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Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography “will provide ideas that motivate that most difficult of audiences, the teenager”

Malcolm Hardee outside Grover Court in 1995

Malcolm Hardee: comic, promoter, inspiration to teenagers

Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake was published in 1996.

I co-wrote it with him. Well, OK, I wrote it from taped conversations with him.

It got quite well-reviewed:

“Hilarious” (The Scotsman)

“Blindingly funny” (The Independent)

“Makes you laugh in great snorts” (Daily Express)

“You will laugh out loud at least a dozen times” (Sunday Times)

“The funniest read in longer than I care to remember” (The Stage) 

“Characterful and not overly ghost-written…a feast of scabrous reminiscence” (Independent on Sunday)

It is now out of print, but Amazon has been happily selling occasional ‘new’ and ‘used’ copies for years.

Now surrealism has struck.

Comedy critic Bruce Dessau (about whom I blogged yesterday) has just drawn my attention to something.

An Amazon.co.uk person or, perhaps, computer has got their/its knickers in a twist.

Malcolm, Glastonbury 2003

Malcolm at Glastonbury in 2003

For those who don’t know, the late comic Malcolm Hardee was known for his outrageous behaviour. His autobiography tells anecdotes of sex, drugs and the time Malcolm had his genitals painted in luminous paint at the Glastonbury Festival.

Until recently – I think I looked a few months ago – Amazon’s description of the book was fairly spot-on. It was supplied by the book’s original publisher and (I think) read:

The humorous memoirs of criminal-turned-comedy agent Malcolm Hardee, who recalls a life of crime and misdemeanours before finding fame and fortune in the comedy boom of the 1980s. He also recalls how he did in fact, as the title suggests, steal Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake.

Currently, the book description on Amazon.co.uk reads:

Something has gone terribly wrong in amazon.co.uk's listing

Something has gone terribly wrong in amazon.co.uk’s listing

For successful classroom teaching, your students need to be engaged and active learners. In this book, there is practical advice that is grounded in the realities of teaching in today’s classrooms on how to be an inspirational teacher and produce highly motivated students. This book contains 220 positive, practical teaching ideas that are relevant to both new and experienced classroom teachers. With reference to reflective practice, best practice and Continuing Professional Development (CPD), this book provides essential support for trainee teachers, new teachers and experienced teachers looking to extend their repertoire.

Well, if teachers want to ‘extend their repertoire’ (Ooh, missus!) with impressions of French President General De Gaulle using only a pair of spectacles held atop a naked, flaccid penis representing his nose, then this is certainly the book to buy.

Something has gone terribly wrong in amazon.co.uk's listing

Amazon’s listing opens up a whole new audience for Malcolm

In the current Reviews section, the highly-regarded Teacher magazine is quoted as saying:

This book will provide ideas that motivate that most difficult of audiences, the teenager.

Absolutely true. It will certainly spice up biology classes.

The book also now has some excellent new quotes in the Reviews section including:

I enjoyed this book, and got a lot of good ideas from it” (Chris Kilby, PGCE student)

Puts a strong emphasis on the how” (Sarah Davies, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Trent University)

Well, that is true.

And there remain some older and more representative reader reviews…

At the Tunnel, Malcolm Hardee (left) and Chris Lynam with a firework up his bum. CREDIT Geraint Lewis

At the Tunnel club, Malcolm Hardee (left) watches Chris Lynam with a firework up his bum. (Photo by Geraint Lewis)

I’d recommend anyone to look up the balloon dance on the internet to witness how amusing it was, ditto the ‘banger up the rear’ routine. It takes the reader on a journey of… his touring, drinking, womanising… a great book” (5 STARS – Comedy Cum Hardee, 1st March 2012)

A little piece of comedy history and an amazing insight into the Malcolm Hardie’s (sic) incredible life and journey.” (5 STARS – Sam, 19th May 2011)

Full of cheeky chappies and crazy anecdotes guaranteed to generate random fits of laughter. Malcolm was a lovable rogue who liked to show his knob a lot!” (5 STARS Mitzi, Wales, 9th September 2009)

I am inclined not to tell Amazon about this balls-up and see what happens.

The book is available via them in both new and used editions. Copies of the used books currently vary in price (+ £2.80 delivery) from £7.98p to £999.00. Copies of the book in ‘new’ condition vary from £49.99 to £999.00.

Interestingly, it is the same seller – UK_Bookstore – who is selling both New copies for £999.00 and Used copies for £999.00. The difference seems to be that New copies are in pristine condition and Used copies “may have some underlines and highlights”.

In case you should think I have made all this up or have changed the Amazon listing myself, I have not.

Barry Ferns won last year’s Cunning Stunt Award

Barry Ferns won Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award 2013 (Photograph by Keir O’Donnell)

The annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is being held at the Edinburgh Fringe this year on Friday 22nd August. The three awards include a Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt promoting a performer or show at the Fringe.

This Amazon surrealism is not a cunning stunt.

We simply – it seems – live in increasingly surreal times.

