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How ex-garbage handler Bruce Dessau owes his career as a comedy critic to the ‘uninteresting’ comedian Stewart Lee

Bruce Dessau as he likes to be seen on his Facebook page

Bruce Dessau as he likes to be seen on his Facebook page

In yesterday’s blog, highly-regarded London Evening Standard comedy critic Bruce Dessau defended his profession. But how did he become a comedy critic?

“Did you ever perform?” I asked him.

“No. Absolutely never performed. Not really had any interest in it,” he said.

“You came up through local newspapers?” I asked. ”Reports on garden shows?”

“Never really had any interest in journalism either,” he told me. “Never wrote anything for the college magazine. After I left London University, I wanted to stay in London because I was a music fan. I was staying at a house in Camberwell with a typewriter and thought I’ll write a review of that gig I saw last night. I sent it to the NME. They said: We really liked it. Why don’t you tell us what gigs you’d like to review and we might commission you and we’ll pay you. So I became a music journalist, but never trained.”

“So you went straight from university to journalism?”

“Via being a dustman in Belsize Park,” explained Bruce. “I was Peter Cook’s dustman. The funny thing is when I left my house in Camberwell at 6.30am I often saw a near-neighbour Peter Richardson (of The Comic Strip) coming home from a late night out, so it was a bit of a comedy route as well as my comedy roots. But that’s the only other job I’ve ever had. Being a dustman.

“I was at Time Out for about 8 or 9 years – started on music, then more on the TV section and then edited things from there. But, when I was doing TV, they used to call me ‘Mr Comedy’ – I would always do Vic & Bob or The Fast Show or Harry Enfield.

“The 1990s were my Time Out years. I handed in my notice the day the New Year Millennium edition went to press. I planned to go freelance – there were actually jobs in journalism in those days – only 14 years ago! – but, out of the blue, I got offered a job editing the TV section of the Saturday Express magazine. That was when the paper was edited by Rosie Boycott, so it was a different paper then, with different aspirations. About a year later, it was taken over by Richard Desmond and he wanted to strip everything back – no pun intended – so I left to go freelance again and… basically I owe everything to Stewart Lee.

Stewart Lee’s North American friend Baconface at the 2013 Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards (Photography by Keir O’Donnell)

Comic Stewart Lee’s Canadian friend Baconface performs at the 2013 Malcolm Hardee Awards (Photograph by Keir O’Donnell)

“I got sent a copy of one of Stewart Lee’s books when he was in the doldrums and he wasn’t doing very well and no-one was interested – I think it was the one called The Perfect Fool. I was getting quite pressured from his agency (Avalon) to do an interview with him but I didn’t really think anyone would be interested in Stewart Lee. As a courtesy, I thought Oh, I might as well pitch this to someone, so I emailed the Arts editor of the Evening Standard – I had never written for them before – and they said No, we’re not remotely interested in Stewart Lee, but we ARE looking for a new comedy critic. So I started at the Evening Standard in the summer of 2001, just before 9/11 and I never did do the Stewart Lee interview, but I owe it all to him.”

“The fickle finger of fate,” I said. “Now everyone wants a Stewart Lee interview. You can never tell who is going to succeed.”

“Sometimes you know when people are going to be stars,” said Bruce. “Maybe I should have stayed a music journalist. I would be much better spotting future music stars than future comedy stars. I saw U2 at the Half Moon and it was obvious Bono should be climbing on amplifiers at the O2 Arena and not at a pub in Herne Hill.

“But, with comedy, the acts I have really loved I’ve usually thought They’re never going to be big and often I was wrong.

“Like Micky Flanagan who I used to see doing stuff at The Hob when he was about 40. I thought Yeah, he’s very good. I like him very much. But this is kind of his level. Then somehow, when the Comedy Gods decided to make comedy for arenas, he got swept up and I think he now does more dates at the O2 than Beyoncé.

“The main case of me being wrong was Vic & Bob. When they had their residency in Deptford and they did pubs, I used to go and see them every Thursday night long before they did TV. I thought: This is brilliant. They can attract 100 people every Thursday night in South London but, if they try North London, they’ll get 3 people. I could never have predicted Vic & Bob would get as big as they did. But, once they make it, it kind of makes sense.

