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First Gig Worst Gig

Raul Kohli

Raul Kohli. Credit: Jiksaw

It was the first of times, it was the worst of times. And now it's football time! You may be aware that the European Championships kicks off tonight, with lots of big names joining the terrestrial TV teams: Rooney. McCoist. Keane. Lampard. Shearer. And Raul Kohli, who had a big presenting gig on Channel 4's coverage of the England/Bosnia and Herzegovina friendly last week.

That national-team gig was interesting, as the Geordie joker is now gearing up for the Edinburgh Fringe with his excellently-named show Raul Britannia. What sparked the idea?

"I started comedy in 2012 when there was this wave of British pride," Raul reveals. "Then Brexit came around in 2016 and ever since then the world and the country has got increasingly divided and people dehumanise each other in a way that humans have always done, but at least in my life, in the past half century, feel worse than has ever done.

"It reminds me of some of the personal experiences of partition between my Pakistani friends and grandparents. I don't nor have I ever believed that white and British people should hang their heads in shame, but I also don't believe 'multiculturalism has failed' as Suella Braverman has put it."

Indeed. And how long has this hour been in the works?

"This show is so personal that I suppose I've been thinking about it my whole life, and I've been working on these ideas my whole career," he says, "but I've really been working on the show over about two years, and I think politically it has become increasingly salient. It's ultimately my attempt to reach a nuanced middleground that I'm not sure exists anymore, lol."

Nuanced middleground - is that where Jude Bellingham plies his trade, just behind the strikers? Anyway, let's find out where Kohli started plying his.

Raul Kohli. Credit: Jiksaw

First gig?

Comedy Virgins, the Cavendish Arms, Stockwell. It was the 2012 Olympics: late August. There was so much hope in the air. Hope for what Britain could be, hope for my career. I was 21 and both me and the country were full of optimism. It was a bringer so it was packed out.

I remember rehearsing my lines 1000 times. In front of a mirror, with a deodorant can as a microphone; to my brother and four of his friends sat on a couch, simulating a show. I wish I had that work ethnic still when it came to performance but as your career grows, things like chasing invoices and paying taxes becomes more important.

Who else was on?

I remember meeting the late Richard Hurley and thinking he had a smashing gig, but upon talking to him realising he'd had an awful gig, I just thought he was funny. I said to him 'smashing gig mate' and he said 'Oh, were you that one lunatic crying laughing at the back?'

Before stepping on that stage, I'd never really listened to the audience, I just liked what I liked.

I remember my set almost perfectly. It makes me sick now, but I had an opening line about if you've seen Geordie Shore, this isn't Indian heritage, it's flawless fake tan; Geordie Shore being as good a representation of Newcastle as Only Fools And Horses is of Peckham. And then a line about the Dark Knight Rises being what I call my erection.

Favourite show, ever?

There's been so many highlights at this point, it's hard to choose one: doing the Leicester Comedy Festival Gala to 1400 people was a highlight this year, there's been non-comedy gigs as well; appearing on the NUFC documentary [We Are Newcastle].

Raul Kohli

But I think the highlight still is my first gig for BBC Asian Network's Big Comedy Night, Fringe 2015 I think. It was the first real big show for me and was a huge sign that I was going to have a career in this business. It went as well as I could've wished and had me very excited for the future.

Worst gig?

Actually, that month was pretty tough, I had a terrible venue where there was no footfall. It was like abandoned arches turned into a venue. I pulled a lot of shows, and lost money that year, but I had the BBC producers coming to watch me to see if they were going to put me on the show. So the day before they arrived, I had no ticket holders, but I needed to rehearse, so rehearse is what I did. I did the show to nobody. Stage direction and all. Somebody accidentally walked in and just went 'Are you ok?'.

Dear reader, I was not ok.

Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?

There are too many to name just one, sorry.

My family have always been very supportive. My sister used to drive me to gigs across the country, my dad used to drop me off in the morning for the 5am megabusses I used to get to London. My old boss Jonny Cope was very supportive of what I did and would give me days off to go pursue those London gigs.

There's been a lot of random ladies in radio and stand-up who've encouraged me and pushed me on: Eva at The Stand, Rumana Haque who got me that BBC Asia gig, Sarah Carter and Gaynor Marshall at BBC Newcastle and of course Nick Minter who produced my Guardian-rated 5* podcast Comic Sanskrit.

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

Ivan Brackenbury.

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

Every joke I've ever written has not worked. I think everything I say is funny. Comics who can stick by their convictions that know sometimes an audience is wrong. For me, I have to respond to the audience, so if they don't like it enough, it goes in the bin.

Raul Kohli. Credit: Jiksaw

Any reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions stick in the mind?

EdFringeReview giving me 2* in 2014 and calling me 'the worst comedy they had ever seen' really hurt at the time. It was venomous. He really hated me. Especially 'cause the room loved it. There were two separate reviews. And another lady gave me 3* and wrote how the audience loved it and wrote 'maybe Raul will refine his sense of humour, or maybe I will have to develop mine.'

Having gone onto win awards, get 5* reviews and more from significantly more important publications, I've found it pretty funny and have often featured that quote on my posters. I think Richard Gadd did a similar thing if you've heard of him. They eventually deleted it.

Looking back, I just wonder what goes through a person's head to write such a scathing review about what was essentially like a 23 year-old kid following his dreams. I hope that man is in a better place.

Are you getting differing responses to this show, while previewing around the country?

No, so far, so good. It's been really great responses in Brighton and Leicester and I'm hoping to continue that through previews and in Edinburgh.

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

It's been the best calendar year of my life. After coming out of that nightmare pandemic, things have really gone on an upward trajectory: my first 5* review off The Guardian no less, a European tour, my first South East Asia tour planned for the Winter, I've done voiceover work for Lego, acted in a few things, modelled for Adidas, presented my first radio show while building a career in sports journalism also.

It's been great, because personally at the time of writing, my life is a mess, lol. This is all I really have, so best get to making it something to be proud of.

Raul Kohli: Raul Britannia is at Just the Tonic at Cabaret Voltaire, 1st - 25th August (not 12th).

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