Tag Archives: Andy Kaufman

Getting drunk at the Edinburgh Fringe and singing over a dead man’s body

The latest news (maybe) from Broadway Baby

The latest Fringe news (maybe) from Broadway Baby

My left shoulder is in middling agony if I move it. It is comedian Arthur Smith’s fault. More about that later.

This morning, I booked the Ballroom of The Counting House in Edinburgh on Friday 28th August next year from 11.00pm to 1.00am… for the increasingly prestigious annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show. Next year is the tenth anniversary of the death by drowning of Malcolm, the godfather of British Alternative Comedy.

He was known, among many things, for his outrageous publicity stunts at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Yesterday in Edinburgh, it was good to see a special Broadway Baby review sheet about Fringe award winners.

Notable was Barry Ferns, who was listed on the front and who got a 6-star front page review for his show The Barry Experience. There was also a large photo of Barry on the back of the sheet, standing atop Arthur’s Seat. Also on the back sheet were reviews of sundry Fringe shows including:

  • Erection
  • Oxford English Dictionary: 2014 Edition
  • Laserdroids of Bangkok
  • The Elephant Nan
  • Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in Bed

You should be aware that, last year, Barry won the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for a series of stunts including producing and distributing fake versions of Broadway Baby.

At The Grouchy Club yesterday: a bad selfie of Coptick and me

At The Grouchy Club, I was an innocent bystander to sex talk

Yesterday, the final Saturday of the Fringe, had a varied collection of other very interesting highlights including the penultimate Grouchy Club show at which my co-host Kate Copstick described to a Tesco Clubcard executive and his credit agency partner how she taught the sex workers of Nairobi about ‘soapy tit wanks’ and the use of fizzy drinks in penile erection plus she had tales of wild orgies in Radlett, Hertfordshire (the next village to where I live in Borehamwood/Elstree). Alas, the descriptions are too vivid for me to transcribe without breaking into tears and uncontrollable twitching.

This was followed by me being part of an alleged audience who were going to repeatedly sing the words “Neil Young” in a raucous way for a forthcoming music album. Alas, it never happened and, instead, Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt nominee Mark Dean Quinn appeared performing a one-hour act (possibly inspired by Andy Kaufman) in which he said very little but stared a lot at the audience.

Mark Dean Quinn - the Kaufman of ballooning

Mark Dean Quinn – arguably the Andy Kaufman of ballooning

It also involved (apparently by osmosis) the audience blowing up balloons to create male-genitalia-like hats. This went well until one young man was encouraged by his chum to get up out of his seat and immediately fell unconscious in a faint onto the floor.

He was tall, thin, pale-skinned and ginger haired. He had been previously blowing up a balloon but, at the time of his fall, was not. He was revived and Mark Dean Quinn quickly retrieved the balloons from his audience and changed the direction of his show.

If you can call it a show. It depends on your definition.

I certainly enjoyed it.

At any rate, all the donations received at the end of the show are now going to be given to an asthma charity.

It was a day of falling-downs and medical problems.

Wilfredo comforts Copstick (with her damaged left arm) by tickling her chin

Wilfredo comforts injured Copstick (with her damaged left arm) by tickling her with a rose

Later, I met up with the still physically and possibly mentally damaged Kate Copstick.

She had a hip replacement a couple of months ago (uninsured) after she fell off the platform on which her slum house stands in Kenya – and broke her elbow about a week ago after being accidentally bowled over by a couple of drunk gents in an Edinburgh street. She is still wearing a sling and goes “Ouch!” on a distractingly regular basis.

She blames the physical damage from both the Kenyan fall which smashed her hip and the Edinburgh fall which smashed her elbow on her being stone-cold sober. She reckons, if she had been drunk, she would have fallen in a more floppy, less damaging way.

Wilfredo handed out roses to his last fans last night

Wilfredo handed out roses last night

She and I were both in the basement of the Tron pub last night to see comic music act Wilfredo record his next album. References to Copstick seemed to pepper the show, the audience (heavily made-up of comics) adored the great man himself and I felt lucky to escape without Wilfredo’s spittle speckling me.

Afterwards, Wilfredo’s godfather Matt Roper told me: “I have to hear it back before I decide whether it will be released as an album. If it works, we’ll get it out by November.”

Which brings us to me lying face-down in the Royal Mile at about 2.30am this morning.

Arthur Smith was doing his annual free Alternative Tour of the Royal Mile last night from 2.00am which I guess attracted 50-80 people. That is a lot when you are one crowded bundle of people rolling down the Royal Mile following a man with surreality on his mind.

