Category Archives: Comedy

My Comedy Taste. Part 2: Eccentrics, anarchy and performers’ mad minds

In 2017, oft-times comedy festival judge and linguistics expert Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy.

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…

JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –  I like it.

I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.

So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.

Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.

There is maybe a difference with pure gag-delivery acts like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.

LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?

JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”? 

Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.

Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.

LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?

JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.

At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces. 

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.

LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.

JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…

LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.

The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.

LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…

JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…

I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.

So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.

I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.

So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?

LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.

JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…

It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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My Comedy Taste. Part 1: Improvisation good and bad but not Michael McIntyre

The late Malcolm Hardee Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe

I started and used to run the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. They started in 2005. They were due to (and did) end in August 2017. 

To coincide with their end, I thought I might post a blog about my taste in comedy. What is the point in having a blog if you can’t be self-indulgent? 

So, in June 2017, I persuaded my chum, oft-times comedy judge and linguistic expert Louisette Stodel to ‘interview’ me in London’s Soho Theatre Bar for that planned blog. But then I never got round to transcribing the interview and actually writing it. Unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it too.

Time passed, as time does, and I was going to run the interview/blog to coincide with the start of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. But again I never got round to transcribing the interview and writing that blog. Again, unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it.

But, with performers now preparing to start to book venues and think about getting round to writing or at least pretending to start to write shows for the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, I miraculously got round to transcribing the interview at the weekend and here is Part 1 of that  June 2017 chat.


LOUISETTE: When did you first go to the Fringe?

JOHN: Well, I started going to the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid-1970s when I was reviewing movies for magazines and, around the mid-1980s, I switched to the Edinburgh Fringe, which is around the time comedy started taking over from naff university theatre groups. I was looking for acts to appear on TV shows.

LOUISETTE: How long have you been blogging about comedy?

JOHN: It has never really been a 100% comedy blog. I started it in 2010 to plug a movie I had foolishly put money into and it became daily around April 2011 to plug comedy-related stuff I was helping to stage at the Edinburgh Fringe that August and I stopped doing it daily at the end of December 2016.

But it has never really been a comedy blog. I tend not to write reviews of comedy. They tend to be previews in advance of the actual performance of a show. In a sense, I don’t care so much about what the show is like but about how it got created by this particular person. It’s about interesting people doing interesting things, usually creative and/or in some way quirky. It’s always about people, rarely about things. People, people, people. And I do like a quirky anecdote.

LOUISETTE: What is it about quirkiness you like?

JOHN: The TV programme stuff I used to do was usually related to quirkiness. I would be finding ordinary people who did bizarre things… a man rollerskating wearing a bright yellow plastic sou’wester while simultaneously playing the harmonica and spoons, with a seagull on his shoulder. Ah! Mr Wickers, a Tiswas Talented Teacher!

LOUISETTE: You like eccentricity.

Surprise! Surprise! – A show and a clue to what I really like

JOHN: Admire it, for sure. But I remember having a conversation with another researcher on Surprise! Surprise! at LWT and we both agreed, if you want to find a real eccentric, you do not go for extroverts. You do NOT want the person who makes all his mates laugh in the pub. They are just superficial.

What you want is an introvert with eccentricity within. The extrovert just likes the sound of their own voice and just wants attention. The eccentric introvert has got odd quirkiness in depth within them. 

Comedians are odd because you would think they would have to be wild extroverts, getting up on stage wanting applause, but loads are deep-down shy and terrified inside. Maybe it’s the dichotomy that makes them. I like people who think differently.

People often contact me and say: “Come and see my show for your blog.” And I may do but it’s not the show – not the end result – that attracts me. I don’t really do reviews. I am interested in interviewing the person about why or how they did the show or what they feel like when they are performing it. I’m interested in the psychology of creative people not the end result itself, as such.

In a sense, I am not bothered whether the show is good or not good provided it is interesting. I would much rather watch an interesting failure than a dull success. You can very often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what works.

LOUISETTE: So what is ‘interesting’?

JOHN: Lateral thinking is interesting. Instead of going from A-B, you go from A to T to L to B or maybe you never get to B.

LOUISETTE: So you like the unexpected.

JOHN: I think Michael McIntyre is absolutely brilliant. 120% brilliant. But I would not pay to see his one of his shows, because I know what I am going to get. I can go see him in Manchester and the next day in Swansea and the next day in Plymouth and it will be the same show. Perfect. A work of art. Superb. But the same perfect thing.

LOUISETTE: So you are talking about wanting unpredictability?

JOHN: Yes. And people flying, going off at tangents, trying things out which even they didn’t know they were going to do.

LOUISETTE: How do you know they didn’t know?

Boothby Graffoe – always the unexpected

JOHN: I think you can tell… Boothby Graffoe had a very very good 20 or 30 minute act he would do in clubs. (His 60-minute shows were good too.) Fine. It was all very good. Audiences loved it. But, in a way, he was better with a bad audience. The good audience would listen to his very well put-together material. But, if he got hecklers or distractions, he would fly off on wild flights of fantasy, even funnier than the prepared show, almost soar round the room then eventually get seamlessly back to the prepared show. Brilliant.

