Pete Dobbing is a mainstay of the Bristol comedy scene. He’s known for being a co-conspirator in some of the most exciting projects in comedy including Machynlleth Comedy Festival, Bristol Underground Comedy, The Top Secret Comedy Club and the Comedian’s Comedian’ Podcast. His Edinburgh shows are full of his boundless enthusiasm for articulating the inarticulable, and stories from his former life as one of Covent Garden’s most intuitive street performers.
We spoke to Pete about what got him into stand up comedy, his part in the local comedy scene and what he’s up to this year.
What got you into comedy in the first place, and how did your background as a street performer help with this?
I used to go and see shows with Rich Hall at the Hackney Empire when I was 16. I always wanted to do stand up. Then I started street performing so I could make my own work and travel. After about a decade of that, I eventually started doing comedy. I suppose I always intended to, but wanted to wait until the right time.
When I started, at first I just sort of got up and shouted a lot. I’d hide behind shouting! I’d hide behind the curtain and demand applause, looking back that seems so tacky, but because of my background in street performing I could talk to the audience. I threw myself in physically and tried to come up with ideas on stage, and eventually the surreal ideas started to come out.
Stand up for me is both writing and performing. People who do it are either writers who learn to perform, or performers who learn to write. Because I’m a performer I don’t script things in advance. When I was a complete beginner I improvised completely. I’d rely on the audience to tell me where the funny bits are. Now I’ve learned to prepare more, but I’d still say my best gags were improvised lines that got a bigger laugh than the actual joke.
You’re a big part of the Bristol comedy scene. Tell us what you like about living here.
I love Bristol and the South West. It feels like a community. I grew up in London, so I’m aware that I’m one of those people who move and ruin the city! Me and my wife moved around a lot, trying different places every 18 months or so, but we wanted to have a family here. I’ve got good friends here, like Stu Goldsmith, and he was planning on living here too, so that seemed like a plus.
When I gigged in London, there were lots of little groups that I never felt part of. But when I moved to Bristol I noticed it’s a lot less competitive. You’re part of a scene, and you see lots of similar faces, which is really nice. When you know a lot of people at the gig, it changes what the gig is to you as a comedian. It feels friendlier. But that might be partly due to the fact that I started in London, and now I’m more experienced.
The audiences here are a sophisticated bunch. They’re out and about a lot, they see a lot of live performance, cinema and music, and I find Bristol audiences really friendly and intelligent. It’s great living here because you’re free to experiment on stage.
Tell us about Bristol Underground Comedy, how it started, what inspired you and what’s in store for 2018.
I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with Machynlleth comedy festival since it started. Stu Goldsmith had been doing live comedy for a couple of years, and had a gig in Swansea run by a guy called Henry Widdicombe. I went with him, met Henry before I’d even started doing stand up, and he said, ‘You’ve got a funny surname, you should do it too.’
Henry wanted to start a comedy festival, and he had this great idea. I helped out with the tech and lighting because I had a van. I hired the lights and the sound and accidentally became chief technician for the first year! After that, I explained to Henry that I wasn’t qualified and ended up running the variety and circus, but every year I’d try to help out in different ways.
He always said, if you start a gig, it has to be really good. Get a small room, sell it out, get great comedians and people will come back. So at one Machynlleth I met Darryl Carrington, we got on, we had a lot in common and he had connections with people about to open a club in Bristol. We decided to start a comedy night together without ever having seen Loko club! Running Underground has been a real journey.
This year we’re going to keep running new material nights at the Arts House, we’re in talks about moving to other venues, and we’re still doing big nights at the Loko club over the next few months.
(Find out more about Bristol Underground Comedy here)
Your Edinburgh shows often take a scientific, philosophical angle. What’s your inspiration for 2018 likely to be?
I’m into tech, gadgets and science because I love it. I grew up with up with sci-fi. My first few shows were about futurology so I could geek about things like Bitcoin, I even gave it away at the time. So this year there’s going to be bits on augmented reality, and other things I’m interested in.
I’m really excited by new technology and the social impact of change. I’m a hipster for technology. Instead of banging on about bands people haven’t heard of, then ditching them when they’re famous, I do that with technology.
(Find out about Pete’s Edinburgh show here…)
What would you say to someone who hadn’t been to an independent comedy night before? Where should they check out, and why?
The ecosystem for comedians in this country is really rich. But most people don’t go to see live comedy regularly. Most audiences don’t realise that by the time someone’s famous, that comedian will have gigged at a pub near your house at some point in the last five years. Instead of paying for someone who already is famous, why not go to a local comedy night and see someone before they get there?
The best comedy is in a small, crowded room. Go regularly to your local, and take a risk. Get a group of friends together and go along regularly to a night. You being there will make a huge difference to the promoter. You’ll also contribute to the existence of the night, and the quality of the acts that they’re able to book.
If you contribute, you’re actually helping your local comedy to get better.