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Lindsay Sharman: comedy character and multiple adventure thriller author

Lindsay Sharman, comic and multiple author

Lindsay contemplates doing stand-up

“How well did your first book sell?” I asked character comic Lindsay Sharman.

“I broke even at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe,” she told me, “so everything since then has been pure profit. Edinburgh is great for offloading actual physical books. People can still go on my website for a hard copy of the first one (now re-titled Magenta is the Warmest Colour), which I will happily smear my musky scent all over, should they want. But I can’t afford to print actual physical books this time, so it’s just on Kindle and people are a bit more reluctant to go onto Kindle. ”

“So why are you doing a second book? It’s all hassle for very little profit.”

“You could say that about performing comedy. Why do we do any of this? We must be mental.”

“Are you hooked on the writing?” I asked.

“Yes, I do I enjoy it,” Lindsay told me. “And I do enjoy long-form rather than writing short sets or articles.”

“What’s this second book called?”

Madame Magenta and the Arcati Killer.”

“And you’ve written it, again, in your persona of Madame Magenta, the psychic?’

“Yes.”

Lindsay Sharman’s second book

Lindsay’s second Madame Magenta

The blurb says: Magenta and the Arcati Killer is a comedy detective novel told from the point of view of its eponymous heroine, a woman of flexible morality, an array of tasteful turbans.

“So this is an adventure thriller?” I asked.

“A murder mystery comedy adventure thriller,” explained Lindsay. “Basically, it crosses as many genres as possible so it’s entirely unmarketable.”

“That,” I suggested, “should surely make it more marketable?”

“You would think so,” said Lindsay, “but apparently sitting on several fences at once is uncomfortable.”

“Your influences?” I asked.

Tom Sharpe and his Wilt adventures and maybe a bit of Tom Holt. Anyone called Tom.”

“And,” I asked, “you are being Madame Magenta at the Edinburgh Fringe in August?’

Lindsay Sharman last night, as Madame Magenta

Lindsay Sharman performs as Madame Magenta

“Yes. It’s a story. It’s a bit risky. I’ve done it like the book. I’ve plotted it as a full narrative arc with Madame Magenta telling the story, taking the audience on a journey. It’s not as joke-heavy as a club set. I have no idea if it’s going to work.”

“What’s it about?”

“The true origins of Christianity and the conflict in the Middle East.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes. And it’s also going to be about gender politics.”

“Mmmm…” I said. “Are you doing previews?’

“One. I decided doing previews doesn’t help me. By the time you have an audience, it should already be in a state that’s alright. None of that writing-it-as-you-go comedian bollocks for me. I think comedians rely a bit too much on audiences telling them where they’re going wrong in the early stages.”

“People,” I suggested, “preview because they’re insecure?”

Lindsay Sharman compered last night

Lindsay does not like holding a piece of paper

“Yes, but there’s this bizarre thing with comedy where you’re supposed to develop quite a lot of your material on the hoof in front of audiences. When I first started, I found that really bizarre because you’re getting away with it on charm a lot of the time and the type of laugh you will get when you are holding a piece of paper and being self-deprecating about the fact it’s not entirely working is a totally different type of laugh to the one you will eventually get when you’ve honed that joke. It doesn’t work for me. What works for me is using my own comedic intuition to get it as good as possible and then presenting it.”

“That’s more of a writer’s approach,” I suggested. “Writers don’t show potential readers their draft versions. Are you becoming a writer more than a performer?”

“I’m not getting the same buzz out of performing,” Lindsay admitted. “It used to be massive highs and massive lows. Now it’s all: Oh, alright. OK… I don’t know what it was I was getting out of it before that I’m not getting out of it now.

“Maybe part of my problem is I don’t necessarily want to appeal to a bunch of people who’ve had a few drinks and who would probably actually prefer to chat to each other because I am just part of their night out. It doesn’t bother me that much if they don’t like me – and that’s not good. I need to care if they like me and I don’t know if I do any more.

