Tag Archives: audience

When Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows go wrong – a lesson in audience control

David tells The Gospel Truth at the Fringe

David tells The Gospel Truth at the Fringe

Yesterday, I was talking to multi-talented American stand-up David Mills about gigs that go wrong at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“If you have a gig you don’t want to have,” David told me, “the great thing about Edinburgh is there’s another gig coming tomorrow and the next day and the next day. So you can always redeem yourself. I’m always looking to try to redeem myself.

“It’s like that thing they say about New York: Don’t worry if you fall on your face and everyone sees, ‘cause tomorrow someone else is going to fall on their face and everyone’s going to see that and your failure is going to disappear. And the same thing with any success you get. I say you’re nobody until you’ve got a one star review.”

“You’ll never get a one star review,” I said.

“I’m hoping to get a one star review,” said David. “Some of the greats have had one star reviews.”

“Anyway,” I said. “It’s bad if you get a two star review. But if you actually only get one star, then…”

“…then you’re onto something!” laughed David. “The performers I identify with are the performers who are never satisfied.”

Shows going wrong – or at least diverging from what you thought they were going to be – are not necessarily a bad thing. As evidence…

Matt Price’s new show at Edinburgh Fringe

Matt Price’s show yesterday turned into three shows in one

At the Edinburgh Fringe three days ago, I saw Matt Price Is Not In The Program: Turkeygate, Tinky Winky & The Mafia – a very interesting and very funny show unbilled in the Edinburgh Fringe programme. In that, at least, it delivers what you expect from the title.

Yesterday morning, I got a Facebook message from comedian/promoter Nig Lovell saying:

“You should speak to Matt Price about this Machete Hettie gig for your blog. If I hadn’t been there I’m not sure I’d have believed it happened. Part of me is still wondering if I was hallucinating.”

Machete Hettie gig?? I thought. So I e-mailed Matt Price. He told me:

Machete Hetty and Matt Price at The Hive yesterday

Machete Hettie and Matt Price after the show

“Hettie says she will be back today with her balaclava this time. It was one of the best contributions I have ever witnessed at a show, but almost impossible to describe in an email. I’m hoping that the drunk people who took the group photo get in touch because we all need photographic evidence. Basically, a couple of audience members did their first gig last night and to be fair to them they stormed it.”

I then bumped into Charmian Hughes, who is performing at a totally different venue – the Banshee Labyrinth – a couple of doors away from Matt Price at The Hive. She, too, had heard of the Machete Hettie gig.

Hettie was from Ethiopia.

I phoned up Matt Price. He told me Machete Hettie was likely to turn up again – at yesterday’s show.

I was already scheduled to see the lovely David Mills at The Hive in a slot immediately before Matt Price’s show, but I then had a ticket to see the unmissable Tim FitzHigham’s show Challenger at the Pleasance venue soon afterwards and I was not going to miss that.

So I arranged to see the first half of Matt’s show again just on the off-chance that Machete Hettie would turn up.

David Mills’ show was, as always, a mystery.

The mystery is why such an audience-pleasing, sophisticated act has not been snapped-up by BBC2 or Channel 4.

The ways of British television at the moment are passing strange.

After David’s show, as we waited for Matt’s show to start, my heart sank. No Ethiopians were in the audience.

The gig started but where was Machete Hetty?

The gig started but which one was the elusive Machete Hettie?

But, it turned out Machete Hettie WAS there – I had mis-heard. She calls herself a ‘Leithiopian’ – someone from Leith in north Edinburgh.

She had bright eyes, a lively personality and I wished I had been at the previous day’s show.

Matt yesterday started with the words:

“First impressions are kind of weird because, if you don’t mind me saying, you seem a very nice, very respectful audience, very normal. But then I thought that about Hettie yesterday and, by the end of it, I knew more about her vagina than I knew about comedy… Is that a different friend sitting next to you today, Hettie?”

“Ye mind the half a brick? The half a brick?” said Hettie.

“You had a friend yesterday who was a nurse,” said Matt.

“This time, she’s a dental nurse,” said Hettie. “She just fixes yer teeth in the middle of the night.”

About three people started speaking at once, from different parts of the audience.

“Oh God, there’s more of you,” said Matt gently. “Hello, I’m Matt. I was going to do a show, but Hettie came in yesterday and interjected with things about her vagina and we haven’t looked back since. She had a Brazilian.” Then he turned to a friend of Hettie’s in the front row: “Do you have the footage safely?”

“Yes,” the woman in the front row replied. “We’ll put it on YouTube tonight.”

“Would you like a photo for John Fleming’s blog?” Matt asked.

“Oh brilliant,” replied Hettie. “Aye. Oh aye.”

Machete Hetty poses for my porn blog picture

Machete Hettie – keen to be in my porn blog picture with Matt

“It’s a porn blog, but don’t worry,” said Matt. “You told me yesterday about your vagina and today you’re straight in with Half a brick, big boy. I love it. Would you,” he said to the audience, “consider this as not so much a show – more a respite from the rain? Is that OK?”

“Smoked sausage!” said Hettie in dramatic showbiz style.

She had about ten friends and neighbours in different parts of the audience who laughed uproariously.