There was another act, now established, whom I won’t name. When he was starting off, maybe 50% of his stuff was OK, 45% was not very good and 5% was absolute genius. I would go watch him for that 5% genius. And I would still rather go see a show like that which is 5% genius than a solid mainstream show that is 100% perfect entertainment.

If someone creates something truly original in front of your eyes, it is like magic.

LOUISETTE:  Michael McIntyre get laughs from saying unexpected things.

JOHN: If I see Michael McIntyre, I do not know what is going to happen, but it is pre-ordained what is going to happen. It is slick in the best way. If people are on TV and ‘famous’, I am not that interested because they have reached a level of professional capability. I prefer to see reasonably new acts or lower middle-rung acts. And people untarnished by TV.

If you see someone who is REALLY starting off, they are crap, because they can’t adjust their act to the specific audience. When performers reach a certain level of experience, they can cope with any type of audience and that is interesting to see how they can turn an audience but, if they are TV ‘stars’ they may well automatically have easy audiences because the audience has come to see “that bloke” or “that girl off the telly” and they are expecting to have a good time.

If it’s Fred NoName, the audience have no expectations.

I prefer to see Fred NoName with a rollercoaster of an act and I am interested in seeing the structure of an act. I am interested in the mechanics of it.

LOUISETTE: And you like the element of danger? It could all go wrong, all go pear-shaped?

JOHN: Yes. On the other hand (LAUGHS) most improvisation is shit because the performers are often not very good.

LOUISETTE: Don’t you have to be very skilled to improvise?

“Most improvisation is shit: the performers are not very good.”

JOHN: In my erstwhile youth, I used to go every week to Pentameters club at The Freemasons Arms pub in Hampstead and watch the Theatre Machine improvisation show supervised by Keith Johnstone.

Very good. Very interesting.

But, for some reason, I don’t like most improvisation today.

Partly that’s because, a lot of the time, you can see it’s NOT fully improvised. You can see the…

LOUISETTE: …formats?

JOHN: Templates. Yeah. Certain routines they can just adjust. Give me the name of an animal… Give me a performance style… It sounds like they are widening possibilities, but they are narrowing them so they can be slotted into pre-existing storylines and routines they can adjust. 

Also, a lot of improvisation groups seem to comprise actors trying to be comedians… I have an allergy to actors trying to be comedians. They’re just attempting and usually failing to be comedic until a ‘real’ job comes along.

LOUISETTE: Surely an actor can be funny in character, though.

JOHN: Often I think: What I am watching here is like a showreel of their theatre school training. It’s like an audition show. They go through 20 characters just to show their breadth of ability – to impress themselves as much as the audience. But the audience has not come there to appreciate their versatility. The audience wants to be entertained not to be impressed. The audience wants to enjoy their material, not give the act marks out of ten for technique. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Lynn Ruth Miller; 85 years old; 3 cities in less than 72 hours; and chicken soup

85-year-old stand-up comic Lynn Ruth Miller has been off on her jaunts again again… Here she is…


Lynn Ruth Miller at The Shoals’ Christmas party

Tonight is New Year’s Eve. I will be making chicken soup and consoling myself that I am me.

December 13-16 was my proof that I still have IT.

I used to think it was the thrill of performance that has kept me in this comedy merry-go-round for 15 years, but it isn’t really that. It is the richness and depth of each visit I make to a different place; it is my amazement when I meet people who are so very kind, brave and giving. We tend to think that those kinds of people are not around anymore but I discover them every single day.

On December 13, I was booked to perform a comedy show at The Fiddlers Pub in Bonn, Germany, run by Andy Valvur 

You do not fly to Bonn, however. You fly to Cologne, which is exactly where I was the week before.  

I came out of border control, which in Germany is simple and fast (they have other things to do than harass old women… sadly not so in Britain). 

For me, Andy Valvur is a breath of San Francisco though he is actually from Estonia.

Andy, like most of us in this business, is unique. That is why we become comedians. We are all fuck-ups at anything else. Andy speaks something like four languages fluently. I am in awe of his talents. The idea of anyone being able to do effective comedy that depends on nuance and double entendre in more than one language stuns me.   

His wife is now working at a high-paying job somewhere very distant from Germany and they see each other every few months which, he says, is a perfect arrangement. I can certainly understand that, since my longest relationship was two stormy, miserable years where I spent most of my time either starving myself or ducking behind a chair to avoid getting a back eye. Any other possible partnership I have considered has never lasted more than about ten challenging minutes. I am convinced that had Tommy and I lived several thousand miles apart, I would still be married. He couldn’t hit me from across an ocean.

Andy told me he preferred doing films and voice overs rather than comedy, but the owners of The Fiddlers Pub in Bonn asked him to run a comedy night and that is what he does now. It is evidently very successful and has a loyal audience that returns very often to see what is going on in the English-speaking comedy scene.

