BREAK A LEG! (a showbiz suggestion taken too far) – Matt Roper in New York

I’ll Say She Is

Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning

Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning

This morning, I was supposed to Skype English performer Matt Roper in New York at 0630 UK time (0130 New York time) to talk about the first off-Broadway preview night of I’ll Say She Is, the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers show in which he plays Chico.

Matt was not online at 0630.

At 0641 UK, I got an e-mail – “John! Problems this end! We’re at the theatre. Disaster tonight! – The ‘butler’ in the show fell and we had to dial an ambulance! I’ll be home in an hour (3am)!”

We eventually talked at 08.30 UK / 03.30 New York time.

“You look bleary-eyed,” I said.

“It’s the middle of a heat wave,” Matt told me. It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32C) today. It’s nearly four in the morning now and it’s 76 degrees (24C) outside!”

“What happened to the butler?” I asked.

“You’ve seen the Marx Bros films,” said Matt. “The dowager character played by Margaret Dumont has a sort of butler/footman. He broke his leg.”

“Oh, wonderful!” I said with genuine enthusiasm, thinking of the publicity potential.

“Your Satanic grin!” said Matt. “You’re loving this, John, aren’t you?”

“Well,” I admitted. “That old theatrical good-luck wish – Break a leg! – he really did take it too literally – and on the first preview night!”

(Top to bottom; L-R - (Photo by Mark X Hopkins)) Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo

(Top to bottom; L-R – Photo by Mark X Hopkins)
Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo

“I think,” said Matt, “it was when he was going off stage, coming down a step. Something like that. He slipped. It’s a big loss, because a lot of his sequences are with Harpo, because Harpo is the one who is stealing all the family silverware. We have a good understudy, but we’re going to miss this guy because his comic timing is brilliant.”

“How long will it take to mend?” I asked.

“I don’t know. The ambulance came and he was whisked away. He might be able to perform on opening night at the Connelly Theater on Thursday on crutches: we might be able to work that into the show.”

“So what,” I asked, “other than people breaking their legs, has been the most difficult thing for you?”

“Learning to play the piano for the last eight weeks. Chico had such a particular style of playing.”

“All the funny hand movements,” I agreed. “Could you play the piano ‘normally’ before?”

“A little bit. Obviously, for my Wilfredo act, I sing and write music but, when the Chico’s hands start going, that’s something completely different. If you hit the wrong key on a piano, it’s invasive, right? But it went fine tonight.”

Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary

Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary

“If you can play the piano to begin with,” I said, “it must be really difficult to play oddly. It must have been really difficult for Les Dawson to play off-key because he could actually play properly.”

“Yes,” agreed Matt (whose father George Roper was one of Granada TV’s legendary 1970s Northern Comedians) “because Les was a very accomplished pianist. I mean, before he became famous, he was making money as a pianist. He spent months in a brothel in Paris playing piano.”

“He did?” I asked.

“Yeah. I mean, Les Dawson had this great ambition to become a poet and a novelist but, back in the 1940s and 1950s, because of his working class background, he felt he couldn’t, so he ended up making a living playing piano in all sorts of places.”

“Anyway,” I said, “back to the Marx Bros.”

I’ll Say She Is website

Premiering on Thursday off-Broadway

“Well I’ll Say She Is,” said Matt, “pre-dates musical theatre as we know it. It pre-dates Show Boat. It’s a revue, really. This is the show that really made the Marx Bros. It got them off the vaudeville circuit. They had been ready to give up. They had had enough by 1923/1924. They had been going for about 15 years and had made a lot of enemies on the vaudeville circuit.”

“So it’s more of a revue than a story?” I asked.

“It has a very loose plot, which may be why it was never made into a film. It’s a series of sketches, really, with a lot of music and the chorus girls and so on. But it does have a plot. The niece of the Margaret Dumont character is a high society girl on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and there is a sequence in the show called Cinderella Backwards. She longs to be poor and in the gutter and experiencing the gritty side of life.”

“How did you,” I asked, “an Englishman, get the part of a New York Jew playing an Italian-American?”

“I was doing a gig at a supper club called Pangea, on the bill with Sabrina Chap, a singer-songwriter, and we just got chatting and she said: I’m musical directing this Marx Bros musical. We have still to cast Zeppo and Chico. So I sent an e-mail to the producers and they said: It’s funny you should write, because we have heard about you through other people. Why don’t you come in and read for us? That’s how. Just circumstance.

“Chico,” I suggested, “is possibly not as interesting as Groucho and Harpo?”

Chico Marx - interestingly naughty man

Chico Marx – interestingly naughty man

“No,” Matt disagreed, “he is very interesting. The story goes that, as a young boy, in this great immigrant city of New York, he used to defend himself from gangs by adopting accents. There were anti-Semitic attacks and so on. If he ran into an Irish gang in the Lower East Side, he would pretend to be Irish. If he ran into a gang of Italians, he would pretend to be Italian. And that was how his Italian persona developed from a young age.

“And he was a compulsive gambler. He lost ALL of his money in crap games and poker. The Marx Bros movie A Night in Casablanca was made specifically so that Chico had some money to live off.

“Somebody once asked him How much money do you think you’ve lost gambling? and his reply was Ask Harpo how much money he has made and that’s how much I’ve lost. If he saw a drop of rain on a pane of glass, he would bet on which direction the drop would run down. He was a naughty, naughty boy.”

“He was called Chico,” I said, “because he was a womaniser?”

“Yes. His wife actually spied on him and caught him with a chorus girl and his response was: I wasn’t kissing her, I was only whispering in her mouth.”

“I had better let you get to sleep,” I told Matt.

