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More comics’ comments on the death of the godfather of UK Alternative Comedy

Malcolm Hardee on his boat (Photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee’s birthday was yesterday in 1950.

He drowned on 31st January 2005.

A few days after his death, I set up an online page where people could post memories of him. 

Yesterday I re-posted the first of those memories by fellow comics.

They continue here…


ALAN DAVIES, comedian – 7th February, 2005

The Tunnel Club in early 1989. I was an open spot. I was 22 but I looked about 12. Malcolm looked worried for me: 

“You’re not going to wear that shirt are you? They’ll take the piss out of you your first line.”

He introduced me.

“Stone him!” they shouted. ”Crucify him!”

Before I could do my first line, someone asked what I was drinking. I held up my glass and said, “Directors”. Then I made a joke about my shirt and did some material before I could get booed off.

At The Tunnel, if you survived the open spot they’d slap you on the back and cheer you loudly. It was that or humiliation. No middle ground.

Malcolm said, “I’ll book you,” which was fantastic for me, just starting out. “By the way,” he said, “it’s not Directors. The landlord’s done a deal with Whitbread, even though it’s a Courage pub”. 

The following month, I did a full spot and soon after the pub was raided and it was over.

Up The Creek was great and I played it a lot but The Tunnel was special – the hardest gig. If you went well they’d virtually chair you off but, if not, a humming noise would start and gather volume as more joined in… ”Mmmm…” louder and louder.

Malcolm would hurry from the back bar. 

“MmmmmMALCOLM!” was the signal for him to rescue the turn.

One night there was a juggler who tossed clubs into the audience inviting them to throw them back.

“Oh no,” said Malcolm,”I’ve only just got them to stop throwing stuff.” The first club nearly took the juggler’s head off but he caught the second and was granted a wild ovation. 

Malcolm gave me loads of gigs, including one in Bungay which I drove him to as he consumed an enormous curry alongside me.

There were stories all the way there and all the way back.

He was the one-off’s one-off.


ALEX HARDEE, Malcolm’s brother – 7th February 

I had just met a new girlfriend, who had never been introduced to any of my family before. She was from quite a well to do family, and I was quite nervous of her meeting Malcolm.

Unfortunately, it happened to be at Glastonbury where the meeting was to take place, so I dragged her backstage to the Cabaret Tent, and said, “Malcolm, this is Claudia,” at which he whipped his genitalia out and said, “Look at this Ultravoilet knob,” as he had painted it earlier with Ultravoilet paint.

A shocked look came across her face and he responded, “Don’t you worry. You should see my wife’s mouth.”

Of course, I am not still with her.

Will miss you loads. The world is a sadder and less colourful place without you.


MATTHEW HARDY, comedian – 8th February

October 2, 1992. I landed alone in the UK, straight from having lived my entire life under Mum & Dad’s working class roof in the sunny Aussie suburbs. A mate who’d been overseas showed me a copy of Time Out and, though I’d only done six open spots in Oz, I decided there was more opportunity in England. Saved money for a one-way ticket cos I was impatient. 

Many calls down the then ‘cabaret’ listings got me nowhere, until Malcolm answered at Up The Creek. My old man had verbally forced me to agree on keeping a diary, despite me saying it was for poofs. The diary entry from Nov ’92, upon meeting Malcolm in the Lord Hood on a Sunday Creek Sabbath, reads: “This weird bloke called Malcolm gave me a gig, met me in the pub next door beforehand, got me to buy him a pint, then told me I’d be shit, but not to worry. Unfortunately he was right, but I’m not worried cos he gave me another gig anyway”. 

Soon he arranged accommodation and a welcoming woman’s number. Hardee hospitality.

Years later, he took my visiting elderly parents out in his boat. 

Goes up the Thames and on the right was some kind of rusted ship, pumping a powerful arc of bilgewater(?) out of its hull, through a kind of high porthole, which saw the water arc across the river over fifty foot. 

I’m on the front of the boat as Malcolm veers toward the arc and I assume he’s gonna go under it, between the ship and where the arc curves downward toward the river itself. For a laugh. 

Just as I turn back to say, “Lookout, we’re gonna get hit by the filthy fucking water” the filthy fucking water almost knocked my head off my shoulders and me off the boat. 

I looked back to see it hit Malcolm as he steered, then my Mum and then Dad. I wanted to hit him and my Dad said afterwards that he did too, but we were both unable to comprehend or calculate what had actually happened. 

Malcolm’s decision was beyond any previously known social conduct. He must have simply had the idea and acted upon it. Anarchy. 

We laugh… NOW!