Arthur (left) and the stripped man in a waste bin

Arthur (left) & the stripped man in a waste bin in Royal Mile

There was a lack of the total nudity and urination which characterised his event in the later years of last century, but it still involved various pranks such as Arthur’s partner Beth doing the splits, Wally (as in Where’s Wally?) being chased out of his hiding place and legging it off up the Royal Mile, a man being persuaded to climb into a rubbish bin wearing only his pants, the assembled throng singing Jerusalem with obscene lyrics to bemused customers at a pizza stand, constant verbal attacks on the integrity of a local French restaurant and singing a song involving the word ‘cunt’ over the body of an apparently dead man on the pavement.

Arthur Smith encouraged singing over ‘dead’ man in Royal Mile

Arthur Smith led the singing over a ‘dead’ man in Royal Mile

At one point, shortly after singing the song involving the word ‘cunt’ over an apparently dead man lying on the pavement (one of Arthur’s many pre-arranged stunts),  I tripped and fell flat on my front on the pavement (no arms out, just a straight fall onto my front). People just ignored this for a brief moment and looked at me, presumably thinking it was another stunt. But then I was helped up. This getting-up worried me slightly because, as I went down, a shooting pain similar to cramp had shot up my left leg. Fortunately, though, I was OK.

Until this morning, when I found I had searing, shooting pain if I tried to move my left shoulder. The shoulder which never mended properly after being smashed when I got hit by a truck in 1991.

There is nothing broken, as far as I know. Presumably it is just bruised muscle.

But it makes me think Copstick has a point.

I was sober when I fell.

I do not drink, really, except at funerals and marriages, when it would seem rude not to.

If you are drunk, falling is less dangerous.

I think perhaps I should start to drink.

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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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‘American’ comedian Lewis Schaffer revealed to be English character actor Brian Simpson

Mark Watson - Englishman with fake Welsh accent

Welsh comedian Mark Watson was not all he seemed

One night a few years ago, I went with comedy character act Charlie Chuck to The Cockpit Theatre in London. Also on the bill was comedian Mark Watson who had successfully performed for several years using a Welsh accent, despite the fact he came from Bristol and had an English accent. The problem Mark had, he told me, was how could he now drop the Welsh accent he had originally adopted to differentiate him from other comedians playing the circuit?

That night, about 28 minutes into his 30 minute set, he said in his Welsh accent (I paraphrase):

“…but, in fact, I don’t speak like this at all (then switching to his real English voice) I actually speak like this…”

There was (this is true) an audible gasp from the audience. It was an extraordinary coup de théâtre.

And Mark got away with it.

Similarly, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe, a well-known English comedian performed as a fake Canadian comedian, disguising his face with a clever mask. Most critics never mentioned his real name though their reviews had knowing ‘winks’ for those in-the-know. He would have been nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award except that it was widely known by the media who he was (at least one publication named him) and, in fact, he admitted it in an interview.

To my mind, though, the best ‘fake’ comedian – revealed here for the first time – is ‘American’ comedian Lewis Schaffer, who has kept up the pretence for nigh on ten years without anyone realising.

‘Lewis Schaffer’ is actually English character actor Brian Simpson who hails from Brownhills in the West Midlands.

The real face of ‘Lewis Schaffer'

Real face of talented English actor Brian Simpson

“Frankly, it’s relief to admit it,” Simpson told me last night over a very English meal of seared fillet of sea bream with Devon crab and crushed new potatoes at Langan’s restaurant in London’s Mayfair.

“I thought I had gone as far as I could with the Lewis Schaffer character and it was beginning to become a parody of itself.”

“Why did you start it?” I asked.

“I was an actor in my mid-forties, struggling like most,” Simpson told me in his own soft English voice which has a slight twang of a Birmingham accent. “The comedy club circuit was still at its height and I thought I’d try that, but I needed a USP – a Unique Selling Proposition. So I thought of this character.

“The Lewis Schaffer character was a New York Jew set adrift in an alien environment – England – on which he could give insights as a supposed outsider. I remember as a kid watching the BBC TV series Adam Adamant Lives! which was about a Victorian James Bond type character frozen in ice who is revived in Swinging Sixties London. So he looked OK – his Victorian cape did not look out of place in the King’s Road – but ‘normal’ things like light bulbs, cars and TV were all new to him.

Crocodile Dundee inspired Lewis Schaffer

Inspirational Crocodile Dundee movie

“They used the same idea in the original Crocodile Dundee film – a figure set down in an alien environment. So, to be honest, I nicked that idea and I gave him a back story – He had married a British woman whom he calls English, but actually she’s Scottish because, as an American, he doesn’t know the difference. And I gave him two children because that widened the terms of reference for his stories. So he’s a divorced, neurotic Jewish New Yorker trapped in the UK by love of his children. In fact, I’m gay and have a partner who is not in showbusiness, which I think is what keeps me sane.”

“So why,” I asked, “have you decided to ‘come out’ now as Brian Simpson?”

