Tag Archives: academic

Giada Garofalo on terrorism, porn and comedy – but don’t mention the Mafia

On their way to Shepherd’s Bush tonight (L-R): Luca Cupani, Giacinto Palmieri, Giada Garofalo, Romina Puma

On their way to Shepherd’s Bush tonight (L-R): Luca Cupani, Giacinto Palmieri, Giada Garofalo and Romina Puma

Tonight, I am off to see the London-based Italian language comics of Il Puma Londinese preview their Edinburgh Fringe show at Kate Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity shop in London.

I talked to one of them – Giada Garofalo – about her upcoming Edinburgh solo show, catchily titled Live in The Staff Room (Sex, Fairytales, Serial Killers and Other Stuff)

“You are a Sicilian,” I started. “So you’re not to be messed around with…”

“I am not connected to the Mafia,” she told me. “I am a good girl, though I know people. But I don’t want to talk about that, because that could be really weird.”

“Oh,” I said. “OK. How long have you been in the UK?”

“I have been here for 13 years.”

“Why did you come over here?’

“I ran away. I was going through a tough time. My mama had passed away two years before. I was a bit lost. I was in a very serious relationship. I was going to get married soon.”

“So you came over here to marry an Englishman?”

“No. I came over to run away from my Italian. But it wasn’t just for that. I came for two months, just to refresh my English and, instead, I thought – Hey! – I don’t want to go back home. I don’t want to get married. I want to live a different life. I went back home for a month, left everything, came back to London and here I am.

“The first year, it was tough to find a job and I started to do an unpaid internship in PR because, after my degree, I did a Masters in Italy in Business Communication. Big mistake. It’s not me.”

“What is Business Communication?” I asked.

“Marketing, PR. So I did an internship here and, after a couple of internships, I got a job doing a little bit of PR, then moved into Admin because, at the same time, I had started to write bits because I wanted to be an academic.”

“In what?” I asked.

Serial killer aficionado and terrorism expert Giada

Serial killer aficionado and terrorism expert Giada

“I specialised in terrorism and security. I have written about human rights. I have written about European politics. I wanted to do a PhD. So, while I had my job in Admin here, I started to work with some universities as an external researcher and I was writing at night.”

“For British universities?” I asked.

“No. a couple of Italian ones. We wrote papers that were collected in academic books. Then I did another Masters here in Security Studies and I kept writing about terrorism, theories of the state and blah blah blah. Then I wanted to do a PhD but I didn’t get a full scholarship and thought: I can’t carry on working full-time and doing academic stuff at night. I was tired and I was also a little bit fed up with politics, a little bit cynical, and so, one day, I thought: I’ll do a comedy course.”

“Terrorism to comedy is a bit of a jump,” I suggested.

“Well, not really. You can be interested in different things. I just wanted to do one gig, just for my birthday. I had already said In another life I might be a comedian and my sister said Why do you have to wait for another life? So I did the comedy course. I did the gig. And I really enjoyed it and haven’t stopped since.”

“What is the appeal?” I asked.

“At the beginning, when you start, I think it’s the adrenaline on stage. Now I really enjoy the writing. My favourite moment in comedy is the first time I come out with ten minutes of new stuff and it’s not even polished. Then there is the editing and the things you learn. It’s a learning process. To learn how to be more concise and connect with the audience. It took me nine months to get rid of the microphone stand.

“I had always used to study, analyse, deconstruct. But with comedy – and with photography, which I started at the same time – I’m learning by doing. It comes from the inside. It’s very slow – it’s coming up to seven years now… That’s pretty much me in a nutshell… Maybe more nuts than shell.”

“How would you describe your act?” I asked.

“I do more storytelling than stand-up.”

“And, when you started…?”

“The first gigs I did were about language and being Italian but then I thought: I can’t do that, because all foreigners do that. Then I became aware of this idea that all women in comedy talk about the same things, so I thought: I’m not going to talk about these; I am NOT going to be ‘the female comedian’ or ‘the foreign comedian’. So all I had left was politics and I got into a niche: benefit gigs, the Marxist Festival. But I thought: I want to talk about other things. So I gave up for six months, then I started to do Il Puma Londinese, which was really interesting. It started three years ago and I joined about six months later.

(From left) Marouen Mraihi., Giada Garofalo, Giacinto Palmieri, Romina Puma, Alex Martini after last night’s show

After Il Puma Londinese show (L-R) Marouen Mraihi., Giada Garofalo, Giacinto Palmieri, Romina Puma, Alex Martini

“I stopped seeing myself as an Italian, stopped seeing myself as a female – just being me. Humour is more universal than we think, except for specific cultural references”

“Is your Italian-language comedy different from your English-language comedy?”

“No. Though some jokes are different. In Italian, I maybe play more with the language, but 95% of what I say in Italian is what I say in English.

“In Italy, we have this tradition where you do a comedy monologue as a character. In this country, you just do it as yourself. You don’t have to create a character. That’s great, because I can’t act, I don’t know how to create a character, so I can just be me.”

“And your Edinburgh Fringe show this year…?” I prompted.

“I get bored very easily with what I write so, this year, I have decided to go unscripted. I have five bullet points. Every time I go on stage, I will try to say it in a different way and improvise it.”

“When I saw the preview,” I said, “it seemed tight.”

“I’ve got a good memory. The problem is that, if I write down the script, I will remember it word-for-word immediately and, after that, it becomes a lecture. This year, I want to play the show to the room, not just play the show.”

“It is about fairy tales?” I asked.

Giada with some cutting-edge Fringe comedy

Giada with her cutting-edge Fringe comedy

“Fairy tales with a twist, because I talk about the original fairy tales, which were horror stories. We have this idea of fairy tales as Oh! Find your Prince Charming! – Well, in fact, Prince Charming used to rape the princesses.”

“In the original version,” I said, “he did not waken up Sleeping Beauty with a kiss…?”

“No. They were really gruesome. In Cinderella, one of the sisters gets her toes cut off to try to fit in the shoe. Sleeping Beauty is really gruesome.”

“And you have this interest in serial killers…” I said.

