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Mar 13

Lessons from Bernard Manning?

I recently dug out and watched an old Bernard Manning video that I inherited from my father. (Hmmm, perhaps I should’ve scrutinized the Will more closely). I have not watched a complete Manning show for years… if ever.

Manning’s never really been my cup of tea. I always struggled to get past all the racist and sexist jokes that were a frequent standard in his act and this particular video from 1993 was no different. Who said that I never suffer for my readers?

I’m specifically looking at Manning’s humour because I feel that he is too often hijacked by liberal types who use his act, and his name, as a pitiable object and a figure of fun in this hip, P.C-world (no, not the computer place) where we’re a multi-cultural society and the likes of Manning belong firmly in the past. Well, considering the man’s been dead since 2007 seems to help their viewpoint. Read Manning’s Obituary, in his own words.

To clarify I’m not siding with the man’s viewpoint or politics, it can just get a bit annoying when any political leanings greatly interfere with people looking at an artist’s work.

Whilst I enjoy learning about the life and opinions of comedians like Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks through their material (which you don’t really from comedians like Manning, Mick Miller or Jimmy Jones), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using joke stories… on occasion.

I think that when it’s the basis of an entire act, it can get a little tiring to listen to.

Old School vs. New School

There is often no direct connection between the joke stories, instead comedians of this ilk flip from subject to subject as soon as the audience has laughed.

I admit that this is definitely an art in itself. But from my experiences it makes much more sense, comedically at least, to be able to stay on a topic as long as possible.

This is where a lot of new school comedians come from. They’ll talk about a topic for a good few minutes, wringing as many laughs out of it as possible.

Having an act built purely around joke stories seems to me that you burn through ideas at an alarming rate. Ordinarily it would seem that a comedian of this style could never hit 4-6 laughs per minute that the average headline comedian, who stays on topics for as long as possible, achieves. It would just seem that the frequency of the laughter must be lower.

But after going through the first 5 minutes of Manning’s act I noticed that he peppered his material, with some quick one-liners (albeit audience insults). This not only allowed him to hit 6 laughs per minute, but also allowed for variation of his act. It broke up the pace and made it somewhat easier to listen to (not that listening to a continuous flow of racist, sexist and homophobic joke stories is easy).

Lessons to Learn

So what can we learn from Bernard Manning? Can we learn anything?
I am sure that there are plenty of lessons we can glean from his time in front of a microphone. But what I want to focus on is the fact that Manning told mainly blue joke stories.

By working blue you immediately limit the work that you can get. If that’s your bag then who am I to stop you from working dirty? However, your market can narrow.

If you’re a comedian, it can be incredibly difficult working your way up through the comedy club market. Or if you’re a speaker I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of working blue. If you have experience of Toastmasters, then you’ll know from there it’s a no-no.

Own Venue

Manning worked for many years in his own purpose-built comedy club The Embassy in Manchester. There were a few times when he would appear in different theatres around the country on tour and once headling in Vegas, but for the most part he worked on his own turf. If you work blue you often have to find a way to invite your audience to you.

In the beginning when you’re developing your act, it might be difficult to secure a regular venue where you can invite your audience to come and see you.

However, by working clean first (and adding expletives if you wish later) you can increase your chances of working anywhere. You can work in comedy clubs, the business market, trade shows, the Christian market, cruise ships and so on. You can gain massive amounts of “audience time” along the way.

Time and again I have met people in the corporate market who have used comedy club comedians and then been annoyed when the comic has delivered offensive material. I’m not just talking about the joke story comedians either.

Fundamentally it’s about working and getting paid. You upset the person who signs your cheque and you could have a problem on your hands.

You still have to pay your dues and work hard, but the dues that you have to pay become somewhat easier when you’re not fighting hecklers, disparaging comedians and a smokey, alcohol-fuelled environment. Don’t get me wrong, I like a drink as much as the next man, I ‘m just not in love with people drinking around me when I’m at work.

Own Show?

Likewise you could put on your own show and have a residency somewhere or you could tour the show round venues.

For me it just seems like extra work going this route. You do what you like, but I think that having a clean act which you create first, which can be dirtied up later, has to make better financial sense as it allows you to increase your exposure to different markets.