Category Archives: Performance

How to write a successful Edinburgh Fringe comedy show… Four ideas…

What comedy shows go down best at the annual Edinburgh Fringe?

Well, serious self-analysis always goes down well with the Awards judges.

My last blog here was about a conversation I had with a chum at St Pancras station in London.

I also started pontificating to her about how to write a one-hour comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. I think she glazed over internally but disguised it well. After all, she is a performer.

I am not a performer. So what do I know?

Ignore what follows if you have better ideas.

And, like all generalities, there are exceptions.

But – hey! – this is my blog and, just for the helluvit, this is what I think…

Go write your own blog if you disagree.

The only near-certainty if you follow any advice of mine or any advice of any kind or no advice of any kind is that you will probably lose money at the Fringe…


Expanding a good 20-minute stage act where you meander from one anecdote to another via cleverly obscuring the fact that none of the bits really fit together but you have ‘seamlessly’ Sellotaped over the gaps with clever links… That doesn’t work in a 55-ish minute show at the Edinburgh Fringe (or anywhere else).

You have to write a single unitary show.

BIT OF ADVICE 1

I think all Edinburgh shows need a single relentless theme and 100% should be about that one single theme with a single developing narrative strand.

People talk about the ‘dead dad’ story you should drop in about 35-40 minutes into the duration of a 55-ish minute show. 

The theory of the Dead Dad is that a show can have wonderfully funny stories but, after about 30-35 mins, the audience settles into the rhythm of the performance and they still laugh but ‘sameness’ fatigue sets in, even though they’re still laughing.

An unexpected shock at around 35/40 minutes into a 55 min narrative show pulls the carpet from under the audience’s expectations and shocks them into being 100% attentive again. If you can suddenly mention that your dad died last week, that should do it. But anything unexpected and different.

They are shocked – when it’s successful – into total silence. Of course, in a comedy show, you then have to be a good enough performer to get them back in the last 10 minutes to finish with a climactic laughter fest/orgasm. Then they go out happy and smiling having been on the thrill of a rollercoaster.

BIT OF ADVICE 2

Write an elevator pitch for your own show. For your eyes only. Eight words saying what your show is specifically about. Not generally. No generality. One specific subject.

Anything that doesn’t fit that succinct 8-word description, chuck it out.

It doesn’t matter how clever or funny it is. If it doesn’t fit the description, chuck it out. You can use it in a future show but NOT this show. However funny, however clever, however well-written it is… if it doesn’t fit into your 8-word description of your own show’s specific subject, it will interrupt the flow of the single narrative thread and it will be a distraction to the audience’s attention/involvement in your narrative. 

A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include.

There used to be an ad on television, the selling line of which was:

“It’s the fish John West reject that make John West the best”

Follow the fish principle!

But without the smell.

A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include, even more than what you include.

BIT OF ADVICE 3

Ask yourself why you alone can do this specific show and no-one else can.

If you can do a show on a general subject, then so can I – so can anyone else.

If you can’t be original, at least be personal. 

Why can you alone do this specific show and no-one else can?

Make it personal.

No-one reads autobiographies for facts.

They want to be voyeurs on another person’s life. Either because they think: That’s just like me. Or they want to experience something they have never and will never experience.

People want to hear about people not ideas.

Or they want to hear about ideas via a narrative involving people whose lives and minds they can become involved with.

No-one except an academic reads books or watches movies or watches comedy shows for abstract facts. That ain’t a show, it’s a lecture. Go perform at Speaker’s Corner in London, not on a comedy stage in Edinburgh.

If you talk about facts illustrated by specific human stories – ideally your own – people will be interested. 

Pretty much the same events happen to everyone. But how the events interact with a specific person is unique.

Ordinary people read books/watch shows for emotional and psychological voyeurism. They want to identify with other people.

BIT OF ADVICE 4

This goes back to concentrating the audience’s minds with a single narrative plot.

The ‘one’ plot is allegedly… A hero (or heroine) sets out on a quest to find something. Things happen along the way. The hero (or heroine) finds the thing (good or bad) – it may be a truth or a revelation.

It is a search for a specific Holy Grail.

In the case of a one hour Fringe show, everything along the way has to progress the journey. No jolly side anecdotes unrelated to the quest. Everything must be relevant to your 8-word definition of the quest.

The Grail – the climax of the show – is a single specific thing.

When you start writing the show, you have to know what the very end is. Otherwise you will inevitably waffle. 

What is the last paragraph, the last sentence of the show?

Anyone can do a show about the quest for an idea. 

What is the specific show only you can write and perform about that quest that I or 2,000 other people cannot do?

Personal.

People.

One single strand.

Keep on the bloody subject!

And now all you have to do is make it funny!!!!!! 

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, Performance, Writing

On stage, 86-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller hugs a gorilla and rips off her clothes

The incomparable Lynn Ruth

Lynn Ruth lived in San Francisco for nearly 30 years. In her last blog, she mused on the changing face of the city. But she was really visiting there to perform…


My first real performance in San Francisco this time was a comedy gig at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. 

My favorite comedian of all time, Aundre the Wonderwoman, came on stage.

Besides being amazingly funny. Aundre Herron is my hero. During the day, she is a lawyer for the people on death row. She was one of the first black women accepted to Radcliffe College and has worked her way through undergraduate and graduate studies to become a first-rate lawyer and a top-notch comedian.  

She is highly political and a staunch defender of the underdog. One of my favorite of her succinct observations on current culture is when she says (I paraphrase):

“Kids these days murder their parents. I didn’t know it was an option.”

When you listen to her comedy, you cannot help but see the illogical injustice that permeates our world. Her comedy is what I think all stand-up should be: words that open a window to social issues that no-one else dares to discuss.

The headliner was a new breed of comedian who had no idea that she was supposed to tell jokes. She gave us lots of poses and contorted facial expressions and went on and on about her mother and her life for a very long time. I am not sure if this is the direction American comedy is going and if the old fashioned pattern of set up/punch has gone out of style.

