Derby Comedy Festival - 13th to 22nd June

Spikey Mike of Funhouse Comedy Club

Spikey Mike of Funhouse Comedy Club - Credit: Archant

Nigel Powlson looks into the latest addition to Derby’s vibrant Festival Scene

Steve Hewlett, 22nd June

Steve Hewlett, 22nd June - Credit: Archant

Derby has always been a comedy town which is why Dara O’Briain once put the Assembly Rooms in his top five venues in the country. Audiences are renowned for enjoying a good laugh and the top stars love playing Derby as a result. So it really is time that the city celebrated with a full blown festival dedicated to the fine art of comedy.

The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, 20th and 22nd June

The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, 20th and 22nd June - Credit: Archant

Arriving to satisfy that need is a veritable feast of laughter taking in everything from stand-up and improvisation, via puppetry and children’s comedy, to burlesque and theatre. The first Derby Comedy Festival in June has something to tickle just about everyone’s funnybone and goes ahead despite the recent fire that has taken the city’s biggest venue, the Assembly Rooms, out of the equation.

The festival is being organised by Derby Live alongside other arts organisations in the city including Déda, Derby Theatre, Funhouse Comedy, QUAD and even the city’s orchestra Sinfonia Viva. Bob Rushton, the programme manager at Derby Live, says the time is right for Derby to make the most of its comedy potential and to add another festival to the city’s successful calendar.

He says: ‘We had such a lot of comedy events last year that Marketing Derby actually thought we were having a festival. So we got to thinking that we may as well just get on with it and have one. But a festival has to be more than just business as normal and needs to include things that are different.

‘Funhouse Comedy do some fabulous shows already in the city and we have had good links with them for years so that was a nice easy fit to get things rolling. Then being able to work with other venues at putting on events, and with Sinfonia Viva working on a music piece, it all came together very nicely. It had to fit with all the other festivals in the city so we went for June – despite one or two football matches going on around that time!’

Bob admits that the World Cup in Brazil did mean working a few things around the big England games. ‘But we are aware that not everyone is into football,’ says Bob. ‘And even people who are might need a bit of light relief.’

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Sadly, the festival has lost its big hitters Jimmy Carr and Dawn French from the line-up as the Assembly Rooms fire means there isn’t a city venue that can house their shows. But festival organisers have managed to find new venues for the majority of events that were planned for the Assembly Rooms – with some taking place in a marquee on the Market Place.

Bob says: ‘The comedy festival is in its first year so there is a certain newness about it anyway so I’m not sure making changes will put people off. We would rather have not had the fire to deal with but it has shown us the advantage of having something that goes across more than one venue. We have lost the biggest venue and some of the events but the festival feel will be very much still in place and the idea is very much alive.’

With the marquee in the Market Place and an outdoor free event organised by Furthest from the Sea on 21st June it also means that everyone will have a chance to enjoy a good laugh while the festival is running.

Bob says: ‘Events like that mean it will be highly visible, so everybody should be aware it’s happening. There’s The Fish’s Wishes by Lyngo Theatre for little ones, comedy films at QUAD, burlesque at Déda and, our favourites round here, The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, which you just have to see. I have been looking for a way to get them to come down for years. Perhaps we could only do that in a festival setting.’

Bob believes Derby Live was only able to get the festival off the ground because of the strong reputation the arts organisation has built for putting on comedy in the city.

Bob says: ‘It’s trust both ways. If there’s an act promoters are trying to break we will take a punt on them and in return, when we do something new like this they are happy to work with us. People know Derby works for comedy and I often get emails from people who have heard great things about the venue or city. The work we do year round pays dividends when we come to do things like this.’

It has been 20 years since Rob Newman and David Baddiel became the first stand-ups to play Wembley Arena and comedy was declared ‘the new rock and roll’. Bob says there’s no doubt that audiences grew massively after that and the appetite has never been lost.

He says: ‘When I started coming to the Assembly Rooms it was to see bands. People say what has happened to all that and the truth is the market has changed. For music these days it’s small venues or arenas but comedy has filled that gap and audiences have grown ever more receptive to it. There’s also more variety and a broader appeal.

