So I met comedy performer Alexander Bennett because he wanted to publicise his show Hell To Play, which is on at the Backyard Comedy Club next Tuesday, 8th December, featuring comics Bec Hill and Andrew O’Neill.
Alexander plays The Devil.
“OK,” I said, “remind me of the elevator pitch for Hell To Play?”
“It is,” he replied, “a gameshow set in Hell hosted by the Devil. Two comedians compete to save their souls and all of the games revolve round people who live in or are destined to go to Hell.
“In Edinburgh, at the Fringe, it was a genuine underground success. We had people coming two or three times to see the show and we filled the room nearly every night. We’re trying to find a London home for it, so we’re doing a Christmas show at the Backyard where, for Christmas, the Devil is going to give people their souls. There’s the potential that I would write a new one every month.”
“Alright,” I told him, putting my iPhone on the table between us. “You know how this works. You get to plug something but you also have to tell me a humorous anecdote about something irrelevant and I will effortlessly blend the two together in an increasingly prestigious way.”
“You’ve got a formula now?” he asked.
“Same as it always was,” I said. “I get other people to come up with ideas for me.”
“I don’t like this at all,” Alexander told me. “You’ve streamlined the process and made it awful. You walk in, you sit down, you throw a mobile phone at somebody, you get them to do the thing and you say: Right! Were you raped or have you ever been addicted to heroin? and then that’s a blog.”
“That’s it,” I admitted. “And your point is?”
“I went to the University of Westminster,” said Alexander.
“I’d forgotten that,” I said. “That’s a good link. That’s where you, I and Jihadi John, the ISIS beheader, went.”
“Yes,” said Alexander. “And Trisha and Jon Ronson, Charlie Brooker, several members of Pink Floyd…”
“This isn’t getting us anywhere for the blog,” I said.
“I’m going to do something different in Edinburgh next year,” suggested Alexander. “I haven’t been brave enough before now to do what I think my solo character should be like.”
“That sounds promising,” I said. “Any heroin or mental homes involved? Are you going to talk about your life?”
“No,” said Alexander. “No heroin or mental homes involved. Sorry. There are various things I would not talk about on stage yet, but I don’t have a problem opening up on stage. I just don’t think it’s particularly interesting. There are a whole streak of comics who think the best way to be a comedian is to really expose your own psychology. “
“Would you go study under Gaulier in Paris?” I ventured.
“If I had the money, I would,” Alexander told me,“because I think it’s interesting. There are some people I really like who have benefitted by going to Gaulier.”
“Well I think,” I told him, “it’s mostly just going on stage, staring at people and waiting for something to happen. I could do that. I suspect he’s destroyed some talented comedians because he tells them to go on stage unscripted and to live in the moment. I think going to Second City in Canada to study improvisation is probably better.”
“That’s probably more up my street,” said Alexander. “But it’s horses for courses. Different things work for different comedians. Gaulier has made some people better; it’s made some worse. It’s the same with the whole opening-up on stage and being yourself. It’s made some comedians better and some worse. The amount of comedians I still see in Edinburgh using it as therapy! That annoys me. Comedy is meant to be an entertainment, even if you’re making a serious point.”
“Have you heard of Stinker Murdoch?” I asked him.
“No. It sounds like a Johnny Sorrow reference.”
“Ah!… “ I said. “Johnny Sorrow!”
“I love Johnny Sorrow,” said Alexander. “Was it you told me he had an audience of Japanese schoolgirls?”
“They thought he was brilliant and were trying to take photos of him in action but, every time they raised their cameras, he would stop what he was doing and do a silly pose. Eh? Clifton? The Guv’nor?… Me mother!… It’s a bloody big house!
“The best piece of improvisation I’ve ever seen was Johnny Sorrow in the Manchester Comedy Festival at a gig where there were three people in the audience, one of whom was French and Johnny was screaming, standing on a table: You’ll never see this at Jongleurs!”
“You had to be there,” I suggested. “As is often the case with Johnny.”
“Yes. The first time I went to the Edinburgh Fringe,” Alexander continued, “I sat with Richard Rycroft and various people in the flat, doing THAT Johnny Sorrow joke in the way other comedians might tell it. Like Chris Rock.”
“Did you ever see Johnny Immaterial?” I asked. “Great act. Though he didn’t actually HAVE an act. Hello. the name’s immaterial. Johnny Immaterial.”
“There’s another interesting guy in the Midlands, “ Alexander told me, “called Lozi Lee, who wanders into punchlines occasionally. These are the strange and interesting people.”
“Did you say you had an interest in hypnotism?” I asked.
“I was afraid of hypnotism,” said Alexander. “It was the only phobia I had. I was afraid of being hypnotised. When I was at film school, I wrote a short film about a hypnotist who did psychic things as well.”
“I think,” I told him, “I would be difficult to hypnotise.”
“The easiest people to hypnotise,” he replied, “are intelligent, imaginative people…”
“Exactly,” I said.
“…because, basically, the person who is being hypnotised is doing all the work themselves, so they need both those qualities to do it. I had a book at university about stage hypnotism.”
“Called?” I asked.
“I can’t remember the title, but it was by Ormond McGill and it gave me a little peek into how the world works. The implications of those things are gargantuan. How people influence themselves without realising it. “
“Have you used that in your comedy?” I asked.
“The direction I’m trying to take the solo show next year,” he explained, “is that the experience is a little bit like being hypnotised. But it’s not going to be like the stuff I read in the book. You cannot be genuinely funny if you’re a hypnotist, because, for it to work, you need to have a sort of doctorly demeanour – that’s all part of the psychology which makes it work.
“There are comedy hypnotists, but the comedy and the hypnotism are very separated. It’s all presentation. There ARE certainly things like speaking softly: things you would associate with calmness. There are certain tropes like using the word ‘sleep’. Sleep is the wrong word for people who are hypnotised. It looks like they’re sleeping but they’re not. People who are hypnotised are not unconscious. But, using that word – ’sleep’ – their brains know what to do.
“My solo show is hopefully going to be a bit like when Alex DeLarge has his eyes open in Clockwork Orange. That’s what I’m going for.”
“Have you tried to hypnotise people?” I asked.
“No, because learning how to do it it would take ages and, when I was reading the book, I was reading it at university, so the only people I was interacting with were fellow students or comedians and I couldn’t come across to any of those people in a doctorly, mysterious way. You couldn’t hypnotise a wife or partner or a parent.”
“What about a chihuahua?” I asked.
“There is,” replied Alexander, “a section in the book on how to hypnotise animals.”
“You’re joking.” I said.
“But they don’t understand what’s going on,” I said.
“Animals are odd,” explained Alexander, “because they have physical things. The way you hypnotise a frog is you hold it flat, between your two hands, turn it upside down and it will stay there. So it gives the impression of hypnosis. You must know the way to hypnotise a chicken?”
“Must I?” I asked.
“You hold it on the ground so its neck and head are pointing along the ground. Then you get a piece of chalk and draw a white line away from its beak and it will just stay there. You can pick it up and it will be limp and it will take a couple of moments to come to… There is a way of doing rabbits.”
“Are we still talking about hypnotism?” I asked.
“A lot of it is just turning them upside down.”
“I tried that with a woman,” I said. “It didn’t work.”
Alexander looked at me.
“No,” I said, “I don’t know what it means either. That’s why I am not a comedian.”
I left soon afterwards.