I am very glad of that.

 

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New UK audio comedy label launches and initially gets 100% of its sales in US

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

Neale Welch: in Shoreditch last week

Neale Welch – building something new in Shoreditch last week

Neale Welch is a busy chap.

This year, he took over-all charge of programming at the Comedy Cafe Theatre in London, a full-time job which continues.

But, in July last year, he also started his own independent comedy label Just The Greatest and, this month, it released its first three audio albums – by Anil Desai, Steve N Allen and Erich McElroy (all recorded live at the Comedy Cafe Theatre).

When I talked to him in London’s Shoreditch last week, he told me something very odd:

“All of the sales so far,” he told me, “have been in the United States.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I think there’s an element of If you build it, they will come. The sales are there. Sales started as a trickle and they are starting to increase.”

“The blurbs must be bloody good,” I said.

Anil Desai: Hey, Impressions Guy!

Anil Desai – the first album released by Just The Greatest

“Well,” Neale told me, “there’s only a very brief description of what’s on the albums – there’s no real space on iTunes for any promo copy or quotes. They’re just really good products. Very funny.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “They’re very good comedians but the Americans, presumably, don’t know them – To the Yanks, they’re Fred Hippity-Hoppity from Guatemala.”

“What I think you’re witnessing here, John,” suggested Neale, “is the power of the distribution channels – iTunes and Amazon. Who are we to know why Americans are buying the albums? It’s comedy, it’s spoken word, it’s British and it’s out there available to buy.”

“How much do they cost?” I asked.

“The distributors set the prices themselves,” explained Neale. “iTunes set the price by category and genre. The albums are $9.99.”

“So Yanks are forking out $10 for unknown-to-them comedians!” I said in amazement.

“But they’re getting to know them slowly,” said Neale. “And you can also buy cheaper individual tracks.”

“I guess, when it all develops,” I said, “your market is going to be Britain and the English-speaking pink bits on the map – plus the US?”

“And parts of Europe,” added Neale.

“This is like one of those rock star things,” I said, “where someone from Manchester is a major star in Botswana for no discernible reason. Or Right Said Fred  being massive in Germany, which they are. Massive.”

“…and David Hasselhoff,” added Neale.

“And David Hasselhoff,” I had to agree. “Did you expect to get foreign sales?”

“Not this early, no,” said Neale.

“So why did you start the label?” I asked.

Steve N Allen - one of the acts Yanks seem keen on

Steve N Allen is one of the acts Yanks seem very keen on

“Because,” explained Neale, “a few years ago, I was travelling alone around Asia and Australia and needed something to listen to when I was in planes, on beaches, in hostels. Videos are fine, but videos require your attention whereas, with a sound album, you can do other things when you’re in another environment.

“I came across a great podcast called Stop Podcasting Yourself by Graham Clark. So I brought him over to do a special gig at the Comedy Cafe in London, which was great, sold out, fantastic.

“Graham is signed to a podcast network in the States called MaximumFun.org, run by a guy called Jesse Thorn – a great inspirational guy who started this network with lots of free content, a little bit of paid content, lots of different shows, mostly run on donations.

“And I thought I could do something like that. I thought I want to do something that’s good and I want to work with original artists that are going somewhere and have got something to say.”

“Hold on though,” I interrupted, “You said, with a sound album, you can do other things while you’re listening. But doesn’t comedy require you pay attention? The build-ups and the punchlines?”

“Yes,” agreed Neale. “But not as much as visuals. I think there’s an opportunity for the re-birth of comedy albums in digital form.”

“And physical CDs?” I asked.

“It’s all digital,” said Neale. “At Just The Greatest, we’re not interested in physical products, though some of the artists are going to produce physical products – CDs – to sell themselves after their gigs. It doesn’t make any sense any other way. I don’t have a warehouse to store a load of stuff.”

“And CDs are dead anyway,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” agreed Neale, “CDs, DVDs… but downloads have made up for the decline in over-all sales. If you pay attention to who’s listening to podcasts – graphic designers, knowledge workers if you will – it’s people who are at their desk working a flexible, autonomous working day who can also enjoy audio entertainment. That’s the kind of demographic who are going to buy it.”

“Did you do market research in advance?” I asked.

Erich McElroy - North American but with Brit Identity

Erich McElroy – a North American but with Brit Identity

“The sales ARE the market research,” Neale explained. “I’m finding out now what kind of market I’m going into and it’s clear that there are opportunities. I knew in advance, obviously, that there were similar projects out there already. It’s not like I was wondering if people would buy a digital file; of course they will.”

“How do you think the market will it develop?” I asked. “Will iTunes’ dominance diminish?”

“In the digital market, I just do not know,” said Neale. “If you look at the barriers to entry and the coverage that they get… it would be a difficult market for anyone to attack. If you think that a company the size of Amazon aren’t even getting close, then…”

“And beyond that,” I asked, “you’ll develop radio shows, TV shows and major movies with lots of special effects?”

