Benjamin Bankole Bello, who performs comedy as President Obonjo, is rather concerned by the Pleasance venue’s banning of comedian Jerry Sadowitz’s show at the Edinburgh Fringe…
For well over 11 years I have performed as self-exiled dictator, President Obonjo, living in the UK – bombastic, loud and terrorising the audience – a great conduit for jokes.
The press statement from the Pleasance included this:
“In a changing world, stories and language that were once accepted on stage, whether performed in character or not, need to be challenged”.
This has more implications for Character Comedy than Straight Stand Up. There is a difference and I have always believed that, when performing Character Comedy, you can get away with anything you say on stage… and I mean absolutely anything.
Displaying the characteristics of a dictator on stage has been warmly received over the years, The audience automatically assume he is a tribute act of the late Field Marshall Idi Amin.
They know what to expect once they attend the show. They could end up with their heads in a fridge. They are expecting to be shot for comedy effect
The audience “could end up with their heads in a fridge…”
President Obonjo will never get his knob out to the audience, do racist, sexist or homophobic material. But audiences who come to see him know what to expect.
Dictators use intimidation, terror and the suppression of fundamental civil liberties.
He is likely to bring a gun out and threaten to use it, grab a woman and ‘marry’ her in front of an audience. He may threaten to waterboard an audience if they don’t laugh.
Audiences have continued to accept this brand of comedy.
This statement from the Pleasance opens a can of worms for character comedy.
Saying something in character that is not in alignment with the organisation’s views could get your show cancelled.
Would President Obonjo survive performing at the Pleasance, if given the opportunity to do so, using the above characteristics?
In fact, he did perform at the Pleasance as part of a compilation show AAA produced by Bound and Gagged in August 2019.
The act has taken a new direction since 2019. What he says now is different from what he said in 2019.
One of the President’s confidants recently said: “I think you need to go darker with your audience. They are expecting it. You should do it and go darker.”
I think the West is now so confused about Freedom of Speech, it is clearly exhausted with democracy.
President Obonjo (ironically) is the man to defend freedom of speech.
Yesterday’s blog ended (because of the interruption of midnight) just before Arthur Smith’s annual alternative tour of the Royal Mile started (at 2.00am).
Telephone box claiming on the Royal Mile
This tour used to be a near Bacchanalian trip with occasional appearances by the boys in blue (usually the police; seldom the Smurfs).
Now it is a comparatively more civilised trip down the cobbles from the Castle to St Giles Cathedral – if you can call it ‘civilised’ with 60 people following Arthur down the street as he declaims poetry, misrepresents statues, accosts passers-by, encourages people to perform cartwheels, climb atop telephone kiosks and get into holes in the road, become living statues in the night-time street, and introduces a man loudly singing Frank Sinatra songs from a second-storey window at the top of his voice at around 02.30 in the morning.
Arthur approached one of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judges (not me) this afternoon to run naked down the Royal Mile but, alas, they felt the possibility of arrest and getting a criminal record was even riskier to their future reputation and job prospects than being an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge.
By the time Arthur had finished his shenanigans and I got home to my flat and into bed, it was around 04.00am. Which is fairly average for Edinburgh during the Fringe.
Later in the day, I bumped into former sailor Eric, who tried to persuade me again that he should get a Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality because he has now been performing the same show – Eric’s Tales of the Sea – A Submariner’s Yarn – at the Fringe for 10 years. He was eating a chip.
Could be good. Could be shit. Don’t matter.
The former squatters on the late Malcolm Hardee’s boat, the Wibbley Wobbley, are staging a one-off comedy play about him – Malcolm Hardee: Back From the Drink, on Wednesday at The Hive, not to be confused with my own Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards show on Friday at the Counting House.
Their comic play should be interesting, as they never met him. And though I say it is a one-off. In fact, they tested it out on Friday in London… They are performing it this Wednesday in Edinburgh… And are hoping more London performances may happen.
They – five of them – came to the Grouchy Club this afternoon to discuss the show but I am told I have to keep schtum about it to avoid plot spoilers.
Who knows if it will be an audience-pleaser? I have not yet seen it. “Could be good. Could be shit,” as Malcolm used to say when introducing as-yet unseen acts.
To be really honest, it is not the shows I enjoy most about the Edinburgh Fringe, it is the city and the people. The shows come third.
The aforementioned Grouchy Club is open daily, totally free to all at the Counting House 1415-1515. If you got it, flaunt it.
The manager of the Counting House and the adjoining Pear Tree is Brian.
During the Fringe, all day long, weather allowing, he sits at a barrel on the pavement outside the Counting House, helping and supervising and helping and advising.
