Tag Archives: BBC3

David Mills, chic gay comic with a nose for pussy, gets chatty about PrEP etc

Next Wednesday, American comic David Mills starts The Mix – the first in a monthly series of chat shows at the Phoenix Artist Club in London.

“You’ve got a bit of previous with chat shows,” I said, “with Scott Capurro and then with Jonathan Hearn.”

“And,” David told me, “I had a chat show with another comic in San Francisco maybe 20 years ago – Late Night Live – with this hilarious woman called Bridget Schwartz.

“She has since given up comedy. A great loss.

“We had big local San Francisco politicians, some of the big newscasters and drag queens – the same sort of thing I’m trying to create here. Not just people from the comedy world, but people from politics and culture and newsmakers.”

“So The Mix will not be all comics?” I asked.

“No. That’s why it’s called The Mix, John. Next Wednesday, we will have comic Jo Sutherland and the writers of Jonathan Pie – Andrew Doyle and Tom Walker who plays Jonathan Pie – and London’s Night Czar Miss Amy Lamé who will be talking about the night-time economy.

“For the second show on 19th April, we are currently negotiating to get a controversial politician and we already have comic Mark Silcox and Daniel Lismore, who is the current reigning Leigh Bowery of the world – like a crazy creature who has come out of some couture closet. A sort of Art Scenester. I don’t want it to be all comics. It’s The Mix.”

“Are you taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?”

David Mills in his photograph of choice

“No. I won’t be playing Edinburgh this year. I’ve been going back to the US a lot – more regularly – so I haven’t been spending time writing a new show. I’ve been gigging in LA, gigging in New York, also I have family out there. Trying to make my way. But it’s a bit of a challenge to make your way in LA if you’re only there for two weeks every three months.”

“You could,” I suggest, “get a position in the Trump administration. He’s running out of people to nominate. Do you know any Russians?”

“There was Denis Krasnov,” said David.

“He seems,” I said, “to calls himself Jack Dennis now.”

“He’s the only Russian I know,” David told me. “He used to be on the circuit in London, then he went to New York. but I don’t think he can get me into government. Well, I don’t want to be in the Trump administration, but I’d work for Milania – perhaps as a stylist or a gay best friend.”

“You are in bigtime Hollywood movies now,” I said. “Florence Foster Jenkins. What part did you play?”

“The gay friend.”

“A lot of acting involved?” I asked.

“It was a real stretch for me, John, because… I don’t have friends. For research, I had to hang around with people who have friends and let me tell you – I don’t know if you know anything about friends, but – they’re a lot of work. There’s a lot of lying involved. Lots.”

“Where was Florence Foster Jenkins filmed?”

“All over. North London, West London…”

“It was supposed to be New York?”

“But filmed in the UK, which is why I got the job. They needed an American gay friend in London. So there’s basically me or Scott Capurro and Scott wasn’t around.”

“Stephen Frears directed it,” I said. “Very prestigious. So you might appear in other films.”

“Well, I’m in the short Robert Johnson and The Devil Man directed by Matthew Highton and written by Joz Norris. Guess who plays The Devil Man.”

“Joz Norris?”

“No. They needed someone with a suit. Who looks good in a suit?… I always get those parts. When Tim Renkow did the pilot for A Brief History of Tim, they thought: We need some guy in a suit… Who?… David Mills! – so I played the part of ‘Guy in a Suit’.”

David Mills & Tim Renkow in BBC3’s A Brief History of Tim

“Yes,” I mused. “Who wears a suit? So it’s either you or Lewis Schaffer. Strange it’s always you that gets the sophisticated parts and not him.”

“That’s because he doesn’t wear a sophisticated suit,” said David. “I love Lewis Schaffer – I’m not tearing him down, right?…”

“But?” I asked.

“…he would tell you as well,” said David. “It’s sort of a shabby suit.”

“Though he would be less succinct telling me,” I suggested.

“…and shiny,” David continued. “The suit. He’s had that suit for about 15 years. I try to keep mine up-to-date.”

“What else is happening in your life?” I asked.

“I’ve got a solo show – David Mills: Mr Modern – at the very chic Brasserie ZL near Piccadilly Circus on 23rd March.”