The next night was my one-hour stand up show I Never Said I Was Nice at The Marsh Theater.

It was a huge privilege to perform at The Marsh. When I lived in San Francisco, I applied several times to perform my Edinburgh Fringe cabarets there and I was never accepted. Now, because they became aware of my UK and European successes, I was able to do I Love Men there last year. I filled the house thank goodness and the show was a success.

Will I ever be a confident performer? I was a nervous mess as I sat in the lovely spacious dressing room in The Marsh, but my delightful tech lady, Raye, was so encouraging that I finally relaxed and did my performance to a combination of friends old and new.

One woman in a wheelchair informed me that she had seen me ten years ago at Gazo’s Grill in Pescadero, California, and that I had not changed a bit. All I could think of was: Did I look this old and wasted at 76?

When I finished the Marsh show, my trusty driver Leo (who has traded babysitting my dogs for caring for me), drove me to the DNA Lounge for Hubba Hubba’s Murder Mansion Show 

Hubba Hubba was the first burlesque show that started booking me regularly in San Francisco. It was created and is now run by the delightful and very funny Jim Sweeney who MCs each event. He adds special comic touches that embody the original spirit of burlesque. In his bigger shows, there is a gorilla who welcomes each act and prances about when the going gets boring.  

I love that gorilla.  

Lynn Ruth was billed as “The Stripping Granny” at the Hubba Hubba this year

He is the sweetest living thing on the Hubba Hubba stage and we often have a quick cuddle during my act. But then I have always been a sucker for hairy men.  

There is always a scantily clad lady on the stage as well, waving a sign at the audience saying HOORAY! just in case they do not express their appreciation loudly enough.

When I first started performing at Hubba Hubba, the shows were in a tiny bar in Oakland where there were only a few seats along the side of the room. The majority of the audience stood to watch us all rip off our clothes on stage to a screaming, clapping, joyous audience. 

Burlesque is not just twirling tits and wiggling bums in Jim’s shows. I have never been in any production there that doesn’t have a great deal of tongue-in-cheek repartee. This time, I sang to a backing track while the gorilla helped me fiddle with my clothes but, sadly, I had sent the wrong version of the song to the sound engineer.  

We had had no time for a sound check and the result was that I was ripping off robes and chemises singing my heart out long after the music stopped.  

The gorilla didn’t care and thank God neither did the audience. They roared with delight.

I was a hit.

Saturday night was my big local show, Crazy Cabaret at A Grape in The Fog.

This place was one of my former stomping grounds.

I lived in Pacifica for almost thirty years and I never believed anyone knew who I was. My neighbors called me The Dog Lady. The rest of that world didn’t notice me at all.  

Although I had two Public Access TV shows that ran for almost 15 years, it wasn’t until about a year before I left town that someone stopped me while I was walking the dogs and said: “You are the TV Lady!”

Newspaper column spawned two books

Chris Hunter was the editor of the Pacifica Tribune while I was writing my column for that paper. He asked me to do a regular column. He had written a feature about me while he was just a reporter and when he was promoted to management, he decided he wanted to add a little oddball humor to the paper. This was the first real break I had in the newspaper world. I was paid $25 a column. I called it Thoughts While Walking The Dog and that is the title of two books that are compilations of those columns.  

I have never forgotten what Chris did for my ego and my writing career. To my utter joy, he and his daughter came to the show at A Grape in The Fog. It was his birthday and we celebrated with a drink and a lot of songs.

The real highlight of the evening, though, was when Ruby Finklestein did her warm-up introduction for me. Ruby is ten years old. Her father Judd runs a winery in Napa. Ruby has always wanted to be a stand-up comedian – a profession I didn’t even know existed until I was 70 years old. I told her she could tell a few jokes to start the performance and, I assure you, she stole the show.

I also have a friend in Pacifica who was a student in one of my adult art classes. Her name is Ursula and she is from Germany. Her father was a Nazi. I am Jewish. She told me story after story of how the German people starved during World War II and how her father had to join the Party to save his family.

Ursula is an example of someone who takes her responsibility as an immigrant to a new country seriously. She has her citizenship; she speaks English beautifully; and she worked for years tutoring children in English grammar as a volunteer. She is a talented artist and has continued working in soft pastels long after I stopped teaching and turned my attention to comedy. We have continued our friendship and no visit to Pacifica world be complete without Ursula.

But she is currently facing what we all will have to face one day. Her husband Werner is finally succumbing to the multiple sclerosis he has had for years and years. Ursula was forced to put him in a care home because she could not possibly care for him at their home. She visits him every day. She is also dealing with the prospect of preparing to be alone without him.

She and Werner have been married for at least fifty years and now my dear friend realizes that she will have to explore new avenues to fill her life, once her beloved husband is gone. One of her granddaughters is living with her now to help her through this terrible, demanding and frightening transition. The granddaughter has a dog and that dog has been Ursula’s solace. We sometimes forget how comforting it is to sit with a dog in your lap stroking its fur and absorbing its calm.

… CONTINUED HERE

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Performance

Why you should always seek out and watch really bad live comedy shows

“Saw my first really terrible show yesterday. What a relief after so much brilliance.”

That is what Claire Smith, esteemed comedy critic and Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge, posted on her Facebook page this morning.

She is at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As a result, I really want to see that show if it ever plays London.

You can seldom learn much from watching perfection. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own).

If you are interested in the creative process, which I am, then to see what does NOT work in a show is far more educational and interesting than to see something with no flaws which just flows.

I seldom seek out long-established, very successful acts because what is the point of being entertained by a well-oiled, flawless piece of work which can be – and is – repeated perfectly night after night, performance after performance?

Uniformity is the enemy of originality.

So I prefer to see newish acts (but with some experience) which are still developing as well as good acts which are very professional but are not yet famous in a general everyone-in-the-queue-at-the-bus-stop-knows-them way. 

