On the same day that Salman Rushdie was stabbed in the US for writing something which some people found offensive, Anthony Alderson of the Pleasance (normally a logical man) issued a statement saying surreally:
“The Pleasance is a venue that champions freedom of speech and we do not censor comedians’ material… the material presented at his (Jerry Sadowitz’s) first show is not acceptable… This type of material has no place on the festival and the Pleasance will not be presenting his second and final show.”
The Pleasance had no inkling that Jerry Sadowitz might be offensive…
My reaction on air was:
Well, I think he should do a comedy show based on that. shouldn’t he?
The story is that Jerry was offensive. I mean, Jerry has been doing offensive material for 30 years – 40 years? – and the Pleasance have been going for about 30 years. The Pleasance and Jerry have been going for about the same amount of time.
He is famous for being offensive. That’s why you book him in. That’s why the Pleasance booked him in, presumably – that he would be offensive. That’s his schtick.
So, if he’s NOT offensive, people will complain. But now, because some people complained about him being offensive – despite the fact he was clearly flagged as being offensive – the Pleasance appears to be committing professional suicide.
Interestingly, they say it’s the material. Apparently he showed his willy to the front row. But they didn’t find that offensive; they found the MATERIAL offensive.
Most comedy really has to be offensive in some way – or it has to be surprising. The whole point is a ‘punchline’ at the end. And a punchline is something you don’t expect, coming out of nowhere.
One of the best ways to come out of nowhere with a punchline is to do something that’s ‘offensive’. Frankie Boyle does it all the time. Bernard Manning used to do it to mainstream audiences. Bernard Manning is a great example.
I saw Bernard Manning at his own club twice and he had four-letter words all over the first half and then he stopped. They weren’t in the second half.
I thought: This is strange. Then I realised, in fact, he was being offensive to his very mainstream, middle-of-the-road audience in the first half but, having established that he was offensive, he didn’t have to do it any more. (They came to be offended.)
If you go to a Sadowitz show, you want to be offended.
There are no rules in comedy, really. People say you can’t make rape jokes. You can’t make jokes about rape. Generally, that’s true. But I have seen very funny rape jokes – But they’re not really about rape, they’re about…
I mean, Janey Godley, the Glaswegian comedian, had problems recently: being Cancelled. She put on Jerry Sadowitz’s first stand-up show in her pub. She did a show in Edinburgh – and wrote her autobiography about – being raped when she was a child, I think from about 5 to about 12.
And people laughed in the Edinburgh show. They didn’t laugh AT it. (They laughed WITH it.) She made the jokes against the rapist and she made the audience laugh despite the fact it was an ‘unacceptable’ subject.
You can make a joke about an unacceptable subject if you do it in the right way.
You have to be a very good comedian, as Sadowitz – and Janey – are.
You have no idea how I and other people suffer for this blog.
At the moment, I have comedy performer Matt Roper staying in my spare bedroom for the next four weeks. Well, he may emerge occasionally. Matt performs as comedy singing character Wilfredo. His father was stand-up comedian George Roper, who rose to fame on Granada TV’s stand-up series The Comedians in the 1960s, along with Bernard Manning, Frank Carson and others.
“I don’t have a blog today,” I told Matt this afternoon. “You’ll have to give me one. I always tell people that, as a boy, you were bounced on Bernard Manning’s knee and you say you weren’t. There must be a blog in that.”
“You’ve always got Johnnie Hamp as a blog,” suggested Matt about the legendary Granada TV producer.
“He’s very interesting,” I said, “but he’s up in Cheshire.”
TV producer Johnnie Hamp with The Beatles at their height
“Next year,” persisted Matt, “it’s the 50th anniversary of a TV show he produced called The Music of Lennon & McCartney. Brian Epstein (The Beatles’ manager) was very loyal. Not the best businessman, but a very loyal man to people who had given him a helping hand.
“By 1965, The Beatles didn’t really need to do a Granada TV show but Johnnie had been one of the first people to put The Beatles on TV in a regional Granada show Scene at 6.30. It’s on YouTube.
“In 1965, Johnnie had this idea The Music of Lennon & McCartney and there was this huge spectacular in Studio One at Granada TV and he flew people in – Henry Mancini played If I Fell on the piano;Ella Fitzgerald; Cilla was on it; Peter Sellers reciting A Hard Day’s Night as Richard III. That’s on YouTube.”
“What were Cilla’s knees like?” I asked.
Matt ignored me.
“Johnnie Hamp,” he continued, “brought Woody Allen over to do a TV special – it’s the 50th anniversary of that next year, too. It’s the only television special Woody Allen ever did. Just for Johnnie Hamp at Granada. There’s a clip on YouTube.
“Johnnie told me recently: Back in those days, we didn’t care about ratings; creativity was more important. I mean, The Comedians was interesting because, today, no-one would take a chance on giving twelve unknown comics a primetime TV series.”
“Was it him or his brother who had a wooden leg?” asked Matt.
“That was Denis Forman,” I said. “It might have been metal.”
“I’ve got a Beatles-related story you could end your blog with,” said Matt.
“Just tell me what Cilla Black’s knees were like,” I told him.
“My dad,” said Matt, ignoring me, “told a story of when all the Beatles’ brothers and uncles in Liverpool – all the men of the family – heard that The Beatles were smoking drugs. What’s all this? they went. They took the train down from Lime Street to Euston to sort the fookin’ whatever’s going on owt. We’ll sort this fookin’ droogs thing owt.
“And the story goes that, three days later, they all got off the train back in Liverpool Lime Street saying: Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it… Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
“I’d better take a photo of you,” I said, “for the blog.”
“Not if you’re going to go on and on about Bernard Manning,” said Matt.