Lindsay Sharman

Lindsay decided not to do stand-up

“Actually, about two years into performing comedy, I utterly lost interest in doing stand-up. So then I switched to doing characters, got a new burst of life and then it was almost the same amount of time after I started losing excitement in that too. I’ve had some really boring jobs where, for the first six months, I thought: This is alight. I don’t mind this. and then, one day, I just couldn’t be fucked with it any more.”

“You just married Laurence Owen last month,” I said. “Bad news for him in 2017.”

“Yesterday’s potatoes,” laughed Lindsay.

“Potatoes?” I asked.

“Isn’t that an expression?”

“I don’t think it is.”

“Oh.”

“You were saying you lost interest in stand-up.”

“I don’t like it to be about me, because I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business. I don’t want to have to explain myself. I prefer stories about made-up stuff – though I don’t like the storytelling show stuff.”

“Why?”

Lindsay performed  in London last night

Lindsay’s glass seen as half fool or half empty?

“Because, again, it’s focussing on ‘real’ stuff and I find reality boring and depressing.”

“Boring and depressing?”

“Yeah. Although some comics manage to make it funny and uplifting. Only a few people can do that well, though. Know your own limitations. It’s not me. I’ve always preferred to live in a realm of fantasy. When I was a kid, I mainly read science fiction and fantasy. For a long time I sat down and tried to write ‘real’ stuff about me. That’s what supposedly works as a stand-up. But it’s not me.”

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “fantasy stand-up could be the new comedy.”

“I like John Henry Falle,” said Lindsay.

“The Story Beast…” I said.

“That’s sort of fantastical ludicrousness,” said Lindsay. “It’s much better than all that Oh, I’ve really suffered but it’s funny because now I can be self-deprecating but still cool. I think I like escapism.”

(Updated HERE)

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How Chicago’s Second City bred a new Overlooked Edinburgh Fringe show

Lizzy Mace in Soho this week

Lizzy celebrating in Soho pre-Brighton this week

I first saw Lizzy Mace as half of comedy duo Mace & Burton – the other being this blog’s regular Juliette Burton.

“Juliette’s up in the air right now,” Lizzy told me when we met in Soho this week.

“Juliette is always up in the air,” I suggested.

“Physically in the air,” said Lizzy. “On her way back from Australia.”

Lizzy was just about to leave for the Brighton Fringe. She is previewing her new soon-to-be Edinburgh Fringe show Overlooked: A Roll Call of The Small there tonight, tomorrow and Monday. She came up with the idea for the show’s title and theme when she was at The Second City in Chicago last summer.

“I was there for six weeks,” she told me. “I did a 4-week intensive improvisation and sketch comedy course where we did improv for 3 hours every morning and then sketch comedy for 3 hours every afternoon. Then, for my final week, I did a solo performance class which was 10.00am-5.00pm every day, just working on solo stuff. At the end of the week, we had a showcase where we had to pitch an idea for a solo show – we didn’t have to do the show, just the 5-minute pitch of an idea – and the idea I came up with just lodged in my brain and I kept working on it and decided I would go ahead and do it in Edinburgh this year.”

“You went to drama school,” I said. “Why did you have to go to Second City?”

“Because drama school was about acting,” explained Lizzy. “Second City focussed on improvisation and sketch comedy writing. Different skills. Slightly different focus. Also, it’s important to keep your skills topped-up.”

“Why did you go to Second City in Chicago,” I asked, “and not that Gaulier bloke in Paris who seems to be terribly trendy at the moment?”

Brighton poster for Lizzy’s new comedy show

A Brighton poster for Lizzy’s comedy show

“I think he’s mostly physical comedy – clowning,” said Lizzy, “and what I really wanted to work on last year was my writing because I was more confident as a performer than I was as a writer and I wanted to do more character stuff but didn’t feel confident in writing it for myself. Second City felt like the best place to go for sketch and improv.

“Also, I read in your blog in 2012 that Luisa Omielan had been there a couple of years ago. Until I read that, I hadn’t realised you could do summer courses there. Then, when Juliette and I had a chat with you last April, you mentioned in your blog that I was going over to do Second City but I hadn’t actually booked it at that point; I had been humming and hahhing. Your blog appeared and Juliette told me: Well, you have to do it now because it’s in John’s blog!”

