Edinburgh Fringe, Day 16: The comedy critic, the comic & the sado-masochism

Copstick at the Grouchy Club this afternoon

People who have foolishly never attended ask what the increasingly prestigious live Grouchy Club shows which I host with comedy critic Kate Copstick are actually like.

Well, for one thing, they are not really shows. They are chats. Free to enter. Free to leave. No bucket collection at the end.

They aim to be what The Scotsman described them as last year: “a talking shop for comics riding the emotional rollercoaster of the Edinburgh Fringe” – except that the target audience is wider… performers, media and industry.

The audience are the show. Co-host Kate Copstick and I talk with whoever turns up about whatever crops up. Inevitably, today, one of the subjects was (again) comedian Lewis Schaffer and his show Unopened Letters From My Mother – Each day, he opens one of 23 letters his mother sent from New York (some from a mental hospital) to him in London between 2000 and her death alone in New York in 2011. And he never opened them.

Lewis Schaffer reading aloud one of his mother’s letters

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote: “I have a terrible feeling that he is doing these shows as a way of daring the audiences – and daring himself – to dislike him.”

This afternoon, at the Grouchy Club, I said: “In his show last night, it was seriously voyeuristic. We were watching a real person on the stage… not quite having a breakdown, but showing real emotions. You don’t normally see real, genuine emotions on the stage.”

“I think,” said Copstick, “that he is genuinely a kind of misery junkie. Some people go into physical SM because, when someone takes a whip across your back, you get a rush of endorphins. That’s just scientific fact. Whatever you think of the psychology, getting beaten-up creatively releases endorphins into the brain and they are the most powerful feelgood chemicals on the planet. It stimulates all kinds of things. The messages that the nerve endings send release into your brain adrenaline and all the -enalines and they are ‘fight or flight’ and they give you a kind of a rush, a head rush.

“And, of course, you are not using that to trigger flight – frequently because you’re bound up – or because you are paying to be beaten-up, so why would you run away? The bondage thing – the psychological thing – helps but, physiologically, you get an endorphin rush.

“Things like morphine are less powerful versions of the drugs that your brain makes anyway. It’s an amazing feeling. I don’t really do it now, I think, because I am on severe anti-depressants. But, before I was on anti-depressants, I was a real SM junkie. There were a couple of guys – I was their favourite sub because they couldn’t hit me too much for my taste. There were a couple of guys, I was their ‘show sub’ if they were doing a demonstration and I would come out feeling great, feeling relaxed, feeling happy.

“Some people self-harm and they cut themselves. I had a kebab skewer – I’ve still got it for old times’ sake – which I used to stick in my arm and swizzle around. It didn’t make a big mark. I would just go, stick it in, swizzle it around and you get this burst of pain and then (BIG SIGH OF RELIEF).

“I think Lewis Schaffer has that same kind of need, but it’s an emotional not a physiological thing. He needs to traumatise himself emotionally every so often. He has his divorce, this, that, everything but, now he has a relationship, people love him in Edinburgh, nobody really ‘has a go’ at him any more.

“So I think in the same way that I needed physical pain, he needs emotional pain. Maybe it reinforces his ideas about himself or whatever and he gets from a very specific pointed burst of emotional pain like that the same thrill and the same release that someone who is into physical SM gets from a whip across their back.

“What you need is something very specific… For example, it’s no fun for somebody who is really into SM to break a leg and be in pain all the time. It IS pain, but what you need is a burst of pain and it needs to be deliberate. I have lupus. I’m in pain all the time, so I should be happy like a pig in shit. But there is no intent.

“For Lewis, just having a shit day or a shit week or Oh! My life’s going all wrong! – That’s not the kind of misery he is addicted to. If he opens a letter from his mum and she is saying: You are a shit! You are dead to me! – that is a specific burst of pain and there is the added misery that he can’t do anything about it now because she is dead… That’s a real bombshell of misery and… I am not saying he wallows in it, but I think it’s a need he has to reinforce a… well, self-loathing is a cliché now but… I think it’s like a lash on his back.”

The Grouchy Club – Edinburgh Fringe 2017

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 15: Participation hell and real tears in a comedian’s eyes

Hell is other people en masse, as Jean-Paul Sartre did not say.

God! How I hate audience participation!