“When someone tells me: This is how you should feel about something, I tend to go the opposite way just to see if it’s true or not. And, since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by serial killers.

“I think there is a potential serial killer in all of us and, I guess, being a comic means you are a bit of a psychopath. Serial killers lack empathy with their victims and, to find humour, you have to be detached, you need to lack empathy. For a comic, if they have had a good night, they say they ‘killed’.”

“Or,” I said, “the comic ‘dies’ on stage… But surely the performer has to have total empathy to ride and control the audience’s emotions?”

“That’s when you’re performing,” said Giada. “I’m talking about writing. But, even on stage, you have to assert your power over an audience – in a nice way. You do want to control the audience, to manipulate them and that’s what serial killers want. But it’s just comedy. I’m just messing around. I dunno.”

“Your show title also has the word ‘sex’ in it,” I said.

“I discovered porn at a late age,” said Giada. “I think maybe I watched a couple of movies back in the age of videocassettes. But, in the last couple of years, there has been a lot of talk of… I don’t know if it’s because of social media or because there’s been a shift in people… a lot of talk about pornography and feminism and anti-feminism and, I think, in some cases, it’s a bit trivial. So I decided to watch porn.

“Some stuff was really fun; some stuff made me feel uncomfortable. Maybe porn is to other people what serial killers are to me. Where I can explore some darker fantasies without acting upon them. And one of the theories about fairy tales is that they had that same function: to provide a safe place for children to explore their fears and darker fantasies. I dunno. I don’t have an answer. I just have questions.”

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Filed under Comedy, Crime, Fairy Tales, Pornography

Serious comedy – Why this blog was mentioned in an academic bibliography

A serious publisher is desperate for comedy

A serious publisher is desperate for comedy

It is a cliché that comedy is getting to be a serious business. But that won’t stop me writing it again.

This morning, I got an e-mail from Brunel University’s Centre For Comedy Studies Research saying  that Palgrave Macmillan publishers are actively looking for academic comedy books. By coincidence, yesterday afternoon, I had a chat with Italian comedian Giacinto Palmieri.

He is in the first year of a three-year PhD research project for the University of Surrey at Guildford. It is on the self-translation of stand-up comedy – comedians who translate and adapt their own material from one language to another – and he had sent me a short section he had written which was centred on a blog I wrote in December about going with comedy critic Kate Copstick to the fortnightly Italian-language London comedy show Laboratorio di Cabaret – Il Puma Londinese.

“We must meet up and do a blog about it,” I told Giacinto. “It will seem like I am increasingly prestigious because my blog is in someone’s bibliography. Also, it’s the perfect academic thing – where you are studying the act of studying.”

“Well,” said Giacinto, “your blog entry was partially about the experience of watching my set. So I wrote about your blog’s reaction as part of my research and now we are discussing, for another of your blogs, my act of writing about your blog. I love circularity.”

Giacinto and I chatted at King’s Cross

Giacinto & I chatted at King’s Cross station. I don’t know why.

“I think,” I said, “when this conversation becomes part of a new blog, you should write about that too in your research.”

“I will,” said Giacinto. “It will be like Escher. Mirrors inside mirrors inside mirrors.”

“And,” I suggested, “when you write some more research about this new blog, I can write another blog about that… Anyway… Why did you decide Copstick and I were worthy of inclusion in your academic research?”

“Because you were observing bi-lingual comedy and that gave me the idea of observing you observing it and analysing your perspectives and expectations.

“Copstick said of me: In Italian, it’s like someone has lit a fire under him. In English, he is black and white; in Italian, he is in colour.

“Of course there is something objective there; I am not saying it is all a projection of expectations. But comedy is not just a performance. It is always an interaction: a projection of something meeting an expectation of something. It’s a dialogue. Why is she experiencing me as more in colour? Is it because I am performing differently? Or her expectations are different? Or because she likes Italy? It is probably a mixture of all these things.

(From left) Marouen Mraihi., Giada Garofalo, Giacinto Palmieri, Romina Puma, Alex Martini after last night’s show

(From left) Marouen Mraihi., Giada Garofalo, Giacinto Palmieri, Romina Puma, Alex Martini after a Puma show

“All of us regulars at the Puma Londinese are sort-of developing our material in parallel in both languages. Some routines are born in English and translated into Italian. Some the other way round. Some stay in one language and are never translated.”

“So,” I asked, “have you done some of your English material in Italy?”

“Yes, but only in English. I want to do it in Italian now, because it’s interesting for my research. But, of course, comedy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So, if I do material in Italian in Italy, I’m also dealing with different expectations and different types of audiences, different types of comedy clubs. That bit scares me the most, because I don’t really know the comedy scene in Italy.”

I said: “You told me sometime that Italy didn’t have a tradition of stand-up, gag-telling comedy… that the tradition was character comedy…”

“and sketch comedy,” added Giacinto. “Yes. Stand-up comedy is emerging now as some sort of alternative.”

“Why research this idea of translating comedy?” I asked.

Giacinto Palmieri costumed

Giacinto in a previous Edinburgh incarnation as Pagliacci

“First of all to describe the phenomenon,” explained Giacinto. “It is a subject that has never been studied: I found a gap in the scientific literature and it’s a gap I can fill because I have direct experience of it and I can observe other comedians doing the same.”

“No-one has ever done this research before?” I asked.

“Not as an oral form. There has been research about sub-titles and dubbing but none, as far as I know, about adapting stand-up comedy from one type of oral form to another. The Guardian recently published an interview with Eddie Izzard, but I don’t think the phenomenon has been studied academically.”

“Even dubbing is bizarre,” I said. “I always wonder what happens with the James Bond films, which are full of English language puns. There’s a bit in Diamonds Are Forever where a girl says her name is Plenty O’Toole and Bond says: Named after your father, perhaps? Now that must be impossible to translate because it revolves round O’Toole being a surname. I mean, in Goldfinger, presumably Pussy Galore must have had no double-meaning outside English. What was it in the Italian version?”

“I think it is kept as Pussy Galore,” said Giacinto. “In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the character is called Alotta Fagina.”

