Tag Archives: Arts Council

Scots comedians, Daniel Kitson, Eddie Izzard, Jerry Sadowitz and two lesbians

Is this bearded man only 12 years old?

Liam Lonergan with microphone or vegetable?

In yesterday’s blog, I printed part of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan who is compiling a portfolio of long-form articles on stand-up, local theatre, comedy revue and comedy theory as part of his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Here is another extract:

__________

Liam: I was reading articles about how, in the 1980s, students would get housing benefits or income grants, whereas now it’s more fees not grants. Do you think the fees incurred by universities and students nowadays hinder an active student stand-up scene?

John: No. Because, when you’re talking about students doing stand-up, the thing you’re really talking about is the Edinburgh Fringe and the last seven or ten years the Free Fringe and the Free Festival have been around and that allows anyone to do what they used to do. Though there is a bizarre thing that the English Arts Council won’t give grants to comedians because they say comedy isn’t an art. So they’ll give grants to artists, to ballet dancers, to singers, to musicians but the English Arts Council won’t give grants to comics because comedy isn’t an art.

Liam: Do you think that there’s a richer comedy heritage in Scotland, maybe? Where they consider it an art or…

Rikki Fulton was not in the audience as he is dead

Rikki Fulton – with a slight smile

John: Er, I dunno. Scottish and English comedy? Well, Scottish comedy’s more straight-faced. I remember watching Scotch and Wry – it was a BBC TV series with Rikki Fulton. I had heard about it for years but never seen it and I first saw it when I was working at the UK Gold TV channel in England. I watched an episode and loved it and came down and said to everyone: “Ah! I’ve just watched Scotch and Rye and isn’t it just…” And everyone said “Yeah, isn’t it absolute shit”. And I thought “Isn’t that interesting”. I thought it was absolutely brilliant and they all thought it was shit I think because it was done straight-faced. It was almost Scandinavian. Rikki Fulton doesn’t smile. None of them did, none of the performances were ‘comedy’ performances. All were straight-faced.

Liam: Do you prefer that rather than with a wink?

John: I dunno if it’s a Scottish thing it’s usually straight-faced. I remember – this is irrelevant – I remember being in Queen’s Street station in Glasgow and listening to two tramps sitting on the ground and they were so funny. I mean, they were SO funny. But they were just talking normally to each other. I mean, they weren’t actually ‘being funny’ – it was just their natural speech rhythm and attitude. It was sarcasm or something. Anyway, sorry. I’ve gone off the subject.

Liam: Do you consider there was a golden era for comedy?

John: Nah. The golden era is whenever you were in your teens.

Liam: More receptive to comedy?

John: Teens or early twenties. I mean, the golden era for my parents was the Wartime and just after: ITMA.

Liam: Everyone’s got an era from when they were in their twenties, I suppose.

John: I think what sort of happens with humour is people watch television comedy when they’re teenagers or children because they’re stuck at home. And then they go to college and they don’t watch that much television really – unless it’s daytime television – because they go out and get pissed in the evenings – and then they come back to it when they’re trapped at home with children in their late twenties/early thirties. So there’s a ten year gap and, therefore, the golden era is before that ten year gap – before you stopped watching comedy. When you come back to it ten years later, it never feels quite the same. When was your golden era? What age were you? I mean to me you only look about 12 now.

Liam: Well, I’m 24 now. I remember saving up tokens to get this VHS tape from The Sun newspaper that had loads of bits of Fawlty Towers on it.

John: And, of course, you’re a freak because you’re interested in the craft of comedy. You’re not an ordinary person.

Tony Hancock from a ‘golden era’ or comedy

Tony Hancock – big in a ‘golden era’ of comedy

Liam: I might be an anomaly in that regard. I was watching Hancock’s Half Hour when I was younger and Peter Cook and listening to Derek and Clive. I mean, I don’t know. I was very big on The Office thing but that might be because that came about when I was old enough to properly appreciate the ligaments of comedy.

Another thing… I call it ‘The Daniel Kitson Dichotomy’. He’s someone who seems to sort of espouse a separatist fringe comedy spirit – “I’m a fringe comedian” – But, when you go to get Daniel Kitson tickets, you’re usually on the phone to arts centre switchboards for 45 minutes trying to get through the Daniel Kitson flashmob – because he’s got a sort of business model that is quite profitable. Can he really consider himself a fringe comedian anymore?