Not all audience participation, just some.

As mentioned before in this blog, I am allergic to certain things in comedy.

One is stand-up character comedy when it is an attempt by an actor or actress to create a ‘real’ character. or, almost worse, a fake ‘eccentric’ character when the performer does not have any streak of eccentricity themselves. This is not comedy; it is a drama school showreel. The more cartoony, the less real, the more I like it.

The other thing that I can’t take is mass jollity. Singalongs, dancealongs and people doing almost anything as a group instead of as individuals just ain’t me. I can think of nothing worse than people singing in gigantic groups. Or doing anything in gigantic groups.

So perhaps it was foolhardy of me to accept a ticket for a late-night show called Juan Vesuvius: I Am Your Deejay at Assembly’s George Square Theatre, allegedly presented by a Venezuelan DJ (actually New Zealander Barnie Duncan in his third Fringe show).

Juan Vesuvius aka Barnie Duncan – Arghh! Help! Let me out!

It started as Manuel-from-Fawlty-Towers style character comedy then, once the character was established, turned into a brash, loud, glittery, music-music-music lecture on the history of disco music, disco clubs and related social music phenomena. It is tremendous entertainment. Wildly exciting. Terrifically atmospheric. And, as anyone who read my blog about The Elvis Dead, it is not remotely for me. At the end of the show, people were up on their feet dancing and waving their arms about. I was internally screaming: Arghh! Help! Let me out!

The audience loved it. And I got a new insight into my dourness.

At the risk of sounding like some desperate Miss World contestant, I’m interested in people. People as individuals.

150 people dancing the same movements to the same music or 10,000 people singing a song in a stadium is nothing to do with people. It has to do with psychological insecurity and a need to feel wanted.

Sitting at the back of the Grouchy Club, a silent man

The concept of the increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club at the Counting House is to talk to the audience. One person at a time. Community singing is not encouraged. Individual opinions, anecdotes and bees-in-bonnets are encouraged.

Today, those people included Nick Awde from The Stage, director Sarah Chew, Ian Dunn from the British Comedy Guide, Robert Peacock from The Wee Review and Ewan Spence from multiple podcasts, Forbes magazine and the Eurovision Song Contest. And performers.

And no random non-industry punters. Which is perfect. Because it meant we could gossip, for example, about one performer’s objection to a one-star review he got from The Wee Review and his consequent, continuing campaign to get hold of Robert Peacock’s home address, threats of legal action, articles in the New York Times etc etc. It is possibly the subject of a future blog, except the current copied-and-pasted basic information is over 3,700 words long.

Michael Brunström, gloriously surreal, with a bag of Oz compost at his feet

The real eccentricity of the day, though, started when I went to see the gloriously surreal Michael Brunström’s show Parsley at the Dragonfly. Anything that starts with the performer in some sort of ancient Grecian dress, draped with  some sort of green-leafed climbing plant and playing the recorder is good for me.

If he then gives out whoopee whistles to the audience, asking them to randomly blow them whenever they like throughout the show, it can only get even better. And does.

The on-stage character is, of course, exactly that – a character, not the real Michael Brunström… but I can’t help observing it’s not THAT different from him. Writs may arrive in my letter box next week.

In the gloom, Mr Twonkey announces the bad news to his disappointed audience

I was also due to see Mr Twonkey perform his Christmas in The Jungle show at the Dragonfly. Alas, there was a power cut before he started and he was forced to cancel the show.

The admirable Mr Twonkey is, again, a surreally eccentric character (played by ever-amiable Paul Vickers).

And, again, the on-another-planet character on-stage may not be exactly the same as the person playing him, but I think they may live on the same planet as each other… just not on planet Earth.

Which brings me to Lewis Schaffer.

I went back to see his Unopened Letters From My Mother show again at the Counting House. I saw it around a week ago.

Each night, he is opening a different letter from his mother which he received but never read.

Someone has described this show as part comedy, part tragedy, part sociological experiment, part psychological insight and 100% voyeurism.

It may have been me in that last sentence.

Tonight, in her unopened letter from 2002, his mother called him a shit and said he was dead to her. She is now dead. The tears in his eyes were genuine.