“No,” laughed Neale. “As you know, I’ve shot some small videos, but try and find someone in Shoreditch who hasn’t!”

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Janet Street-Porter is wrong; Amazon, Google, Starbucks, Jimmy Carr are right

"Kiss my ass" - the cry of bad law-makers

The English legal system and British government out grazing

Am I alone in wondering why Starbucks is getting so much stick about not paying its taxes in the UK?

And Google. And Amazon. And (getting surprisingly less stick) Vodafone.

Yesterday, Janet Street-Porter (whom I rate vary highly) wrote a piece for The Independent headlined GOOGLE, AMAZON, VODAFONE AND STARBUCKS MIGHT NOT BE BREAKING LAWS. BUT THEY DESERVE TO BE PUNISHED. 

Why?

Why should anyone or any company be punished for not breaking any laws? Should you be punished for not breaking the law? Should I be punished for not breaking the law?

Admittedly, Starbucks’ PR is utter shit.

Saying they will, out of the goodness of their corporate heart,  pay a flat sum of £20 million totally unrelated to any percentage of their profits is simply shooting themselves in their very large, clown-like feet.

But, if the law allows them to do what they have been doing – paying only 1% of their UK profits in tax over the last 14 years – then do not blame Starbucks, blame the British government, blame Parliament and blame the taxman.

If the law is not what the government and the public want, then change the law. And do not change it retrospectively.

If I park my car outside a house and the government or local council does not want me to do that, then paint a double yellow line on the road. Don’t paint a double yellow line on the road and then fine me for parking illegally on the road before it had a double yellow line and when parking there was perfectly legal.

Jimmy Carr got crucified in the same way.

His accountant sorted out his tax perfectly legally and in the most efficient way for Jimmy… and then the government complained he was wrong in acting perfectly legally…

If the law is an ass, then don’t blame the people or companies who ride the ass. Don’t ask people to kiss the English legal system’s ass. Change the law.

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Yesterday, I saw an old woman and the publishing industry jumping off a roof

The future of traditional publishing

The future of traditional print publishing

Last night, I had a dream.

I was standing on one side of a slightly old-fashioned British shopping street, perhaps built in the 1950s or 1960s, just after the Second World War.

The buildings had right-angled edges and flat roofs – What were architects thinking after the War? Flat roofs? This is rain-drenched Britain, not some part of sun-drenched California.

The shops on the other side of the road were two storeys high and slightly set back from the road with a wider-than-normal pavement. They liked to have lots of pedestrian space in front of shops after the War. I guess there were flats where people lived above the row of shops; I wasn’t really aware of such fine details in my dream.

But I became aware, at the last moment, that an old woman was standing on the edge of the roof above the shops, two storeys up. As I became aware of her, she jumped. She was wearing a light pink, thick woollen coat. And she wore a head scarf.

When she hit the concrete paving slabs below, there was the sound of three – it might have been four – ear-deafening cracks – the sound of breaking bones. There was a slight echo as her bones broke. Her legs hit the concrete paving slabs first, then she crumpled. But she survived the fall. As she lay there, I could see her face contorting as the ever-different agonies hit her. But I could not hear her desperate screams.

“People think you’re certainly going to die if you jump,” I said to someone. “Stupid.”

I guess she died eventually.

Well, she would do, wouldn’t she…

People do.

So it goes.

Yesterday, I went to the first in a two day seminar about Self Publishing held in the Guardian newspaper’s very modern new offices. I was not initially impressed as, at this cyberworld event in their flash new-ish building, it took over ten minutes for someone to tell me what the access code for the internet was.

“Here it is,” she eventually told me, “but it’s very unreliable.”

And so it proved.

Very very unreliable.

It took me around nine attempts to actually post my already-written blog yesterday morning.

Not impressive.

I was also not impressed when the intro included the words (I paraphrase) “Penguin Books are not going to collapse.”

They were taken over by Random House in the last month. The new entity has been nick-named ‘Randy Penguin’.

In a tea break, an art lecturer said to me: “Artists have always been self-publishers when they start out.”

True. And something I had never thought about.

I had also never thought about the fact that, with books now selling online with small thumbnail images of the cover, book designs have to be less detailed and perhaps less interesting than they used to be – in the same way that, when CDs replaced LPs, the cover artwork was more effective when slightly simplified because the physical size was smaller.

The very wise and very clever author Polly Courtney pointed out that the people wheeled on to radio and TV shows to talk about some subject-of-the-moment are often actually not genuine experts – they are just people who have written a recent book about the subject.

The day’s talks made me even more certain that printed books – like vinyl records and soon CDs – are dead. Vinyl records still exist, as do VHSs.

That art lecturer told me a student had recently wanted to shoot and edit something on VHS “to give it an old-fashioned feel”.

Vinyl records still exist. I guess printed books will still exist. But the business will be in cyberspace. Print-on-demand will fill the gap as traditional publishing declines, but eBooks are the future. And self publishing.

Apparently, last year, 18 of the top 100 books sold on Amazon were self-published.

