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Business v Comedy rules. This comic got sacked after his Edinburgh Fringe show

Giacinto talked to me at Soho Theatre Bar

Giacinto talked to me at Soho Theatre

What happens after you perform at the Edinburgh Fringe?

One answer is: You get sacked.

London-based Italian comedian Giacinto Palmieri used to work in IT for a well-known property company. Then he went to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe with his show about Wagner.

“The big boss of my company,” he told me in Soho Theatre at the weekend, “came to see my show at the Edinburgh Fringe and, the first day after I came back, I was sacked.

“It would just be coincidence, though. He is so high up in the hierarchy that he would not have been involved in the decision. Probably my being away for three weeks just gave people the chance to plot against me.”

“Different worlds,” I said.

“Perhaps,” suggested Giacinto, “what makes it difficult to be a comedian AND have a day job at the same time is not any difficulty of fitting them into the time available, but the difference in attitudes.

“Comedy helps you develop an attitude which consists in always saying whatever you think and to develop zero tolerance for bullshit. Unfortunately, that is not always appreciated in the business world.”

“”Yes,” I sympathised, “It is probably unwise to say what you think in business.”

“It is such a pity,” said Giacinto. “I think every group needs a trouble-maker like a court jester in order to stop getting stuck in its own rules and ideology. Everything can be found in Wagner, of course.”

“Mmmm…?” I said.

“In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Giacinto told me, there is:

Understand me aright! What a fuss!
You’ll admit I know the rules as well;
and to see that the guild preserves the rules
I have busied myself this many a year.
But once a year I should find it wise
to test the rules themselves,
to see whether in the dull course of habit
their strength and life doesn’t get lost:
and whether you are still
on the right track of Nature
will only be told you by someone
who knows nothing of the table of rules.

Giacinto’s Brighton Fringe poster artwork

Giacinto’s Wagnerian tendencies were given free rein

“Mmmm…” I said.

“The organisation I worked for…” said Giacinto, “…it used to be a start-up and it has kept some of the elasticity of a start-up but, unfortunately, it is losing its soul.

“The IT world used to be very anarchic, very informal but now there are these ‘process gurus’ who always have rules that will solve problems forever and stop software having bugs. They preach the importance of following a process. So we have more and more rules and they create more and more complex processes and people get stuck into systems that are not going to solve problems. If a process could solve problems, we would just be able to write a program which writes programs.

“There are only two types of people who like rules. Those who set them: because there are no rules about setting rules, so they are still enjoying their creative freedom. And people who are so scared of taking responsibility and of making mistakes that they use rules to hide behind them.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I remember when ITV brought in experts – because people in ITV were trying to cover their own asses in case they made a wrong decision – they had an outside company which advised you on how to maximise the ratings in programmes by ‘scientifically’ analysing the content.

“There was a two-hour movie with Richard Dreyfuss in it. He was very popular at the time. So they said Promote Richard Dreyfuss heavily. But, in this film, he was about 18-years-old, in a bit part as a call boy and all he said for maybe two seconds was something like We’re ready! That was the only time you ever saw him in the film. They had analysed the data but had not watched the film.”

Rules. Don’t talk to me about rules.

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How did a stand-up comedian and improviser become a business guru?

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

In yesterday’s blog, I talked to Neil Mullarkey about his memories of 1980s alternative comedy.

I talked to him in the dressing room of London’s Comedy Store before he improvised two hours of comedy with The Comedy Store Players, the group of which he was a founding member in 1985.

Now, he mostly makes his living from running improvisation workshops for businessman and organisations – Improv Your Biz.

As well as this serious business guru career, Neil also occasionally pops up as spoof life coach guru L.Vaughan Spencer.

Neil’s chum PR guru Mark Borkowski advised him to distinguish between the two. So, as L.Vaughan Spencer, Neil sports a small beard and ponytail. L.Vaughan Spencer staged a show Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy in 2002 and, in 2008, published a book: Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy – The A to Zee of Motivitality.

Neil’s 2008 spoof book

L.Vaughan Spencer’s 2008 spoof book

What links Neil’s three worlds of comedy, spoof life coaching and real business training is improvisation

Neil explained: “One of my chums at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 1983 told me: I saw this brilliant show last night. – Omlette Broadcasting (Jim Sweeney, Steve Steen, Justin Case, Peter Wear). They were improvising. And I couldn’t believe it was possible. I thought: They must take a suggestion from the audience and then steer it towards the thing they’d already planned. In a sketch format, I didn’t realise you could do Funny without planning.”

“And you met Mike Myers,” I prompted, “who went on to do the Austin Powers films.”

“Yes,” said Neil. “I met him when he was selling tickets for the Cambridge Footlights show I was in at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London, and he made me laugh.

“He told me he had been at Second City in Canada and that was where my heroes were from. My heroes were John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. The Blues Brothers was the thing I wanted to do. American comedy was what I loved. American sitcom. And Mike told me about improv where it’s about ‘accepting offers’.

