Category Archives: Comedy

Harvey Weinstein, Lewis Schaffer, an iPhone and Becky Fury’s fanny print

James Harris (with microphone) talks to his guests at the wedding party in Hackney this afternoon

This afternoon, I was at comic James Harris’ wedding party in Hackney. He got married yesterday to Ke Zuo.

I was sitting talking to Hannah George and to Toby Williams, the comic who used to perform as character Dr George Ryegold. I was suggesting to them that, when the inevitable movie of the sudden downfall of film producer Harvey Weinstein is made, Lewis Schaffer should play the part of Weinstein.

The Hackney wedding party included a non-hackneyed show.

Not because of Lewis Schaffer’s sexual proclivities (Brian Simpson, the English character actor who plays the role of Lewis Schaffer is gay) but because he would be able to play the New York Jewish character to a tee – ironic, given that Brian Simpson is neither Jewish nor a New Yorker.

Imagine my surprise then, dear reader, when my left nipple began to be tickled by the vibrations of an incoming text message on my iPhone.

The message was from a comedy promoter. It said:


Where are you? Sounds like fun.

And why do you keep saying Lewis Schaffer’s name in vain interspersed with Harvey Weinstein?

Intrigued.


The iPhone in my shirt’s breast pocket must have phoned the comedy promoter of its own accord by pressing itself against my erect nipple… Yes, the party was that exciting.

I sent a message back. It said:


Oops! You can’t trust mobile phones.


I put the phone back in my breast pocket.

A little later, it tickled my nipple again.

Janey Godley’s iPhone told her I had left a 10 second message

It was a text message from comic Janey Godley, in Aberdeen to perform two shows with Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond. It said:


John did you leave a message?


I had not phoned her. But her iPhone told her I had left a 10 second audio message on her phone.

Mysterious cyberspace keyboard not sent by me to Aberdeen

And I also seemed to have sent her a photograph of a keyboard.

A little later, I got an email from comic Becky Fury, the winner of last year’s Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award who has taken to calling herself a double Malcolm Hardee Award winner because of a dubious event in a London pub.

Becky Fury’s new weekly show project

Becky’s email was inviting me on Tuesday to a new weekly show she is organising in Victoria Park, London. The show is called the Demokratik Republik of Kabaret but she has inexplicably abbreviated that not to DRK but to DPRK, the abbreviation for North Korea.

As the weekly comedy night is new, she wants acts who want to perform to get in touch with her.

Her message said:


Anyone who wants to come down and try new or experimental material in a lovely venue please email Demokratik Republik of Kabaret with a submission – PeoplesCabaret@gmail.com


Becky Fury – a woman in search of the bizarre and original

I am not a performer so I think Becky assumed I would not be interested in this message and that is why she included a story for me.

To hold my attention.

I do to know if the story is true or not.

I seem to live in a world in which comics pretend to be doctors. Or not.

And English character actors pretend to be Jewish New York comics. Or not.

And iPhones phone each other without asking permission from the people who own them.

Becky Fury’s message read:


I went to see
Betty Grumble sex clown
(Not available for children’s parties)
And she gave me a paint print of her fanny
(If you think that’s bad you should see the one
Coco the clown did with his anal beads
That’ll be the last time he gets booked to play that village fete)
So I put a picture of it on Facebook
(The paint print of the fanny
Not the anal bead one
Coco’s management have taken out an injunction on that)
I put on Facebook ‘I went to see Betty Grumble Sex Clown and she presented me with this paint print of her fanny’
The next day this comedian comes up to me and says
‘I just went to see Betty Grumble
and she gave me a paint print of her fanny…
And she signed it’ I didn’t believe him
So I said
‘Where did she stick the pen?’
He didn’t know
So I said ‘Betty Grumble didn’t give you a paint print of her fanny, did she?
You didn’t get a signed paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny, did you? You didn’t get an unsigned paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny. You didn’t get any paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny. You’re just saying that because you are jealous Betty Grumble chose to give me a paint print of her fanny
And I was angry
And a man on the way home said ‘What’s wrong?’
I put on Facebook ‘I got given a paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny and this guy came to me and said ‘Well, I got a signed paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny and I said ‘You didn’t get a signed paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny, you didn’t get any paint print of Betty Grumble’s Fanny’
And the man said
‘Jesus you’re angry about who’s been given a paint print of a clown’s fanny
That is ridiculous
You’re meant to be a comedian
Do you not think that’s funny?’
And I thought ‘Yes, ridiculous. Ridiculous one-upmanship. Hilarious.
When I get home I’m going to put a post on Facebook saying
Marcel Marceau mimed/handed me a card which said ‘You are the best comedian in the world’
And a Malcolm Hardee Award made out of modelling balloons
And then Coco the clown gave me a necklace made of his anal beads


That is the message that Becky Fury sent me.

I think I will go and lie down now. It has been a long day.

Sex clown Betty Grumble’s alleged fanny print as photographed by Becky Fury, cunning stuntress

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Filed under Comedy, Surreal

“Parrotopia” – one step beyond British Music Hall, The Goons and The Bonzos

Michael Livesley (left) and Rodney Slater, Lords of Parrotopia

“Why should I talk to you?” I asked Rodney Slater, formerly of the Bonzo Dog Do0-Dah Band and Michael Livesley who, in the last few years, has revived Vivian Stanshall’s 1978 epic Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.

