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Interview: comedian Dave Johns

AMONG the gales of laughter he hopes to generate at Live Theatre this week, a few ripples of nostalgia might be discernible.

Dave Johns

AMONG the gales of laughter he hopes to generate at Live Theatre this week, a few ripples of nostalgia might be discernible. It will be 21 years since Dave Johns made his stand-up debut.

“Yes,” he tells me over a cup of tea, “it was 21 years ago that I went to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time and no-one knew who I was. I went up last August and... no-one knew who I was.”

Cue loud guffaw. Dave is already feeling pretty pleased with himself because I bought the teas. “Just think,” he chortled, arriving at my shoulder at the counter. “If you’d arrived 30 seconds later, I’d have been buying you one.”

It’s actually a bit longer than 21 years ago that Dave started stirring up the comedy scene in the North East.

In 1989, when alternative comedy was still a novelty, he started a comedy club in the Tyne Theatre bistro on Westgate Road.

He hadn’t had much training for the job because there wasn’t any.

“I used to be a bricklayer,” he reminds me, “but I also worked part-time at the Tyne Theatre, humping scenery about.”

Dave, a natural comedian, certainly needed his sense of humour when Cheeky Chappie’s Comedy Cafe opened for the first time.

To get around the licensing laws, anyone buying a ticket also got soup and a bun.

Having got the place up and running, Dave was thrown into the deep end as compère, introducing in those early days some up-and-coming comedians like Jo Brand, Jack Dee and Bill Bailey, then performing in a duo called the Rubber Bishops.

I remember seeing Jo Brand in 1990 and chatting to her at the bar afterwards. The audience was small but appreciative. The comedian, chuffed to have just recorded a programme for a new satellite channel called BSB, agreed to come to the office next day to be interviewed. I probably bought her a tea too.

Then there was Jack Dee, smirking as he pocketed part of Dave’s dole money. Grinning broadly at the memory, Dave says if the takings didn’t cover the fee, it was up to the promoter – him – to make up the shortfall. Jack heartless? Never

Then in 1991 Dave bit the bullet and went on stage as a stand-up himself, taking the name Ben Cauthen after a jockey who, he suggests, is now probably “a big fat bloke”.

Despite a stammer, Dave took to the laughter business and became something of a comedians’ comedian.

Bill Bailey and Sean Lock have put their admiration on record, the former calling him “one of the most naturally talented stand-up comics you’re ever likely to see”.

When Dave got married back in 1994, Jo Brand and Harry Hill were among those who gathered at the Newcastle reception.

The marriage didn’t last but Dave remains a popular figure in comedy circles.

One comedian who used Dave’s comedy club as a springboard was Ross Noble who, as a 15-year-old, did an open mic slot. But there are lots of new young comics on the circuit now.

Dave says: “Nowadays they can go on Mock the Week once and then they’re off on tour, billed as so-and-so off Mock the Week.

“When I did Never Mind the Buzzcocks in the 90s no-one ever suggested I should go on tour on the back of the TV exposure.”

He’s not bitter, saying he gets on well with the younger comics. Neither is he averse to modern methods of self-promotion, such as Twitter. “You can’t afford to be a Luddite,” he declares.

Now living down in the New Forest – although it’s clear his heart still lies in the North East (he grew up in Wallsend) – he has travelled the world with comedy.

Last year he was on at the Comedy Store in Mumbai. “Indian audiences absolutely love comedy,” he says. “After every punchline you get a round of applause. You feel like staying on forever.”

You can imagine in some comedy clubs there’s safety in numbers. But Dave says: “I never get nervous. In my early days I was too naive. I didn’t get nervous because I didn’t know what would happen.”

He attributes the confidence- boosting experience of stand-up for ridding him of the stammer that once dogged him. “I was in the cabaret tent at Glastonbury in front of 3,000 people and I did a gig in a castle in Slovenia in front of 2,000 Slovenians. I had a brilliant time. I told them they all looked like Bond villains.

“I got them all to say together, ‘Ve meet again, Meester Bond’. They loved it and it was hilarious.”

Dave says he has worked abroad a lot and also usually appears with other comics on the bill.

“I wanted to do something myself, to have the whole show, and it seemed natural to launch my first one-man show back home in Newcastle.”

His Hidden Shallows tour kicks off at Live Theatre in Newcastle on Friday at 8pm.

For tickets call 0191 2321232 or book online at www.live.org.uk

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