“When The Comedy Store Players perform, we are each listening intently to what the others are saying. Someone will throw me a line and I will take it on. Instead of thinking No, no, no, that’s not what I am saying – which is called ‘a block’ – I will take the other person’s line – ‘accepting the offer’. The more Mike told me about the whole ethos of improv, the more I said: This is intriguing! This is fantastic!”

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photo by Bill Alford)

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“And,” I said to Neil, “you teamed-up and performed in Britain as Mullarkey & Myers in the early years of alternative comedy.”

“Yes,” said Neil, “we did quite physical visual parody sketches”

“Did you think of going over to America when Mike moved back?”

“I visited him a few times. We did our show in Toronto and the audiences got it. When I visited America, I did quite like being the foreigner. You become more English when you’re in America, because people say: Do that accent! I’m pretty English anyway, I suppose, even though I’ve got an Irish name and I was brought up in France for my early life. I went to LA a few times and thought This is great to visit, but I don’t want to live here. I like England and I like London.

“Mike wanted me to go and write on Saturday Night Live, but I fell in love with someone in Britain.”

“You fell in love and your partner wanted to stay here?”

“Yes. I did help Mike with the script on a film called So I Married An Axe Murderer, which was great fun… but I’m doing the thing I want to do now.”

“At what point did you get into your corporate teaching guru hat?” I asked. “And why? Was there one trigger for that?”

“In the late-1990s,” said Neil, “I thought: Do I want to be doing this when I’m 50?

“Going on stage in front of a drunken comedy audience?”

“Yes, a bit of that. But also, when you are an older comedian, you’re not as interesting to people in TV and radio. They want Who is the new person on the block? They want Who is the same age as me? – They don’t want to discover somebody that’s already been discovered.

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil's website

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil’s website

“I also found that the vehicle for most comedy on TV and radio was the panel show. It tends to be quite combative and un-collaborative and I’m not very good at that. But also, philosophically and psychologically, I was looking at other things. I was interested in how organisations and businesses function. My degree is in psychology, sociology and economics, so I was always interested in that.

“I suppose the big thing was I met a man called Frank Farrelly who created Provocative Therapy… Provocative Therapy uses humour to help people get better.”

“What does Provocative Therapy provoke?” I asked.

“It sounds confrontational,” said Neil, “but what you do is satirize people’s self-limiting beliefs in order to help them achieve mental health. You assume the answer – the solution – is within themselves.

If you say I want to give up smoking, I’ll say Why? Smoking is fantastic! It’s really cool – You should be smoking more! And then they go: Wait a minute. This isn’t what I expected and they begin to think Why DO I want to give up smoking?

“Frank Farrelly’s idea is that you hold up a weird hall of mirrors to people to make them look at themselves and think Hang on! What IS it I want?

Neil Mullarkey - inspirational businessman

Neil Mullarkey – inspirational and provocative businessman

“In improv, you basically treat what the other person has to say as an ‘offer’. You have choices of how to react to that offer. That works in the improv scenario. If you transfer that to business or organisational life and treat what your fellow employees or team say as an offer, then you have to figure out how you can accept their offer positively to say Yes AND rather than Yes BUT… It is an intent listening… Intentive listening.”

“Intentive?” I asked.

“It’s a word I made up,” said Neil. “It means you are listening with intent. You are so focussed on the other person that you pick up their threads.

“Provocative therapy is about accepting ‘the offer’ – like in improv – and almost taking it to absurd heights… How many cigarettes do you smoke in a day? 20 a day? No. You should be smoking 200. Can you make that a promise? 200? 

“Sometimes the client gets angry, sometimes they’re laughing. But what is going on is they are processing thoughts. They may be visualising themselves and thinking It’s absurd smoking 20 if I want to give up. Why am I not just giving up?”

“But surely,” I said, “if you use this technique with businessmen, they’ll think you are being sarcastic?”

“Well I do it. I am just teasing them. Frank Farrelly said you’re just teasing people back to mental health.

“I went to see him at his home in Wisconsin. then he came over to the Netherlands to do a workshop and I discovered all these people. What do you do? – I’m an executive coach – I had never heard of that. Loads of people from Belgium. I gradually found this other world of coaching business executives – as well as arts-based training in the business world.”

“Arts-based training?” I asked.

“Basically using theatre, art, music to help people do their job better. Whether it’s to work better as a team, to be more creative, to be a better leader, whatever.”

“It sounds like executives paintballing to bond with each other,” I said, “but indoors.”

“That’s what it is,” said Neil. “But my contention is Why go build a raft and do paintballing? – That has nothing to do with your job. Do something that is relevant to your job – and what is the thing you most do in a job? You talk to other people. So here is a ready-made philosophy – improvisation – which actually started in the 1920s in Chicago as part of the New Deal. Social workers helping children who were diffident in class, didn’t speak English as their first language… Exercises to enhance their confidence..