“I guess,” said Simpson, “I was getting tired of the ‘Lewis Schaffer’ character. I’ve played him for over ten years now and, for an actor, that’s… well, it’s not what I want. It’s like performing in The Mousetrap every night. Not that The Mousetrap is not a very fine play. It is. But only playing Lewis Schaffer is very limiting for an actor. It’s not what I came into the business to do.

Comedy hero Andy Kaufman

American comedy hero Andy Kaufman

“Also meeting the American comedian Laura Levites at the Edinburgh Fringe last year had a big effect on me. I had always claimed that Lewis Schaffer was brought up in Great Neck, New York because that was where one of my great comedy heroes – Andy Kaufman – was born. But, by coincidence, Laura was from Great Neck too.

“It’s not a big place and she almost caught me out on details a couple of times, though I was able to bullshit my way through chatting with her. But it kind of made me feel like the fraud I was. It took the edge off the ‘game’ of playing Lewis Schaffer. I thought I have been doing this for ten years and still don’t have a TV series or vast amounts of money flowing in from the character, so why keep up the pretence?

“I do OK. I have always said Lewis Schaffer lives in Nunhead, Peckham, but actually my partner and I live in West Hampstead and we’ve got a couple of properties we rent out in Swiss Cottage. So we get by.

“But something happened to me this year; I don’t know what it was. I let my hair go grey and I got a bit tired of being Lewis Schaffer not Brian Simpson and I started feeling broody or something. I might move back to the West Midlands, to Brownhills.”

“So where do you go now professionally?” I asked.

The Fringe has reduced comedian Lewis Schaffer to this

Simpson had grown tired of keeping the Lewis Schaffer secret

“Well,” said Simpson, “I’ll keep doing the Lewis Schaffer character in my current shows in London – Free Until Famous is every Tuesday and Wednesday at the Source Below in Soho and American in London is at the Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday. I might even do another mini-tour of arts centres with Lewis Schaffer. I tried that out earlier this year and it went OK.

“Next year, I’m thinking of staging an Edinburgh Fringe show called Lewis Schaffer Is Not Feeling Himself or possibly Lewis Schaffer Is Not Lewis Schaffer. And I have a new character I’m working on. She’s a schoolteacher character from Ulster and she was once a…”

“She?” I asked.

“Yes,” explained Brian Simpson. “I need a complete break from Lewis Schaffer.”

“Are you actually Jewish?” I asked.

“No,” Simpson laughed. “Catholic… non-practising but, once a Catholic, always a Catholic…”

“Did you think of killing off the Lewis Schaffer character?” I asked. “Giving him a Reichenbach Falls ending?”

“You mean like Malcolm Hardee?” Simpson asked me.

“Well, it worked for him,” I said. “Derek has put the Malcolm Hardee years behind him and has carved out quite a good career for himself in South Africa.”

“I prefer to leave it open-ended,” replied Simpson. “I can keep the Lewis Schaffer schtick going for a few more years yet. It’s like plate-spinning. You have to keep everything up in the air.”

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Harry Deansway: UK comedy publisher turns Edinburgh Fringe stand-up comic

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

Harry suggested I shoot him next to a rubbish bin last week

Harry suggested I shoot him next to a rubbish bin last week

Harry Deansway published and edited The Fix comedy magazine for several years. He has also written comedy criticism, promoted and produced comedy shows and managed and directed acts.

In August, he is performing as a stand-up in his first full-length comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Was The Fix magazine your first thing?” I asked him when we met in London’s Soho last week.

“Pretty much, yeah.” he replied. “It went on for four years: I lost about £30,000 on it and, obviously, I fell out with a lot of people through it, as I imagine you have through your blog. Have you upset anyone?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“We would upset people on a monthly basis,” said Harry.

“Why on earth are you becoming a performer?” I asked.

“I’ve worked with a few acts,” replied Harry Deansway, “and they can be unreliable. I was doing a lot of work with other people and you get to a certain point when they go off with someone else and you’re left with nothing. So I thought I’d have a go at the performing side and, that way, I’m in complete control of my career.”

“Is your Edinburgh show going to be straight stand-up?” I asked.

“Without getting too pretentious about it…” started Harry.

“Feel free,” I told him.

“Well,” he continued, “straight stand-up, but working at a slightly different rhythm. Stand-up in its traditional form, but maybe subjects that aren’t as commercially dealt with, you know what I mean?”

“What sort of subjects?” I asked. “Chicken sexing? There’s a lot of money in chicken sexing.”

“I guess it’s more playing with the form of stand-up,” said Harry. “Obviously, I’ve observed a lot and understand the form a lot. Things like when acts get angry in a set and they’re not really angry. So I’ll do that in my act, but I’ll actually say I need to get angry for this bit.

“Deconstructing?” I suggested.