“Why is it called Mr Modern?

“Because it’s about modern life… and about me.”

“You do have your finger in a lot of pies,” I said. “If you see what I mean.”

“I find myself increasingly on TV talking about cats,” replied David.

“Why?” I asked.

“I did a thing called LOL Cats on Channel 5. They show videos of cats, then turn to a comedian who tells jokes, then they go back to the video and then back to the comedian. It’s a ‘talking head’ thing.”

“Are you an expert on cats?” I asked.

David admitted: “I know very little about pussy…”

“No,” said David. “I know very little about pussy. But I seem to have a nose for it. And LOL Cats went well, so they had me come back to do LOL Kittens.

“The guy at the cafe I go to every morning asked me: What were you doing on TV talking about kittens? And someone at the gym said: Why were you on TV talking about cats?”

“Cats then kittens,” I said. “They will have to diversify into other species.”

“There are still big cats,” David suggested.

“Have you got cats?” I asked.

“No.”

“Too difficult in London?” I asked.

David shrugged. “I’ve lived in London longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my entire life. 17 years I’ve been here. Sometimes, I have lived in London longer than most of my audience have been alive. Often they are students or other people aged under 22.

“There’s a risk with younger audiences that they won’t get my references, they may only have been in London six months and they may tend to be scared of anything remotely edgy.”

“Student audiences at the moment,” I said, “are very right-on PC.”

“It’s something,” agreed David, “that’s endemic across a lot of clubs where young people are the primary audience. They are very nervous about jokes that touch on any sort of identity issues – unless you are taking the ‘accepted’ position. I always try and tweak my audiences a little bit. Having come from a world of identity politics and having been through certain battles and marched on certain marches, I feel I have some justification to joke about that shit. But these people don’t have a sense of humour about sexuality or gender or race or…”

“Surely,” I suggested, “YOU can do gay jokes in the same way an Indian comic can do Indian jokes.”

“I do think it’s more charged when it comes to sexuality right now,” says David.

“You can,” said David, “if the target of your punchline is heterosexuality. But not if the target is homosexuality. Even if you ARE gay.”

“So,” I asked, “if I were a Scots or a Jewish comic, could I not safely joke about the Scots or the Jews being financially mean?”

“I think you can,” said David, “but I do think it’s more charged when it comes to sexuality right now. Particularly around gender. Gay comics invariably wave the rainbow flag.”

“You’re saying they can’t make jokes about,” I floundered, “I dunno, retro jokes about…”

David said: “It’s not retro to be critical, to have a critical take. It IS retro to be calcified in your position and unable to hear any criticism.”

“So you couldn’t,” I asked, “do a cliché joke about camp gays?”

“I wouldn’t want to. What I would want to joke about is the oversensitivity of the gay world and there is not a lot of interest in that at the moment.”

“What sort of jokes would you want to tell and can’t?”

“I do jokes about a drug a lot of gay men take – PrEP. They take it in order to then have un-safe sex – they don’t have to use condoms. It’s sort of a prophylactic for HIV. So I say: Of course I’m on PrEP. I am a gay white man. I demand a portable treatment for my inability to control myself. And You’re not getting your money’s worth on a gay cruise unless you come back with at least one long-term manageable condition. I try to collect them all.

“With those sort of things, people are thinking: Hold on! Are you making fun of people with HIV? It’s as if there is no ability for people to laugh at themselves.”

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Devvo, Lee Nelson & television people

Devvo smiles in Edinburgh last month

When I was at the Edinburgh Fringe, a couple of weeks ago, I had a chat with chav character Devvo who was performing in the Comedy section of the festival.

‘Chav’ translates as ‘Ned’ in Scotland and in American, I guess, it translates as ‘trailer trash’.

I did not have time to include the chat in this blog, a sign of my very bad time-management at this year’s Fringe but, for the purposes of bullshitting, perhaps that was suitably irresponsible of me, given Devvo’s irresponsible chav image.

“You’re sometimes labelled a ‘You Tube sensation’. Why?” I asked him.

