Game for a laugh

John Moorhead marks two decades of bringing world-class comedy to Hong Kong, writes Oliver Clasper

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 4:56pm

Behind every successful artist is an invisible team of people working to bring the talent to the public's attention. From studio engineers and casting agents to film producers and book editors, these are the men and women who make things happen. And the same is also true of the comedy world.

One such man that Hong Kong comedy fans have to thank is John Moorhead. In the past two decades, Moorhead has helped nurture the local comedy scene, first taking to the stage himself and then working as a booker, trawling smoke-filled comedy clubs in Britain to find the best and most exciting talent.

As a booker I like variety. If I have someone dark, I want someone lighter or happier too
John Moorhead

"I've always liked comedy and I have my father to thank for that. As a kid, he used to take me to Marx Brothers movies downtown, or show me a stand-up comedian he admired. And then I would try to make him laugh, which isn't easy for a child, intentionally at least," Moorhead, 48, says from his native Australia where he now lives, having relocated from Britain in 2009.

Moorhead's formative year was 1993, when he took over the Hong Kong Comedy Club that took place at the Godown venue in Admiralty, which he renamed Punchline, a more generic title he could market around Asia (he was the first person to bring a Western comedian - Tim Clark - to China that same year).

Moorhead says the local comedy circuit hasn't changed much since, except - for better or worse - there were more British people back then. "Before '97 you could just turn up and work behind a bar, so you had a lot of young, comedy-savvy people. You also had thousands of Brits working on the new airport, so there was a big audience for comedy. We would do four nights in a row and it would be packed. It's still busy, but nothing like pre-'97. And before I took it over the standard was pretty low. It was just local expats and after the first show, and then the second, and then the third, they tended to tell old jokes."

Looking back at what Punchline has become, Moorhead admits he had no idea it would still be going two decades later. "You just start it for the love of it, without a grand plan." Moorhead was no stranger to performing. Between 1985 and 1988, he attended drama school in London - training and working as an actor - and when he moved to Hong Kong in 1991 his first job was with Star TV.

A few years after establishing Punchline in Hong Kong, Moorhead decided to return to Britain, without any real plans to continue building his brand - but build it he did. During the past 20 years he has amassed some of the best contacts in the business, signing and booking acts through The Comedy Store in London, which he sees as the yardstick for quality comedy.

"The Comedy Store is the hardest for any comedian to get into, so it's a pretty good standard to go by. I know them very well, and they help me book acts. Having lived in the UK for so long, I really got to know the circuit, and was in comedy clubs the whole time. I pretty much know everybody, and a lot of them are still on the circuit."

Asked about the discipline itself, Moorhead agrees that comedy does not come naturally to everyone. It has to be honed, and worked at: "I say that all the time, but people reply, 'Oh, but he's really funny'. Sure, it has its place, but it's like me helping my friend through a tough break-up and then suddenly announcing myself as a psychologist or a marriage counsellor. I'm not. I might have common sense, but that's not enough."

When it comes to putting on shows, as many Hong Kong promoters know, decent venues are hard to come by. They're either too small, or too big. Others are too expensive, don't have liquor licences, or are booked out solid - like the Academy of Performing Arts (APA) in Wan Chai. But that hasn't stopped some of the most popular comedians making concessions and playing to smaller audiences.

Over the years Moorhead has brought over, among others, Bill Bailey, Arj Barker, Michael McIntyre, Micky Flanagan and Al Murray, The Pub Landlord - with plans under way to bring Lee Mack over next year. And as Murray's agent says, if a small venue is good enough for McIntyre and Bailey, then it's good enough for Al.

Asked about his own tastes in comedy, Moorhead's answer is diplomatic, although with Louis CK and Richard Pryor among his favourites, it's clear what style he prefers. He also stresses the importance of respecting the audience. "I like the darker, edgier stuff when it's not my show - unless I really know they're going to nail it at the end, but it doesn't always go that way. Jerry Sadowitz is a good example of that. Not everyone can stomach it. As a booker I like variety. If I have someone dark, I want someone lighter or happier too. That's my formula."

When it comes to his all-time favourite performer, one name stands out: Jonathan Winters. "My father always mentioned Winters, an American comedian who died recently. He played the son of Robin Williams' character in the '80s TV show Mork & Mindy. He was the first to improvise. At the end of one comedy routine, he would be played a series of sounds and short scenarios. They'd stop the tape and he'd have to react to it. That was quite unusual in the '60s."

There's still one comedian left to mention, one of the greatest of all time: Bill Hicks. With a sad irony, Hicks died just a few months after Moorhead started Punchline, but one of Hicks' old friends and former comedy partners, Dwight Slade, is very much still alive. And he's the next big act Moorhead is bringing over in January.

Hong Kong is far from a comedy haven, but thanks to the likes of John Moorhead we get by.