“You mean, ”I said, “my increasingly prestigious blog.”

“Increasingly prestigious and influential,” laughed Lizzy. “Then, when I was back from Chicago, you blogged about seeing the Red Bastard show in Bethnal Green and you mentioned me among a group of what you called ‘potentially not-far-from-breakthrough acts’ and I thought Well, I’d better get on with it, then. I’d better write my show. Did you realise you had such an influence on my life, John?”

“I am increasingly prestigious and influential,” I said. “So what’s Overlooked about?”

“Characters who all feel overlooked.”

Catherine Tate?” I suggested.

“Well, it’s me, not her,” said Lizzy, “though people have, in the past, likened my performance style to Catherine Tate’s.”

“I’m notoriously allergic to most character comedy,” I told her.

“Why?”

“I think I don’t like character comedy when it’s too close to being believable people,” I explained, “because I spent a lot of my TV career finding eccentrics and one-off originals, so I always think Why am I watching this fake, acted eccentric when I could be watching the real thing? But I do like cartoon character acts like Charlie Chuck and Frank Sanazi because they’re so over-the-top that they are not fake versions of possibly real people. Are you cartoony or fake-real in Overlooked?”

Lizzy Mace - overlooked

Is this a character close to the real Lizzy Mace?

“I think I have a bit of a range,” said Lizzy. “There’s one who is pretty close to myself. She’s a stage manager and she bookends the show. She’s possibly the closest one to me. She’s basically all the negative thoughts I might have about myself. So she just bitches about the performer the whole way through and talks about how terrible the show is and how, if it was her, she would have done it differently. But, then, I’ve also got one sketch where I play three different fruits…”

“Fruits?” I asked.

“Fruits,” said Lizzy. “The overlooked fruits. Little felt fruit things on sticks with silly voices. They get into an argument over who is the most overlooked. I think there’s a range from the realistic to the closer-to-the-bone and over-the-top cartoony characters.”

“All human life is there,” I suggested.

“All overlooked human life,” said Lizzy. “In the solo performance week in Chicago, we were doing a lot of solo improvisation and – at the end of the week when we had to pitch an idea – we had to look back at all our week of characters and try to see what the unifying theme was. I noticed that all my characters just felt secondary in their own lives. They felt like supporting characters in their own story and felt undervalued.”

“So you know what my next question has to be…” I said.

“I clearly,” said Lizzy, “have a lot of…”

“Issues?” I suggested.

“Material I can mine from my own…” started Lizzy, then she said: “I’ve always enjoyed acting, as in being someone other than myself. That’s why I’m excited about doing a character show.”

“Have you done straight stand-up?” I asked.

“I did Logan Murray’s Stand Up And Deliver course two years ago,” Lizzy replied. “He was very good at helping people discover their unique voice and bring it out. I just never got into the whole open-mic circuit – it wasn’t quite me. But, in January, I teamed up with Logan to devise Overlooked. He’s been my director. I’ve written it all myself, but he helped me to bring out what I had to bring out.”

“You’re also doing a second show at the Edinburgh Fringe, aren’t you?” I asked.

“That also came out of Chicago. Everything I’m doing this year has come out of that trip to Chicago.”

“And the second show spawned by Second City is…?”

The Cleek (with Lizzy bottom left)

The Cleek’s new international troupe (with Lizzy bottom left)

“It’s an international sketch and improv troupe called The Cleek, made up of people that I met on the course last summer. It’s quite ambitious – people from the UK, America and Australia. We’ll be writing it remotely, arrive in Edinburgh, probably have one day to rehearse and then we’ll be up-and-running at the Fringe.”

“Are Mace and Burton dead?” I asked.

“We’re not doing any live stuff,” replied Lizzy, “because we’re both pretty busy on our own projects, but we’re still working on some YouTube stuff. We’ve recorded some audio of us having silly conversations and we’re working with an animator. Fingers crossed there will be videos on YouTube sometime this year. And the movie screenplay of our Rom Com Con show is still in the works. Plus I’m working on the Powerpoint for Juliette’s next Fringe show Look At Me – and on the flyers and posters.” (Lizzy is a freelance graphic designer.)