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt and schmooze

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt, schmooze, network

“That was done by a woman called Viola Spolin and, 30 years later, her son Paul Sills created what became The Second City theatre company that Mike Myers and I talked about.”

“So,” I said, “Provocative Therapy helps business people to schmooze.”

“You can use improv to flirt, to schmooze, to network,” said Neil. “Any word you want to use because – really – it is just listening with intent. When people are laughing, they’ll learn more. You can blindside them with funny.”

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UK comedy critic Kate Copstick’s 5-star success with Mama Biashara in Kenya

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick

Copstick at a Maasai wedding

Comedy critic Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya, working for her charity Mama Biashara.

As well as health care projects, it helps poor people (especially women) set up their own small businesses which may give them a lift to a better life.

It relies solely on donations, including a very tiny, tiny amount each year donated by audience members at the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

Copstick takes no money of any kind for herself and covers none of her own costs in running the charity. This extract from her latest diary describes her brother Geoff’s visit to Kenya.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

Geoff and I head off with Doris on our Grand Tour of Mama Biashara businesses. I should warn anyone unused to hearing me be effusive, that the next few paragraphs might seem a little strange.

Business 1 is a Great Doris Success Story.

In one store on a mudslide of a hill, there are 37 small businesses. Albeit it looks very much like a well-stocked grain store also offering eggs and chicken feed, plus kangas and household utensils (hanging outside), chapati, tea and beans mashed with green bananas (also bubbling outside).

Geoff and I drink tea, eat startlingly fresh chapati, nibble on njahi (black beans) and find out about the logistics of running this mini miracle. One rent to pay, two medical certificates and security for all. The shop is womanned on a rota and, as a business grows, it leaves and sets up on its own. A perfect business nursery. Geoff is impressed.

I barely have the words to describe how fantastic it is having Geoff there.

Enthusiastic, friendly, incredibly knowledgeable and positive. EVERYONE has said what they noticed was that he did not criticise, only gave helpful pointers. All the Mama Biashara peeps thought him fantastic.

Business 2 is the pig boys.

The pigs are healthy but kept snout-by-muzzle with a donkey, which Geoff says is not good. He also points out we should be passing through a tray to disinfect our feet when we visit them.

Business 3 is one of the dairy goat groups who currently have a problem with mastitis. At least their goats do. Geoff notices this immediately on the one goat they bring us. They have taken them to ASK (Agricultural Society of Kenya) for treatment. On the plus side, they are giving loads of milk (albeit Geoff notes that the one we are looking at is too thin and they are possibly milking her too hard) and one has already produced a kid. So their profits are OK. And the mastitis treatment is free, thanks to our deal with ASK.

Then we struggle through the mud to what is, in effect, a little urban farm.

This is Business 4 is where Geoff really transforms what Mama Biashara can do and lifts us to that aspirational place Kenyans simply refer to as “a different level”. Here again, there are three businesses sharing one plot owned (and given rent free) by the mother of one of the women. There are a couple of dairy cows (milk business), a sow with a litter of piglets and a tiny herdlet of sheep.

As we go around looking at the animals, Geoff pales. OK, he goes a slightly lighter shade of Paisley Puce (that Scottish skin still doesn’t tan well and he has been out in the sun now for 2 weeks).

The whole area has suffered severe flooding recently. The plot is muddy – really really muddy – and covered in heaps of detritus. The sun is out today and flies are everywhere. The cows are swilling about in several inches of water, dirt and poo. The sheep are squashed in a pen and the piglets have had to be lifted out of their waterlogged sty (beside mum) and kept in a loft above the cows. Meanwhile, mummy pig is up to her trotters in mud and poo. And the rain shows no sign of abating.

Very gently Geoff explains to – well, to all of us – that:

(a) the flies DO hurt the animals and something needs to be done

(b) you should never give an animal water that you would not drink yourself (and so the tub of dodgy-looking rainwater with floaters and detritus needs cleaning)

(c) different animals need to be kept apart a bit and certainly never housed above each other (although he does realise that the piglets in the loft is merely an emergency measure)

(d) having them in these flooded, muddy, pooey conditions is not acceptable. He also says (as, to be fair, I have been saying – with no effect – for years) that animals MUST have access to outside, to the sun and its healing, helping UV light. Kenyans are so security-conscious that they practice what they call ‘zero grazing’ which means keeping everything locked in a shed.

By the time we leave, we have a plan for drainage and re-building all the animal sheds apart from each other and with outside space for each. Geoff says he will e-mail me plans for these sheds and it sounds very much as if they will cost very very little being, as they are, shelters with outside spaces as opposed to solid houses for animals.

Our lady farmer is so impressed with Geoff and his advice that she actually arranges to move the animals to another, well-drained plot and is, as we speak, laying the foundations for a pigsty with open ground outside and a nice trough for eating and a separate clean tub for drinking. After the pigs, she will move the cows and then the sheep.