“…a loyal audience that returns very often to see what is going on in English-speaking comedy”

The bill this time included James Allan, a relatively young man who had both hips replaced at the same time; and Casey James who works at the European Space Agency in Cologne. 

The audience was very small and most of them were German… which means English is a second or even third language.

I knew it would be a challenge to get them to laugh and I was right.  

I got chuckles and I got smiles.

But no-one had to change their underwear (except me of course: after all, I AM 85) However, I got lots of compliments and another glass of Riesling when I finished my 45 minutes. So maybe… just maybe I did good.

I left early for my 1:30 plane back to Southend Airport in the UK. Cologne airport was not crowded and I managed to get a cup of coffee and a croissant before boarding the plane. Sadly, the German idea of a croissant would make Frenchmen commit suicide. Each one weighs more than a loaf of bread and your teeth have to be in excellent condition to bite through it. Security, though, was smooth sailing. Unlike in the UK, the Germans don’t think I have an atom bomb tucked into my bra.

It was important that my flight landed on time because I had to catch a 6:30pm train to Bracknell that evening for the second leg of this weekend.

But the flight was an hour late.

I got home at 4.00pm, unpacked, got the laundry started, changed clothes and went to St Pancras station to catch the train to Bracknell.

I love the South Hill Park Comedy Cellar in Bracknell. They treat each comedian like he is the king of England (if there was one) and this time Katherine Webb (she books us) gave us all a Christmas cake. I felt loved and very legitimate. Their audience wants to laugh and the room is just the right size so you can really talk to them and shake up their pre-conceived notions.

And that was what I did.

I managed to catch the late train back and was home in time for a quick midnight dinner before I packed again for Birmingham the next morning.

This event is a my favorite gig of the year: the Shoals Christmas Party.  

The Shoals are a group of swimmers who go on trips together, have parties and sometimes swim.

I met Mark, their organizer, in Leicester two years ago when I was hosting the bike comedy show there and he invited me to do this gala for him. His father is the DJ and Mark Hillier is the spirit that keeps the men in the group excited about their projects.  

“The Shoals are a group of swimmers who go on trips together, have parties and sometimes swim. Every member is a gem.”

Every member of the club is a gem. I know several personally and each one is a true English gentleman in every sense of the word. When I go there, they take care of me from the moment I get off the train until they drop me at the train station to go home.

I change clothes at Jim Clay’s home. Among his many attractions is a grand piano in the living room and a dachshund named Dexter. 

The event is very special with comedy, dancing and a few cross-dressers to liven up the evening.  

Whenever I see men in huge binding bras that don’t fit, stuffed with gobs of cotton and hairy legs crammed into high heels I gave up years ago, I wonder why on earth they put themselves through so much torture. Giving up those very items has actually freed me from back pain, bunions and sclerosis.  

This time, when the event was over at midnight, I spent the night at Keith Nolan’s home and it was the most educational evening I have had in a very long time. 

Keith is involved in city planning and talked about the demographics of making a neighborhood. I never realized all the factors that have to be considered and how crucial things like a near-by shop or a bus stop is.  We also talked about our social responsibility to one another and how important it is for our own well-being to care about the welfare of others.

I left Birmingham that Sunday morning brimming with hope for the world and filled with love for humanity. I arrived at Euston station on time. I embarked suffused with brotherly love determined to do my part to make it a better world… and was immediately plunged down to earth when I tried to get some groceries at the Sainsbury’s there.  

It is an example of a tiny store that is part of a larger chain and relies on the Sainsbury imprimatur for its customers. It was out of everything and filled with staff too busy moving what was left from one shelf to another to help even when asked.

T.S.Eliot: a wise man but one who never had to face the reality of the Sainsbury’s store at Euston station

T.S Eliot says mankind cannot tolerate too much reality. I reached my limit while doing shopping at the Euston Sainsbury’s and it was downhill from then on.  

When I got to the bus, I asked a man if he would help me with my case and he walked away from me, used the back door to get on the bus and sat right across from me. I felt very elderly. After all, after 85 years don’t I deserve someone to lift a case for me?    

The answer is I do not.  

But the UK has spoiled me so much I expect it and am actually puzzled when it doesn’t happen.

When I finally got home, I realized that I had been in three cities in less than 72 hours, done three different and successful shows and remembered all the words to all the sets I did. Most people can’t even get their Christmas shopping done in 72 hours.

Though, of course, neither can I.

Southeast Asia is next…

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Jewish comic Lynn Ruth Miller on Hanukkah in Germany and #MeToo

London-based American comedian Lynn Ruth Miller continues to guest-blog here as she tours the world. Last week, she was in Germany…


Manuel Wolff invited Lynn Ruth to his Boing Club in Cologne

I flew to Cologne to perform at Manuel Wolff’s Boing Comedy Club.

75 years ago, to say the very name ‘Germany’ made my family cringe.

Now, in 2018. I was celebrating my version of Chanukah in that very country and loving it. It is a new world isn’t it?

Lisa, Manuel’s assistant, and I walked the lovely, clean streets sparkling with holiday lights… December in Cologne is alight with Christmas though, to my surprise, I didn’t see a menorah anywhere. Are the Jews still in hiding there?