“Biscuits!” she added.

Matt then brilliantly, under trying circumstances, managed to simultaneously perform his show, interact with Hettie as part of an almost separate show and have an occasional running commentary with two fellow comedians in the audience. It was three shows in one simultaneously, all blending together seemingly naturally.

“Earlier this year,” Matt started, “I was asked if I would ghost-write the autobiography of a criminal and I said Yes. What do you know about crime, Hettie?”

“A lot,” she replied.

The whole audience laughed.

“Now, you might think,” continued Matt, “He has nothing to say, which is why I dipped into the audience just then. But I knew if I said that to Hettie, she would say A lot and it would get a cheap laugh, so I just couldn’t resist doing it.”

“I led a life of crime for 17 years,” said Hettie.

I am now hooked on Hettie and a vast admirer of Matt Price’s ability to tell a good story, control a difficult audience, improvise with control during a show and… well… I am going back to see what happens tonight. Hettie will be back.

Soon to be a doubly act? - Machete Hetty and Matt

Soon to be a double act? – Machete Hettie and Matt The Man

Matt tells me he has given her ten minutes on stage at the start of his show.

“John,” he told me, “I am now performing a two-hander against my will. She has turned me from a comedian into a talent scout.”

So I am going back for more tonight – not least because I forgot to ask why she is called Machete Hettie…

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Comedy taboos + How British women react differently in comedy audiences

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London last night

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London last night

All through my adult life, I have had an irritating dry cough. My father had the same cough. Eventually, he had to have polyps on the inside of his throat scraped off. His voice was higher afterwards.

For the last week or so, though, I have had a harder, hacking cough. It happens occasionally when I pick up the tail end of other people’s colds.

Having a hard, hacking cough which occasionally drifts into uncontrollable coughing fits is not ideal if you go to see a live comedy show in a small club. But, last night, I went to London’s West End to see Lewis Schaffer’s Free Until Famous show anyway.

Instead of cough sweets, I took a packet of Werther’s Original butterscotch to suck. They are cheaper. I am a Scot who was brought up among Jews. Remember the Werther’s. They become relevant later.

Lewis Schaffer has performed Free Until Famous at the same venue at least twice a week for who knows how long? Maybe three years. He currently performs it every Tuesday and Wednesday. And now he is also performing a £10 show at the Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday.

He tells me that, bizarrely, the twice-a-week free shows do not seem to be affecting audience figures at his Leicester Square pay show. In fact, numbers at his free shows are down and numbers at his Leicester Square show were high from the start and have not dropped. The Leicester Square show was due to end on April 21st but has now been extended to July 28th.

Lewis Schaffer is also being stalked by a sociologist. He introduced her to his audience last night.

“That’s her in the front row,” he said. “She’s following me around. She got the highest grade you can get for a paper she wrote about me. She got a First. She was looking for something to write. She came to my show and she came to a lot of my shows and I thought she was just obsessed by me – it happens. I’m 56, but I’m in great shape. But she wasn’t obsessed by me; she was writing this paper.”

“What was the paper about?” I asked the girl afterwards.

“Comedy taboos,” she told me.

“Why is Lewis Schaffer a taboo?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I was looking at taboo material first of all and the real taboo he breaks is that he is not really a comedian. The taboo isn’t in the material, it’s in his performance. The idea that he’s performing but it looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I wrote in my paper that he can say anything he wants because he tells his audiences how shit he is, so no-one really takes his comedy seriously.”

“And your sociology degree was in comedy?” I asked.

“No,” she corrected me. “This is an ethnographic study. The study of people-watching.”

“And now you’re planning to do another one?”

Laughter - according to Wikipedia

Open mouthed male laughter – demonstrated by Wikipedia

“On audience participation. I’m focussing mainly on the audience patterns: what they’re doing. I’m not looking at comedy; I’m looking at people’s interactions. Like Lewis said in tonight’s show that people cover their mouths when they laugh. I’ve noticed more women do that than men. I want to find out why that is. It’s a socially-constructed idea.”

“Women do it and men don’t?” I asked.

“Both genders do it, but women do it a hell of a lot more.”

“Is it because an open mouth is sexual in some way?” I asked.

“I think because an open mouth is unattractive,” she replied. “I wonder if it’s the same idea as covering your mouth when you yawn, because we know certain people do that and certain people don’t.”

“But,” I said, “people open their mouths when they smile, which I’ve never understood. You would think baring their teeth would be an aggressive gesture, but smiling is a friendly gesture.”

“I don’t bare mine,” she told me, “because they’re fucking awful.”

“So…” I said, “what’s the most unexpected thing you’ve found about audiences?”

“In couples,” she told me, “if it’s a man and a woman couple together, the woman will look at her partner for the approval of the laughter.”

“She’ll look before she laughs?”

“Yes. She’ll quickly just glance then start laughing. I’ve only seen this reversed in gender once.”

“What happens if it’s a gay couple?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve not seen many gay couples at Lewis’ shows.”

The sociologist doesn’t want me to name her or her college in case someone steals her idea.

The legs of an anonymous sociologist in Soho

The legs of an anonymous sociologist in Soho

“Someone’s going to nick my idea; I know they are,” she told me last night.