“Because,” said Michael, “of our wonderful new collaborative CD effort Parrotopia.”

“You  sound like,” I told him, “a Northerner trying to be posh by using long words – collaborative, indeed!”

“But it IS collaborative!” he insisted. “The crazy thing about this CD is that, without any kind of planning, it has 12 tracks, six of which are mine and six of which are his. We then cross-pollinated it, of course.”

“You’re using big words again,” I told him. “So the music is random?”

“Yes, it’s very random,” Michael said. “I suppose, if it has a genre, it might be front step.”

“That is a pun beyond my ken,” I told him.

“The young folks,” Michael told me, “have something called ‘dubstep’. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe that was ten years ago or more.”

“A couple of days ago,” said Rodney, “I got a magazine from PRS and I didn’t know what they were talking about in it.”

The Bonzos’ 50th Anniversary show at KOKO in Camden, 2015

“It’s been a helluva lot of fun,” said Michael. “A gestatory nine months.”

“You’re at it again with the words,” I said. “But why another CD? Artistic inspiration or the lure of more filthy lucre?”

Michael laughed.

Rodney laughed: “Gross money is pouring out of our pockets! Why did we do this?”

“Because,” Michael told him, “we couldn’t not. Let’s be honest, we’re never going to become rich doing this. As it is, we’re selling teeshirts as well as the CDs to get money back. We do the music and the songs because we have to do it. Essentially what happened was we started talking during the Bonzo’s Austerity Tour last year, as things got increasingly more fraught…”

“In what way ‘fraught’?” I asked.

“It was nice amongst us,” said Michael. “Lovely among the players… Let’s not talk about it.”

“So the new CD… Parrotopia.” I said.

“The initial spurt,” explained Michael, “was that Rodney bought an iPhone and, all-of-a-sudden, you could email him. And there was no holding him after that. Pretty soon, we were sending each other stupid things about long-dead Northern comics and long-dead, obese footballers. Just tittle-tattle in general.”

Susie Honeyman of The Mekons, Rodney Slater and Michael Livesley during Parrotopia shed recordings.

“It’s just a collection of stories, really,” said Rodney. “Stories we wanted to tell that happened between 2016 and when we finished it in June this year. Our reaction to what was happening in the world and what was particularly happening to us in that context.”

“Not,” I checked, “what was happening politically in the grand scheme of things, but…”

“There was a sprinkling of that,” said Michael.

“You can’t get away from that,” added Rodney, “because that’s the time we were doing it.”

“Well, Parrotopia was almost like a coping mechanism, wasn’t it?” Michael suggested.

“It’s all about stories,” said Rodney. “Stories we tell ourselves. All of us. Fantasies we enact in our own heads when we go to bed at night. Michael said to me: We’ll make the album that we want to listen to. And that’s what has come out.”

“Why is it called Parrotopia?” I asked.

Mr Slater’s Parrot,” said Rodney.

It is a 1969 song by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

“What we said we were originally gonna do,” Michael explained, “was to declare ourselves The People’s Republic of Parrotopia, because there was stuff going on – and that name stuck.”

“Cultural Revolutionary,” Rodney said, apparently thinking out loud.

“There is,” Michael continued, “a song, one line of which is: Reflecting feudalist tags. That’s the general disjecta membra that is left over.”

“Oooh!” I said.

“Did you make that up?” asked Rodney.

“No,” Michael told him. “It’s a real word. In many ways, we were sort of living this madness through a shared past. A strange shared past, because Rodney is older than I am, but I was brought up by my nan – my grandmother – and she was brought up around the same time as Rodney’s parents. So we maybe both have a similar outlook. We see what we’ve done as very much as a continuation of British music hall and The Goons and The Bonzos.”

“Are you going to do a musical tour of Parrotopia?” I asked.

“Costs money,” said Rodney. “It would need a cast of 10 or 12. We would need some man with a lot of money who was honest, which is a very rare thing in this business.”

“Any videos?” I asked.

William ‘Fatty’ Foulke, Sheffield United goalkeeper 1894-1905

“Well,” said Michael, “we talked to John HalseyThe Rutles’ Barry Wom – who plays drums on our CD – and we discussed making some films – particularly a little silent movie of a track called Fatty – who was a goalkeeper for Sheffield United in 1902. Rodney as the referee with a twirling moustache and a top hat.”

“I think,” I told him, “you should write a song called Rodney Bought An iPhone.”

Rodney responded: “Writing used to be a slow and laborious process by hand. Now, if we have an idea, rather than me learning it, I hum something, he plays it on the keyboard and there’s the dots.”

“It’s a very quick way of working,” said Michael. “I can come up with a melody, I play it on the keyboard into the iMac computer and literally just press a button and the music dots are there for him to play. The computer is the real paradox here. Well ‘irony’ is better. Rodney has this disdain for computers and…”

“I don’t want a computer,” Rodney emphasised.

“But you have an iPhone,” I said. “That’s a computer.”

“I know it is,” he replied, “but it’s not a two-way mirror quite as much.”

“Would you care to expatiate on that?” asked Michael.

“It’s too intrusive in one’s life,” said Rodney. “It’s like walking around naked. It’s just my way of thinking about it. It’s like radio. Originally, radio was a wonderful, educational tool. All manner of communication. It’s when the arseholes get hold of it and then the big money comes in. I have utter contempt for the people running these things. Utter contempt because of what they’re doing with it. I’m not very good technically. I manage an iPhone; well, part of it.”

