Is the Maltese stand-up comedy boom already bust? | Matthew Bonanno

The rise of local stand-up comedy seemed to be one of the most promising new developments in culture and entertainment last year. But has it developed into a bona fide subculture? We speak to comedian and stand-up event organiser Matthew Bonanno to get a snapshot of how ‘healthy’ this scene is.

Matthew Bonanno:
Matthew Bonanno: "Performing in front of a crowd that’s mostly made up of your friends doesn’t give you an accurate indication of how you’re doing as a comedian"

How would you describe the state of Maltese stand-up comedy right now?

The best way I can describe it is stop-start. Every so often one of us comedians will organise a night. As for the comedians themselves, it’s great to see people improve with every gig they do. That’s one of the things I love about stand-up, you can easily tell how well you’re doing.

What do you think led to its sudden “boom” – if we may call it that – and how did it develop over the past year in particular?

It was really just a case of someone taking the initiative to organise a night. Speaking for myself, I’d wanted to try stand-up for a while before I first did it, but I never thought of organising one myself, out of both fear and laziness, I guess. Once I was asked I didn’t give it a second thought. The past year has been sporadic. Several of us have organised nights but no one is doing so regularly.  

Have there been any particular topics that Maltese stand-up comedians have picked up on more than others?

I haven’t seen anyone do really political stuff, aside from during the election, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a conscious choice. Other than that everyone has their own style. My favourites are the ones who make their acts personal by talking about their opinions and stuff that happens to them, like Malcolm Galea and Philip Leone Ganado who I think are currently the best two.

How difficult was it to find suitable venues? Would you say stand-up comedians have an easier time of it than musicians?

The comparison with live music is an interesting one. You would assume it’s easier for us because on the face of it all we need is a microphone and space for one person. But we also need an audience that is paying attention, whereas is this isn’t such a pre-requisite for music (my musician friends will kill me for saying that). The easiest way for an audience to actively listen is if they’re all sat facing the comedian, ideally close to the stage, and there aren’t many venues like this in Malta. The best venue I’ve performed at so far, and the place where I organise my own comedy nights with a friend of mine, is Django Jazz Bar in Valletta. It’s great because the bar is upstairs while the performing area is down in the cellar. It’s not got a huge capacity, I reckon about 60 people, but that’s a good size crowd for a gig. 

There’s also the issue of flexibility. A band might be able to do an acoustic set in a more laid-back venue, but as a comedian, especially an amateur comedian like we all are here, it’s more difficult to change your set.

Were audiences easy to secure?

It’s not that difficult to attract a small audience. There’s certainly a number of people who really like stand-up and will come to almost every gig. The fact that everyone knows everyone has its pros and cons. It’s good because you can round people up easily, but on the other hand performing in front of a crowd that’s mostly made up of your friends doesn’t give you an accurate indication of how you’re doing as a comedian.

Do you foresee local stand-up comedy being professionalised at some point in the future?

I’m going to have to be pessimistic here and say no. The problem is that in my opinion both the supply and demand just aren’t big enough to make it profitable. On the one hand the number of comedians, let alone good comedians, is small, and on the other I just can’t see stand-up becoming a mainstream thing like it is in the UK. It’s just not part of Maltese culture to sit and watch one person tell jokes on stage. So I’m afraid we probably won’t be seeing Live at the Manoel any time soon. I think most of us recognise this though and are happy to have it just as a fun hobby.

The fact is that Malta is no different from a medium-sized town in another country such as the UK, and even if you lived in the latter you’d still have to move to a bigger city if you wanted to make a career out of stand-up.

Matthew Bonanno co-organises the Inside Joke Comedy Club at Django Jazz Bar, Republic Street Valletta. Visit the Facebook page to stay updated on event dates