“Well,” I said, “all the more reason you should have your name, university’s name and photo in my blog, so you can prove your idea pre-existed on a specific date.”

“No,” she told me. “You can photograph my leg instead. I don’t even want people to know I’m in a blog. I don’t have Facebook, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have anything. I only have email, which I give to people I know. I don’t want anyone on the internet knowing anything about me unnecessarily. I think the whole thing is fucking weird. The whole idea that something about me can be seen by anyone freaks me the fuck out.”

At this point, I had a coughing fit and took a Werther’s Original.

“Have one,” I offered.

“No,” she said. “My dad’s allergic to them, so I don’t eat them.”

“Not allergic to other butterscotch? Just Werther’s?”

“Just Werther’s.”

“And you don’t eat them either?” I asked.

“If I ate those,” she said, “and I kissed my dad when I see him tomorrow, his face would swell up. He ate one when he was in his thirties. We were in the car and my mum said Have one of these to suck on. First of all his lips swelled up. Then his face swelled up and then his throat closed up. It came on over a period of about two hours.”

“Any other food problems in the family?”

“My aunt used to be so afraid of tomatoes that she would rather have seen a dead animal carcass in her fridge than a half-eaten tomato.”

“Did some traumatic event involving tomatoes happen to her when she was a kid?”

“It just built up. She used to just not eat them and then, gradually, she got more and more scared of them to the point where, if someone was eating a tomato, she would have to leave the room.”

“And she’s still afraid of tomatoes?”

“No. Because once, when she was sunbathing in the garden, lying out flat, my dad sliced up some tomatoes and put them all over her body. So, when she woke up, she was covered in slices of tomatoes. She screamed the place down and shit herself but was absolutely fine about tomatoes after that.”

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Comedian Paul B.Edwards on the UK’s crisis in comedy and The Helsinki Bus Station Theory of how to build a career

Paul B.Edwards in Borehamwood yesterday

Paul B.Edwards in Borehamwood yesterday

Tomorrow, Paul B.Edwards’ Last Minute Comedy Club in Hitchin celebrates its 20th anniversary. He also runs comedy clubs in Letchworth, Luton and Baldock.

“People have been complaining about a ‘crisis’ in comedy,” I said to him yesterday, “with people not going to live clubs.”

“Well, my clubs are part of a huge squeezed middle,” he told me. “People at the very top are doing very well with their tours on the back of TV appearances. Michael McIntyre made more money than the Rolling Stones last year touring. But TV is making famous other people who aren’t ready.

“If people go and see ‘the funniest bloke they’ve ever seen on the telly’ live in a theatre and he actually isn’t very funny and he’s ‘the funniest person’ they’ve ever seen, what is the point of them going to a comedy club where they’ve never heard of anybody? It’s stopped new people coming to see live stand-up comedy.

“My single biggest problem is the falling number of people under the age of 30. Audiences are getting older, certainly in the sort of provincial clubs I’ve got.

“The comedy circuits are diverging. There’s a whole young Daniel Sloss audience who have never heard of Ian Cognito and vice versa. You’ve got kids going to see shows performed by kids. And adults seeing shows with adults in. And party types going to see Jongleurs-style shows. And people who really believe in stand-up comedy going to see shows in rooms in the back of pubs, like it always was and is supposed to be.

“You have five or six diverging circuits and very few people can work on all of them, which means all of our audiences have gone down as the number of clubs has expanded. There are more and more clubs around, but there are less and less people suitable for each type of club.

“Add to that an economic recession when existing audiences have tightened their belts and, instead of coming once-a-month or once-a-week, they come once-every-other-month or once-a-fortnight… You’ve halved the audience straight away and you’re not getting new people.

“It used to be that, when I got an article in the local Hitchin Comet newspaper, I would get 30 extra people at my club. Now it make no difference whatsoever unless the photograph is of someone people have seen on the telly.”

“So you have been affected by the economic recession?” I asked.

“My Hitchin show halved in numbers,” said Paul, “but I didn’t really know why. The audiences had always been great to the point they’d queue out into the car park to get in. Suddenly it was down to just over 100 people and I didn’t know why.”

“Did this happen in 2008 with the economic recession?” I asked.

“It took a little while to drop – maybe 2009,” replied Paul. “But now, to the current recession, you have to add the ‘Michael McIntyre’ effect, the big arena tours, the TV panel game effect. I think any one of those the comedy circuit would have survived but the fact they all happened at the same time halved audiences. Clubs shut. Anyone who says they didn’t suffer or aren’t suffering is a fucking liar.

“Every time one audience member doesn’t go to a comedy club, they may save themselves £10 but, collectively, if 100 people save themselves £10, the club loses £1,000.

“I didn’t know what to do until Peppa Pig showed up.”

“Peppa Pig?” I asked.

No, no… Not that Peppa Pig

No… Not that Peppa Pig… The one with a computer database

“Peppa Pig is this girl who came to my show in Letchworth. The audience there used to be 120; but it had dropped to 80. That was alright. I figured it was a newer club and a smaller drop – though still a 33% drop.