“One of the tracks on the CD,” said Michael, “is One Step Behind where Rodney sings about Who harvests your data? He was telling me about opinions being shaped and formed by…”

“Algorithms,” said Rodney. “I’m very interested in all that. The way it shapes human behaviour. I don’t like the sort of society that these things are making. The parallel worlds that we all live in. I prefer to go down the pub and play darts and crib and have a fight.”

“What attitudes are being formed that are bad?” I asked.

“Isolation,” he replied. “Parallel lives. Self-centred interest. What really pisses me off is that people are totally inconsiderate of the consequences of their actions on other people. They don’t think about that.”

Michael says Rodney’s Parrotopia album is “riddled with it”

“Are you going to do a second Parrotopia album about it?” I asked.

“We are doing another one,” said Michael.

“Parrot-toopia,” said Rodney.

“And when is that out?”

“Maybe next year,” replied Michael, but this one is riddled with it. Virtual reality. Augmented reality.”

“I just think, as I get older,” said Rodney, “it is time to write things down. I’m not a grumpy old man. I don’t write grumpy old man songs. I write reality, looking from now to what I’ve known, which is 76 bloody years. It’s a bloody long time. I was born at the beginning of the Second World War and I saw all that social evolution…”

“You retain a lot of optimism,” said Michael.

“A lot of optimism,” said Rodney, “from a bad beginning.”

“There is a lot of attitude on the CD,” said Michael.

“You have had a haircut since we met last,” I observed to Michael.

“Yes,” he said. “I went to Chris the barber near where I live. It is in the back of a garage. You go through his car sales bit and there’s a shed and you sit there surrounded by Classic Car Weeklys.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“Between Andover and Southampton.”

“I think there is a stuffed cat museum in Andover,” I said. “In tableaux.”

“I don’t think so,” said Michael.

“Maybe it’s in Arundel,” I said.

“There’s a pencil museum up in Keswick in the Lake District,” suggested Michael helpfully.

“And a vegetarian shoe shop in Brighton,” I said.

“I know,” said Michael. “I popped in once.”

I looked at him.

“I was starving,” he added.

Parrotopia was successfully financed by crowdfunding, using this video…

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Filed under Comedy, Computers, Crowdfunding, Eccentrics, Music

Japanese Rakugo storytelling from a Canadian in London and New York

When I met Canadian performer Katsura Sunshine at Camden Lock in London, he was wearing a denim kimono and a bowler hat.

“What was your original name?” I asked.

“Gregory Conrad Robic,” he told me. “I’m a Slovenian citizen, born in Toronto.”

“So why are you doing Japanese stuff?” I asked

I met Katsura Sunshine in Camden Lock, London

“In my youth,” he told me, “I was writing musicals based on Aristophanes. One musical version of The Clouds ran for 15 months in Toronto. As I was researching, I read that ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh and Kabuki had all these similarities yet there was no chance of cross-pollination. They were coincidental similarities. I thought that was really interesting, so I went to Japan to see Kabuki. I intended to stay for 6 months, but 18 years went by and now I live in Tokyo and London.”

“Half and half?” I asked. “You are based in Tokyo and Camden Town?”

“Yes, for the last few years. I am going to perform at the Soho Playhouse in New York in November and then I might move to New York. Nothing is planned. I might not.”

“So,” I asked, “how are ancient Greek theatre and Japanese theatre similar?”

“Use of masks,” said Sunshine. “And the same actors playing different roles. And the musical instruments are very similar.”

“And, from Noh and Kabuki,” I said, “you got interested in other styles?”

“Yes. I loved being there so, after five years, when I could actually speak some Japanese, someone introduced me to Rakugo performance, which is quite inaccessible to a non-Japanese speaker; it’s not commonly done in English. Kabuki is very visual, but Rakugo is basically kneeling on a cushion and moving your head left and right to delineate different characters.”

The Kamigata Rakugo Association Hall in Osaka, Japan

Sunshine is currently the only professional non-Japanese storyteller officially recognized by the Kamigata Rakugo Association.

“It’s traditional Japanese storytelling,” I said.

“Yes.”

“So what attracts you to Rakugo?”

“The simplicity of it. All you need is a kimono, a fan and a hand towel to create a storytelling world for people. The first half is a lot like stand-up comedy, where you are just doing anecdotes and trying to feel out the audience and, while you are doing that, you are trying to figure out which story to tell… When you decide which story would suit this audience, you take off your upper kimono and launch into the story.

“The stories have been passed down for 200, 300, 400 years from master to apprentice, from master to apprentice. There is a shared pool of stories. My own master (Katsura Bunshi VI) has made up around 250 different stories.”

“The style of the stories,” I said, “is traditional but the details in them could still involve something like travelling on a metro or in an aeroplane?”

“Yeah. Stories about city life, the neighbourhood, human relations. The style of the story transcends the centuries.”

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever…”

“So when you tell a story,” I asked, “are you improvising details within a template story?”

“No. You improvise in terms of the choice of material but the actual material is set. You limit yourself to two characters in conversation or, at most, three and every story ends in a punchline, as if it were one long, extended joke.”

“A funny punchline?” I asked.

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever, but it’s something that ties the whole story together in a satisfying ending.”

“You said ‘wordplay’ OR ‘funny’,” I pointed out. “As if Japanese wordplay is not necessarily comedic.”