Matt Roper refused to be photographed for this piece
I was partly brought up in Ilford in East London and went to school near Gants Hill which was, at the time, extremely Jewish. When there was a Jewish holiday, class numbers were so depleted that teachers at my school tended to abandon the lessons and have general knowledge tests. One of the bonuses of going to my school, though, was that I got endless top-notch Jewish jokes told by Jews.
“It came about because of my previous solo show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy,” he told me yesterday. “That was a story with jokes about the Israel-Palestine conflict seen through the eyes of a North London Jew.
“Some people complained it was ‘too political’. So I came up with the idea of preceding it with a 20-minute curtain-raiser called Old Jewish Jokes. Then I was going to have an interval and perform This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy.”
In fact, Ivor never did this. Old Jewish Jokes developed into its own one-hour show.
“One day,” he explained to me, “I did a gig at a Jewish venue and, before the show, the organiser asked me: You’re not going to do jokes about the Holocaust, are you? That slightly threw me – not because I actually do jokes about the Holocaust, though I do jokes about the way people use the Holocaust to fit their own agenda – about people appropriating history for their own purposes. I think that’s fair comment for the current comedian.
“But there was something odd about being asked beforehand about material I was not going to do. So I have worked that idea of being told by a venue owner what jokes not to tell into a narrative in which to tell the old Jewish jokes: Jews and Israel, Jews and money, Jews and sex. There ARE lots of jokes, but it’s underpinned by this story of what it’s like being a modern Jewish comedian when you’re given a shopping list of things you’re not allowed to talk about.
“I tested the show out last August at the Edinburgh Fringe – on a small scale at the Free Festival – and it sold out on the second night and then every night throughout the run. What was clear and heartening was that at least 75% of the audience was non-Jewish. So I thought I’d try it in London. The tickets for the Leicester Square Theatre show are selling really well without any great PR. If it works well there, I’ll probably take it back to Edinburgh again this year, maybe in a bigger pay venue.”
“The title is great,” I said. Old Jewish Jokes. You know exactly what you’re going to get.”
“Yes,” said Ivor, “People don’t come to see Ivor Dembina, by and large: they come because of the title.
Ivor Dembina: “a typical alternative comedian”?
“I’m just a typical London-based alternative comedian. I’m used to writing stories about myself or whatever. But I’ve found actually standing on stage telling jokes is really hard. You could tell the best jokes in the world for an hour but, about 10 or 15 minutes in, the audience’s enjoyment will start going down. Which is why it’s so important to have the story in there. It gives the audience a breather and an additional level of interest because it becomes not just about the jokes themselves but about ethnic minorities having a fear of people making jokes about them.
“Black people can make jokes with the word ‘nigger’ in. White people can’t. Jews can make jokes about being mean with money and use the word ‘Yid’ but non-Jews can’t. What’s that all about? All those issues are kind of bubbling underneath and I think that’s what makes this quite an interesting show. The old jokes are great. I don’t have to worry about the jokes. But hopefully the audience may go away thinking about acceptability. Why are some jokes acceptable and others not? Why is the same joke OK in a certain context but not in others? It just stirs it up a little and I like that.
“In London, the Jews still have something of a ghettoised mentality; they tend to live in North West London or Ilford. Most Jewish entertainers work the Jewish community – the culture centres, the synagogue halls. Which is fine. But no-one – particularly in comedy – has yet stuck their neck out and consciously decided to try and take Jewish humour of an English kind out of the community and target it fairly and squarely at the ethnically-mixed audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. Instead of Jews just telling these jokes to each other, the whole culture of Jewish jokes could be opened up to a much wider audience.”
Ivor Dembina at his Hampstead Comedy Club last week
“But surely ,” I said, “Jews have been telling jokes about Jews forever? There’s that whole New York Jewish thing.”
“Ah,” said Ivor. “That’s America, Over there the whole Jewish schtick is much more widespread.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “There are loads of British comedians who are Jews, but I can’t think of a single famous comedian over here who you could describe as doing his or her act as ‘a Jewish comedian’. Bernard Manning was a bit Jewish. Jerry Sadowitz is a bit Jewish. But you couldn’t describe either of them as being ‘Jewish comedians’ in the genre sense.”
“Mark Maier does a bit about it,” said Ivor, “and there’s David Baddiel, but you wouldn’t say he’s a specifically Jewish comedian. Lenny Henry was the UK’s ‘black comedian’ but there has never been a comic who became Britain’s Jewish Comedian.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“America’s a much bigger country,” said Ivor, “and they have a predilection for ethnic assertiveness – I’m an American black! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Jew! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Italian! – I’m proud! Jews in America see themselves as American first and Jewish second. In Britain people see themselves as Jews first and British second.”
“Really?” I said, surprised. “I’m not English, but I’m Scottish and British equally.”
“In my opinion,” said Ivor.
“Lewis Schaffer – a Jewish New York comedian,” I said, “surprised me by saying he was brought up to distrust Gentiles.”
“Well,” said Ivor, “I was brought up to fear Gentiles.”
“They are shifty, untrustworthy?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Ivor. “You can’t trust them. That was what I was told. In a way, the reason why Israel is so important to the Jews is because they see it as a bolt hole to go to if anti-Semitism gets too bad.
Ivor’s 1996 Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew
“I think what drives most Jewish behaviour is fear. Because of the experience of our past… I was brought up to think You can’t trust non-Jews. Obviously you find that same mentality in Israel: You can’t trust the Arabs. Shoot first. Ask questions afterwards. And, in the diaspora, it’s even more so. If anyone begins to raise a dissenting voice within the community, you get labelled as a traitor. I get hate mail just because I’ve dared to question the prevailing ethos through my comedy and through my very low-level political activity.”