At Business 5, we meet a young lad who is an orphan and being looked after by his brother whom Mama Biashara set up in a water-selling business some visits ago. He scored quite highly in his exams but cannot go to school as he cannot afford the fees or the uniform.

Business 6: We go and see an old gentleman who is making fishing flies. Geoff is fascinated. He fishes too, it transpires. Is there no end to my brother’s areas of expertise?

The man is currently looking to sell to a broker (there is no real market in Kenya but they do export LOADS) who will give him pennies and make a fortune. Geoff and I do not like the sound of that.

“Cut out the middle man,” says Geoff, channelling our dad. “There’s always a better deal.”

I nod, also quoting our dad.

We huddle in the tiny house and Geoff decides that the operation will be called The Third World Flies (nice!). They already have some people in the UK asking (directly) for samples and so I will take them when I go back. Geoff whips the phone out and we establish that fishing flies will fetch the group around ten times what the broker is offering if they sell them direct.

Not far from The Third World Flies is another of Doris’s brilliant multi-business businesses.

Business 7. A store which is home to about ten separate businesses including banana selling, githeri (mixed beans and maize cooked as a snack) and the local cabbage specialist.

Business 8. Along the road is a group who have got a business space to sell hair products and accessories (Geoff spontaneously buys a hairpiece, much to the delight and amusement of the ladies in charge) and do basic hair braiding by running the shop owner’s small electrical business for him as well.

As we leave the area (as ALL of these businesses are just in one small area and comprise much less than one funding workshop) we stop at a very smart hair and beauty salon with space outside for selling shoes, wellies, bed linen, kangas and a few other bits and bobs. This is…

Business 9. Again about ten businesses operating together.

Then we stop off at Chez Moi for Geoff to change into Going Home shoes and trousers and to Skype our dad back in Scotland. We all chat, Dad meets Doris and decides she must go into politics and I show him round my tiny slum palace. As I rotate the laptop, I hear Dad groan the words “Oh my god”. Even my tiny compound shared with the carwash boys fails to impress. However Geoff likes it.

I am so so sorry to be taking him to the airport. But it was just wonderful having him here for this time. Even David is moved to say: “He is not a boring man. He knows many things,” which is virtually tantamount to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Everything.

Bloody marvellous and INCREDIBLY useful day. Much learned. By many people

________________________________________________________________________________________________

Kate Copsick’s small-scale but extensive, effective and life-changing work relies solely on donations – and on sales at the Mama Biashara charity shop in Shepherd’s Bush, London. The webpage is HERE.

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The surreal world of accounting in the music biz and the missing £500,000+

(A version of this piece was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

Bobby Valentino, when he was Young at Heart

Bobby Valentino, forever Young at Heart

Last night, Searching For Sugar Man quite rightly won the Oscar for Best Documentary.

It is partly about the search for missing royalty payments due to the Detroit-based recording artist Rodriguez, who sold zilch in the US but who was selling shedloads of albums (“bigger than the Rolling Stones”) in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s… and, indeed, in the 1990s and 2000s…

Coincidentally, in the UK, musician Bobby Valentino has just issued a press release about the surreal lack of royalties he received on the worldwide hit song Young at Heart.

I have touched on this before – in July last year – in a blog headlined Surely not a £500,000+ music biz rip-off? How a hit record made “no money” which was about the surprising lack of royalties Bobby (did not) receive from PRS (the Performing Right Society) but Bobby provides more details in his latest press release. Last year, Bobby told me: “On average, the figures are about 5% of what you’d expect them to be.”

Now Bobby says: “By careful investigation it has been discovered that there was a change of sub-publisher on or about 4th March 1993. What is peculiar is that the royalties disclosed by PRS for the whole of 1993 are taken as those for the period 1st January until 4th  March 1993. In other words, about two months’ royalties were offered as representing the royalties for the whole year. So where did the royalties go? Quite simply to the new sub-publisher.”

The next bit takes a bit of careful reading but, says Bobby:

“The royalty information was supplied by PRS. Unfortunately they supplied the incorrect information in 2003 and since then have denied that they did so. Inconveniently for PRS there are a number of indicators that they did supply incorrect information.

“Some of this is complex but we can first focus on one key issue: On 4th March 1993 PRS recorded a change in the registration of Young at Heart. This change is shown as the (incorrect) noting of a German version of Young at Heart known as the Baerenstark version.

“In fact the existence of the Baerenstark version was not registered with PRS, as shown in their main records, until 5th February 2007. In other words whoever made the change on 4th March 1993 had supernatural powers of foresight.

“A less fantastic explanation is that the original entry on 4th March 1993 noted the change of sub-publisher and that when this became an inconvenient truth the entry was changed to a noting of the Baerenstark version.”

There is a second, related, indication of psychic gifts by someone at PRS, says Bobby, and it involved sheet music.