Brian is a big man. I did not realise how big he actually until today. He is normally seated at his barrel.
One of his lovely Counting House assistants told me Brian was officially the tallest teenager in Scotland in 1985.
Big Brian by his barrel with one of his lovely assistants on a surprisingly sunny day outside the lovely Counting House
“I was 6 feet 5 inches tall as a teenager,” he confirmed to me outside, sitting by his barrel. “I’m 6 feet 11¾ now – a quarter of an inch shorter than a giant. Imagine that. If I had just spent a little bit more time growing, I could have made it to giant status. I could have had it on my passport and my CVs. Occupation: Giant. There is a Tall Person’s Club, but I’ve never joined. It’s supposed to get you good flights with extra legroom and stuff.”
“Do you,” I asked, “get charged extra for having a sideways…”
“For having long legs?” Brian asked. “Yes. That or the drinks trolley goes over your feet. You are crucified either way.”
People. The Edinburgh Fringe is all about people.
I got an inevitable text message and two pictures from Lewis Schaffer.
Lewis Schaffer (left) with what he calls ‘candies’ and Eric
“Eric the Submariner,” it said, “has been going around town today handing out candies to brighten performers’ moods on what he calls ‘Shit Sunday’ – the third Sunday of the festival. He has picked the right person. I’m a mess.”
Eric the submariner used to be a regular in the audience at Malcolm’s Up The Creek Club and it was Malcolm who encouraged Eric to perform. His Tales of The Sea is a real audience-pleaser of a show with Eric in total control of the audience. Well, he should be, after ten years!
President Obonjo harangues his full audience of 350
The same could be said of President Obonjo – Benjamin Bello – whose African dictator character dominates any room – which is more difficult than he makes it seem because it could be fraught with all sorts of racial stereotype problems. The fact it sails smoothly through and he had his audience of 350 (he insists all his audiences anywhere at any time are and forever will be 350 but, in fact, today he did have a full-to-the-brim audience) eating out of his comedic hand is a tribute to his skill.
Matt Price was in charge of the Royal Marines
A talent that Matt Price (partner of cunning stunt vixen Martha McBrier) had to have in spades tonight.
His show The Weed Fairy is about his father – so-called because of his dad’s predilection for growing marijuana plants at the family home in Cornwall and consequent visits from those boys in blue again.
But that was not why Matt needed all his audience-controlling cleverness and amiability tonight.
Matt and men from 42 Commando, K Company, including Corpsey in the striped shirt, second from the right
He had eight Royal Marine Commandos in the audience, one of whom – Corpsey – was almost paralytically drunk. Matt managed to be relentlessly insulting to Corpsey (which is what his Marine mates wanted) without in any way offending either Corpsey or his mates.
It was an extraordinary feat of professionalism intermingling the scripted show, drunk-wrangling, physical improvisation, ad-libbing and street psychology.
Matt played very literally passive aggressive. He would be insulting to Corpsey and the other Marines (which they loved), then back-off into amiable self-effacement and amiability, then swing back into put-downs, then be your-best-chum, then land a slight insult, all-the-while keeping the pace of the narrative of his story on-course and on-pace.
Plus there was film of him, as a slim teenager, skateboarding… and an online instruction video about didgeridoo-playing from a man claiming to run ‘The Didge Project’.
It might have been a Cunning Stunt.
Anything could be.
Fantasy and reality are beginning to merge in my mind. That is not uncommon at the Fringe, which may be the best thing since slice bread.
Meanwhile, the world outside the Edinburgh bubble still turns.
In non-Fringe-related news, my eternally un-named friend points out to me that entertainers Bruce Forsyth, who died three days ago, and Jerry Lewis, who died today, were older than sliced bread.
Sliced bread was born on 7th July 1928.
Bruce Forsyth was born on 22nd February 1928.
Jerry Lewis was born on 16th March 1926.
There are sequences from Jerry Lewis’ unseen movie The Day The Clown Cried in a documentary extract on YouTube. It has a commentary in Flemish…
Regular readers will know I am not above getting other people to write my blog for me.
Last weekend, Benjamin Bello aka President Obonjo of Lafta Republic took part in the annual Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year competition.
I asked him about it.
This is what he told me.
President Obonjo onstage
Comedy competitions are a great way to showcase your talent in front of industry people and to play to audiences that have never seen your act, but there are times you wonder after you have been going for years: At what point do you stop calling yourself a New Comedian?
It has been a great year for me, reaching the finals of seven comedy competitions and winning two of them has helped raise my profile. One was based on audience voting only and the other was a combination of audience voting and the judges voting.
