Tag Archives: audience participation

Edinburgh Fringe, Day 15: Participation hell and real tears in a comedian’s eyes

Hell is other people en masse, as Jean-Paul Sartre did not say.

God! How I hate audience participation!

Not all audience participation, just some.

As mentioned before in this blog, I am allergic to certain things in comedy.

One is stand-up character comedy when it is an attempt by an actor or actress to create a ‘real’ character. or, almost worse, a fake ‘eccentric’ character when the performer does not have any streak of eccentricity themselves. This is not comedy; it is a drama school showreel. The more cartoony, the less real, the more I like it.

The other thing that I can’t take is mass jollity. Singalongs, dancealongs and people doing almost anything as a group instead of as individuals just ain’t me. I can think of nothing worse than people singing in gigantic groups. Or doing anything in gigantic groups.

So perhaps it was foolhardy of me to accept a ticket for a late-night show called Juan Vesuvius: I Am Your Deejay at Assembly’s George Square Theatre, allegedly presented by a Venezuelan DJ (actually New Zealander Barnie Duncan in his third Fringe show).

Juan Vesuvius aka Barnie Duncan – Arghh! Help! Let me out!

It started as Manuel-from-Fawlty-Towers style character comedy then, once the character was established, turned into a brash, loud, glittery, music-music-music lecture on the history of disco music, disco clubs and related social music phenomena. It is tremendous entertainment. Wildly exciting. Terrifically atmospheric. And, as anyone who read my blog about The Elvis Dead, it is not remotely for me. At the end of the show, people were up on their feet dancing and waving their arms about. I was internally screaming: Arghh! Help! Let me out!

The audience loved it. And I got a new insight into my dourness.

At the risk of sounding like some desperate Miss World contestant, I’m interested in people. People as individuals.

150 people dancing the same movements to the same music or 10,000 people singing a song in a stadium is nothing to do with people. It has to do with psychological insecurity and a need to feel wanted.

Sitting at the back of the Grouchy Club, a silent man

The concept of the increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club at the Counting House is to talk to the audience. One person at a time. Community singing is not encouraged. Individual opinions, anecdotes and bees-in-bonnets are encouraged.

Today, those people included Nick Awde from The Stage, director Sarah Chew, Ian Dunn from the British Comedy Guide, Robert Peacock from The Wee Review and Ewan Spence from multiple podcasts, Forbes magazine and the Eurovision Song Contest. And performers.

And no random non-industry punters. Which is perfect. Because it meant we could gossip, for example, about one performer’s objection to a one-star review he got from The Wee Review and his consequent, continuing campaign to get hold of Robert Peacock’s home address, threats of legal action, articles in the New York Times etc etc. It is possibly the subject of a future blog, except the current copied-and-pasted basic information is over 3,700 words long.

Michael Brunström, gloriously surreal, with a bag of Oz compost at his feet

The real eccentricity of the day, though, started when I went to see the gloriously surreal Michael Brunström’s show Parsley at the Dragonfly. Anything that starts with the performer in some sort of ancient Grecian dress, draped with  some sort of green-leafed climbing plant and playing the recorder is good for me.

If he then gives out whoopee whistles to the audience, asking them to randomly blow them whenever they like throughout the show, it can only get even better. And does.

The on-stage character is, of course, exactly that – a character, not the real Michael Brunström… but I can’t help observing it’s not THAT different from him. Writs may arrive in my letter box next week.

In the gloom, Mr Twonkey announces the bad news to his disappointed audience

I was also due to see Mr Twonkey perform his Christmas in The Jungle show at the Dragonfly. Alas, there was a power cut before he started and he was forced to cancel the show.

The admirable Mr Twonkey is, again, a surreally eccentric character (played by ever-amiable Paul Vickers).

And, again, the on-another-planet character on-stage may not be exactly the same as the person playing him, but I think they may live on the same planet as each other… just not on planet Earth.

Which brings me to Lewis Schaffer.

I went back to see his Unopened Letters From My Mother show again at the Counting House. I saw it around a week ago.

Each night, he is opening a different letter from his mother which he received but never read.

Someone has described this show as part comedy, part tragedy, part sociological experiment, part psychological insight and 100% voyeurism.

It may have been me in that last sentence.

Tonight, in her unopened letter from 2002, his mother called him a shit and said he was dead to her. She is now dead. The tears in his eyes were genuine.