“Deconstructing,” agreed Harry. “There’s a lot of similarities between jazz and comedy in the rhythm and the improvisations. John Coltrane really inspired me for my Edinburgh show. The way he would take a song and break it down into its parts. It still sounds like a song, but it’s completely out of control and improvised. So sometimes it feels like he’s lost control of the song. That’s what I want to try and do with my Edinburgh show. Is it in control or isn’t it? Oh my god, he’s totally lost the audience! It’s fucked! And then you bring it back.

The Fix comedy magazine ran for four years

The Fix magazine ran for four years

“A deconstructed show, playing with the form, rhythms. A lot of comedy is like Build laughter until there’s a big laugh. I prefer to make it really awkward, get it worse and worse so people think it’s completely out of control and then you pierce that tension with a big laugh. It’s kind of the opposite of how other comedians do it. They like to build-and-build-and-build. I like to knock down and lower expectations.”

“That’s original,” I said. “trying to not get a laugh.”

“It’s been working pretty well recently,” said Harry.

“Isn’t there a chance people might think you’re a crap comic?” I asked.

“Yes, definitely,” said Harry.

“Would they be right?” I asked.

“I struggle to know the answer to that myself,” replied Harry. “Sometimes they would be; sometimes they wouldn’t be. Maybe inconsistent. Not crap.”

“How will you know,” I asked, “if you’re not getting a laugh successfully or not getting a laugh unsuccessfully?”

“It’s like Andy Kaufman,” said Harry. “People like that.”

“Or George Osborne,” I suggested.

“They make a career out of it,” said Harry. “It’s a long and hard road. I did a gig last night. The first three minutes, complete silence. Then some bloke in the front row leaned over to his mate and said Is it always this bad? and I said Do you think you could do better? and he said Yes, so he got up on stage and proceeded to tell two racist jokes. And the audience didn’t like me, but they hated him even more. It created this awful atmosphere that not even I could…”

“Well, you succeeded in being Andy Kaufman,” I said. “You know all comedians are mad. Do you aspire to be mad?”

“They are,” agreed Harry, “but to certain degrees. Some of it manifests itself in unreliability. In others it’s complete madness. Badly organised, unreliability, arguing all the time with people.”

“It’s OK to quote that?” I checked.

“Yes, you can quote anything,” Harry told me.

“There must have been something in you that was always a frustrated performer,” I suggested.

“Yes,” said Harry. “I’m definitely a happier person since performing comedy. Obviously there was a hole there.”

“So you are stopping being an entrepreneurial person?” I asked.

“No. What that did for me was give me a really good grounding, so that gives me a head’s start over any other act. I don’t mind doing my own admin and press, whereas that terrifies a lot of other acts. I’ve spent ten years as a highly unsuccessful businessman in the comedy industry.”

“Your show isn’t listed in the main Edinburgh Fringe Programme,” I said.

“As a marketing tool, I think it’s ineffective,” explained Harry.

“How long are you going to give yourself to become successful?”

“This Edinburgh. If I don’t win any awards, I’m giving up.”

“In September?” I asked.

“It needs to go well, I’ll tell you that much.”

“What happens if it doesn’t?” I asked.

“Over these last ten years,” said Harry. “I’ve had a feeling that I’m right. If it doesn’t work in August, then maybe I’m wrong.”

“Remind me what’s your Edinburgh Fringe show is called?” I asked.

Wrong Way.

“Because?” I asked.

“It just sounds good,” said Harry. “It’s a good hashtag for Twitter. My poster is me the wrong way round.”

The Fringe poster image for Harry Deansway: Wrong Way

The Fringe poster image for Harry Deansway: Wrong Way

“So this is going to be an anti-comedy comedy,” I said. “But is it going to work up to a climax?”

“Yes. But by messing around with the format of the Edinburgh show. It’s kind of taking the piss out of all those ‘journey’ shows where they get to the end and it’s poignant and all that bullshit. It’s really subverting that. I’ve seen so many Edinburgh shows and I hate any one that’s Joe Bloggs woke up one day and found his wife was cheating on him! Here’s the journey he took!”

“Doesn’t Andy Kaufman type anti-comedy only appeal to a minority audience, though?” I asked.

“But you can make a living out of it,” argued Harry, “though I haven’t even got to that stage yet.”

“You’d be happy making a living as opposed to being a superstar?” I asked.

“Oh, definitely,” said Harry. “Just the freedom… to… to keep innovating.” He laughed a rather embarrassed laugh. “That’s what I said, but I don’t mean it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s so bullshit. No, the freedom to build an audience who like what you’re doing and you can make a living out of it. The Stewart Lee / Simon Munnery model. It’s a longer process but, in the long term, you’re gonna have a more secure audience that are gonna want to see everything you do and it’s not going to be such a flash-in-the-pan thing. That’s what I’m doing, but I’m just in a hurry to get some sort of recognition. I’ve been doing this for ten years and I just don’t feel I’ve got the recognition I deserve, so I really need that.”