R.I.P mate.


SIMON DAY, comedian – 8th February

He was my friend, my agent, father figure, dodgy uncle, wayward best mate. He ran the two best comedy clubs of all time. He had a humanity and gentleness which he tried to hide. Above all he was the king of comedy. They don’t make them like that any more. In the end he swam away with his underwater bollocks. Thankyou.


STEVE GRIBBIN, comedian – 9th February

As the man who launched the infamous Tunnel Club, one the two best and fiercest comedy clubs in the whole fucking world, Malcolm deserves to be justly celebrated, but those of us who knew him well will recall his love of a prank and a practical joke, which often shaded into criminality!

One time we were in Aberystwyth University and had to change in the kitchen. Malcolm saw a huge 15 foot square block of cheddar cheese in the fridge. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said: “Oy Oy… let’s have it!”

It took five of us to carry it into the white Ford Transit van that Malcolm had ‘borrowed’ off Greenwich Council. 

The next day a very irate official from Aberystwyth University rang up Malcolm screaming abuse down the phone. 

“You thieving bastard, I know it was you!”

Malcolm denied all knowledge, ending the phone-call with the immortal words: “Sorry mate, got to go now, me cheese on toast’s ready!”

For every tear of sadness that’s shed for his untimely demise there will also be an accompanying one of laughter. Malcolm was like that.


STEVE DAY, deaf comedian – 9th February

Malcolm helped me more than anyone else in my comedy career and when no-one else was interested. It used to be three good open spots at The Creek then you got a paid half spot – none of this perpetual open spot and competition rubbish. 

I had only done two when this happened – :

“The next bloke is a deaf bloke. I know he really is a deaf bloke cos I offered him a paid gig, but he didn’t hear me. So here he is for free… Steve Day”


IVOR DEMBINA, comedian – 9th February

Affectionate tales of Malcolm’s thieving abound, yet here’s one of an attempt of mine to steal from him. 

When I first saw Malcolm compere at his club, the Tunnel, I was so impressed by everyone’s reaction that I decided to ‘borrow’ his style of showmanship for my own comedy club in north London. 

My theft was doomed to failure because I wasn’t nearly as funny as Malcolm nor blessed with his gift for making strangers love him. 

My fruitless larceny taught me a painful lesson: as in comedy as in life, be only yourself, say what you think, do what you feel and stick to your guns. 

Malcolm Hardee was the living embodiment of that lesson and it’s a profound sadness to me that I never had the opportunity to thank him before he died.


KEVIN McCARTHY, ‘THE MAN WITH THE BEARD’, comedian – 10th February

For starting me off in this business – I thank you.
For giving me my name – I thank you.
For bouncing countless cheques on me – I forgive you.
For owing everyone on the circuit at least a tenner – I forgive you.
For swallowing a two bottle decanter of vintage port in one go and then redecorating my car with it – I forgive you.
For turning up at a meeting at the BBC as my manager with gravy down your tie and looking like a sack of shit – I forgive you.
For dying aged 55 – …


CHARLIE CHUCK, comedian – 10th February

I met Malcolm and played Up the Creek in 1990.

A man was sat on the steps with his head in his hands. 

I said to Malcolm: “What’s up with him?” 

He said: “it’s Jack Dee. He’s on next”.

Jo Brand, Lee Evans, Simon Day, John Thomson, Bill Bailey, Harry Hill, Johnny Vegas, Mark Lamarr, Boothby Graffoe, Bob Mills & the rest, you know who you are. Without Malcolm, The Creek and his pioneering, it may never have happened for some. He got the media to his club, he could have signed many a comedian, could have exploited them and made money out of them. Malcolm was not that kind of man.

He was deeper and kinder than you know.

For me, Malcolm saw me and pulled me out of a bolt hole in Nottingham. I auditioned for him re TV at that time. I didn’t have a clue.

He put me on a show called The Happening with Jools Holland. I died on my arse. I should imagine Malcolm felt bad about it. He took a chance on a twat like me. He said to me: “I’ve got Vic Reeves on at the Creek on 15th November; meet him”. The only Reeves I’d heard of was Jim Reeves. So, instead, I didn’t listen & played the Sandiacre F.C in Longeaton, Derby. Where?

During the Edinburgh Festival, at half one in the morning two men were locked out of a car; the only place open was a bread shop. They went in and borrowed some baking implements to break into the car. It was so funny. Me and Malcolm howled.

Anyway, fuck it!

Joke No 1. Malcolm told me he had a terrible day; he woke up at 9am and a prawn cocktail slapped him in the face. That was just for starters.