“At all my clubs, I always go down to the the pub afterwards with the audience – from the minute they get to the gig, I’m their mate as well as their host. She came up to me afterwards and we got talking. Peppa Pig said: Is there anything I can do to help? I market local events for people putting things on. At the weekend, she gets dressed up as Peppa Pig and goes round children’s parties. She works in schools, all sorts of things.

“I asked What do you want? She said: I don’t want anything at all. I want the club to keep going and I can help.

“I had no idea what she could do to help. But she has a database that I’ve never heard of and they’ve never heard of me – namely young parents… Young people who had not been to my comedy clubs, who don’t get out very often but who plan a babysitter for once a month and go out. She told them: Come to comedy.

“Overnight, Letchworth was sold out, Hitchin was selling out… This was in January.”

“Last year?” I asked.

“This year,” Paul said. “It’s only just happened. The numbers had dropped virtually overnight. Now they recovered virtually overnight – simply by someone reaching a group of people I couldn’t reach. Full houses. Paul’s happy again.”

And now Paul has expanded into Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Paul’s Oslo Comedy Club

Paul has been expanding into Scandinavia

He has opened comedy clubs in OsloGothenburg and, as of next month, Copenhagen.

“I take two comics out there,” Paul told me yesterday. “It’s 100% English-speaking-as-a-first-language at the moment, but that may change as there are quite a lot of local comics who want to do comedy in English. At the moment, there’s quite an exciting comedy scene in Oslo of people who can’t get booked because the main club there has made themselves a sort-of closed shop. So there’s all these new comics coming through who have hit a glass ceiling and have nowhere to play.”

“Much the same thing happened in Scotland,” I said. “But making a career out of comedy has never been easy.”

“Do you know the Helsinki Bus Station Theory?” Paul asked me.

“No,” I said, mystified.

“If you want a successful creative career,” explained Paul, “you have to understand the timetabling and bus routes of Helsinki Bus Station.

“Helsinki Bus Station has about 25 or 26 different routes going to 25 or 26 different destinations, but there’s only one road into Helsinki Bus Station and only one road out. For the first kilometre, all the buses are on the same road.

“When you first start off, you start off thinking you’re having creatively original ideas, but you’re not having creatively original ideas because you don’t realise everyone’s having the same ideas as you. If you look out of the window, there are 25 other buses going along exactly the same road.

“But, after one kilometre, the buses start to move off in different directions. The the only way you can have a successful career is to Stay on the fucking bus. The longer you stay on the bus, the more likely you are to eventually reach that unique place that only you are going to.

“Other people are getting off the bus too early until, eventually, there’s only you and the driver.

Stay on the fucking bus – That’s the Helsinki Bus Station Theory.

“As a stand-up comic, I’m not famous yet and I may never be famous, but I’m staying on the fucking bus.”

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Filed under Comedy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden

Comedian Luisa Omielan is targeting young girls, gays and Beyoncé fans

(A version of this piece was also published by India’s We Speak News)

Luisa Omielan after her show at the Comedy Cafe last night

Is there life after the Edinburgh Fringe for a Free Festival show by a relatively unknown comedian? Well, judging by last night, Yes.

I went to the first night of Luisa Omielan’s eight-week run at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre and she got a standing ovation from a full house whooping for a show which had played to full houses and multiple 5-star reviews throughout the Edinburgh Fringe.

The show is called What Would Beyoncé Do?

“It’s about how Beyoncé songs have helped me,” Luisa told me last night. “How I think I should be a diva but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. I showcase Beyoncé songs to highlight how very different my life is to what Beyoncé has.”

My eternally-un-named friend saw the show with me. She (admittedly off-colour and with a possible ear infection) thought the pre-show music was much too loud. So did I. But, after the show, Luisa told me:

“It was to get the audience hyped. It’s not a show where you just sit down and don’t get involved. It’s very much a Yeeeaaahhhhh!!! Paaaarty!!!! show.”

She has performed in various shows at the Edinburgh Fringe for nine years, but What Would Beyoncé Do? was her debut solo show there and last night was her first ever full-length solo show in London.

The Beyoncé poster/flyer designed by Luisa

“From the first day in Edinburgh,” Luisa told me, “it had a full house of 12o people in the audience. About a week in, the fire brigade came and said: You can’t have this many people in the room! and they capped it at 75 and, after that, I was turning away maybe 20 or 30 people a night. They came because of the title and because I got listed as One To Watch and it was a good poster. Title and poster count for a lot.”

“You’ve done a lot of improv and been in other full-length shows at the Fringe,” I said to her. “You are very experienced. But doing a full-length solo show is different. Have you found it scary?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I cried twice before I went on tonight. Petrified. When I went to Edinburgh, I went completely by myself. I planned and dealt with every aspect of the show myself including the poster and the PR. But I was quite confident because I thought I’ve done the Fringe before. This’ll be fine. Whereas here tonight… I’ve never done a London show. I felt I had a lot to prove. There are 99 seats in the Comedy Cafe. How am I going to fill friggin’ 99 seats?

But my Twitter followers went up by 400 during Edinburgh and, because it’s a free show (on the Free Festival/Free Fringe model) people feel ‘invested’ – they really support with the social media networking. So I’ve been using Facebook and Twitter to promote this show.”

“Are you an improviser or a stand-up?” I asked.

