“There’s a reason I’ve been running a successful comedy club for 25 years now and don’t own a yacht,” says Toby Hadoke, founder of XS Malarkey. Tongue firmly in cheek but no boat in sight, we move the conversation on.
A professional comedian for almost 30 years — Unbroadcastable Radio Show founding member, 99 Club and Comedy Store residencies, Les Dawson Award wins, and, as we learn, a real passion for talking Doctor Who — he founded XS Malarkey in around September 1997 at defunct Fallowfield drinking den Scruffy Murphy’s. Christened Murphy's Malarkey, it was expected to run for eight weeks.
Suffice to say, it exceeded expectations, and has grown into a bonafide legend, hosting some of the biggest and most respected names in comedy over the years and bringing through countless more. Rebranding after arriving at another now-shuttered South Manchester spot, Bar XS, today it resides at Oxford Road's Canvas each week (usually on a Tuesday).
Finest arrives at XS Malarkey on a chilly early-spring evening and the crowd gathered in the subterranean space hangs on Hannah Platt's every word. A local comic, she fires headshots at mental health and social anxiety, hers and ours, culminating in an incredible finale during which we realise how difficult it could be to exit stage left without your walk being seen as part of the routine.
Later, we get Daliso Chaponda. Apparently preparing for a television spot to discuss Britain's refugee and asylum debate, the audience becomes a testbed for a few points he wants to make. All are painfully close to the bone, warming up nicely for Kate Martin's experiences as a tall woman, before a return to politics with headliner Rosie Holt.
Holt's satirical Conservative MP character excels in the flesh, not least when asking NHS staff why they're not at work, or breaking into disturbing catchphrase loops: "I love nurses" ad infinitum. Her to-camera "interviews" and "press conferences" have long-since exploded online, tricking Tory MPs into thinking she's legit, and foolish opposition voices to attack. The fact she's headlining tonight isn't surprising.
XS Malarkey has more than a track record. Before the show, Hadoke and Ros Bell, who have been part of the family since 2002, tell us about very early sets from Justin Moorhouse and Alan Carr. Then Peter Kay as his ascension began in 1997. The latter lured so many fans from his Bolton hometown that demand inspired a membership card rewarding loyalty with discounts. That system remains in place, reflecting, as Holt might phrase it, a commitment to community.
“I think that’s very important to XS Malarkey. There’s a whole bunch of us that work on it, and it’s a very community thing. We’ve always tried to encourage that returning crowd. That’s what we try and create with the audience, but also the acts we book. You know, we try and nurture people along their journey,” says Bell.
“Joe Lycett is a really good example. He came here first to do an opening spot, and now he’s on Channel 4, doing loads of brilliant, amazing stuff... There's a kind of joy you get from seeing people improve. Or, you know, seeing someone do something weird on stage – try new things out. It’s important to have a space where people are allowed to experiment and do stuff they might not be able to in most comedy clubs. We just let them do their thing," she continues, as longstanding relationships with the likes of Sarah Millican, Phil Ellis, Nish Kumar, and James Acaster are mentioned.
Now priced at £6.50 (non-members), even with those bookings XS Malarkey has managed to rally against inflation over two increasingly expensive decades, pushing for inclusion. Meanwhile, by establishing a community of regulars, both behind the microphone and in the seats, the team have cemented a reputation as a comedy fan's comedy event. No reliance on large groups; hen, stag and office parties need not apply.
“There’s no ‘prove yourself vibe’ from the audience here. And if there was, I would stamp on it,” says Hadoke, who emcees most dates. “I was talking to a couple of audience members the other week who were saying they’d seen the same act we had on, but paid £20 for the ticket at another event. That comic spent their whole time trying to control the audience. That’s my job, and it’s not so hard now as over the years I’ve made it pretty clear this isn’t about controlling drunken parties. It’s about the acts we’re putting on.”
XS Malarkey’s status as a comedy institution is the product of evolution. From student-targeted to international platform for new and established talent. A number of milestones have been passed en route. The first, a simple decision to switch from free entrance to 50p. This “transformed the gig… a nominal charge made people look at the stage, which had been the intention all along," Hadoke quips.
A decade or so later, Stewart Lee stopped by during his return to the touring circuit following hiatus. His search for clubs outside the mainstream brought him to XS Malarkey's door, and he continues to recommend the event to this day. And more recently, the move to Oxford Road marked another chapter.
“We were looking for a new place, getting itchy feet, sort of sniffing around. [Canvas management were] so enthusiastic about the night, which was lovely. We looked at the space and the equipment, but most of all fed off that enthusiasm," says Hadoke. "We’ve had the comedy down for years, but the places available have often been slightly dingy, rickety seats, all of that. Which got us thinking: people are coming for the acts, but what if they are doing that in spite of everything else?"
“Everyone’s excited now to have fully functioning heating, and, you know, nice comfortable chairs,” Bell interjects, only half-joking about the state of disrepair across many suitable small venues in Manchester. “One thing a lot of places don’t seem to understand is why you’d charge £3 or £6 for something that people are willing to pay double for. So it stands to reason our community values, the reason behind that, won’t work in some places.”
XS Malarkey is at Canvas each week, doors open 7.30pm. Forthcoming dates include:
Tuesday 11th April: JJ Whitehead
Thursday 20th April: Bethany Black
Monday 22nd May: Rob Anderson
Tuesday 23rd May: John Luke Roberts (Tour Show) & Mark Watson (Preview)