The Awkward Silence of sketch comedy: gigs I have embarrassingly never seen

The Awkward Silence: I have no idea what they look like either

Back on the 6th November, I got an e-mail from one Ralph Jones asking if I’d like a free ticket to come along and see The Awkward Silence host a show called Rufus Sewell Turns 45 which included four other acts but not Rufus Sewell.

Getting a free ticket meant I would save the £5 admission charge and I am a Scot brought up among Jews.

So I was going to go, but had to cancel at the very last moment.

I could not go to their November 19th show either.

Which brings us to their gig this Saturday.

I can’t go to that one either and the Awkward Silence seldom seem to come to London except on gig days. So Ralph Jones suggested, with a commendable tenacity for publicity, that I interview him by e-mail.

Clearly, I must have been weakening in the run-up period to my current coughing fits, as I said OK.

This is never a good idea. Always chat in the flesh.

ME: Who are you?

RALPH: The Awkward Silence. A sketch group made up of myself and Vyvyan Almond. We started in March 2011 and host regular nights in both Oxford and London.

ME: No, I meant, who are YOU?

RALPH: I’m the smaller one. I write our sketches and give myself all the good parts. I write stuff for other projects too – comic poetry; articles for The New Statesman and The Freethinker; and another comedy double-act thing called Fat Bat.

ME: Fuck me! You’re bloody intellectuals! Do I really want to see another bunch of Oxbridge wankers who want to become millionaires by dumbing-down to TV viewers they despise?

RALPH: It’s odd that being ‘intellectual’ or having gone to Oxbridge (I didn’t, and therefore the material isn’t ‘Oxbridge’) seems almost to get people on their guard these days. There’s certainly been a change in the zeitgeist since Beyond The Fringe. Obviously if you judge a show or a performer by which university they attended, feel free in advance not to watch, but Cambridge and Oxford do consistently turn out some incredibly talented comics and always will. There are obviously thousands of talented comics from everywhere else too, and from all or none of the other universities, but Oxbridge does draw the good ‘uns like moths to a flame.

ME: So why are you doing comedy?

RALPH: I’ve been fascinated by it since I was very young, and I staged my first sketch show when I was 14,

ME: What happened? I like quirky anecdotes. Embarrassing is good.

RALPH: This first show was called Insanity Has Its Disadvantages and was staged at the Burton Taylor Theatre in Oxford. One of the sketches was just me sat onstage reading a poem about buttocks. Excruciating. I think everyone but me was very embarrassed by it. But it was a start. Since then, I’ve never really stopped. I think the appeal lies in the instant reward, really – getting a very tangible recognition of one’s work.

ME: You’re being bleedin’ intellectual again. You mean audience applause gives you a hard-on?

RALPH: No, applause doesn’t. Audiences do. And it has to stem from falling in love with other people’s comedy at some stage in your life. That certainly happened for me, over and over again, with Monty Python, The Young Ones, The Simpsons, Peter Cook…

ME: That’s a varied bunch. What links them together?

RALPH: I think they all tread a fine line between the real and the surreal and are excellent at employing verbal comedy to good effect (Peter Cook in particular; less so The Young Ones). I don’t count The Young Ones as seminal, but your comedy background hinges around when you encounter certain programmes. I suppose The Young Ones spoke to me loudest when I was about 13. And Peter Cook, for example, is someone who really grew on me over time and who remains an enormous influence.

ME: All those people are male. The Awkward Silence is two blokes. Did you think of having a female third member of the group? Or a black lesbian in a wheelchair?

RALPH: Over two years ago we did sort of start off with a girl in the group but she had to pull out. All of the black lesbians in wheelchairs that I know are in other sketch groups.

ME: Why do sketch comedy? It’s dead, isn’t it?

RALPH: Obviously not. And, even if it were, a resurgence would be necessary.

ME: Why?

RALPH: Because just watching panel shows and stand-up is fucking boring. And because sketch is often host to a much wider variety of interesting forms of expression. There are bags of wonderfully talented sketch groups out on the live circuit but it’s a form that’s often difficult to translate to radio or TV – it tends to have a lower hit-rate than stand-up or panel shows but, when done well, it can succeed in being incredibly exciting. And writing and performing sketch leads you on to trying your hand at other things anyway, like sitcoms or prostitution.