Apparently, crime writer John Locke – the first man to sell over a million self-published digital books on Amazon.com – sold his first two novels at 99p each… His third book was priced at £1.99… and then he priced his next book – How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! – at £5.99 … It now seems to be on Amazon at £8.99 reduced to £1.88.

Other things I learned yesterday were that only the foolish self-publish in the run-up to Christmas because the current competition from traditional publishers is too intense… and there is a spike in e-book sales in January because people are playing with their new Kindles, iPads and other electronic readers.

Traditional publishing, like the woman who jumped from the roof, is not dead. But it is in agony and terminally crippled.

And, no, I did not make up the dream of a woman jumping.

Yes, I  really did dream that.

Any psychologists out there who can explain the dream, please do.

Any traditional publishers out there with money they want to throw my way to prove me wrong, please do.

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Rearranging books on the shelves of the Titanic as the iceberg gets even closer

Never to be available as printed book

“Printed books are dead,” I told someone recently.

I was having a chat with him because he intends to become an independent publisher. He seemed to me to be surprisingly still wedded to physical books printed on paper.

I pointed out to him that it used to be the case, when you travelled in a London tube train, you saw lots of people reading books and newspapers.

Now – and I do often consciously count ‘em – most people in the late afternoon or evening are looking at smartphones or tablets or occasionally Kindles. And a few are reading the free Evening Standard. No-one is reading a paid-for newspaper. Almost no-one is reading a printed book.

“That’s only in London,” he told me.

I don’t know if that is true. But soon it will be everywhere.

Local and regional newspapers are dying. National printed newspapers and magazines  are plunging off a cliff. And printed books are in terminal decline.

I am in the process of turning my 2010-2011 blogs into an eBook – a soul-destroying process.

I would only issue the blogs as an eBook; there is no point publishing them in a printed book. No-one will buy it, of course, even as an eBook – because they can access the same material for free online. But there might be a few sales if it is pitched very cheap; and it is a tiny bit of self-publicity; and it is a learning process for me.

Malcolm Hardee book. New version published?

Once I understand the pitfalls, I intend to re-issue comedian Malcolm Hardee’s iconic autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake as an eBook and as a print-on-demand book, possibly in a revised form (the publisher changed the original opening and the chapter endings, making it less interesting). And I have four other ‘books’ partially-ready after that, some to be issued solely as eBooks, some as both e and print-on-demand books.

Print-on-demand means you only print the exact number of books required; there is no wastage.

Yesterday, I went to a two-hour event called Going Indie: The Writer in The Digital Age at the Free Word Centre in London. I was surprised that, there too, there was a reluctance to admit the printed book is dead. Almost all the talk was about the apparent rise of small, independent publishers with an emphasis on printed books and physical bookshops rather than the opportunities for ePublishing, self-publishing and internet retail… although Amazon, of course, was mentioned.

I was interested to hear that 60 million books are sold in the UK every year and 20% of those are cookery books. I do not know how many of the non-cookery books are eBooks. I understand that now, in North America, sales of eBooks outnumber the sales of printed books.

Amazon, of course, dominate. And they have lots of different charts covering different subject areas.

Interestingly, Darren Laws of small British publisher Caffeine Nights yesterday explained how he had increased the profile of one of his books on Amazon.

“We looked at the charts and looked at what was selling,” he revealed. “We saw that, on the numbers, one particular crime fiction book we published was outselling the No 1 sports fiction title on Amazon. Our book had a sports fiction background so, legitimately, we swapped the chart listing for it from crime fiction to sports fiction and suddenly we had a No 1 book. It found its audience readership, it stayed there for quite some time. On eBooks, we were selling a couple of hundred a month on that title: quite good for a small company like us.”

Justine Solomons of Byte the Book observed: “The internet gives you the ability to find someone who’s a bit like you.”

She also, rather oddly, admitted: “I used to choose the books I read by publisher. That’s becoming increasingly important: brands.”

Indeed, some small publishers now have subscribers, rather like book clubs, where their readers pay to buy future as-yet-unknown books from the publisher.

Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press said: “We publish contemporary European bestsellers in translation so, although our authors are very well-known abroad, no-one knows them here and no-one really cares if they’ve won prizes and sold millions of books abroad. We run a highly successful subscription service. We have subscribers up to the end of 2015, but we have only announced our 2013 catalogue. So people are trusting what we will be putting out. We have a strong brand.”

“You’re going more towards the magazine model,” Justine Solomons suggested to her. “The definition of a magazine is you have a body of work and you have issues from it. It doesn’t need to be journal articles. Granta ran on that model for a long time. You subscribe because you know the sort of stuff you will get. Like The New Yorker.”

Peirene Press also hold ‘roaming stores’ which sell books.

Rebecca Swift of The Literary Consultancy pointed out: “Meike was last seen in Budgens supermarket at Crouch End. This kind of ingenuity and dextrous thinking around how you’re going to sell what you’re passionate about is absolutely vital and goes hand-in-hand with really good publishing.”