“Sheet music royalties,” he says, “are shown as paid to the new sub-publisher for July to September 1993. This is a further recognition of the supernatural influence of Young at Heart. Given that PRS claim the change of publisher occurred at the end of 1993 how can the new publisher receive payment for sheet music for July 1993? Someone or something is revealingly and inconveniently ahead of itself.”

Bobby Valentino says he wants PRS to treat him and fellow writers fairly and in his case to acknowledge the surreal accounting so that he can recover what is due to him.

Seems reasonable to me.

But, then, reason and moral accounting seems to be something alien to the record business and, indeed (I can tell you from personal experience) the film distribution business.

The rule of thumb is that, if they can screw you, they will.

With Bobby Valentino, though, they may have bitten off more than they can chew and gone several accountancy twists too far.

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The future of UK comedy – and a comic threatens to sue me for defamation

There has been some reaction to my blog of yesterday about the comedy industry “crisis meeting” at the Monkey Business club two nights ago.

Bob Slayer (left) naked & drunk at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe

Comedian Bob Slayer took exception to the fact I said he sometimes pretended to be drunk on stage. He threatened to sue me for defamation and damage to his professional image over the use of the word “pretended”. He also told me soberly – or not – his view of the alleged comedy business crisis:

“The alchopop crowd that traditionally fill mainstream gigs are losing interest in live comedy. They can probably get all they want on TV. When they go out they will go see one of their TV stars at an arena and the only way to get them to go to a club is to heavily discount. Groupon!

“However, there are plenty of other audiences out there and it is a simple fact that comedy clubs which don’t adapt will struggle to find those audiences.”

Bob argues that those who survive will be those who “put something interesting on in interesting settings” like Pull The Other One, Knock2Bag, the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society and his own Heroes of Fringe gigs. He tells me “gigs in breweries are doing really well” and “maybe the 99 Clubs can be added to that list, but James doesn’t book me so I don’t know his gigs!”

He adds: “It’s interesting to note that our current gold medal winning comedian Dr Brown rarely played clubs over the past few years – although he did do the ones mentioned above. He prefered to tour around Fringe festivals and now he can do a month at Soho Theatre. He is not the only one.

“Are traditional comedy club nights going to become less and less relevant or worthwhile for comedians? Maybe. Acts will find a way to keep busy and develop their own audience, running their own nights, free nights, cabaret and variety gigs, gigs in odd places and so on. There is not a crisis but there is a change… and now I’m off to another brewery to set up some gigs and drink a lot.”

I also got a reaction to yesterday’s blog from a regional comedy club promoter who prefers (I think wrongly) to remain anonymous.

“Here’s the problem as I see it,” he says, adding “and I book big names as well as newcomers…

“Firstly, talent oversupply. Acts are produced at an alarming rate by agencies/management companies. I see this as the main structural problem in the comedy market – Agencies have a stranglehold on both live comedy and TV and, as such, they rig it to their requirements and they have distorted the market with an oversupply of mediocre talent, ensuring that we have lots of identikit comedians and very little originality or individuality. I sometimes struggle to recognize acts who do my middle spots and opens because they all LOOK THE SAME. And, if I hear one more open spot use the words ‘paedo’ or ‘rapey’, my hamster eats lead…

“Along with talent oversupply, there are still acts playing the bigger clubs who were doing those clubs back in 1995 or 1996 and what you have is no movement at the top and a massive pressure build-up at the bottom. Comedy courses make the problem worse because they convey the impression to new entrants that there is a living to be had out there and that anyone can be a comedian. This is simply not true. Traditionally, this kind of economic impasse leads to protectionism of some sort, so don’t be surprised if someone suggest either a club owners confederation or a comedians ‘union’!”

Reacting to Lewis Schaffer’s comments quoted in my blog yesterday, this club owner continues:

Lenny Bruce said you can be amazing AND be consistent – the two are not mutually exclusive and this should be the aim of all performers in comedy – aiming for an 80% wow rate. Anything lower and you aren’t a pro standup.

“As a medium-sized promoter running a number of clubs outside London, it seems the most pertinent comment in this debate is that comedy is a business. Like any other, it works on business lines and conforms to the rules of economics.

“There is an oversupply of talent and there is an oversupply of clubs (in London) and a seeming decline in demand/less customers to go round. So the customer will seek a USP which makes them go out and spend their declining leisure dollar.

“In most businesses, that is price, quality or service or all three. There are clubs – no names no pack drill – who are charging £15 for a seriously average night in a back room of a pub with no decent compere, a crap mike and crap lights. These will be the first casualties in the coming comedy shakedown. If they want to save themselves, the answer is simple – Up your game, lower your price and vary your talent menu a bit more.

“One major creative step they could take is investing in pro MCs and having a few more women on their bill. The audience is 50% women, so why oh why oh why do some promoters fail to put on female acts?”

He also sees a problem with the comedy agencies.