“I’m both” said Luisa firmly. “I see them both as my strengths, both as my art forms and I want a show which combines the two.”

“And you want to be an actress…” I said.

“No,” Luisa corrected me. “I want to be what you just saw. I’m doing what I want to be. I’ve never wanted to be anything else but a comedy performer, since I was about four or five. I did do acting at college (she studied Performing Arts) but my thing was always I wanted to be famous for being me. I wanted to be like Whoopi Goldberg or Robin Williams – where they’re a personality. Whoopi Goldberg gets booked as Whoopi Goldberg. I wanted that.”

“When I was watching the show,” I told Luisa, “I was impressed by the audience control.”

“Well,” she said, “over a year ago, I went to Chicago for three months, to the big improv school at Second City and studied clowning over there, which I loved. And clowning’s all about raising and lowering and raising… it’s all audience control.”

“You wanted to move there?” I asked.

“I would have done,” Luisa said. “If Edinburgh hadn’t gone well, my plan was to go back. But Edinburgh went amazing.”

“So you’re going back to Edinburgh again next year?”

“Yes, with the same show at the Free Festival.”

“The same show?” I asked.

Luisa singing – and dancing – at the Comedy Cafe last night

“Yes,” she replied. “Because this show is perfect for my target audience. The people who come to my comedy show are people that wouldn’t necessarily go to a comedy show normally. So there’s a lot of my target audience out there who need to know I exist.”

“And your target audience is…?” I asked.

“The young girls and the gays, because they identify with what I say and what I talk about.”

“You had a significant scattering of black people in that audience,” I said. “That’s strangely unusual in a normal comedy club, though I’ve never known why.”

“But that’s who I want to appeal to,” explained Luisa. “An urban crowd. Absolutely I want to appeal to that audience because it’s all-encompassing. The show is a party. In so many comedy shows you see the same old thing. I don’t fit into that environment. So I did my own thing and they came and, now I’ve found that niche, it’s very important that I build an audience and a following from the bottom up.”

“Where does that go if you’re stuck with young girls and gays?” I asked. “Doesn’t that mean you don’t hit the mainstream audience?”

“I think you’ll find they are the mainstream audience,” said Luisa. “If you get the girls and the gays, then the rest of the world follows.”

“Aren’t comedy audiences mainly young males, though?” I asked.

“People say they are, but there’s actually lots more women coming to comedy now and I want to try and encompass more women in comedy and get more women to go. You look at Jessie J or Beyoncé… Men didn’t pay for that. Women paid for that.

“Women pay for entertainment, not men. Men might pay for football. Women will decide what film you watch, where you go, what you go see. Women will decide that. Women are spending the money. This old men v women thing is bullshit. I have no time for that. Women will pay for a show. I want women in my show. End of. There’s no What about the men? Fuck ‘em. They’ve got Jongleurs. Go to that.”

“So Young heterosexual males piss-off?” I asked.

“No, not piss-off. But there’s plenty of comedy out there. This is my comedy for my target audience which I have found. There’s enough of them there.”

“Have you based your stage persona on someone else?” I asked.

“Who?”

“That’s why I asked,” I said.

“No,” said Luisa firmly. “I’ve based myself on me.”

“Who were your idols?”

“Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Cher, Beyoncé.”

“Steve Martin’s different,” I suggested.

“Yeah, but in his films, he’s very physical and clowny.”

“You dance very well in the show,” I said.

“You’re joking,” laughed Luisa. “I can’t dance at all. I just dance with conviction. Improv is all about conviction. If you’re pretending to die, do it with conviction. If you’re dancing and you’re nervous about it, you dance harder and that’ll get you through.”

“I saw an interview with Fred Astaire,” I mused, “where he said Ginger Rogers actually couldn’t dance… but she could act dancing brilliantly.”

“Exactly,” said Luisa. “You do it with enough conviction and people will believe you. And dancing is a big thing with Beyoncé.”

“But what if people don’t know a lot about Beyoncé?” I asked. “That excludes them from the show?”

“No, because they just see someone dancing silly and enjoying it for dancing silly’s sake.”

“But why should I – if I’m a 26 year-old comedy-goer – go see a show about Beyoncé with Beyoncé in the title if I don’t know about or like Beyoncé?”

“Well, there’s plenty of other shows for you to go and see!” laughed Luisa. “I’m not the only choice, God bless you!”

“Maybe you are the only choice.”

“For my audience, yeah.”

“So you are playing the Comedy Cafe here every Tuesday for eight weeks,” I said, “and then…?”

“I want to tour with it next year. So it’s me building a following and attacking it from different angles, making a good comedy show free and making it accessible. When I got 5-star reviews in Edinburgh, the next day I got comedy-savvy-goers who would come and be boring and sit there and think Oh, this is very interesting blah-blah blah-blah blah. My audience was alright those days, just a bit dead.

“But when I had groups of girls – black, white, Asian – dressed up to the nines coming in for a night out, that’s when I’d have that big reaction you saw tonight where it would blow the roof off. They’re the people that I’m trying to get. The people who don’t normally go to comedy and especially wouldn’t go to Jongleurs on a Friday or Saturday night. They’re the people I want to come to my comedy show and it’s a show that’s honest and truthful and relevant and it’s not pretentious, pretending to be something else or being clever with wordplay. If it’s not for you, by all means don’t come. But, if you want a bit of a party with jokes in, you’ll love it.”