‘TV has helped with panel shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats and Mock the Week. You can see a lot of comics on TV and that drives an appetite to see them live.’

The East Midlands already has one massive annual comedy festival in Leicester but Bob says there’s still room for Derby.

‘Derbyshire has its own market,’ says Bob. ‘It would be great if we got to the size of Leicester Comedy Festival in a few years’ time but it is a different feel. The brochure at Leicester this year was the size of War and Peace and we are in our first year.

‘But there are music festivals happening every weekend in the summer, you can’t see them all, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t find an audience. And Leicester Comedy Festival is in the early part of the year and we are in the summer, so there’s room for us as well.

‘What Derby is doing is getting a great reputation for festivals, whether that’s the folk festival, Festé or FORMAT. But they work because they offer something special. Even the word festival draws people together and makes people think they are going to have a fun time.’

Funhouse Comedy Club

The ever-expanding Funhouse Comedy Club will be celebrating 10 years this summer and it all started in a small pub venue in Derby. Compère and Funhouse founder Spiky Mike’s first event was at the Blessington Carriage and it quickly became the place to spot rising comedy talent – Sarah Millican and Rhod Gilbert are among the future stars to have performed at the 60-capacity club. With quality like that, Funhouse Comedy rapidly expanded and now takes place at four venues in Derby, one in Burton and more than 40 in and around the Midlands.

Before Funhouse took off, Mike Bottomley was a DJ and became Spiky Mike by accident. ‘I was at a club and they didn’t want to put my real name out there for tax reasons and insisted on a pseudonym. I was on holiday and they couldn’t get hold of me to ask what I wanted, so they picked Spiky Mike and it just kind of stuck.

‘It all started as I had been doing comedy for about a year and it seemed a good way to be able to gig regularly without travelling all over the country, which I’m not so keen on.

‘The Blessington Carriage turned out to be a great venue. Everyone loved playing there and over the years we have had lots of people who have gone on to be big stars. We also once had a secret show by Jasper Carrott. It has been an exciting few years.

‘It was just about me getting stage time for my stand up but it just took off. I have never approached venues but they keep coming to me to organise a comedy night. I can’t seem to say “no” so I have more than 40 now. I can only be at about half of them and I have Scott Bennett from Nottingham who compères a lot of them for me, including The Greyhound in Derby.’

Mike says the secret of a good comedy club is simple. ‘You need a room that’s suited to it,’ he says. ‘Somewhere with a low ceiling to keep the laughter in and create a great atmosphere. You need a nice shape to the room, good sightlines and then nice friendly people in the crowd.’

Mike’s delighted to see Derby now having a fully-fledged comedy festival. ‘Leicester has had one for more than 20 years so Derby is certainly ready for one. The plan is to get bigger and bigger each year. Derby has always been the biggest hotbed of comedy for us so there’s clearly an appetite for it.’

Funhouse will be celebrating its first decade with two anniversary shows, one at the Blessington Carriage featuring Gary Delaney from Mock The Week and then a bigger show that was to have launched a regular monthly night at the Assembly Rooms on 31st May but which has been rehoused at the Silk Mill Museum.Funhouse Comedy will also be doing several shows as part of the Derby Comedy Festival. They start on 14th June with Phil Walker on the bill and include the Gong Show style ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ on 16th June, ‘Comedy Moves’ on 17th June and an Edinburgh Festival Preview All-Dayer on 22nd June.

Festival highlights

Derby Comedy Festival runs from 13th June to 22nd June. Go to or call 01332 255800. Due to the fire at the Assembly Rooms events and dates may change so please check the latest news on the website. There are more than 20 events in the festival. Highlights include:

Norman Lovett: The ‘Red Dwarf’ star with his stand-up show – June 15th

The Fish’s Wishes: Lyngo Theatre with a show for all the family – June 16th & 17th

The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre: ‘The Abbott and Costello of the sock world’ are stars of stage, screen and Youtube. They promise to bring you a ‘new show of songs, sketches, socks and violence’ – June 20th and 22nd

Furthest From The Sea: Outdoor community-led fun – June 21st