I did not say Break a leg.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Movies, Theatre

A naked woman is surrounded and a child reveals the secret of immortality

Copstick Fleming - Photoshop by Fred Fletch

After a week or a couple of weeks of flu (it is difficult to know exactly) everything has returned to normal for me.

Probably.

Possibly.

Well, actually, I am not too sure.

My Grouchy Club co-host – comedy critic Kate Copstick – posted on her Facebook page: “I had a strange dream about John Fleming last night. He had a head of hair like Boris Johnson and we won a trophy which was made of glass and I filled it with water and it fell over and shattered … thoughts ?

One Fred Fletch visualised the concept (above) and I think caught the essential me.

Meanwhile, Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, kept me up-to-date with happenings in our North American Dominion. She sent me an email headed: NAKED FEMALE FOOT FOUND IN SHOP.

“It was attached,” Anna added rather disappointingly, “to a naked woman… A customer walked into a Wind (mobile phone sales company) shop in downtown Vancouver and spotted a naked woman’s foot on the floor sticking out from behind a counter. She called the police who sealed the Robson Street shop and, on further investigation, they found two men with the naked woman.”

Vancouver Naked Woman story

In Vancouver, armed police surrounded a naked woman…

Sergeant Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police said that, when his men arrived, they found the door locked but spotted a naked woman and a clothed man walking around inside. Neither of the individuals, he said, were co-operative and they refused to open the door for police.

The good sergeant said negotiators and an emergency response team were then brought in and officers were stationed outside the store’s front door, with guns drawn, while more officers were located in the alley by the building’s back entrance with rams, ready to force a rear entry.

Fortunately, after about an hour, the two men opened a back door of the building and they were arrested. Police then asked the woman to come out of the building, but she was “reluctant”. After some time, police were able to enter the building and escorted the naked woman out wrapped in a white sheet.

Why the police were wrapped in a white sheet remains unclear to me.

“She was unco-operative,” said Sgt Montague, “but she also appeared to be under the influence (of drugs) at this time.”

“As you know, John,” Anna further added – a little mystifyingly – in her e-mail, “this was an unusual case, as most of the feet found on this coast are neither alive, naked or female.”

Which brings me to Philosophy.

A couple of days ago, I went to Hay-on-Wye in Wales with musical comic Ariane Sherine, a woman for whom the term ‘multi-talented’ seems an extreme understatement.

Ariane Sherine in The Spectator

Ariane Sherine sniffed for The Spectator…

That morning, The Spectator had published a piece commissioned by them from her and, on the train from London to Hereford, a magazine asked her to do another piece for them within the next week which she sent to them within two hours. They were suitably impressed.

Ariane is an education. We were in Hay-on-Wye because she had been invited to be a panellist in the big opening debate of the 11-day How The Light Gets In “philosophy and music” festival.

I had never before heard the phrase “God of the Gaps” – in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God’s existence. She brought it up in the debate, which was titled The Weird and The Wonderful and discussed how, in Europe, belief in organised religion continues to decline as science advances; yet, strangely, interest in everything from ley lines to solstice rituals is increasing.

But it is not just Ariane who is an education. So is her 5-year daughter, whom I occasionally look after when Ariane is at gigs. I am now an expert on My Little Pony and the land of Equestria. But, more relevantly, I also watched an episode of cartoon series The Octonauts with her. It was about jellyfish.

The Octonauts

The Octonauts revealed the possible secret of eternal life…

As part of this particular episode, the Octonaut team was fascinated by an adult jellyfish which spontaneously turned into a baby jellyfish when (in this case) a sea turtle was chasing it… No wonder they were fucking fascinated!

It was said to be an ‘immortal jellyfish’ because, when it gets old, it can revert to being a baby again and thus, indeed, is immortal.

I was so amazed by this concept in the middle of a children’s programme filled with what appeared to be legitimate educational jellyfish information, that I looked up Wikipedia (always a place to check if something is true!)

I was astonished to find that there really IS an immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) which can, indeed, continue to live by reverting to an earlier stage of its existence and by repeating this process can continue indefinitely.

The immortal jellyfish

Immortal jellyfish may be fast taking over the human world…

According to Wikipedia, the immortal jellyfish is believed to have originated in the Pacific Ocean, “but has spread all over the world through trans-Arctic migrations… Turritopsis is believed to be spreading across the world as ships are discharging ballast water in ports. Since the species is immortal, the number of individuals could be rising fast. We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion, said Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute scientist Dr Maria Miglietta.”

Apart from the risk of our entire world being over-run by a rapidly-increasing population of immortal jellyfish, why is this not an ongoing major news story on the immortality and medical fronts? The billionaire bosses of the Silicon Valley cyber companies all seem to be turning their ageing eyes to slowing down or stopping the ageing process. Is there already some Google Jellyfish program in existence that I am unaware of?

Or am I still delirious from the flu?

Or has surreality become the new reality?

Leave a comment

Filed under Humor, Humour, Science

The golden age of exotic dancers remembered in a new documentary

The legendary Judith Stein

The legendary Judith Stein in the Golden Age

Two weekends ago, I came down with a very nasty flu.

When I eventually got better, I opened an email from this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith. She was raving in glowing terms about a documentary she had seen called League of Exotique Dancers.

It was a documentary about burlesque dancers in what is described as ‘the Golden Age’.

“The film,” Anna told me, “includes much never-before-seen footage of exotic dancers (much of it from a private collection of over 300 rare early black and white films of exotic dancers), photos from the private collections of the dancers themselves and interviews with the dancers today.

“And Kitten Natividad is in the movie!!!” she added. “She is hilarious! AND Russ Meyer!”