“So whither then?” I asked. “A TV show? If you do a one hour solo stage show, you normally can’t transfer it to TV because there are no one hour slots for that sort of thing, but TV can pick up a sketch show or a character show. Is that your idea?”

“Well,” said Lizzy, “I’ve always loved acting and I’d love to be in a sitcom, but just being represented by an agent and waiting for those roles to come in doesn’t work, so that’s why I started writing my own stuff.”

“Are you represented by an agent?” I asked.

“I was until yesterday,” Lizzy told me. “I belonged to a co-operative agency but it’s on rocky ground at the moment, so I’ve left and I’m now representing myself… I am, as they say, available for representation.”

“You just need to get mentioned in an increasingly prestigious and influential blog,” I said. “But where can you find one of those?”

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Malcolm Hardee Award nominee James Hamilton aims to prove comedy critic Kate Copstick wrong by writing weirder

James Hamilton, yesterday, drinking it all in

At the Edinburgh Fringe last year, writer/performer/producer James Hamilton was nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality. One of the judges for the Malcolm Hardee Awards is doyenne of Fringe comedy critics Kate Copstick.

James runs a comedy sketch group called Casual Violence and, last year, their show was called Choose Death. At the time, I blogged that “I had absolutely no idea what was going on… Casual Violence could have created a new genre of ‘realistic surrealism’… Choose Death was so strange it is beyond any sane description. The show was written by James Hamilton. I think he may need psychiatric help. Though not creative help. He is doing something right. There is something very original in there. I just don’t know what the fuck it is.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe the previous year,” James told me yesterday afternoon in Soho, “Kate Copstick gave us a one-star review for our show Dildon’t. At the time, it was quite… eh… demoralising. It was our first time at the Fringe. It was a play more than a sketch show and, after her one-star review, people were turning down our flyers in the street. They’d say: No thanks, mate. I read the review in The Scotsman… Which was really tough to deal with at the time.

“But, last year, we quoted her review on the back of our flyer for Choose Death and it genuinely sold us more tickets than it had cost us the year before, because people would look at it and go Oh! That’s honest of you! which they don’t quite expect in Edinburgh in August. The word we quoted on our flyers from Copstick’s review was just the word Irritating….”

IRRITATING – ONE STAR (THE SCOTSMAN)

“A one-star review,” I said, “can be quite effective. The worst thing to get is a 2-star review. But a one-star review means there’s something odd going on. And if you can get a one-star review AND a 5-star review for the same show, it means it’s definitely worth seeing!”

“Well,” said James, “we got that in 2010. We got one 5-star review, three 4-stars and a 3 and a 1. So we almost had the full set.”

“If you get a one star review AND 5-star review,” I said, “there’s maybe something wrong with the critic who may have got out the wrong side of the bed that morning – Copstick will kill me  – or it’s the audience or the performance that particular night. Or it’s some unknowable factor. And, as you found out, a one-star review can be useable in publicity – if you are careful – especially if you get 4 and 5 star reviews too. It signals it may be a ‘Marmite’ show – people either love it or hate it with no in-between – and, certainly in Edinburgh, that’s good.

“Whatever it was,” said James, “it got that one-star review in 2010 and, when we quoted it in 2011, people seemed to think it was weirdly honest of us. A couple of people asked us if it was a requirement to put the bad reviews on the flyers!

“So, this year, we’re doing it again, but we’re using the word STUPID from Copstick’s 2010 review. On the front of the poster, we’re going to have One Star (The Scotsman) and, on the back, we’re having the one star with the words: Stupid. A waste of rather a lot of perfectly serviceable latex (The Scotsman)”

“And your show this year is…?” I asked.

A Kick in The Teeth,” James said. “We’re trying it out next Friday and Saturday – the 25th and 26th – at the Brighton Fringe.”

“It’s a sketch show?”