Lewis Schaffer’s unopened letters from his mother

Lewis Schaffer does not really know why he did not open the letters and, the more I think about it, the more I wonder why he decided to do the show at all. I have a terrible feeling that he is doing these shows as a way of daring the audiences – and daring himself – to dislike him.

The previous time I saw this show, he opened and read the letter towards the end of the show. Tonight, he opened and read it towards the start.

He is trying out different things each night.

For me, opening and reading the letter towards the start was a mistake, because he was so emotionally affected by the contents tonight that he was not in the same control of his show that he usually has.

Even when performers appear to be themselves on-stage they are, of course, performing as a particular version of themselves. They are not themselves.

Lewis Schaffer’s show tonight was a fascinating, unique voyeuristic experience, watching an actual person on-stage showing raw emotions and trying to recover from them – part performer, part real human being. Fascinating.

Colin Buckie – from Bobby to Lou

Someone who should have been at the Grouchy Club but wasn’t was Colin Buckie, who owns Bobby’s Sandwich Bar by the Greyfriars Bobby statue. I met him because he was chatting to former submariner Eric in the Abattoir by the Purple Cow.

Such sentences seem reasonable in Edinburgh during the Fringe… I met him because he was chatting to former submariner Eric in the Abattoir by the Purple Cow.

Colin had once sat next to Velvet Underground rocker Lou Reed at a Burns Night Supper in Edinburgh.

“It was three years before he died,” Colin told me. “It was an unusual night. It was at the Reid Music Institute, the Reid Hall at Edinburgh University. We had a lovely evening round a table and Lou Reed stood up and read out a poem or a story by Edgar Allan Poe – he was a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe – and then some readings of Robert Burns. He was a huge fan of Robert Burns too. He said: I love these lyrics.

“I mean, primarily, Lou Reed was a lyricist. He was very interested in poetry and William Burroughs and beat poetry and…”

“He,” I asked, “read out Edgar Allan Poe stuff on a Burns Night?”

“He did,” said Colin. “I was astounded I was sitting next to Lou Reed. I have never been starstruck before or since. I was so astonished, I never mentioned once to him that he was Lou Reed.”

Will people, in future, speak in such awe of having been in the presence of Lewis Schaffer?

Only time will tell.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 14: Sad comedy and Alex Salmond’s Comedy Award?

Luca Cupani makes a happy point at today’s Grouchy Club

At the Grouchy Club this afternoon, Kate Copstick got worried about the fact Italian comic Luca Cupani has a new girlfriend. Copstick is of the opinion that happiness is not a good ingredient for a comedian’s emotional make-up and that having children is worse. She lamented good, edgy comedians reduced to talking on-stage about their children’s cuteness.

I tend to agree. I remember Charles Aznavour being asked why all his songs seemed to be unhappy. Why did he never write songs about happiness? He said because, when people are happy, they are pretty-much happy in the same way. But, when people are unhappy, they are uniquely unhappy because of specific circumstances. So their stories are more interesting.

As with songs so, perhaps, with comedy.

Juliette Burton flies high in The Butterfly Effect

This afternoon, I saw Juliette Burton’s Butterfly Effect show in a totally fully room. She has sold out her last two Edinburgh Fringes, her recent Brighton Fringe shows and, so far, every one of her shows at the current Edinburgh Fringe. I know why. She makes audiences happy – and this show is about being kind to other people. The only criticism I have ever heard of her is that she is too Sally Sunshine happy. But, to get there, the actual meat of her shows is a string of madness, emotional turmoil and upset. What holds the happy-making shows together is actually the narrative glue of unhappiness.

Feelgood musical anecdotal autobiographical

Interestingly, tonight I also saw Shit I’m In Love With You Again. This is, in its effect on the audience, a feelgood musical anecdotal autobiographical show from Canadian Comedy Award winner Rachelle Elie. But, though feelgood and jolly, again the narrative goes through unhappiness to get to the comedy and the surprise ending, which may support Copstick’s point.

Meanwhile, as every year, from a slow start, people are now pulling cunning stunts in a desperate bid to win an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

Nathan Cassidy (see yesterday’s blog) is now claiming the Best MC gong he awarded himself was a Malcolm Hardee Award (rather echoing Cally Beaton, who had already claiming an unconnected award she got last year was a Malcolm Hardee Award).