John: I thought it was very clever marketing when he, in his early days at the Edinburgh Fringe, would have posters and flyers just saying “Daniel Kitson is on at (wherever)” and appear not to be doing an advert because that’s the best sort of advert. It was a bit like Eddie Izzard kept going on for years about how he couldn’t get on or didn’t want to be on television and he got enormous amounts of publicity by actually not being on television. He said he wanted to write a sitcom about cows which was unfilmable and would never, ever be done. Eventually it was done and it was absolute shit but, of course, it was great publicity to say you were never going to be on television.

Comedian Jerry Sadowitz (left) in Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness, a 1990 show I produced for Noel Gay/BSB

Comedian Jerry Sadowitz (left) in Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness, a 1990 show I produced for Noel Gay/BSB

It can backfire on you, because Malcolm Hardee managed Jerry Sadowitz in his early days and he did brilliantly at marketing him as the foul-mouthed comedian who could never be on television. This built up brilliantly and Jerry became famous for being untransmittable. But the downside of it was that television producers ‘knew’ they could not even consider him because they ‘knew’ he could not be put on television. So he never actually got to the point beyond almost being on television – not until much later.

Jerry is interesting because last time I saw him do a full-length stand-up show was about six years ago and I thought “Surely he can’t be as offensive anymore” because comedy has moved on.  Lots of people do the offensive thing. But he still managed to be jaw-droppingly offensive. Extraordinary. Very impressive. He’s brilliant.

Liam: I’m not someone who’s easily phased but when I saw him in Leicester Square Theatre I was quite shocked…I didn’t expect myself to be.

John: I always thought that (but it might not be true) maybe I helped him get on mainstream television because, before he did a late night magic show for Channel 4 (The Other Side of Gerry Sadowitz on Channel 4), I produced a one-off one-hour stand-up show called The Last Laugh With Jerry Sadowitz, for Noel Gay Television/BSB (in 1990).

I talked to him beforehand and said: “BSB don’t really mind about swearing but try not to do too much. You can probably have about four ‘fucks’ and a ‘cunt’ if you’re lucky so try and keep it back. But don’t let it interfere with your flow…” And he did a one-hour, fast-talking show with not a single fuck or cunt in it. I never thought he could do it because I thought the swearing was part of the rhythm of his speech. But he managed to do it without any fucks or cunts at all.

Liam: Did he still get a good response from it without the swear words in?

John: Yeah, it was a wonderful show. Though he did pick on two lesbians in the audience and then he was surprised when they came up to him after the show and berated him. They were so annoyed and offended. He had really gone for them during the show. And he was telling them afterwards: “But it’s just… it’s just comedy. It’s just an act. It’s only comedy”. He didn’t quite see that people could take it more – ehhh – more personally.

He was just a comedian. It was just comedy.

… CONTINUED HERE

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

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

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator'

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator’ of comedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not for television research

Not for UK television research purposes

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

“Very deliberately no,” said Brett.

“Why?”

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

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

“Yeah,” said Brett wearily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Women of all ages?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

A totally irrelevant image of Malcolm Hardee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Brett Mills’ favourite sitcom

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” I asked.

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

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

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

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Write it as Art, sell it as baked beans… How to publicise stage shows, movies, books, TV and Shakespeare

Sit back, relax and have a cup of tea.

Throughout my life, whenever I’ve been asked what I do, I have never been able to give any understandable answer because the truth is I’ve really just bummed around doing overlapping this, that and sometimes the other.

One thing I used to do was review and write feature articles about movies, so I saw previews a week or a month before the films were released, having read little or nothing at all about them.

I saw them ‘cold’ as they were structured to be seen.

That blissful ignorance happened again last night with the movie The Adjustment Bureau. I had read nothing at all about it. I knew it starred Matt Damon, was based on a short story by Philip K Dick (who wrote the stories on which Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report were based) and, on the poster, Matt Damon and a girl in a red dress were running away from people chasing them in a city.

That was it.

So last night I saw The Adjustment Bureau cold and thought it was a fascinating film – quite often totally doolally, but fascinating. It is severely weird for a commercial film and it is well worth seeing.

But the poster bears no relation at all to the basic content of the movie – to the extent that it even implies The Adjustment Bureau is in one particular type of movie genre when it is actually a totally different movie genre (I don’t want to give it away).

So that’s an example of a misleading movie poster successfully attempting to get bums on seats. It’s a potentially counter-productive strategy because word-of-mouth soon gets round.