“The interesting thing I’ve seen in comedy in the last few years is a whole new generation becoming the establishment. And the whole conveyor belt nature of comedians where they fall off the other end and fall out of favour – or not even fall out of favour, but people like Vic & Bob and Harry Enfield or Ben Elton.

“I used to watch the TV series Skins and suddenly all the comics I thought were young, hip comedians were suddenly all playing the parents. Harry Enfield, Morwenna Banks, Bill Bailey and even at one point Chris Addison cropped up as a dad.

“It all moves on. Jack Dee is a bit Tony Hancock and a bit Les Dawson. And you now can’t imagine Alexei Sayle as an angry 21-year-old.”

Bruce’s book on the dark side of comedy

Bruce’s book on comedy’s dark side

“Your latest book is Beyond a Joke,” I said, “about the dark side of comedians.”

“It was about the history of comedy,” said Bruce, “and the history of all these troubled comedians from Grimaldi to Tony Hancock and so on and I kind of thought it was a thing of the past – comedians being slightly dysfunctional.

“I wrote the book around the time Russell Brand was breaking through and he’s in the book, but it’s quite obvious there are plenty of other stories – Malcolm Hardee’s in the book, obviously.

“My dilemma to resolve was Are strange people attracted to stand-up comedy or does stand-up comedy make people strange? I think I concluded it’s a bit of both. Strange people are attracted to it but, if you’re normal and you’re attracted to it, you’ll end up strange. It doesn’t make strange people normal, but it does make normal people strange.

“It’s like Jimmy Carr says – You’re the only person in a room with 2,000 people facing the wrong way. You’re on your own. That’s why it’s weirder than being in a band. It’s a solo thing. And it’s weirder than being an actor because you’re supposedly saying your own words, particularly this autobiographical, authentic comedy. Various comedians say It’s like therapy but, rather than us pay a therapist, we do our gigs and we get paid for the therapy. But I don’t know if it’s effective as therapy, because they still seem a pretty screwed-up bunch.”

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Bruce Dessau defends comedy critics and comedy agents and managers

Bruce Dessau, King of Comedy Critics

Bruce Dessau, King of Comedy Critics

Bruce Dessau is comedy critic for the London Evening Standard newspaper.

“So you’re a bastard,” I said to him, when we met for a chat. “You criticise these poor, hard-working comedians, you’ve got no talent yourself and you destroy them. What’s all that about?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever destroyed anyone in my life,” said mild-mannered and eternally polite Bruce. “I sometimes wish I had: there are probably a few who deserve to be destroyed. I can only speak for myself but, as a profession, I think critics try to be constructive. I almost see my role as an unpaid director and I see my reviews as maybe providing performers with directors’ notes without them actually paying me for them. There have been occasions – maybe not many – where comedians have changed their show because they’ve taken on board what I’ve said. It’s a funny dynamic between critics and performers. I suppose we’re obviously quite parasitical. We only exist because the performers exist. But I think comedians benefit from critics.”

“You have watched all levels of comedy for years,” I said. “You have chaired the Perrier Comedy Awards panel at the Edinburgh Fringe. You have written a dozen books including Beyond a Joke (on comedians’ dark side). You run the comedy website Beyond The JokeYou are very experienced. But why should anyone listen to the opinion of someone who is not a normal comedy-goer? Wouldn’t it be better to read 25 or 50 ordinary audience members’ thoughts on a website forum and take an average of those opinions rather than some professional critic?”

Bruce Dessau: prolific Evening Standard critic

Bruce: a prolific critic for Evening Standard

“I have a perspective on things.” replied Bruce. “I think that’s what a good critic does. Part of what we do is place something in a context, whether artistic or historical. That’s something a critic with a bit of experience can do.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe, you do have people who are frankly younger than me who sometimes get very excited about a comedian and I may go: Yeah, it’s alright, but it’s not new. I’m not saying it’s crap. They are saying it’s new. I’m saying it’s not new. I’m not saying their judgment that something is good is wrong. But I can give it context. I am a critic who goes to 2, 3, 4 gigs a week, sees a lot of comedy, digests a lot of comedy but, when I write for the Evening Standard, I try to write for people who only go to a couple of gigs a month, if that – maybe only a couple of gigs a year – or people who have only ever been to arena gigs.