Man in a balaclava in a corner not saying anything

And, in today’s increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club, Sir Richard, one half of Bob Blackman’s Tray (the other half being genuine Malcolm Hardee Award winner Johnny Sorrow) sat in a corner and said nothing.

This evening, a webpage appeared, claiming he had been nominated for a new (fictional) award – The Malcolm Hardee Person Most Likely To Sit In The Corner And Not Say Anything Award – and got 5 stars from Scotsman critic and Malcolm Hardee judge Kate Copstick.

In fact, we do not fully discuss the nominees until noon next Monday.

I can exclusively reveal here, though, that one nominee for a Cunning Stunt Award may be Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond – for hinting on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he was going to tell a sadomasochism story involving Kirsty Walk on his Edinburgh Fringe chat show.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 13: The Elvis Dead, compost and comedy in a shed

I ended today soaked through with Irn Bru and rain.

The day started off like a normal Fringe day.

“Michael Brunström wants to borrow some of my compost,” performer Narin Oz told me, as I walked into Fringe Central. This made perfect sense at the time – a sign of how your brain soon gets affected by the Fringe.

I was on my way to the first Grouchy Club of the Fringe, supposedly chaired by Kate Copstick and me – but she had been dragged off by The Scotsman to review former First Minister Alex Salmond’s chat show at the Assembly Rooms on other side of town.

Becky Fury stood in for Copstick. Same hair; no white streak. The front row of our overwhelming audience (it’s all comparative) included two women who had seen Lewis Schaffer’s show last night and had not liked it.

Martha McBrier – castigated by some for playing a didgeridoo – arrived with a small brown box.

Copstick arrived when the show was almost over, telling chilling tales of Alex Salmond singing.

Cultural appropriation for Martha McBrier to play the box?

Martha McBrier played the small brown box by blowing into it. She claimed it was a ‘box didgeridoo’.

It was unclear to both her and us if women were banned from playing it, as they are with linear didgeridoos.

We started discussing Lewis Schaffer again.

At this point, Lewis Schaffer phoned asking me to send him a picture of himself.

Then I was off to see Michael Brunström, Phil Jarvis and  Alwin Solanky perform the legendary 20-minute routine Dinner For One in a small garden shed beside Bob Slayer’s Blundabus.

Dinner For One, recorded in English for German audiences in 1963 is extraordinarily famous in Germany, Austria, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Faroe Islands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, South Africa and Australia. In fact, loads of places except the UK.

(Left-Right) Alwin Solanky, Phil Jarvis and Michael Brunström

Phil Jarvis introduced this shed-based production in German, then Dinner For One was performed in English with Phil as the butler, Michael Brunström in drag as the lady and Alwin Solanky as the tiger skin rug. The shed miraculously contained an audience of (I think) eight people, with more peering in through the open door.

Dinner For One: a cast over the top; an audience under threat

The spilling, throwing and spewing of Irn Bru – standing in for the original show’s alcoholic drinks – was extensive.

The result was that I was (with some pride) the only audience member left in the shed by the end.

I had taken the precaution of wearing a coat which I bought in Nuremberg and which, fortunately, has a liquid-proof hood.

This production of Dinner For One epitomised the spirit of the Fringe – people performing something for no logical reason whatsoever, ignoring financial recompense, audience numbers and any common sense.

You did, indeed, have to be there.

As did I at Nathan Cassidy’s one-off event The World’s Best MC Award Grand Final because I was booked to be one of the judges – well, THE judge, as it turned out.

I did not know what to expect from this.

I blogged about its clear Cunning Stunt Award intentions in a blog almost three weeks ago.

At the Awards (L-R) Nick Helm, Rich Wilson, Nathan Cassidy and Sarah Callaghan (Photograph by Rat Pack Productions)

As it turned out, it was pretty much what it said on the label – six good comics doing 5-minute MC-style intros – each introducing the next – in an attempt to win an alleged £5,000 prize.

The comedians/MCs were Sarah Callaghan, Nick Helm, Joey Page, Mark Silcox, Chris Turner and Rich Wilson.

Unsurprisingly, in a shock twist, Nathan Cassidy won his own £5,000.

Very enjoyable, a real audience-pleaser, but I’m not convinced it’s a Cunning Stunt. The door money DID go to charity, though.

That is not up to me, though.