“Ah,” I replied. “The beloved Russ…”

“Russ, Russ…” agreed Anna. “Very funny indeed. He is wearing a snazzy jacket. Maybe it could inspire David McGillivray to make a jacket film. I wasn’t cultured enough to appreciate Russ Meyer movies when I was young. I preferred porn films with exotic locales and bad translations.”

Anna is not someone without knowledge of the world of exotic dancing. She told me:

“When Beneath The Valley of The Ultravixens (starring Kitten) was released, I was dancing at The Metro Cinema in Toronto. We did shows between the films. It was a vast, echoey, run-down place, but the owner was a nice foreign man who paid us really well.

“He hired me to do voice recordings on the answering machine to announce the coming attractions. I would make up exciting announcements: Chesty Morgan has just arrived from New York and will be here until Friday, four shows a day, starting at noon! Next week, Nurse Annie is flying in from Argentina to attend to your needs….

Anna as her alter ego ‘Nurse Annie'

Anna’s alter ego ‘Nurse Annie’ caused problems

“That one didn’t work out so well because a reporter from the local Spanish paper showed up wanting to interview Nurse Annie (who was me).

“The cashier was an old lady who was practically blind and often she would accidentally let small groups of twelve year old boys into the cinema. I would get out on stage and the twelve year olds would be sitting in the front row like idiots and I would storm off the stage and call the projectionist on the intercom to get them out of there.

“The League of Exotique Dancers also depicts how the dancers coped with the dramatic industry changes over the years, the hardships they overcame and then how they reacted when they were asked to return to the stage… after absences of thirty years!

“It also showed how we used to dance to live bands. And there were comedians too ! And funny strippers…

Camille in 2000 from the League of Exotique Dancers

Camille 2000 from the League of Exotique Dancers

“I was laughing through most of the movie, and crying… The film was BRILLIANT… Plus I was at a writers’ workshop for hookers all afternoon…There were eleven of us…

“On opening night in Vancouver, 66 year old Judith Stein performed a comic striptease before the movie started…

“After seeing the film (and making myself known to all in the following Q&A session) I went out with a group of directors and editors including Exotique‘s amazingly intelligent (some might say wily) young female director Rama Rau,  producer Ed Barreveld and Judith Stein.

Judith Stein (left) with Anna Smith at the documentary's Vancouver premiere

Judith Stein (left) with Anna Smith at the documentary’s Vancouver premiere

“When I asked Judith how to get into The Burlesque Hall of Fame show in Las Vegas, she asked me how old I was. I told her my age and she said: “You’re too young. You’re not allowed in until you’re sixty.“

“Don’t quote me on this, unless you can’t help it, but I have never seen a contemporary burlesque stripper move as well as the older ex-professional ones, (such as myself haha). One of the dancers in the movie noted that although she admires the efforts of contemporary burlesque dancers the fact is that, for most of them it is a hobby rather than a profession. She also admired the working strippers of today, lap dancers and pole dancers who make a lot of money and see glamorous, travel, etc. She said they work really hard for it though..

“When I see contemporary burlesque I find it usually looks a bit too contrived. Obviously, when we did the shows six and seven days a week for years on end, that experience became part of our stage presence and we became good at adapting and improvising according to the club and audience.

Anna Smith lives a quiet life near Vancouver

Anna Smith lives quietly in Canada

“Since I didn’t know anyone, but had been kindly invited along by Ed and Judith, I didn’t speak much, but sat there fascinated, listening to their astonishing and articulate discussion about film making,

Editors are fuckers…they have to be… etc.

“Somehow, toward the end of the night, I found myself hearing two men (I have no idea who they were) talking very seriously about Mr Methane.

Mr Methane?” I cried out. “I know Mr Methane!

“The two men looked at me with surprise. One of them was Irish and he said in disbelief:

You know Mr. Methane?

Well,” I said. “I mean I know who he IS… We appear in the same blog, sometimes even on the same page… Sometimes it is a bit embarrassing.

Mr Methane

Mr Methane – not a known exotic dancer

“I asked the Irishman who had shown an interest: “How do you know Mr Methane?

Oh,” he told me, a bit exhaustedly, “I have been trying to make a film about him for years… about eight years… What blog?

John Fleming’s blog,” I said.

“The man scrambled for a pen. After all, he was Irish.

Just look for TheJohnFleming,” I said.

Is he on Facebook?

He is on Facebook. He is on Twitter. He is on everything.

“I promise to Skype you when I get a phone again. I keep hoping my old (lost) phone will appear and been trying to revive several old ones without success.

“My sister on Vancouver Island has a WordPress blog about dolls… “

Leave a comment

Filed under Dance, Movies, Sex

It appears you CAN make a success of “nice, kind, friendly, accessible comedy”

Quantum Leopard boss James Ross at King’s Cross

Quantum boss James Ross at King’s Cross

The monthly-ish Quantum Leopard comedy show in London this Saturday is sold out in advance – as always.

Organiser James Ross does not have a website for the shows. He thinks it would be a waste of time and money. He says: “The Quantum Leopard Facebook group is very much the key mechanism for publicity.”

His shows are also booked solid with acts for the next six months. Clearly, he must be doing something right.

I met James at King’s Cross station in London. He had just returned from a tour of Scotland and the North of England and performing in people’s front rooms in Edinburgh and Newcastle.

“Was that” I asked, “just a ploy to get free accommodation in people’s front rooms?”

“That helps.” laughed James. “Don’t get me wrong. But popping along, doing my show for an hour is a good way of meeting people properly. Interesting places, interesting people and it’s a fun thing.”

“How many people fit into a living room?” I asked.