When success hits, acts do not need to have gone for the lowest common denominator. But they need to have found some common denominator of some kind which will appeal to a mass audience.

So, to an extent, there is a smoothing-over, blandifying factor involved.

If you see a very good, solid, professional act who has NOT yet had mainstream success, there is probably some interesting edge which has not yet been knocked off. 

And acts with enough experience to be watchable but which can still be variable and unpredictable (because they are still trying out new ideas and approaches) will have multiple jagged edges some of which may or may not work or which may half-work.

Sometimes, a show is bad because a good performer has had the balls to try out something truly original which does not quite (yet) work.

If you watch a truly truly bad show (and they are as rare as a police station without corruption) you can learn.

I have no urge (and no ability) to be a comedy performer, but the creation of the on-stage character and the performance interests me and – to repeat in a sledgehammer way a previous sentence – You can seldom learn much from watching perfection. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own).

Don’t bother telling me that posting this blog was a mistake.

It is too obvious a punchline.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Creativity, Performance

How Edinburgh Fringe virgin Michael Livesley is coping or not with the chaos

It is performer Michael Livesley’s first Edinburgh Fringe.

In London last month, he talked to me about his show for a blog before the true madness all started.

He is now staying in Leith, the port part of Edinburgh.

So how is he faring?

Well…. Here he is with an update…


THE FIRST DAY

My first Fringe arrives with all the promise of a funeral in January. I have to say that I have dreaded this moment for months. Sleepless nights, flirtations with Kalms abuse and the nagging self doubt which plagues all who entertain the notion of becoming a part of the world’s biggest Arts Festival have become my constant companions… and now the day is finally here. 

“Here I am in Leith. Bowed and unbroken…”

Here I am in Leith. Bowed and unbroken, in the very heart of Irvine Welsh territory.

My landlord informs me “Leith is no’ Edinburgh and Edinburgh is no’ Leith”. 

To the untrained eye, this is not apparent and I soon learn that the red Tennents’ ’T’ is ubiquitous in both and a universal symbol for serious drinking comparable with the Green Cross symbol for a pharmacy.

For almost two decades I have locked myself away, literally digging my grave with my own teeth. After losing half of my body weight, some 10 stones/140lbs, I am now attempting to turn decades of anxiety and addiction and ultimate redemption into a Fringe show. Losing the weight was easier.

I have brought flyers, posters, my coffee machine plus a party pack of Kalms with me. I have also learned my script to the letter, which I have quickly realised is far too rigid and straitjacketing – an apt simile as it is mental health and its attendant obesity which brought me here. 

I have a lot to learn, which is why I am here. My hope being that I emerge on August 25th battle-hardened and ready for the next chapter next year. 

Like my body weight, tonight I intend to throw half of my script away and just talk. We shall see what happens…

THE FIRST WEEKEND

Michael Livesley – “It has been a steep learning curve”

It has seen a steep learning curve. My show is free and everybody else seems incredibly skilled at hustling. Yet I often don’t ask for money at the end of my shows. The pride which was thumped into me during my childhood in Lancashire making my tongue recoil like a lipstick into my head at the mere suggestion of asking anyone for what I wrongly interpret as ‘charity’.

On Saturday night, not far from the Free Sisters venue I’m performing in, I stopped a lady with a two-tone pink and black hairdo from being assaulted by a man who I later realised was her boyfriend. She spoke to me in broken English yet, when her phone rang, she answered with a thick Scots “Hullo hen…”

She did not want me to call ‘the Polis’ so I put her in a cab and she left the scene.

On Monday morning, as I stared dolefully from my Leith window, I noticed a suited and booted businessman yelling orders into his iPhone whilst sipping his frappuccino with a bandaged nose and two black eyes. No doubt a souvenir from a lively ‘transaction’ with an associate over the weekend.

After my gig on Sunday night, I ended up being dragged into a bar somewhere in Leith and playing a piano accompaniment for a chap who I swear was Den Hegarty from Darts as he rambled incomprehensible poetry into the mic. I had only gone out to buy a Sunday Post newspaper.

The sheer amount of waste paper here astonishes me, and as I sheltered in a grotty doorway on Cowgate during a Hoots Monsoon I watched rivers of it run in the gutters and sang…

“I’m just sitting watching flyers in the rain.
Pretty flyers down the drain…”

…to myself.

An apt metaphor for the dreams which can be dashed here.

I once recall reading a piece in which Kate Copstick referred to the ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ of the Fringe. 

Seconded. 

It is the biggest test of will and ego I have ever encountered. As my ‘show’ has worn on, it is apparent that its sheer Northern-ness is going over the audiences’ heads. Up to now I have rewritten half of it, and it seems to work better. Half the Man – Half the Show.

TUESDAY, WEEK 1

Half the Man is really hitting its stride now. The Fringe is a crucible in which shows are forged like no other. But, as Kate Copstick said, until you’ve faced its ‘fear and terror’ you can’t assess what it is that you actually ‘do’.

WEDNESDAY, WEEK 1

It’s almost 12 months since I ate sugar in any form, but reet about now I could saw some fucker’s head off for a box of French Fancies! The Fringe in a nutshell!

Great show tonight. Really getting there now, about 50 people in. I think the venue holds about 120. I’ve made a decent whack every night. I got about £120 out of the bucket tonight.

SATURDAY, WEEK 1

Well, tonight’s show was certainly an ‘experience’! A packed house, good.

But the first two rows were pissed-up nobheads who had obviously been out on the booze all day and heckled and shouted their heads off throughout. The worst bit being their laughter whilst I was talking about me mum dying. 

Still, at least I didn’t jump offstage and kick the fuck out of the baldy bellend lad leading em all. 

After disrupting the show and ruining it for everyone they then, of course, fucked off just before the end so as to not put any money in the bucket. 

I felt bad for those there to hear the show as there were many and, like all who go through this, I feel I could have handled it much better. 

Hey-ho! All part of the experience.