Fellow Malcolm Hardee judges Marissa Burgess, Bruce Dessau, Kate Copstick, Jay Richardson and Claire Smith all have equal says to me.

Talking of Malcolm Hardee – and who isn’t at the Fringe? – the wonderful 2011 Award winner Johnny Sorrow and Bob Blackman’s Tray have arrived in Edinburgh. I saw them tonight at The Newsroom, the small venue at the top of Leith Walk. From their energy, he/they could have been playing Radio City Music Hall.

THAT is how to play to an audience of one.

No audience problem for The Elvis Dead, though.

The Elvis Dead – Cultural event or niche pastiche?

It is probably the hottest and most talked-about show in Edinburgh.

In fact, the buzz around it started at the Leicester Comedy Festival back in February and has built to dizzying heights since. It is superbly well put together together and performed.

But I am not the target audience.

It reminded me of my experience over a week ago when I saw Mother’s Ruin – about gin – with an audience fully into the subject. The Elvis Dead is a musical re-telling of the movie Evil Dead II through pastiches of Elvis Presley songs.

My problem is that I have not seen Evil Dead II; I am not a particular fan of Elvis Presley; and singalong, clapalong-stompalong-whoopalong, crowd-bonding events are not my thing. Mea culpa.

The audience LOVED it. The only-begetter of this crowd-pleasing triumph, Rob Kemp, is getting full houses every night. But for me, the elevator pitch is that it is Jollyboat rabble-rousing (I like Jollyboat) meets Harriet Braine niche pastiche (I admire Harriet Braine).

Braine and brawn vie for niche pastiche attention

Harriet Braine performs superb pastiche songs about fine art and artists – very very clever songs about Magritte, Cezanne, Van Gogh, whatever whoever. But I don’t know the subject well enough to fully appreciate them. So the full effect floats or zooms over my head, as with The Elvis Dead.

Rob Kemp says he is returning to Edinburgh next year with a Beetlejuice show.

I HAVE seen Beetlejuice.

But I am not a massive fan.

On the other hand… if we were talking about a musical version of The Wild Bunch… I would be queuing-up like the Dead Elvis fans are.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 12: How to destroy a comedy career & other news

One thing I always tell performers at the Fringe is: Always perform, even if there is only one person in the audience, because you do not know who that one person might be.

The two examples I endlessly give are …

  • Comic Charlie Chuck, at his first Fringe, unknown, was getting very few bums-on-seats. He was thinking of going home. I told him not to. A few days later, he performed to an audience of four… Two of them were TV producers and, as a result, he appeared on two Reeves & Mortimer TV series.
  • I turned up to see a show at the old Holyrood Tavern venue. I was 50% of the audience. I was looking for acts to appear on an ITV series. The other audience member turned out to be a BBC producer. The act had gone back to London in despair because they were not getting audiences.

Perhaps nothing would have come of us seeing the act. But maybe it might.

The thing to remember is that you are not necessarily paying out large amounts of money to get money back from audiences’ bums-on-seats. You are also – perhaps mainly – performing in Edinburgh to be seen by showbiz and media people who may change your career and your life.

An empty stage in London (not the Edinburgh venue)

Today, I turned up to see an act. I had seen this English act ‘die’ on several occasions at ‘open mic’ nights in London, performing basically to other open mic acts in ‘dead’ venues. But my intuition told me the act had something that might work and I might see it in a 60-minute show.

The show was in an out-of-the-way venue and, when I arrived, I was the sole audience member.

The performer turned up about three minutes before the billed start time and, two minutes before the billed start time, apologetically cancelled the performance, saying: “It would be awkward just performing to one person.”

About to join me, but slightly delayed, was Nick Awde, playwright, producer, publisher and critic/feature writer for The Stage.

Now, maybe nothing would have come of the two of us seeing the act but, if you perform, there is a possibility, however slight, that something may result. If you do not perform, there is a certainty nothing will result.

Cancelling is never a good idea. Cancelling two minutes before the billed start time is an even more self-destructive decision.

The phrase ‘self-destructive’ is, of course, bound to lead to Lewis Schaffer, the man who, on getting a 5-star review in The Scotsman only half-jokingly said he was depressed because he feared it might destroy his image as a loser.

“Quite unlike anything else in the programme”

This week, he got a good review on the Chortle comedy website, for his show Unopened Letters From My Mother.