“Just for being me, really,” Devvo answered in his Yorkshire accent. “I started out – what? – eight years ago just being me. Being a young lad going around causing trouble, causing bother and then people started picking up on it. But people are filming you and saying stuff and then you suddenly think Hang on! I’ve got a voice! I could be clever! I can teach people all my knowledge and give ‘em me life tips – so now I’ve started doin’ life tips videos on YouTube. School’s crap. Who learns owt from school? Learn it from the man in the street… That’s me.

“Everyone wants to make money, John. Everyone wants to know how other people do it. Everyone’s got boring jobs haven’t they? I’ve got no job. I’m a dole queue hero, I am. I’ve got teeshirts that say I am so I must be.

“You see people dressed like me with me Burberry cap on an’ people get scared. Don’t be scared, cos some of ‘em have got knowledge. But be scared of some of ‘em, because some of ‘em have got knives.”

“And,” I said, “the people who come to see your stage shows are…”

“It’s a nice mix,” said the man with the Yorkshire accent. “Cos there’s different levels of Devvo fans. You get the real low-level idiots who are just on my wavelength. Then you get the middle group who’re a bit more intelligent, but they know about me character. And then you get the people who’ve got no idea and that’s right fun. But I did have a gig the other day with a load of Army squaddies in at the low level of intelligence and I were stood there doin’ me show thinking Why am I even bothering? I left thinking This is ‘orrible.”

“What were they doing?”

“They were just idiots. It was a nice gig but I just thought You’re all idiots. Cos I’m growing into a bit of a businessman now – sellin’ teeshirts, sellin’ DVDs, givin’ out me life tips. I’ve gone up-market. I started out as, like, a rap character, but you’ve gotta move on.”

“You used to do music gigs, but now it’s mostly comedy gigs?” I asked.

“I’m not really that arsed about doing music gigs again,” said Devvo, “because I just felt I were ripping people off. Which is alright. But it’s not that much fun when you’re just stood there for half an hour takin’ money off people for doing all of yer old songs. It’s not really as good as breaking it up and having funny bits in between.”

“How were you ripping people off?” I asked.

“Just cos you think I’ve only done half an hour an’ I’ve just played these old songs an’ I’ve done nothing new. Now it feels like I’m gettin’ back to doing it just for a laugh again.”

“So you’re angling more towards comedy now,” I said. “What about Lee Nelson? He’s on TV already. He came along after you’d made a YouTube name for yourself. Some people have even said he ripped-off the Devvo character, though I couldn’t possibly comment.”

“Well,” said Devvo, “they’ve gone and said to him: Lee, here’s a cheque and can you do this for us and make it all friendly and clean and polished for BBC3? And, fair enough, if he’s happy with that, that’s up to him. If that’s where his comedy lies, you can’t begrudge him that.”

“What was he doing before he became you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Devvo, “because he’s got another character which is a Spanish footballer or an English footballer or something and that’s even worse. And he’s got a similar shirt on to mine, except mine I got from a charity shop about eight years ago for £3.”

“You did some TV stuff before the Lee Nelson character appeared on TV…” I prompted.

“Yeah. When we were filming some stuff for TV, they said to me: Why don’t we find somewhere in London that looks like Yorkshire and film down there? And that’s when I started to think You’re a set of knobheads because why don’t we just film it in Yorkshire?”

“Who was this for? Not the BBC?” I asked.

“No, it were for Funny Cuts on E4 a few years ago. I did it for Monkey Kingdom and it got the most views out of everything, but they just came and they said Right, we want some scripts now and I said We don’t do scripts and they suddenly all panicked and went in a flap and said What? You don’t do scripts and it’s in Yorkshire? Aaaaahhhhh!”

“But,” I asked, “if someone like BBC3 approached you, you’d still be happy to do television?”

“I would do, but I kinda stopped doin’ all me filming stuff a while ago because I just got bored. I thought Sod you all! Originally, we started doin’ things just for fun. People were filming me just for fun and then it got to a point where all these TV people were getting involved and then I suddenly thought I should be doin’ all this TV stuff now, because I’ve been given sommat! and then I took a step back and thought What? No! We were just doing stuff for fun and then TV tried to get its fucking claws into it and ruin everything, so I walked away from it and thought I’d just live me life, get me life tips ready and now I feel I’m just doin’ it for a laugh again.