His memory will live on.


SIMON MUNNERY, comedian – 11th February

I first met Malcolm when I was doing open spots at The Tunnel. I’d been booed off before, but never booed on. I loved the place, and I loved Malcolm. I remember two blokes chatting in the toilets. 

Says one: “It’s been a good night.” 

Says the other: “Yeah. But if Malcolm gets his bollocks out it’s going to be a great night.”

And that was true.

I regarded Malcolm and his wife Jane as my adopted parents and one night they dropped in to my flat in Stoke Newington. Malcolm was drunk – hold the front page – and after a bit had to go to the toilet. 

Malcolm used to steal – hold the front page – particularly from bathrooms. I knew this, Jane knew this and we could hear him crashing about in an exaggerated fashion for ages. 

When he at last returned I said, “Alright Malcolm, what have you nicked?” and he goes “Uh… uh… sorry,” and gets out this tiny pot of my girlfriend’s aromatherapy oils.

But it was too quick. 

I said “Yes; and what else?” 

He goes, “Oh, sorry,” and gets out another. And so on, and so on until, half an hour later, the entire contents of the bathroom were spread out in the living room and he swore there was nothing else. 

Later, we were helping him down the stairs when I noticed an overpowering smell. 

“What’s that smell?” I asked. 

He had emptied a bottle of perfume over his coat.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

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My Comedy Taste. Part 2: Eccentrics, anarchy and performers’ mad minds

In 2017, oft-times comedy festival judge and linguistics expert Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy.

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…

JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –  I like it.

I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.

So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.

Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.

There is maybe a difference with pure gag-delivery acts like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.

LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?

JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”? 

Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.

Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.

LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?

JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.

At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces. 

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.

LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.

JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…

LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.

The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.

LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…

JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…

I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.

So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.

I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.

So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?

LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.

JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…

It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 12: How to destroy a comedy career & other news

One thing I always tell performers at the Fringe is: Always perform, even if there is only one person in the audience, because you do not know who that one person might be.

The two examples I endlessly give are …

  • Comic Charlie Chuck, at his first Fringe, unknown, was getting very few bums-on-seats. He was thinking of going home. I told him not to. A few days later, he performed to an audience of four… Two of them were TV producers and, as a result, he appeared on two Reeves & Mortimer TV series.
  • I turned up to see a show at the old Holyrood Tavern venue. I was 50% of the audience. I was looking for acts to appear on an ITV series. The other audience member turned out to be a BBC producer. The act had gone back to London in despair because they were not getting audiences.

Perhaps nothing would have come of us seeing the act. But maybe it might.

The thing to remember is that you are not necessarily paying out large amounts of money to get money back from audiences’ bums-on-seats. You are also – perhaps mainly – performing in Edinburgh to be seen by showbiz and media people who may change your career and your life.

An empty stage in London (not the Edinburgh venue)

Today, I turned up to see an act. I had seen this English act ‘die’ on several occasions at ‘open mic’ nights in London, performing basically to other open mic acts in ‘dead’ venues. But my intuition told me the act had something that might work and I might see it in a 60-minute show.

The show was in an out-of-the-way venue and, when I arrived, I was the sole audience member.

The performer turned up about three minutes before the billed start time and, two minutes before the billed start time, apologetically cancelled the performance, saying: “It would be awkward just performing to one person.”

About to join me, but slightly delayed, was Nick Awde, playwright, producer, publisher and critic/feature writer for The Stage.

Now, maybe nothing would have come of the two of us seeing the act but, if you perform, there is a possibility, however slight, that something may result. If you do not perform, there is a certainty nothing will result.

Cancelling is never a good idea. Cancelling two minutes before the billed start time is an even more self-destructive decision.

The phrase ‘self-destructive’ is, of course, bound to lead to Lewis Schaffer, the man who, on getting a 5-star review in The Scotsman only half-jokingly said he was depressed because he feared it might destroy his image as a loser.

“Quite unlike anything else in the programme”

This week, he got a good review on the Chortle comedy website, for his show Unopened Letters From My Mother.

The review gave him three stars but started: “Look beyond the star rating here, for this is one of those shows that it’s hard to judge by the standards of a conventional Fringe offering. For some, the fact that this is quite unlike anything else in the programme will be enough to make it a must-see.”

It went on to compare him to Award-winning Kim Noble.

Lewis Schaffer decided not to share a link to the review on his social media.

This morning at Fringe Central, I bumped into American performer Peter Michael Marino. He told me:

“I found a cracked iPhone in the Lounge at the Counting House, wedged between the fireplace and the stage. I put word out to performers in the Lounge and it turned out the iPhone was Lewis Schaffer’s. Before I gave it back to him, I tried to crack the passcode, so I could access his text messages and next year I could do a show called Unread Text Messages From Lewis Schaffer.”