“But translating puns in Bond films must be impossible,” I said.

“You look for a way to replicate the same kind of wordplay,” explained Giacinto. “In a way, puns are the easiest jokes to translate, because you don’t have to keep the meaning, you just create a new pun in the other language.”

“So,” I said, “it doesn’t matter what the joke is, provided there is a line which provokes a laugh at the same point in the action?”

Giacinto at the Christmas Puma show

Giacinto at the Christmas Puma show

“Yes,” said Giacinto. “Some are so brilliant in Italian, you wonder what the original was. In Young Frankenstein, there is a brilliant pun in Italian but I have no idea what the original was. A lot of things are lost in translation, but a lot of things are also found in translation. Translation is a creative activity and if it is done by creative people – by comedians and so on – it is a great chance to express new comedy ideas.”

“Have you delved into this before?” I asked.

“A few years ago, the comedian Becca Gibson organised a literary festival in Earl’s Court and invited Delia Chiaro from the University of Bologna, one of the biggest experts on the translation of humour. Becca booked me to do stand-up comedy during the event, because she knew a lot of my material was based on language. As a result, Delia invited me to do the same during a conference about translation at the University of Bologna. So I discovered there were these two fields – Humour Studies on one hand and Translation Studies on the other which, of course, overlap in Humour Translation. And I realised, if I researched the way comics translate their own material, it could be a way to bring together all these threads of interest.”

“It’s the ideal research for a stand-up comic,” I suggested. “You can write about yourself.”

Giacinto’s image for his Leicester show

Giacinto’s image for his Leicester Comedy Festival show

“Yes,” agreed Giacinto, “I am doing research which is partly about me doing comedy, but I can also do stand-up comedy routines about me doing research about me doing comedy. I am performing my Ride of The Wagnerian show at the Leicester Comedy Festival this Saturday. I am probably skipping this year’s Edinburgh Fringe because I will be too busy with my research. But I am planning to do a show at the Fringe in 2016 about my research. My plan is to call it Giacinto Palmieri needs a PhD For It.

I laughed.

“You see?” said Giacinto, “The show is working already.”

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Filed under Academic, Comedy, Italy

Sean Nolan’s Joke Manifesto: Ideals & Systems of Value for Stand Up Comedy

The Edinburgh Fringe starts officially in six – actually in four – days time. Comedians are desperate for attention. I received an e-mail this morning. It read:


Sean Nolan, young Irish comedian

Sean Nolan, young Irish comedian

Hi John, this is Sean Nolan I’m a comedian performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, my show is entitled and informed by THE JOKE MANIFESTO a document I wrote over the past year outlining logical and universally applicable ideals and systems of value for stand up comedy.

I just thought since reviewers and judges of stand up don’t possess or make evident a consistent and transparent criteria for quality, I might propose to you my model as a solution.


Sean is Irish and last year won RTE’s New Comedy Awards (You can see a clip on YouTube.)

Sean’s agent’s website says “his first gig was on January the 27th of 2012 at the age of 23”.

On 8th July this year, Sean posted on his Facebook page:

BBC and all the papers keep going on about how it’s been 77 years since a British man won Wimbledon so I wanted to find out when one would win it again, so I wrote down all the years a British man had won Wimbledon and then changed the years to sequential numbers like the first British player won it in 1877 so that’s number 1 then again in 1878 that’s number 2 and then after 30 straight wins there was a few years gap so 33 and so on anyway Murray ended up being 137, and then I put the sequence into an online sequence calculator to see what the next number in the sequence would be and in what year the next British winner would be, after like a half a second it came up my sequence then a few dots while it calculated what the next number would be, more dots then it just flashed up FALSE!
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30,33,58,59,60,137,……FALSE
I can only assume this means there will be no more British champions, sorry GB enjoy this while it lasts.

Sean has posted his Joke Manifesto online. I re-post it in its entirety below, even though there is no mention of knob gags nor of Asperger’s Syndrome, surely two comedy ‘bankers’.


THE JOKE MANIFESTO
IDEALS AND SYSTEMS OF VALUE FOR STAND UP COMEDY

But will he be wearing a beard at the Fringe?

But will Sean have a beard at the Fringe?

1 How to value stand up comedy?

1.1 The function of the stand up comedian is to make the audience laugh.

1.2 But laughter is subjective and conditional and such an inaccurate measure of value.

1.3 Laughter is only the final measure of value and must be considered on an average of performances.

1.4 If laughter is the last measure of value, how to value stand up before it is performed? What is the first measure of value?

2 When the comedian first writes or thinks of an idea, the first measure of value is originality. Is the idea new? (new at the time of writing at least – it is impossible for the comedian to be aware of every joke previously written, although it is ultimately beneficial to strive for this.)

2.1 If Originality is the first measure of value, everything new has value at the moment of writing, and so everything of no value i.e. everything unoriginal, must be removed from the writing – obviously jokes that already exist, which should also include all old hat comedic tricks and mechanics. i.e. the rule of 3, exaggeration, repetition, juxtaposition etc. (It is understood that a comedian has a knowledge of these almost universally repeated mechanisms.)  As such no improvisation should be planned or performed if the comedian can at all help it; in the moment of improvised performance it is impossible to always come up with original ideas.

2.2 Once everything unoriginal has been removed the comedian is left with new ideas, new potential jokes (bearing in mind the end goal of making the audience laugh).

3 So now the question changes from how to value stand up comedy to how to value these new ideas (potential jokes )

3.1 To measure the true value of a joke, all embellishments on the joke (anything that would alter the value of the joke later on) must be removed – i.e. unnecessary language or performative elements.

3.12 Language should remain simple and efficient whenever possible, unless the rhythm or specificity of the joke demands it. The cleverness should be in the idea of the joke not in the words used to describe it. Sometimes the most efficient or immediate way of communicating the idea will not be words at all i.e. drawing or prop.

3.13 Performative elements can only be added if they are specifically relevant to the individual joke.

3.4 If the comedian continues to remove all unnecessary performative elements, ultimately the comedian may disappear from the performance, his/her jokes presented with less and less of the writer present.

