First Gig Worst Gig

Philip Simon

Philip Simon

Once upon a time, Philip Simon was a busy professional stand-up. Now, he's "a supply teacher at a new home school that OFSTED recently downgraded to 'requires improvement,'" Simon sighs. Thankfully he's had a fair bit of interesting homework, too.

First up there's the School's Out Comedy Club, which has proven rather popular and linked up with the Edinburgh FringeMakers crowdfunder project. A stream and special are currently being lined up.

And along with fellow comedian Rachel Creeger, Simon recently launched the podcast Jew Talkin' To Me? (below), "an unashamedly Jewish chat show for a mixed faith audience," he explains.

Guests have already included Anthony Horowitz, Ivor Baddiel, Steve Furst, Sooz Kempner, Jay Foreman, Jess Robinson - and more. "It's a chance for a bit of lighthearted fun as we hear funny stories and anecdotes about their experiences growing up and how much Jewishness played a part," says Simon. Timely, too.

"Having recently had to take a 48-hour sabbatical from social media in light of the inaction of these platforms to better protect against antisemitic attacks, a light-hearted podcast of this nature seems particularly apt at this time."

He's not wrong: it's out every Friday, as a video and podcast - details below. Now, let's potter back to the pre-school years.

First gig?

My very first gig was on 26th March 2011 and was the showcase from my stand-up comedy course at The Comedy School in Camden. Despite having been an actor and performing on stage for most of my adult life, I had never been as terrified as I was that night.

We'd completed an eight-week course, and because of my background I was probably the most 'stage ready'. But there was something about standing up there telling your own jokes and expecting to get any laughs that just felt scarier than being an actor reading somebody else's words.

It didn't help that one of the guys mentioned the gig on Facebook so a lot of his friends had turned up, drunk, intent on putting him off. Because he was on last, their drinking had continued through every act. A fight almost broke out and someone was kicked out just before I was on, which didn't help. But I somehow managed to say as my opening line, "I wouldn't mind but that guy's my manager," which put everyone a little more at ease.

Then when I was on stage I heard bottles smashing and more people being kicked out, so what was meant to be the friendliest gig ever became a real baptism of fire that meant all future gigs were a walk in the park.

Image shows from L to R: Rachel Creeger, Philip Simon. Copyright: Ruth Bloch Photography

Favourite show, ever?

Favourite clubs that never fail to be a delight: Covent Garden Comedy Club, Backyard Comedy Club, Downstairs at the King's Head, the Frog and Bucket and any of The Stands (I loved Newcastle though). I've also had great times gigging at the Sensatori holiday resorts and The Classic in Auckland, and although I'm fairly new to their line-ups, The Comedy Store has to be one of the best rooms to play.

If you really wanted to pin me down on a favourite gig I would have to say it was when I did studio warm up for a radio recording at the Edinburgh Festival last year. I went from playing my 53 capacity Free Fringe venue to a packed out 300-seater BBC tent. No-one knew who I was, but the jokes all landed, the admin I had to do for the show connected nicely and by the end of my slot I had them.

The BBC don't allow flyering on their sites so we'd been kicked out onto the streets, but everyone who went past remembered me and took flyers, so it was really successful in getting people to come to my show throughout the run.

Worst gig?

Again, I don't know if I have just one. I've died at gigs. We've all died at gigs (yes you have!) and sometimes it's my fault and sometimes it's not. I'm Jewish and I talk about this on stage around the UK. There's rarely an issue, but sometimes it's not so well received.

I was doing a gig in Tamworth one night and mentioned being Jewish. I always ask the audience if there's anyone Jewish in the room, there's usually not and then we can have a laugh about that. This one night though I asked the question and a voice came back "I hope not!"

There was a very uncomfortable silence, which was helped slightly by the audience turning on this guy for being racist. I then took their lead, at which point almost as one they turned on me, for turning on their mate for being racist! It was fine for them to call him a dick as he was their mate, but who was I, coming here with my accusations of racism? That was too much!

I'm pretty sure I'd won them round by the end of my set, but it made for a very tough 17 minutes, I can tell you.

Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?

Having come from the acting world, which I found to be totally self-centred and not very supportive, I've found the comedy circuit to be far more encouraging.

One of the things we do as new acts is find ourselves on bills fairly early on with 'TV name comics' and unlike my experience working on TV shows where often the celebrities keep themselves to themselves, I have found comedians and promoters to be fantastic at offering help and advice.

Some of the earlier influences came from people who saw me gig and told other people, or booked me for gigs they run themselves. People like Lee Hurst who saw me do an open five at Covent Garden and Dave Ward who booked me for that gig (and many more since). I still regularly compere Covent Garden thanks to Dave, and this led to my ongoing relationship with Dan at Backyard.

But really the person I'm most grateful to is Keith Palmer who runs The Comedy School where it all started: I often return to chat to the latest batch of students, which is great fun. Through Keith I've managed to work on Mock The Week, which led to some great writing opportunities. He also got me my first spot at The Comedy Store.