PM Marino – a man with saliva in his mouth

JD who runs Sweet venues told me the Fringe Office had told him that this year’s line-up included 300 more comedy shows than last year. Getting even noticed at the Fringe takes an effort of promotion.

If you don’t promote yourself, you are invisible.

The official Fringe figures are that, this year, there are 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows from 62 countries in over 300 venues, including 686 free shows with comedy making up 35% of the shows, theatre 28% and cabaret 4%.

And that is only the Fringe. There is also the official International Festival, the Jazz & Blues Festival, the Art Festival, Military Tattoo, Book Festival and Television Festival (the last being a private conference rather than public festival, but having a big influence).

People will do anything to get noticed.

Peter Michael Marino’s Show Up follows The Grouchy Club show in the Lounge at The Counting House. Have I mentioned The Grouchy Club before? The increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club hosted by me and Kate Copstick.

Flaunt it. Flaunt it.

This morning the aforementioned Peter Michael Marino told me: “I swapped saliva with Copstick yesterday.”

“I am not even going to ask…” I told him.

I may come back to this story.

Eric has filled Fringe venues under the radar for ten years

I went inside Fringe Central and bumped into Eric, who has been performing Eric’s Tales of the Sea – A Submariner’s Yarn at the Fringe now for ten years.

After a brief conversation, he told me. “I’m off now. I gotta see this werewolf.”

Nothing odd about that at the Fringe.

An hour later, I got a text from him: “The werewolf has just finished. Cracking show. You missed a great experience.”

By this time, I was going into The Hive to see Mark Dean Quinn’s You Win You Lose. A true original, he is a combination of Andy Kaufman, Dadaism, intentional shambles and (I think genuine) emotional self-flagellation. What more could anyone want in an Edinburgh Fringe show?

I had to leave quickly at the end, taking the newly-fried chips with me (don’t ask) to get to Simon Caine’s elevator pitch event at the Apex Hotel in Grassmarket.

‘Reformed Whores’ pitch their show to Robert Peacock etc

He and JD had arranged a collection of Sweet performers to get in a lift (US translation: elevator) with reviewers Nick Awde (The Stage), Robert Peacock (Wee Review) and me and they had to pitch their shows to us in the time it took the lift to travel from the Ground Floor (US translation: 1st floor) to the 5th and back.

Then I saw Phil Ellis Has Been on Ice with unbilled co-star Pat Cahill. Phil’s breakthrough at the Fringe was with Funz & Gamez in 2014 and it has taken this long for the BBC to faff around without giving him a radio or TV show.

Phil is a successful example of one type of comedy. Post-modern originality and regular, gigantic audience Whhoooaaaaahhhs!!!!

Smug Roberts is a successful example of another type of comedy.

Neither is better than the other.

For me, the Smug Roberts show was possibly the most highly anticipated of the Fringe.

In 2006, he did a one-off, one-night performance at the Edinburgh Fringe of a show he called Me Dad’s Dead. And that is what it was about. I wrote a review of the show for the Chortle comedy website and have remembered the performance ever since.

I started the review: “Smug Roberts is a Manchester based Jongleurs-style club comic who might be described, not entirely correctly, as old-school. He is clearly a very professional Northern circuit act who can play to any audience and quickly endear himself to them rapidly.”

The intervening 11 years have not changed that, except that he is even more warm, natural and extraordinarily skilful as a performer.

He is a real person in a pub doing stand-up

Smug is 57 and had a pretty-much full audience at the Three Sisters aka Free Sisters tonight in which, I think, I was the only person over 30. It was an audience of 20-somethings (at least one was 19) and they laughed virtually non-stop for 55 minutes because this is a masterclass in comedy. Autobiographical, fanciful (at home, his dog speaks to him), seemingly effortless comedy within straight, traditional stand-up, including vocal and physical bits of ‘business’.

Smug Roberts should be a national institution.

He is a brilliantly assured comic now incapable, I would suspect, of ever putting a foot wrong with any audience.

His show is called Just Me In a Pub Doing Stand-Up.

That is more than good enough for me.

Wonderful.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 10: Why I don’t like character comedy + Donald Trump

Simon Jay in character after today’s show

“It has come a long way since you saw it in that basement room in London,” Simon Jay told me this afternoon.