Here in the photo I am staring oot the baldy bellend…


ADDENDUM

After reading Michael’s reference to him in this blog, Den Hegarty contacted me to say: “Sadly, not me – though the speaking incomprehensibly bit sounds the part…”


 

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Performance

Polly Trope: Late Night Ceremony plus a 14-year-old Edinburgh Fringe zombie

Polly Trope first appeared in this blog in 2014, when she was publicising her book Cured Meat – Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway.

Polly Trope back in 2015 (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

This year – indeed, next week – she is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe for six days (12th-17th August) … as part of a collective known as Berlingeles.

Their show at Surgeon’s Hall is called Late Night Ceremony. Their blurb reads:

“This group showcase raises a fist with one hand and holds a glass with the other against the fact that the world we live in is a complete disaster. Borders close in, rents rise, intimacy dissolves. One person’s normal is another person’s crazy. Who gets to tell their story and who must remain silent? Embodied performance, experimental music, storytelling and a secret midnight ritual.”

I thought: What is that all about?

So I talked to Polly Trope at her home in Berlin via FaceTime.

She flies into Edinburgh tomorrow.


JOHN: So, Berlingeles. Is that a pun on Berlin Girls?

POLLY: No, it’s actually a putting-together of Berlin and Los Angeles…

JOHN: Doh!

POLLY: …because half of us are coming from Los Angeles and half from Berlin.

JOHN: There are four people involved.

Brian Felsen rehearses for the show in Polly’s living room

POLLY: There used to be more. Some had to drop out. It was always supposed to be a group show. I put together some of the artists I’d been seeing on stage because I’ve been going between Berlin and Los Angeles all the time.

JOHN: Why the travelling?

POLLY: Because I fell in love with someone from Los Angeles. He is actually doing more of the going back-and-forth than I am. The pendulum is supposed to come to a halt somewhere but (LAUGHS) it is proving quite complicated to organise.

JOHN: The listing for the show on the Fringe website says: 

WARNINGS AND ADDITIONAL INFO: 

SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE 

One member of your cast a 14-year-old. Is that a problem?

POLLY: I think for that particular 14-year-old it’s alright. He’s not in the scenes of a sexual nature, but I think he’s seen such scenes before. He has been in the world of ‘horror performance’ and stage performance for quite some time. He can close his eyes when I’m performing.

JOHN: ‘Horror performance’? What is that?

14-year-old Anatol Felsen in his make-up

POLLY: Zombie stuff. In Los Angeles it’s very popular. His mother is a zombie performance artist and he has always been involved in plays his mother has done. Every month or two he will be in a show. He puts on his make-up and he does ‘horror theatre’ in Hollywood and people come because every week is Hallowe’en in Hollywood. He loves doing it and he is going to do something based on that in our Fringe show. It is going to be the first time he is doing something on his own.

JOHN: What’s the short elevator pitch for your show?

POLLY: It’s a group showcase about a lot of different types of late-night rituals. We have a seance. We have a ritual to overcome heartbreak. We have a ritual to save the world.

JOHN: And you have a 14-year-old zombie…

POLLY: …and we have me, who is going to talk about the ritual of the one-night stand.

JOHN: So it is multiple rituals.

POLLY: Yes. We have one ritual that is actually happening AT midnight, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.

JOHN: I have a vivid imagination…

“People are going to come forward and be y’know… ritualised”

POLLY: It is going to be interactive and people are going to come forward and have themselves be… y’know… ritualised or… eh… ritually treated.

The midnight ritual is the one ritual where the audience takes part and the audience will be cleansed.

JOHN: Well, everyone is going to be hoping the midnight ritual is the one-night stand ritual.

POLLY: Erm, well… I don’t know if they would hope that.

JOHN: But it’s all Art… It’s performance art.

POLLY: Absolutely. Each of us has a slightly different speciality. Brian Felsen is a composer, so he is going to compose live, performing a ritual with polyphonic chant, DJ looping and tribal drumming;. Mine is more storytelling. The 14-year-old…

JOHN: … is doing the zombie stuff…

POLLY: Yes. Anatol Felsen (Brian’s son). He’s performing a musical work and monologue channelling Borges.

Darling Fitch will perform (Photograph by Jon Alloway)

And Darling Fitch is a performance artist who is going to perform a ritual in noise – electronic noises and electronic music as well as elements of the queer culture and other things that I can’t talk about because they are secret. It’s a hopeful harsh noise poetry pop opera about the end of the world.

JOHN: Will the show have a life after the Fringe? Will you tour it?

POLLY: These particular people have just come together for the Edinburgh Fringe. I would love it to keep going, though. We are trying to set up more venues and gigs for us, maybe in the United States. If we did it in Berlin or Los Angeles, though, there would be more local performers

JOHN: Since the last blog about you in 2015, what have you been doing? Is there another book in the works?

POLLY: Yes. I wrote a second book maybe a year-and-a-half ago, which was supposed to be the sequel to my first book Cured Meat.

JOHN: The title?

POLLY: So far, it’s been called Why Don’t You Kill Me?

I wanted to write a sequel to Cured Meat but to go more into depth about the whole sex work experience… Cured Meat is very much about mental health and the drugs aspect of the story and the sex work comes in at the last minute. So I wrote a second book. Also, with the rise of the #MeToo movement, I felt that people were talking about women’s issues more. So I wrote this big long second book about my experiences with sex work. And then, after it was all done, I realised what I actually needed to do was to stick my first and my second book together.

So I’ve been working on that. It was not a very easy thing, but I’m really happy because it’s all done. Now I just have to make and market it.

Polly Trope in her living room… being mysterious

JOHN: Previously, when we have talked for my blog, you didn’t want your face shown in pictures. But you are going to be live on stage in Edinburgh and you are going to be talking about sex work…

POLLY: Yes.

JOHN: Is there a problem there?

POLLY: Kind of… It’s a slow progress for me to bring my whole identities together. It’s kinda slow but things are coming together in terms of who I represent for myself and things I want people to know about me and things I don’t want people to know about me. It depends very much how comfortable I feel talking about this.