“That story underlines why independent publishers are so exciting,” said Rachael Ogden of Inpress. “You don’t find the Managing Director of Random House at Budgens. They don’t get that close to the reader.”

To me, though, all this talk of printed books is like King Canute standing on the bow of the Titanic, talking about re-arranging books on the shelves in the library as he watches the iceberg approach and admires the craftsmanship which went into the building of the ocean-going liner.

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Michael Palin in the rainforest + steaks rubbed round toilet rims in Hampstead

Last night I dreamt that I was in some sort of Eagle Has Landed / Went The Day Well? scenario in which my village (I have never lived in a village) was being taken over by infiltrators, except the infiltrators really were the villagers themselves and I and others were trying to get out before the violence started. Surely some psychological theory to be had there.

A photograph not taken by a forest tribe

I had that dream before I saw Michael Palin at the Oldie magazine’s Soho Literary Festival yesterday. He was plugging his upcoming travel book Brazil, which is published in a couple of weeks.

“My father lived through two World Wars and one of the greatest Depressions the world has ever seen,” said Michael Palin, “and how they came out of that – how they psychologically dealt with it – is amazing.

“We have had a very cushy time with lots of choices, lots of stimulating chances, just in travel. No-one in the 1950s… Certainly when my father was around, you didn’t travel except on company business. The idea that you can travel recreationally, that you can now go almost anywhere in the world for a relatively small amount of money… that is all new.”

When Michael Palin arrived at one remote Amazonian community, already in the village were one American anthropologist, one Brazilian film crew and one American photo-journalist.

“This was a remote part of the southern Amazon Basin,” he explained. “The extraordinary thing was that this tribe who, fifty or sixty years ago, had barely made contact with the rest of the world, had seen so many photographers come through that the one thing they wanted was to become photographers themselves.

“These people were still dressed in primitive rainforest garb, wearing skirts, all painted with their basin haircut and hennaed hair, but they all had quite sophisticated cameras. This remote tribe was filming us.

“To me, the big story of this place was how people can change – Two thousand years or whatever of civilization, the Enlightenment, all the various steps we’ve taken to get to the ‘sophisticated’ world we have now – and they just jumped straight from face paint and catching frogs to computers. And they understood them perfectly well and they were actually quite truculent if you gave them a rather second rate edit app – Some people give us this the other day! – These guys were waiting for the new iPhone 5.”

Steaks on toilet rims in Hampstead

In another session at yesterday’s Soho Literary Festival, The Times’ food critic and humourist Giles Coren was plugging his new book How To Eat Out.

He used to be a waiter at a restaurant in Hampstead and was asked about a section of the book in which he says the steaks were wiped on the floor.

“It is rumoured,” Giles said, “that people you don’t like… Well, it’s since George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London claimed to have spat in everybody’s soup, but you only need to read six pages of Orwell to know he’s the kind of fellow who would do that.”

And wiping the steaks on the floor in Hampstead?

“It was actually on the toilet and the lawyers wouldn’t let me say that,” said Giles. “The guy was called The Captain, named after Captain Sensible; he was a Russian punk. This was in the late 1980s and he just didn’t like what he called capitalist shitbags. He came over basically (joked Giles) just to wipe steaks round the rim of the toilet bowl and serve them to some really quite nice people in Hampstead.”

What this says about the relative values of Amazonian tribesmen and Westerners, I dare not even begin to imagine.

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The American comic with the 99 cent potential movie about online hysteria

Mike Player confronts the horrific possibilities of viral videos

Last month, I blogged about improvisational American comedian Mike Player’s Angry Daddies show at the Outlaugh Comedy Festival on the Hollywood Fringe.

“It went great,” he told me this morning from Los Angeles. “It was like giving birth to a two hundred pound baby. Surreal experiences got so crowded I had to sit on the floor. I hate sitting on the floor.”

I mentioned in my previous blog that Mike had written a book Out on the Edge: America’s Rebel Comics.

Now he has written a comedy/suspense novel Viral – The Story of the Milkshake Girl which sounds to me like it has movie potential.

What interests me is the price, though.

It is available as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk for 77p (or for 99c on Amazon.com).

This could be the future of publishing.

I have been thinking of issuing an eBook myself with a 99p price tag. But perhaps I would be over-pricing it!

Mike is a graduate of the Master Class of the UCLA Writers Program. He is also a graduate of the Warner Brothers Comedy Writers Workshop and was executive producer of MTV Logo’s 8-episode network series, Outlaugh Festival on Wisecrack. Mike is basically a Hollywood chap and he has, of course, got a good ‘elevator pitch’ for his Viral book:

Mike’s interestingly-priced cyberworld book

What if something you did got filmed and posted on the internet and you became FAMOUS and everyone hated you but you were FAMOUS and earning lots of MONEY, your life was threatened and you had to run away to protect your family?

What if you could have sex with anyone you wanted? Your phone was more powerful than the major broadcast networks and goats jumping on a trampoline got more views than the President’s State of the Union speech? What if you had to fight for your very life?