I first met Simon when he staged Mr Twonkey’s play Jennifer’s Robot Arm at the Bread & Roses venue in Clapham in April 2015. But he was talking about his Donald Trump comedy show in 2016, which has now transformed into Trumpageddon and is playing to full houses at the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh.

It cannot be easy to perform as Donald Trump – part real person, part Timothy Burton living fantasy character – in a scripted show with so much back story Simon has to know and the nightmare of up-dating as the real-life Trump bandwagon careers off in wild new directions every day. The show is, of course, scripted and some of the audience interaction can be prepared, but not all. And yesterday, the previous day’s North Korean lunacy had been incorporated into the narrative.

I tend not to like character comedy but with a caveat.

Simon Jay being made into the leader of the free world

The closer the act is to what might be a real person, the less I like it.

I spent much of my TV life finding bizarre acts and eccentric people. If I see a character act pretending to be an eccentric who could be real, I think: Why am I watching this theatre school performance of someone who is not being themselves pretending to be an interesting person when I could actually be watching the real interesting person?

The less ‘real’ and the more ‘cartoony’ the character is, the more likely I am to appreciate the act.

Charlie Chuck, for example, was/is believable to the point that people would/do ask me: Is he really like that? (No, of course he is not.) But ‘Charlie Chuck’ was/is an OTT cartoon-style character.

The interesting thing about Donald Trump and Trumpageddon is that it is an impression of a totally real person but the real Trump is pretty-much a cartoon character.

Perhaps all this is why stand-up comedy attracts me.

I am interested in people. Real people. Ideally eccentric people.

Sally Beaton – fluently funny, fascinating and real

Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award contender Cally Beaton is a not eccentric, but she is assuredly real. Her show Cally Beaton’s Super Cally Fragile Lipstick is about her autistic son (who agreed to be mentioned on stage after negotiations over a meal at Nando’s), bisexuality and things menopausal. Sounds like a tough comedy show to sell, but Cally is fluently funny, fascinating and manages to pitch herself to Edinburgh Fringe AND Radio 4 audiences. She comes across as a real person chatting to the audience. Which is what the best modern stand-up is.

On stage, modern stand-up comics tend to perform as (slightly heightened versions of) themselves.

Actors pretend to be characters totally different from themselves.

I prefer comics.

A character comedian with caveats and cravat

Which makes Milo McCabe’s show interesting, because he is performing as a character: the slightly anachronistic Terry-Thomas-ish, dressing gown and cravat-wearing Talented Mr Hawke. It sort-of could-be a real, very well-observed person from a slightly early era, but it is also (successfully) a cartoon character.

In reality, the character would be rather sleazy and unlikable. In Milo’s audience-pleasing, fleshed-out character act, he is rather loveable. The audience totally believes in the character. But Milo also cleverly – by reading letters to Mr Hawke from other people – briefly slips in two or three totally different voices which remind the audience (and demonstrate to any agents/promoters present) that they are watching a skilled comic actor who would be equally interesting in other situations.

Frank Carson: If I Didn’t Laugh, I’d Cry

As mentioned in previous blogs, Milo McCabe’s father Mike McCabe is performing at the Fringe as the late comic Frank Carson. That is another genre entirely and my brain is too sleep-deprived and befuddled to go into it.

One reason I tend to see no point in watching comic actors who are performing as fictional characters who are too close to ‘real’ people who could actually exist is that the lives of real people are always wildly more OTT than anything anyone could possibly think up.

Hello Scott Agnew.

Scott Agnew puts the aargh! into ‘explicit’

His show is titled Spunk on My Lady’s Face which is an extreme under-selling of the outrageousness of some of his stories. Scott always puts the aargh! into ‘explicit’.

Tonight he was playing to an audience of what seemed to me to be mostly straight couples and I initially thought: Oh dear, this could go ether way! But they were guffawing-away pretty much all the way through Scott’s wild, true gay stories.

It was a bit like running through the highlights of the Emperor Nero’s excesses during the most decadent days of the Roman Empire. If you think you have heard outrageously excessive stories, you ain’t heard nothing till you have sat through 55 minutes of Scott Agnew.

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How to alienate an Edinburgh Fringe audience with mis-conceived videos

Yesterday’s blog was about things which could be wrong in an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show’s script but which can be changed even at a very late stage.

Today’s blog is about something it is less easy to sort out.

AND IT IS BLOODY ANNOYING!!

When people ask me about performing at the Fringe, they are concerned about getting audiences in. They are concerned with bums-on-seats. Fair enough.

But one thing I remind them – rightly or wrongly – is that the real reason performers flock up to Edinburgh in August is not to fill seats with money-making ‘real’ members of the public (most performers make a loss) but to be seen by the media and the showbiz industry.