“How did Jews react,” I asked, “to your show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy? It was about you actually going to Palestine and what you saw there. Did you get hassle about being perceived to be pro-Palestinian?”
“I get loads,” Ivor replied. “Hate mail.”
“Even now?” I asked.
“Not so much now,” said Ivor. “What happens is they try to marginalise you. Its main function is to intimidate you. Life would be easier if I kept quiet. Or to provoke you into doing something or saying something outrageous that will make you look stupid or like a villain. To get under your skin, to make you angry. I’m used to it now. I don’t take any notice of it.
The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall at St James’s in Piccadilly
“I don’t do much. I took part in that Bethlehem Unwrapped thing where they did a replica of the wall separating Palestine from Israel at that church in Piccadilly. I did a comedy show with Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and a couple of other Jewish comedians. And there was a line of people outside complaining Ivor Dembina makes jokes about the Holocaust! Which I don’t. But they’re very organised these Zionist people. It’s like banging your head against the wall.”
Jimmy O chats in a Wigan internet cafe yesterday via Skype
A couple of months ago, I saw Waves of Laughter, an episode of BBC2 TV documentary series Funny Business. It was about comedians performing on cruise ships.
According to the BBC publicity blurb: “This film follows the fortunes of Jimmy O – a virgin water-borne comic, as he makes his very first cruise, and tries to learn the ropes in a hurry when he is thrown in at the deep end.”
He sank, so I was interested when he contacted me about a charity single his band Clown Prince are releasing for online download on 3rd May.
“What sort of music is it?” I asked.
“I always say it’s sugar-coated pop with a twist of melancholy,” He told me yesterday. He was in Wigan. I was on Skype.
“Comedy happened by accident,” he said. “Me main passion in life were music. It’s a cliché, but I were the class clown at school. People were always telling me I were funny. So, when the band originally broke up and I had no creative outlet left, I never thought I’ll be a comedian, I just thought I’ll stand on stage to test just how funny I actually am.
“Me band’s doing stuff again now, but I thought we’d do it online rather than live. To test it. And we’ll give the proceeds to a local stroke charity in Wigan and Leigh – Think Ahead
“I lost me mum to a stroke two years ago, which is a harrowing experience. It puts a lot of this entertainment bullshit into perspective.”
“How are things after the BBC documentary?” I asked.
“I’m on the dole,” replied Jimmy. “I live in a council house in Wigan with no carpets, paper hanging off the wall, a broken fridge and a broken telly. I’m basically a tribesman. I wonder what Michael McIntyre’s doing this morning. He’ll be sat in his £8 million house.
“I have problems getting booked.
Jimmy O amid the glorious glitz and glamour of showbiz
“When I first started out, Jerry Sadowitz was me idol. When I ran a club, I’d love to have booked him, but he’s always telling me to Fuck off on Twitter. He was the first comedian I felt passionate about. But I grew up with the pre-conceived idea of a real professional comedian being Bernard Manning. I used to watch the show The Comedians on telly.
“I actually supported Bernard Manning once. I was quite lucky. When I started out and was only ten gigs old and I were shit, I got the chance to support Bernard Manning. After that, I thought I don’t understand this Political Correctness. It’s such a middle class bar.
“You can make jokes about the poor. You can make rape jokes. You can make cancer jokes. You can make all the disabled remarks like Ricky Gervais does. But, as soon as you mention something like an asylum-seeker…
“When I went onto the alternative Manchester circuit, I told a gag which got me blackballed effectively. I said:
“I’ve got a friend. He’s a Kosovan asylum-seeker. I invited him round our house and said Make yourself at home. So he raped me wife and ate the dog.
“I had another one:
“My girl said she wanted some smellies for Christmas, so I got her a tramp and a gypsy.
“Just a silly one-liner.
“But, as soon as I done that, I was known as ‘the racist’ and I was blackballed on the Manchester comedy scene and it’s kinda carried on. The vilification has carried on in the six years I’ve been doing stand-up. I’ve had promoters tell me We’ve had discussions. I’ve heard other promoters talk about you and because of ‘The Gypsy Joke’ you won’t get bookings. I have this reputation that precedes me.”
“Political correctness is an interestingly variable thing,” I said.
‘It’s a class thing,‘ said Jimmy. ‘If a middle class student had gone on stage and delivered that gag, it would be post-modern irony. If I go on stage – I look like a hod-carrier – I’m seen as a piece of racist BNP poster-boy filth.
“They’re just gags and it shouldn’t be that way. You shouldn’t have to police yourself. It’s comedy. Is it a George Carlin quote? It’s the job of the comedian to cross the line and offend. The nature of comedy is a dark art. It comes from a dark place. Most comedians are mental. The best ones are.
Total Abuse inspired
“I first saw Jerry Sadowitz on an ITV morning show called The Time, The Place when I was 15 years old. This episode was about swearing and they had Jerry Sadowitz and his manager sat in the audience. This is a clip from your show… and it was like Beep… beep… beep… beep… Being 15, I thought This is great! so I got me mum to buy me his Total Abuse DVD and I loved it. It was amazing! When I started doing comedy, he was the man I wanted to be like. That’s why I did asylum-seeker jokes. I thought: Well, he’s doing it…
“I grew up on a council estate in Wigan. I had a loving mother and a cold, distant, cruel father. He never beat me, but he was always putting me down so I’ve been instilled with this fucking Grimaldi complex – you know – the tortured clown. Most entertainers are dysfunctional to varying degrees and they stand on a stage to say Please like me.
“Other ‘normal’ people go out on a weekend and go for a dance and that’s their showtime. But the more twisted of us go stand on a stage and get shouted at.”