What is it like to become an overnight viral video star? Sixteen-year-olds become moguls and moguls fetch coffee… in the dark comedy suspense thriller VIRAL.

“This sounds not too far removed from a possible reality,” I suggested to Mike.

“Well, I read about Jessie Slaughter,” he told me. “It’s not her story, but she was a teen who had to go into the Witness Protection program because her internet doings got so out of control. Plus I have met a lot of crazy people working in TV and producing my own videos. I manage to get a lot of poison out of my system by writing comedy.”

“And writing the book?” I asked.

“Would you be only vaguely interested in removing a splinter from your forehead?” Mike asked.

“It seems to me an awful lot of supposed fiction is actually fact toned-down to be believable,” I said.

“A weird true thing I researched that’s actually in my book,,” Mike said, “is a kid who fell into a ditch in Colombia or somewhere and someone filmed it and posted it online. It got so popular the kid got a commercial deal out of it. And all he did was fall into a ditch.”

In the book, Iranian teenage foster girl Erika Moradi stands up for herself by swatting the milkshake out of the hand of a sexist bully in a Las Vegas high school and becomes famous in a fluke video as The Milkshake Girl.

As a result, she incites the wrath of her high school and the darker elements of online teen networks. Her home is vandalised and her life is threatened. She runs away and meets TV producer Jack Hawkins, who has lost his job on a network soap opera. He has several high concept series ideas involving some of the hottest viral stars of the moment – a trampolining goat, a gay Congressman and a Brazilian who fell into a ditch. But Erika becomes the most notorious.

“What’s a comedy person doing writing this paranoid dark stuff?” I asked.

“Well,” Mike told me, “it’s dark comedy suspense. All comedians love to go ‘dark’.”

“Is writing for print more satisfying than improvising live?” I asked Mike.

“In some ways it is,” he said, “because it lasts longer and people can’t throw things at you.”

“And what’s with the trampolining goat?” I asked.

“Every book should have a goat on a trampoline,” he replied.

I cannot disagree.

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British comedians seem to be turning to electronic book publishing – maybe

I have blogged before about the galloping-blindly-towards-an-unknown-destination changes in book publishing.

In 2003, the late Malcolm Hardee and I put together Sit-Down Comedy for Random House. It was an anthology of original writing (some of it very dark) by comedians Ed Byrne, John Dowie, Jenny Eclair, Stephen Frost, Boothby Graffoe, Ricky Grover, Malcolm Hardee, Hattie Hayridge, John Hegley, Dominic Holland, Jeff Innocent, Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Owen O’Neill, Arthur Smith, Linda Smith, Jim Tavare, Dave Thompson and Tim Vine.

Sit-Down Comedy has just been issued in both iBook (for iPads) and Kindle downloadable electronic editions.

Apparently, in the US market, electronic books now account for 20% of total book sales. In the UK, it is still only 5%, but it is expected to double in the next year.

In the last week, two of the contributors to Sit-Down Comedy have mentioned to me that they are thinking of publishing electronic books, probably via lulu.com, the same print-on-demand (not to be confused with self-publishing) company which comedy writer Mark Kelly has used to publish his books Pleased as Punch, This Is Why We Are Going to Die and (free to download) Every Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? Comic Shelley Cooper told me she is also looking into print-on-demand publishing.

A highly relevant factor is that print-on-demand publishers may take 20% of your book’s earnings to arrange print and electronic versions… while conventional print publishers doing the same thing normally give the author royalties of only 7.5% of paperback sales. With print-on-demand  you have to market the book yourself, but you also have to factor in that significant difference between getting 80% or getting the conventional 7.5%.

I have blogged before that am thinking of re-publishing Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (probably revised back to its original version) as an e-book… but that is only if I can actually pull my finger out – always a major factor in the production of any book.

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The black man fails to show up but the god-like comic Simon Munnery shines

Last night, comedy club Pull The Other One’s second monthly show in Herne Hill was packed, so word-of-mouth must have spread about last month’s bizarre events which I blogged about here.

During last month’s show, a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and a doctor’s stethoscope round his neck sat in a gold costume alone at a table right in front of the stage occasionally re-arranging half-glimpsed works of art on the surface in front of him. In any other show, he would have been a disruptive distraction but, given Pull The Other One’s unique mix of surreality, alternative variety and downright bizarreness, he actually fitted right in with the show. It turned it into a two-ring circus.

I went to the Half Moon venue in Herne Hill again last night half-hoping the black man and his half-glimpsed mysterious works of art would make a comeback. Alas he wasn’t there. But Charmian Hughes, who had been one of four comperes last month and was one of three comperes last night  (look – it works, it adds to the oddness, so don’t ask) told me:

“That man with the stethoscope gave me a picture of a face which is half pharaoh and half enslaved black man. It’s actually really effective and I’ve hung it up. The title is Was my ancestor illegally detained?’’

Charmian had done a sand dance during last month’s show (again, don’t ask).