“What if reviewers don’t like your show?” I asked.

“They can say what they like,” replied Harry. “I watched this documentary about jazz and all the critics on it understood the form and theory of jazz and the way they spoke about it was amazing. But the majority of comedy critics are not up to scratch. In rock journalism, there’s a culture of Hunter S.Thompsons and Lester Bangs but it doesn’t feel like there’s been the same volume of good journalists. They’re all silver foxes.”

“I’m more of a slaphead fox,” I said.

“I set up a magazine – The Fix,” said Harry, “but really struggled to get interesting journalists for it. People who could really take the art of comedy seriously. I just don’t think there’s anyone who does that. We’re crying out for a great comedy journalist.”

“You’ve just started a podcast,” I said.

“Yes. Three or four weeks ago.”

“Why?”

“Profile,” replied Harry. “I interview big names and hope that they bring an audience to hear about me.”

“In our American cousins’ terms, how do you monetize that?” I asked.

Harry the performer - as he wants to be seen

Harry the comedy performer – the image he wants to be seen

“I’m not doing it to monetize it at the moment. It’s purely promotional for me and the act. Though, if someone set up a podcast advertising agency, there is money to be made there.”

“Perhaps you should do that,” I suggested.

“No thanks. I’m going to use all that knowledge for my own career. I’m not going to be helping acts any more. It’s all about me now. That’s what Edinburgh 2013 is all about. It’s my turn.”

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Paul Provenza, director-producer, wants more emotional reactions to comedy

(This piece was also published in the Huffington Post and by Indian news site We Speak News)

Paul Provenza thinks about some people he has worked with

At the recent Edinburgh Fringe, for the second year running, far-and-away the trendiest show among comics themselves was Set List – Comedy Without a Net, in which, when they go on stage, unprepared comedians are given five (usually bizarre) phrases which they have to weave into an act. They do not know the words in advance and the phrases are revealed only one by one during the comedians ‘set’.

Experienced comics can sometimes die a terrible death in front of the audience; unknowns can sometimes soar. And you can often see the fear in the comics’ eyes. But even the biggest comedians want to play Set List because it stretches their ability.

American Paul Provenza, best-known for directing The Aristocrats movie, brought Set List to this country – it has also played at the Soho Theatre in London. I asked him how it came about.

“I was in LA,” he told me, “and Troy Conrad called me one day after maybe the third time he’d ever done it. He said: Do you wanna come down and do this thing? We make up a set list and you improv it. After I did it, I went backstage and told Troy: Would you honor us by partnering with us, because I think we can take this thing around the world? Every comic in the world has to see and experience this show. It’s good for comedy. It feels great.”

“Who is Troy Conrad?” I asked.

“He’s one of these brilliant comedy artists,” said Paul, “both in stand-up as well as writing and producing – he produces all sorts of really interesting podcasts – he’s one of these multi-talent polymaths who is just constantly creating so much that he never actually has the time to push any of the stuff he’s created because he’s moved on already.”

“Much like you, then,” I said to Paul. “What are you? A comedian or an actor or a director?”

“I’m a comedian first and foremost,” Paul told me decisively. “I’ve been doing stand-up comedy since I was 16. But one of the reasons I’m such an Anglophile is I studied acting seriously when I went to RADA in London in the late 1970s for about a year and a half. I am 100 years old. I’ve done a lot of acting. A lot of stage acting in New York. I worked with Steve Martin off-Broadway, doing his play for about a year and a national tour of that and lots of other projects. It’s something I’ve always done.

“I guess it’s kinda been one of my career curses that I’m always doing so many different things I can’t figure out exactly what I am and the business is so shallow that, if people can’t nail you to one spot on the wall, they don’t know what to do with you. I like to think of myself as someone who can’t hold a job. I’m a migrant comedy worker.”

“Comedians and actors have doolally minds,” I said. “But producing and and directing needs a mind that’s more together. You produce and direct. How come you can do that?”

“Well,” said Paul. “that happened after knowing Barbara Romen for 30 plus years and being really close friends. Our lives sort of ended in a similar place at around a similar time. She was always saying What are you doing over in Edinburgh? Why do you leave the country for a year at a time? You’re doing a gig in Shanghai? What??? What’s going on? 

“I told her I can’t explain it to you. You’ve gotta come and experience it. So she came over to the Edinburgh Fringe and she understood and became infected too. Then we decided we were both sick of dealing with corporate structures, sick of dealing with the mainstream, basically sick of dealing with cunts. We’d both dealt with too many cunts in our lives and thinking Why can’t we just do what we do and have cool people around all the time?

“So, after Barbara got initiated into the foreign comedy scene, we decided Well, let’s start working together which we’d both been leery of before, because we were friends. But we decided that, over the 30 years we’d known each other, we’d already had pretty much every fight we could ever have, so we negotiated… What new fight could we have that could fuck this up?… and we finally said Let’s just do it. It’s too hard to find new people who are on the same page.