Lewis Schaffer’s unopened letters from his mother

Lewis Schaffer does not really know why he did not open the letters and, the more I think about it, the more I wonder why he decided to do the show at all. I have a terrible feeling that he is doing these shows as a way of daring the audiences – and daring himself – to dislike him.

The previous time I saw this show, he opened and read the letter towards the end of the show. Tonight, he opened and read it towards the start.

He is trying out different things each night.

For me, opening and reading the letter towards the start was a mistake, because he was so emotionally affected by the contents tonight that he was not in the same control of his show that he usually has.

Even when performers appear to be themselves on-stage they are, of course, performing as a particular version of themselves. They are not themselves.

Lewis Schaffer’s show tonight was a fascinating, unique voyeuristic experience, watching an actual person on-stage showing raw emotions and trying to recover from them – part performer, part real human being. Fascinating.

Colin Buckie – from Bobby to Lou

Someone who should have been at the Grouchy Club but wasn’t was Colin Buckie, who owns Bobby’s Sandwich Bar by the Greyfriars Bobby statue. I met him because he was chatting to former submariner Eric in the Abattoir by the Purple Cow.

Such sentences seem reasonable in Edinburgh during the Fringe… I met him because he was chatting to former submariner Eric in the Abattoir by the Purple Cow.

Colin had once sat next to Velvet Underground rocker Lou Reed at a Burns Night Supper in Edinburgh.

“It was three years before he died,” Colin told me. “It was an unusual night. It was at the Reid Music Institute, the Reid Hall at Edinburgh University. We had a lovely evening round a table and Lou Reed stood up and read out a poem or a story by Edgar Allan Poe – he was a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe – and then some readings of Robert Burns. He was a huge fan of Robert Burns too. He said: I love these lyrics.

“I mean, primarily, Lou Reed was a lyricist. He was very interested in poetry and William Burroughs and beat poetry and…”

“He,” I asked, “read out Edgar Allan Poe stuff on a Burns Night?”

“He did,” said Colin. “I was astounded I was sitting next to Lou Reed. I have never been starstruck before or since. I was so astonished, I never mentioned once to him that he was Lou Reed.”

Will people, in future, speak in such awe of having been in the presence of Lewis Schaffer?

Only time will tell.

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Pull The Other One – crying with laughter at surreal, non-PC performance art – OK, it was WEIRD night

I try not to describe comedy shows in too much detail but…

I have seen some bizarre Pull The Other One last-Friday-of-the-month shows at Nunhead in Peckham, South East London, but last night’s must take the nutty biscuit.

It was the first of Pull The Other One’s new first-Friday-of-the-month shows at the Half Moon in nearby Herne Hill and the ghost of Andy Kaufman seemed to have been raised from his grave for the occasion.

It was performance art that would make Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde seem like a John Constable painting and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed seem like a perfectly normal idea.

And it wasn’t just the acts that were odd last night…

For the first third of the show, a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears sat in a gold costume alone at a table right in front of the stage.

Before the show started and for most of Part One (it was a three-part show), he fiddled obsessively with three flattish oblong white cardboard boxes which contained wooden-framed pictures of what appeared to be wood cuttings. He would take them out and put them back in, look at them and stand them on the table facing the rest of the audience and arrange and re-arrange them. He was very interested in them. And in the show. On which he occasionally commented. He was almost a performance artist in himself.

I thought maybe he was deaf and the MP3 player was a hearing aid – or maybe he was mentally retarded. Or maybe he was an act; even though I knew he wasn’t.

He must have been bemused or confused when, right at the very start of the show, compere-for-the-evening Vivienne Soan explained her husband Martin Soan was at home but then he appeared naked, behind her, with a brown paper bag over his head. She appeared not to notice him.

And then he must have then been further confused when compere-for-the-evening Vivienne Soan introduced compere-for-the-evening Charmian Hughes who did some topical material and a sand dance which the large man much appreciated and then compere-for-the-evening Charmian introduced compere-for-the-evening Holly Burn.

Holly Burn is a girl for whom the word “surreal” is a wild understatement; it would be like calling the one billion population of China “a man from the Orient”. She is billed on Pull The Other One’s flyers as “Bonkers But Brilliant” though, off-stage, she is only the third B in that billing.

On-stage is another matter.