Reaching the finals of seven comedy competitions in one year is no mean feat… but there are comedy competitions and there are comedy competitions.
I recall at the beginning of my comedy career I won the Luton Comedian of the Year competition and I thought I had conquered the world. I had no idea of other comedy competitions like the BBC New Comedy Awards.
I have entered the prestigious annual Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year twice in previous years going out in the heats and then in the quarter finals the following year. I had resigned myself to not entering again and decided instead to enter the Great Yorkshire New Comedian of the Year 2016. (Benjamin lives in Luton) I was runner up and, as a result, I automatically progressed to the semi-finals of the Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year.
A few weeks before the semi-finals I knew I had to invite friends to come and vote and support me. Invitations went out on Facebook and I tweeted on Twitter and I spoke to a few people individually and they said they would come – I was elated.
I continued gigging across the country to get match fit.
It was a one hour show. I received five stars with some degree of success.
I thought: Why am I stressing about a comedy competition with a five minute set?
The Leicester Square gig was on a Sunday. I turned down all other gigs the weekend before, just to relax and reserve my energies.
On the day of the gig, I could not relax. I was not worried about my set but more worried that no-one would show up and support me and that would hurt me more than not getting through to the finals. This competition includes audience voting and it does help if your friends are in the audience voting for you.
I arrived at the venue.
The first semi-final had been concluded that evening and I knew one of the comedians who had gone through to the final. He had come third at the Great Yorkshire New Comedian of the Year 2016.
I thought: Yes! I am going to get through to the final!
I met the comedians I was going to be competing with. Some were already in the Zone.
We walked into the venue to choose where we wanted to be in the running order.
I chose the last spot – I am the President and I should close the show.
I thought: It’s going to work!
The venue was filling up and no-one showed up to support me.
I thought: My election strategy won’t walk tonight. I am going to be performing to an audience of friends of other comedians.
This was going to be tough no matter how funny I was. It was going to be hard to get through.
I waited in the dressing room. The MC called my name and said this was the most difficult spot. I got on stage, did my thing and I was pleased with my performance. Very pleased.
The results were announced.
I was not placed in the final.
My initial reaction was one of utter disappointment. I had wanted this so much.
As I walked out of the building, an audience member came to me and whispered: You were very funny tonight but I could not vote for you.
Another comedian said: You smashed it; you should have got through.
As I walked home, I thought: I gave it my best shot, but who knows? I might get a wild card.
That thought – I might get a wild card – kept ringing in my ears. I got home, slept it off, checked my email.
There was a gig offer from a comedy promoter but no wild cards.
A few days later, the finalists were announced.
I smiled and wondered who was going to win.
President Obonjo: yet more places to conquer
I needed to move on but I wondered if I would ever do another comedy competition. Three more are left I think: the BBC New Comedy Awards, the Old Comedian of the Year and the Silverbird Comedy Awards for those over 55.
I still have a few more years left for that last one. LOL.
I have no regrets about taking part in comedy competitions. They have been a real opportunity to showcase my talent in front of the industry and I have had great reviews from them.
President Obonjo of Lafta Republic will be taking a show to Brighton, Glasgow and the Edinburgh Fringe next year.
It will be titled The Rise of the Comedy Dictator.
Priscilla Adade, Tom Stade and Lewis Schaffer of Giant Leap (Photograph by Trudy Brambrough)
Yesterday, I was talking to critic Kate Copstick and I think we came to the conclusion that, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe, there is no one ‘hot’ act whom everyone is talking about. Although Phil Nichol seems to be everywhere either as a performer or as a producer – the ten shows to promote the tenth anniversary of his Comedians’ Theatre Company is only the tip of an iceberg.
I saw one of his shows yesterday – Giant Leap, about the alleged writing of Neil Armstrong’s first words during the allegedly faked Moon landing in 1969.
This is the one which has Lewis Schaffer in his first on-stage acting role since his schooldays. And he is very good. But, talking to him afterwards, it was all about the review he got for his stand-up comedy show from critic Bruce Dessau. It was only a 3-star review and Lewis Schaffer seems to think Bruce told him it could have been a 4-star review but he (Lewis Schaffer) was not bad enough. If you build an entire career on being a failure as a comic, you rather screw yourself if you are rather too good. Sure enough, when I looked up the review, it ends with the words: “Go along and you won’t be disappointed. It’s a good gig. But if you are lucky maybe you will catch him have a bad gig”
Mr Twonkey and his close friend yesterday
Also in the audience at Giant Leap was Mr Twonkey who, the previous day, had supplied cheese at the surprisingly busy Grouchy Club show. He told me he had run out of cheese and was not coming to our second show.