4 But they are his/her jokes and as such there is an honesty, an honest pride or at least an honest ownership. The comedian wants to stand in front of his/her jokes and receive the response from the audience. This prevents the comedian from disappearing.

4.1 Unless the comedian is performing jokes they did not write themselves, then there is no honesty of pride or ownership and they should disappear

4.2 Now established that honesty is key, it should come into all aspects of the performance i.e. the comedian should deliver the jokes in an honest way i.e. not with a false enthusiasm or faux conversational style or as if the jokes were somehow coming off the top of his/her head and the performance wasn’t a highly written considered recital. As such the comedian can read his/her jokes off a piece of paper, notebook, hand etc if they choose. The comedian should not be judged on his/her lack of memory.

4.3 With an honest delivery a joke will develop a natural unforced rhythm and cadence, depending on how many times it has been performed, from the nervy first tellings, to the peak of its value when the comedian has organically and perhaps subconsciously figured out the best way to tell it, and finally to the decline and ultimate death of a joke when the comedian has told it too many times and is tired of saying it and this comes across in the delivery. This honesty in the delivery shows the audience the natural lifespan of jokes, the comedian’s feelings towards each one at a given time, and creates a more honest connection with the audience. The comedian is showing each performance can and will be slightly different, not just tricking them into thinking so.

4.4 With the comedian on stage in front of his/her jokes there is now an internal discourse concerning which jokes the comedian is comfortable telling – i.e. potentially offensive, sexual or self deprecating – which would not be present if the jokes were presented with no trail back to their creator. The comedian should not be trying to offend anyone although that can be an acceptable byproduct of a successful joke. In terms of ironically offensive jokes, some members of the audience may not perceive it ironically and get offended or laugh cause they are prejudiced in some way. The comedian cannot be responsible for how his/her jokes are perceived, as long as there is an honest attempt to be funny first.

5 Now the Ideal for stand up comedy is established: the honest delivery of original unembellished ideas or (potential jokes).

5.1 But how to value the individual joke? Again originality is used as the initial measure of value. Ideas that are more original are valued higher i.e. ideas that if given the object (the thing the joke is about) of the joke the least amount of comedic writers (with Twitter, the audience is now a potential comedic writer) would come up with.

5.2 I have created a 3-tiered system of value based on the uniqueness of view needed to write a successful joke (meaning the set up and punchline are as intrinsically linked as they can be i.e. the joke is truly about the object of the joke).

5.3 System of value for jokes

5.3.1 (the lowest tier)  The word based joke. The hinge of the joke is based around the words or name of the object of the joke. i.e. if you were to write a joke about an arm, arm being the object of the joke, the word and sound arm is the first thing that comes to mind.

5.3.1.1 The lowest form of word based joke (again requiring the least thought) is the pun. The word has two meanings. As such you already have the hinge and just have to contrive a way to utilize both.

5.3.1.2 The next level of word based joke is the rhyme (or similar sounding words). A slight increase in thought is needed to get a possible hinge for a joke.

5.3.1.3 The highest level of a word based joke is a rearrangement of letters. Again there is less immediacy and it requires more thought to come up with a possible hinge.

5.3.2 (The middle tier) The sensual joke. After the word the next type of information that would come to the comedic writer would be sensual: what the object looks like, sounds like, feels like etc. (There is an overlap with tier one in terms of what the word looks like i.e. the word shark looks like a shark, onomatopoeia etc.)

5.3.3 (The highest tier) The functional joke, observing and studying how the object works, what it does and how it interacts with other objects, successful jokes created at this level can be aphorisms or truisms. The level of thought needed in order come up with a hinge for a joke is at it’s highest.


That is Sean’s Joke Manifesto and self-evidently (even with the absence of knob gags) how you successfully publicise an Edinburgh Fringe show.

 

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Comic Lewis Schaffer “has got that same metaphysical motive as Shakespeare’s characters” says British academic study

Academic researcher Liam - as he wishes to be seen

Academic researcher Liam – as he wishes to be seen

In the last few months, I have posted some extracts from chats Liam Lonergan had with me and various comedians, including Lewis Schaffer for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth. Yesterday, I got a message from Liam:

I got a 1st for my Media Writing Project / Dissertation. It consisted of a research bundle, a series of long-form articles and an essay about:

a) how stand-up starts as an egalitarian pursuit but is eventually absorbed into market capitalism,

b) How Lewis Schaffer relates to literary modes of humour and

c) the link between humour and hypomania.

(The latter was eventually abandoned but it was still part of my research).

“Can I print your academic piece about Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“What should I say about you?” I asked.

“Maybe mention,” he said, “that I review restaurants for a website called Blue Tomato and that, one day, I hope to write ‘The Great Essex Novel’ in the same vein as that other quested-for chimera ‘The Great American Novel’.”

“Have you got a photo of yourself looking suitably academic?” I asked.

“I’ve attached a picture that you can use,” he told me. “I want a picture of me that is the antithesis of scholarly.”

That is the picture above, together with Liam’s thesis below.


Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless guru

All of us think in a series of banalities; useless thoughts and redundant ideas that fall away like discarded receipts. My housemate and I used to have an ongoing joke where we place bits of ephemera found in our pockets (a ticket; a tissue; a raisin) onto each other’s pillow. We put them there as if they were a present or a swimming certificate or anything other than a train ticket or a bit of old raisin.

We never spoke about it. The joke was that, by sneaking in and displaying these innocuous items prominently on the pillow, they were given some sort of “weight.” They were imbued with symbolic gesture. We also used to play a game where we left a mug out on the mantelpiece and waited four months until it was really dusty. We called it Dusty Cup.

This meant nothing.

In his book about comedy and literature, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, James Wood writes about the irrelevance of stream of consciousness and how we’re “continually remembering more, and most of it is useless information.” Our thought processes are pure raisin – they’re full of useless information – but we always infuse this uselessness with meaning.