Since Lisa and I are liberated, modern women, our conversation crept to the big issue women are facing today: the #metoo movement. Our concerns were women’s status in the arts and how we can achieve a level playing field in our professions. Our conversation was especially interesting to me because Cologne was the start of the outrage that blossomed into #metoo. Remember?

New Year’s Eve 2016 in this city, hordes of North African men assaulted white women who were out on the town, celebrating. The press blamed it on the discrepancy between western cultural mores and those in Africa.

“The relationship with a woman, so fundamental to Western modernity, will long remain incomprehensible to the average [refugee or migrant] man,” declared Algerian author Kamel Daoud in Le Monde.

But the #metoo movement has confirmed that it isn’t men of color or rich men or poor men; it is MEN who use women as toys. And that sweeping statement is the root of everyone’s uncertainty about the validity of this plethora of women who have accused men of sexual assault in their past. Every rational person knows that it is only the attitudes of  SOME men, but certainly not ALL of them.

“The fact that sixty years separate us made no difference”

Lisa and I discussed the opportunities for woman to achieve prestige and affluence as easily and quickly as men in Germany and the UK. Both of us are in fields where inequality of opportunity is most apparent. The fact that sixty years separate us made no difference. We two were fighting the same anger. We both have experienced gross injustice in the system, limiting the progress we were trying to make in our careers.

I often wonder if these glass ceilings are more excuses we make for people simply not appreciating our talents. The answer is that it is impossible to be sure.

Statistics certainly support the theory that women have less of a chance to progress in any field or earn as much income for the same work. To me, just being aware of this and talking about the insult that creates is a huge step forward. In my day, this dichotomy was simply accepted. It was a man’s world.

After we finished trying to fix society, I went to my hotel, took a nap and tarted-up for my headline performance at Manuel’s Boing Comedy Club.

The show Manuel creates is fast-paced, professional and funny. He is a superb host and knows just how much to involve his audience, who are mostly German but fluent in English with a mixture of English-speaking students and a smattering of people from all over the globe. The comedians made a point of coming up to me and introducing themselves to me. The audience loved to laugh and the comedian who preceded me was so professional I was terrified to have to follow him His name was David Deeblew. He finished his act by juggling plastic bags in the air while he spoke. I am someone who can barely walk in a straight line when I am sober. You can imagine how intimidated I felt.

Headlining at a show with two intervals means that I must amuse a pretty drunk and very tired audience. Thank goodness it worked and everyone laughed (or I THINK they did. My hearing is definitely NOT what it used to be).

The best part of the evening, though, was afterwards.  

Lynn Ruth and the godfather of stand-up comedy in Germany

All the comedians stayed afterwards to drink and talk about anything and everything. One of the people who stayed was Johnny ‘Hollywood’ Rotnem, an American who is the so-called godfather of English stand-up comedy in Germany. He was the one who started the clubs that are now all over the country. Comedy in German has really taken off here despite the fact that everyone thinks Germans do not have a sense of humor. The number of successful clubs in the country proves that stereotype wrong.

I will be back in Germany soon to do Andy Valvur’s club at Fiddlers Pub in Bonn. Andy is a former San Francisco comedian who knows all the people who were the big names in comedy when I was there.  

We had a place called The Holy City Zoo where Robin Williams among many others cut their teeth on stand-up comedy. Famous people like Will Durst, Johnny Steele, Larry Bubbles Brown, Michael Meehan… all of them began there.

Andy came to my show at Boing Comedy and I felt like I was experiencing a bit of comedic history when I spoke to him about how comedy has expanded, improved and changed.  

Comedians today no longer stick to the rigid set-up/punch-line formula.  I think that is a mistake. Too many words spoil the joke just as too many cooks spoil the broth.

The next morning, I had to get up early to catch the plane to Frankfurt for my two-day comedy workshop and show.

After I arrived in Frankfurt, I crashed until 3.00 pm, then set out for the comedy class. This was a group of ten people who had tried comedy before and wanted a boot-camp kind of refresher. They were from a variety of countries and only two of them spoke English as their first language.  

It must be unbelievably difficult to do humor in a different language from your own, but these people were up for it and all their jokes had huge potential. The two hour class actually lasted four hours but I am satisfied that we gave everyone the personal attention they needed.  

The next day, their assignment was to bring in five minutes of material to practice for a show that night. I thought these people had huge potential and I was very excited to see what the result would be of our intensive joke analysis.

Four of the students joined me for dinner after the show and I got to know them a bit better.  

“It felt like a meeting of the United Nations all drinking beer”

In the group was Tom from Finland, Pedro from Portugal, Julian from Germany, Clem, a lovely woman from France, Kirthy from India and me from America. It felt like a meeting of the United Nations all drinking beer together and talking about comedy as a profession even though all of the others work at other jobs. We drank a lot of alcohol. It helped.

The next day was our final class and then the show. We all critiqued each other and, to my delight, all the criticisms incorporated what I had taught: short set ups, strong punches, direct sentences.