“The main agencies,” he says, “seem to be picking up talent via competitions at a very early age and most of these acts are just simply incapable of creating anything spectacular, mainly because they are produced by agencies desperate to create identikit money-making machines.

“These kids are dumped onto the comedy market with no real experience of working a room or doing a consistent performance and with massively overblown expectations of what their ‘career’ will entail. Agencies are simply not chasing down real talent but going for those acts which look good or who are young enough to have an alternative career as a pop performer. I have seen too many acts punted my way by agencies who just don’t have the creative cojones to create anything worth watching over the longer term.

“Before I was in comedy, I worked in marketing and my advice to the industry would be this:

  • Lower your price and raise your game – offer things that other clubs do not offer and, if you can’t do this, offer better service.
  • Seek talent out and nurture it.
  • Avoid agencies. Like all middlemen, they add little value.
  • Make new talent tread the boards for a while and avoid competition winners. With a few exceptions, competitions do not a good stand up make.

“Lastly – and this is something beyond my control – TV comedy needs to change. TV producers are about 6-18 months behind the zeitgeist. They are booking acts and following trends that were happening on the circuit in 2009/2010 and TV puts NOTHING back into the circuit that it exploits. It’s about time that the TV people really started to engage with the live circuit… much like they used to do before alternative comedy.”

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Chris Dangerfield: heroin in a train toilet and the comedy gig from Hell

Chris Dangerfield, scones and jam yesterday

I met comedian Chris Dangerfield in Soho yesterday. He said he wanted me to publicise his comedy gig in Swansea this weekend and I thought Well, he always has some interesting stories.

But he sounded more than a bit distracted when I phoned him up at 5.00pm yesterday afternoon from Leicester Square.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Things are a bit up-and-down,” he replied. I’ll come down and see you.”

He lives in Soho.

Two minutes later, he arrived.

“I was with a man who had a gun when you phoned,” he said. “Where do you want to go?”

“Perhaps tea and scones?” I suggested. “It seems suitably British.”

So we went to Browns in St Martin’s Lane. The waitress had not heard of scones and said she was only working there for a week. She was from Lithuania. But she asked someone else and some very nice scones, cream and strawberry jam duly arrived.

“So,” said Chris, “me and Trevor Lock done this living room tour which I told you about before. We went round Britain doing comedy shows in people’s living rooms. Really successful. So we thought…

“Well, years ago, I was in a rock band called Household and a girl called Mel had set up a company that done all the merchandising for Radiohead. A lovely, lovely girl. I kept sending her demos just on the strength of her connection with Radiohead. And then suddenly, one day, she said: I’ll manage your band. And, at that time, Chas Smash (Carl Smyth) of Madness had a record label called Rolled Gold and they – the record label people – came to our first gig – we pretended we’d done loads – and they signed us.

“So we had the management deal, we had the recording deal and we also had someone set up for the publishing deal. So there was a big night when all the music industry people were there to sign forms and contacts, but I preferred to sit in a train toilet, smoking crack and injecting heroin with a girl. So we got dropped very quickly. I ruined it and we lost it.

“Four or five years later, when I’m clean, I decide to contact Mel and say I’m so sorry about what happened there. It’s part of my recovery to make amends to people and I think it’s a beautiful thing. It really is, you understand? She tried her best for me and I let her down.

“I met her in London for tea. By now, her son was a comedy fan and she said: Would you do a benefit gig for his school? Because they wanted solar power and needed to raise money. It seemed like a nice idea so I said Yes and I’ll probably be able to get Trevor Lock to do it as well. She knew Trevor through Russell Brand’s radio show.

“So we went up there to the school and done this amazing gig – for the adults, obviously, not for the kids. Then, on the drive home, me and Trevor realised there are loads of schools that, essentially, have an empty hall, heating, lighting and a stage. They’re usually the right size that you don’t need a microphone… Ideal comedy venues… So we decided to do a schools tour.

“We contacted loads of schools and said to them: Look, we want expenses and a bit of money but we’ll do a half rate so, if you can sell 100 tickets at £10 a head, after paying us you’ll still have a decent amount. We put together a very good presentation but no-one was interested, which seemed very strange to us, because we could promote it. Between us, we’ve got 30,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter in different parts of the country. The schools could get their PTA involved. It’s a fund raiser. But no-one was interested.

“Except this one school in Poole, Dorset, did agree. So, last week, we went down there.

“When we set up the schools tour last Spring, I had a variety of different comedy material. Some it was more appropriate for different areas but, after doing 30-odd performances of my show Sex Tourist on the trot for the Edinburgh Fringe this August… well, that’s all I have in my brain at the moment.

“So we go down to the school in Poole last week… Trevor goes on stage to introduce me and they love him because he’s lovely and he’s a great comic. He’s exactly what they want. He’s friendly and kind…

“Then I go on. I’m already worried. They’re an adult audience, but I know they’re not my type of audience. I would never blame an audience. I don’t believe in that bad room/tough audience shit. You either make people laugh or you don’t. If you don’t, it’s not a case of failing or succeeding; it just hasn’t worked for a multiplicity of reasons.

