Preview: Gilded Balloon Comedy Night

Raymond Mearns (left) and Kai Humphries (right) join Karen Koren. Pic: Comp
Raymond Mearns (left) and Kai Humphries (right) join Karen Koren. Pic: Comp
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IT has kept the Capital laughing through the Festival for three decades, but tomorrow the Gilded Balloon marks its 30th anniversary year with the start of a new monthly comedy night, at the Festival Theatre’s Studio space.

Billed simply as Gilded Balloon Comedy Nights, each show will feature four performers - a headliner, two comics and a compere. Kicking off proceedings, host Raymond Mearns will introduce Stuart Mitchell, Larry Dean, and, top of the bill, Dylan Moran.

Preparing for the first Studio show, promoter Karen Koren reveals she hopes the evening will encompass all the excitement of the big arena tours currently undertaken by so many comics, while retaining the intimacy of the traditional comedy club.

“If you have a 150-seat venue where you can put theatre and dance, it’s also the perfect size for comedy,” she explains.

“I am opposed to the big stadium tours comics do these days because you can’t feel the intimacy. A capacity of 150 is absolutely the right size for comedy. It stops the performance from getting lost. For example, Dylan is preparing for his tour, which will see him going into huge venues. At the Studio you can see him up close and personal. You can’t beat that.”

Koren is regarded by many to be the queen of comedy producers. She laughs.

“I don’t know about that. I see bringing comedy to the Studio as putting it into more grown-up surroundings, taking it away from the little clubs, the places where stand-ups go to learn their trade.

“I remember way back in the day, Lee Mack telling me that having done a tour of all the student places, he had learned so much more by doing arts centres.

“It is a different kind of atmosphere. You are laughing in comfortable surrounding,” says Koren, who created the Gilded Balloon brand back in 1986, having previously run the Capital’s first comedy club in McNally’s, a pub on Palmerston Place.

The new comedy nights are just the latest initiative of the Gilded Balloon over the last 30 years, during which time it has produced comedy festivals in Inverness and Fife and operated regular events in Glasgow.

Koren also produced a TV series based on the venue’s legendary Late ‘n’ Live Fringe shows, and has discovered many of today’s top stand-ups through the annual So You Think You’re Funny talent search.

“A lot of the people appearing at the comedy nights actually came out of So You Think You’re Funny - Kai did, and so did Dylan,” she says.

“The secret when programming a night like this is to look at the material they do and make sure there are no clashes; that there is variety and that the subject matter is different.

“There are so many comedians now, it is also important to make sure what they are talking about is interesting.

“Some do free form. That is difficult, but if they are good at it, they can be amazing. Others are scripted. There will be a mix of both at the Studio.”

The Gilded Balloon has come a long way since making its first home in the long gone 369 Gallery in The Cowgate.

“We started in the Art Education Room of the 369 Gallery; prior to that I had put on comedy in McNally’s,” she recalls.

“I had friends who were doing what they called ‘alternative comedy’ and they didn’t have places to perform, except for churches during the Festival. So I started Edinburgh’s first comedy club.”

When the 369 Gallery went under, Koren and the Gilded Balloon took over the building, adding the The Gilded Saloon in the early 90s. A fire in the complex in 2002 saw the Gilded Balloon flit to its current home at Teviot House.

“After the fire we had nowhere to go. Luckily, we had started in Teviot House the year before - we did both the Cowgate and Teviot. It was great that we had done that otherwise we would have been homeless,” says Koren.

14 years later, the Gilded Balloon at Teviot is the focal point of Fringe comedy, not least because of the ground-breaking So You Think You’re Funny.

Koren tips previous contestant Chris McArthur-Boyd, who will be appearing at a future Comedy Night, as one of two to watch for the future.

“He’s about 22 but looks about 12 and is a cross between Ronnie Corbett and Michael McIntyre,” she laughs, revealing that over the years she has developed an instinct for spotting raw talent.

“I do now, but it has taken a long time. For example, the last winner of So You Think You’re Funny is still unknown, but is so brilliant. His name is Aiden Strangeman, another to watch out for.

“I guess I just enjoy watching stand-up and seeing somebody who enjoys being on stage making people laugh. It’s the most amazing thing.”

As part of the Gilded Balloon’s 30th celebrations, young comedians can now also take advantage of Koren’s vast experience in the business, through GBT - Gilded Balloon Talent - a company that will look after new starts trying to make it in the ever more saturated world of comedy.

“I always find that the best comedians are the nicest people. I like helping them make it. GBT will help guide them because there are not enough gigs for them up here. We will help them get seen in London to gain experience.

“We also hope to develop new young comics for television, but the most exciting thing for me is that my daughter, Katy, is coming into the business with me, and will hopefully, eventually run the show.”

Gilded Balloon Comedy Night, The Studio at Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, tomorrow, 8pm, £15, 0131-529 6000