And no-one else did either. The allotted time – 3.45pm at The Counting House Lounge – arrived and no-one turned up to participate, something that hadn’t happened in the two Fringes we have been doing it.
Today’s Grouchy Club will be interesting as Copstick is off at some dodgy venue doing a panel discussion with Janey Godley and others for online magazine Spiked on the subject of That’s Not Funny! Are Offence-Seekers Killing Comedy?
So, tomorrow, there may be a podcast posted of an extract from me talking to myself.
Anyway, after today’s threesome, I went off to see Nathan Cassidy pulling another publicity stunt in the Cowgate for his Back To The Future shows featuring the DeLorean car he has managed to half-inch from someone (possibly in the past).
Jo Burke was mildly amused by Nathan Cassidy yesterday
I seem to spend most of my days figuratively bumping into people in the street but yesterday, by the DeLorean, I was literally bumped-into by Jo Burke.
She appeared to be having a fit of the giggles and, on leaving (she was rushing to Waverley station to put a friend on a train) got stopped by a fan who wanted her to sign a copy of her iScream book for him.
Thought to self afterwards:Was that impromptu book-signing a set-up?
Decision by self:No, I don’t think it was. I think it was actually real. It was bizarre. This is Edinburgh. Bizarre things happen all the time.
When I too left the DeLorean, 30 seconds later, I bumped into Alexander Bennett, but only figuratively.
Alexander Bennett in Edinburgh street scene
“All hail Alexander Bennett!” I shouted out. “Have you any hilarious anecdotes for my blog?”
“John,” he replied, “you are the bottom-feeder of comedy. You are scraping around. Have you got any anecdotes? Have you got any anecdotes so I can sort-of write down what you’ve said.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” I said. “I hailed you – and this is what I get.”
“The trouble is,” said Alexander, “my catchphrase (All hail Alexander Bennett!) is only working with you. Maybe it will take off and…”
At this point, I saw John Robertson walking fast on the other side of the road holding a placard advertising his Dark Room show.
I shouted loudly across the street: “Have you any hilarious anecdotes for my increasingly prestigious blog?”
He half raised his hand in what looked like a slightly tired acknowledgement and hurried on his way.
When I too hurried on my way, I got a message from Malcolm Hardee Awards judge Claire Smith: Lewis Schaffer was ASTONISHING yesterday.
Matt Price looking for a bargain in Edinburgh yesterday
Ever since Martha got a 5-star review in The Scotsman, their venue has been swamped by ‘star-chasers’ – people who only go to shows because they have stars in The Scotsman and elsewhere, not because they are interested in the show as such.
“You are turning into Lewis Schaffer,” I said. “If good things happen, you get worried.”
“He has re-defined failure and it’s amazing,” said Matt. “We saw him yesterday and Martha had never seen him perform before. It was just unbelievable. Amazing. Martha said: Oh. Is this what he does, then?”
Then my evening was spent watching three superb comedy shows.
Lynn Ruth Miller: Get a Grip
Arguably the warmest and cuddliest autobiographical storyteller on the Fringe. Well, I got a cuddle, so I’m happy.
Janey Godley: Honest To Godley
I think I have said in this blog before that she is he most all-round creative person I have ever met and these two quotes from elsewhere still remain true:
“The most outspoken female stand-up in Britain” (Daily Telegraph)
“Some of the sharpest-elbowed comedy in the world” (New York Times)
President Obonjo: dictator to Benjamin Bello
President Obonjo: The Man Who Stole My Identity
President Obonjo, African dictator, is actually comedian Benjamin Bello and he lives in St Albans – on the same railway line as me. So I have had about three rail journey chats with him – one of which I think involved the basic idea of this show – but only seen him perform one 10-minute spot in London. This hour-long show was a revelation.
He has great audience control. The character was immediately taken-to-heart by a mostly male audience. And then he takes the uniform off, becomes Benjamin Bello and analyses the nature of character comedy, wonders why the character he writes and performs is funnier than he himself is on stage… and then puts the uniform back on and becomes the character again.
Loud, loud laughter in the first and third sections; total silence in the middle broken by occasional laughter when he bungs in a joke. But it is not silence because they don’t like the performance. It is the silence of wrapt attention and – I think – fascination.
Nothing at all like what I expected.
The downside of the Edinburgh Fringe is that, although he got in a good audience last night, he is unlikely to get reviewed because he is unknown, hidden away in the labyrinth of the impenetrably badly-signed Cowgatehead venue and does not have a big-bucks promoter behind him.