“And a TV documentary about cruise ship entertainers is a bigger stage,” I said.
“I’d been on television before,” Jimmy replied. “A show called Living With Kimberly Stewart: a reality TV show with Rod Stewart’s daughter on Living TV. Twelve contestants. The premise was Kimberly Stewart had no friends in the UK, so she had to find two flatmates to live with her. This was 2007 and Kimberley was in her late twenties.
Kimberly Stewart’s world: the cover of Hello!
“I fill out the application form and I’m brutally honest. I’m an unemployed comedian. I have a battered old Astra car. I live with me mother. I guess because I was raw and different, they invited me down to auditions at Endemol in London and it was full of girls who looked like they’d just come off an FHM shoot and guys in scarves and pointy-toed boots who looked like they’d been in Duran Duran and I’m a bloke from Wigan with a flat cap on and a pair of £7 jeans from Asda.
“There were tasks every week and, because I had been involved in music, there was a music task. Donny & Dirk Tourette were on the show doing the music task as well – Donny Tourette was on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007.
“The producer took us to the London School of Music. Donny & Dirk Tourette were sat down with loads of Stella beer cans round them. Having a comedic slant, if you’re in a strange situation, you tend to fall back on comedy. Dirk Tourette’s hair were bright blond, with a straight fringe and straight down the sides.
“And he said: You cunt! You Northern cunt! It were like something out of Grange Hill. He actually said: I’m gonna put your ‘ead dahn the toilet! There’s footage of the fight on YouTube, but they’ve edited all this bit out.
“So it started a push-and-pull. His brother Donny ran over with a full can of Stella and smashed it in me face – the footage is on YouTube.
“Donny Tourette scratched me eye. I had to go to Moorfields Eye Hospital. One of me regrets is I didn’t punch him; I just grappled him to the floor because, at the time I was green and thought Well, I don’t want to get thrown off this show. I thought it could be me ticket to the chocolate factory. But it turned out to be me ticket to the fucking meat counter in Tesco.”
“When I saw you on the BBC2 cruise ship show,” I said, “I thought He’s playing a professional Northerner on-and-off stage and I can’t see what the guy’s really like.”
“Well,” explained Jimmy, “I had a dichotomy that had been bothering me for a while. I had developed this dopey, Northern, Ken Goodwin type character. I’d shuffle onto the stage looking bewildered and get laughs.
“I had developed this act which was very old school: dead-pan one-liners. But I’d got bored with it and me delivery had become so slow and dragged-out… My goal now is to become more like myself on stage, but there’s something very scary about that. It’s like going on stage naked.
“People told me: You’re funnier as yourself. But it’s like when someone tells you something and, deep down inside, you know it too and you’re in a state of comedic denial.
“I’m not a cruise ship entertainer. I’m not from a world of cheesy smiles and Come on, Beryl, let’s have a dance; it’s Beryl’s birthday, everybody! Comedically, that’s not what I want to do. My goal is to be myself now. That BBC cruise ship documentary put the final nail into the coffin of my old act.”
There is an extract from the upcoming Jimmy O/Clown Prince charity single Cradle Me on SoundCloud:
Matt Roper spends a Happy Goddam Christmas in Soho
Comedian Matt Roper is flying to India on New Year’s Eve for two months. At least, that was what he intended to do.
“I think my new principle should be Don’t book flights when you’ve had two bottles of wine and a load of Guinness and a few tequilas,” he told me over pizza in London’s Soho.
“I’d had a heavy night out and woke up in the morning. My life most mornings, if I’m being honest is… Well, if you’ve ever seen a window with condensation on it and it slowly clears away… That’s my brain in the morning… I remembered doing something about a flight, so I went and checked my emails and the Confirmation was there… Flying out on 31st December, which is perfect for me because I don’t like New Year… and coming back on June 3rd…. What?… June 3rd?!!… but the most surprising thing was I’d managed to choose my seat and decide what sort of meal I was having.
“I’ve been many, many times to India. I love it out there, but I haven’t been for about six years. I’ll go to Goa and then hopefully write my Edinburgh Fringe show in some hill station. But my point is Never book a flight when you’re hammered.”
“Maybe that should be your Fringe show title,” I suggested: “Never Book a Flight When You’re Pissed. But you shouldn’t go to India. You’re in the iTunes Comedy charts at the moment with Happy Goddam Christmas, this Christmas song of yours.”
“Well, it’s an anti-Christmas Christmassy song, really,” Matt corrected me, “like Fairytale of New York.”
“When that was released,” I said, “it was inconceivable it could become a standard festive song like White Christmas.”
“It’s a British thing,” suggested Matt. “We’re maybe not drawn to the natural sugary, positive ditties.”
“Is it the first song you’ve written?” I asked.
“No,” said Matt. “All the Wifredo stuff you hear at Edinburgh is all orginal songs, though I did one of those in collaberation with Pippa Evans.
“With Happy Goddam Christmas, I had the music for a long time – the basic structure of the song – it was about an ex I was feeling particularly, you know, bitter and jaded about. But the song isn’t iactually about me feeling bitter about an ex. I took it to Pippa Evans and she added a middle eight onto it and we worked together on the lyrics.”
Pippa Evans performs as her on-stage character Loretta Maine. Someone once described her as ‘Dolly Parton as seen through the lens of Mike Leigh’.
“Arthur Smith has a little cameo in the video,” Matt told me, “and we have Sanderson Jones and Imran Yusef – in the video, they’re in the band – Arthur’s in the toilet brandishing his Hammond organ.”
“So you wanted to make lots of money with a Christmas song?” I asked.