“About a dozen, which is all I need.”

“How,” I asked, “do you find people who want comedy performed in their front rooms?”

“So far, most are ones I met when I was doing my ‘bucket speech’ at the end of my Edinburgh Fringe show last year. I did one show last Thursday in London. One in Edinburgh on Saturday. And I’m booking some more in.”

“Your policy on comedy material at the regular Quantum Leopard shows in London,” I said, “is quite restrictive.”

“Yes,” James agreed. “The content policy is no racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, chav bashing… No picking on the audience, no rape jokes… And, in return, no heckling from the audience.”

James Ross show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe

The James Ross comedy show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe

“If you ban all that,” I suggested, “there’s nothing much left.”

“I strongly but politely disagree,” he told me.

“You allow plenty of four-letter words, though.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s fine. That’s yesterday’s taboo.”

“So why this policy on what material comics can use?” I asked.

“The mini-manifesto behind it is that there is an audience for nice, kind, friendly accessible comedy that is not really very well served by a lot of comedy clubs. There are so many people who just get put off going to mainstream comedy clubs. There are a lot of MCs out there who are channeling some really quite barely-controlled rage. And a lot of men who have a problem with women or picking victims and thinking that ‘really horrible’ is the same as ‘funny’. It’s just not on and audiences don’t like it. A lot of the comedy circuit is horrible and our gigs are so much more fun for much nicer people.

“The reason why we get full houses at Quantum Leopard and why people come back month after month is because people know it is a safe place to be. They CAN sit on the front row to have a good view of a nice show and they know they’re not going to have the piss ripped out of them. If people want the ‘intimate bullying’ experience, there are plenty of places that serve it up.”

“Do you have a real job?” I asked.

“At the moment, I’m working for a non-partisan political fact-checking charity. My specialism is media monitoring. I don’t really want to do comedy full time.”

“Why?”

James hosts a Quantum Leopard show

James hosts a Quantum Leopard show

“Because the pay is terrible and it is really insecure. It’s not the sort of wage or stability you can raise a family on, unless you’re happy to live on lentils in the back of your car. Also, a lot of the decision-makers in comedy are really unpleasant people and I don’t want to have to suck up to them in order to make enough money to live. I always want to have the option to turn down a terrible gig or a gig for a terrible promoter.”

“So you really want to do politics?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, really. I think there are enough people like me in politics already – pale, male, Oxbridge.”

“So you are not going to stand for Parliament?”

“No way. You have to be polite to a lot more people than I’m constitutional capable of being.”

“Where are you going to be in ten year’s time?”

“Comedy-wise, I would like to be one of these people who do ‘a fun hour’ every August (at the Edinburgh Fringe) and who gets asked to do the fun gigs rather than having to chase them. A nice second income from something that I enjoy. I don’t want to have to do something for a living that I would otherwise enjoy. If you become financially dependent on it and you have to do it, then it’s much less compelling.

“I think the idea that you must enjoy what you do is an incredibly self-indulgent modern thing. Over 95% of human history, 95% of human beings worked at something they didn’t enjoy and probably died at 30 or in childbirth. So saying: Oh! This job doesn’t creatively fulfil me! is…  Well, if you enjoyed your job, you would be paying them to do it because it would then be a hobby. Expecting labour to be anything other than alienating under a capitalist system one of whose fundamental precepts is the alienation of labour is nonsense and foolish and self-regarding hippie nonsense. That’s the type of philosophy you get on the back of a carton of Innocent Smoothies. That’s not a way to live.”

“So you like Mr Corbyn?” I asked.

“Mr Corbyn is brilliant.”

“I get him muddled up,” I said, “with Mr Corbett, who had his hand up Sooty.”

Sooty

Sooty – in no way related to Jeremy Corbyn’s hand

“Sooty & Sweep were my introduction to comedy,” said James. “I was always taken by my parents to Southport. There’s this big Scottish Dancing Convention there and they met while Scottish dancing. In the other big theatre part of this big hall there was always The Sooty Show. So my grandma would take me and my little brother to see Sooty & Sweep while my parents were off doing their Scottish dancing in the other room.”

“Why were they interested in Scottish Dancing?” I asked. “A Scottish background? Or a love of the surreal?”

“I honestly don’t know,” James replied. “I love my parents very much, but I think their sense of the surreal is really quite limited. My dad is a Scout leader; my mum is a Guide leader. They are both pillars of the community. I think they are a little puzzled where this strange changeling child came from.

“But I get my love of admin and organisation from them. The number of spreadsheets that back up what I do is colossal and there’s a bit of Public Service ethos behind Quantum Leopard. It’s got like a mission.”

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy

How to become a comedy promoter? – Tim Rendle stripped for a policewoman

Tim Rendle in London’s Leicester Square

Tim Rendle in London’s Leicester Square, near the Lion’s Den

Last night, I went to the weekly Tuesday night Lion’s Den Comedy Club (aka Comedy Car Crash) in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, run by Tim Rendle.

How do you become a comedy club promoter?

If Tim Rendle is anything to go by, then fuck knows.

He has been a painter, barman and baby sitter, web designer, magician and spy hole fitter. He has sold windows and doors, installed security systems, flipped burgers, busked with a drum and his first ever self-employed job was as a car washer when he was nine.

There is also a bit of controversy, because the Lion’s Den is a pay-to-play club. Acts have to pay to appear on his comedy night and there is no quality control at all.

“So,” I said when I met him, “pay-to-play. Terrible idea. Why do comics have to pay to perform? Why can’t you just make money from punters paying on the door to get in?”