The review gave him three stars but started: “Look beyond the star rating here, for this is one of those shows that it’s hard to judge by the standards of a conventional Fringe offering. For some, the fact that this is quite unlike anything else in the programme will be enough to make it a must-see.”

It went on to compare him to Award-winning Kim Noble.

Lewis Schaffer decided not to share a link to the review on his social media.

This morning at Fringe Central, I bumped into American performer Peter Michael Marino. He told me:

“I found a cracked iPhone in the Lounge at the Counting House, wedged between the fireplace and the stage. I put word out to performers in the Lounge and it turned out the iPhone was Lewis Schaffer’s. Before I gave it back to him, I tried to crack the passcode, so I could access his text messages and next year I could do a show called Unread Text Messages From Lewis Schaffer.”

PM Marino – a man with saliva in his mouth

JD who runs Sweet venues told me the Fringe Office had told him that this year’s line-up included 300 more comedy shows than last year. Getting even noticed at the Fringe takes an effort of promotion.

If you don’t promote yourself, you are invisible.

The official Fringe figures are that, this year, there are 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows from 62 countries in over 300 venues, including 686 free shows with comedy making up 35% of the shows, theatre 28% and cabaret 4%.

And that is only the Fringe. There is also the official International Festival, the Jazz & Blues Festival, the Art Festival, Military Tattoo, Book Festival and Television Festival (the last being a private conference rather than public festival, but having a big influence).

People will do anything to get noticed.

Peter Michael Marino’s Show Up follows The Grouchy Club show in the Lounge at The Counting House. Have I mentioned The Grouchy Club before? The increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club hosted by me and Kate Copstick.

Flaunt it. Flaunt it.

This morning the aforementioned Peter Michael Marino told me: “I swapped saliva with Copstick yesterday.”

“I am not even going to ask…” I told him.

I may come back to this story.

Eric has filled Fringe venues under the radar for ten years

I went inside Fringe Central and bumped into Eric, who has been performing Eric’s Tales of the Sea – A Submariner’s Yarn at the Fringe now for ten years.

After a brief conversation, he told me. “I’m off now. I gotta see this werewolf.”

Nothing odd about that at the Fringe.

An hour later, I got a text from him: “The werewolf has just finished. Cracking show. You missed a great experience.”

By this time, I was going into The Hive to see Mark Dean Quinn’s You Win You Lose. A true original, he is a combination of Andy Kaufman, Dadaism, intentional shambles and (I think genuine) emotional self-flagellation. What more could anyone want in an Edinburgh Fringe show?

I had to leave quickly at the end, taking the newly-fried chips with me (don’t ask) to get to Simon Caine’s elevator pitch event at the Apex Hotel in Grassmarket.

‘Reformed Whores’ pitch their show to Robert Peacock etc

He and JD had arranged a collection of Sweet performers to get in a lift (US translation: elevator) with reviewers Nick Awde (The Stage), Robert Peacock (Wee Review) and me and they had to pitch their shows to us in the time it took the lift to travel from the Ground Floor (US translation: 1st floor) to the 5th and back.

Then I saw Phil Ellis Has Been on Ice with unbilled co-star Pat Cahill. Phil’s breakthrough at the Fringe was with Funz & Gamez in 2014 and it has taken this long for the BBC to faff around without giving him a radio or TV show.

Phil is a successful example of one type of comedy. Post-modern originality and regular, gigantic audience Whhoooaaaaahhhs!!!!

Smug Roberts is a successful example of another type of comedy.

Neither is better than the other.

For me, the Smug Roberts show was possibly the most highly anticipated of the Fringe.

In 2006, he did a one-off, one-night performance at the Edinburgh Fringe of a show he called Me Dad’s Dead. And that is what it was about. I wrote a review of the show for the Chortle comedy website and have remembered the performance ever since.

I started the review: “Smug Roberts is a Manchester based Jongleurs-style club comic who might be described, not entirely correctly, as old-school. He is clearly a very professional Northern circuit act who can play to any audience and quickly endear himself to them rapidly.”

The intervening 11 years have not changed that, except that he is even more warm, natural and extraordinarily skilful as a performer.