“He must,” Charmian continued, “have found it quite a strange coincidence that he went to a show on his night off from Egyptology or whatever he’s into and someone started talking about Egypt and the pharaohs and did a sand dance on stage.”

“Well,” I thought, “It wasn’t just him who found it strange.”

Last night, in an unusual move for Pull The Other One, they actually had three straight(-ish) stand-up comics in among real magic from David Don’t, Sam Fletcher’s fake magic, Charmian’s explanation of the Abelard & Heloise story using pandas, Holly Burn’s… well… indescribably odd performances… and the equally odd Nick Sun’s audience-baiting.

Towards the end of his set, Nick Sun persuaded the audience to show their appreciation (and they were very enthusiastically appreciative of his odd act throughout) to boo him and heckle him and he refused to leave the stage except in silence. He took any clapping as inappropriate and refused to leave except to complete silence. A good bit of memorable schtick.

The three stand-ups included the extremely good Maureen Younger, who shamed me. I was then and still am ashamed because I had never seen her perform before and I am amazed I had not seen someone that good. An absolutely top-notch and clearly highly experienced professional. My only excuse is that she seems to have worked abroad a lot. And that’s not much of an excuse. Woe is me. The shame. The shame.

Steve Jameson’s Borscht Belt character act Sol Bernstein – much admired by many – leaves me a bit cold because I have some general problem with watching live character comedy, which brings me on to Simon Munnery, who is on stunningly good form at the moment.

He was introduced as “a legend” which he certainly is, even though his existence is not in question and has been independently authenticated. He has always been extremely good but I have now seen him twice in two weeks and I am very surprised.

It’s rare for a comic to keep getting better. After a lot of experience, a good comic usually reaches a plateau of excellence. You don’t expect him or her to get better and he or she doesn’t have to. They have reached a plateau of excellence. Simon Munnery reached that plateau ages ago but now seems to be getting even better. It’s not that he wasn’t excellent before, but he is even better now.

As I said, I have a blank and difficult-to-explain spot about character comedy and I was never much impressed (though everyone else was) with Simon’s very early character Alan Parker: Urban Warrior.

I’ve always liked Simon as a person but it wasn’t until I saw Cluub Zarathustra at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994 that I really started to appreciate his act. I thought the subsequent 2001 TV series Attention Scum! slightly watered-down the amazingly admirable nastiness of Cluub Zarathustra.

Simon’s original character which was OTT with audience-despising Nietzschean superiority and contempt for the audience in Cluub Zarathustra had (it seemed to me) been watered-down into the less-though-still-effective League Against Tedium.

The Attention Scum! TV series (directed by Stewart Lee) was highly original and, legend has it, much disliked by BBC TV executives until it was nominated for the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux in 2001, at which point they had to feign enthusiastic support despite having already decided not to produce a second series.

Perhaps it was too interesting for them.

Simon’s League Against Tedium and Buckethead character shows were always interesting but sometimes variable – you can see that a man with an orange bucket over his head spouting poetry might partially alienate a more mainstream audience.

I think the less Simon hid behind a character and the more he started to perform as himself (well, as much as any comic does) the better and better and better he became.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the Random House anthology of original writing which Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited to which 19 stand-up comedians contributed short pieces. (Now newly available for download in Apple iBooks for iPad and in a Kindle edition.)

Simon at first submitted Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind – basically a print version of his 2002 Edinburgh Fringe show which I thought was fascinating. It took me aback that the printed version was even better than the performed version. I think I had seen the hour-long show twice yet, when I read it on the page, I realised I had missed some of the verbal and mental cleverness.

He eventually supplied The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes, a wonderfully original story. When I read it, it was one of only three times in my life that I have ever laughed out loud while reading a piece of writing (the other two occasions were both Terry Southern books – Blue Movie and one tiny section of The Magic Christian)

Simon wrote The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes after the publishers of Sit-Down Comedy thought Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind was too complicatedly experimental. Well, I think they thought it was too original and too intellectual; that’s often a problem with publishers.

And it has always been Simon’s semi-problem. Arguably too clever. Too original.

Until now, quite a lot of his acts – with sections often tending towards performance art – have been slightly hit-and-miss and I think sometimes too dense with intellectual, mental and linguistic cleverness to fully succeed with an only-half-paying-attention mainstream comedy audience. That’s not a criticism of audiences as dim; but sometimes audiences who had not seen Simon perform before were not expecting what they got. You had to pay very close attention.

Last night, there was a gag involving Sisyphus and Icarus which was wonderfully explained, became part of a cluster of linked, overlapping gags and even managed to bring in modern-day, up-to-the-minute economics.

Simon used to be intellectual and much-loved by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington – and he still is. But now he seems to have pulled off the neat trick of losing none of his intellectual content but performing a highly intelligent act which is populist and maintains a uniformity of laughter-making for all audiences.

In other words, he’s bloody funny from beginning to end and has an astonishing act of overlapping, densely-packed gags and observations which in no way dumbs down yet is totally accessible to a mainstream audience.

