Tomorrow night is there is a very exciting event happening in Leamington Spa – a brand new Just The Tonic is opening! Join the club for it’s grand opening with a fantastic line up including Andrew O’Neill, Guz Khan, Matt Richardson and Reginald D Hunter. I caught up with the Just The Tonic founder, Darrell Martin to find out all about it as well as what is like to own some of the biggest comedy venues in the country…
Just The Tonic Launch Night Special
Date: Saturday 8th February
Location: Just The Tonic, Leamington Spa
Box Office: 020 3740 3700
Hello Darrell, tell us all about who you are and three unknown facts about yourself
You have asked me to tell you all about myself. That is quite a big ask and probably more than you’d want to print… and that people would want to read. Here’s some bullet points:
50 years old
Grew up in Basingstoke
University of Birmingham
Lived in Nottingham for years
1 wife, 2 sons and 2 daughters
Love peanut butter but have been denied it for years due to daughter’s peanut allergy
Wish I could dance, sing, play music or actually do something
Very good at mocking people for things
3 little known facts
At 10 years old I was joint winner of The Sprint Print Sprint Cup in the Pantomime Horse of the Year Competition (I was the head and front legs). Something of which I am very proud and got me to go on Blue Peter!
The most disappointing thing in life was when the blue ship rubbed off the Blue Peter badge gained in the first point (this is for older readers)
I won a race-tuned, custom Lambretta in a raffle on a scooter rally on the Isle of Wight in 1986 and sold it to a skinhead from Bristol
Firstly, how did you get into running comedy clubs?
I loved comedy from a young age. At 18 I organised a coach load of people to see Ben Elton at the Hammersmith Apollo; at University I started going to comedy clubs; and in Nottingham I worked in a very amazing nightclub called Venus and saw how people put events on. I decided to put on a comedy club as there weren’t any in Nottingham then. I worked and worked at it, whilst living in a squat, using my money from teaching part-time to fund this ridiculous business idea.
So, a brand-new comedy night at Just the Tonic in Leamington Spa! This is very exciting, how did it come about?
Andy, who has reopened The Assembly, had known about Just the Tonic from Nottingham. He gave me a call, we discussed it. I realised it was a large room, so I would have to put on extraordinary line-ups to get the place full. This gave us an opportunity to put on some really big line ups. It is indeed very exciting, and Leamington Spa is in for real treats.
What do you have planned for the launch show?
We don’t have anything ’special’ planned for the launch show, except an unusually great line-up. But, once I started booking the rest of the gigs up until the summer, I realised that they were all pretty impressive, even if I say so myself. But, to be honest, to get Reginald D Hunter and the amazing Gus Khan on the same bill, nowadays, is pretty special.
You also run 7 Just The Tonic clubs around the UK – tell us a few things about them?
Nottingham was the first, it has moved location a few times, but is now settled in possibly the most over tech speed small venue ever. It is special to me. Leicester is the remains of an attempt to take on a full-time venue in the city. We had a lease on a place, and it was amazing, but the slow summers for comedy and lack of people going out midweek killed it.
We now rent a space fortnightly. More great shows. They are all great clubs, I won’t go on… because it would be just a bit boring… but they are in Watford, Reading, Birmingham and Camden. These 4 were the last flickers of hope from the Jongleurs brand. The venue owners fell out with Jongleurs and asked me to put Just the Tonic on. Our shows are very different how Jongleurs were by the end. So we have spent about 3 years ‘cleaning up’ the nights. That means improving the line-ups, marketing in a way to attract real comedy audiences, and moving away from the horrible attempts at getting stag and hens, large groups etc. All our clubs are a nice night out and all the line ups are ones that I’d be happy to attend myself.
Is it true that Ricky Gervais did his first ever stand up show at one of your venues? Tell us all about it!
It is indeed and thanks for giving me the opportunity to go on about it again. I was compering a little gig in London and at the back of the room was a comedian called Dorian Crook and the slightly known bloke from 11 0’Clock Show, Ricky Gervais. I had booked Dorian for my Nottingham club before, so we chatted a bit and we all went out for a drink.