Many years ago, I was up in Edinburgh with one act who was unknown at the time and was getting virtually no audiences. He was talking about giving up and going home. I told him not to. One night (when I was not there) he had only four people in the audience.

But it turned out that two of them were TV producers looking for talent for a new series they were preparing. He was booked for two full runs of a BBC2 TV series.

Oh, alright, it was Charlie Chuck and the series was The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer where he performed as the Charlie Chuck character but was called Uncle Peter.

Another time, I turned up to see an interesting-sounding show at the Fringe. The only audience members were me and another man. But the two performers had given up a few days before and gone back to London. I was looking for acts for a Channel 4 TV show. The other man was a BBC Radio producer. We never saw the show or the performers.

It is not the number of bums-on-seats that matter… It is whose buttocks they are.

30 ‘ordinary’ punters in an audience cannot make you famous.

One person in the audience could make you a millionaire and the biggest thing in British entertainment.

Though not if it’s me, obviously.

It is all smoke and mirrors.

I remember several years ago, one act who was hot, hot, hot. He is now a known Name comedian. Everyone was talking about his Fringe show that year. It sounded massively successful. And it was. But, when I went to see it, he was performing in a small shipping container. Perhaps there was room for 30 people in the audience. But the right people had seen the show and the word-of-mouth was massive. I repeat:

It is not the number of bums-on-seats that matter… It is whose buttocks they are.

Richard Gadd clearly did it right at the Edinburgh Fringe

In 2015, Richard Gadd was booked into a venue in Niddry Street that turned out to be too small when the word-of mouth about his show Waiting for Gaddot became massive. People were getting turned away every night, which just fanned the flames of the word-of-mouth.

In 2016, he was nominated for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award because – now much much better-known and guaranteed to sell out a much bigger venue – he had booked himself into the same small venue on the basis that even more people would NOT be able to see his equally superb show Monkey See Monkey Do, thus making himself and the show even hotter.

At least, that was the story. It might have been bullshit to get nominated for a Cunning Stunt Award. But, if it was untrue, that was a successful Cunning Stunt in itself.

My point is that acts perform on the Edinburgh Fringe to be seen by the press, TV & radio producers and prospective managers, agents, promoters, whatever. They want to be talked about. They want to be hot and to be seen to be hot.

But, as a result of this, an appalling habit has crept in over the years.

Pre-recorded video clips.

They started, I think, because people wanted to demonstrate to TV producers what fine comedy sketches they could do if given a TV show.

That was bad enough.

BUT, OH COMEDIAN OF LITTLE SELF-BELIEF, YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE PERFORMING A LIVE STAGE SHOW, NOT SCREENING A SHOWREEL!!!!

It has now got worse than trying to demonstrate TV sketch performance potential on stage via pre-recorded video clips. Comedy performers are now willy-nilly bunging pre-recorded videos in their solo shows, having ever-changing stills backdrops and all sorts of appalling visual distractions.

This CAN work and it CAN be relevant.

In Richard Gadd’s aforementioned, rightly-acclaimed 2015 stage show Waiting for Gaddot, the conceit was that he was not there. The pretence was that he was late for the billed show and other people performed while waiting for him to arrive – and this was interspersed with make-believe-live video clips of his various problems trying to get to the venue. Eventually he did arrive and he ran into the venue just as the show was about to end.

In that case, the video clips had a very well-thought-through purpose which was part of the cleverly-conceived format of the show.

But, mostly, comedy performers – an insecure and neurotic breed at the best of times – witter on about wanting to add ‘production value’ to the show and how just watching them stand at a microphone talking for 55 minutes would be dull for the audience. They want to make the show “more interesting”

Well, if you are worried about people getting bored watching you talk to them uninterrupted for 55 minutes, you should not be taking a show up to the Fringe and you should consider a career change. If you want the show to be more interesting, then be more interesting.

One thing you definitely don’t want in your show – feared comedy critic Kate Copstick commenting via a video screen. (In this blog, this is an example of an irrelevant distraction.)

Adding videos to the show is not ‘adding production value’, it is distracting the audience and interrupting their concentration. Every time you show a video or a series of stills to ‘add production value’, the audience has to switch attention from the performer’s face to a TV screen of totally different luminosity. Their visual focus literally shifts and their ears have to re-tune to a different type of sound wave. And sometimes there is also a lighting change involved to further distract their concentration.

It destroys whatever momentum the performer has built up.

The audience, who have been (or should be) intent on watching the performer’s face and listening to his/her carefully-crafted spiel, have to mentally switch off and re-tune to the ‘other’ (pre-recorded) video performance or visual.