Nearly all the dialogue in the HBO series True Detective was constructed by this instinct to make bollocks seem important. (Sidenote: The Ladybird Book of Gnosticism was a vital source for Nic Pizzolatto). Another example is Andy Kaufman’s “deadpan showbiz parody” and “dadaist performance art.” While commentators wrote about the postmodernist aspect of his act, he always insisted that it was devoid of any real substance. In 1979 he told Time magazine “The critics try to intellectualize my material. There’s no satire involved. Satire is a concept that can only be understood by adults. My stuff is straight, for people of all ages.” Wood goes on to write about the “status of irrelevant detail.”

For me, my favourite comedy is about these irrelevant details and our digressionary pursuit of gravitas (while, ultimately, settling on the pointless stuff). Again, as Wood says: “It is always funny when singular novelty is passed off as a general wisdom.”

Stream of consciousness on the page can never mimic actual thought processes as syntax is too calculated; it’s too exact. Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov complained that the problem with James Joyce’s Ulysses is that we don’t think in words. Joyce – in-between writing letters to Nora Barnacle about her “gushing hole” or “arse full of farts” that he fucked out of her – attempted to capture the metamorphosis and constant displacement of mental activity.

When you transcribe interviews (or watch politicians go off-piste during a photo op in Iceland) you notice this kind of transient, shifting language. People speaking in half aborted statements that they pick up an hour later; malopropistic mangling that, somehow, has its own internal logic; explanations that peter out and…

The prototype for stream of consciousness in fiction was Shakespeare’s soliloquies. These are meant to provide an insight into the brain of Lady Macbeth or Edmund via. a recital to the omnipotent audience, but they, too, can’t accurately capture consciousness. They’re “thought” after thought. Carefully composed language acts as an agent for the knotted-pubic-thatch of brain function.

After five years of studying Shakespeare in senior school we know that these speeches are attached to a half-a-ton of subtext; a Kerouac scroll of margin notes about “out damn spot!” and “unsex me here”. (Sidenote (2): In the latter speech, Mrs. Macbeth wanted her feminine nature to be taken away. She should have just called Joyce and asked him to come over to suck the “little naughty farties” out of her arse. Job done).

Shakespeare’s universe is populated by people with intent. Everything that comes into their head is multi-sided and full of meaning. They never ruminate on why James Locke from The Only Way Is Essex looks like he has no eyelids or if Kim Kardashian uses a lot of Sudocrem. The heroes and heroines / villains and villainesses vocalise their interior monologues because they have a metaphysical motive: they want to show the audience and themselves that they exist. They can’t exist in a cocoon of private mood.

In life, people don’t usually narrate their feelings and intentions out loud. They keep them contained on a human Cloud Drive or put them on their Twitter feed. One notable exception is the comedian.

The best comedians transmit their agonies or intentions – minus an author’s literary-technical need – directly to the other people in the room. The more ill prepared the material, the better. They usually position themselves in contrast to what, in the words of American academic and Presbyterian minister, Conrad Hyers, is considered “authentically human”. Hyers writes that heroic traits such as “courage, loyalty, duty, honor, pride, indomitable will, stubborn determination, passionate involvement, absolute devotion, uncompromising dedication” have become, in our common understanding of what makes someone a correct human, a list of sought after characteristics.

For comedians, it’s part of the criteria that they’re none of these things. (Sidenote (3): Although, Tim Heidecker, of the comedy duo Tim & Eric, was stabbed twice in 2006 while attempting to protect his elderly neighbour from her son. Some are brave but only behind closed doors).

Hyers goes on to say that “the comic vision possesses a greater appreciation for the muddiness of human nature.” This includes the raisin and the Dusty Cup of nothing. The insubstantial stuff.

Dusty Cup is the “midst of nothingness” that Vladimir, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, talks about towards the end of the play. It’s the elliptical nature of existence. It’s the explanations that…

In November 2013, I went to Soho to meet Lewis Schaffer. Lewis is a 56 year old stand-up who moved from New York to Nunhead approximately 12 years ago and performs two weekly shows at The Source Below. He also has a residency at the Leicester Square Theatre where he features most Sunday evenings with his other show, American In London. Martin Witts, the Artistic Director of the LST, said that Lewis is a “long term project” and he hopes that, one day, “he’ll be consistently funny”. When he emailed me this, I replied with: “the inconsistency is part of his charm!” Lewis keeps the discarded receipts.

Lewis has an off-white complexion that is somewhere between “Dunmore Cream” and “Monroe Bisque” – with a slightly swampy tinge – and a face with the same solid architecture as the Boxer of Quirinal (minus the beard). He’s stocky with hunched shoulders and wears a suit that has some strain on the middle button a la Oliver Hardy or Jackie Gleason. His hair is peppery. This is a different colour to the ink-cartridge-black that appears in most of his promotional photos.

He is scattergun in speech and disposition and sounds a bit like Martin Scorsese or Greg Proops or one of those manicured Jewish mothers. During conversation, he often veers off course (“A limey! A limey. From Limehouse. Limey from Limehouse. Hey! So. So what was the question you had?”) and chases another fleeting thought or a snippet of conversation with the Lewis Schaffer regulars. He was on first name terms with nearly all of the people who filtered into his show. It was like a tree-house gang.

Lenny Bruce, in his autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, wrote “As a child I loved confusion: a freezing blizzard that would stop all traffic and mail; toilets that would get stopped up and overflow and run down the halls; electrical failures – anything that would stop the flow and make it back up and find new direction. Confusion was entertainment to me.” Schaffer’s whole act operates on this notion of chaos – “I believe in chaos. [The whole thing] is training for chaos” – but it all seems so brilliantly aimless.

When Lenny Bruce utilized stream of consciousness and exploratory improvisation – in the jazz-club-patois that he helped to popularise – he always had an ulterior motive. It was a device to dent taboos or rile up the audience with its incessantness; it was used to rouse a state of righteous indignation so he can could highlight the hypocrisy of the righteous. Bruce was the hero with a bundle full of soliloquies. Schaffer is pure comedy. There doesn’t appear to be any social or political incentive; it’s all about answering Schaffer’s often repeated mantra: “Is that funny?”

Richard Zoglin, an American journalist and author, said that the cardinal rule of comedy is “Don’t ever be standing on the same level as the tables.”