She introduced the almost equally odd ‘magician’ Sam Fletcher (it was really a surrealist act), American comic Matt Baetz (the token stand-up on the bill) and then Holly (or perhaps by this time Vivienne Soan was compere-for-the-evening again) introduced two-minutes of vitriolic abuse shouted at the audience by The Obnoxious Man (played by Tony Green, of whom more in tomorrow’s blog)

This took us to the first interval of the evening, during which the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears decamped from his table, taking two of his three frames with him and wheeling a child’s scooter in front of him. I could see the woman sitting at the next table to him breathing an almost visible sigh of relief.

Part Two involved Holly Burn (or perhaps by this time Vivienne Soan was again compere-for-the-evening) introducing charismatic compere-for-the-evening Stephen Frost who introduced the amazingly sophisticated Earl Okin as “a sex goddess”.

Earl, even more so than normal, went down a storm with an audience primed by 40 minutes or so of surreal comedy and who now had unleashed on them his highly sophisticated crooning, jazz, satiric folk music and a version of Wheatus’ song I’m Just a Teenage Dirtbag, Baby sung as a bossa nova. The result, before my eyes, was a British comedy audience transformed into some kind of energetically-enthusiastic whooping American TV audience.

Boy, did they enjoy Earl Okin.

In the second interval, I went to the toilet and encountered the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears. It turned out he didn’t quite have a totally shaven head. He had a slogan which I could not quite read shaved in hair around the back of his head.

He was back in his place for Part Three at his table by the very front of the stage.

Now…

I have seen American comic Doctor Brown (not to be confused with Doc Brown) several times and, to be frank, his act can be a bit hit-and-miss. Well, it’s not so much an act. It’s more a let’s-go-on-stage and see-what-might-happen-with-the-audience performance. On the basis of last night, he should team up with the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a mostly shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears.

Doctor Brown’s schtick involves a certain nutty reticence to perform which, last night, meant a certain reluctance to come on stage at all and the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a mostly shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears took it upon himself to encourage Doctor Brown, whom he assumed was a genuinely shy performer.

“Come on, you can do it,” was one early comment. “Come on stage, man, you can do it.”

The good Doctor played to this and – rather bravely, I felt – decided to incorporate the gent in his act which eventually culminated in his – even more bravely – inviting the guy up onto the stage.

It turned out that the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a mostly shaven head, a beard, a gold costume and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears, in fact, did not have an MP3 player plugged into his ears at all: it was a doctor’s stethoscope which he wore round his neck and, at his throat, he had a four-inch high bright white skull ornament. His below-the-knee gold costume was augmented by red hobnailed boots

Doctor Brown proceeded to auction off the doctor’s stethoscope and skull to the audience, though he actually stopped short of giving away the items. He also got perilously close to squeezing a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup over the guy’s shaven head or allowing the guy to squeeze it over his head. I have a terrible feeling he almost went through with this idea but pulled back from the unknown precipice at the last moment.

By this point, I was crying with laughter.

Non-PC?

Oh yes. And the whole audience was laughing. And the guy on stage with Doctor Brown. And the other comics more than anyone.

Trust me. You had to be there.

After the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a mostly shaven head, a beard, a gold costume, red hobnailed boots and a doctor’s stethoscope left the stage, Doctor Brown turned to the audience and said simply:

“Does anyone have any questions?”

He then produced a robin redbreast bird (don’t ask) which he talked to, then unzipped the flies of his trousers and partially inserted the bird, head first. He turned his back on the audience and climaxed his show by being sucked-off by the robin redbreast.

The good Doctor then exited to much applause, having dropped the robin onto the stage.

Martin Soan then appeared on stage to retrieve the robin, to which he talked lovingly until Doctor Brown returned to demand the bird back. A vitriolic argument ensued about who had more rights to and more of a personal history with the robin, which ended with a rough tussle between the two men on the floor and Martin Soan somehow ending up naked on stage with a brown paper bag over his head.

We were back at the start of the evening, at which point Vivienne Soan rounded it all off by announcing future Pull The Other One shows at the Half Moon in Herne Hill will include John Hegley, Simon Munnery and the extremely surreal Andrew Bailey.

Andrew will have his work cut out to top last night’s bizarre shenanigans.

In tomorrow’s blog – what Tony Green told me at Pull The Other One about Andy Kaufman, another dead comic; and the tale of our visit to fetish club Torture Garden.

There is a Pull The Other One video HERE

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