“I think of it more as character than sketch,” said James. “It’s the same sort of format as last year’s Choose Death show. But it’s a weirder show in some ways. There’s less Siamese Twins. There’s a character called The Poppyman who’s horrendously sinister with some really weird, quite dark, quite bizarre stuff in there. We’ve got a clockwork man character that we’re quite looking forward to trying out.

“Actually, I say there’s less Siamese Twins, but they do have a sort-of cameo in the show. It’s the only throw-back to last year’s show that we’re including.”

“And do you know what show you’ll be doing in 2013?” I asked.

“I know roughly,” James replied, “but it’s only a vague thing. I want to do a more theatrical show with more narrative. It would be based on the Roger and Charlie Nostril characters from Choose Death last year. They were the characters who lived in the mansion full of taxidermied people. Roger Nostril was the old, dying man who ordered his death bed and got a death lilo instead and Charlie’s his son who just got abuse hurled at him for most of the show.

“This year, with Kick in The Teeth, we’ve kept that structure of having five sets of characters and having them hurtle towards their fate through their own doings. But I couldn’t kill them all this year, because we did that last year and it would have felt like a re-hash. Basically, worse things happen to them than death this year.”

“So some of it’s sad again?” I asked.

“Yes. One of the big worries last year was finding the balance. Making it funny while also being quite tragic and quite unpleasant.”

“Do you,” I ask, “write comedy shows with dramatic bits or theatrical shows with funny bits?”

“They’re comedy shows with theatrical bits,” James answered. “They’re comedy shows ultimately. A lot of comedy can feel a bit throwaway. Getting a laugh out of an audience is a bit of a quick fix. It’s a great feeling for a moment, but then it passes. The thing we really wanna go for is making comedy that ekes other feelings out of people.

“My favourite stuff in Choose Death last year were the bits that made people go Oooaaa….

“Over the course of the run, we had a couple of people who said the Clown bit made them cry. It’s a silent bit where the Clown has a picture of his dead girlfriend and he takes a real girl out of the audience, puts a wig on her and makes her up and poses her to look like the dead girlfriend in the picture just so he can give her a hug.

“When I wrote it, I thought it was going to be quite creepy but, when Greg performed it, it was adorable and, from the audience during that sketch, you got as many sympathetic noises as you did laughs. And I liked that. I like the sort of comedy that makes you feel sorry for characters and worried for and by characters and has that sort of tension there as well.”

“And is weird,” I said.

“And is weird,” James Hamilton said.

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Is Matt Roper the new Steve Coogan or is that just a trite headline for this blog?

Comedian and actor Matt Roper got his first Fringe review yesterday. It was a 4-star review from What’s On Stage and began:

“It’s always an especial joy at the fringe when a show you had feared could be a stinker comes up smelling of roses…”

Matt is the son of George Roper, one of The Comedians in the seminal 1970s ITV series which introduced the rest of the UK to successful Northern comics including Bernard Manning, Frank Carson, Stan Boardman and Jim Bowen.

Whether it is correct to call Matt a “comedian” is a moot point. I think he is really an actor with deep comic genes built-into his body.

I saw his Wilfredo – Erecto! show at the Underbelly in Edinburgh last night. I had previously seen it in London, but it has been tweaked and refined (not a word you might normally associate with the character Wilfredo).

The audience reaction last night was extraordinary. There were two points at which he had to actually pause before continuing the show because the giggling was so loudly overwhelming.

There was an entire row composed of Underbelly staff who had come in to see the show (I suspect not for the first time) and they had almost lost all self-control, doubling over in giggles. But the giggling and laughter was widespread throughout the audience.

We are not talking single belly-laughs at specific jokes here. We are talking uncontrollable giggles at the character, the performance and nuances of the script/ad libs. And the whole audience was very definitely laughing WITH not at the character of Wilfredo – a spittle-spewing, slightly seedy Spanish singer and would-be Lothario.

The 4-star What’s On Stage review makes one highly perceptive observation which I would not have thought of but which is spot-on. It says Matt “at his best, shows traces of Steve Coogan in his ability to embody a preposterous alter-ego”.

In a sense, if you see only his Wilfredo character you might underestimate Matt Roper’s full potential.