He is a real person in a pub doing stand-up

Smug is 57 and had a pretty-much full audience at the Three Sisters aka Free Sisters tonight in which, I think, I was the only person over 30. It was an audience of 20-somethings (at least one was 19) and they laughed virtually non-stop for 55 minutes because this is a masterclass in comedy. Autobiographical, fanciful (at home, his dog speaks to him), seemingly effortless comedy within straight, traditional stand-up, including vocal and physical bits of ‘business’.

Smug Roberts should be a national institution.

He is a brilliantly assured comic now incapable, I would suspect, of ever putting a foot wrong with any audience.

His show is called Just Me In a Pub Doing Stand-Up.

That is more than good enough for me.

Wonderful.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 11: The gamut of comedy and the Grouchy Club’s origins

Today, in three shows, I saw  the whole gamut of Fringe comedy.

There was the gloriously fluent Richard Todd at The Counting House.

He was letting rip at full volume with waving hands, bouncing hair and waterfalls and tsunamis of sentences overflowing with his love of the English language while talking about Monsters within himself and people in general.

There was Narin Oz stripping off as a Dirty Woman in a basement room at The Cuckoo’s Nest.

She was having garden soil thrown at her, splashing water on herself and performing with a video of waterfalls behind her while getting (in a good theatrical way) hysterical.

And there was Samantha Pressdee going Back 2 Basics at 48 Below.

She was telling a very personal autobiographical story which turned into someone’s death and a political point.

That is a pretty good Fringe format – laughs, tears, emotional problems and occasional politics.

I was also a guest on the penultimate day of Vladimir McTavish’s chat show in the Lounge of The Counting House.

On Monday, feared Scotsman comedy critic & Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge Kate Copstick and I take over Vlad’s 1415-1515 slot for The Grouchy Club from 14th to 27th August.

As previously mentioned in this blog, if you got it, flaunt it.

The Grouchy Club is free to say anything you like, free to enter, free to leave. Unlike most ‘free’ shows, there is no bucket for money at the end. It a genuinely free Free show.

The original idea came from a chat with the late US promoter Calvin Wynter. He and I thought it might be good to have a Fringe space unconnected with any one venue, where performers could come and relax and gossip and bitch without fear of punters. A sort of Groucho Club for the less exalted echelons of creatives. I suggested calling it The Grouchy Club.

Calvin Wynter had talked of a Fringe club

That idea came to nought.

But I have chaired two or three chat shows at the Fringe over the years and an idea I had was to do a show where I did nothing, not even research the background of guests.

I am not a performer.

Most stand-ups begin their acts with a little bit of audience interaction, a little bit of banter with the audience.

I believe that almost every person is fascinating. If you choose the third person in a bus queue in Northampton or chat to the first person wearing brown shoes – in other words, any totally random person – and talk to them, they will have outrageously unlikely anecdotes from their unique life.

So I thought: Have a chat show where the guests are the audience. Just chat to the audience. But then I thought: This needs a performer sidekick. Who?

Lewis Schaffer did not bestow his blessings

Until last year, almost all Lewis Schaffer shows extended the traditional opening banter with the audience to 100% of the show.

So I asked Lewis Schaffer to co-present The Grouchy Club with me.

But Lewis Schaffer is nothing if not occasionally indecisive.

So, in lieu of him actually saying Yes, I went for opinionated Scotsman comedy critic Kate Copstick. But, with her on board, I thought it would be more interesting to talk to comedy industry (and other creative) people. To have somewhere creative people could have a chat. It would still be a chat show where the audience were the guests, but the guests would mostly be performers and their ilk (club owners, promoters etc).

If any genuine members of the public wander in, that’s OK. But, because we are not really aiming it at members of the public, we can dispense with a Fringe Programme listing (saving £300-£400) and flyers/posters. Just use social media and word of mouth.

So here we are.

And we are happy for performers to do BRIEF extracts from their shows to get constructive or destructive criticism from the audience and suck up to Copstick (the most influential comedy critic on the Fringe) and me (“The Boswell of the alternative comedy scene” (Chortle) – eat shit.)

There is a Grouchy Club website but, technology being technology, it is being temporarily temperamental during the Fringe. So you can access it but I can’t change anything!

Chaos and anarchy.

That’s the true spirit of the Fringe.