Comic Johnny Vegas (left) with Tim at the Lion’s Den

Johnny Vegas (left) with Tim at the Den

“It’s really hard,” he told me, “to get an audience for open mic nights. We have an open door policy. We don’t require videos or CDs in advance for acts to perform. I’m happy to have first-timers and, as a result, on the circuit now, some of the biggest names did their teeth-grinding at the Lion’s Den and the Comedy Car Crash.”

“You are getting money out of comedians who can’t afford it,” I said.

“If you want to be a swimmer,” Tim replied, “you go to swimming classes. If you want to be a gymnast, you go to gymnast classes. All of them charge more than we do. It’s a spot. It’s a stage to work material out on. It’s not a bad thing. We’re not… what’s the word…”

“Exploiting?” I suggested.

“Yeah, that’s the word,” said Tim. “We are not exploiting anyone. They can get a spot anywhere else if they want.”

I told him: “I saw an act a few weeks ago at the Lion’s Den and I thought he might be slightly… deluded?”

“Yes,” said Tim, “But he has a right to play, same as anyone else. The club is a massive part of my life. I’ve never been so loyal to any thing or person. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, which is a quarter of my life.”

“You were brought up Amish,” I said.

“Yeah. Amish-ish. The Hutterian Brethren, down in Robertsbridge in East Sussex.”

“There is a community of Amish down there?” I asked.

Hutterian women return from working in the fields at sunset. (Photograph by Rainer Mueller)

Hutterian women return from working in the fields at sunset. (Photograph by Rainer Mueller)

“Yeah. When I was 1½, we moved from Lincoln to this Amish commune where my grandparents lived. My mum was brought up in a different commune in Shropshire. I stayed there until I was five, then came out into the real world, which was an eye-opener.”

“Did the Amish start to your life scar you?”

“No. I think it gave me a really good set of morals. Maybe a bit too unrealistic in the real world.”

“Being too honest?”

“Yeah. It’s just how honest, isn’t it? Knowing when not to be honest. Or knowing when to shut up. It’s the tree that grew inside me, so I do try to be nice and honest.”

“What did you want to be when you were aged 16?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t have the happiest of family lives. When I was 16, basically, I wanted to get the hell away from home as soon as possible, so I joined the Army. I was accepted by them, but they said I had to do my GCSE exams.

“Then, on the way to sit my second GCSE, I got run over. I was riding my motorbike to school and a car smashed into my leg. That upset the Army. They said: We don’t want you any more. That was a bit sad, because it meant I had to stay around home a bit more.

“Then, a couple of years later, I got run over again. That time, I put my face through a car – the window of a car.”

“Why?”

“Because the driver was an idiot. He signalled left but did a U-turn. I tried to overtake him, he cut me off, so I went through his windscreen. My girlfriend went under the car.”

“She was OK?”

“She bruised her ankle and got a bit of petrol inside her. I ripped my neck open, got 35 stitches plus a few in my chin. I did pass out through lack of blood. That was just the start of it, really. Then the Crohn’s Disease kicked in just after that second crash and I started to think: Why the fuck does God hate me so much?”

“What does Crohn’s Disease do?” I asked.

Tim developed Crohn’s Disease when he was younger

Tim developed Crohn’s Disease when he was younger

“Fucks your life,” replied Tim. “Makes you skinny.”

“So you had accidents and disease rather than a career start?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’ve had a career ever. I wasn’t able to think about the future. Every time I did, I got gazumped by Fate at the last minute.

“We had moved down to Hastings when I was 5 and, when I was about 20, I was being hassled by my mum to get a job. I was getting so much nagging by my mum to get a job and I saw an ad to be a stripogram and my mum said Go on, then! so I did.

“It was the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had – having to take my clothes off and bend over in front of people who then told me: You’re gonna have to shave your arse. Women don’t like it and there are times when you need to bend over.”

“Can you make a good living as a stripogram around Hastings?” I asked.

“At the time – 1994-ish – yeah. £11 per minute.”

“An anecdote?” I asked.

“Loads. I was getting ready in a police station and they had sectioned off a toilet just for me to get ready.”

“This,” I asked, “was to pull a surprise on a police lady?”

“Yeah. I was actually technically sexually assaulted by that woman in front of about 150 police people.”

“Any tricks of the trade?” I asked.

“Basically,” explained Tim, “when male strippers warm up, they have to… eh… punish… erm…”

“Fluff?” I suggested.

“Yeah. Fluff. But, with my bad back from the car crashes, there was no way I’m going to bend down there. So I just had to punish it a bit.”

“A bit of slap and tickle?” I suggested.

In the police station - slap, tickle and elastic bands

The police station – lots of slap, a little tickle and elastic bands

“Yeah. More slap than tickle. And then you get an elastic band and you tie it off. Halfway through doing it in the police station toilet, a policeman opened the door. It was a weird situation with me halfway through slapping myself into position. He asked: Are you going to be long? I told him: I am trying, sir; I’m trying.”

“What’s the elastic band thing?” I asked.

“You tie yourself off,” explained Tim. “Once you have achieved a good… eh… state of being, you tie it off to preserve that state of being.”

“Keeping the blood in…” I said.

“Yeah,” said Tim. “It just makes it took great inside a g-string or banged against a tea towel.”

“But you gave all that glamour up,” I said, “for what?”

“Many years later, I moved to Colchester and did a full-time 2-year engineering course. I wanted to take that further and do industrial design.”

“You were still interested in erections?” I asked.

“No. I wanted to be an inventor, basically, because that’s the way my mind works. I’ve got an engineering mind, but I find engineering very boring – working out how much force a bridge can take is really boring. I wanted to make things and make the world a better place. I did the degree and found out they are just painting the wheel a different colour.