“Not really,” said Matt. “It was just about having a bit of fun. It’s easy to release whatever you want on iTunes. It’s quite incredible how the music industry’s changed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Edinburgh Fringe were along similar lines? If you could cut out all the middle people.”
“Well,” I said, “the Free Fringe and the Free Festival sort-of do that. Are you thinking of doing one of the two free festivals next year?”
“Possibly. I had a lot of fun with Just The Tonic this year. I would like to see the Fringe level out into an event where your established comics and TV names are on the ticketed Fringe and the less-established acts can realistically afford to do it and make at least a little bit of money by the end of it.”
Matt’s father, George Roper, was one of The Comedians on the seminal Granada TV comedy stand-up show of the 1970s.
It was a different era.
“There was a club called The New Luxor Club in Hulme, Manchester,” Matt told me.
I raised my eyebrow at the mention of a club in Hulme. I went to Hulme a few times when I worked at Granada TV in the 1980s. If you went to the Aaben Cinema there, when you came out, you might find three youths sitting on your car bonnet saying: “So how much are you gonna pay to get your car back?”
“In the 1960s,” Matt told me, “they would have ‘gentlemen’s evenings’ at some of the Manchester social clubs, working men’s clubs, cabaret clubs. It would not be uncommon to have six stand-up comics and six female strippers/exotic dancers on one bill. At this point in the 1960s, it was legal to be naked on-stage, but it was illegal to move.
“The police decided to bust The New Luxor Club and my father was one of the six comics performing there that night. The police raided the club and charged the comedians with aiding and abetting the club owner – a guy called Vincent Chilton – for running a disorderly house.
“The six strippers and the six comics were in the dock at Manchester Crown Court and the police had to stand up in the court and tell the jokes. I swear – no word of a lie.
“I don’t know the exact date, but the police had to get up and say something like On the 28th of June 1965, George Roper stood up on stage and said the following joke: ‘A policewoman and a policeman were walking ‘ome from t’station one night. Ooh, she said, I’ve left me knickers back at t’station. Ooh, don’t worry, said t’policeman. Hitch up yer skirt, let the dog ‘ave a sniff. Half an hour later, t’dog comes back with t’sergeant’s balls in its mouth’…
“Can you imagine? In the Crown Court? The public gallery had to be cleared because everyone was laughing so much.
“There was a guy called Jackie Carlton, who was the apotheosis of Manchester club comics at the time and all the younger comics like Frank Carson and Bernard Manning looked up to him. He was very camp, very flamboyant. When it was his turn in the dock, the judge asked: Was that one of your jokes? and he said, Yes, but I tell it much better than that. He was found guilty.
“My dad was the last comic up and, when it was his turn to stand in the dock, the judge asked Is that one of your stories? and he said Oh! Not heard that one before and, for some reason, he got off with it by playing the underdog, as he always did. The other five comics got fined, but my dad got off with it.
“I asked my uncle about it not long ago and he said people were queueing round the block to buy the Manchester Evening News to read the jokes that were told in court.”
* * *
Below, Jackie Carlton talks in the 1970s about camp comedy and obscenity…
The wonderful world of sexist, slobbering Wilfredo
Wilfredo has been described as a “grotesque caricature of Falstaffian appearance: trousers pulled up to the top of a corpulent stomach, a tight flamenco shirt, a wild black mop wig and a set of prominent prosthetic teeth. Typically, the character will always hold a pint of beer on stage, even whilst dancing and singing. He smokes his way throughout songs, salivating over the audience and musicians while berating them with rich expletives.”
The character of Wilfredo was created by comedian and actor Matt Roper, whose father George Roper was on TV in my erstwhile youth with Bernard Manning et al in the ITV series The Comedians. When I went to see Wilfredo’s Edinburgh Fringe show The Wonderful World of Wilfredothis week, I was fascinated by the number of women in the audience. Wilfredo is a sort of sleazy, greasy singer who slobbers saliva as he talks, yet he has built up a female fan base.
“I don’t understand why women like the character,” I said to Matt Roper. “They certainly wouldn’t be attracted to him in reality.”
“And they certainly aren’t at point blank range,” admitted Matt. “Sometimes I flyer in the streets as the character and, when he’s presented out of context, they certainly don’t want him coming up to them.”
“So maybe,” I suggested, “they like the on-stage character because there’s a willing suspension of disbelief because they know it’s satirical. He’s sexist but they know it’s a joke.”
“I think there’s an outlandish quality to him,” said Matt, “which they find attractive. When I did a preview down in Devon which is kinda my adopted home town area – Totnes – a friend’s mother came backstage afterwards and said The thing I love about Wilfredo is that nobody seems to have taught him the rules.
“If it’s a character you can get away with being ironic. And all the peacenik stuff Wilfredo spouts is very positive; it’s so important. He says Come on you cunts, but I think Wilfredo’s positive innocence – I’m the greatest singer in the world – he believes it’s true… That’s Wilfredo for me.
“There’s a strange innocence about the character which maybe makes him acceptable. He’s slobbering and he’s grabbing his penis and he’s calling the audience cunts but it’s all undercut by a form of charm, really. The charm is the licence. If Bernard Manning were not a real person and was a character, would…”
“Bernard wasn’t charming, though,” I interrupted.
Matt knew that generation of ‘old school’ comics through his father.
“You must have mixed with alternative comedians of your generation,” I said, “who were slagging off your father’s generation of comedians.”
“Yes,” said Matt. “I think Liza Tarbuck used to have that a lot. She’d be at a bar watching comics and people would turn their back on her. The first thing I did was News Revue at the Canal Cafe in the late 1990s and, yes, when Bernard Manning is considered the apotheosis of the Northern comic… that’s pretty hard. ”
“There are a few children of famous comedians up in Edinburgh this year,” I said.