The group not only had to master language differences but they had to let go of material they loved that wasn’t working well. They did it and the show was great.  We all went out for dinner afterwards to celebrate.

I had a 7.00am flight back to London and had to battle the German version of Ryanair. For some unknown reason, my backpack registered something lethal and not only did they keep me standing for a half hour waiting for the police to come but, when the officious inspector went through the backpack, he just tossed everything in a pile and let me put everything back together. Of course, there was nothing in the bag but a notebook of jokes, a lot of tissues (just in case) and an American passport.

That might have been what set the detector off. America is not popular these days.

The incident was truly minor, but I was terribly upset and couldn’t seem to regain my equilibrium.

I suspect this is why psychological warfare is so effective. I had done nothing but was made to feel like a dangerous criminal.  

The good news is that the rest of the trip home was lovely and I managed to get through UK passport control relatively quickly and home to bed because I had to get to Top Secret Comedy Club that night.

Which I did.

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Sara Mason: How will she follow-up her banned “Beginner’s Guide to Bondage”?

Exactly one month ago, I posted a blog about how performer Sara Mason had lost her Leicester Comedy Festival venue next February because, after the programme had been printed, the venue owner decided he did not want her Beginner’s Guide to Bondage show to soil his floorboards.

I asked Sara this week about the effect of the blog.


SARA: It had a wonderful effect. First of all, I was interviewed in the Leicester Mercury. Then I got on BBC Radio Leicester. And then Big Difference managed to book me into Just The Tonic at The Shed for the same slot on the same night – Valentine’s Night at 9.30pm. Then another venue owner who had been ignoring all my emails rang me up and offered a venue – too late. So clearly notoriety in your blog had an effect. Meanwhile, this week, I am doing A Beginner’s Guide To Bondage at Kentish Town in London – this coming Friday and Sunday.

Sara’s show CAN be seen in Kentish Town in London on 14th and 16th December

JOHN: So people who don’t want to traipse to Leicester in February can see it in London this week.

SARA: Yes.

JOHN: Are you taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe again next August?

SARA: Yes.

JOHN: What are you doing with it between February in Leicester and August in Edinburgh?

SARA: I might do it again in Brighton in May. But I also have a new idea I would like to do.

JOHN: Oooh…

SARA: An Intermediate Guide to Bondage would be interesting, because then I could look at the oddities that people have, like mummification and the…

JOHN: Whoaa! What?

SARA: Mummification with cling film wrap. À chacun son goût.

JOHN: This is not for beginners?

SARA: Well, in A Beginner’s Guide, you would not really want to cover the more out-there fetishes. Even a Pony Boy or Pony Girl might be a bit too much.

JOHN: Whoaa! again.

SARA: A Pony Boy. You put a bridle on them and, hopefully, a butt-plug with a tail and then you ride around on them or make them pull your carriage.

JOHN: Why ‘hopefully’ a butt-plug?

SARA: Well, because not everyone wants a tail butt-plug. They have a bit in their teeth and they go Neeeiiiggghhh! Neeeiiiggghhh! You crack the whip as you ride them. Neeeiiiggghhh! Whinny! Whinny! all that sort of stuff. It’s hardcore. It’s a bit more than anything in The Beginner’s Guide to Bondage.

JOHN: If you are teaching people about bondage, should there be ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels? 

SARA: Possibly.

JOHN: Would there be a third show after A Beginner’s Guide and An Intermediate Guide?

SARA: An Advanced Guide? Well, some of these fetishes are more understandable and approachable than others. Some are more for the diehards. Mummification, I think, is quite funny. And then, of course, there are rubber fetishes.

Angelic Sara Mason at the Soho Theatre Bar

I told you about going to Torture Garden and a couple came in, both dressed up as frogmen or women. They were completely encased in rubber from head to toe. One was tall; one was short; but it was impossible to tell which was the man and which was the woman.

JOHN: With flippers?

SARA: Yes. And, after a moment, they opened a little zip in their crotch, mounted a stirrup table and began copulating. The noise was squeak-squeak squeak-squeak squeak-squeak squeak-squeak like a very squeaky bed. Not very frog-like. That would have been more…

JOHN: …riveting?

SARA: Yes. But the amazing thing was I still couldn’t tell which one was a boy. After a while, they climbed off and zipped themselves up. I had to stop and just laugh. It was one of the funniest things I had ever seen.

JOHN: Why have you got a bit of rubber on your finger? Is that a fetish?

SARA: No.I have a poorly finger. It is kinesiology tape. It has a stretch to it and is good for inflammation but I think I have arthritis, which is neither sexy nor mistressy, though luckily it is my left hand.

JOHN: A big relief for us all. In A Beginners Guide, you play the role of Mistress Venetia. Are you developing that character?

SARA: I am thinking of making her an agony aunt because, at the end of my show in Edinburgh this year, I did suggest that, if anyone wanted private lessons, I could oblige. And quite a number of girls did approach me to say they would like private lessons in domination. They wanted to learn to be a bit more ‘dom’. So that was intriguing because I had put it in as a bit of a joke but, in fact, I did have a few takers. There probably is a niche market out there for ladies who want to learn the business.