“So, the long-winded answer to your question is it’s all to do with the people around you. If it weren’t for partnering with her, I don’t have what it takes to bring all these ideas to fruition. Barbara suddenly made it possible for crazy ideas to actually get accomplished.

Barbara Romen with me during my chat with Paul Provenza (photograph by Paul Provenza)

“I’m from New York, she’s from Chicago. We probably originally met hanging around the Improv in LA in the early 1980s. Barbara has been on every side of the showbiz table.

“She’s been a Development Executive at a major studio, been a production executive, she’s worked for agencies – she used to represent Andy Kaufman! I mean, her pedigree is insanely brilliant. But, like me, she would follow her heart and go off and do whatever she felt like doing, so her career doesn’t have a linear path. With us teaming up, we bring together all those different understandings of different sides of the business and, as a result, we can end up dodging the raindrops and creating our own paths, which is really tough to do.”

“So,” I suggested, “you are creative with a bit of organisational. And she is organisational with a bit of creative?”

“Well,” said Paul, “she has a lot of creative ability, but I also bring something really interesting to the table. At this point in my life, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care who I piss off. I tell the truth. I don’t care who’s offended. I truly don’t care. And you know what? It’s tremendously liberating and phenomenally productive.”

I turned to Barbara, who was sitting with us.

“It’s a separate blog,” I said, “but it would be interesting to chat about how on earth you or anyone could ever manage to represent Andy Kaufman.”

“No, it wouldn’t make for a good interview,”  Barbara said. “In person, he was quite mild and nothing like his multiple onstage personalities.”

“Mmmmm…..” I replied.

“I guess we work on the fringes of real showbusiness,” said Paul.

“But you had your own series The Green Room with Paul Provenza on US television,” I said.

And Set List is going to be on UK TV on Sky Atlantic,” Paul agreed, “But Barbara and I, as the figureheads of a small little scrappy group of Ninja production people… we operate in a different world from America’s Got Talent or Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow. We operate in that world where we do things that are weird and interesting and cool and a little bit different and treat comedy with a different attitude, so we’re sorta on the fringes.”

“OK,” I said. “but you’re pretty successful at it. A cult feature film and two TV series on different sides of the Atlantic. What’s next?”

“The book I had out last year with Dan Dion – !Satiristas!” Paul replied. “We still do a lot of live projects based around that. We‘ve been doing experimental live shows – big theatrical pieces with Tim Robbins and the Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles. Putting together particular types of shows for particular events.

“And I’ve started half a dozen documentaries which will go or not go depending on what happens. We’ve got TV projects that we wanna do all over the place. We’re looking for a new TV home for The Green Room now. But the really great thing about us having partnered and understanding the expansiveness of comedy around the world right now, is that everything on our plate is all stuff that we’re passionate about. We just don’t do anything we’re not passionate about.

“I’d never really had a through line in my ‘career’ before partnering with Barbara. But all our projects at the moment are about presenting comedy in a different way that operates on a more emotional level. It’s not just how funny it is… It’s Whoa! This is making me feel things! Wow! Imagine living in the world that way! Imagine what excitement to be around people who just speak the truth and are spontaneously funny and don’t play by conventional rules! It’s almost like a paradigm shift for people to experience that.

“And it’s what I felt when I first became a comedian and actually entered the world of real comedy. It didn’t just operate on the basis of Hmmm! I have a career ahead of me. I’m going to do this and strategise that way and I’ll get this and get that. It was like Oh! There’s a whole species of people here who are outsiders, who all speak the same language! And that was huge for me on an emotional and psychological level.

“All the projects we do involving comedy are trying to embrace that aspect of it: this is not just merchandising, not just pop culture – Oh, that’s a funny joke! – It’s more about Wow! This is a different way to live in the world! And comedians are the ones who can make a living doing it that way.

“But,” I said, “if you are making these shows mainly for comedians, will Mr Smith in Oregon be interested?”

“That’s the interesting thing,” said Paul. “I truly believe that, if you do something that speaks to comedians – like Set List.… when you’re that true and that authentic, an audience will show up for it because it’s the kind of comedy that people are always blown away by – It’s unprepared, it’s spontaneous, you feel like you are part of the genesis of it, just being in the room. You feel somehow related to what’s happening – and, while people don’t know they’re looking for it, I believe that people nowadays are craving authenticity. We live in a very cynical age where things are marketed down people’s throats. There’s a generation alive now that I can’t even relate to what it must be like for them. From the day they were born, they’ve been marketed-to and demographised to within an inch of their lives. What must that be like?

“People want truth and authenticity. Though not everybody. There are people who want the slick bubblegum and they can always get that in music, comedy, TV. It’s there. We’re never gonna make that disappear. But we do now live in a world where the alternative can also find its audience. There’s a little bit more room on the shelf for stuff that isn’t necessarily McDonalds.”