ME: Do you want to add a half-sentence extra as a punchline for the mention of prostitution?

RALPH: No.

ME: Isn’t sketch/ensemble comedy for people who don’t have the balls to do solo stand-up?

RALPH: I certainly have neither the balls nor the talent to do solo stand-up. But I also much prefer sketch – So it’s not a plan B.

ME: What is in your psychological make-up which makes that so?

RALPH: I suppose those who do sketch comedy – like myself – prefer playing different people and portraying different worlds. That’s why my sketches aren’t very realist and tend to be a little odd. The reluctance to do stand-up is often – and I don’t want to get too psychoanalytical here – for fear of giving off a genuine representation of yourself onstage. Certainly it is with me anyway. Shit, I’ve said too much… I’d certainly like to explore solo character stuff at some point because I think I’d regret not doing so. But there’s no doubt it takes more balls to be a stand-up than a sketch act.

ME: Why?

RALPH: Because you haven’t got the safety net of other performers; because you’re far more likely to get heckled; because your journeys are more lonely; because people might not like ‘the real you’; because you haven’t got as many excuses to dress up like a bell-end. Those guys have got it tough… On the other hand one can just ‘get up and do’ stand-up, so often it’s practised by people who haven’t put in the level of preparation that goes into sketch. It’s easier to be good as a stand-up but it’s also easier to be bad.

ME: Why?

RALPH: It’s easier to be bad because lots of people do believe that it’s possible to just ‘get up and do’ stand-up and be good at it whereas, with sketch comedy, the gaping flaws in the plan are given more time – and people – to dawn on you. It’s (arguably) easier to be good at stand-up because you can perform far more frequently; you’re your own boss; you have more of a rapport with the audience; and because stand-up is much more widely understood to be an actual thing. Saying that you do ‘sketch comedy’ still elicits fairly blank expressions in most people.

ME: Isn’t sketch comedy for frustrated actors not comedians?

RALPH: I think you’re onto something there. Although I myself am a frustrated writer,

ME: Are you a writer who performs to make sure it’s presented correctly? Or a performer who writes to make sure you get suitable material?

RALPH: Definitely the former. If I could give up either performing or writing, I’d give up performing in a heartbeat. I love watching other people perform my stuff very well – that’s perhaps even better than performing it myself. I’m not a frustrated actor. Vyvyan’s an actor but he’s not frustrated, except with his uncanny ability to always lose items of clothing. We never do a gig without him losing an umbrella or a sock.

ME: So what’s the difference between actors, stand-up comedians and sketch performers?

RALPH: Actors – serious…. Stand-ups – mental… Sketch performers – deluded.

ME: What’s happening on 1st December?

RALPH: We are hosting our fourteenth Special Guests night at the Wilmington Arms.

We aim to do these monthly. On the 1st we’ve got Colin Hoult, Jenny Fawcett, Max & Ivan, The Pin and Paul Fung. We were originally going to have the show on 28th November and were going to celebrate the 100th anniversary – to the day – of the independence of Albania.

ME: So your one-line sales pitch for the re-scheduled show would be…?

RALPH: Just when you think Bette Midler couldn’t have another birthday, she goes off and has another birthday… Ever wanted to celebrate Bette Midler’s 67th birthday in a pub in Clerkenwell? Then this is the gig for you.

1 Comment

Filed under Acting, Comedy, Theatre

One response to “The Awkward Silence of sketch comedy: gigs I have embarrassingly never seen

  1. Kim

    John Really enjoying your blog…this was eye an eye opener as am (still) mother of the Hennessy in Hennessy and Friends (Edinburgh Fringe Father leaflet fame) and always wondered what the motivation was! As you missed out on the above, Hennessy and Friends are doing a sketchy night with guests at The Pleasance – London on 13th if you are free 🙂 Could save you £6 if you like – hahaha, see you there?
    http://www.pleasance.co.uk/islington/events/hennessy-friends-sketchy-nights?

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