“You don’t need a PR,” I told Luisa, “You are your PR. Have you seen Beyoncé perform live?”

“Yeah,” said Luisa. “She’s amazing. I nearly died. The way she performs – I thought I wanna perform like that… but with stand-up.”

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I can only barely remember Malcolm Hardee’s old comedy club The Tunnel

Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel Club in the 1980s
(photo courtesy of Steve Taylor)

In the early hours of this morning, I was talking to a friend who knew the late comedian Malcolm Hardee. She met him as a neighbour before she knew he was a comic or a club owner and she did not go to his Sunday night Tunnel Club primarily for the comedy.

“I used to play pool there,” she told me.

“Not to watch the shows?” I asked.

“I’m tired,” she said. It’s late. I can’t really remember. I must’ve not watched the shows sometimes because I was playing pool. I didn’t go there that often, because it was a long walk in the night from Greenwich, where I lived.”

“I don’t remember The Tunnel much at all,” I said.

“But you can’t remember what happened yesterday,” she said.

I have a notoriously bad memory. I have to write everything down.

“I don’t remember The Tunnel much either,” my friend said. “So you’re never going to get a blog out of this.”

“Was the stage in a corner?” I asked. “You came in the door and turned right, didn’t you? But I think there was something odd about the positioning of the stage.”

“The bar was in the middle,” my friend explained. “On one side were the pool tables; on the other side was the bar; and, at the end was the room with the show in.”

“Was it a separate room?” I asked, surprised. I remembered it being one large pub room.

“It was quite a large room,” she said. “It wasn’t pokey. That was pleasant for a start. And the fact there were two pool tables and one of them was usually free. That was great. Then there was sometimes someone I fancied there. I loved that.”

“The audience always threw beer glasses at acts they didn’t like,” I said.

“It wasn’t dangerous for me,” my friend said, “because I always stood at the back. I didn’t sit in a seat.”

“I remember standing,” I said. “I don’t remember seats. Were you there the night Babs what’s-er-name got hit by a glass?”

“No,” my friend said, opening up her laptop computer to check her e-mails.

“Look, John,” she said, “I’m too tired to remember. Phone up Lewis Schaffer if you want a blog. It’s after one o’clock in the morning. He’ll be feeling pissed-off. Is it Tuesday and Wednesday he does his Soho gigs? Phone him up and ask him how his gig was last night and say how you went to someone else’s show. That’ll cheer him up.”

The Tunnel film documentary

“People who never went to the Tunnel think it was a rowdy bear pit,” I said. “Well, I suppose it was. People were always throwing glasses at the acts. That’s rowdy. Even if they only threw them at bad acts.”

“Well,” my friend reminded me, “at that time, people threw glasses at punk bands. If you went to see a rock band, no-one was able to dance any more. Disco had vanished because people were spitting and pogo-ing.”

“The Tunnel was 1984-1988, though,” I said.

“All I know,” my friend said, “is that, in the late-1970s, there was a sudden moment when lots of pogo-ing was happening and people were spitting.”

“That was before AIDs,” I mused.

“The bands on stage were spitting at the audience,” my friend continued. “You didn’t want to sit in the front rows. If anyone danced, the floor was taken over by young men pogo-ing and bashing into each other so, if you were a woman, you couldn’t dance. That was what social nights out were turning into half the time.

“People throwing glasses at acts in The Tunnel wasn’t surprising. That’s what was happening at the music gigs as well. Musicians on stage would swing the microphone stand and whack it around with people going Whoooaaa! and ducking their heads. You would think Doh! I’m not going near the front. Punk started in 1977, but it was pretty well established by, say, 1979 and, after that, things were getting more and more seedy.

“Before then, people used to wear T-shirts saying LOVE and stuff with rainbows and hearts printed on them. After Punk started it wasn’t just ripped shirts and razor blades and studs and chains round the trousers… people had emblazoned on their T-shirts Oh, fucking hell! and Wot you looking at? and Fuck off, cunt. No-one was having Love and Peace on their T-shirts any more. So, a few years later, if people in a comedy club are throwing glasses…”

“The Tunnel must have been filled with smoke,” I said. “because people were still smoking inside pubs and clubs. It must’ve smelled of beer and fags. I don’t remember.”

“I don’t remember the smell,” my friend said, looking at her computer. “I’ve got a lot of spam.”

“Malcolm and I could never remember when we met,” I said. “It must have been around 1985 or 1986 because he was managing acts and I was looking for acts which might be useful on TV for Surprise! Surprise! or Game For a Laugh. I think I went to The Tunnel and saw Gary Howard and maybe The Greatest Show On Legs.”

“There was that guy with the dog,” my friend said.

“The Joan Collins Fan Club,” I prompted. “Julian Clary.”

“He was on at The Tunnel a lot,” my friend said. “It seemed to me, when I went, he was often on. I didn’t go that often. One time someone I knew stopped and chatted to him because they knew him from Goldsmiths College in New Cross.”