“There are so many levels,” Sunshine explained. “Japanese has a limited number of sounds so there are many levels to wordplay. Some are funny; some are beautiful. It’s not always making someone laugh with wordplay.”

“So sometimes the audience just appreciates the cleverness?”

“Yes.”

“There are basically three types of venue,” I said. “Comedy, theatre and music venues. Which is Rakugo most suited to?”

“That’s an interesting question,” said Sunshine. “It is a theatrical form that happens to be comical.

Sunshine at the Leicester Square Theatre, March 2017

“The first year I went to the Edinburgh Fringe, I listed myself in the Comedy section, but I think a lot of the audience were expecting guffaws from the very beginning. It is storytelling, but not laugh-a-minute and there is a through-line and I don’t think it suited that audience. The next year, I put myself in Theatre and I think it suited the audience much better.”

“How many years have you played the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“This would have been the fourth year, if I had made it. I had to cancel my whole run because, once you get out of hospital, they instruct you not to fly for a certain amount of time.”

“And you were in hospital,” I prompted, “because you had…?”

“Deep vein thrombosis and Economy Class syndrome – pulmonary embolism. I had one long flight back from New York which… I think that’s where I contracted it.”

“But you are OK now?”

“Mmmmm….”

Earlier this year, in March, Sunshine played one night at the Leicester Square Theatre in London, packed to its 400-seat capacity.

“You are,” I prompted, “doing ten more shows at the Leicester Square Theatre starting this Sunday and running until October 15th.”

“Yes.”

“In English.”

“Yes. Rakugo is surprisingly translatable. I don’t really adapt the stories. They are directly translated into English. The points where people laugh in Japanese are generally the same points where people laugh in English. The humour of the traditional Rakugo stories is very situation-based and character-based – miscommunication; husband and wife fighting; a thief who never manages to steal anything. It doesn’t depend on the intricacies of language as much as situations which anybody in any culture can understand.”

“Comedy audiences in this country,” I said, “are maybe in the 20-35 age range. Below that, they can’t afford to go out a lot. Over that, they may be stuck at home with children. So the material is aimed at younger adult audiences.”

“Rakugo is very ‘clean’,” said Sunshine. “Very family-oriented, so the whole family come; they bring the children.”

The chance of Rakugo dying out is about this…

“Is Rakugo dying out in Japan,” I asked, “with each new generation?”

“No. There are 800 professional storytellers in Japan and they all make a living from it. There’s a huge number of shows going on every day all over Japan, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka, but we travel all over the country all the time.”

“Is there storytelling on Japanese TV?”

“Not too much. Storytellers get on TV in the variety shows.”

“So it is not dying out?”

“No. No chance, though it goes in waves. Maybe every 3 or 4 years, there are TV series looking at Rakugo and that gets people interested again. In terms of the number of storytellers, it’s at its peak right now.”

“Men AND women perform?” I asked.

“It’s traditionally quite a male world, but now more and more women are joining the ranks. Out of the 800 storytellers, there are maybe 40 or 50 women. About 30 years ago there were almost none. In the Osaka Tradition of storytelling, the most senior Master is a woman and she is I think under 60 years old.”

“When you do your shows in Japan,” I asked, “do you see the audience?”

“Yes. One big difference to Western theatre is that, in Japan, we keep the house lights on. You want to see everybody in the audience. The visual communication is very important.”

Sunshine posters in London’s tube

“The lights will be up at the Leicester Square Theatre?”

“Yes.”

“You have,” I said, “posters promoting the show on escalators in Leicester Square tube station.”

“And in Piccadilly Circus station,” said Sunshine. “My dream was always to perform in the West End with posters on the escalators and my face on a London taxi.”

“You have ads on taxis?” I asked.

“Well,” said Sunshine, “to really advertise effectively on a taxi, you need about 200 of them.

“We just got one taxi painted. It is about £250 to have it painted and then something like £200 per month for one taxi plus £75 for one hour with a driver.

Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!”

“So we paid a driver for two hours and just took pictures all round London. So, in terms of social media, the cost to have a Sunshine taxi all over the internet was maybe £600.

“When I put the pictures up in Japan maybe six months ago – six months before these shows in Leicester Square – people were like: Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!

“And,” I said, “the name Leicester Square Theatre will impress the Americans.”

“Yes.”

“You are a very clever man,” I said. “And it is a very nice denim kimono.”

“I designed it myself,” Sunshine told me. “The sleeves are removable so I can change them. I will wear a more traditional kimono on stage.”

I did not ask him about the bowler hat.

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Filed under Canada, Comedy, Japan, Performance

Israeli comics: “It’s hard to be pissed-off with someone who makes you laugh.”

In a couple of weeks, on Wednesday 4th October, the annual Comedy International conference and showcase is back in London.

Representing Israel in the showcase are three comics: Yossi Tarablus, Yohay Sponder and Shahar Hason. The night before (Tuesday 3rd October), they are performing a one-off full-length show From Israel With Laughs at the Seven Dials in Covent Garden – “People can see us for an hour and a half rather than just 10 minutes each,” Yossi told me on Skype from Tel Aviv.

Yossi Tarablus

“Will I – a non-Jew – appreciate it?” I asked.

“Sure,” he told me. “Shahar and Yohay have just returned from their Edinburgh Fringe show and from the Asia Comedy Festival in Singapore. It’s not going to be Jewish/Israeli stuff. People who don’t know Israel and who aren’t Jewish can come and still have a blast.

