It's the first First Gig, Worst Gig of 2021, which is already going toe-to-toe with 2020 and 2016 for the coveted 'Worst Year' title, eight days in. Strong start. Live gigs are currently rarer than dodos riding unicorns, of course, but there are positive things happening too, like the new podcast from Esther Manito.
It's called No Nation, and gets impressively varied guests like writer/director Ben Turner (who did the Laurie Cunningham doc First Among Equals, among other excellent things); TV presenter, children's author and general good chap Radzi Chinyanganya; and a bunch of relevant comics to talk dual-identities, in an entertaining fashion.
Our first tester for Esther, then: how did that podcast come about?
"So, No Nation came from my wanting to articulate both the frustrating and comical elements of being dual heritage," says Manito. "It came to fruition when I was volunteering on my kid's school trip, I got chatting to my daughter's mate's dad, David Seward, who told me he was a sound producer! So, whilst supervising 30 on a trip to the local war memorial we developed the idea for No Nation..."
Classic origin story. Esther will hopefully be taking shows to the Leicester Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe this year, if covid allows. For now, let's hurtle back to a fateful night in North London.
First gig was a showcase with Camden Comedy School. I was absolutely bricking it, in fact I barely remember being on stage because I was so consumed with nerves! I had never intended to do stand-up and I thought this would be a bucket list thing; "I once did stand-up comedy". I never in a million years thought I would carry on doing it.
Favourite show, ever?
There are loads! I mean there are gigs that are just epic and really stick with you because the whole set-up is amazing, but then there are gigs which you dread or you think will be awful when you turn up, but actually end up being brilliant because the audience is wicked!
So, any gig where the audience are really engaging and want you to have as much fun as them is my favourite, and there have been lots of those.
Well, there were a couple (that I merged together to create a horrific story for the stage) where there were some racists in the crowd, and that made for an unpleasant experience... but I don't think they were my worst because I was with other comics who were all in the same boat.
I think my worst gigs are when the audience just don't really get why you are there. Like I once performed at what was essentially a craft fair, with people browsing stalls filled with crochet and knitting etc, and I was just banging on in a corner; I mean where was the dignity!
Oh no, actually my worst was a preview of my solo show which was still very much in the work-in-progress stage, and a big group of lads turned up thinking it was a like a club comedy night. I think I cried my whole way home.
Or another preview I did where the only audience was a family who had booked tickets as a birthday surprise for their daughter's 30th, thinking (again) it would be a booze-filled, talent-filled bill of club sets. They were incredibly sweet but we all very much wanted the show to end ASAP.
Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?
Ahmed Ahmed was the first comic I related to, as he would talk about being Arab and American, and I related to that as a British Arab. I remember discovering him when I was at uni and immediately sharing comedy with my entire family. I didn't grow up in a diverse area and was always made to feel an outsider. So, Ahmed Ahmed's comedy made me realise that comedy is a brilliant tool to bridge two worlds, which I also hope No Nation will be a part of.
And who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?
Ha! I remember performing with a group of comics at Edinburgh on the free fringe and our room was hotter than the seventh circle of hell. Audience members would be fainting and scrabbling to get out, but a very enthusiastic venue employee would not let us open the door because it was against health and safety.
Anyway, even though he would cram in more audience members than the room could take and lock them into a furnace, he would really get off on yelling in our faces whilst branding a clipboard. He was pretty disagreeable.
Is there one routine/gag you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?
I used to love a gag about catching my husband watching YouTube vids on the world's biggest... ships. There would be ONE person max that would be tickled and the rest of the room would just look blankly at me.
How have you coped with the various lockdowns, creatively and generally?
I've embraced Zoom gigs as much as possible and I've continued to work on my podcast. But as the rules keep changing it has been a little two steps forward and six steps back.
Are there particular reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions that stick in the mind?
Oh lots! I mean I think it's interesting to hear or read how you were seen on stage. It reminds you that what you intend might not always be read the same way, and that's super interesting and will develop your comedy and your ideas. I mean it's never bad to have a mirror held up - it can even provide more material!
How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?
I am defo enjoying online gigs! It's a different platform and has made me develop my style and my material. I have also really enjoyed filming sketches for ITV2's The Stand Up Sketch Show, so 2020 was definitely a year of branching outside of straight stand-up.