100 comedians in 12 hours, and all for charity – it was a tall order for organiser Andrew Johnston
How many comedians does it take to raise £773.50 for charity? 100. OK, so it’s not the funniest one-liner ever, but after organising the 12-hour chuckle-fest in question, I’m all gagged out.
I'm currently recovering from the first annual Mirthathon, an all-day endurance test of Irish stand-up comedy that took place at Auntie Annie’s bar in Belfast on March 18 from 1pm to 1am.
I know March 18 was Mother’s Day, and yes, I am aware it was the day after Saint Patrick’s Day. But I’m happy to report that neither of these wrinkles stopped a healthy crowd of laugh-seekers turning out to support Northern Ireland’s biggest gathering of yarn-spinners since the Assembly was last in session.
Nor did it stop us pulling together a massive line-up of stand-up talent, from seasoned pros to terrified first-timers. It seems a lot of comedians don’t like their mothers.
I started putting the event together late 2011, with the lofty goal of recruiting 100 acts to perform a set of seven minutes each. It was all in aid of one of my favourite charities, Mencap, the UK’s voice of learning disability, for whom I had previously raised money by going trekking in various far-flung places.
Mencap does excellent work fighting for fairer laws, more accessible facilities and generally a better life for people with a learning disability and their families. Part of the thinking was that even if no audience showed up, there would still be 99 other comics to turn upside down and shake out their pockets.
The idea came when I had started doing a bit of comedy in 2011 and performed 73 stand-up gigs over the course of the year. It occurred to me that if I could gather together everyone I encountered on the road to perform rapid-fire sets, one after another over one day and night, it could raise a lot of money for charity.
Along the way there were dropouts and on the day there were no-shows (comedians seem to be almost as flaky as musicians). I won’t name or shame, though it was frustrating. In the final weeks of organising, it felt like one confirmation forward, two cancellations back. So, in the end we 'only' had 85 comics booked. But sure, I kept telling myself, we could make up the numbers as we went…
The day began as it would continue – in a frantic flurry of phone calls, texts and hastily revised running orders. BBC Northern Ireland’s Newsline team showed up shortly before doors opened to interview me and to film the first act, Garry Elliot from Dublin.
We asked for a minimum donation of six quid on the door, which works out at 6p per act – or 0.15 per cent of a Michael McIntyre ticket. This is good value, no matter how bad the comics are. Comedians and punters alike were extremely generous, whether ostentatiously crumpling £20 notes into my hand or chucking handfuls of shrapnel in the general direction of the bucket.
Comics had travelled from all over the country to perform. Paul Crowley, from Cork, had perhaps come the furthest, but there were also carloads from Galway, Dublin, Drogheda and Derry. They all did their seven minutes and then either buggered straight off home or hung around to make a messy night of it.
Most of the acts stuck diligently to their seven-minute allocation, but a few needed the comedy promoter’s trusty torch shone in their eyes to get off the stage. Amazingly, we adhered pretty much to the time schedule throughout the day, running no more than 45 minutes behind at any point.
My own spot kept getting put back later and later, as I was stuck doing the door. (The mate who had said he would help out showed up an impressive five hours and five minutes late. His brother was sick, then his dog ate the sick and was also sick, or something).
It would probably be against the spirit of the event to single out individual performers, but to hell with it. My personal favourite line of the day came from newbie Scott Ferguson: ‘She’s the kind of girl who has a snooze button on her rape alarm’.
Elsewhere, the inimitable Ciarán Bartlett rocked the stage in a leopard-print onesie; Drogheda teenagers Ryan O'Donnell, Conor Tolan and Michael Kennedy did their spots before the bouncer kicked them out, and local stand-up heavyweights Colin Geddis and Graeme Watson weighed in with impromptu appearances.
Séamus Fox ditched the mic for seven minutes to the second of in-your-face street poetry. George Quinn, alias children’s conjurer Magic George, arrived, went straight on stage, cranked out his schtick and departed for another gig in Dublin.
First-timers included Liam Norris, Walter Rocher (the sunglasses-wearing, balloon-bursting alter ego of Comply or Die bassist Ian Pearce), Rhaps Tea (the hilarious wife of fellow funnyperson Christian Talbot) and Su Jo, all of whom did exceedingly well.
Morgan Hearst also deserves a pat on the back for helping us claw back a bit of time by cutting his set down from seven minutes to a killer, 15-second bit inspired by Larry David.
The audience were amazingly supportive of all the acts, even the terrible ones. There was – to use the comedian’s vernacular – a 'lovely' atmosphere in the room throughout the day, give or take a lull around the 5pm mark, presumably as people went off to have their dinner or wonder what the hell they were doing hanging out listening to penis jokes in a darkened room on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Around half past midnight, I finally got to deliver my spot. After marshalling proceedings all day and shaking people down for cash, it was nice to see my efforts rewarded by the drunkest man in the room offering to ‘knock [me] out’ during my set.
The well-oiled punter also attempted to fight Darren Matthews and Ruairi Woods as they performed, but met his match with headliner Paddy McDonnell, a west Belfast taxi driver by day and not a comic to be trifled with.
Paddy was number 85, but we still had 20 minutes left before the bar chucked us out, so we decided to rope in audience members to tell one gag each, to get us up to 100. Some of them had material; others didn’t. But we had a crack team of writers (McDonnell, Matthews, Shane Horan) on hand to supply the wisecracks.
The bar staff gave it a shot, as did the bouncer. We even stuck the mic in the face of the aforementioned sozzled troublemaker, who mumbled some incoherent nonsense. That got us up to 98, but there was now no one left in the building who hadn’t already been on stage.
All hail Gary Croft, then, who remembered that during Tina Kelly’s set she had brought up two or three friends from the crowd to tell a gag each. So, we had made it to 100. Or maybe 101. Either way, we pulled it off. The event has so far raised a grand total of £773.50 for Mencap, and in the true spirit of chugging we’re still taking donations. So, get on over to our fundraising page and JUST GIVE!