At the end of that, they have to mentally, visually and aurally re-adjust back to the performer. Literally change their focus, literally re-adjust to a totally different visual display.

Every time the performer stop/starts his/her performance, the momentum is stop/started and the audience’s concentration diluted or lost.

Also, the audience must inevitably have at least a slight thought in the back of their minds: I came here tonight to see a live comedy performance. Why am I sitting watching a TV screen/projected image that has been pre-recorded?

And, while they are watching this unexpected interruption, they are half-flicking their attention every now-and-then back to the performer who is just standing around like a wanker doing nothing or – God forbid! – has walked off-stage for the duration of the clip.

The audience will and must think: Hold on! Am I watching this because the performer doesn’t have enough confidence to risk doing it live and has pre-recorded it? Or: Is the performer not talented enough to entertainingly describe in fascinating language what I am watching?

I am not a performer. I can show you a video of a monkey juggling a meringue and get laughs. A talented comedian can describe it to you and get even more laughs.

Every time I have to sit through bloody video clips in a live show in which the performer stands to one side and scratches his/her nose/anus, I start to wonder: If this wanker can’t perform the whole show live, why not just record the whole thing, email the video file to me and I wouldn’t have to come out on a wet night, have my luxuriant hair half-blown off by the wind and be shat upon by giant seagulls with attitude problems! (This is Edinburgh, after all.)

These annoyed and annoying thoughts will also, most of the time, be shared by the TV or (God help them) radio producers whom the performer most wants to impress.

If you don’t think you are interesting enough to hold people’s attention in a 55 minute live show, just don’t go to the Edinburgh Fringe. (This is another distracting picture.)

If you are trying to demonstrate what a good writer and live performer you are in front of a live audience on a stage, then don’t go multi-bloody-media luvvie unless it is vital to the whole caboodle (like it was in Richard Gadd’s show).

If you are a sketch group, don’t bloody have me sit in a darkened room in Edinburgh watching you being clever in Take 13 of some video you pre-recorded in a London park four months ago. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s not going to impress me. If you can’t think of an entertaining way to perform sketches live on stage in a room in Edinburgh, then don’t go up there and go get a job stacking shelves in a supermarket.

If you can’t do 55 minutes of straight-to-the-audience stand-up material then (unless you can make it VERY original and an integral part of the live-to-the-audience act), don’t have video inserts. Just do a bloody stand-up routine entertainingly. Or send a showreel to Netflix or Amazon or BBC3 or put it on YouTube. Don’t inflict it on me, sitting on an uncomfortable chair in some annexe to a church or some student lecture room draped in black curtains in Edinburgh.

I could be watching re-runs of old Tommy Cooper shows instead.

Of course, if you take all the advice above, you will never be nominated for, let alone win, an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality.

Life is a bitch.

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Comedians: humorous or humorless? Me: a terrible comedy audience member

Laugh oh laugh oh laugh

Laugh oh laugh oh… Are comedians humorous or humorless?

Last night, I went to a drinks party held by the comedy agency Mirth Control. Most of their acts were there plus a few non-performers like me.

I got talking to one of the other non-Mirth Control acts and they told me that one of their friends had – of course – said: “Oh, that’ll be fun! Lots of comedians in a room together! Lots of laughs!”

But, of course, when comedians get together, they are not their stage personas. And, with the friend’s comment in mind, this non-stand-up comedian asked me: “Are comedians humorous or humorless?”

I had and have no answer.

I always tend to say all comedians are barking mad. If I were more PC, I might say they were “psychologically interesting”. Which they certainly are.

Though there is, I think, a slight psychological difference between stand-ups, storytellers and actors-pretending-to-be-comedians (of which there are a depressing number).

The other cliché about comedians – in addition to being barking mad – would be Pagliacci – the sad clown who makes audiences laugh but who is sad inside.

So comedians… Neurotic, sometimes tortured schizos with social disorders.

So far so good.

But are they – in themselves – humorous or humorless?

Well…

They are obviously interested in jokes and humorous situations but, in a sense, why on earth would they make jokes or try to make other people laugh socially when they can make money by filing away anything humorous and using it on stage?

I think that is sensible.

What’s with all the comedy gags on Twitter?

What’s with giving all these comedy gags on Twitter for free?

But, then, I do not understand Twitter, which is awash with comedians giving away one-liners for free. I have no idea what logic is at work here.

Also, in the humorous-humorless question/answer there is the analytical factor at play.

I am a terrible audience member partly (I think) because my background was in television and you tended to keep quiet during recordings, even if they were performances by comedians.