How he has done it I don’t know, but he has.

I once tried to persuade Simon that we should follow in L.Ron Hubbard’s footsteps and write a book about philosophy which many in the UK would see as a joke but which many in California might read without irony and blindly believe in as a new religion. That way, we could make money now, have a laugh and statues of him might be worshipped in 2,000 years as a God-like figure.

He wasn’t impressed.

Maybe because today many already worship him as a godlike figure in British comedy.

Quite right too.

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Oy! Oy! – Anti-Semitism, a murderous Israeli cross-border raid and a Jewish joke from the Prime Minister

This week, I was talking to Israeli-born, London-based freelance journalist Daphna Baram, who wrote a fascinating book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel about that British newspaper’s relations with and perception of Israel. (The 2004 hardback is currently on sale at amazon.co.uk for an eye-popping £94.98p)

The only prejudice I know I have is that I am unthinkingly pro-Jewish, largely because I went to a grammar school with a very high percentage of Jewish pupils. That prejudice in favour of Jews used to transfer equally to Israel.

Hey! – remember why Israel occupies the West Bank, the Golan Heights etc – it’s because, in 1967, the countries surrounding it were foolish enough to threaten to attack Israel (not for the first time) in an attempt to wipe it off the face of the map… They lost their gamble… and, in six days – spookily the same amount of time in which the Jewish God allegedly created the Universe – Israel created more defensible borders. Like him, they rested on the seventh day.

Egypt, Jordan and Syria miscalculated so badly that Israel’s defensive attack originally pushed the Egyptian Army back to the Suez Canal and threatened Cairo, while Jordan’s West Bank territories were over-run and Syria lost the Golan Heights. But, when I hear the words “Golan Heights”, I don’t think “wantonly occupied by Israel”, my memory is of the Syrian Army pouring heavy artillery shells down onto the farmland of northern Israel from the heights before the Six Day War started.

My automatic pro-Israeli thinking, of course, has lessened. Bulldozing the houses of terrorists’ families and taking ten eyes for an eye if you are attacked smacks of the Nazis in their occupied territories in the 1940s and makes me think Have the Israeli government never read their own history books? It was counter-productive for the Germans. It is counterproductive for the Israelis. When they bulldoze a house, does the name Lidice never spring into their minds?

They only have to look at a map. The town of Lidice is still there on modern day maps.

I am always a simplistic thinker.

If you constantly fire rockets into Israel, then Israel is going to react, possibly – and not unreasonably – by sending troops into the country from which it is being attacked. If the IRA had been repeatedly/constantly shelling Liverpool from positions just outside Dublin, the British government would have done more than send a few SAS men into the Republic of Ireland to assassinate people (as they did without the provocation of suffering rocket-attacks from foreign soil).

But I mentioned to Daphna Baram that I thought Israel’s image in the UK had mainly gone downhill since my erstwhile youth largely because of accents.

When I was a kid, the Israelis were automatically the good guys because they sounded like us and wore Western clothes, whereas the Palestinians/Arabs sounded like foreigners and wore costumes straight out of Lawrence of Arabia.

In my erstwhile youth, Prime Minister Golda Meir had an American accent and looked like a grandmother from Baltimore. Israel’s long-time Foreign Minister Abba Eban spoke like he had been educated at a rather stuffy English public school and dressed like the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, looked and sounded like a rather dodgy bloke up an alleyway in Casablanca or some similar black & white movie, selling dirty postcards to tourists.

I mean… Golda Meir – she was a Jew, the Israeli Prime Minister – and she titled her autobiography My Life… you have to admire her for having a sense of humour. Yasser Arafat did not look like he sat at home and watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. Golda Meir might have watched The Benny Hill Show.

It was around the time of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his successor Yitzhak Shamir that things started to go downhill for Israel in PR terms. This was, I think, mainly because Begin and Shamir both had a guttural accent when speaking English though – yes, OK – there was also the minor matter of them both being former anti-British terrorists.

Begin had been leader of Irgun and Shamir was a former member of both Irgun and The Stern Gang.

But that has never been an insurmountable problem for the British – from Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya to Michael Collins, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Ireland, we have always accepted terrorists as the political leaders of ‘our’ former countries.

The trouble with Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir was that they sounded as foreign and alien as their Palestinian rivals – and their suits were not as smart as Abba Eban’s had been.

Daphna did not really agree with me about accents changing Britain’s attitude to Israel, but she did tell me a story about Abba Eban.

In the late 1950s, when Abba Eban was Israel’s representative at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered an especially murderous raid across the border.

Abba Eban stood up at the UN General Assembly and made a particularly brilliant speech defending the raid. He than phoned David Ben-Gurion to express his utter outrage at what he considered had been an appalling and reprehensible attack.

Ben-Gurion listened to Abba Eban, then said:

“Well, I was having second thoughts about the raid myself but, after I heard your outstanding speech, I  was convinced that I did the right thing”.

A story more Oy! Oy! than Oy Vey! perhaps.

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