JOHN: Any other offers to audience members?

SARA: I have offered free fistings to any Brexiteers in the audience.

JOHN: So what is Mistress Venetia’s character?

Sara as “lovably dotty” Mistress Venetia

SARA: She is a ‘dotty’ dominatrix.

JOHN: How dotty?

SARA: Well, she’s lovably dotty.

JOHN: She dots the eyes and crosses the tease?

SARA: She’s a bit dotty because some of her ideas are really quite ‘out there’.

JOHN: The show is billed as comedy. Is it comedy because you put in lots of jokes or because what you are talking about is not quite as serious as the customers think?

SARA: I think what they do IS quite funny. A lot of it is very funny.

JOHN: But, in the real world, the men being dominated presumably don’t think of it as being humorous.

SARA: There can be a lot of laughter in the dungeons. If you don’t like laughing, you wouldn’t enjoy a session of domination with me.

JOHN: …if you were a real dominatrix and not a performer.

SARA: …if I were a real dominatrix and not a performer. (LAUGHS) I think you use your own personality no matter what you do. Mistress Venetia is dotty and quite funny. If you approach domination and say this is a very frightening, traumatic, torturous thing then, OK, I am not gonna wanna play with you. You are not my type of playmate. My type of playmate wants excitement, joy and doesn’t mind if I take the piss out of him.

JOHN: Sometimes literally.

SARA: Exactly. In the show, Mistress Venetia says she doesn’t mind the occasional golden shower. It can be quite refreshing. But scat is a kink too far from me. I don’t judge anybody for whatever their fetish is. Everybody has the right to whatever sexual expression they want and, certainly, if you’ve never tried something, you have no right to judge about it.

There are certain things that are not my cup of tea but good luck to the people who want to do them. Scat is not for me.

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Michael Livesley: The Bonzo Dog’s Viv Stanshall & understanding masculinity

Michael Livesley has been reviving the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Vivian Stanshall’s iconic show Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End  for nine years with sundry Stanshall-related co-stars.

Now, he is doing two final shows – on December 7th (next Friday) at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and on December 12th at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.

The Daily Telegraph described the show as “a combination of Downton Abbey and Gormenghast set to music”.

We had a chat in a Wetherspoons pub in London.

Why is he doing two more shows? 

Why is he stopping?


MICHAEL: I can’t do any more. Nine years of having someone else in yer head is enough – especially when that person is Vivian Stanshall.

Viv Stanshall: the original Sir Henry

It’s a lot of work and it has kicked open a lot of doors for me and it’s great fun but it’s enough. We did the album with Rick Wakeman and Neil Innes. We did the Bristol Old Vic with Stephen Fry. We’ve done the London Palladium, the Glastonbury Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve done the Millenium/O2 Dome in London. A lot of other stuff. And we will be filming this one at the Bloomsbury Theatre for a Sky Arts thing.

JOHN: So why?

MICHAEL: In March this year, I was living in a village between Winchester and Andover in Hampshire – which is where we recorded the album in the shed – and it was great. But ultimately you run out of road in these places. There was nothing happening, so it was time to move back to Liverpool and I thought: Let’s put something in the work diary – and it’s the 40th anniversary of Sir Henry.

JOHN: And what happens after these two shows?

MICHAEL: There’s a Rodney Slater’s Parrots gig at the Zanzibar Club in Liverpool on 14th December. And I am doing the Edinburgh Fringe myself next year.

JOHN: Doing what?

MICHAEL: A show called Half the Man because I’ve lost five stone in three months and I intend to be half the man by the time that happens and my stand-up, when I do it, is all about my observations of being brought up by a single mother and a grandmother: the challenges of establishing your manhood within that female environment.

That’s why I hang out in Wetherspoons: so I can hang out amongst real men. These places are almost like social breweries, because they filter out the impurities in society like me and give us somewhere to reside for a while. It’s a place that’s essentially filled with wounded gazelles: divorced men, single men, who salt their wounds with warm lager. I fit right in here.

JOHN: By drinking?

Michael, in Wetherspoons, has given up drink

MICHAEL:  I am treating myself to beer today because it was my birthday last week. But, other than this, I’ve not drunk beer since August.

JOHN: And you are giving up Sir Henry too…

MICHAEL: I’m not denigrating it in any way – it’s fucking genius, but it’s not mine. It’s a bit of imposter syndrome. But, paradoxically, doing it has enabled me to find my own voice in a strange way: it gave me the vehicle to get on stage in front of people.

I sort of made a compromise when I was 16 to be a musician rather than a performer and this gave me the excuse to take it on. That’s partly what I want to explore with Half The Man. There’s a conversation to be had about what masculinity is and isn’t.

JOHN: You are gonna talk about ‘Northern folk’?

MICHAEL: Well, talk about growing up in the 1980s, growing up in the North without a dad in a very small village in Lancashire where it was all Catholic and shit… it was no picnic… Some people have a really tough life. This was NOT a really tough life.