“I’m so old, I have actually seen Bill Hicks perform live on stage. That wouldn’t give me a massive advantage if I were writing a piece about him, because there’s enough Bill Hicks on YouTube and DVDs and records for everyone to see.

“But, with someone like Daniel Kitson, of whom there isn’t much of online, I’ve seen pretty much everything he’s done for the last 12 or 13 years, so I’m in a good position to talk about him, because someone else who wasn’t physically there can’t access that.”

“When you talk to comedians…’ I started.

“I very rarely talk to comedians,” said Bruce. “The nature of my job is I arrive at a gig as it starts and, because I always have to do overnight reviews for the Evening Standard, I can never go to the after-show parties.”

“And it’s very difficult to review someone if you’re chummy with them,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” said Bruce. “Exactly. It’s very awkward if you get to know them.”

“But they’re interesting,” I said. “All comedians are frail little souls with frail little egos. Maybe you could unknowingly, unwittingly and unintentionally damage someone’s self-confidence?”

“By writing a damning review of them?”

“Yes,” I said. “I think their psychology is fascinating.”

John Bishop - famous in little Britain

John Bishop – more famous than many

“One of the many paradoxes of comedians,” said Bruce, “is that, on the one hand, there is this very supportive community – Yeah! Yeah! Go for it! Do it! Great gig! – but they’re also very competitive. If two people are sharing the bill at the Edinburgh Fringe and one gets a better review than the other – or they know one has gone down better than the other – that is quite hard to take. It must be quite a strange thing. I went to see (a well-known TV comedian) perform last night and he was talking about doing a gig at the Glee Club in Birmingham which John Bishop had compered. And it was a joke but (the well-known TV comedian) was still having a slight dig at the fact John Bishop is now much more successful than him and performing in arenas.

“It must be quite strange when you look back and think There were five of us on a bill at the Comedy Store and one is now a heroin addict, one is now doing the O2 Arena and I’m doing a gig at the Bearcat Club. At one point you’re all on the same level and then – particularly with what’s happened to comedy in the last 5 or 6 years – the fickle finger of fate can pluck someone.’

“And not always the best,” I said.

“But,” argued Bruce, “the thing about comedy is – up to a point – it is a meritocracy. If people are selling out the Hammersmith Apollo, they must be doing something right.”

“Or maybe,” I suggested, “they’re just lucky and a mate got them a regular spot on a TV panel show? There are probably 150 or 1,500 equally good comics out there.”

“I thought you were going to say Maybe they had the right manager,” said Bruce. These things are all connected. In defence of these much-criticised comedy agencies and managers. They are not scouring the circuit to turn rubbish acts into stars. They are looking for talented acts. It’s not quite the same as pop music, looking to put together a boy band, where you might say It doesn’t matter what his voice is like, he looks good.

News, comment & reviews: Beyond The Joke

News, comment & reviews: Beyond The Joke

“In comedy, I’m not saying what you look like is totally irrelevant but you do have to have the comedic equivalent of being able to sing, otherwise you’ll be found out. And that’s why, as a critic, I feel I’m not destroying people’s careers. I’m just doing a little pecking order of who is better than others. I’m not saying X, Y and Z comedians are rubbish, but I might be saying X is better at a certain type of humour or Y is better with a certain type of story. I’m describing their strengths and weaknesses, but I could never say anyone playing the O2 Arena was rubbish… Well, now I’m thinking, I’m sure there are exceptions.”

“I got told recently about a female comedian,” I said. “I don’t know this girl personally. But she is about 25 or 26 – and a talent scout for a big comedy agency told her: You’re too old for us. What they want is inexperienced 18 and 19 year olds they can mould.”

“I would accept that up to a point,” said Bruce. “They might be looking for raw talent and they might also think: Ah, yes, I can shape that person. But they are going to shape them from a point of having some basic talent. They are not going to take a completely blank slate, otherwise they might as well go to a model agency and look in a catalogue. If there’s a gap in the market for a sexy female comedian, there’s no point going to an escort agency or a glamour model agency and picking one out. You go to a comedy club and find a sexy comedian and hope they’ll improve.”

“But this mid-twenties comedian is dead in the water, yet she is probably as good as or better than an 18 year-old.”

“Well, in that sense,” said Bruce, “it’s only as brutal as Hollywood.”

… CONTINUED HERE

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