“The Monkey Kingdom stuff’s been on E4 and Channel 4 and YouTube but now, if someone came to me with some TV stuff, if it don’t work out, I’ll just carry on doin’ me life tips in Yorkshire.”

“Can you develop the character into something else?” I asked.

“Probably. I could do owt. There are Waller FM podcasts on fat-pie.com and Devvo – me – I’m in there somewhere.”

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Is there a bias against American comics performing on TV and radio in Britain?

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Last night, American comic Lewis Schaffer played his 250th show at the Source Below in Soho – London’s longest-running solo comedy show. He has been playing there every Tuesday and Wednesday (and sometimes also Mondays) since well before we failed to elect a government.

I could not see his show last night because I had long-promised to go to Daphna Baram and Alex Love’s always interesting Cantaloopy comedy club in Shoreditch. Arthur Smith was headlining but also on the bill was the wonderfully charismatic American David Mills.

I first saw David perform earlier this year at Cantaloopy and was shocked I had never heard of him despite the fact he won the 2011 Hackney Empire New Act of the Year. I must pay more attention to what is going on outside my living room. As a result of being so impressed by David, I also went to see the wonderful Edinburgh Fringe chat show Scott Capurro’s Position hosted by Scott and David and booked the two of them to very successfully host this year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards Show.

All three of these comedians have totally different acts. I will get crucified by the three of them for my trite descriptions. But I guess Lewis Schaffer is a rollercoaster observational ride with a brilliant butterfly mind. Scott Capurro is an insightful camp comic with a razor-sharp tongue that could cut a heckler’s throat across a crowded room. And David Mills is an American reincarnation of Noel Coward who could play the O2 Arena and make it seem cosy and friendly.

What these three utterly different acts share is that they are American, they have been based in the UK for at least ten years (so there is no cultural problem) and television & radio have not picked up on them (in general – obviously Scott does have some profile, but you could not say he is an established TV or radio star).

All three can be cutting-edge but are perfectly acceptable for middle-of-the-road audiences.

So why do they not get the TV and radio exposure they deserve?

Following on from my recent blog about what TV and radio producers actually want, I think there may be the possibility that, if an American comedian suddenly appears on TV or radio from nowhere, there is (as seen by producers) the risk that the audience may think they are vast successes in the US and have not been ‘discovered’ and whisked up from the relative obscurity of comedy clubs by talented UK producers. And/or there may be the complaint that producers should be showcasing British comics not American comics.

I can think of no other reasons.

Reginald D.Hunter has had some success on shows like Have I Got News For You, but (unsayable as it may be) he has the distinct advantage of being a black American rather than just an American and the advantage of the first adjective is strong enough to outweigh the disadvantage of the second. He is also very funny and very talented, of course, which helps – though it is not vital, as many BBC3 shows demonstrate.

Three comedians – Scott Capurro, David Mills, Lewis Schaffer – all different but all with two defining characteristics – they are American and they are funny.

Three of a kind. But different.

It sounds like a format for a TV show, doesn’t it?

_____

PS Someone pointed out I forgot Rich Hall, of course. Oh lord. Exception. Rule. Proves. Re-arrange.

I blogged about Lewis Schaffer’s response to this blog the following day.

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What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.

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The funniest British TV sitcoms are actually tragedies and the latest one is neither British nor a sitcom

(This blog later appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Last night, I caught bits-and-pieces of a documentary on the making of the classic and still funny BBC TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo – one of the wonderful ensemble sitcoms produced by David Croft – Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi!, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum et al.

One night last year, I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy – four programmes – without a single smile. I think the main problem – especially with sitcoms – is that the writers think the object is to write funny lines for funny characters in inherently comic situations.

But, with the exception of David Croft’s various series, I think the classic British sitcoms are almost all, at heart, tragedies. They are centred on unfunny characters in tragic situations.

From Hancock’s Half Hour through to One Foot in the Grave, the central sitcom characters are not funny people. And the situations are not funny.

The Tony Hancock character is a pompous, insecure, humourless and self-obsessed prat – you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with him. But the series are very funny.

The situation in Steptoe and Son is that both flawed characters are trapped by their suffocating relationship. The (again slightly pompous) son wants to escape to a wider, more exciting world but is trapped by a sad old father terrified of losing his son and being alone.