“But, while I was doing the degree, a friend I was staying with suggested I try his job out and that’s when I started working with people who have learning disabilities and in mental health. I became a support assistant.”

“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “Too depressing.”

“No,” Tim said, “not at all. It was one of the best jobs I ever did. I found the learning disabilities not particularly challenging. I tended to veer more towards the challenging behaviour and that led to the mental health work.”

“What do you mean by ‘challenging behaviour’?” I asked.

Where mental health meets kick boxing

Where mental health meets comedy and kick boxing

“Getting beaten up, basically. They were quite angry and violent people. A lot of the job was pacifying behaviour and basically being a target.”

“Trying to avoid them beating you up?”

“Yeah. Which I was pretty good at.”

“Because you are good at psychology?”

“Good at psychology and because I used to do kick boxing. There was nothing that I had not had worse.”

“So,” I said, “you are the ideal comedy promoter. You deal with mad people and can kick them.”

“I’ve had a few hairy situations. We have only ever had two violent incidents in ten years at the Lion’s Den.

“I once walked into a situation where six people were trying to pull an act off an audience member who he was beating the crap out of. They couldn’t get him off. I walked up and just managed to put my hand across his face and pull him backwards, which separated them instantly.”

“What was the problem with the act?”

“It was an act just assassinating every woman in the audience – being really horrible. Nasty. It wasn’t comedy.”

“And is the act still around?”

“I’ve not seen him since and I think he’s lucky, because the police were after him.”

Tim Rendle has had an interesting life, which continues.

There is a video on YouTube of Darius Davies introducing a performance by Sweet Steve at the Lion’s Den.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Psychology

Promoter Adam Taffler: a man with some seriously alternative ambitions

Adam Taffler in London last week

Adam Taffler: man of many bright ideas

So, last week, I met up with admirably creative promoter and entrepreneur Adam Taffler. His company Adamotions has, in the past, been involved in creating Comedy in Cemeteries, Red Bastard masterclasses and Shhh Dating (speed dating without speaking).

“I went on an Enlightenment Intensive,” he told me.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You sit opposite someone for three days and they say Tell me who you are? and you speak for five minutes, then they ring a bell and you switch over.”

“How does that last three days?” I asked.

“You do eight sessions of 5 minutes, then you have a little break, then another eight 5-minute sessions and then maybe have a little walk. You don’t talk outside of this thing. Some people pop and have an enlightenment experience, where they experience themselves and the world as unity. But, even if you don’t get that, you travel somewhere quite interesting because you are asking this question: What is the truest thing I can say about myself right now? 

“By the end, after three days, even if you don’t have an enlightenment experience, things feel really weird. I walked into the kitchen and felt like I was coming down off acid. The bench was wobbling. It was a good thing they weren’t serving pizza.”

“Where was this happening?” I asked.

“At a Retreat Centre in Devon.”

“Strange things happen in Devon,” I observed.

“It’s great out there,” said Adam.

“Are you going to start promoting these things yourself?” I asked.

“I don’t think so. But I am doing some dinosaur bone-making workshops next week.”

“Because?” I asked.

“Because I met a guy in Amsterdam.”

“Why does Amsterdam not surprise me as a location?” I asked.

“I went there to look at property with him,” Adam continued. “I was looking for somewhere to open a hot tub venture, because I did a hot tub venture in London last year. It was fantastic. Just a pop-up. It needs a home.”

“What was the point of the hot tub venture?” I asked.

Hot tubs held their attraction for Adam Taffler

Adam’s hot tubs last year were a hot ticket near the swans

“To give people an experience of… Well… actually, I started it as a restaurant and called it The Supper Tub. The idea was you sit in a hot tub and get delicious food. But the thing is people don’t really want to eat in a hot tub.

“What they want want to do is drink. So I set up this deck in Hackney Wick, by the canal. You sit there, music playing, swans and ducks swimming by and the waiter is bringing you cocktails. It was really lovely. I did it for six months. But it needed more of a home. So I went over to Amsterdam. It’s a really happening city. The whole north of Amsterdam is opening up like Hackney opened up ten years ago.”

“I wouldn’t,” I said, “think Amsterdam could open up any more. When I lived there briefly in the mid-1990s, everything was going on. There was hardcore sex, gun-running, hard drugs, drug-smuggling, diamond smuggling, everything you can imagine but it was basically a dull city. It was bankers and businessmen living in suburbia. And I was living off Haarlemmerstraat, near the middle of town.”

“That’s the thing,” said Adam. “You legalise everything and people just relax with it.”

“But you couldn’t find a hot tub location there?” I asked.

“No. So I asked the guy I was with: What else do you do? And he said: I make dinosaur bones.”

The skeleton of an idea: dinosaur bone making workshops

The skeleton of an idea: dinosaur bone making workshops

“Is there much demand,” I asked, “for artificial dinosaur bones?”

“More than you would think,” replied Adam. “He builds them for museums and stuff.”

“Are you telling me museums have fake dinosaur bones in them?”

“Some of them. But really he does workshops where kids can come along and build a whole velociraptor skeleton. That was the thing I was most inspired by.”

“What,” I asked, “do you do with a velociraptor skeleton once you’ve built it?”

“You can leave it there. Or the kids can take their bones home. Kids like to make stuff like that. Together, it looks pretty cool.”

“I imagine so,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Adam. “We are going to do some dino-skulls with adults. I’m just going to try it out. We’re going to have music with it.”

“You surely,” I asked, “have to take acid for this to work at its best?”

“Probably,” laughed Adam. “And then become one with the dinosaur. Have the Unity Experience and start stalking the bars of North London.”