Ricky told me that a lot of people thought he was a stand up, but that he wasn’t and that he felt he’d liked to try it. Words to that effect. So, I said ‘come and do a spot at my club in Nottingham, no one will know, just give it a go’. So, sometime later he turned up and did 10 minutes. At the time you don’t think to yourself ‘I am watching the first stand up gig of the future biggest comedian in the world and the presenter of 5 Golden Globes Awards and writer of some of our biggest sitcoms’. So rather than record it to mark the event etc., – which would have been the professional thing to do! – what I did was to get drunk and laugh.
I remember hardly anything, as do the people that were in the audience that night. But he was very good for a first timer. He had that confidence.
Did you know back then that he would go on to be one of the world’s King of comedy?
No, not at all.
It must be an interesting job running comedy clubs – do you always have an inkling as to which acts are going to make the big time?
You do have an inkling. There are people that sometimes really just stand out. But there are also ones that sneak through and take you by surprise. Also, the speed of success can sometimes be phenomenal. John Bishop was in the circuit for years and then, suddenly, he went from getting a normal headline gig for us to filling arenas in 2 years. It is strange.
What is the best thing about running comedy clubs?
Work doesn’t feel like work. It is a joy. Also, when people you like find success. It is always good to see people do well.
What is the most challenging?
Getting the people mentioned above to come back and play the clubs. Not really… I think it is constantly having to get people to come to the gigs. It is very easy when you put someone famous on, but it is getting people to trust your taste and to keep coming back without the big names. I am often amazed that people do not realise that the Michael McIntyres or the Sarah Millicans etc., all played in the small local clubs. And, often they were better when they were in them. Because you are up-close and they are new and hungry for it.
You must have some show highlights from over the years? What have been some of your favourites?
There are loads and often they need a night sitting round with people to ring the bell.
But I would say being tour support / tour manager / driver for Johnny Vegas in 1998 or 1999 was the most hilarious, surreal and fun-packed month or so of my life. And I have had a lot of fun packed times!
Being on stage with Ross Noble at the Nottingham club and having a hair cutting competition where Ross and I cut a couple of members of the audience’s hair. It was hilarious – and probably wrong!
Helping Wil Hodgson winning Best Newcomer at The Ed Fringe years ago. I helped this young comedian who I barely knew getting people in to watch his show. He went from being in tears that no one was coming, to us filling the rooms up (I literally dragged people in) to getting judges coming in over and over, to getting nominated and then winning. It was a real underdog tale and a fantastic whirlwind.
It is the month of February! What are three things you love about performing comedy?
When I compere, I don’t really have any material to fall back on, I just rip with the crowd. So, I think I enjoy the fact that my brain must get back up to racing speed… so there’s that… actually living on your wits. I enjoy a room full of people laughing and the fact that this is how I earn a living. Unbelievable really for the lad that grew up on a council estate in the 80s.
It is also a new decade – what would you like to see happen to comedy in the next 10 years?
That is tricky, because the best comics could really be prescribed. So I would like there to be lots of new surprises in terms of raw talent. I would like audiences to realise that large theatres and especially arenas are not the best places to see comedians and for them to come to try out the smaller clubs more. It would be nice if I achieved enough success that people would just come to see me compering at the clubs. But, I would not like much level of fame. Because it becomes restrictive and intrusive.
If people want to find out more about you where can they follow you on social media?inter
They can try and find me on Twitter (might have posted something 3 years ago), I have a Facebook page, and I think I have Instagram. I tend to have little binges on social media, but after a while I realise that I am wasting too much time and delete them from my phone. Once I got into a drunken row with a comedian and it was only because I fell asleep on a train that it did not get too personal. I deleted Facebook because I found myself on Christmas Day sitting on the toilet reading Facebook whilst my family were being festive. DELETE Facebook.
comedAnd finally, in three words: Why should people come and see the launch this Saturday?
1) Because it is an exceptional line up
2) because we always keep the ticket prices reasonable and
3) because I have 4 children to feed!