Sitting across from me in the small courtyard-café are the three members of The Wembley Store Boys; James Ryder, Erin Stuart Palmier – the original co-founders of the first comedy agency on the island – and Steve Diacono; the freshest partner of the trio. They are the eternal image of the businessman – clad in smart suits, with cups of coffee in front of them, packs of cigarettes and keys littering the table. And yet, the minute you glance up at their faces you see that their smug grins are ones more suited to mischievous little boys, who know what they want and know exactly how to get it.
After some small talk; which included a very serious oath on Erin’s part, that should he smoke again he would owe James money and Steve would be entitled to slap him in public (the boys take their bets very seriously; it was even videotaped), it was time to get down to business and talk about… well, business.
Q: James and Erin, how did you initially get into stand-up comedy? And how was the company set up?
James: “About a year ago, we met up to go watch the performance of R and J – The Musical and as we were watching the performance we realised that some of our friends are actually funnier. The original intention was actually about creating a comedic drama group, something similar to the Eden Comedy Club that we could actually pull off.”
Erin: “I myself have always been fascinated with everything and anything that has to do with Maltese culture, and I was quite interested in creating something on a local level. Of course this brought on quite some clashes in ideas with James (glances towards James to catch him rolling his eyes and muttering). The plan was to bring together a mixture of local and international acts; similar to LOL and The Eden Shows. James then had to reluctantly accept (laughs).”
James: “In fact for next year we’re planning a bigger mix of international acts and local artists. The latter were the most difficult to find since every person who’s done stand-up – except for Steve Hili – has started up with us.”
Erin: “The main difficulty was really coming up with what we can provide in entertainment that isn’t done already for entertainment in Malta. My idea is to get something very Edinburgh Fringe Festival going on, with international acts and local artists working towards enlarging the entertainment and arts scene in Malta.”
Q: So can you provide me with a short overview of how the shows and scheduling work?
James: “Well initially we started out as MCs for other comedy shows. Now we’ve grown into commissioning amateur or semi-established comedians – of which there are forty on the island – to do shows. We each have a role of which we are in charge of and we work from there. So Erin is the one who directs commissioned shows, due to his background in directing and acting (Erin is heard distinctly saying; “…and theatre, and drama, and what else? Oh go on James”, to which James stops and provides a mock-glare). I, myself am more involved in the shows due to my background in stand-up and magic, and Steve has a profound knowledge of lighting and sound, as well as a business edge.”
Erin: “And as time goes on, our audience grows. So for our first show we had around 150 people, for our second 200, and now the numbers just keep on growing. Our biggest number was of 500 people in the Saint Patrick’s Day Special. That of course ended quite…differently. A number of people got drunk and onto the stage, as well as other things happened.”
(All three burst out laughing and in response to my questioning stare I only get the enigmatic; “We made them drink beer. Lots and lots of it.”)
James: “To get us started we brought two great international acts: Kev Sutherland; with the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, and Alan Anderson with Whiskey Fir Dafties. They’re both awesome comedians and after that we started making contacts and the business just grew from there.”
Erin: “Quite a change from performing for a mafia-owned zoo or for a Norwegian wedding…”
Q: I have to ask this – How did you come up with the name?
Here, I got a number of chuckles, “Aaah”s and a prominent “You tell her, I’m not responsible for this”, from James.
Erin: “Well…you see…I already told you how much I love Maltese culture, and it so happens that I was reading Dwal fi Strada Stretta, by George Cini. Basically the original Wembley Store Boys were the first out gay prostitutes who used to hang out at the titular Wembley Store. The only common thing in between them and us is…well me. But mostly I just thought the name was catchy. You could call it rewriting history. We’re the new Wembley Store Boys.”
Q: Do you have any particular comedic style? Any specific influences?
Erin: “Ohh well personally I love alternate means of comedy. I’m very thick skinned. I am into comedians that have an agenda but don’t make it a point to present it foremost above their craft, Frankie Boyle, for instance. Nick Helm also doesn’t have an agenda, but I love how he elicits comedy through intimidation. I like Josh Blue perhaps because he uses his disability.
I love people who are very conscious of what affronts an audience. Stand-up is very confrontational and I love people who take advantage of that. Nevertheless, I like shock used wisely; Jimmy Carr, or Sarah Millican are examples. Russell Brand is a pro at creating a godlike persona; and stand-up is very much the theatre of persona rather than content. Then it’s just comedy, not stand-up comedy. But that’s a very general take on it.”
James: “Well me when performing comedy I like to portray myself as self-abusive. People love to leave their personal issues behind at a comedy show. But what they love more is having a seemingly muscular guy talk about his history of people who repeatedly mistook him for a member of the opposite gender. It gives them re-assurance that their self-esteem could afford to get a little higher.
My special influence is a comedian who I’ve idolised for many years: Mitch Hedberg. Unfortunately, he passed away at a young age do to an overdose, but his drug addiction led him to create comedy by using lateral thinking. He used to say; “Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.
Q: Do you write your own material? Like do you sit down and think ‘Hmm…for that gig I’m going to do this…’, or is it more a matter of winging it and playing to the audience’s response? Are your anecdotes real or completely fictional?