“What have you really got me here to plug?” I asked.

Clowning in Nature with Dr Brown.”

“Where is it this year?”

“We’re going to Wales and doing nine days with him just outside Cardiff. He always wants to do longer and deeper. Ooh-err. That’s your type of sentence, isn’t it? We’ve got some pretty cool guest teachers lined up as well, but I can’t mention them yet. We’re doing a puppetry one as well with Iestyn Evans. He’s done stuff for CBeebies and Star Wars.

A previous Clowning In Nature group

Out of Clowning in Nature cometh Puppetry in Nature

Puppetry in Nature?”

“Yeah. Within Arts, you get an established orthodoxy about how you do things and the inspiration which took people to arrive at that orthodoxy is really good. That’s a really interesting place. But the place of orthodoxy can be quite staid.

“So the idea of Clowning in Nature and Puppetry in Nature is that we wanna take people into that space and discover something new. We want to see where the inspiration is coming from. We are not just teaching people This is how you do A, B, and C – We are opening up to new inspiration.”

“How long is Puppetry in Nature?” I asked.

“It’s a 7-day thing.”

“Does Puppetry in Nature not face a problem of wetness?” I asked. “Isn’t puppetry outside in the Welsh weather doomed to sogginess?”

Puppetry in The Lake is the really wet bit,” Adam replied. “We do a lot of stuff inside; we just do a few things outside. We have amazing farmhouses and yurts and saunas and food.”

“We love a good yurt,” I said.

“Would you like to live in a yurt?” Adam asked me. “How big is your garden?”

“Definitely yurt-sized,” I told him.

A yurt in Mongolia, not my back garden

I do love a yurt: this one is in Mongolia, not my back garden

“John,” Adam told me, “I am taking my hot tubs to some festivals this summer. You can come and we will put you up in a yurt. We will revere you as a god and you can have a whole hot tub to yourself. You can be yourself: just tell people some bad jokes every now and then.”

“When is this happening?” I asked.

“June. July. There is a great one called Wildfire. It’s an analogue festival – you have to give your phone in at the door.”

“I can’t do that,” I said. “I would need therapy. But yurts are always good news.”

“When I sold my first business,” said Adam, “a health food business called Of The Earth – I took a break and I joined the Nomadic Academy for Fools with Jonathan Kay and, after a year of that, I decided what I wanted to do was, with a couple of friends, buy a barge in the middle of the Thames, moored opposite the Houses of Parliament – a big lighter barge about 60 feet long, maybe 16 feet wide.

“We wanted to convert it into a home and venue and maybe, to be honest, a super-cool shag-pad. We did plans and the peak of it was probably in November 2010 or 2011 – we called it The November Project.

“I managed to get a yurt and loaded it on a dinghy and stuck it on the barge. I had twelve people from around the country – thinkers and improvisers – and we did foolish improvisations to work out what the boat was going to look like and how we were going to fund it and it was one of the most brilliant and wild things I’ve done – just having a yurt in the water so close to Parliament was just wonderful.”

“Did they not,” I asked, “object to alternative-thinking people being that close to Parliament in a floating yurt?”

“I think they were fine with it,” Adam told me. “But there were some dynamic issues between people which meant it didn’t really work. There is one guy who is still trying to do it.”

Adam juggling spaghetti in Edinburgh in 2011

Adam Taffler, juggling spaghetti for me at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, in 2011

“Have you performed yourself recently?” I asked.

“There was a character called Colonel Shirley Bickerstaff – a trans-gender geriatric colonel. I was really inspired by Nina Conti – the ventriloquism. I decided he would have a vagina in a box and would come out and sing this very beautiful song about falling in love with the vagina in the box. It was a love song. I did a few shows. It was pretty good. That’s it, really.”

And it was.

2 Comments

Filed under Humor, Humour, Spirituality

Sketchy comedian Will Franken admits: “I am unable to create in moderation”

Will Franken

Will – raising the dead – using sketch comedy

It is that time of year when comedians are preparing their shows for the Edinburgh Fringe in August and are looking for free venues in which to perform previews. One such is the performance area at the back of comedy critic Kate Copstick’s charity shop Mama Biashara in Shepherd’s Bush, London.

Next Friday and Saturday evening, Italian comics Romina Puma and Giacinto Palmieri are previewing early versions of their Edinburgh shows. And the following weekend – on the afternoon of Sunday 8th May, American comic Will Franken is hosting his third 4-hour comedy workshop at Mama Biashara. This one is titled:

RAISING THE DEAD: USING SKETCH COMEDY TO BREATHE LIFE INTO STAND-UP

“Who is this aimed at?” I asked Will.

“Anybody who wants to do something different,” he told me. “And anybody who wants to get to the essence of a sketch quicker. I think people are prone to take a course from me because they’re tired of doing the same things. I think the problem is there is so much regularity in comedy.

“I think a lot of sketches go on far too long. They don’t know a clever way out. They don’t know the Monty Python approach of Don’t beat them over the head with a sledgehammer punchline, just find a nice segue into something else. Brevity!”

“You’re very keen on characters,” I said.

“Love characters,” he replied.

“Hiding behind them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so. A couple of years ago, Fest magazine wrote about me: He’s a rare breed of character comedian. He has no love for his characters.

“The trouble is it’s hard for me to love a character long enough to let them live past five minutes. Usually I kill them off after 2 or 3 minutes and I’m onto the next character. It’s a very Monty Python type approach.”

“You’re not interested in sitcoms?” I asked.