“We will be doing international stuff that works that we have performed all over the world. My show is a lot about family and kids and marriage. A wife is a wife and a child is a child and dating is dating. We are doing adjustments, but we won’t be doing material that we would be testing on the crowd. We respect the crowd. We do our homework.”

“Are the three of you similar in style?” I asked.

“No, we’re very different in style. It’s a great mix of comedians because everyone is at a different stage in life. I am the only one who is married; the other two are single.”

“How,” I asked, “is the comedy scene in Israel?”

Yohay Sponder

“The English-language stand-up scene in Tel Aviv and in Israel has really taken off. In the last five years, when we started this endeavour, we didn’t know how it was going to pan out. We started with an open mic and then expanded to another more professional evening and then another evening in Jerusalem and another evening in Tel Aviv. There was was a time when you could go to see English-language comedy in Israel four times a week. Now you can see it three times a week, which is great.”

“You said,” I pointed out, “when we started this endeavour. What endeavour?”

“We wanted Israel to be a base,” explained Yossi, “a hub for international comedy like there is in Amsterdam and Berlin and, of course, I’m not even talking about Anglo places like London and New York. We want to go out and perform all over the world. And we want international comedians to visit Israel. We have a lot of people who speak English here, a lot of expats from the US and the UK. So we have enough of an audience for weekly shows.”

Shahar Hason

“I presume touring American Jewish comedians already include Israel?” I said.

“The production company that is bringing us to the UK is the one which brought Louis CK and Eddie Izzard and Jim Jefferies to Israel and they’re producing Chris Rock’s upcoming tour in Israel in January. So they bring a lot of A-listers to Israel. And Abi Lieberman brings three comedians with him every six months to do charity shows in Israel. Seinfeld was here a year and a half ago.”

“So how,” I asked, “is Israeli comedy different from New York Jewish comedy?”

“I think,” said Yossi, “that a lot of New York Jewish comics are Woody Allen-esque. Very smart, very sophisticated, very funny and more like Eastern European Jews. They are maybe a little bit more self-deprecating: classic Shtetl Jews.

“Israeli Jews, in their comedy, are a little bit more – as Israelis are – more direct. We appreciate political correctness, but not in comedy. We don’t have a problem laughing at anyone. Laughing at our wars; criticising the other side; criticising ourselves.

“I think being in a country that is constantly in a state of… alarm… makes you less vulnerable to… eh… I mean, what can happen? We are here. We have survived everything. So we don’t care about… I mean, subtleties are fine, but we just want to have people laughing, bursting out laughing, forgetting the news, any tension in the streets or even any economic crisis. People come to comedy clubs to forget. People come to comedy clubs to laugh and have a great hour-and-a-half, to forget all their troubles.

“So we are there to punch you in the stomach and to make you laugh and we want to do that in a way that will make you disconnect from the news. We don’t do a lot of stuff about politics or about current events which might trigger you to something a little bit more traumatic. We don’t want that. We just want you to laugh because your life is pretty-much like ours. Finding a common denominator with the audience is something we look for as much as possible.”

“New York Jewish humour IS self-deprecating,” I said, “whereas I think maybe the superficial image of Israelis is that they are very self-confident.”

“Self confident and less politically correct,” agreed Yossi. “Looking at stuff without any buffers. So – Boom! – in your face. That is the Israeli mentality. Straight talking. If we don’t like this guy, we say we don’t like him. In Israel, we are really afraid to be a hypocrite. If we say we are afraid of Arabs, it’s straight. We are afraid of Arabs because we have a problem with the Arabs. You know? What can you do? It’s not an evening of poetry. It’s an evening of comedy.

“People have asked me about anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli feeling— if we have encountered anything – but, when you do comedy, it’s hard to be pissed-off with someone who makes you laugh. We just want people to have fun.”

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, Israel, Jewish

Thomasses got 10 million hits & 18-year old Brit girl played the Hollywood Bowl

Sarah and Nick – We Are Thomasse – 8.00am in Los Angeles

Time differences are a bitch.

I got an email from Nick Afka Thomas of Anglo-American comedy sketch duo We Are Thomasse.

“We will be at the Leicester Square Theatre on Wednesday Sept 27th at 9.30pm,” it said. “A lot has happened since your last blog on us! We now have 10 million views on our videos, have worked with Jason Mraz extensively, and have monthly shows in Hollywood at Second City, plus regular shows in New York.”

So I Skyped Nick and his wife Sarah Ann Masse at 4.00pm London time. But they live in Los Angeles. It was 8.00am there and they were still in bed.

“You have a new beard,” I said to Nick. “Is that permanent?”

We Are still Thomasse in the Batman caves

“No,” he told me.

“We just,” Sarah explained, “filmed a caveman sketch, so he grew it for that. In the Bronson Caves in the middle of Los Angeles, where the Batman TV show was filmed.”

“Your online videos are getting very successful on Facebook and elsewhere,” I said.

“The last 18 months,” said Nick, “we have had 10 million views.”

“How do you do that?” I asked. “I can’t do that.”

“I think something that is current helps,” Nick explained.

“We always,” Sarah added, “say there is no formula. But we have been able to replicate the success we had on 4th July now twice. We are British and American and a couple and we have put out these 4th July videos about Britain and America being awkward exes and people seem to respond. We are obviously well set-up to write those and maybe not a lot of people put out comedy videos for 4th July.”