The Source Below is a tiny venue run by two Brazilians (one Brazilian/Italian; one Brazilian/German). The “stage” is just another section of floor in front of the 30/35 seats and lit up by a spotlight. Lewis stands there with his microphone and fluctuates between a strained holler forced through inflamed vocal chords (when he chides the audience or slips into mock-American jingoism – “It’s called the World Series! Because it’s our world!”) and a quiet, subdued voice when he’s trying to coax his tree-house gang into loving him.

Psychoanalyst and author, Darian Leader, writes this about hypomania: “[What] distinguished manic-depression from other forms of psychosis, where the person may construct a virtual, distant or internal addressee [is that the manic-depressive] has [to have] a real listener right there in front of them. And yet there is something tenuous, desperate even, about how the manic person maintains their interlocutor, as if they [have to keep] them there at all costs, like a nightclub entertainer who has to keep his audience focused on himself at all times.”

When Lewis climbs on a chair in the front row and begs for his audience’s attention like a dinner party host trying to initiate party games, Leader may well have seen a bit of Lewis is that “nightclub entertainer.”

Lewis has got that same metaphysical motive as Shakespeare’s characters – to make the audience know that he exists – but he does it with a couple of adlibs about the smell of corn and biofuel manufacturing. These go nowhere. They mean nothing. They are Dusty Cup.

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A man tries to sleep through comedian Lewis Schaffer’s show: violence ensues

The last King of Poland: not a plumber

The last King of Poland was not a plumber

Yesterday afternoon, with my eternally-un-named friend, I went to Brunel University in West London for the launch of their new Centre For Comedy Studies Research which aims to “promote and facilitate academic research on the comedy/society interface”.

In some ways, it is good for academics to treat comedy seriously though – as is often the case – this can sometimes lapse into intelligent people creating abstract academic ‘things’ to study to get an income and to spend their time on. The phrase ‘looking up your own arse’ is ready-made for these situations and deserves more detailed research.

When I sit through a discussion of ‘Polish jokes’ and encounter the sentences “The Polish trickster is a master of the paradoxes of porosity” and “It moves from a phobic to a philic register” I sometimes think a psychopath climbing up a university bell tower with a high-powered rifle and picking-off people at random is not necessarily performing a negative function in society.

On the other hand, the delightfully dour Rose – one of comedian Lewis Schaffer’s entourage – is currently writing her third academic thesis on Lewis Schaffer and there could be entire university departments profitably studying the psychological and sociological intricacies of Lewis Schaffer’s neuroses.

Hellfire! There must be multiple theses to be written on why he keeps repeating his full name “Lewis Schaffer” and why he attracts off-the-proverbial-wall incidents at his shows. Last night was no exception – and a good antidote to academia. It was one of his ongoing twice-a-week Free Until Famous shows which go hand-in-pocket with his ongoing weekly pay-to-enter American in London shows.

Lewis Schaffer performing in Soho last night

Lewis Schaffer performing at The Source Below last night (Photograph by my eternally-un-named friend)

I arrived slightly late which, a whole two minutes after I was seated, managed to distract him from the flow of his performance. He was on form, though. Good show, good audience reaction.

Later, amidst the glamour of Leicester Square’s flagship McDonalds, Lewis told me:

“I’ve lost track whether my shows are good or not. My shows are like a rollercoaster. Most rollercoasters start with a slow incline up. Mine start with a drop into a pit. All I care about is making them interesting for me. I can’t start a show with people enjoying themselves because I’ve just got a feeling it’s going to get worse. I feel I have to start off with them hating me and build it up. I guess I want to be loved – I want to be loved by people who don’t love me.

“If they come into my show with high expectations of enjoyment, I just want to quash that. The key to my shows is that the audience, at some point, has to believe I’m a professional comedian and I can only be self-deprecating for a short period of the show. But I didn’t feel I was that brilliant tonight.”

“And then there was the drunk,” I said.

At the end of the first part of his nearly two-hour long show, Lewis Schaffer told the audience he was going to hide behind a curtain during the interval so that, if anyone wanted to leave without embarrassment, they could.

“Why were you hiding behind the curtain?” I asked.

“For scientific purposes,” Lewis Schaffer told me.

Lewis Schaffer contemplates in McDonald’s last night

Lewis Schaffer plays with a bottle last night

While Lewis Schaffer was hiding behind the curtain, a drunk came down into the basement venue and sat in a corner. At the time, I was upstairs buying a coffee for my eternally-un-named friend.

“He was young middle-aged,” she told me later, describing the man who came in. “He shuffled in wearing a dark jacket. He sat down at a table where two people had been sitting, but they’d gone to the bar to get a drink. He sat hunched over, holding a carrier bag to his chest in the way of the psychologically wounded or drunk, like someone who is cold. I thought Oh, is he a drunk who often comes in and tries to sleep in the corner during Lewis’ shows?

“If he’d come in without being so obviously drunk or damaged and then just leant against a corner in the dark, he would probably have been left alone because it wouldn’t have felt like he was so obviously the elephant in the room but, because he was slumped forward in a sleepy, drunken way… Rose realised there was this guy who was going to alter the atmosphere of the room, so she went to warn Lewis behind the curtain that there was a possible situation.”

“He was a proper, full-on, drunk, homeless guy,” Lewis told me. “He came in and passed out at the back of the room. He was very huge and very dangerous and we had to start the second half of the show and I felt I didn’t have the time to escort him out myself, so I asked the bartender to escort him out.”

“The barman was young,” explained my eternally-un-named friend, “and Italian, so English was not his first language. I think he was telling the guy You’re only allowed in here if you buy a drink and you’re too drunk to have one, so you’ll have to leave and the drunk guy was disputing this.”

I came back into to room when the barman had got the drunk man on his feet and they were both shuffling towards the bottom of the stairs.

Things apparently got physical up in the street and the drunk guy allegedly punched the bartender, the bartender allegedly punched the drunk guy and the drunk guy allegedly threw something at the kebab shop above the venue, cracking the window.

