Before lockdown put an end to just about everything, Sajeela Kershi would host regular comedy evenings at the Harlequin Theatre. These evenings would bring together a range of comedic talent. From the cosy to the cutting-edge, you’d get dick jokes one minute and a Swiss woman satirising her own country the next. The performers also had varying levels of success: some were up-and-coming, some established TV and radio comedians. There is, of course, a lot that can be said for variety, but at the end of the day they all need to be good for it to work. Kershi, who has been in the role of host and organiser for over 14 years, knows this, and ensures a great evening by booking high-quality acts.
‘I book all the acts, negotiate fees, deal with agents, press releases, publicity, venue hiring. etc and off course MCing the night,’ she says of her role. ‘All the behind the scenes stuff that no one sees. But on the actual night thanks to the team I can now just focus on MCing, keeping the night to time. The comedy cottage works because there is an unwritten rule. That allinvolved me. Team, acts and audience will do their best to be open and willing to have a great night out!’
The event, the proceeds of which are donated to charity, has a long history. ‘I started it in a room in the back of a pub,’ Kershi reminisces. ‘It’s moved around various venues over the years, finally settling at the Harlequin theatre. I started the night as a one off. I’m very politically active and I wanted to help support children caught up in conflict and the long-term effects of trauma.’ She eventually discovered War Child, ‘a charity doing the kind of work I wanted to support. So together with a bunch of my London comedy friends I ran my first Comedy Cottage night (back then it was called ‘Comedy at the Cottage’) I passed on the proceeds to War Child.’
The long-running comedy show has become something of a local staple, at least with followers of live comedy. Not always being tethered to the Harlequin, it has enjoyed several exciting one-off venues over the years, for example being hosted in a farmhouse owned by friends of the organisers. Wherever it goes, the comedy is always top-notch.
For someone so politically active, it makes sense that Kershi would eventually attract the notice of a politician. When performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she met Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. Kershi said she was ‘extremely excited then very nervous as I was on what they call the ‘death spot’ nearly midnight show in a very quiet part of town so had a very low pre-sales that particular night.’ Of course, Khan was attended by an entourage for security, but Kershi was understanding. ‘He had his usual security. And quite right too. He does a very important job, a thankless one for which he deserves to feel safe doing. I think most Londoners like me feel very protective over our lovely Mayor.’ The Mayor was, indeed, lovely. ‘He and his wife were extremely kind and flattering about the show. I was very grateful they came to a show way past most people’s bedtime. He very kindly tweeted recommending my show.’
Of course, a chance meeting with a political titan like Khan, especially for someone so politically active, is bound to make quite an impression. But Comedy Cottage is still fundamentally a local, grassroots event. At its core, it’s about bringing different comedic voices together, from all over the world and from across stylistic spectrum of comedy. Some of these comedians are established successes, some are rising stars, but all provide a memorable evening. We can only hope that, once the vaccine, wherever it may come from, ends our predicament, the show will return.