“And you went viral on Facebook,” I said, “and all over the place.”

“This year,” Sarah replied, “a fan told us: They showed your videos at our town on a huge big screen before the fireworks display!” We were amazed. And we just did a comedy festival in Austin and a lot of people there told us: Oh! We watched your videos on 4th July at the party we were at! We seem to have tapped into something.

“But you really can’t predict what is going to be super-well-shared. One of the biggest hits we had besides the Britain-&-America one is the series called Feminist Fairy Tales. I think that just taps into something that matters to a lot of people. It only got about a million views, but it got a lot of press coverage.”

“The latest viral video,” Nick explained, “doubled our Likes on Facebook, but it has probably tripled our viewing figures. There is definitely some exponential curve where bit-by-slow-bit you can reach a broader audience and then I guess it starts to break out.”

Sarah added: “We got offered an audition the other day, straight to our email, from someone who  seemingly had just seen our stuff online. We can see it IS having an effect on our career and moving us in the direction we want to go in.”

“Which is eastwards,” I said. “You are playing London and Paris.”

“And Madrid,” Nick added.

“And a secret show,” Sarah added, “just north of Amsterdam.”

“Why is it a secret?” I asked.

“Because,” said Sarah, “the location is undisclosed until you purchase tickets.”

“Ah!” I said.

Anglo American comedy – Nick & Sarah sticking together

“And, as well as our shows,” Nick said, “we are doing workshops for the Oxford Revue and also in London and in the Netherlands.”

“And in Madrid,” Sarah added. “We have three workshops that we teach and we create custom ones as well.”

“The three are?” I asked Nick.

“Producing Digital Comedy, Sketch Writing in The We Are Thomasse Style and Acting For Sketch. We also have an E-mail List now – subscribe.wearethomasse.com

“One thing that will be interesting at Leicester Square,” said Sarah, “is that we met this 18-year-old beatboxer from London – Shamime Ibrahim.”

“Where?” I asked.

“At Jason Mraz’s big birthday concert at the Hollywood Bowl. She came out on stage in front of 15,000 people and beatboxed and we were completely blown away.

“We became fast friends and she is going to open for us at our show in Leicester Square and do the beatbox music between each of our sketches.”

“As you know,” said Nick, “our sketches are very, very fast-paced.”

“That’s for sure,” I said.

“We do about 30 sketches in an hour,” said Sarah. “A good mix of British and American comedy and, in Leicester Square, we will be doing some of our viral videos live – some other things which have had millions of views.”

“You are also doing regular monthly shows at Second City in Hollywood,” I said.

“The third Thursday of every month,” said Nick. “They have three bases – Chicago, Montreal and LA.”

“What do you do at the Second City gigs?” I asked.

“A 45-minute show of 25 sketches,” explained Sarah. “We have been there for over a year now.”

“And you also do regular shows in New York?”

“We perform there,” she said, “4-6 times a year – at the People’s Improv Theater.”

“You used to live in New York,” I said.

“Yes,” said Sarah, “but our audiences there are now packed with strangers.”

Nick laughed: “As soon as we left New York, we were huge there!”

“Talking of being big,” I said. “How come this 18-year-old from London was performing at the Hollywood Bowl when you met her?”

“She had,” said Nick, “just finished her A-levels in London on the Wednesday morning, was on a plane to Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon and was performing to the crowd of 15,000 in Los Angeles on the Saturday.”

“That doesn’t quite explain how,” I said.

“We had,” he explained, “been making, producing and co-writing sketches with Jason Mraz to promote the Hollywood Bowl show.”

“Jason,” explained Sarah, “was recording and was talking to his producer and they decided they’d like some beatboxing and his producer said: Oh, you know, there’s a girl at school with my daughter. Let me see if I can find her. So she was at home doing her homework and, within hours, she was beatboxing with this Grammy Award winner at The Rhythm Studio in London.”

“The Rhythm Studio,” said Nick, “is also where we are going to be doing one of our London workshops.”

“Well plugged,” I said.

Then, I guess, they went back to sleep.

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How to perform a comedy show to an audience with dementia in a care home

Ben Targét (left) & Pope Lonergan are working on a project

So I chatted to comedy performers Pope Lonergan and Ben Targét…

“The two of you have this joint project,” I said. “Does it have a name?”

“At the moment,” Pope told me, “it just has the banner title of The Care Home Tour. One thing we are doing is a three-hour Alzheimer’s benefit Forgetting But Not Forgotten, organised with Angel Comedy at the Bill Murray in London on 2nd October. Lots of different comedians.”

“It’s a great line-up,” said Ben. “Richard Gadd, Lou Sanders, Robin Ince, Candy Gigi, lots more.”

“And,” said Pope, “we are doing two Work In Progress shows in the lead-up to that. We are doing those with Fight in the Dog, which is Liam Williams’ production company. The whole thing is being supported by NextUp and they’re partially funding it.”

“And these shows lead to?” I asked.

“A performance that is specifically tailored for an audience with dementia in a care home. I mean, anyone can enjoy it, but the feed line/punch line of a conventional joke is too complicated. They can’t follow the logic of it. Instead, they respond with a visceral, limbic response to visual comedy and physical comedy – the slapstick stuff.”

“What is limbic?” I asked.