I feel much more comfortable now talking about sex work than I did five years ago when it was still a more recent experience… I guess… It’s kind of moving towards… more transparency, I guess.

Leave a comment

Filed under Performance, Sex

Good advice for performers going to the Edinburgh Fringe this – or any – year

Performers will expose themselves at the Edinburgh Fringe (Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph via unSplash)

After yesterday’s blog, I got an email from a comedy performer I know. It read:


I am finally getting on with the job of writing my show after making reams of notes for months. Hopefully two months gives me enough time to write and learn it, though I intend the thing to be shaped up in Edinburgh more than here in isolation.


The Edinburgh Fringe is in August.

This was my advice to him, her or them.

Who knows what the correct PC form of address is any more?

Not me.


Don’t repeat any of that to Kate Copstick, doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers.

She gets annoyed at PRs or managers asking her not to review an act in the first few days of the Fringe because the performance needs time to ‘bed in’.

She says if the show isn’t perfect on Day One, it shouldn’t be brought to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh is not part of an ongoing process. It is the aim.

If you do one bad gig at the Fringe, the word may well get round and, if a reviewer is in that day, the review will be online for as long as your career survives (which may not be long if you perform half-prepared shows) and beyond. 

In two – five – seven years time – it will say in print that you are a half-cocked performer – unreliable – or shit. Doing one bad Work in Progress gig to thirty people in a pub in Scunthorpe is arguably throwaway. Doing one bad gig to five people in Edinburgh could be a disaster because they will go home and badmouth you in totally different, widespread parts of the country.

And one or two or three of those unknown five punters in Edinburgh may well be reviewers or TV researchers or comedy bookers who will remember your half-prepared act forever.

If they are just ordinary punters, you are still up shit creek because you have an audience who are such comedy fans they came to the Fringe and now they will be badmouthing you to other comedy fans in Norwich or Plymouth or London or wherever.

The other bad news is you must never ever cancel any show in Edinburgh. If there is only one person in the audience, play full-throttle to that one person because they may change your life. If you perform a half-ready show, it may damage your prospects; if you cancel, it may destroy your prospects.

Charlie Chuck, unknown, at his first Edinburgh Fringe run was not getting audiences and was thinking of going home in mid-run. I advised him not to.

He stayed.

One night after that, he had an audience of only three. 

Unknown to him, two of them were on the production team of a forthcoming, not-yet-made Reeves & Mortimer TV show. As a result, he became a regular on two of their series.

Once, when I was a TV researcher looking for acts, I turned up at a (free) show. I had seen the act before and it was interesting, but I had never seen them do a full show. I was the only punter to turn up. The act cancelled the show because, she said, “it won’t be worth you watching me with only you in the audience”. I would never ever risk using that act who has – inevitably – now faded away.

Anyway…

Edinburgh is not somewhere to hone an act. It is the real thing from Day One.


This morning, I checked with Copstick that it was OK to paraphrase her view in a blog. This is her reply and expanded view.


Ignore her opinion at your professional peril

I think if you are taking stand-up to Edinburgh you have no place mumbling about previews and looking for wriggle-room from audiences or critics on the basis that it is your first show of the run. You are a person in a space talking to other people in the same space. for money (either from ticket sales or from money in a bucket). 

It is not Phantom of the Fucking Opera on Ice. If the mic fails, you talk a little louder. Spot fails, turn on the overheads. Sound spill – be funnier than the sound spill.

If you purport to be a professional and are happy to take money from people then – SPOILER ALERT – you will have many ‘first nights’. 

It is up to you (as a professional which means you do it for money) that you learn to cope with the horror and terror of it all without making the audience feel that it is up to them to make sure it goes well.

First Night should just be a statement of fact, not a cover-all excuse.

And don’t get me started on ‘Work In Progress’ shows performed to 2,000 people at a time in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for the same money for which you could see five comics who might do something that might surprise you. Even if it is not as polished as it might be on a first night.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Performance, Writing

Advice to stand-up comedians on how not to utterly mess up their stage acts

I am not a performer.

I am an audience member.

So I am well-placed to tell stand-up comics when they are annoying the audience and destroying their own act.

Lighting is vitally important in a comedy club.

New/inexperienced stand-up comedians understandably want to see the faces and the facial reactions of their audience.

But performers can be dazzled by the light or lights aimed at their faces, so the inexperienced tend to move their eyes – and thus part or all of their heads – out of the centre of the light.

This means they can see the audience slightly better but it also means the audience inevitably see the performer’s face less sharply lit.

Communication is all about people.

People are interested in people.

If you are writing an autobiography or a biography or a novel, it is almost always not the facts which are gripping; it is the people involved, their thoughts and their emotions.

This next bit actually IS relevant.

If you wrote about the physical causes and facts of an avalanche on a mountainside, it would not be especially interesting to a general readership. If you write about what happened when two people were caught in an avalanche, it IS interesting.

People are interested in people.

This next bit is relevant too…

Years ago, I read some research on violence in movies. The researchers were able to pinpoint where on the screen a viewer’s eyes were focussed.

In an action sequence, you might assume the audience would be watching the action. 

They are not. They are watching the RE-action.

If someone is punched or shot, the viewer’s eyes are not watching the punch land or the bullet hit… The viewer is watching the face of the victim.

There may be special effects blood spurting out from the bullet impact; the victim may be throwing his arms up in the air; but the audience are not looking at that. The audience are watching the face of the victim.

They are not watching the action. They are watching the RE-action.

When it gets down to basics, people are interested in people and people’s emotions.

It is exactly the same in comedy performance.

Being told a joke by a stand-up comic on-stage is, of course, about the greater or lesser effect of the material and the delivery. But, by-and-large, stand-ups do what the name suggests. They stand up, tell a joke and that is it. 

What are the audience looking at?

