Comedy, cancel culture and cake with Comedy Fest’s Tom Clutterbuck

Comedy

Altered Feast, Norwich’s favourite alternative comedy cabaret night, is taking over The Garage for a night on 1 October as part of our Comedy Fest season – featuring Joz Norris, Heidi Regan and headliner Pierre Novellie.

We spoke to organiser and Altered Feast founder Tom Clutterbuck about the importance of laughter, “cancel culture” and how he once got upstaged by a cake.

Q: How did you get into comedy?

I did a module in stand-up as part of my degree. I did Drama and Theatre Arts at Middlesex uni and in the final year we were able to choose to do comedy. It was my favourite part of the whole course.

We spent half the time watching and analysing old archive footage my tutors has collected over decades (this was before everything was available on YouTube) and the other half doing workshops in performing comedy ourselves.

The performance part was run by Huw Thomas, who was known for hosting the legendary open mic at Downstairs At The Queen’s Head in Crouch End, where everyone on the course performed as part of their final assessment.

The vast majority of people on the course found it absolutely terrifying and never did stand-up again, but those few of us with something slightly wrong with the parts of our brains that process shame and fear decided to keep on going.

Q: How did your decision go down?

Seeing as many of my friends then had tried (and failed in some cases) to give comedy a go, I didn’t get too much resistance. Although there was a slight sense that I was nuts for carrying on.

Like we’d all run the gauntlet together and then upon emerging out the other side I said “I’m going back for another lap, I’ll catch you guys at the pub”.

It feels arrogant to say this, but I did pick up a reputation for taking to it quite naturally. Lots of people in my year used to call me “Comedy Tom”.

Having said, that it might have been a comment on other ridiculous elements of my personality.

Q: What’s been your weirdest / funniest experience during a live gig?

I was once heckled by birthday cake.

Right before bringing me out on stage, the compere announced there was a birthday in the audience and then the venue staff brought out a cake for them.

This was by far the biggest table in the venue and I’m pretty sure it was a group of squaddies on a big night out.

The rest of the audience were very spread out and not really engaged with the show, so these lads were basically the entire focus of the gig.

I came out and did my opening few minutes. But I became very aware that I had just become a backdrop to the group’s main focus of cutting and dealing out slices of cake, while chatting amongst themselves as if it were still the interval.

I made reference to this and how I had been upstaged by baked goods, at which point one of the lads very simply, and without saying a word, walked up to the stage and handed me a slice.

Unsurprisingly, this got the biggest laugh of the night. At this point I threw away the rest of my planned material and just improvised about the situation, which fortunately won everyone round.

Q: How important is laughter right now?

Why should now be different to any other time? Has something bad been going on? I’m kidding of course, I know about all of the things. How could I not?

However, I’m sort of also not joking, in the sense that I think laughter is always equally important.

If there’s ever been a time when all things in the world were going so well that we didn’t need the sweet cathartic release of laughter, I certainly wasn’t around for it.

Comedy

Q: How hard is being a comedian right now, with cancel culture on the rise, the government cracking down on anything it sees as subversive?

I assume those things are meant as very separate, right? The government are certainly not on side with “cancel culture”, otherwise the Prime Minister would be held account for his well-documented litany of inappropriate comments.

Instead, we have people like Mr. Bean coming out and telling us that those jokes are “really quite funny actually if you knew about comedy” etc. etc.

To be honest I’m very sceptical about the idea that “cancel culture” is having any sort of negative impact on comedy.

The people who talk about it the most are middle-aged, straight, white former comedians who haven’t made anything relevant (or at all) for decades, but just hate the idea their former work is becoming considered outdated.

I believe that John Cleese has a new TV show coming out about how “you can’t say anything these days”. But what actually can’t you say? Who has actually been cancelled? Certainly nobody for the content of their acts.

Even the high profile comedians who have been called out for committing heinous deeds in their private lives seem to get away with laying low for a year or so, then come straight back out with a new series.

There are also countless straight white male comics on the circuit who claim to be “the last man telling it how it is”. It’s the same nonsense Cleese is selling and there’s a huge market for it.

The criticism of “cancel culture” is really just a criticism of people being able to hold you to account for what you say and do. That’s not a violation of freedom of speech, that’s it in action!

I say, if you really want to be a “risky” and “edgy” comedian, then you don’t get to criticise the potential consequences of offending people. Surely that’s the exact “risk”?

I don’t really have to worry about this too much. Firstly, I find it quite easy not to make lazy jokes about race, sexuality or gender.

But mostly because I’m not in any way famous, so nobody would have any interest in “cancelling” me either.

Q: How do you compete with the real life comedy provided by our calamitous politicians and celebrities?

I don’t! But to be honest I don’t really mine it for comedy material much either, as I usually find that sort of area far too depressing. It’s not where I find fun or joy.

Satire is important, and I watch a lot of it, but my comedy tends to be rooted much more in my own personal experiences and viewpoints rather than the larger world events or issues.

Q: How did you get into promoting live comedy?

Most comics have at some time or another decided to put on a night of their own. It’s a good way to guarantee stage time, book all your favourite acts and also make sure the technical elements of the show are up to a standard that you deem acceptable.

Because my main job is in technical theatre I have pretty high standards for the latter and am actually notorious for turning up at gigs as a performer and ending up fixing issues with the sound and lighting.

When I first moved to Norwich a friend had told me that she didn’t think much of the quality of the nights here.

Not just in a technical sense, but that there was a lot of lowest common denominator and even quite problematic content at the local shows.

None of these are running any more, so I’m not speaking ill of any current promotors. As such, when a friend suggested I should take over the comedy nights at The Birdcage I jumped at the chance.

In my dual life as performer and techie, sometimes director also, I’ve worked with no end of incredible acts. As such it’s always a pleasure and a privilege to introduce Norwich to them, and vice versa.

Reminder: Our autumn term of classes has begun, with tasters available until the October half-term. Find out more about those and our accredited courses too.

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Clutterbuck's Comedy Club

Expect the witty, the weird and the wonderful at Clutterbuck's Comedy Night. PLUS - FREE DRINK for students (ID required) at our newly reopened bar!!

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