TV revisits city’s legendary Late ’n’ Live comedy club

Comedian Jason Byrne and Karen Koren review the BBC's new series
Comedian Jason Byrne and Karen Koren review the BBC's new series
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A BEAR pit. That’s the phrase most commonly used to describe Late ’n’ Live, the Gilded Balloon’s legendary comedy club that staggers to life just as other Fringe venues are calling it a day. Every August, this is where comedians come to die.

For the past 25 years, Festival-goers have gathered, like Romans to the Coliseum, to watch famous faces and newcomers alike do battle with a beer-fuelled audience that is always ready to give as good as they get – if not better.

Over a quarter of a century, the Late ’n’ Live stage (for the last ten years to be found in the Debating Hall of Teviot House) has welcomed those brave enough to accept its challenge.

It was here that a punter once crowd-surfed on a bike. Here that novice comedian Russell Brand smashed a glass and appeared to self-mutilate, leaving his T-shirt a “bloody” mess.

It was here, too, that gay stand-up Scott Capuro was goaded into urinating on a jumper that had been left on stage by an unfortunate audience member – a jumper he then dispatched back into the crowd.

And it was here, at Late ’n’ Live, that Johnny Vegas honed his reputation as one of the most dangerous (and often drunk) performers around – one night it took the combined efforts of Jason Byrne, Daniel Kitson and Russell Howard to get him off stage after his set.

All these events and more will be revisited in a new BBC Scotland series entitled The Late ’n’ Live Guide To Comedy, which begins a four-week run on BBC 1 from next Monday.

Narrated by Lynn Ferguson, it reunites some of the biggest names in comedy with their early performances, courtesy of never before seen archive Late ’n’ Live footage.

“When we started Late ’n’ Live it was the first late-night compilation show at the Edinburgh Fringe,” recalls Karen Koren, Scotland’s First Lady of comedy and Gilded Balloon supremo.

“I’d literally collar comedians during the afternoon or after their gigs and tell them that they were booked. We never knew what the audiences would be like and, in some ways, the wilder they were meant that the challenge was greater.

“There was, and is, nothing bland about Late ’n’ Live – I’ve seen some of the best-known names in comedy die on their backsides and others pack a punch that I didn’t know they had. I’m more than pleased that we can show people what real comedy is like.”

Late ’n’ Live first introduced Edinburgh audiences to raw, live comedy back in 1987. Then, its home was the main room of the Gilded Balloon’s Cowgate site.

“A lot of my friends in the 80s were comedians,” recalls Karen, turning her attention to the origins of the club.

“After their shows there was nowhere for them to go. We had a late licence so we all started meeting up at the Gilded Balloon after their gigs – and that’s how it started. It was quite organic.”

The bear pit was born, just don’t let Karen hear you call it that.

“I hate that they call it a bear pit,” she protests. “It may have been way back at the old Gilded Balloon, where it was dark and dirty, rough and ready, but not any more.

“One of the things that annoys me is when people go on about the old Gilded Balloon. Yes, it was wonderful and marvellous, but it was of its time.”

Karen credits Daniel Kitson, Russell Howard, Stephen K Amos “and all these fabulous comics who worked at moving Late ’n’ Live up to Teviot” for the club’s continuing success, but it was her desire to maintain some of the edge of Late ’n’ Live’s original incarnation that has made the new BBC series possible.

“These recordings were taken so that we could have a live feed of the show in the bar,” she explains.

“Before, at the old Gilded Balloon, the bar was just next to the main room, so if someone was dying, everyone would just run in to watch.

“Having a live feed to the bar allowed me to recreate that at Teviot. If someone was dying, everyone could run up and heckle them – because I’m a bitch that way,” she laughs. On seven nights a week, between 1am and 5am, Karen’s winning formula is simple, three comics and a compere battle it out with a belligerent audience, followed by a two-hour set from a house band.

For many, however, the real appeal of Late ’n’ Live is the audience participation, or, to put it bluntly, the chance to heckle.

Comedian Andrew Maxwell describes the atmosphere in the hall as being a mix of a golf club and a remand centre.