“But I was scared and, when I am scared, I either want to crawl up into a ball or attack and it’s usually attack and I am hostile. So I go on stage and I’m very aggressive with my opening line and… well, if it’s my type of audience and they know they’ve come to see Sex Tourist, they’re fine with that, but I went straight into it… and, well, a lot of people in Poole did not like it.”

“So what was your opening line?” I asked.

“Basically,” explained Chris, “I say I don’t use a microphone because I’ve got oral Chlamydia because I get horny after a fuck and I had a fuck with this girl and then I was lubricating my cock with my hand so hand-to-mouth, mouth-to-hand – and that’s how you get Chlamydia. So now you people in the front have probably got it as well…

“I said something like that which is OK but, if it’s said without any humour and said without them liking you… You’ve just turned up at their school and been a horrible, horrible man talking about sexually transmitted diseases.

“And it went downhill from there.

“It was horrible.

“People started walking out. Not just walking out as in Oh, I don’t want to hear this, but protests. A whole table looked at each other, nodded and walked out. Hands over faces. People mumbling.

“A woman heckled me and I just went for her so viciously… Hilariously if you were up for it… but none of them were. And they were quite right. I cut her no slack. I used all the tricks a comedian knows to put someone in their place, but she hadn’t really been… It was a disproportionate response. And then I said: I should just go, shouldn’t I? I should really just get off stage now. And they all just went Yes. They were not yelling Yeah! Get off!! Just politely and calmly like they were saying Yes: you have brought an ugly thing to our town.

“So, as I walk off, there’s already people complaining to the woman who organised the night and to Trevor, who is trying to explain: Well, comedy… It’s all a taste thing…

“He’s there being cute trying to explain it.

“I am thinking That was bad.

“I have never set out to offend anyone. I want to make people laugh.”

“That is always an admirable thing,” I told him.

“So then there’s an interval,” said Chris. “And usually, at the start of Part Two, I bring Trevor on, but instead I say to Trevor: I’m going to go on and apologise.

“So I went on and I had to pull out every last grain of humility. I went on and said:

“Complaints are already being made to the lady who organised this. All she has done is try to raise some money for your school… I have insulted you… If you want to make a complaint, complain to me. This is my e-mail address. This is my Twitter account. I’m very sorry.

“And, weirdly, they started laughing. I said, I normally bring on Trevor and tell you that he taught me how to do stand-up, but I don’t think that’s…

“…and they were laughing. And I sort-of won them round.

“I said: I just want to apologise. I hope your night isn’t ruined.

“And I got one of the biggest rounds of applause I’ve ever, ever had.

“So then Trevor goes on and does well. The night is not ruined. And, afterwards, a lot of people Followed me on Twitter and said they loved it. But Trevor is annoyed:

I did a bloody good gig! he tells me. And, in five years’ time, you’re the one they’re still going to be bloody talking about!

“So it was a weird night, but not as weird as what happened today.”

“The man with the gun?” I asked.

“Partly,” Chris said. “So, you know about my well-documented drug habit…”

TO BE CONTINUED IN TOMORROW’S BLOG

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Comedy critic Kate Copstick’s ‘Grand Master Plan’ to build an HQ in Kenya

Kate Copstick: critical charity work, now building, in Kenya

Most years, I stage a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the Free Festival during the Edinburgh Fringe. Any money donated by people at the end of the show is given to comedy critic Kate Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity. No money is deducted for any overheads; 100% goes to the charity.

Copstick is currently in Kenya. Her charity helps poor women start up self-sustaining businesses. This is another extract from her diary.

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Tuesday

As I have the usual mountain of medication and stuff to take with me – and as No 23, Arse End of Nowhere makes this village sound positively central compared to where it is – we are taking David (bang goes another £20) and the car.

David asks if I know about the broker in the group yesterday. I clench. David had heard some of the women talking about someone taking 1,000 shillings from every woman who was given a grant. As the biggest grant is 3000 shillings… anything that I think has been clenched before now positively goes into spasm.

I call Doris.

There is a stunned silence at the end of the phone.

The workshop is cancelled. We rendezvous in Kenol where Doris lives and start calling round the women from yesterday. As soon as we start phoning and asking questions, the village telegraph kicks into action and soon we are fielding calls from them. Of course hysteria, internecine rivalries and general gossip mongering create a tsunami of crap. Everything from extortion to gang warfare is hinted at.

We find the woman who says she was involved. Oddly, her name is Purity.

There were just seven others we hear. I demand they come to Limuru on pain of being summoned by the Chief (err… local Chief, not Proclaimers‘ ‘The Chief’). We head to Limuru. I wonder whether I am in the grip of ‘roid rage, as I have pushed my daily dose up to 10mg for the time being. Probably not, I decide.