“I’ve never associated him with Malcolm,” I said. “Maybe he was around Malcolm before my time or maybe I’ve just forgotten.”

“He was there a lot,” my friend said. I remember Jerry Sadowitz too.”

“I must have seen him perform there,” I said. “Maybe that’s why I first went there. I can’t remember. I knew Malcolm around the time he released that album for Jerry – Was it called Gobshite? – It had to be withdrawn in case Jimmy Saville sued for libel.”

“I remember Harry Enfield,” my friend said. “I don’t remember seeing him perform… He was there as… someone who…”

“…who was in the audience,” I prompted.

“Well, he wasn’t in the audience,” she said. “He was a friend of Malcolm’s. I don’t remember seeing him perform. Just like Jools Holland went along as a friend of Malcolm’s, but I don’t remember seeing him perform there.”

“I remember the man who tortured teddy bears,” I said. “He was wonderful. Steve something-or-other. He had a wheel of death for the teddy bear.”

“I didn’t particularly think of it as a place to watch acts,” my friend said. “It was a chance to go out and I went along to play pool. I liked playing pool in those days. There was the odd person to fancy and the music was nice.”

“It was always easy listening music before the show, wasn’t it?” I said.

“People like Etta James,” my friend agreed. “At Last. I don’t know if Martin Potter (the sound man) used that track at The Tunnel, but he always put it on at Up The Creek.”

“Once,” I said, “I asked Malcolm why he didn’t play rock music before gigs, because that was more the audience, and he told me he played more sophisticated jazz-type stuff because he thought it put the audience in the right mood to see people perform comedy. Relaxed them. I thought Malcolm chose the music, but you told me it was Martin Potter.”

“Etta James singing Sunday Kind of Love,” my friend said,” He always played that because it was Sunday.”

“I don’t remember,” I said.

“You never do,” my friend said. “That’s why you write things down.”

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Filed under 1980s, Comedy, Music, Punk, UK

Last night – “un-Fringe-like behaviour” at Bob Slayer’s Adelaide comedy show

Bob Slayer opens his mouth

When your comedy show is titled Bob Slayer Will OutDrink Australia, then some problems may crop up on the night with either the performer or the audience. This proved to be the case at the recent Perth Fringe, where British comic Bob Slayer was thrown out of the festival. Now he is at the Adelaide Fringe, but it was not his own behaviour which proved to be the problem at his midnight show last night. This is what he told me in an e-mail this morning…

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I have had people turn up barely able to stand because of drink. Or others refuse to buy a ticket until I downed a pint that they thrust into my hand. All of them have been a pleasure to perform for and there have been some amazing gigs. But last night, approaching the half-way point in my run, I had my first stinker of a late show.

If you were going to take a bet on who would be the biggest problem at the gig, then I think most people would assume it would be the drunken water pump fitters from Tasmania – three brothers, one of whom had just got out of hospital after an operation to have a brain tumour removed – and so they were knocking back large Jack Daniels and cokes to celebrate. But it was not them. They were great fun.

So who was it?

It could not be the nice couple?

No.

Could it be the venue bar staff who came in after their shift?

No. They have been before and are super.

Surely the most unlikely punters to cause problems in a Fringe gig would be the three girls who came in from the Fringe Office?

When I first meet someone and they drunkenly slur “We are going to come to your show” three inches from my face, then I know that they are likely to be ones to watch. These three certainly meant well. It was nice of them to offer to flyer up the street and in the pub before the gig and I am sure it was nothing to do with them that every other night I have managed to pull in up to a dozen last-minute extra folks whereas last night not even ones who had enquired about buying tickets made it into the room.

I walk into the gig room to start the show and two of them are on stage screeching into the microphone. The other is taking photos.

After some banter and wrestling the mic off them, they sit in the front row but with their back to me, repeatedly asking other audience members the same inane questions that they think stand-up comics should ask an audience. They are certainly living up to my No Rules ethos and creating a challenging start to the gig.

Then one of them falls off her chair. Another unplugs my mic lead. And the third one is ordering more drinks that they mostly seem to be spilling.

When a gig like this happens, sometimes my way of dealing with it is to stand back for a little and conduct the carnage. That’s what I do. And I also get my dartboard out and get naked. Why not? I mean it’s not as if the gig could get any worse, is it? Why not be naked and have people throw real darts at me with only a half-sized dartboard as protection? The venue manager even joins in and has a go throwing one from the back of the room.

Then one of the Fringe girls is on stage again, grabbing the microphone. It’s OK – she only wants to be involved. Her friends tell me that she is normally really shy when she isn’t drunk. The venue manager tosses me some gaffer tape. I ask her if she would like me to make her a designer outfit. She obliges and I wrap her up and lie her down, announcing the world’s newest escapologist. She gets out and, shortly afterwards, all three of them leave the gig to a round of applause.

Strangely and significantly, no-one else walks out.

The audience and I have a chat about what has just happened.

The three drunken water pump fitters from Tasmania tell me that they don’t want their money back and buy me a drink. The nice couple tell me they are going to come back again and see a show which doesn’t have the wheels falling off it quite so much. I do a couple of stories, we wrap it up and go for a drink together. The nice couple tell me that they overhear the girls moaning about the show in the bar to anyone who will listen with no mention of their own “most un-Fringe-like behaviour”.