Broken dreams, broken window in London's Soho last night

Broken dreams, broken window in London’s Soho last night

“It caused maybe £1,500 of damage” Lewis Schaffer told me,

“And your point is?” I asked.

“My point is that I feel horrible because I’ve had 20 years in the bar business – that’s what my job is compering and hosting comedy shows – and I know how to get people out of a place without getting them angry. I should have done it myself… Is there something funny in that for your blog?”

“Your shows are never less than entertaining,” I told Lewis Schaffer. “Some people see the bottle as half empty; some people see the bottle as half full. You always see an empty bottle.”

“So it goes,” he said.

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Is the comedy business more important to the UK than the financial industry?

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator'

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator’ of comedy

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the UK’s creative industries generate £36 billion per year for the economy and employ 1.5 million people. The Chancellor, George Osborne, called them “massively important”. So why does no-one take comedy seriously?

The English Arts Council will not give grants to comedians staging shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, because they do not consider comedy to be an art.

But, last year, the University of East Anglia (UEA) got a £300,000 grant for a three-year study into “the nature of creativity within the British television comedy industry by exploring the working practices of industry professionals, and the industrial, institutional and policy contexts that shape and inform what they do.”

The study is called Make Me Laugh. It started in January 2012 and ends in December 2014. The ‘Principal Investigator’ is Dr Brett Mills. He is Head of the UEA’s School of Film, Television and Media Studies and I chatted to him a couple of days ago.

“We’re working with loads of writers, producers and commissioners,” he told me, “following comedy projects from initial idea through to broadcast or, as is often the case, non-broadcast and abandonment and resignation and unhappiness. We’re trying to look at what makes creativity – however you define that – happen and what are the things that get in its way.”

“You’ve done previous studies of comedy,” I said. “Isn’t this just a way to get another £300,000?”

“The first project was about £4,000,” laughed Brett. “and I just interviewed people, but interviewing individuals doesn’t give you a sense of relationships and networks, the development of a project and how things change over time. One other problem was that, when I asked people how decisions were made, the answer I tended to get was Gut instinct and, to a researcher, that’s utterly useless. The aim of this project is to try to unpick that.”

Not for television research

Not for UK television research purposes

“Have you read Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman?” I asked.

“Very deliberately no,” said Brett.

“Why?”

“Because,” explained Brett, “it’s one of those books everyone says you have to read – and because there is a split in academic terms between Film Studies and Television Studies. The set of approaches you would use in Film Studies would use that book. The set of approaches you would use in Television Studies would be totally different in academic terms.”

“Mmmm,” I said, “You know the often misunderstood quote about Nobody knows anything...?”

“Yeah,” said Brett wearily.

“…which” I continued, “basically means that creativity is an art not a science. Aren’t you trying to make it a science?”

“A gut instinct, in a way,” said Brett, “is just an internalised set of things you have learned. In most industries, you develop a gut instinct.”

“So is creating and commissioning TV shows a science or an art?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a bit of both,” Brett replied. “And, if we get into the area of whether something is ‘good’ or not, are we talking about critically acclaimed or watched by a lot of people or loved by a lot of people? Or about having a legacy and being watched 10 or 15 years later? It depends what you’re measuring.”

“Anyone who makes something VERY popular,” I suggested, “is immediately attacked as being ‘trite’ and ‘low-brow’ and ‘bland’.”

“Well” said Brett, “I don’t think anyone we’ve spoken to is embarrassed about making something popular.”

“Can your research,” I asked, “explain why Mrs Brown’s Boys is loved by audiences but hated by a lot of so-called cognoscenti in the media and the comedy industry?”

“No,” said Brett, “because that’s a different project I’d love to do, which is talking to audiences. This current project is about the process by which things come into existence. Miranda would be fascinating because there is a gender division: women love it.”

“Women of all ages?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Brett, “and, this is purely anecdotal, but it’s a kind of family thing where the women sit down to watch it and the dad leaves the room because he can’t stand it.”

“Is there statistical evidence that more women like it than men?” I asked.

“It’s probably very likely,” said Brett, “because – although these are statistics from seven or eight years ago – the vast majority of mainstream sitcoms on television are always watched by more women than men. Men Behaving Badly was watched by more women than men.”

“Doesn’t studying comedy academically make watching comedy less interesting?” I asked.

“No” said Brett, “people who read recipes like food; it doesn’t mean they start hating food. In fact, in some ways, you start appreciating it more. Even the stuff that doesn’t make me laugh I can still find fascinating.

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

A totally irrelevant image of Malcolm Hardee

“I grew up in the 1980s with The Young Ones on TV and the Alternative Comedy people doing their stuff and Malcolm Hardee doing his stuff.

“I’m very anti this idea that the aim of academic research is about cultural hierarchies and we should only look at the best: that we should construct a ‘canon of good work’.

“That’s one of the interesting things about the department I’m in at the moment: most people are interested in the popular, the mainstream. We don’t see our job as deciding what is good culture and what is crap culture.”

“I suspect,” I said, “that the audiences who originally went to see Shakespeare’s plays went to see them as Brian Rix farces or blood-soaked splatter tragedies.”

“Exactly,” said Brett. “Most of the creators of stuff that’s held up as ‘art’ now – Shakespeare, Dickens – were unbelievably popular in their own day. It was mainstream culture. Dickens wrote serial fiction. It’s not as if he had an artistic vision. He was thinking: Oh, that character’s popular, I’ll write more of him in the next episode.

“The idea that you retrospectively construct these people as artistic visionaries and so on…  No… Shakespeare was writing for an audience. He was a populist.

“Exploring popular culture is an interesting battle, because our field – Media Studies – often gets criticised as a Mickey Mouse subject, not ‘proper’. And, by looking at popular culture, you actually feed into that prejudice… I have a colleague who does research on reality television and people do just go Oh! That’s a stupid subject! But No. We’re having to have that fight and we will man the barricades.

“This current Make Me Laugh project very definitely connects to that.

“Lots of film directors and novelists whose work is seen by far fewer people are interviewed and profiled and their views are kept for posterity. And yet you have people creating popular mainstream culture consumed by millions and millions of people and they’re going to disappear into history. Nobody’s interviewing them. Nobody’s exploring their working practices whereas any old Croatian art house film director has probably been interviewed by Sight & Sound twenty times and had five books written about him.