And also partly because I am often listening to the style in which they say something rather than just what they say. So, though internally appreciative, I don’t react externally.

I remember standing with comedian/compere Malcolm Hardee at opposite sides of a pillar in his Up The Creek comedy club during an early performance by comic Charlie Chuck. I looked at Malcolm and he looked at me and both of us were crying with laughter. I think it may have been the only time I ever saw Malcolm cry with laughter.

But Charlie Chuck was not doing standard gag-based stand-up. It was the surrealism and the passionate physical performance mixed with the surrealism that pushed both Malcolm et moi over the edge.

Malcolm, like most comics, tended to watch other comedians’ stand-up acts without laughing at them; but then might say: “That was brilliant” or “That was very funny”. And he would mean it. Because he had been analysing the content and delivery at the same time he was appreciating the act.

I attempt to demonstrate an appreciative smile

I attempt to demonstrate an appropriately appreciative smile

I tend to do the same thing. My redeeming feature, apparently, is that I smile appreciatively if I think I can be seen by the performer, which is slightly reassuring.

I had my comeuppance a few weeks ago when I was four rows back, enjoying a particular comedian who did not know me but, apparently, I was sitting there stoney-faced with my arms folded. So the comic made it his mission to turn by taciturn humorlessness into laugh-out-loud enjoyment. I could not manage the laugh-out-loud bit believably, but I manage to chortle enough to deflect his attention away from me.

None of which answers the question Are comedians humorous or humorless? but, like comedy performances, blogs cannot always be golden pinnacles of orgasmic success.

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Comedians Malcolm Hardee, Charlie Chuck + a duck, a fox & a death threat

A pair of Indian Runner ducks

A pair of Indian Runner ducks not quacking on some grass

It is my birthday today and, in lieu of anything interesting happening to blog about this morning, I looked at my diary for 2002.

Nothing much happened on my birthday that year either.

But this is what happened in the week leading up to it.

It involves the comedians Malcolm Hardee and Charlie Chuck.

My father had died the previous year. My mother was ill in Clacton.

Sunday 21st July – Clacton, Essex

Malcolm phoned me up to tell me he can’t hear other people very well at the moment. He says the sound is muffled. But his own voice sounds very loud inside his head.

“It could be just old age,” he mumbled to me. “It could be just old age.”

Monday 22nd July – Stansted, Essex

I collected my friend and her son from Stansted Airport.

Tuesday 23rd July – St Albans, Hertfordshire

I spent the day out at a St Alban’s visitors’ farm with my friend and her son, my friend’s cousin and the cousin’s husband and two children. I said to the cousin, as we watched pigs eat:

“We’re all worm meat in the end.”

“Unless you get cremated,” she replied.

“I’d prefer to rot,” I said. “It seems more romantic.”

“Really?” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be buried after I watched my mother lowered so deep into the ground. I’ve told my husband I won’t watch him being buried.”

Wednesday 24th July – Fleckney, Leicestershire

I went to Charlie Chuck’s home for a meal. The small street in which he lives has a three-legged cat. He told me his occasional sound man – long haired and hippyish – can sleep through anything. Once, in Leeds, the sound man had a broken window in his bedroom and, during the night, a snowdrift built up at the foot of his bed, as high as his mattress. On another occasion, he went to sleep in a field and, in the morning, woke to find slugs in his hair. He had trouble getting them out.

Thursday 25th July – Borehamwood, Hertfordshire

I got a message from a British friend in the US:

“Get this,” she told me. “Americans say Fuckin’ A because Fuckin’ Hell is too rude.  Morons.”

Friday 26th July – Clacton, Essex

Malcolm told me on the phone that he has bought a duck. His partner Andrée found a small duckling which had got stuck halfway out of the shell during birth. She cared for it overnight, but it died. So he went up to Enfield in North London to buy her an Indian Runner duck, which they will keep on his Wibbley Wobbley pub boat.

Saturday 27th July – Rotherhithe, London

Last night, Malcolm was awakened by a sound. He looked out the window and saw a fox walking up the gangplank leaving the boat. The duck was unharmed.

We went to his Wibbley Wobbley boat. The previous owner is over from Spain and has threatened to kill Malcolm unless he gets the remaining £55,000 he is owed from the sale; he is friendly with gangster Charlie Richardson. Fortunately Xxxx Yyyy has just returned from Hong Kong with £150,000 he saved while working there. He has lent Malcolm £55,000 which will be transferred into the previous owner’s bank account on Monday.

The duck is rather big – just over a foot high and only quacks when you go near it.

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