It is much to be encouraged.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 10: Why I don’t like character comedy + Donald Trump

Simon Jay in character after today’s show

“It has come a long way since you saw it in that basement room in London,” Simon Jay told me this afternoon.

I first met Simon when he staged Mr Twonkey’s play Jennifer’s Robot Arm at the Bread & Roses venue in Clapham in April 2015. But he was talking about his Donald Trump comedy show in 2016, which has now transformed into Trumpageddon and is playing to full houses at the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh.

It cannot be easy to perform as Donald Trump – part real person, part Timothy Burton living fantasy character – in a scripted show with so much back story Simon has to know and the nightmare of up-dating as the real-life Trump bandwagon careers off in wild new directions every day. The show is, of course, scripted and some of the audience interaction can be prepared, but not all. And yesterday, the previous day’s North Korean lunacy had been incorporated into the narrative.

I tend not to like character comedy but with a caveat.

Simon Jay being made into the leader of the free world

The closer the act is to what might be a real person, the less I like it.

I spent much of my TV life finding bizarre acts and eccentric people. If I see a character act pretending to be an eccentric who could be real, I think: Why am I watching this theatre school performance of someone who is not being themselves pretending to be an interesting person when I could actually be watching the real interesting person?

The less ‘real’ and the more ‘cartoony’ the character is, the more likely I am to appreciate the act.

Charlie Chuck, for example, was/is believable to the point that people would/do ask me: Is he really like that? (No, of course he is not.) But ‘Charlie Chuck’ was/is an OTT cartoon-style character.

The interesting thing about Donald Trump and Trumpageddon is that it is an impression of a totally real person but the real Trump is pretty-much a cartoon character.

Perhaps all this is why stand-up comedy attracts me.

I am interested in people. Real people. Ideally eccentric people.

Sally Beaton – fluently funny, fascinating and real

Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award contender Cally Beaton is a not eccentric, but she is assuredly real. Her show Cally Beaton’s Super Cally Fragile Lipstick is about her autistic son (who agreed to be mentioned on stage after negotiations over a meal at Nando’s), bisexuality and things menopausal. Sounds like a tough comedy show to sell, but Cally is fluently funny, fascinating and manages to pitch herself to Edinburgh Fringe AND Radio 4 audiences. She comes across as a real person chatting to the audience. Which is what the best modern stand-up is.

On stage, modern stand-up comics tend to perform as (slightly heightened versions of) themselves.

Actors pretend to be characters totally different from themselves.

I prefer comics.

A character comedian with caveats and cravat

Which makes Milo McCabe’s show interesting, because he is performing as a character: the slightly anachronistic Terry-Thomas-ish, dressing gown and cravat-wearing Talented Mr Hawke. It sort-of could-be a real, very well-observed person from a slightly early era, but it is also (successfully) a cartoon character.

In reality, the character would be rather sleazy and unlikable. In Milo’s audience-pleasing, fleshed-out character act, he is rather loveable. The audience totally believes in the character. But Milo also cleverly – by reading letters to Mr Hawke from other people – briefly slips in two or three totally different voices which remind the audience (and demonstrate to any agents/promoters present) that they are watching a skilled comic actor who would be equally interesting in other situations.

Frank Carson: If I Didn’t Laugh, I’d Cry

As mentioned in previous blogs, Milo McCabe’s father Mike McCabe is performing at the Fringe as the late comic Frank Carson. That is another genre entirely and my brain is too sleep-deprived and befuddled to go into it.

One reason I tend to see no point in watching comic actors who are performing as fictional characters who are too close to ‘real’ people who could actually exist is that the lives of real people are always wildly more OTT than anything anyone could possibly think up.

Hello Scott Agnew.

Scott Agnew puts the aargh! into ‘explicit’

His show is titled Spunk on My Lady’s Face which is an extreme under-selling of the outrageousness of some of his stories. Scott always puts the aargh! into ‘explicit’.

Tonight he was playing to an audience of what seemed to me to be mostly straight couples and I initially thought: Oh dear, this could go ether way! But they were guffawing-away pretty much all the way through Scott’s wild, true gay stories.

It was a bit like running through the highlights of the Emperor Nero’s excesses during the most decadent days of the Roman Empire. If you think you have heard outrageously excessive stories, you ain’t heard nothing till you have sat through 55 minutes of Scott Agnew.

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