“Yes,” said Matt. “Milo McCabe is here doing a show with his father Mike McCabe who, like my dad, was an old school comic; he’s actually got his dad performing in his show with him. Phil Walker’s here: Roy Walker’s son. And Katie Mulgrew, Jimmy Cricket’s daughter. We don’t know each other but, when we do meet each other, it’s acknowledged that our parents knew each other.”
Matt’s dad George Roper, one of “The Comedians” on ITV
“Your dad was never really tarred by the ‘old school’ criticism, wasn’t he?” I said. “He never had any of the bad image that Bernard Manning had. People never criticised him for his material.”
“When I watch old footage of him performing,” said Matt, “it’s very much his own laid-back manner. He was a storyteller.”
“Did you always want to be a performer because of your dad?” I asked.
“Well, I was exposed to the business because of him,” Matt replied. “I was always doing impressions and getting in trouble at school for clowning around.”
“All comedians, to an extent, hide behind a character,” I said.
“Well, we’re all hiding behind an alter ego, definitely – even the old school, my father’s lot.”
“Have you ever done straight stand-up?”
“When I was a lot younger,” said Matt. “I stopped when I was around 24 because I had nothing to say. I started when I was about 17 or 18. What does an 18 year old have to say? I might go back to it and I have got things to say, but it’s fun to inhabit somebody else, though I think maybe it’s less ballsy to hide… I think Jo Brand was talking about this re female comics. There tends to be a high ratio of female character comics and she was saying that’s because it’s easier to stand back from it if it doesn’t work if you’re hiding behind a character.”
Matt has been playing the character of Wilfredo for the last five years. It evolved from a a character he played at festivals, singing twisted versions of songs by John Lennon, the Rolling Stones and Amy Whitehouse.
“Are you coming back to the Fringe next year as Wilfredo?” I asked.
“Maybe as Wilfredo. Maybe in some multi-character show. I know you’d like to see that.”
“I just think it would show you have more breadth,” I said. “You do have other characters.”
“Yes,” said Matt, “there’s a performance poet character, but I don’t think the other characters I have would fit in with a Wilfredo audience.”
“How do you sell him when you flyer?” I asked.
“If I am out-of-character, as myself, I stop people by saying Entertainment for the discerning!… If I’m in character, I say: Hey! Hey! Come here! The character is a complete licence to take it as far as I want.”
“He is perversely attractive,” I said.
Matt replied: “Someone Tweeted yesterday: Recommend seeing Wilfredo at The Tron – Funny and disturbingly moving.”
“I still don’t really understand why the character has such a female following though” I said.
The real Matt Roper at the Edinburgh Fringe this week
“It seems to be,” said Matt, “that there’s a high proportion of women who find funny men attractive and, as far the reverse is concerned, men are threatened by funny women.”
“That’s a whole different blog,” I said. “A whole different can of comedy worms to open.”
On the studio floor at TV show Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson & associate producer David McKellar
I was sad to hear today about the death of comedian Gregg Jevin. I met him around five years ago and I was going to write his autobiography. Eventually, it fell through because I could not get through to the real person.
With Gregg, you could never ‘find’ the real person; he always hid behind that facade of being the ‘Gregg Jevin’ on-stage character.
I only ever encountered that a couple of other times. Once was with Matthew Kelly and the other was with the late Frank Carson, who also sadly died this week.
When I was at Granada Television, we once went to Blackpool to film a series of on-screen promotions for the TV station. The promos featured stars of the legendary series The Comedians and we, of course, gave them a complimentary lunch in the upstairs room of an off-season Blackpool pub.
It was quite an exhausting lunch, because there were about eight comics sitting round a table all trying to out-do each other on jokes and jollity. I have a feeling Bernard Manning opted out and ate separately, probably wisely. The loudest and most overwhelming of those present was Frank Carson. He never switched off. I talked to him a little bit over the course of that afternoon – and he also appeared in various episodes of the children’s TV series Tiswas on which I worked.
But I never felt I was ever talking to the real person. He was always being the ‘Frank Carson’ character.
TV scriptwriter Nigel Crowle agreed when I asked him about Frank: “He never seemed to switch off,” Nigel told me.
I also asked comic and actor Matt Roper (son of George Roper, who also appeared on The Comedians) if he had any memories of Frank Carson.
“My main memory,” Matt told me, “was his ability to talk non-stop for hours. “There was no ‘off’ button. I remember my mum telling me how my parents had had a huge housewarming party in the 1970s and Frank was last person to sleep at night sitting in an armchair, still muttering away, and the first person up in the morning, at full-power over breakfast.
“I really was a baby in the 1980s even; I knew a few of the old school but not all of them too well. Just my dad’s mates. When I started getting into comedy myself I began to get a bit more interested in it all but, by that point, most of these boys (they were all boys, notably) were off the telly and back in what was left of a dying carcass of a club scene or, if they were lucky, summer seasons and panto.”
Gregg Jevin, of course, was from a later generation. But, like Frank Carson, I could never find the switch to turn off the stage character and turn on the ‘real’ person.
I was on a Storywarp panel last year which discussed storytelling and the subject of how to present real people’s stories came up – and the fact that it is not only the subject of the interview who is presenting a version of themselves but also the interviewer.
Helen Lewis-Hasteley, assistant editor at the New Statesman said:
“There’s an element when you’re interviewing somebody that you have to present the version of yourself to them that you think they will respond to. Which is really bad if you talk to somebody for so long that you start falling into their cadences of speech. One of the many things you do when you’re interviewing someone is that you’re constantly monitoring their responses, thinking Can I push them further? I need to get a quote from them on this subject. It’s incredibly difficult nowadays when you’re interviewing celebrities and there’s a PR handler and they’re aware they want to give you the blandest interview possible but they want to get a huge plug for the film.