At the Phoenix, as part of the Free Festival, he plays a Satanic spin doctor in the political satire Lucifer: My Part in the New Labour Project (And How I Invented Coalition Government) – I saw an earlier version of the play at the Canal Cafe in London.

It is only when you see the two totally different characters – and, indeed, meet the real Matt Roper off stage – that you realise how much you are taken in by the characterisation. You are suckered into a willing suspension of disbelief almost without realising it. They are all clearly created characters not 100% realistic (just as Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is not truly realistic but a semi-cartoon character). But audiences are engulfed by the fantasy.

I have not been so impressed by an actor’s range since I saw Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty and then, two days later, in Face. He performed the characters and their body language so utterly differently yet so believably within their own context that… I would not have realised just how good an actor he is if I had not seen them so close together. It was a bit like the shock of listening to Robert Carlyle’s totally convincing Northern England and South London accents in those movies, then hearing him speak in his own very strong Glaswegian accent.

Matt Roper moves, speaks and looks so totally different in his Wilfredo, French and political spin doctor characters that you only realise just how good he is and what his potential is when you see all of them close together.

Charlie Chuck currently sings a song on stage at the Fringe – I’m Not All There: There’s Something Missing.

With Matt Roper, there is even more there than at first meets the eye and I suspect much more to come.

Next year at the Fringe, he should perform a show comprising multiple characters as a showcase for his immense potential. It would be difficult to pull off because of the costume changes but not impossible.

There is a fascinating potential here.

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The black man fails to show up but the god-like comic Simon Munnery shines

Last night, comedy club Pull The Other One’s second monthly show in Herne Hill was packed, so word-of-mouth must have spread about last month’s bizarre events which I blogged about here.

During last month’s show, a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and a doctor’s stethoscope round his neck sat in a gold costume alone at a table right in front of the stage occasionally re-arranging half-glimpsed works of art on the surface in front of him. In any other show, he would have been a disruptive distraction but, given Pull The Other One’s unique mix of surreality, alternative variety and downright bizarreness, he actually fitted right in with the show. It turned it into a two-ring circus.

I went to the Half Moon venue in Herne Hill again last night half-hoping the black man and his half-glimpsed mysterious works of art would make a comeback. Alas he wasn’t there. But Charmian Hughes, who had been one of four comperes last month and was one of three comperes last night  (look – it works, it adds to the oddness, so don’t ask) told me:

“That man with the stethoscope gave me a picture of a face which is half pharaoh and half enslaved black man. It’s actually really effective and I’ve hung it up. The title is Was my ancestor illegally detained?’’

Charmian had done a sand dance during last month’s show (again, don’t ask).

“He must,” Charmian continued, “have found it quite a strange coincidence that he went to a show on his night off from Egyptology or whatever he’s into and someone started talking about Egypt and the pharaohs and did a sand dance on stage.”

“Well,” I thought, “It wasn’t just him who found it strange.”

Last night, in an unusual move for Pull The Other One, they actually had three straight(-ish) stand-up comics in among real magic from David Don’t, Sam Fletcher’s fake magic, Charmian’s explanation of the Abelard & Heloise story using pandas, Holly Burn’s… well… indescribably odd performances… and the equally odd Nick Sun’s audience-baiting.

Towards the end of his set, Nick Sun persuaded the audience to show their appreciation (and they were very enthusiastically appreciative of his odd act throughout) to boo him and heckle him and he refused to leave the stage except in silence. He took any clapping as inappropriate and refused to leave except to complete silence. A good bit of memorable schtick.

The three stand-ups included the extremely good Maureen Younger, who shamed me. I was then and still am ashamed because I had never seen her perform before and I am amazed I had not seen someone that good. An absolutely top-notch and clearly highly experienced professional. My only excuse is that she seems to have worked abroad a lot. And that’s not much of an excuse. Woe is me. The shame. The shame.

Steve Jameson’s Borscht Belt character act Sol Bernstein – much admired by many – leaves me a bit cold because I have some general problem with watching live character comedy, which brings me on to Simon Munnery, who is on stunningly good form at the moment.