“I sometimes ask my students: Give me a list of film directors and they can rattle off a hundred. Then I say: Tell me a television director. And the only ones they can tell me are film directors who’ve done television. They’ll say Oh, Quentin Tarantino directed an episode of CSI didn’t he?

“They’ll know Miranda Hart herself. But the producer of Miranda? The director? No. They don’t even know their names.

“These people are creating a whole range of culture, but nobody’s heard of them. To me, that’s a real outrage. And it’s backed-up by the fact that, when you contact people, wanting to interview them, their first response is: Why would you want to talk to me?

“I tell them: If you were an art house film director, you wouldn’t ask that question. You’re writing a comedy that’s watched by ten million people every week and you’re confused that I find you of interest!” That, in itself, is fascinating to me.

Dr Brett Mills’ favourite sitcom

Brett Mills’ suggestion for “the greatest sitcom ever made”

“One of the ways Britain defines its national identity is via comedy. We see that as really important. How did we define ourselves last year in the Olympic Opening Ceremony? With Mr Bean… and the Queen jumping out of a helicopter. It was comedy, comedy. comedy!

“Comedy is central to our idea of national identity and the economic value of the comedy industry is massive. Just take Mr Bean and the amount of money that’s produced around the world.

“The economic value of the comedy industry – including films, television and stand-up is absolutely massive. Yet the amount of public money that goes into theatre and opera and other cultural forms… compared to the amount that goes into, say, stand-up comedy (even though there is public money via the Licence Fee going into BBC TV) is virtually nil.

“But, then, if you talk to people in small independent production companies and suggest Shouldn’t the government be supporting you more? they tell you No! We wanna stay separate. That’s the whole point. We’re outsiders. We’re mavericks.

“The creative industries in Britain employ more people than the engineering industry and the pharmaceutical industry. The creative industries contribute more to the economy than the financial industries.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Brett firmly. “Television, film, architecture, design, music, computer games. The scale of the creative industries is absolutely massive. And it is still one of the areas where Britain is accepted internationally as a world leader.”

“So why are you not aspiring to be a television producer or commissioner?” I asked.

“Because I don’t have that gut instinct,” replied Brett. “Not at all. Not at all.”

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The truth about “A Clockwork Orange” and why some movie critics deserve a colonoscopy

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned actor Rutger Hauer’s famous death speech in Blade Runner and someone complained on my Facebook page that, in fact, I should have credited the film’s writers – the screenplay was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

In fact, it’s almost inconceivable but true that Rutger Hauer actually made up the speech off the top of his head. I saw a TV interview with the film’s director, Ridley Scott, where he said Rutger just went over in a corner and came back with the speech in its entirety:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

It wasn’t in the script; it wasn’t in the book; the director didn’t write it; the actor made it up.

But the guy who complained about my crediting the actor not the writer is quite right in general. People tend to overlook who actually creates movies: the writers. Without them, zilch. A director may be brilliant – for example, David Fincher with Fight Club and The Social Network – but the 1950s French-spawned cult of the director is just as stupid as any other piece of intellectualising about movie-making.

It never fails to amaze me what pseudo-intellectual bullshit some so-called critics spout about the movies. When you create an academic subject, it seems that reality goes out the window and, rather than look at the movies, some people just look up their own arses

Last night, I went to a special screening of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 movie If…. introduced by Sir Alan Parker. He had chosen If…. as the movie which had most influenced him, despite the fact that its director Lindsay Anderson didn’t much like him and had once (with John Schlesinger) sued him in the courts for defamation of character over a cartoon he had drawn.

In fact, it seemed, Alan Parker had mostly chosen If…. because he greatly admired its director of photography Miroslav Ondricek, not its director.

A lot of film criticism is utter twaddle written from the bizarre ivory towers of academia. I can never get over the stupidity of film courses which claim that the ideal movie is Casablanca and therefore, by extension, people should follow the example of Casablanca when writing a film script.

Casablanca was a terrible mess of movie production. The truth is that the actors – along with everyone else on the movie – had no idea what was going to happen at the end and had no idea if the Ingrid Bergman character was going to go off with Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid in the final scene, so could not tailor their performances accordingly.

Virtually each night, after completing a hard day’s shooting, they were given new script pages and script rewrites for the next day’s shooting. Neither the director not the producer and especially not the writers (credited as Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch with an uncredited Casey Robinson, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) – nobody – had any idea what was going on.

So the ideal way to shoot a movie would be (in this ludicrous theory) to start shooting with no finished script and actors who have no idea what their characters think or feel.

Much has been written about the fact that If…. has some sequences in colour and some in black & white. I had heard this was because they had run out of money and (surprisingly in 1968) it was cheaper to shoot in black & white.

Alan Parker said last night that he had heard the interiors of the church were shot in black & white because shooting in colour would have required much more lighting and, as a relatively low-budget film, they could not afford that, so Miroslav Ondricek shot with faster black & white film. The rest of the black & white sequences appeared to be simply random and done on a whim.

As for the auteur theory that the director creates and controls everything, at the summit of this must be Stanley Kubrick, who was a legendary control freak. There are stories of him going to suburban cinemas with a light meter and taking readings off the screen so he would know the intensity of light with which his films had to be screened for optimum viewing by ordinary audiences.

He insisted on take after take after take of scenes – sometimes 50 times for one shot – so that the lighting, framing, acting et al were perfect.

A Clockwork Orange is one film of his that has been written about endlessly

But, last night, Alan Parker said the star of A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell, had told him that, when cast in the lead role of Alex, he wasn’t sure how to play the part and had asked Lindsay Anderson for advice. Anderson told McDowell to remember the slight smile he had put on his face as the character Mick Travis when entering the gym for the beating sequence in If…. and to play the character of Alex like that throughout A Clockwork Orange. McDowell said it was the best piece of direction he had ever received.

The auteur theory?

Academic film critics?

They might as well get a colonoscopy and stick the camera up their arse.

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