“You want to trick them into saying something of vague interest to somebody other than The director was great! and I love acting. So that becomes a kind of negotiation and you have to be the kind of person they will respond to. Every writer thinks that they themselves are the most interesting person in the world and actually the interview would be much better if they were answering the questions. You have to remove yourself from the process. I hate interviews where it’s all about the interviewer.”
I agreed. “About five years ago,” I explained, “I almost wrote the ghosted autobiography of a stand-up comedian called Gregg Jevin and the sub-story to that was that he was actually a transsexual; he had actually been born a woman but had the operation and became a male stand-up. So there was an interesting secondary story, which no-one knew about. It all fell through, tragically, because there were so many lies and half-truths involved in what he was telling me. I could never ‘find’ the real person.
“But Gregg, interestingly, said to me that he thought the process of writing a biography was the same as being an archaeologist or a stand-up comedian building fake comic stories on a bedrock of truth.
“In the case of an archaeologist, you are carefully excavating and uncovering the past, but you haven’t really any idea what the hell actually went on. You might uncover a slab of stone and think it was used for a particular purpose, but you could be wrong. If you are a comedian, then you go so far with the bedrock of truth but then start embellishing the details. Equally, if you’re writing a biography of someone then, if they’re dead, you’re probably guessing quite a lot – even if you have a lot of sources, you’re still guessing. And, if they’re alive, you’re still vaguely guessing that they’re telling the truth or that your guess of what they’re telling you is what they’re actually telling you.”
TV scriptwriter Ivor Baddiel, who was also on the Storywarp panel, added: “In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he describes exactly that. He thinks stories are like archaeological finds. You unearth them and then you chip away at them until you get them back to their perfect state. And there is something in that. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you know that you’ve found what’s right. If I’m writing a gag or a line or whatever, I’m scrabbling around for it in my head. And, more recently, I’ve learned to listen to my gut feeling more and sometimes it just pops out of the ether. It might not be completely, fully formed but that’s as right as it’s going to get, maybe.”
“But that,” suggested Helen Lewis-Hasteley, “is also dangerous, because that’s terribly seductive. It’s often pattern recognition. You think I’ve heard this story before and what happens with biographies is that it strips away any nuance. It’s like a politician in a sex scandal. It’s perfectly possible for someone to be a wonderful, reforming politician but also to be an absolute shit. But no-one can hold those contradictions in their heads any more. This is the danger of telling a story: it’s one story or the other.
“Newspapers and magazines rely very heavily on archetypes: you need a baddie and a goodie in a story. Most forms of journalism are so short and it very much helps to have archetypes. It’s all about shorthand.”
“Well,” I said. “with comedian Janey Godley’s book Handstand in the Dark… I allegedly edited that and she had never written before for print at all. At that point, she was a stand-up comedian not a writer. So I was shepherding her. I never actually wrote it. I advised her without ever suggesting any specific words at all. At first, she did what I think a lot of people do when they write their autobiography: she wrote facts – and autobiographies are not about facts. She wrote I did this, I did that, I did the other in a long list of things she did. So I told her Don’t do that, because it can be dull. People are not interested in facts; they’re interested in people. So what you want to write is that, if you were doing lots of things at this time, figure out one episode that epitomises what you felt and what was going through your mind – what your emotions were – and then expand on that one element. That will cover over 15 uninteresting facts.
“If you’re writing a biography or autobiography, it’s the emotional journey, it’s the mental journey you’re interested in, not the facts. No-one cares if you went to Swindon for a day; you want to know what they felt and why. It’s like the American election philosophy: It’s about the Economy, stupid. In autobiographies: It’s about the emotions, stupid. It’s about people.”
And so, when I heard about the death of Gregg Jevin today, I thought to myself: What was the one key emotional centre-point of Gregg Jevin’s character that epitomised him?
And I could not think of a single thing. My mind went blank. It was as if he had never existed.
“I misunderstood the rules for the Book of the Month Club,” he told me. “I thought you had to publish a book every month.”
I said I was considering re-publishing Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cakevia lulu.com, but had not pulled my finger out because I was thinking of partly reverting the text to an earlier, more interesting draft version which was not saved electronically, only as a paper print-out. So it was an extra hassle.
“I’m just being bloody lazy,” I explained. “I’d have to go through it making finicky changes.”
Mark has always had anarchic leanings – he once advertised a play of his called Cancelled at Essex University and the performance did not exist when people arrived to see it.
“You could,” he suggested, “just make things up. You can’t say Malcolm had an affair with Princess Diana, because that would be too unbelievable. But having an affair with Malcolm McLaren might be believable. That way, at the point of sexual climax, you could say they each shouted out their own name – Malcolm…”
“I would prefer making up a story that Malcolm had a long-term affair with Bernard Manning,” I said. “Whenever I mention Bernard Manning in a blog, it really gets up people’s noses, so it would get noticed more. But I don’t think any gay affair involving Malcolm would be believable. And any heterosexual affair… Well, however bizarre it seems, it might actually have happened. He might actually have had sex with any woman, however unlikely. He had it off with the most unlikely women.”
“Provided they are dead, you can say anything,” Mark said.
I normally try not to quote from people’s stage acts but, occasionally, Lewis mentions on stage that an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer once called him “mildly racist”.
He says that is the worst of both worlds.
If you are not racist, you do not want to go see a comedian who is mildly racist.
Equally, if you are a racist, you do not want to go see someone who is only mildly racist.
The only solution, Lewis reasons on stage, is that his act should become more racist.