JOHN: But…?

MICHAEL: But because me mum weren’t married, it used to rile the teachers in this Catholic school. Our side of the street were Catholic and the other side were Protestant; and we’re only talking about the 1980s. I remember standing in the front room with the curtains shut when the Protestants were on their Walk.

JOHN: The Catholics had a walk too?

MICHAEL: It was kind of like a Virgin Mary thing with a cart with stuff on it.

The teachers at my school had also taught me mum and all me uncles and aunties. I would get a school book and there would be me auntie’s name in it from 30 years back. The teachers were all long past retirement. There was a guy who taught me in the 1980s and he had been in the First World War! Fuck knows how old he was! He had a yellow streak in his hair because he always had a fag in his mouth. He reeked of whisky and had yellow teeth and used to beat the shit out of us.

I saw him take a little girl who sat next to me out to the front of the class and he pulled her knickers down and bare-bottomed smacked her. She was a 5-year-old! Real men don’t beat children. That ain’t masculine! That’s just complete and utter barbarism.

There is a whole confusion about what masculinity really is. The sort-of imposition of masculinity in those communities was completely at odds with what I believe masculinity is.

There was one murder in the village where I grew up. 

JOHN: How many people in the village?

MICHAEL: About 300 or 400. It was a mining village.

JOHN: What was the murder?

MICHAEL: This guy – Mulligan – murdered his girlfriend in the local woods. His dad was the village wife-beater. This sounds like bullshit but there WAS a village wife-beater. Everyone knew he did it. He was the guy whose wife had a black eye going for the bread on a Sunday morning. Everybody knew it and everybody tolerated it.

My mum used to say that men love women but they don’t like them. That ain’t true in general but in that village – that little place – I think it was.

Anyway, so when Mulligan stood up in court and they asked him why he’d murdered his girlfriend, he said: “I thought that’s what you did.”

That is true.

And you can buy into that, because all he had seen all his life was his dad knocking bloody hell out of his mum.

And that is quite incongruous because, in the world I grew up in, the women were in charge. Everyone colluded in the illusion that men were in charge but they were not and I don’t think that’s a peculiarly Northern industrial thing. I think that goes across the animal kingdom. And the frustration and anger that that situation brings about with the section of the population that are physically stronger is… Well, that’s the kind of world I grew up in. 

When I was 16, I started working in a pub and, on a Sunday morning, they would put trays on the bar with black pudding and tripe and cheese – a peculiarly Northern Catholic thing which I had not been aware of at home, because alcohol played no part in my upbringing. 

Until I started work, I was not aware of 50% of life, because I was brought up in a 100% female household. It was a male thing. On a Sunday, men went to the pub, ate meat and left the women at home.

In my home, we had a half-bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky that me grandad won in the Catholic club in the 1970s that remained untouched until me mum met the man they called Barry and then it went within a week. 

JOHN: The man they called Barry?

MICHAEL: Her boyfriend. My mam met the man they called Barry when I was 13. He was just a fucking alcoholic wanker. 

JOHN: Is he still alive?

MICHAEL: No. Everyone’s dead. That’s the crazy thing about the North. Within about 20 years, every fucker’s dead. There’s no longevity.

JOHN: So this is your next year’s Edinburgh Fringe show – with a few laughs thrown in.

MICHAEL: In one of your blogs, you said every successful Edinburgh comedy show needs a dead dad story!

JOHN: Yes, at about 40 minutes into the hour…

MICHAEL: I’ve got nothing BUT dead dads, not that I’ve ever met me dad.

JOHN: I saw a show the other day and the comic wasn’t good enough to sustain 60 minutes. The show sagged at about 32 minutes and I thought: You need a dead dad story in there…

MICHAEL:  After nine years of doing someone else’s work, you end up with this big backlog of things you wanna say yourself.

JOHN: And you now have nine years’ experience of how to say things.

MICHAEL: Yes. I had no father figure to explain where I should fit in… it’s all that stuff I want to explore… and doing Sir Henry has given me the legs to realise how to do that.

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Lynn Ruth Miller in Dublin – on Irish comedy, Ryanair & middle-aged women

Lynn Ruth – Where will she turn up next?

Lynn Ruth Miller, itinerant American comic based in London, has blogged here about her gigging jaunts to exotic locations in the last few months. She spent last week gigging in Dublin. She writes…


I have been headlining at Anseo, this lovely small room on Camden Street, for at least four years. It is run by a prince of a man named Jonathan Hughes who has built the club up from nothing into a comedy staple on the Dublin scene.  

I did a 40-minute set for him and discovered that the Irish are still squeamish about some of the landmark decisions that have come down from their higher courts.  

I made a reference to the woman whose rapist was not convicted because she was wearing a lace thong. Either they didn’t get it or didn’t want to.  

But they did love the one about all the pipes leaking in Dublin’s ancient buildings. They also got the one about how my generation killed their roaches and now their young people smoke them.  