He works so hard for the school but also for his pet project, teaching about the dangers of knife crime.

Philip Simon. Copyright: Jo Russell

And who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?

Does anyone ever answer this one honestly? Of course there are disagreeable people out there. But to save incriminating myself, I'll talk more about disagreeable 'types' instead.

One of the worst types of culprit would be anyone who doesn't treat what we do as a profession. From my very first morning on that comedy course I knew this wasn't just a bucket list experience, but the first step towards a change in direction. Therefore I took it seriously.

When I book gigs I make sure my line-ups are solid, respecting diversity as much as possible. I pay a fair fee, and I always pay a cancellation fee if a gig can't go ahead. Sometimes that comes out of my own pocket, but I only ever book gigs where the venues have signed an agreement stating what they are liable for so I know they're good for it, and if they aren't then I have Equity to back me up.

That's a rare mention for Equity in this slot, perhaps surprisingly?

It frustrates me when I hear comedians moaning about the state of the industry but then refusing to join Equity, a union dedicated to supporting performers. Without question they have failed many individuals and are not the best union (partly because comedians are a drop in the ocean of their full 48,000 strong membership), but they are better than nothing for sure.

It's great now to see the LCA [Live Comedy Association] start up and I know that Equity have been speaking with them to try and find some common ground, but of course they represent comedians and bookers/venues, which ultimately would lead to a conflict of interest should any disputes arise.

Is there one routine/gag you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?

I talk about being a dad on stage (original, right?) and I'm very open that our son wasn't planned. I used to have a bit that I loved about naming him and worrying about the initials as I didn't want him being bullied at school.

We decided 'Steven Simon' would give him the initials SS, which no Jew should have, 'Anthony Steven Simon' would make him an ASS, but it was ok because in the end we decided to go with 'Oscar Oliver Peter Simon'.

Maybe it's too subtle to get people to make the leap to 'OOPS'. Maybe it's just not a great joke. But it never really got anything so I ditched it. If anyone wants to fix it for me, that would be great.

How has your lockdown been, generally and creatively?

I'm sure I'm not in the minority here, but lockdown has been the worst imaginable time of my life. Having survived as an actor and then a comedian for about 20 years, suddenly everything changed professionally.

That said, creatively it has probably been productive. I am working most days dead into the night because, along with my amazing wife who is also working from home, we are having to balance childcare, home schooling, running a home and so on, so I am exhausted beyond belief, but my output has been immense.

Philip Simon's School's Out Comedy Club. Philip Simon

Not only have I had success with the podcast (Jew Talkin' To Me?), but School's Out Comedy Club is something I'm incredibly proud of. I've released 10 episodes so far, and also been able to host some live-streamed versions for youth groups such as Cubs, Scouts, Brownies, etc, including one company in Boston.

And one thing I've really loved doing is using my previous life as an actor - playing the role of Daddy Pig in the stage production of Peppa Pig to produce personalised video greetings for children to send supportive messages during lockdown (more info here).

Are there particular reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions that stick in the mind?

Talking about being Jewish on stage is always interesting because it does almost give people licence to come up to you afterwards and tell you what they think is a Jewish joke, that invariably turns out to be an antisemitic joke.

I try to avoid those conversations where possible because I don't like confrontation and really don't want to ruin the illusion of having been good on stage by then appearing to be argumentatively petty about what they considered a throwaway comment, possibly even a joke.

It's confusing for them, to recognise it's ok for me to be on stage mocking myself and then challenge them for joining in the fun off stage.

How about off the circuit, responses to your solo shows?

I did my Edinburgh show last year called Who's The Daddy Pig?. The main focus was how I struggled with the idea of fatherhood and my fears of trying to raise two sons in a world where their privilege as white middle class boys who will grow up to be white middle class men, needs keeping in check. The variety of reactions in the audience was a real eye-opener in terms of how subjective comedy can be.

Two bits of feedback that have stuck with me are the one boy (late teens) who walked past me after the show saying "if I wanted a lecture on gender politics I'd have stayed at university"! Since the show had only very briefly touched on that towards the end, it was interesting that this was the bit he had latched onto, suggesting that perhaps he was the very person that needed to hear what was being said.

A longer conversation was with a man, a similar age to me, who hung around until everybody had gone in order to tell me that he really enjoyed the show. He confessed that he'd recognised so many of the personality traits about my relationship with being a dad, that he was going to now go and seek help because he was convinced he suffers with paternal postnatal depression.

How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?

This could be a long-winded answer, so if you want the short version, here it is:

My career is going really well at the moment, especially when you think how hard it's been during lockdown. The only thing holding me back is not having an agent or someone opening more doors for me, so if you think that's something you could help with, for god's sake, get in touch and let's make each other some money!

Jew Talkin' To Me? can be watched on Facebook, YouTube and as an audio podcast

For all of Philip Simon's output, head to

Share this page