In fact, I do not think Lewis is remotely racist on or off stage. He can be xenophobic on stage, but that is perhaps a sign that he has ‘gone native’ after too many years living in Britain.
On stage, like Jerry Sadowitz, he hates everyone and everything equally.
Misanthropy is his schtick.
I vaguely know another ‘white’ comedian who often plays ‘black’ clubs. I will not name the comedian because of what follows in this blog, but the comedian has talked to me of how he/she can tell jokes about black culture to highly appreciative black audiences. But he/she cannot tell the same jokes to white audiences because the jokes would be seen as appallingly racist.
To black audiences, they are not racist; they are just very funny observational racial jokes.
Interestingly, about ten years ago, Lewis Schaffer had a conversation with Bernard Manning, though they never met.
“It was around 2002,” Lewis tells me. “I’d been in the country for such a short time, it was all a blur to me. I was at the ITN building on Gray’s Inn Road in London and Bernard Manning was in Manchester and they were asking us about offensiveness in comedy.
“I said what I always say, which is that I personally think you should only tell a joke about any ethnic group if you can tell it to their face and they will laugh AND you can tell it when they’re not around and people who are not of that group will not find it offensive.
“Bad comedians are the ones who can tell a joke only when the people they’re making fun of are not in the room – Welsh people are not here. Let’s insult them.
“That’s bad comedy. Well, not bad. But not the best.
“Good comics can insult you to your face.”
I certainly agree with that. I saw a show at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club in Manchester in the early 1980s when there was a black couple near the front of the audience. Manning, of course, zeroed in on them as the butt of his jokes and they genuinely loved it. At the end of the show, they were beaming with happiness and excitement; he had made their night.
Another time, there was a honeymoon couple in the audience who foolishly admitted to Manning that they were a honeymoon couple. What they were thinking about, I cannot begin to imagine. He, of course, did every honeymoon and sex gag he could think of throughout the show. Again, they loved it, loved being the centre of attention, loved him (as it were) giving them a hard time.
So I agree with Lewis Schaffer that a good comic can tell racial jokes to people’s faces. A bad comic can only tell those jokes when the relevant people are out of the room.
“But,” says Lewis, “there is another step. A good comic can tell a racial joke to people of that racial group and make them laugh AND he can tell the same joke to people who are not of that ethnic group and make them laugh. If you can’t tell the joke and get laughs when there are no people of that racial group there, then you shouldn’t tell the joke. You should not tell the joke because it will make the audience feel uncomfortable.”
I am not sure I go along with Lewis on this.
If you can tell a black racial joke to black people and they do not find it offensive – if they find it funny – then the joke is not racist, it is racial. If white people find the joke racist, then I think the problem lies in the people not in the joke.
Lewis tells me: “Just because black people are laughing, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to make the racial joke. It doesn’t mean you can tell that joke to an audience of white people. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a laugh from it. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to hate you.
“If Bernard Manning could tell his jokes to black people who laughed at them, then the jokes were not racist. But that doesn’t mean he could tell them to white people and not be perceived as being racist. So maybe that’s the problem Bernard Manning had and has: that he was and is perceived as being racist. I’m just saying that. I don’t know.
“I said that on the radio and Bernard Manning – I don’t know how he knew this, but he – brilliantly – said, You are going to die skint.
“It was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘skint’ and what he said is totally true.
“Bernard Manning knew he offended people, but he didn’t care, because that’s where the money was in his world.
“With me, I actually care about people’s feelings and that’s not good for business.”
Last night, I saw his full-length stage show for the first time in a few years. The latest show is called Jerry Sadowitz: Comedian, Magician, Psychopath which, I think, pretty much covers all the angles – though it did not demonstrate any of the sheer genius of his actual magic act. He is a world class magician.
I have blogged before about Jerry’s early comedy career in the 1980s, how he was managed by the late Malcolm Hardee and how I produced a TV show in 1990 in which Jerry did not swear.
When I produced that show, Jerry spotted two lesbians in the audience (do not ask) and zeroed-in on them for particular comic attention. After the show, they were outraged and complained. Jerry was genuinely perplexed.
“They are just jokes,” he said, nonplussed.
My attitude was that, if you knowingly go to a Jerry Sadowitz show, you cannot complain afterwards about being offended. It is a bit like letting your small child watch Doctor Who and then complaining afterwards that he or she shat behind the sofa with fear.
That is almost the show’s raison d’être.
Doctor Who can sometimes scare the shit out of children.
Jerry Sadowitz’s comedy show is highly offensive.
The only reason to complain would be if Jerry were NOT offensive.
It was good to see last night that he can still go beyond highly offensive. All other so-called offensive comedians pale into insignificance compared to him. They are like a little pile of sugar four inches high in comparison to the Himalayas.
The two things which struck me last night were that he seems to be talking more about death than he used to. No surprise there, I guess. He is older. And, in among the bile and vitriol spewed at almost every target under the sun, there is an occasional unspeakable truth spoken.
I find it is always good for my blog to mention the late ‘old school’ comedian Bernard Manning because it annoys people. It is like saying “mint sauce” to a lamb.
If Bernard Manning had told almost any of the jokes Jerry told last night, people would have been even more outraged than the people who are currently retrospectively outraged by Manning’s live act although most of them never saw it.
If any other comic had told some of the jokes Jerry told last night, I think there is a high possibility he would risk being arrested.
And not without reason. Some of the Muslim jokes were so close to stirring racial hatred that there could be a nice philosophical discussion on where the line lies. Though, interestingly, some of the jokes were so unsettling because they said out loud some normally unsayable truths.
If comedy, like trouble, can be said to brew, Bernard Manning told comparatively mild gags. With Jerry, motormouthing for well over an hour at about three times the speed of any other comic, the gags are more bitter.