“There was the conviviality of a golf club but the relentless menace of a remand centre,” he says.

Fellow Irishman Tommy Tiernan agrees: “The audience had the power. It wasn’t about the performer really. You kind of offered yourself up as a sacrificial goat and they just did what they wanted with you.”

One man who experienced the killer wit of the spectators is Jason Byrne.

“They had professional hecklers. Basically pro black belt hecklers that went, right, ‘You have only 20 seconds to win us over or we’re going to start bombarding you with stuff’.

“It was like getting in the ring with Muhammad Ali if you’d never boxed.”

Mock The Week host Dara O’Briain, below, is philosophical about his run in with Late ’n’ Live.

“You learn more from a bad gig than a good gig because, at the good gig you roll it out and everyone loves you.

“The bad gig is the one at which you go, ‘Why is this not working?’ You need to learn how to deal with a bad gig, so you need to do gigs at which you die.”

Dying on stage will either make or break a comic, and Late ’n’ Live can lay claim to creating one of today’s most controversial comedians, Russell Brand.

It was in the Teviot Debating Hall that he first realised that writing good material would be the key to his success – and that he needed to stop doing drugs.

“I don’t think that anyone has actually been killed at Late ’n’ Live, but people wanted to fight.

“If anything, it probably expedited my journey to not taking drugs – probably expedited my journey to write material – to take this a bit more seriously,” he admits.

He wasn’t the only comic to elicit an aggressive reaction from the crowd.

“There have been lots of incidents over the years. The first time Mark Lamarr, one of our comperes, wore glasses on stage the lager-filled lads in the audience decided to storm him. He is quite provocative and that nearly ended up as a fight on stage,” recalls Karen.

Gender is no barrier to the audience’s wrath either, as Grumpy Old Woman Jenny Eclair, far left, discovered.

She confesses: “I don’t know why I did Late ’n’ Live. There was no polite ignoring of the act, I mean, it was full on ‘f*** off’, ‘get off’, ‘f*** off’.

“I would more or less break out into a sprint from the wings to the microphone because, if I didn’t get that microphone within point three seconds, they would start.”

Many of the stand-ups admit that pushing the limits was always at the back of the mind, and they would compete to take their act to new levels of grossness, silliness, aggressiveness or just plain stupidity.

“One year, myself and Dave O’Doherty dressed in bubble wrap and had a bubble wrap fight,” remembers Jason Byrne, while Adam Hills reflects: “I’m not entirely sure why I kissed Johnny Vegas.”

The unlikely smooch happened in the aforementioned attempts to remove the unpredictable Benidorm star from the stage.

“You couldn’t go out there with a set theme and think you would ever get through that material,” says Johnny.

“You had to be willing to ditch it and go with whatever the gig throws up. The audience isn’t really bothered about some brilliant anecdote that you’ve written, they just want to see how you react in the here and now,” he explains.

As an afterthought he offers: “Doing Late ‘n’ Live is the performing equivalent of self harm.”

The hilarious efforts to remove Johnny Vegas from the stage are just part of the footage uncovered in the new series.

“I ended up holding down Johnny Vegas backstage that night,” laughs Karen, who has been known to get in on the act herself.

“There is a terrible drunken scene of Adam Hills and me singing – Adam is holding the back of my bra to stop me falling into the audience,” she laughs, adding quickly: “That is one clip that will never be seen.”

• The Late ’n’ Live Guide To Comedy is on BBC1 Scotland at 11.05pm from Monday for four weeks.

We rocked

ALTHOUGH audiences head to Teviot for comedy, music has always played a big part in Late ’n’ Live too, filling two hours of each show.

“A lot of comics want to be rock stars so we’ve had many who played music on stage,” says Karen Koren. “Lenny Henry, Hugh Laurie, Josie Lawrence – they all performed back in the day. Jenny Eclair even sang with Leo Sayer.

“It started in 1987 with the The Nansing Quartet and The Jam Tarts – the bass player married Ben Elton, so he was down quite a lot. Since then we’ve had Colin Hay, of Men At Work, the Doug Anthony All Stars and, of course, Bill Bailey and the Rubber Bishops.”