They are not looking at the stage backcloth; they are not looking at the comic’s costume; they are not looking at the comic’s hands, though they may be aware of them peripherally. They are looking at the face of the comedian telling the joke. They are looking at the performer’s face and at the eyes.

If the performer is moving around in-and-out of the main light, the constantly-changing visual information – or lack of it in dimly-lit shadows – starts to distract from and overwhelm the spoken words. One vivid picture IS worth a thousand words.

The audience, by and large, HAS to see the performer’s face clearly. Which means a bright light shining directly at the performer’s face.

The reverse of that is… If the performer can see the audience clearly, he or she is standing in the wrong place and being badly lit.

If the audience can’t see the stand-up comic’s face clearly, he or she might as well play a tape recording on an empty stage. The audience have not paid to come and see a chair or a curtain or a bit of wall while listening to disembodied words coming out of the gloom.

They have come to see a stand-up comic delivering lines. 

They have come to see a person.

The clue is in the word SEE.

My advice to new stand-up comics is…

The more YOU can see the audience, the less THEY are probably seeing of you.

If you are dazzled, you will be dazzling. If you are in the gloom, you are dim.

STAND IN THE FUCKING SPOTLIGHT!

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting, Comedy, Performance

Peculiar – Comic Jo Burke disappeared for 3 years, found true love and a show

The last time performer/writer Jo Burke appeared in this blog was in September 2015. There is a reason for that gap of over three years.


Three years absent and three books published

JOHN: So you have three children’s books here which you wrote. There is Standing on Custard

JO: That’s the first one. It’s a book of funny verse – for up to 10 year olds – and it’s really good for small ones because it’s rhyming. Then A Squirrel’s Tail is a whole story rather than verse. A really lovely story about inclusivity and diversity about a squirrel born without his tail. And then Molly, Chip and The Chair is for slightly older children: when they’re moving on to reading adult-style books.

JOHN: Why’s it called Standing on Custard?

JO: The book has lots of useful facts. So one interesting fact is that you can actually stand on custard.

JOHN: Eh?

JO: You get two tins of Ambrosia, you put them on the floor and you stand on them. (LAUGHS) No… It’s called a non-Newtonian fluid. You have to make it with cornflour and lots of it. What a non-Newtonian fluid does is, instead of like most fluids and liquids, it becomes harder the more pressure, the more weight you put on it.

JOHN: The books are beautifully illustrated.

JO: My talented husband Philip Price.

JOHN: You gave up comedy for three years.

JO: I didn’t intend to. My last show – the last time we had a chat – was 2015 and that was my I Scream show and I’d written a book about that as well. It was about online dating. 

“Most successful show… I was quite annoyed”

That was my most successful show so far and it was me as me. Before that, I had been doing character-based comedy. I was delighted that the one with me as me was the most successful. But also quite annoyed, because I had trained for many many years to be an actress. And the show I did as me was the most successful. 

I think I just felt like I’d plateaued a bit: that I didn’t have much else to say. I had sort of fallen… not out of love with it because it was fantastic… but I felt that, if I were to come back with something else, it would have to be as good and I didn’t want to rush into the next thing. I had kind of had enough of the whole Edinburgh Fringe thing. I had done about six Edinburghs in a row by that point. Six shows up to 2015 and, in two of those years, I did two shows each year, which was ridiculous.

Initially, I thought I might take a year off. But, I got back to London from Edinburgh in the September and, in the October I met the man who is now my husband. It was ironic that whole I Scream book and show had been about my disastrous love life. Then, lo and behold…!

JOHN: So you were only doing comedy to cover gaps in your acting.

JO: I had always done acting and ads and whatever and, up until that point as well, I also had a  mortgage-paying job which most performers have – a horrible office job three days a week which was not playing to any of my strengths and just to pay the bills. I had started to feel quite unhappy there and I thought: You know what? It’s time to move on. So I did. 

What I needed then was a revenue stream. So I thought: Actually, now I’ve met Phil, who is an artist… I had already written this book years and years ago for a friend’s daughter. And I said to Phil: “Do you think you’d be interested in doing the artwork for this book?” 

So that was our first project. We have released a book a year, basically; we are just finishing off a new one.

JOHN: You said you needed a revenue stream – to make money – so you started writing books… That is not a way to make money!

JO: The books are really popular in Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, America. I sell them online and at a stall in Greenwich Market and I sell hundreds of them a month and we sell prints and artwork as well. I do a maximum of about three days there and it’s great because I can work it round castings – I just shot a commercial for IKEA in Italy for four days.

JOHN: And next Saturday (6th April), you are back on stage at the Museum of Comedy in London with a new show called Peculiar. Is it you as yourself or is it character comedy?

JO: It’s me again.

Jo Burke no longer screaming; just as creative

JOHN: A follow-up to I Scream?

JO: No, that’s why to have the space of three years between the two shows was good. I don’t really feel like that person I was any more. Straight after I Scream, I met Phil. I feel so far removed from that (previous) person and all of that angst and heartache and stuff. Everything changed. It was like a cathartic thing. I released the I Scream book and did that show then, all-of-a-sudden, the love of my life walked in the door.

JOHN: Is happiness good creatively, though? I heard Charles Aznavour interviewed and he was asked why he sang sad songs. He said they were more interesting because, when people are happy, there’s not a lot you can say. People are happy in the same way but, when people are sad, they are sad for all sorts of different. specific reasons.

JO: Yeah. Also happy people can be a bit annoying to be around sometimes. I spent a huge chunk of my life being single and being around happy couples and I know the annoyance of it. (LAUGHS) Nobody’s interested in you if you’re happy and I don’t really write when I’m happy. I have always written when I’m annoyed. When you are happy, it’s quite dull creatively, I think.

JOHN: So when you got happy it must have screwed-up your creativity for the last three years?

JO: No. I never stopped writing. I made notes all the time in those three years and I did the children’s books. The children’s books are a gentler… they’re still funny, but it’s a gentler humour and a different audience. But I still always had dark, evil thoughts that I would set aside for future shows.