Thursday night was my first night at The International Comedy Club: the reason I return every six months to do comedy in Dublin. It is run by Aidan Bishop.

All comedians complain about the glass walls we need to break: the unsaid prejudice toward women, minorities, disabilities and age.  

Aidan gives everyone an opportunity at his club and, not only that, he always pays his comedians fairly. To make the experience even nicer, there is always a good audience at The International. That means everything to a performer. It is a lot easier to tell your jokes to 100 people than it is to 20, no matter how badly those 20 want to laugh.

Friday night was my big night. I was booked in three comedy clubs.

I left the International (it was packed with standing room only) to get to Anseo’s new Friday night where twenty people were waiting for me (the headliner) and then off to Comedy Gold, Emily O’Callaghan’s’ new room, where there were a dozen people remaining to see me, the late night headliner.  

The interesting thing about all these rooms is that I arrived ten minutes late to every one of them and I still had plenty of time to unwind before I went on stage. Evidently, Irish time is like Jewish time… very flexible. This rarely happens in London. You almost always go on very close to the time you are scheduled. The English pay attention to time.

The Irish comedy scene is growing and very solid yet everyone I talk to there wants to come to London where they think the action is. I certainly felt that way in San Francisco… but now that I am back home IN London I wonder whether wherever you are doing whatever you do, you always think the market is more open somewhere else.

One of the things that makes my Dublin trips so marvellous is that I stay with this magic family that reminds me of an episode of Leave it to Beaver: a happily married couple with three amazing sons and a tight, loving family unit with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents all intricately woven into their lives.  

When I am there, I am treated like another granny: fed, pampered and transported to my gigs.

This is an immense novelty for me as I have lived a very long time and usually make all my arrangements, get myself to wherever I am going and make sure I am properly fed.  

For these short periods in Dublin, I get all the rewards of being a grandparent in a large functional family without having done any of the groundwork.  

I never fool myself however.  

If I had had my own family, my children would have been so over-indulged, they would have become psychopaths and serial killers.

Judging by the caliber of the men I fall in love with, my husband would  have been a conscienceless misogynist with a whip and a gun in the closet to keep me in line and I would have spent my days scrubbing toilets and ironing shirts, never dreaming I could live a life without a dust mop and a sponge.

On Saturday night in Dublin, there are two shows at The International and both are always filled. This time there were two new comedians. One was Robbie Bonham, who is in his forties and has that wry Irish wit that always amazes me.  

I am convinced that a great deal of comedic ability cannot be learned.  

It was Bonham’s very Irish-ness that made his jokes even funnier.  

I know that being Jewish has always given me an edge – and black comedians usually have a dimension to their delivery that adds to every joke they tell.

As our world becomes more diverse and television and the internet reduce our differences, I suspect this will not always be so. The more we assimilate, the more we lose those special ethnic characteristics that add flavor to our jokes and our conversation.  

Much as I applaud universal acceptance of everyone everywhere, I think this loss of ethnic identity is a loss for us all in so many ways. I know we are all alike essentially, but there are attitudes and mannerisms that are handed down generation to generation that I hate to see homogenized.

This intense week in Dublin convinced me that I love the performing life. It does not tire me. Instead, each show I do inspires me to go further and do better.  

Is that what being professional is all about?  

Or is it the stuff of a nervous breakdown?

Sunday was my last performance at The International and it was wonderful.  

Sunday night is normally a slow night but this night it was very crowded.  

I was in the first section and David McSavage was the headliner because he is on TV and is very famous in Dublin. The interesting thing about this night was how diverse the audience was. We had a huge segment from France, so English was their second language… and a girl from Lithuania who had no idea what was going on. But we all managed to hit a responsive chord and the evening was a success despite the immense cultural diversity of the audience.

The Irish have a way of taking you into their hearts and the family I stay with make me feel very loved and important. However, I was brought back to reality sharply when I approached Ryanair on the flight back. Rules are rules and, by God, you are going to pay if you don’t follow them.

I saw a man who could barely speak English (and obviously did not understand the regulations), gulp down a huge bottle of tea as fast as he could. The poor fellow gurgled as he sloshed through the line and I couldn’t help thinking: How on earth would that container of tea with all the tea bags in it have endangered anyone but the poor guy who had to drink it so he wouldn’t have to pitch the container?

I have seen the personnel at Ryanair pat down a tiny baby and all I can say is I hope the kid had a giant poop as the inspector checked out his diaper.

The other interesting thing about this trip was the number of single women in their late forties and fifties who are feeling unfulfilled. They are at that “Is this all there is?” stage of their lives. 

Do men get that feeling? Or do they just put another porn film on the computer and wank off?

These women I met in Dublin were all earning good livings, but still feel they want more than coming home to an empty house with perhaps a dog or a cat to greet them.  

There is no way I can explain to them that these are normal clouds before the rainbow splashes gorgeous color on a grey sky. It is very much like what Winston Churchill said: “When you are in hell, keep going.”  

Middle aged femininity is not hell at all, but it often feels very bland.

For some reason, none of us realize that the best is yet to come.

But it is.

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