Now, just as only a bad workman blames his tool, it is also true that only a bad comedian blames his audience and I want to make it clear that it was not the three girls’ fault that this gig disintegrated. I certainly only have myself to blame.

After all, I was the one who let them in.

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“The Room” – The best bad movie?… And how to heckle cult movies properly.

Tommy Wiseau at the Prince Charles Cinema last night

There are a lot of films labelled “the best worst movie ever made” – for example, Killer Bitch – and where better is there to screen those movies than at the admirable Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square in London?

This cinema does not just organise sing-alonga Sound of Music and swear-alonga Team America screenings. Oh no.

Upcoming treats include The Charlies – their alternative Academy Awards held on Oscar night – plus a Friday The 13th all-night marathon screening of Parts I-VIII and a Troma Films triple bill of The Toxic AvengerClass of Nuke ‘Em High and their new film Father’s Day – introduced by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman.

It has taken me some time to catch up with The Room – not a Troma film but an independent movie made in 2003.

British writer and social commentator Charlie Brooker said after its London premiere (at the Prince Charles) in 2009: “I don’t think there is a word that can describe that experience… Possibly the most unique movie-going experience of my life”

Other cinema-goers that night called it “Like a tumour” and “Absolutely blissfully indulgent in the most peculiar and perverted way”.

The Room’s writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau’s message to the audience at that London premiere was: “You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourselves but please don’t hurt each other.”

Last night, I went to the Prince Charles’ first midnight screening of The Room introduced by Tommy Wiseau and co-star Greg Sestero.

You know you may be in for a treat when there is a stall in the foyer selling T-shirts, £10 posters, DVDs and other knick-knacks and people are having their photo taken with the director…. It is also unusual, in my fairly extensive experience, to find your feet crunching on dozens of plastic spoons as you walk into your row of seats – spoons provided by the cinema. It has become a tradition to throw plastic spoons at the screen… A reference to an unexplained shot of a spoon in the movie – in a framed photograph standing on a table.

Basically, The Room is a seriously-intended soft-hearted movie about relationships which almost unbelievably cost $6 million to make. In Los Angeles, it was promoted using a single expensive billboard in Hollywood showing an extreme close-up of Wiseau’s face, with one of his eyelids in mid-blink. The ad ran on this expensive billboard for over four years.

Wiseau also reportedly paid for a small TV and print campaign saying The Room was “a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams”.

Where the alleged $6 million budget for the movie or the money for the billboard came from are just two of many apparently inexplicable mysteries surrounding the film.

In truth, last night’s screening of The Room disappointed me, because the constant heckling by the audience has not yet settled down into ritual.

I once attended a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the World Science Fiction Convention which was almost a brand new work of art in itself. Not only were audience members dressed-up as characters, but the heckling involved shouted responses and set-ups to what was being said on screen, to create whole new surreal conversations.

Last night’s screening of The Room – inevitably billed as The Best Worst Film Ever Made – was simply a licence to be rowdy, with people laughing (in often random places) for the sake of laughing, random heckling, random throwing of plastic spoons and wannabe hecklers yelling out mostly failed attempts at post-modernist humour. The heckling was mostly over the on-screen dialogue. To work effectively, movie heckling has to be in-between the dialogue.

The film, though, has a lot of potential for would-be creative hecklers.

There is much to be developed from an early heckle of “What does it mean?” and a later one of “This is a pointless scene!”

I loved and laughed heartily at an utterly irrelevant shot of an ugly dog in a flower shop (you had to be there) and almost laughed as much at the completely pointless picking-up by the central character of a newspaper lying on the sidewalk.

The pointlessness of certain specifics is what, it could be argued, makes The Room one of the truly great bad movies.

I thought it admirably odd that the male characters are often tossing a baseball between each other – in one noted scene in an alleyway, four of them wear unexplained tuxedos while throwing the ball and talking… until one of them trips over in carefully-framed giant close-up for no plot or artistic reason at all.

It is also rare for one of the female central characters in a film to say she has breast cancer and is going to die… and to be greeted with loud laughter and enthusiastic cheers from the audience. The cancer is never referred to again in the movie and, every time the woman touched her daughter’s face (which she does a lot), the audience shouted out “Cancer!”

The audience and the screening was at its best with recurring heckles. Throughout the film, there were justified yells of “Shut the door!” and, during repeated and unnecessary lengthy pans along the width of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the audience would chant: “Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go!” until the pan finished.

Quite what it must be like for Tommy Wiseau to know his seriously-intended film about relationships is being laughed-at and abused I can barely imagine. But he seems happy to take the money. He did, after all, make the film as a serious drama but now markets it as a ‘dark’ comedy.

I particularly recommend that irrelevant shot of the ugly dog in a flower shop. I would seriously consider seeing the film again simply just for that one shot.

But – and this is important – one piece of advice to you if you do see it.

See it in the cinema.

And do not sit in the second row.

Dozens of thrown plastic spoons fall short and it is like being in the French army during the English archers’ onslaught of arrows at Agincourt.

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Filed under Comedy, Kitsch, Movies, Surreal