In yesterday’s blog, I printed part of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan who is compiling a portfolio of long-form articles on stand-up, local theatre, comedy revue and comedy theory as part of his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.
Here is another extract:
Liam: I was reading articles about how, in the 1980s, students would get housing benefits or income grants, whereas now it’s more fees not grants. Do you think the fees incurred by universities and students nowadays hinder an active student stand-up scene?
John: No. Because, when you’re talking about students doing stand-up, the thing you’re really talking about is the Edinburgh Fringe and the last seven or ten years the Free Fringe and the Free Festival have been around and that allows anyone to do what they used to do. Though there is a bizarre thing that the English Arts Council won’t give grants to comedians because they say comedy isn’t an art. So they’ll give grants to artists, to ballet dancers, to singers, to musicians but the English Arts Council won’t give grants to comics because comedy isn’t an art.
Liam: Do you think that there’s a richer comedy heritage in Scotland, maybe? Where they consider it an art or…
John: Er, I dunno. Scottish and English comedy? Well, Scottish comedy’s more straight-faced. I remember watching Scotch and Wry – it was a BBC TV series with Rikki Fulton. I had heard about it for years but never seen it and I first saw it when I was working at the UK Gold TV channel in England. I watched an episode and loved it and came down and said to everyone: “Ah! I’ve just watched Scotch and Rye and isn’t it just…” And everyone said “Yeah, isn’t it absolute shit”. And I thought “Isn’t that interesting”. I thought it was absolutely brilliant and they all thought it was shit I think because it was done straight-faced. It was almost Scandinavian. Rikki Fulton doesn’t smile. None of them did, none of the performances were ‘comedy’ performances. All were straight-faced.
Liam: Do you prefer that rather than with a wink?
John: I dunno if it’s a Scottish thing it’s usually straight-faced. I remember – this is irrelevant – I remember being in Queen’s Street station in Glasgow and listening to two tramps sitting on the ground and they were so funny. I mean, they were SO funny. But they were just talking normally to each other. I mean, they weren’t actually ‘being funny’ – it was just their natural speech rhythm and attitude. It was sarcasm or something. Anyway, sorry. I’ve gone off the subject.
Liam: Do you consider there was a golden era for comedy?
John: Nah. The golden era is whenever you were in your teens.
Liam: More receptive to comedy?
John: Teens or early twenties. I mean, the golden era for my parents was the Wartime and just after: ITMA.
Liam: Everyone’s got an era from when they were in their twenties, I suppose.
John: I think what sort of happens with humour is people watch television comedy when they’re teenagers or children because they’re stuck at home. And then they go to college and they don’t watch that much television really – unless it’s daytime television – because they go out and get pissed in the evenings – and then they come back to it when they’re trapped at home with children in their late twenties/early thirties. So there’s a ten year gap and, therefore, the golden era is before that ten year gap – before you stopped watching comedy. When you come back to it ten years later, it never feels quite the same. When was your golden era? What age were you? I mean to me you only look about 12 now.
Liam: Well, I’m 24 now. I remember saving up tokens to get this VHS tape from The Sun newspaper that had loads of bits of Fawlty Towers on it.
John: And, of course, you’re a freak because you’re interested in the craft of comedy. You’re not an ordinary person.
Liam: I might be an anomaly in that regard. I was watching Hancock’s Half Hour when I was younger and Peter Cook and listening to Derek and Clive. I mean, I don’t know. I was very big on The Office thing but that might be because that came about when I was old enough to properly appreciate the ligaments of comedy.
Another thing… I call it ‘The Daniel Kitson Dichotomy’. He’s someone who seems to sort of espouse a separatist fringe comedy spirit – “I’m a fringe comedian” – But, when you go to get Daniel Kitson tickets, you’re usually on the phone to arts centre switchboards for 45 minutes trying to get through the Daniel Kitson flashmob – because he’s got a sort of business model that is quite profitable. Can he really consider himself a fringe comedian anymore?
John: I thought it was very clever marketing when he, in his early days at the Edinburgh Fringe, would have posters and flyers just saying “Daniel Kitson is on at (wherever)” and appear not to be doing an advert because that’s the best sort of advert. It was a bit like Eddie Izzard kept going on for years about how he couldn’t get on or didn’t want to be on television and he got enormous amounts of publicity by actually not being on television. He said he wanted to write a sitcom about cows which was unfilmable and would never, ever be done. Eventually it was done and it was absolute shit but, of course, it was great publicity to say you were never going to be on television.
It can backfire on you, because Malcolm Hardee managed Jerry Sadowitz in his early days and he did brilliantly at marketing him as the foul-mouthed comedian who could never be on television. This built up brilliantly and Jerry became famous for being untransmittable. But the downside of it was that television producers ‘knew’ they could not even consider him because they ‘knew’ he could not be put on television. So he never actually got to the point beyond almost being on television – not until much later.
Jerry is interesting because last time I saw him do a full-length stand-up show was about six years ago and I thought “Surely he can’t be as offensive anymore” because comedy has moved on. Lots of people do the offensive thing. But he still managed to be jaw-droppingly offensive. Extraordinary. Very impressive. He’s brilliant.
Liam: I’m not someone who’s easily phased but when I saw him in Leicester Square Theatre I was quite shocked…I didn’t expect myself to be.
John: I always thought that (but it might not be true) maybe I helped him get on mainstream television because, before he did a late night magic show for Channel 4 (The Other Side of Gerry Sadowitz on Channel 4), I produced a one-off one-hour stand-up show called The Last Laugh With Jerry Sadowitz, for Noel Gay Television/BSB (in 1990).
I talked to him beforehand and said: “BSB don’t really mind about swearing but try not to do too much. You can probably have about four ‘fucks’ and a ‘cunt’ if you’re lucky so try and keep it back. But don’t let it interfere with your flow…” And he did a one-hour, fast-talking show with not a single fuck or cunt in it. I never thought he could do it because I thought the swearing was part of the rhythm of his speech. But he managed to do it without any fucks or cunts at all.
Liam: Did he still get a good response from it without the swear words in?
John: Yeah, it was a wonderful show. Though he did pick on two lesbians in the audience and then he was surprised when they came up to him after the show and berated him. They were so annoyed and offended. He had really gone for them during the show. And he was telling them afterwards: “But it’s just… it’s just comedy. It’s just an act. It’s only comedy”. He didn’t quite see that people could take it more – ehhh – more personally.
He was just a comedian. It was just comedy.
… CONTINUED HERE …