficult to establish anything outside of the comedy club. You can’t afford to pay for that kind of thing. I kind of regret doing it because it took up a lot of time and effort, but we had a really critically acclaimed club. It was a brilliant club.

Has that put you off opening another club?
No, if I find the right place, I’ll be there.

You’re a staple at Edinburgh now, how long have you been going up there?
Since about 1995. The first year I was up there, I was just handing out flyers for Sean Lock and teching on his show and another show. And the next year I was handing out flyers for Rich Hall and Jimeoin, teching on their shows too. And then I was taken up as a compere in a show called The Big Value - which I now produce - then I got asked to produce the shows in the venue. The venue owner did a runner about two years after that and the new owners were so incapable of doing anything I said, “I’m not going to show up unless you let me run the venue.” The husband was an alcoholic and his wife was just incompetent, she didn’t even know what the Fringe brochure was. I had also bought all of the equipment off the people that had done a runner before, so they didn’t really have an option.

You’ve got four venues and thirteen performance spaces - that must be one hell of a task to organise…
120 shows a day. It’s mental isn’t it? In the middle of closing down the Leicester club I was booking up the Edinburgh Comedy Festival – it was a stressful period. I had a lot going on.

You should be a lot thinner.

You’re not fat, but you know what I mean!
You’ve got to keep that in.

If you ever sit back and think about it, do you start panicking?
I’m in a moment of panic all the time before it. About four or five years ago when we first took on the caves, a lad called Shaun –he does nights at The Gladstone, and the Lincoln Comedy Festival – and our full-timer Joe were sitting in the office in the caves, the day before it launched, and we were pissing around. I said, “It really does feel like we should be doing something a bit more important than this…” And the next day when we opened the doors it went absolutely mental and we were running around. Brilliant.

Why do you put yourself through it every year?
Originally, because I love stand-up comedy and that I was able to produce shows cheaper than the bigger venues were. Now the fringe has come along and it’s changed a bit but I have a professionally run venue that’s cheap to get in to and it’s a laugh and there’s a big family atmosphere. One of the reasons that I keep getting it bigger is because if you put all your eggs in one basket, if someone takes the basket away, you’re knackered. And, the bigger you are, the better acts you can pull in. If I look back at the last ten years, I can see all these shows that I’ve taken up to Edinburgh, allowed them to do it cheaply and get themselves a name and established, and the big venues just come along and nick ‘em. I want to bring people through from the beginning and stay with me until they’re in a 500 seater venue. I still want to maintain that we’re a lot more easy going on the acts and the tickets and things like that. We don’t set ticket prices, we don’t rip people off. The other ones do, it’s a big cash cow for a lot of people.

Do you get to see any comedy while you’re there?
Every year I think, “Right, this is the year that I’m going to go see loads of stuff.” And every year I don’t. If I were to see every show in our venues, it would take me twelve days.

Are you getting harder to impress?
It might have worked the other way. I used to judge it by how much I laughed, but that has led to a few mistakes. Now I can watch someone and even if people aren’t laughing, I can see why they’re funny and just because the people in that room don’t laugh, doesn’t mean it’s not funny, it just means that this audience doesn’t get it. I don’t sit there and laugh out loud as much as I used to, because I know I’ll sit there and kind of go, “Oh, alright, I can kind of see what he did there… he could have topped it with that…”

Are you a proper bellower then when you do laugh?
I do laugh loudly but I’ve got a friend Taz who used to DJ for us and he was brilliant because he had this really distinctive laugh. He was confident enough to laugh when no one else in the room was, and they’re the best people to have because for most people, if they’re laughing on their own they’ll quickly quieten down and it takes a room a while to warm up. But if there’s one person laughing it helps everyone else relax and laugh as well.

Have you ever had anyone completely die on their arse on stage?
One bank holiday weekend gig, one of the acts cancelled and all I could get was a bloke who I’d seen in London. He was awful but he was the only person I could get. He came on and people started shouting and heckling. I went round asking them to stop but they said, “Yeah, but he’s shit!” “Yeah, fair enough.” So I just stood back and watched the room go absolutely mental. The guy just carried on regardless, he was so used to that abuse. His set came to an end and I just hid out of the way, and when I came out there were a few regulars left and everyone was laughing their heads off. I apologised, but they said, “Nah, best night in ages.” They hadn’t had anyone so bad before, the whole room was unified in hatred for the bloke, they loved it.

Anything else you’d like to say to the readers of LeftLion?
Get on a train to Edinburgh - it is amazing. It’s like no other festival, it’s a whole city and every bar that has a back room or a cupboard is a performance space. There’s about 3,000 shows a day, it’s bewildering. There’s loads of free shows and it is the biggest arts festival in the world and there isn’t any reason to have not gone to it because it lasts for three and a half weeks. Apart from that, go to Just The Tonic - Nottingham’s own comedy club, not an imposter from Birmingham.

Just The Tonic might be taking over Edinburgh Festival, but business at home continues with their regular Saturday shows at The Forum throughout August.
The Just The Tonic Twentieth Birthday Bash with Johnny Vegas, Paul Foot and more, Royal Centre, Saturday 4 October, 7.30pm, £15/£17.

Just The Tonic website

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