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I do not know why five people fired guns at the owner of the Comedy Cafe

I never remember my dreams. I wish I did.

Well, maybe I remember them once every couple of years.

I got to bed at around 3.45am this morning. Don’t ask.

The alarm went off at 8.30am.

I remember a dream if I am woken up during one.

This morning, when the alarm woke me, I was dreaming that an act had fired a gun past Noel Faulkner’s head. He owns the Comedy Cafe in London and was auditioning potential performers. He ducked, rushed off sideways and said: “They’re deafening me!”

“That’s very insensitive,” I told the man with the gun. “You’re the fifth person who has shot at Noel today.”

Five performers had walked in and shot at him, thinking it was a good attention-grabbing opening to their act. I partly know where this dream comes from.

It is partly connected with custard pies.

I used to work as a researcher on the children’s TV show Tiswas, which was known for custard pies and slapstick. When I went to see potential acts, they often thought it would be hilarious to ‘pie’ the man from Tiswas. They were, they thought, bound to get on the show that way. To tell the truth, it was a bit wearisome.

I used to smile appreciatively when it happened.

But there are worse things.

Auditioning children near puberty is one of them.

One year, too many – far too many – children –  especially slightly-off-key girls – were singing the song Tomorrow (from Annie) at me in auditions. It was appalling. They were well-meaning and enthusiastic. But that made it all-the-more ghastly. It was like having your teeth drilled while someone sticks a screwdriver in your ear.

And we all know what that feels like.

Presenter Chris Tarrant told me he had had a worse year, when lots of twelve-year-old boys with their voices in the process of breaking were singing Bright Eyes at him – because it was the song of the moment and because their parents thought it was cute.

“It was horrible,” he told me. “You never, ever want to hear a boy, at puberty, sing Bright Eyes.”

Getting repeatedly shot at with blanks in a small room by people trying to impress you would probably run this pretty close in a contest, though.

I did once try to persuade the producer of Channel 4’s The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross that, just to get publicity and to create what I thought would be an Andy Kaufman-esque moment, during an interview and immediately before a commercial break, someone should run on-set with a blank gun and shoot Jonathan in the chest. He would have exploding blood capsules under his jacket.

The shots would be fired, blood would spurt from holes in his jacket and the director would cut to the commercial break. After the commercials, Jonathan would re-appear in a duplicate jacket without any bullet holes and make no reference to what had happened.

“The regulators would not like it,” I was told.

The producer was probably right.

I was telling this story to someone yesterday.

Which must be why guns with blanks made an appearance in my dream.

How poor Noel Faulkner got involved, I have no idea.

There was a smell of cordite in the air, mixed with the smell of highly-whipped shaving foam.

On Tiswas, the ‘custard’ pies were actually made of highly-whipped shaving foam and other ingredients. The little bubbles of air in the highly-whipped shaving foam made the ‘pies’ stick to people, but it could be wiped-off quickly and cleanly.

People never used that formula when they ‘pied’ you as the visiting researcher from Tiswas, though. They used real custard pies.

Dreams are less messy.

You can wipe the blood away.

I wish I could remember them.

A whole world of surrealism is passing me by.

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A visit to a fetish club and the recent death of a unique British comedy performer

I blogged yesterday about a Pull the Other One show in Herne Hill, South East London, run by Vivienne and Martin Soan.

Before the show, Martin told me: “I’m in the final of a mime competition at the Royal Festival Hall on 29th May. It’s going to be me against France.”

“The whole of France?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied Martin. “It’s in honour of Malcolm Hardee because he admired the art of mime so much.”

(Malcolm thought mime was “a tragic waste of time”)

“You’re competing against the whole of France?” I asked Martin.

“Yes. I’ve actually got a real French mime artist to take part and I’m going to win. The contest is rigged because Malcolm would have approved of that.”

“Have there been any heats?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin. “No heats. But it’s called The England v France Mime-Off and I’ve got through to the final.”

I think he was joking but, with a surreal comedian, you can never be altogether certain.

It was also an interesting night at Pull the Other One because Tony Green was performing in his guise as The Obnoxious Man, whose act is to shout two-minutes of ad-libbed vitriolic abuse at the audience.

I first met him in the early 1990s, when the late Malcolm Hardee suggested I see Tony compere at a now long-forgotten comedy night called T’others at The Ship in Kennington, South London.

A few months later, Tony somehow persuaded me it would be interesting to go to the monthly fetish club Torture Garden which, that month, was being held in a three-storey warehouse in Islington. The top floor was given over to unconventional cabaret acts and Tony’s chum Sophie Seashell, the partner of one of The Tiger Lillies, had booked bizarre acts for the night. That month’s acts included the extraordinary Andrew Bailey.