We meet the seven on a hillside next to the Bata Shoe factory. I am grim-faced. I told them, I say, that if they mis-used even one shilling of my money I would hunt them down. Well I have heard that someone has been demanding 1,000 shillings from those who received a grant. And I have hunted.

Through tears and waving hands we hear that Purity (who is a really smart, together woman) had suggested to ten women that, as nothing like this (ie me coming out of the blue to give a grant for business) had ever happened before, nor was likely to happen again, they should take the opportunity to put a little aside into a savings account and, by the time I come back to check, they would have bought a donkey and cart and have a whole new business on the side as well as their own individual businesses.

She took 1,000 shillings from each woman (seven as it happened) who wanted in on the savings scheme because I had been handing out the grants in 1,000 shilling notes. She went to the bank, got change and refunded 900 shillings to each woman. The account they were opening was an interest paying account and they each planned to put (after the initial 100 shillings) about 70 shillings into it each week.

I rescind my demand to have all the money returned to Mama Biashara, but not before explaining why we came after them. And why ALL and ANYTHING other than business that concerns the money from Mama Biashara must be done openly and with the consent of Mama Biashara.

I check that all the businesses will be able to start 100 shillings down on their grant. And then ask why, if they CAN, did the women ask for a grant that was higher than they needed. Anyway, all is well that ends well and, bearing a woolly capful of a tiny version of fruit that we call loquats or nisperos over here (unbelievably sweet and moreish), we leave.

As it is now too late for a workshop, we meet with Julius in Satellite to discuss Mama Biashara’s Grand Master Plan. And drink hot chocolate.

The meeting is slightly complicated by the fact that the man outside has fired up his rudimentary barbie to cook mutura (a little like Kenyan haggis but without the oatmeal) and the surrounding area is thick with charcoal smoke and burning fat fumes. But you get used to it.

Julius wants to arrange a medical clinic for Monday for about fifty people. He also wants to do microfinance but I tell him that I don’t trust his group with money (we have previous that ended with my getting the Chief and the police involved) so he can bring ten hand-selected businesses to apply.

“You promised…” he begins. I cut him off.

“I NEVER promise,” I remind him.

“You say you try…”

I give him my patented Mama Biashara look that says “My head does not zip up the back”. It used to say (and in my defence I can only claim it was an expression I heard over and over in my Scottish childhood) “I didn’t come up the Clyde on a banana boat” – until I realised the full horror of what that actually meant. What can I say? I am a recovering racist. One day at a time…

We arrange the medical clinic, agree fifteen businesses, agree that Doris can add a dozen or so cases from the area, agree that Julius’ phone is indeed “sick”, agree to buy him a new one (God Bless Nokia), and get on to discussing Mama Biashara’s Grand Master Plan.

Mama Biashara has been offered use of a plot of land in Kwa Maji, an area very handy for bus transport, thriving with businesses and not prone to violence, even in election periods. An area I know well.

We want to build a large structure – an enormous hut, as it were. It will have electricity  and water from a large tank (which we will erect on a tower) which will get filled once or twice a week according to consumption. Inside, the structure will have the following divisions:

  1. Mama Biashara’s office.
  2. Mama Biashara dispensary (a small division of the office for medical supplies and basic consultations).
  3. Meeting / training / workshop space. A multi purpose space which can also be rented out to other groups when free.
  4. The Pads Project: pulp from juiced sugar cane is brought in in huge sacks to be turned into sanitary pads and Pampers. This space will have a vestibule for clothing and footwear changing and will be kept as sterile as is possible in a slum area.
  5. Njoogo Project: peanut butter production. We already have a deal from one of Kenya’s big supermarkets to take unbranded jars of peanut butter from us. They will brand and give their own quality stamp. Vestibule as above.

Each of the areas will have its own entrance.

Around the outside of the structure will run a sort of covered verandah.

On this verandah outside Nos 4 and 5 will be delivery and storage areas.

Outside nos 1 and 3 will be space for baby businesses.

When Mama Biashara starts a business and feels that the person needs a little support to begin with, the business will start outside the Mama Biashara Centre – using our electricity (where necessary) and water and being monitored by Mama Biashara. Each baby business will get one month to get on its metaphorical feet and then be replaced with another. This is  NOT a training ground, just a little initial  monitoring.

Loos will probably be outside. But nice. And clean. With a place for workers to shower in the same block.

It might be that we have to hire an askari (a guard). If so, I have someone in mind.

Here Doris, John Kibe and probably Julius would be part of a Mama Biashara official presence.

The building would, of course, be branded to buggery with the names and logos of anyone who helps get it up. I want to start in November and am meeting to finalise the “I am letting you use my land” agreement on Monday (ish … a Kenyan Monday).

And when I say “structure” we are not, of course, talking bricks and mortar but probably corrugated iron sheets on a wooden base. Which means we don’t need planning permission.

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