I’m interested because another thing I did – for over twenty plus years – was make on-screen TV promotions – ‘trailers’.

I was a writer or producer or director or writer-producer or writer-director or whatever it took a company’s fancy to call the job.

So I am interested in how creative products are ‘sold’ to the audience.

A couple of days ago, someone asked me about their 40-word show entry for the Edinburgh Fringe Programme.

My advice was the same advice I give on anything creative.

Write it as Art.

Sell it as baked beans.

If the content is high quality in itself, it won’t be demeaned by a tabloid headline type of publicity.

There’s nothing wrong with being populist.

The opposite of popular is unpopular.

The creative work itself is what you want people to read, hear or see. It can be as subtle and/or as sophisticated as you want. Publicity is another matter. Publicity is like someone standing outside, in a busy street, with lots of other audio distractions, yelling through a megaphone to try to get people to notice you and your creation exist.

If it fails, no-one will see what you have struggled to create. So don’t knock it.

If you are in Piccadilly Circus or the High Street in Edinburgh amid 150 other people yelling about what they’ve done, then you need to be loud to be heard and you need to wear bright colours to be seen.

I’ve also written books. In standard publishing contracts, the author gets total control over the text inside a book – the publisher cannot change it without the author’s permission. But the publisher has total contractual control over the design of and text on the cover. There is a reason for this.

What is inside the book is the artistic creation you want people to experience. What is on the cover is advertising and promotion aimed at intriguing potential readers into picking up and buying the book and its unknown content.

Publicity is persuading as many people as possible to buy an invisible pig inside a bag.

In its own way, it is equally creative. But it is different.

Content is a different form of creativity from publicity.

In television, the last thing you want is for a director to make the promotion for his own TV programme. The result is almost always shit. For one thing, he or she is too close to it to be objective. Also, he or she may be able  to make a great 30 or 60 or 90 minute TV programme, but, trust me, he or she knows bugger all about selling a programme to the viewer in 20 seconds in the middle of other promos amid forests of £500,000 adverts for soap powder, cars and insurance companies.

There is a difference between creating something which will give a pastel-wearing theorist at the Arts Council a creative hard-on and creating something which will get people en masse to pay out money and/or spend time to read-hear-watch it.

Repetition is also not always bad.

There is nothing wrong with populism.

The opposite of popular is unpopular.

‘Populist’ is just a word meaning ‘popular’ made up by people who can’t create anything popular themselves and want to save their egos by trying to seem culturally superior.

Shakespeare was never less than populist.

Macbeth was written by Shakespeare because the new English King James I was actually King James VI of Scotland who was interested in witchcraft and the supernatural. So what better way to suck up to the new King and revived public interest in the supernatural than to write a Scottish play with witches and ghosts in it? And bung in death, destruction, gore and swearing.

The best Shakespeare film I have ever seen is Baz Luhrmann‘s movie William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet – a movie so untraditional and in-yer-face that, the first time you see it, it takes about five minutes to adjust to the OTT style.

The second best Shakespeare film I have ever seen is Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, financed by Playboy magazine, with Lady Macbeth nude in the sleepwalking scene and awash with more blood than the Colosseum on a bad day for Christians. It was the first film Polanski directed after his wife Sharon Tate was butchered.

I’m sure Shakespeare would have loved both movies because they are real audience pleasers. Once you get people in and watching, you can communicate any in-depth piece of philosophical seriousness you want.

Reverting to my chum who wrote 40 words on their Edinburgh Fringe show… The first version was ineffective because it described the plot rather than push the unique selling points of the show.

I asked: “Don’t tell me what’s IN it, tell me what it’s ABOUT.”

You want to say what it is ABOUT – what made you want to create the thing in the first place. And that, in fact, is how to promote bad productions too.

My rule of thumb in TV promotions was never to mislead or lie about a programme to the audience. If it was shit, I tried to figure out what the original concept was that got the producer, director and cast keen to make it.

No-one intends to create a shit book, play, comedy show, TV series, movie or whatever.

In promoting anything, part of what you want to communicate is whatever made the people involved keen to create it in the first place. If the audience can be interested in the concept as much as the failed creators originally were, then you may get an audience and they won’t feel too let down because what they have been told is there actually IS there. Even if it’s not very good.

If the creative product is good – as The Adjustment Bureau is – then that’s even better.

Pity their poster was so misleading.

Of course, some things are so shit, the only thing to do is to get in and get out fast before the word-of-mouth gets round.

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