Erin: “No, you never wing it. I tried that once and I failed miserably. James is predominantly the talent, hence why he is head of stand-up. I spot talent like he does, but with the move to broaden the company, I am opening the theatre division. Comedians vary in styles, but they never just wing it. Everything is all prepared; what they do with the content however is where skill comes in. A joke is never doubly funny, and comedians work jokes differently to different audiences; they constantly change content. In this regard, the comedian is more like the marketing agent. Just like theatre, the audience is at the centre – at least that’s my theory.”
James: “ I like to keep my anecdotes as genuine as possible by taking advantage of my minimal education and doing every single thing that I can convince myself is a good idea. What turns out to be great would end up as a fantastic discovery. The rest would end up as comedic material; from screaming out names of various deities in an American airport, to setting my post-pubescent hair on fire using fuel. The rest of my act consists of a plethora of thoughts not allowed to be spoken in front of the mass public with some audience improvisation thrown in for fun’s sake.”
Q: So what happens if the audience fails to react or your jokes fall flat?
James: “I make light of the awkward situation. The fact that I’m a self-abusive comedian means I have the power of self-awareness on my side.”
Erin: “If that happens you change, you assess, you need to be quick on your toes and skilled enough to realise what about you is working and what isn’t; and you work on that. It’s like dating the world’s most bipolar female. James would know a lot about that (laughs uproariously while glancing towards James like a mischievous child expecting to be scolded). But really, it’s all about awareness. T.S. Eliot wrote; “Quick now, here, now, always”. That to me is the nature of good art, as is stand-up.”
Q: Any grand future plans?
Erin: “Ohhh well, let’s put it this way: this last week we skyrocketed. From two venues we now operate in twelve, we are making the move into hotels and getting a steady flow of private calls for birthday parties, bachelor’s, hen’s, weddings, conferences. We are opening a theatre division headed by me, and a music division; headed by Steve. Next year I want people to choose a restaurant because of the entertainment we provide, not for its food. We want the red arrows to draw out a big WSB in the sky. We want it all. That’s it really.”
James: “My plans are mostly: stick to my agency, polish up my act and try not to die in a way that people expect me to – trampled by Albanians or stabbed by a disgruntled, yet well-dressed ostrich.
Q: All fascinating stuff. It’s finally your turn Steve to talk about the business side of things. (Applause and cheering ensue).
What does it take to keep such a company up and running?
Steve: “Running a business, no matter its size, takes a lot out of you. This can be even more said when said company is split between 3 partners. Tensions will run high, at many a times motivation will be so low as to make you believe you should just give up and join the Arriva bus drivers society; and the constant negative bombardment from lecturers, family and “friends” doesn’t really quite help either. The trick is constant motivation; be it through appraisals, buying your business partner a slice of cake for getting a huge client, or suiting up to go buy a coffee and a couple of pastizzi. Your motivation is the key to your and your company’s success.”
Q: What improvements have you implemented ever since you joined The Boys a few weeks ago?
Steve: “Since I have joined The Boys, I have implemented a simplified method of a combination of well-known business philosophies, theories and modern management (the majority of which has been taken from Henry Fayol). What I have found to truly motivate and structure this company; was to implement a flat lined management with some elements of traditionalistic well known business beliefs. For instance; a penalty fee of ten Euro to those who come even a minute late to any, or all, meetings and to who doesn’t pull their own weight and a simple dress code of closed shoes and a collared shirt to every meeting. However, the biggest improvement I believe that has taken place has been that of administration and finance. For this, basic accounting and a simple online file storage system has been implemented.”
Q: So have there been any new economically-improving updates?
Steve: “The result of what I have just said is only proof of the pudding. From a meagre 2-3 venue, The Wembley Store Boys have increased their local stand-up circuit to a total of 12 venues in Malta and Gozo, in only 2 weeks; thereby pushing our profit margin up by over 60% to what it once was. With such a turn around The Wembley Store Boys now aim towards the horizon. With a re-branding on its way and several huge events in the pipeline, one may truly say that we Boys are no laughing matter (pun intended).”
Q: Back to you James. You are the lecturer of one of the newest study-units in degree plus; that of Stand-up Comedy. How did the idea of such a subject being added to the list of available units come about?
James: “Well we figured that the art of stand-up is not only something that can be developed and mastered, but also a fantastic contribution to the local arts scene. We’re happy that The University of Malta agreed with us, and even happier that its students want to join us. At this point, I just can’t wait to get started.”
Q: What should applicants expect to pick up during the course?
James: “One of the first educational approaches to stand-up comedy in Europe, increased charisma and a better sense of public speaking. Not to mention an opportunity to be signed with the most active talent agency on the island.”
So there you have it. The recipe for making it to (relative) stardom. Meanwhile, while you deeply analyseyour inner self to find that hidden store of knock-knock jokes, I suggest you go down to one of The Wembley Store Boys’ shows at the Hard Rock Café – which run every three weeks – and get ready to laugh your socks off during. Apart from that, one could also watch a number of shows they have during all the days in between, held at various locations around Malta and Gozo (yes, Gozitans, they have something for you too). Liking their Facebook page in order to keep up with all the latest news and events would also be a step in the right direction that your sense of humour will thank you for.