Cross section of the human brain showing parts of the limbic system from below. (Illustration from Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie, 1786)

“The limbic system,” Pope explained. “When we process music. It’s an emotional response, a visceral response; it’s like our primitive brain. It’s what develops early in children. There’s a correlation between child development and mental deterioration.”

“So the humour,” I said, “must not be too sophisticated.”

“A perfectly-structured joke is not gonna land,” said Pope.

“It’s got to be driven,” Ben added, “by the visual rather than by words. How the residents are stimulated is no longer through wordplay or story.”

“But they can,” I checked, “be stimulated through sound and music and audio effects?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Pope. “100%. Even when they have really advanced dementia, if you start singing something like Knees Up, Mother Brown, they all know the words.”

“Is there,” I asked, “a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Pope explained: “Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia. Dementia is the umbrella term. There’s Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s… My nan and David Baddiel’s dad both had Pick’s Disease – frontal lobe dementia – and that made my nan very libidinous. She was having sex with a lot of the men in the care home.”

“At what age?” I asked.

“About 85. She done well. Every time we went in, one of the carers would come over to my dad and say: Mark… A word? And my dad would come out pale, saying: Yer nan’s been at it again.”

“Is anyone going to be offended if I print that?” I asked.

Ben Targét & Pope Lonergan take afternoon tea

“No, no,” said Pope. “Good on her, you know? People with dementia obviously have diminished responsibility. They don’t really know what they’re consenting to etc, so there’s a line. But we have a husband and wife in the home who have been married 60 years. We have caught them in flagrante having sex and some people have said: We need to stop them. But that was not policy. It was just some people projecting their own discomfort. They are a married couple. They are adults. They are married. Why on earth would you stop them?”

“At a certain age,” said Ben, “we stop seeing people as adults and they become infantilised in our eyes. I don’t know if we are trained to or whether it is innate.”

“And that’s where it’s tricky,” Ben added. “Infantilised means dehumanised. The efficacy of their brain is not what it used to be but they are still adult, complex human beings.”

“I can say,” I checked with Pope, “that you work in the care industry?”

“Of course you can,” he told me.

“I am always wary,” I explained, “about saying comedians have a ‘proper’ daytime job because punters want to think of them as full-time professional comics.”

“Most of us have proper jobs,” said Ben.

“But sometimes don’t want to admit to it,” I suggested.

“We should, though,” said Ben. “I think it makes us way cooler. You get far more respect from people if you are grounded in reality.”

“Yeah,” said Pope. “Some comics think they are de-legitimised by it – Oh, my God, I’m actually part of the real world! I actually have a real job!”

“So you work in a care home,” I said to Pope, “but Ben, how did you get involved in this?”

“I used to work in care homes as well,” he told me, “as a teenager – when I was about 16 or 17. And recently Josie Long introduced me to Pope because he was looking to work with people who do physical and visual comedy. So I am trying to assemble a troupe who are willing to embrace the project.

October 2nd Benefit before the gig on 9th

“We are building to this first gig on October 9th in the care home and we do think of it as like the first exploration vessel that’s been sent out. We are hoping to reassess afterwards and then, in the New Year, do more gigs across the country in care homes.”

“There are,” Pope said, “loads of comedians who have expressed an interest. Sara Pascoe used to do theatre productions for people with dementia in care homes.”

“And there’s David Baddiel,” Ben added. “And Adam Riches – who has a lot of experience in his family of dementia and caring for people. And Phil Nichol. I’m interested to see Phil because, every time I have seen him, he’s got naked on stage and yelled at the audience!”

“Then,” said Pope, “there’s John Kearns. And Deborah Frances-White has been very supportive: she was the one who got David Baddiel interested. And Josie Long has been vital in putting it all together.

“I had done some of Josie’s gigs at the Black Heart. I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate my experiences in the care home into my stand-up act.

“Josie said: I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience of working in the home to your act. I told her: The problem is there’s a bit of dualism there. The way they act is not like the normal way ‘we’ behave. So you love the residents, you’re compassionate, you really care for them, but there is also a day-to-day blackly comic streak that you can’t put on stage because it would just sound horrible: that you are laughing at vulnerable people.

“The first time I done it, it was a bit too nasty, really. I didn’t intend it to be like that, but I hadn’t honed the material and it just came across as a bit mean-spirited. Afterwards, this woman who was apparently a High Court judge was shouting at me about it. It’s sort-of a tight-rope walk.”

“Even more so,” I suggested, “when performing to people with dementia?”

Josie Long said: “I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience to your act.”

“There are so many different types of dementia,” said Pope. “With some, the language centre (in the brain) has really diminished. Some have still got linguistic capacity – really good – they can process it. But still the normal, conventional joke is a bit too convoluted for them. So I always do things like shit gymnastics or shit karate. Anything that’s a minor spectacle they really respond to and laugh at.”

“Surreal,” I said, “rather than verbal.”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Pope. “Anything that is a minor spectacle and visual and silly. If you do wry observational comedy about Donald Trump, it won’t work.”

“Will seeing comedy,” I asked, “actually help them or is it just passing the time?”

“It is definitely better for their welfare,” said Pope, “in that there is a deficit in certain types of stimulation. When it comes to interaction, they don’t want to get up and be physically active, but they do want to be engrossed in something. They do want to sit there and watch something.

