It sounds like the premise for a sitcom – and now it is. The Bill Murray in north London, home to the Angel comedy club, is a commune for standups: comedians live as well as perform there. But like every venue in the land, it found itself critically endangered, and inactive, under lockdown. So what did boss Barry Ferns and his team do? They made a sitcom, about the desperate measures a comedy club takes to survive a moratorium on live performance. Big-name standups rushed to take part: “it became like Avengers Assemble,” says Ferns. The result, Save the Bill Murray, streams from next week.
To understand how this came to pass, it helps to know what the Bill Murray is: a pub, bought by comedians in 2017 (and re-named), to run as a comedy club and college. Its instincts are egalitarian; its values more creative than commercial. “The room’s amazing,” says comic James Acaster, who guest stars in the sitcom. “Because they’re comedians, they kept tweaking it until they got this perfect room that’s beautiful to perform and watch comedy in. It’s a real hidden gem. I can’t remember another instance of comics getting their own venue, designing it for standup and making it work.”
That is until Covid came along – since when, gigs have been few and far between. The club received emergency government funds in the autumn but remains under threat. It was under these circumstances that the resident comics’ impulse to do something became irresistible. “I’d love to say there was thinking behind the sitcom,” says Ferns. “But it’s really just that there was nothing to do and we wanted to do something.” The catalyst, he says – chatting over Zoom alongside co-writer and director Simon Weekes – was a call to cult US comic Maria Bamford, who turned a dream into reality by offering to guest star.
Like every episode, Bamford’s instalment – she offers video call pep talks to downcast denizens of the club – dramatises the problems the venue faces as lockdown drags on. It wasn’t hard to find real-life examples to draw on. “These are real problems facing the club and the people that live there,” says Weekes. “But what’s so fantastic about working with these comics is, they could make those problems incredibly funny. We could just say, ‘Mark, you’re refusing to take out the bins’, then sit back and enjoy watching what happens.”
Mark is deadpan Anglo-Indian anti-comic Mark Silcox. Co-stars, all residents or regulars at the club, include Sunil Patel, James O’Donnell, octogenarian American comic Lynn Ruth Miller – and Ferns himself, playing the “desperate, ‘we’ve got to find some way to survive’ character”, he says. Together, they improvised, Curb Your Enthusiasm-style, around scripted narrative and character arcs. It was a wheeze, its creators report. “The idea of Barry improvising with Maria Bamford on Zoom,” says Weekes, “and me standing back and directing it? That felt so unlikely, and was so extraordinary, that after that everything felt possible. Strapping an iPad with James Acaster’s face on it to Barry’s head? No longer out of the question.”
Sure enough, the very funny Acaster episode finds the Netflix superstar playing the club’s authoritarian boss-by-proxy, without ever leaving his front room. Was it tricky to make that work? “It was easier than actually going on set and getting your makeup done,” says Acaster. So you did your own makeup? “I did my own makeup, highlights, everything.”
Other stars followed: Nina Conti, Adam Buxton, Jamali Maddix. When Tim Key was asked to sign up, he didn’t hesitate. “My last two shows, I worked them up at the Bill Murray,” he says. “I must have done 30 gigs there. When you’re developing a show, a place like that can become a building block of your whole life.”
For the sitcom, Key offered to perform a lockdown gig to one single audience member. “I hadn’t been on stage for months,” he says, “then there I was, with a sheet of Perspex in front of me and one audience member. You had a comedian desperate to perform and an audience member starved of any comedy. It was really a warm moment” – drolly undercut in the sitcom by Ferns’ chaotic attempts to honour an accidental double-booking in the same room.
So will the sitcom help save the club? Acaster knows as little as anyone what the future holds but is committed to helping save the comedy world. (Avengers Assemble, indeed.) “If and when we can do live performance again,” he says, “it’s going to be all hands on deck and everyone pulling together to get people back into the clubs.” To which end, he hopes the sitcom is good, but not great. “I always think with digital comedy, it’s very important that it’s not brilliant. I deliberately turn in a worse performance of everything I do so that people keep missing live comedy.”
But – imperfect or otherwise – it’s those performances and the spirit they represent that Ferns thinks will keep the Bill Murray afloat. “The fact that this sitcom got made, it’s an example of how the club has hope and continues. The amount of calls we got last year from big-name comics that have played here: What can we do? How can we help out? I was amazed. But because of that, there’s hope.” Hope for what? “To come together in a place and laugh and get out of our heads, just for an evening,” says Ferns. “I’ll just be glad when there’s a little bit of that possible. I’m hoping for nothing more than that.”
• Save the Bill Murray is available to Angel Comedy Patreon members from 29 January.