Sarah Cotterill meets the Founders of the city’s freshest stand-up night.
There’s a momentary inhale of breath as Alex Dunlop addresses the second row of the audience to open Leeds Comedy Project. A hesitant pause while everyone scrambles to remember their first name; where they’re from; what they do. Some pretend to be invisible, looking down at their knees. Some fill their chests, ready for a public roasting. Instantly Alex’s warmth and wit puts the crowd at ease. We giggle at accountants, crane necks to view the plucky couple who’ve announced that they’re on a first date, pray silently for the inquisition to remain in earshot of the stage.
One week you might see a Jarvis Cocker impression, the next an unedited re-telling of Gujrati marital traditions.
To welcome the first act of the night, Alex starts the customary clap on one side of the room; A Mexican wave of encouragement as thunderous applause meets anxious footsteps from the comedian bravely heading to the stage.
Thankfully, unlike the rowdy gigs you stumble upon shoved at the back of a pub, where pint glasses slam onto sticky beer mats with each inappropriate one-liner, Leeds Comedy Project have three rules: One – turn your phone off, no one wants to be interrupted mid-flow by your Mum checking in. Two – don’t heckle, LCP offer a supportive setting for budding performers to try out new material, and Three – don’t be a d**k.
IN 2019, over greasy trays of street food at Trinity Kitchen, Azeem Ali proposed a rough business plan for a live comedy night that felt different to dated drollery doing the rounds on the London circuit. The friends were tired of spaces that didn’t feel inclusive or representative of audiences from diverse backgrounds. They reckoned that with some edgy artwork and minimal marketing, they could launch an event in Leeds, where fresh entertainment arenas felt few and far between. “Alex and I shared similar ideas on stand-up….as a whole - from how the industry is structured, to presenting live comedy that feels exciting,” Azeem remarks. “I didn’t think Leeds was big enough, but I was wrong” adds Alex, “I generally am.”
And wrong he certainly was. The trusted, ‘d**k-free’ LCP comics, have gone from playing to a handful of chairs above The Brunswick, to a mis-matched congregation settled around the Nation of Shopkeepers dancefloor, to a packed Headrow House on a Monday Night. And the duo haven’t stopped there.
“It’s been mad really. This year we’ve gone to weekly shows after being biweekly for the last year and sporadic before that,” Alex recalls. “I expected that doubling the number of shows would have initially halved our audiences, but they’ve actually gone up. We’ve also just started a second night at Archive so we’re doing good right now. The shows lately have been the best in terms of the acts, how the audience responds and the feedback we get.”
Said audiences, are a mix of twenty-somethings, students, young professionals, plus a sprinkle of slightly older folk too. “We try our best to engage an audience like us, and represent that on the line-up, even though it’s difficult,” Azeem admits. One week you might see a Jarvis Cocker impression, the next an unedited re-telling of Gujrati marital traditions. “Each of the acts bring something different – in style or material wise to the night. The only thing comedians seem to have in common is having s**t Dads!” Alex proffers.
For Both Alex and Azeem, family played a huge role in shaping their sense of humour. “My first vivid memory of watching Richard Pryor when I was fourteen, was on Paramount Comedy,” Azeem recollects. “It was a Sunday evening, and I watched it alongside my Dad, who doesn’t have the best understanding of English, but was still in near death from laughing so hard. It made me realise how powerful stand-up comedy can be.” Growing up, Alex lauded his Uncle Jay as the funniest man he knew - “But that might be just because he stole jokes from The Simpsons!” he computes.
Lockdown proved to be a real stumbling block for the pair, desperate to avoid the kind of socially distanced Zoom gigs that much of the industry was replicating. “Covid cut short the momentum we were building in March 2020,” Alex confesses. However, the pause may have been exactly what was needed, to sharpen their skill-set and develop the ticketing system which now renders the show profitable. “In terms of our approach, we’ve changed so much,” Azeem acknowledges. “We’ve become more realistic with the in-between steps, [we] understand our vision better on a smaller scale, and what we’re trying to carve out long-term.”
So, what does the future hold for Leeds Comedy Project? “Our ambitions are to keep growing, establish new nights, new acts who are exciting to watch, and overall present a new energy in comedy that feels fresh, fresh, fresh!” Azeem concludes.
Follow Sarah on Twitter @scottnodot
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