So when I decided to do this new show, Peculiar, I started looking back through all my notes and maybe I had written the equivalent of a show a year anyway, so Peculiar is really the best of all of that.

“It’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd”

JOHN: What’s the elevator pitch for Peculiar? Is it angry?

JO: No, but it’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd from nail varnishes to medication to marriage to eBay.

JOHN: So observational comedy.

JO: Yes, but not really. It’s… Jo Burke calls out the absurdity surrounding our every day life. She shoots down the lazy marketing we are perpetually bombarded with, ridiculous products and Amazon reviews plus a fair few things in between.

JOHN: Last time we talked, you wanted to do a show about working class life.

JO: Well, that’s always a bugbear of mine. I’m always slightly peeved at the fact there are fewer and fewer working class voices. There are sketches I’ve written just for bizarre funny’s sake, but a good 90% of what I do is with a reason, a message behind it. 

JOHN: To get your message out? But you’re not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

JO: Part of the reason I’m doing Peculiar at the Brighton Fringe in May but I am not doing Edinburgh is that I priced it all out and I would love to go to Edinburgh – I absolutely love it – but, you know, I am still paying for the seven years I did before!

Why would I go to the Edinburgh Fringe? Because I love it. But that is not a good enough reason. It has not been a stepping stone for me so far and I can’t really afford to keep trying. I’m taking another tack now. I’m not really doing stand-up spots on other people’s gigs. It’s time-consuming and means travelling all around and I prefer doing my own shows. 

I did consider doing a children’s show in Edinburgh. Standing on Custard would make an amazing children’s show but… Well, it’s all very well signing books and making children laugh but it’s a whole different ball game when you can make a whole room of adults laugh.

JOHN: The lure of the applause?

JO: I was missing the feel-good. Also, because everything is so politically dark and horrible at the moment, I think if you have a skill – to make kids or adults laugh – now is definitely the time to be doing it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comedy, Performance, Writing

What happened when award-winning Becky Fury went to Berlin for a week

Becky possibly possessed by a dead actress.

When Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning performer Becky Fury told me she was going to Berlin for a week and offered to share her insights with me, I leapt at the chance and said Yes.

Though it is always a risky strategy saying Yes to anyone who has won a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

I have just received this missive from Becky which is more a thesis on support of the arts but is worth reading for the unexpected (at least by me) twist in it…


I woke up in Berlin yesterday. 

I meant to. It was not some happy, drunken accident.

I woke up in an arts space which calls itself the new Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles) and I put my coat on – the wrong way round, I was informed. But the coat served its function that way for a few more hours, so maybe it was not the coat that was the wrong way round but the perspective of how the coat should be on that was inside out.

Facade of Kunsthaus Tacheles at Oranienburger Straße, Berlin

‘Tacheles’ is a word – רעדן ניט בולשיט – meaning ‘speak no bullshit’ in Yiddish. So I had broken the only rule of the space before breakfast.

The old Tacheles grew out of the rubble of the Second World War, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in a space in East Berlin.

It was named in Yiddish as a memorial to its pre-War Jewish inhabitants who had never returned.

The new space is beginning to be like the old one but the artists there are having to deal with just making the space habitable rather than being able to create art. Putting into place the basic blocks of the artistic ecosystem which develops in a space which, like a rainforest or peak bog, has taken years to evolve. In the same way that you can’t just make a rainforest from scratch, you can’t do that with a creative space.

These spaces should be protected as important habitats to protect cultural biodiversity.

PROTECT THE PUNK is unlikely to be taken up as a campaign by the World Wildlife Fund. But something needs to happen. The eviction of the Freespace ADM in Amsterdam (Becky blogged about it here last year) was halted by the UN, who said that the space was a protected reservation.

If the World Wildlife Fund can’t do it, maybe one of the charities that allows you to indirectly adopt a child could run an adoption campaign for alternative artists. You could get updates on how well your alternative artist is doing, if it has been successfully released into the wild and how global re-population is doing. 

The British government used to run a similar scheme. It was called the dole.

If you have an issue with people claiming the dole, then throw away most of your favourite music because those artists were funded and had the space to do what they were doing because they were at some point in their career scamming the dole.

A staircase inside the Kunsthaus Tacheles building in Berlin (Photograph by Shaun7777777 on Wikipedia)

However, really, the most important fundraising needs to go into  protecting spaces where this art is created. Pop stars would do well to think less about the Rainforest or Africa and more about cultural reservations in the developed world, because it is in these places that the sounds and styles that go into the creation of commercially manufactured music are poached.

The commercial stylists and producers and ‘creative team’ are essentially poachers that go into these wild raw spaces and poach ideas. They return with skins and trophies that go into creating the latest look for whoever is being pushed to the top of what is left of the singles chart. Without these spaces, they wouldn’t have a career. They would do well to encourage people to save them.

Really, the important issue is the space. The individuals there can support themselves in lieu of the government doing it. The government never does anything that shows foresight beyond preserving their next term. It needs a charity which deals with protecting habitats like the RSPB.

 We need a  Royal Society for the Protection of Artistic Birds. 

Birds and Blokes.

I am using birds as the collective noun.

These artistic birds are endangered and they need to have their habitat protected otherwise the diversity will decrease and all the beautiful, wild, exotic, interesting species will die off and we will just be left with the equivalent of pigeons and seagulls – less sensitive, aggressive species that can survive in the barren cultural climate and environment that we have manufactured. 

I am not suggesting that Rentokil should be called in to deal with infestations of pop stars. 

I would just like to see pop stars on the list alongside rats and wasps on the side of the Rentokil van. 

If Rentokil could turn up at a Justin Beiber concert and trap him in a big net, I would pay for an overpriced stadium ticket to see that gig.


When I received that missive from Becky, I asked her if she had any photos she had taken of herself at the Kunsthaus Tacheles. She replied:


A Becky selfie on a train in Berlin

I didn’t take any there. I do have one of me on a tube train.