Till Death Us Do Part featured another suffocating relationship where a racial bigot, bitter at life in a modern world he hates and his long-suffering wife are trapped by poverty with their daughter and loud-mouthed, know-it-all son-in-law in a claustrophobic circle of constant arguments and ego-battles. It’s a near definitive situation of personal hell.

In One Foot in the Grave, a bitter, grumpy old man and his wife are trapped in a childless and almost entirely loveless relationship but have been together so long they have no alternatives left. In one masterful episode, they are in bed in the dark throughout; the camera never leaves the room; it transpires at the end that they once had a child who died – hardly the stuff of cliché, knockabout comedy.

Only Fools and Horses is slightly funnier in its situation and in the way it plays, but still features a rather sad and insecure loser at its heart in what, in reality, would be an unfunny situation.

Even The Office (much over-rated) has an unsympathetic and again very insecure central character you would hate to work for or with.

The American, partly Jewish vaudeville-based tradition of TV sitcoms is to have a high laugh-per-speech count written by large teams of gag writers.

The classic British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time are written by single writers or a pair of writers and, ignoring David Croft’s shows (almost a genre in their own right), they tend to have what would in reality be unsympathetic central characters in tragic situations.

Ironically, the most consistently funny situation comedy currently screening on British television is neither a sitcom nor British. At the time of writing, episodes from three different series of the American show are being screened on three different British channels every week – by ITV1 before lunchtime on Saturdays, by ITV3 on Thursday evenings and it is stripped at breakfast time on Quest.

Monk is, in theory, a US detective/police procedural series about a sad and lonely former detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, without friends, unable to function in the everyday world and unable to get over the murder of his wife several years ago. Almost every episode has tear-jerking pathos and almost every episode is more genuinely funny than any number of current British sitcoms where the writers are wrongly attempting to put funny lines in the mouths of inherently funny characters dropped into funny situations.

Although it is clearly NOT a comedy series – it is clearly a detective/mystery/police procedural series – over the years it ran (2002-2009) it won three Emmys and had thirteen other nominations in the Comedy Series category.

If you want to know how to write a sitcom, watch Monk.

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The Spirit of the Fringe is dead, dying or thriving

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

Scots comedienne Janey Godley has been telling me and has blogged that she feels this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is different. That the spark has gone. That it has lost some of its character.

I told her it felt that way every year. Malcolm Hardee, the legendary godfather of alternative comedy and a Fringe legend, told me fifteen years ago that he felt the “supermarkets” of the big-time agents and comedy promoters had taken over from the ramshackle “corner shop” shows which he ran and which epitomised the spirit of the Fringe.
But, in the last few days, I have come round to agreeing with Janey Godley. The old Fringe is dying or is already dead. The big venues are now overly-large operations charging serious prices for mostly slick shows. The new McEwan Hall venue’s 2,000-seater is staging Cameron Mackintosh’s West End and Broadway hit Five Guys Named Moe in a production where The Scotsman rightly guessed the lighting rig alone cost more than most normal Fringe shows. It is straight West End transfer in a limited run. A Fringe show it ain’t.

The true spirit of the Fringe has transferred to the two competing Free festivals and to the Five Pound Fringe.

Bob Slayer’s gobsmackingly anarchic Punk Rock Chat Show (which had nothing to do with punk, rock or chat the evening I saw it but did involve a banana, nudity and an orifice) is the pure unadulterated spirit of the true Fringe and, with Lewis Schaffer now taking the erratically-billed 5.30pm performance of his improvised Free Until Famous show out of the venue and literally onto the streets, come rain or shine, we are living in a two-tiered Fringe world.

Punters can’t take the increasing financial risk of paying professional-level prices in the big venues on shows that might be rubbish. They sensibly lessen their financial risk by booking for shows by Names they have already watched on TV.

The spirit of the Fringe in which people accidentally discover new talent and rising stars in grim, sweaty rooms has now transferred to a second, lower tier of the Fringe.

It’s not all bad news, though.

Janey Godley herself straddles both Fringes, drawing big audiences in one of the Big Four venues on the reputation of her often highly improvised live shows despite not being one of the young Oxbridge males so beloved of BBC3 and Channel 4.

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