“I’m more geared to sketch than sitcom. I think with sitcom you have to have a great love for your characters. I’ve always envied people like David Renwick who created One Foot in The Grave. The love he must have had for Victor Meldrew to be able to carry that through so many series! And Father Ted. They’re great examples of sitcoms. I never liked Monty Python when they had recurring characters.”

Comedy performer and writer Ariane Sherine was sitting with us. She has written for the sitcoms My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps as well as various children’s shows including The Story of Tracy Beaker. I asked her what she thought.

“I quite like to inhabit a character in a sitcom,” she said, “and see how they develop and change. You can’t really do that with sketch. Though in, say, The Fast Show, they re-visit the same characters. It’s effectively the same sketch each week. It depends what you like – whether you like to feel that you are growing and developing this character and seeing them change or more likely seeing them not learn from their mistakes. Or you like the diversity of being able to have any type of situation in any location and it doesn’t matter about continuity.”

I said: “I never really liked Vic Reeves Big Night Out because they just seemed to be doing the same sketch over and over again.”

“I much prefer,” said Will, “their actual sketch shows like The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer.”

“So you wouldn’t have a recurring or developing character?” I asked.

Alan Bennett in 1973 (Photograph by Allan Warren)

Playwright Alan Bennett photographed in 1973 by Allan Warren

“I do have a character now,” admitted Will, “that I can see possibly going on for a long time. He’s in my Edinburgh Fringe show this year. He’s a Yorkshireman and I’ve been slowly perfecting the accent, listening to Alan Bennett nightly. I’ve just got into Alan Bennett’s stuff. He’s amazing.”

“And your character?” I asked.

“He’s working on a children’s story called Little Jo about a half-pig, half-rabbit who lives in water and, in order to stay alive, he’s gotta spin round and round, spitting out water from both mouths for all eternity.

“That’s the beginning of this year’s show. And then there’s this whole story about how his relatives don’t die and so he murders all of his descendants so they don’t have to live the life that his Nan’s Nan had, who grew up to be 500 years old… Cos that’s no life for a child: to be 500 years old. So I slaughtered all of them and that’s why no-one brings me cake on me birthday… and somewhere sandwiched in the middle of all that is going to be my regular sketch weirdness.”

“Have you done sketch group comedy?” I asked.

“I did once and they said too many of my bits were racist! It was in North Carolina and I had a bit where Whitney Houston has a mental breakdown during a recording of The Greatest Love of All. She’s singing nonsense lyrics: I believe Jeremiah Crenshaw destroyed the world in 1962…

“…and the studio engineer interrupts her to say the lyrics don’t make sense and she says: What the fuck you know, muthafucka? In North Carolina, they said it was too racist, so I could never get my ideas past the group.

“Before that, when I was 16, I had two friends in Missouri and we wrote a little sketch revue for about 20 friends at the coffee shop. But they didn’t want to do it for a living and I did. Sometimes I regret that I don’t have a group. I think it would be nice, but I think I’ve passed that stage now where I could fit into any group.

“It’s like if you’ve been single for a long time, it’s hard to have a wife because you gotta adjust and compromise and I don’t think I’m able to do that.

“You could,” I suggested, “try a sex commune?”

“Possibly. But then I’d get jealous. I have such low self-esteem it’d be like: Whaat? I think free love is very selfish. I’m only into monogamy, unless I don’t like the girl, when I’m into one-night stands. I vacillate between misogyny and monogamy.”

I asked: “You think free love is very selfish?”

“Yeah. I dated a Hare Krishna girl one time and she was seeing somebody else. The guy was away in a hospital, selling his body for medication and medical experiments. I didn’t know this for a whole month… and then he came back. So I associate free love with hippie girls in long broomstick skirts and deceit.”

“You do a podcast, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yeah, I had a very highly successful… I hate to use the word Podcast… I call them Albums. At one point, I had 50,000 listeners. I used to do them pretty regularly and then I started drinking and doing drugs and now I’ve been sober for two years and it’s scarier to put the headphones on and start recording again without the drugs.”

“When did you start doing them?”

“2006. They’re like my live shows: there can be five of me going at once.”

Will Franken

Will Franken randomly approaches podcasts like a symphony

“What’s the podcast called?”

Things We Did Before Reality.”

“So,” I said, “you have been doing this for the last ten years and I have not noticed? How many episodes have I missed?”

“About 25. They’re very insane. I don’t smoke pot any more, but you can put your headphones on, smoke a joint and go off into cuckoo land with it.”

“Is it weekly?”

“God no. When I first started, they were almost every two weeks.”

“And now they’re what? Monthly? Regularly?”

“I approach them like a symphony,” said Will. “The thing is I’m such a perfectionist.”

“Indecision or perfection?” I asked.

“I think it’s perfectionism.”

“So they are released randomly?” I asked.

“Very randomly, yeah.”

“And you’ve just done one?”

“Yeah. This one’s not been published yet but this is my first one in about a year and a half. Maybe within the week it will be published. Before that, I hadn’t done one in more than four years. They’re mostly about 30 minutes long. There’s one called Side Two of Abbey Road where I use all the songs on Side 2 of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album to tell my life story.

“It’s like a one-man sketch thing. You sit with the headphones on all day and you hear playbacks of yourself doing a Yorkshire accent, a Scottish accent, talking to yourself on a train and you really lose your mind by the end of the day. I just woke up this morning chain-smoking and resenting having to go get food. I don’t want a shower, I don’t want to leave the house. The phone rings, I don’t want to answer it. I am unable to create in moderation.”


WILL’S SKETCH COMEDY WORKSHOP IS ORGANISED BY ARLENE GREENHOUSE PROMOTIONS – greenhouse effect@btinternet.com

 

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Podcasts