And one (above) that makes me look like maybe I was possessed by one of the former inhabitants of the Tacheles – a minor Hammer horror actress that died there… on stage in a dance interpretation of the Communist Manifesto.

I left some photos with the guy that invited me to Berlin, who has taken way too much acid and didn’t really think about the logistics of inviting people to make art there. So I decided to get a plane back to London after I went into Berlin itself on a psycho-geographic ramble.

I told you when I left for Berlin that I would see where it might lead me… Back to Berlin Airport, apparently, and then back to London.

Anyway. Now I can learn lines for my next show or just fanny about on Facebook in London. So that’s what I’m doing.

… CONTINUED HERE

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Performance

My Comedy Taste. Part 3: Stand-ups vs jugglers. Skill is not the same as talent.

I posted Part 1 and Part 2 the last couple of days, so …here is Part 3 – the penultimate part – of a conversation in London’s Soho Theatre Bar back in the mists of 2017 in which comedy festival judge and linguistic advisor Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy. I continue to talk less than fluently through my own anal passage


LOUISETTE: So you admire skilled and talented people…

JOHN: Yes, but skill and talent are not the same thing. Malcolm Hardee – the highly-regarded British comedian, philosopher and nudist – always used to say he didn’t like mime or juggling, because they are skills not talents and “a tragic waste of time”.

If an average person practises for 12 hours a day for 5 years, they could probably become an excellent mime or an excellent juggler. But, if they practise endlessly trying to be a good comedian, they would not necessarily end up an even average comedian because there is some innate talent required to be a good comedian.

If you have two good jugglers or mimes, they can probably be as effective doing each other’s routines.

If you have two good comedians, even if they deliver the lines with exactly the same intonation and pauses, they very possibly cannot be as effective doing each other’s material.

LOUISETTE: Because there is something in the person…

Tommy: often copied; never bettered

JOHN: Yes. Though it depends on the jokes a little. People CAN do Tommy Cooper jokes and impressions quite successfully because the jokes are very short and simple and the timing is built-in to his very specific style of delivery. But I have seen people steal short, snappy, very funny Milton Jones jokes and they can’t deliver them as effectively as he does.

LOUISETTE: Some funny people are born writers and some are born performers.

JOHN: In days of yore, you didn’t write your own jokes; you bought them. Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin used to write for Bob Hope. Well, that still happens, of course. (Famous comedian A) has a scriptwriter. And (Famous comedian B) buys loads of gags. I know the guy who writes for (Famous comedian A) and he was watching some TV panel show recently and one of his jokes from a few years before turned up. Which was fine; he had been paid for it.

LOUISETTE: Bob Monkhouse was brilliant. But would you have paid to go and see him? You said earlier that you would not pay to see Michael McIntyre because he was too professional for you.

JOHN: Interestingly, I WOULD have gone to see Bob Monkhouse and I have no idea why… I… I dunno. He was the Michael McIntyre of his time and he would have been the same every night.

LOUISETTE: He was a different comedian to McIntyre with a different relationship to the audience.

JOHN: I suppose the attraction of Monkhouse was that you could throw any subject at him and, off the top of his head, he would have six or ten cracking good jokes about it. No tricks. He was just like a joke encyclopaedia.

As a kid, I never rated Ted Ray – who was a generation before Monkhouse but had that same encyclopaedic joke ability. But maybe that’s because I was just a kid. Maybe if I saw him now I would appreciate his ability more. Though, to me, he never had Monkhouse’s charisma.

Bob: “He just really was hyper-sensitive”

Monkhouse had a terrible public reputation for being smarmy and insincere – largely from his stint presenting The Golden Shot – but I don’t think he was. He just really was hyper-sensitive. I only encountered him once. We had him on Tiswas and he famously liked slapstick: he had acres of slapstick films and idolised the great slapstick performers but, when he agreed to do Tiswas, the one thing he specified up-front was: “You can’t shove a custard pie in my face.” No-one had any idea why.

The pies were made of highly-whipped shaving foam, not custard, so they wiped off without damage or stickiness, but he wouldn’t have it. No problem. He said it up-front. No problem, but very strange.

LOUISETTE: You like the encyclopaedic part of Monkhouse and his ability to tell pre-prepared jokes well. But what about, at the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Vegas? He appeals to your love of more anarchic things?

JOHN: Malcolm Hardee phoned me up one Sunday afternoon and said: “You gotta come down to Up The Creek tonight to see this new comedian Johnny Vegas. You and me will love him but the audience might not.” No-one had ever heard of Johnny Vegas, then. 

I went and saw him that night and Malcolm and I loved him and the audience loved him. You could feel the adrenaline in the air. You had no idea what he was going to say or do next and I don’t think he did either. I remember him clambering through and over the audience in the middle of his act for no logical reason.

Hardee called Johnny Vegas “a genius”

He had no vastly detailed act. He just reacted to the audience’s reactions to what he did. Utterly brilliant. I said to Malcolm: “He’s never going to be a success, because he can’t do 2-minute jokes on TV and repeat them word-for-word and action-for-action in rehearsals, camera rehearsals, dress rehearsals and recordings.”

And I was wrong, of course. He HAS become very successful on TV. But not really as a comic. He made it as a personality – on panel shows where he could push the personality angle.

There was amazing adrenaline in the air that night at Up The Creek. You can feel adrenaline in a live show. But you can’t feel it through a TV screen.

A few years later, I saw Johnny Vegas perform an hour-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe and Malcolm had seen the show for maybe seven nights before that – every night. And Malcolm used the word “genius” about Johnny and I said: “You almost never ever use that word about anyone,” and he said, “Every time I’ve seen this show in the last seven days, it’s been a totally different show.”

Not just slightly different. A 100% totally different show.

Janey Godley is interesting in that respect because you know the story of her NOT being nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe?

LOUISETTE: No. Tell me.

… CONTINUED HERE

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Performance, Talent