He was introduced as “a legend” which he certainly is, even though his existence is not in question and has been independently authenticated. He has always been extremely good but I have now seen him twice in two weeks and I am very surprised.

It’s rare for a comic to keep getting better. After a lot of experience, a good comic usually reaches a plateau of excellence. You don’t expect him or her to get better and he or she doesn’t have to. They have reached a plateau of excellence. Simon Munnery reached that plateau ages ago but now seems to be getting even better. It’s not that he wasn’t excellent before, but he is even better now.

As I said, I have a blank and difficult-to-explain spot about character comedy and I was never much impressed (though everyone else was) with Simon’s very early character Alan Parker: Urban Warrior.

I’ve always liked Simon as a person but it wasn’t until I saw Cluub Zarathustra at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994 that I really started to appreciate his act. I thought the subsequent 2001 TV series Attention Scum! slightly watered-down the amazingly admirable nastiness of Cluub Zarathustra.

Simon’s original character which was OTT with audience-despising Nietzschean superiority and contempt for the audience in Cluub Zarathustra had (it seemed to me) been watered-down into the less-though-still-effective League Against Tedium.

The Attention Scum! TV series (directed by Stewart Lee) was highly original and, legend has it, much disliked by BBC TV executives until it was nominated for the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux in 2001, at which point they had to feign enthusiastic support despite having already decided not to produce a second series.

Perhaps it was too interesting for them.

Simon’s League Against Tedium and Buckethead character shows were always interesting but sometimes variable – you can see that a man with an orange bucket over his head spouting poetry might partially alienate a more mainstream audience.

I think the less Simon hid behind a character and the more he started to perform as himself (well, as much as any comic does) the better and better and better he became.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the Random House anthology of original writing which Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited to which 19 stand-up comedians contributed short pieces. (Now newly available for download in Apple iBooks for iPad and in a Kindle edition.)

Simon at first submitted Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind – basically a print version of his 2002 Edinburgh Fringe show which I thought was fascinating. It took me aback that the printed version was even better than the performed version. I think I had seen the hour-long show twice yet, when I read it on the page, I realised I had missed some of the verbal and mental cleverness.

He eventually supplied The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes, a wonderfully original story. When I read it, it was one of only three times in my life that I have ever laughed out loud while reading a piece of writing (the other two occasions were both Terry Southern books – Blue Movie and one tiny section of The Magic Christian)

Simon wrote The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes after the publishers of Sit-Down Comedy thought Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind was too complicatedly experimental. Well, I think they thought it was too original and too intellectual; that’s often a problem with publishers.

And it has always been Simon’s semi-problem. Arguably too clever. Too original.

Until now, quite a lot of his acts – with sections often tending towards performance art – have been slightly hit-and-miss and I think sometimes too dense with intellectual, mental and linguistic cleverness to fully succeed with an only-half-paying-attention mainstream comedy audience. That’s not a criticism of audiences as dim; but sometimes audiences who had not seen Simon perform before were not expecting what they got. You had to pay very close attention.

Last night, there was a gag involving Sisyphus and Icarus which was wonderfully explained, became part of a cluster of linked, overlapping gags and even managed to bring in modern-day, up-to-the-minute economics.

Simon used to be intellectual and much-loved by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington – and he still is. But now he seems to have pulled off the neat trick of losing none of his intellectual content but performing a highly intelligent act which is populist and maintains a uniformity of laughter-making for all audiences.

In other words, he’s bloody funny from beginning to end and has an astonishing act of overlapping, densely-packed gags and observations which in no way dumbs down yet is totally accessible to a mainstream audience.

How he has done it I don’t know, but he has.

I once tried to persuade Simon that we should follow in L.Ron Hubbard’s footsteps and write a book about philosophy which many in the UK would see as a joke but which many in California might read without irony and blindly believe in as a new religion. That way, we could make money now, have a laugh and statues of him might be worshipped in 2,000 years as a God-like figure.

He wasn’t impressed.

Maybe because today many already worship him as a godlike figure in British comedy.

Quite right too.

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