“We have told the comedians who are involved that they will have to re-calibrate their idea of what a successful gig is. There ain’t gonna be uproarious laughter. There ain’t gonna be the energy of a comedy club. But, even if the audience are not outwardly laughing, it doesn’t mean they are not stimulated and enjoying what they are watching. They always feel better after they have experienced some kind of entertainment.”

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

How to build a career in comedy (and other industries)… maybe or maybe not

Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, a Roman road map

Someone once said to me that he thought most criminals were doomed to fail and jail because they had no plan.

He was a criminal himself.

Had been.

He had stopped.

“If you gamble and flounder around and you have no plan,” he said, “you’re a mug.”

I paraphrase the words. But the thoughts are his.

“Most criminals,” he told me, “don’t have an aim. They don’t have a specific number they want to reach. If you want to make a million quid or half a million, you can very possibly do that. It’s like gambling. If you are determined and you take enough risks, you may well do it. But, once you get there, you should stop.

“There’s the risk of getting caught, the risk of going to prison, the risk of losing the gamble. And the longer you go on, the more the odds are against you. Most criminals don’t put a number on what they want, so they can never reach it.

“If you have no aim – if you just keep doing the same thing over and over again and don’t have no exit strategy, you’re a mug. You are treading water and you will run out of luck. It will all come crashing down on your head.”

I think you probably stand a greater chance of making a million from crime than from gambling with the odds in Las Vegas but, that aside, he has a point.

Without an aim, you go off in all directions and get nowhere.

And, of course, once you have achieved your aim, you need to know what your next aim is.

What brought this to mind was someone at The Grouchy Club this week who asked for tips about getting on in the comedy business.

I think one thing is to have a very specific three-year or five-year aim. And, indeed, ten and twenty year aim. Have a specific aim. You do not want to start by thinking about what your first Edinburgh Fringe show is going to be next year. You want to think where you want to be in three or five years time. And then in ten. And then in twenty. Then work backwards and figure out a roadmap for getting there, starting with wherever you are now.

Today is ground zero.

Whatever happened in the past has been passed. You can’t change the past.

Today is ground zero.

You do not just take a first step without knowing exactly where you want to end up.

If you want to get from London to Aberdeen, you should not just go into the first railway station you find and get onto the first train that leaves and focus your entire mind on which chocolate bar you are going to buy for the journey. You should be thinking about how to get to Aberdeen; not taking a random step and focusing on the detail without knowing where you are going.

If you don’t know the longer-term aims of your short-term actions, you risk just floundering around from random pillar to random post.

You have to be able to take advantage of accident and happenstance and side-turnings along the way of course but, again, without knowing the ultimate destination you want to reach in three, five, ten and twenty years, you risk not going or getting anywhere.

It is like writing a comedy show. If you don’t know what your show is about, you will be adrift in a sea of good ideas, unable to decide which ones to choose, unable to fit them all into an ever-changing shape that doesn’t exist. You should – in my easily-ignored opinion – not start with 1,001 amorphous good ideas and then try to figure out how to fit them all into some unknown shape illustrating nothing. You should start with the shape, then work back to the details you need to complete the shape.

You may have lots of colourful, differently-shaped pieces which individually look interesting but, if they don’t fit together, you ain’t got a jigsaw. You need to know the picture on the jigsaw you are making, then find the pieces that will fit together to create it.

With a show, in your own mind, you should have an elevator pitch. Decide what you want to create the show about. Then describe it in 10 or 12 words. Then, when writing the show, use only anecdotes, gags and thoughts that illustrate or illuminate those 10 or 12 words. Throw out anything else.

If you have some startlingly original, stunningly funny story – the most brilliant story or thought in the entire history of the world – which does not fit into that 10 or 12 word description, DO NOT use it. It will distract the audience, screw-up the flow and fuck-up your show. You can use this item of sheer genius on another occasion. The number of waffly, amorphous, don’t-hold-together hours of meandering shows I have sat through at the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t bear thinking about.

If you cannot think of a 10 or 12 word description of the show you are obsessed by and keen to do, then you don’t have a show. You just want to be acclaimed for being yourself, not for creating something. DO NOT imagine you have a show. DO NOT throw your money away waffling at the Edinburgh Fringe. The funniest 3 or 6 minute story in the world, if irrelevant, will screw-up a show not make it better. Ten stories are not a show. Not ten random 6-minute unconnected shows with no flow. If it don’t flow, it ain’t a show. Ten stories all illustrating a single elevator pitch point ARE a show.

Of course – of course – of course – the irony is that I never had a plan in my career(s) or in my life. But that is because I am and always have been a nihilist. All of the above is just filling in time. It all ends when the Sun expands and explodes and takes everything with it – our long-forgotten skeletons or ashes or worm-excreta and everything else. It all becomes space dust floating in infinity.

So it goes.

When, at last, you are unable to close your eyes and all you hear is the sound of your own death rattle… all that matters is memories of love and/or genuine friendship.

But – hey! – if you are a performer, ego and acclaim are what really matter.

So have a plan for success. A very well-worked-out plan. Work out what you want in the long term, then work backwards to what you should be doing in the short and medium term to achieve that.

Have an elevator pitch of 10 or 12 words about what you want to achieve in life as well as what your show will be about. Don’t flounder. Follow the plan. Though allow for advantageous side roads.

Have a 10 or 12 word outline for your show.

Have a 10 or 12 word outline for your life.

And don’t blame me when it all goes arse-over-tits.

I know nothing.

I have never claimed I did.

I am just filling in time.

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