Torture Garden still exists and, earlier this year, Adolf Hitler singing act Frank Sanazi told me he was performing there, so their taste for the bizarre clearly still remain high.

There was and I presume still is a dress code at Torture Garden and perhaps rather naively, when I went, my concession to fetishism was wearing an ageing hippie Indian-style shirt and colourful trousers while Tony was wearing a white straw hat and rather louche suit and looked a bit like Sylvester McCoy’s incarnation of Doctor Who.

When we arrived, Tony was told: “You’re OK, you look perverted,” but my shirt was not deemed good enough as a costume. The people on the door suggested I take off my shirt so I was naked from the waist up, then take off my black leather belt and tie it diagonally across my chest with the buckle at the front. I think it may have been some personal fantasy of the man on the door.

“If I take my belt off, my trousers may fall down,” I said.

“All the better,” the man replied.

“It won’t be a pretty sight,” I warned him.

“All the better,” the man replied.

That’s the good thing about sado-masochists – they always see half a glass – although whether it is half-full or half-empty depends on their particular tendencies.

I was not reassured a fetish club was my scene, but it was certainly interesting. I think Americans take to such things much more wholeheartedly – there was a look in the more outrageously dressed (or un-dressed) people’s eyes at Torture Garden which made me think a strong British sense of irony and an active sense of the ridiculous don’t gel (if that’s the word) with wearing outlandish sado-masochistic costumes for sexual thrills.

Tony Green took in his stride such things as a slightly-self-conscious naked fat man ‘walking’ his wife like a dog on a lead. She was scrambling about on all-fours and I think her knees were playing up a bit. Presumably in suburbia there are carpets.

At Pull the Other One, Tony told me things are looking up for him at the moment as he is performing in the play Reign at 4th Floor West Studios in Commercial Road this week. Tony is a man never short of an interesting story.

When I mentioned that Pull the Other One has more than a touch of Andy Kaufman’s experimental anarchy about it, inevitably, Tony had an Andy Kaufman story.

He told me of an evening in the early 1980s when Comedy Store founder Pete Rosengard phoned up Andy Kaufman, who was in London, and persuaded him to come down and perform at the Store. Andy appeared as his ‘women’s wrestling champion’ character, challenging any women in the audience to wrestle him on stage… and was gonged off. This was the early 1980s and Tony himself led heckles of “Fuck off, you sexist pig!” perhaps not unconnected to the fact he himself had been gonged off earlier.

Andy Kaufman was not amused.

Tony also told me sad news which I had not heard – that the extraordinary performance artist and comedy performer Ian Hinchliffe drowned in Arkansas around two months ago. He was there with his American partner and, the way Tony told it, Ian was fishing in a boat on a lake with a 94-year-old friend. They caught a whopper of a large fish, both got excited, both fell out of the boat and the 94-year-old man survived but Ian, 68, drowned.

Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (Malcolm drowned too, in 2005) quoted an anecdote about Ian Hinchliffe and Ian was not amused because his surname was mis-spelled ‘Hinchcliffe’ – not surprising as, even though I wrote the manuscript, publishers Fourth Estate never showed me a proof copy and the result was a plethora of mis-prints throughout the book.

I had not met Ian at the time the book was published but I met him later and he was most certainly a one-off. We exchanged slightly odd Christmas cards for a while although I hadn’t seen him for years.

The reference to him in I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake is below (with the spelling of his name corrected):

__________________________________________________________

Some acts, of course, are just too weird to ever make it. Like Ian Hinchliffe.

I heard about him years and years ago, even before I started with The Greatest Show on Legs. Someone asked me:

“Do you want to go and see this bloke called Ian Hinchliffe who eats glass?”

I never went to see him but, years later, I bumped into him when he was in his fifties and saw him in various pub shows where he threw bits of liver around. He was, he said, a performance artist and in one part of his act he pretended to disembowel himself. He had liver and bits of offal in a bag that he pretended was coming out of his stomach. Then he started throwing it at the audience.

One show I saw was in an East End pub with a particularly rough landlord. The liver and offal flew right over the audience’s head, hit the landlord and knocked the optics off behind the bar. The landlord came over to beat him up and Ian Hinchliffe jumped out of the first floor window. He landed on the landlord’s car, putting a big dent in the bonnet. He didn’t perform at that pub again.

At another gig in Birmingham, a member of the audience got up halfway through and left. Ian Hinchliffe stopped the show and followed him home. Quite what the audience felt, I don’t know.

__________________________________________________________

Tony Green tells me an Ian Hinchliffe Memorial Day is being organised on Saturday 2nd July, probably starting around 2.00pm, at Beaconsfield arts studio in Newport Street, SE11 which will include Tony Allen’s Jazz Tea Party and a host of prominent early alternative comedians.

If the day is anything like Ian Hinchliffe, it will be truly original.

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