Tag Archives: Cluub Zarathustra

More stories of comedians using other comedians’ lines – OK – stealing things

Picture of Ian MacPherson used without his permission from his website http://www.ianmacpherson.net

Picture of Ian MacPherson used without his permission or his knowledge from his website www.ianmacpherson.net

Yesterday, I blogged about Martin Soan’s version of how his late friend Malcolm Hardee appropriated – well, OK, stole – fellow comic Ian MacPherson’s gag.

The gag was to open your performance at a venue by saying:

“In show business, there’s a saying that you play (enter name of venue) twice in your career. Once on the way up. Once on the way down. (PAUSE) It’s good to be back…”

Martin Soan had heard (from Malcolm Hardee) that Ian McPherson had jokingly asked to be paid when Malcolm stole the gag and Malcolm had – much to Ian’s shock – actually paid several hundred pounds.

When he read yesterday’s blog, comedian Rob Thomas told me that a different version of what had happened was published in the British Comedy Guide in 2008, in an excellent piece by Robert Wringham.

I contacted Robert and asked him if he was happy with me quoting from his piece. “Is there anything you want plugged?” I added.

“You could mention my little book about Cluub Zarathustra,” he told me. “You helped out on that, I’m certain. I know I quote you in it.”

This surprised me because, in fact, I had nothing to do with either the book or with Simon Munnery’s show Cluub Zarathustra beyond seeing and immensely enjoying it at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe. It is a fascinating show which was turned into a BBC2 TV series Attention Scum! directed by Stewart Lee in 2001.

The BBC have never released a DVD, but there are clips on YouTube.

BBC executives never liked the series and hid it away on BBC2 on Sunday nights at 11.50pm. They cancelled the series which was then – embarrassingly for them – nominated for the Golden Rose of Montreux as best TV entertainment show of the year. As I understand it, BBC executives then had to fly with Simon Munnery to Switzerland and sing the praises of the series which they had cancelled because they hated it.

There is almost a sitcom in that saga in itself.

But back to Ian McPherson and the gag theft by Malcolm Hardee.

In Robert Wringham’s 2008 piece in the British Comedy Guide, Ian said he first did the gag in the early 1980s at the Earth Exchange, a tiny vegetarian comedy club on the Archway Road in London.

Later, Malcolm nicked the gag, much to Ian’s annoyance.

Malcolm with distressed shoulder in Up The Creek office

Malcolm with distressed shoulder in his Up The Creek office (Photograph by my eternally-un-named friend)

“And,” Ian told Robert Wringham, “as he’d done it on some pap-for-the-masses TV programme, it looked as if I’d nicked it off him. So I had to drop it. He also put about that he’d bought it from me. Which he hadn’t. He then offered to buy it retrospectively. Fuck off, Malcolm, I quipped. So I fined him a pretty modest sum for theft. I was pretty furious about it at the time, but he had his eye on other stuff I’d written, so I was also warning him off. He ignored the fine at first, but he was just about to open (his own club) Up The Creek, so I gather some comedians refused to play there till he paid up. Which he grudgingly did. I also made it plain in words of one syllable that I was not, repeat not, selling the line. He muttered something about 6 seconds of material but, as I pointed out, It was 7 and a half seconds, Malcolm. You should have nicked my timing.

“Simon Munnery told me he does it too, but attributes it to me. Which is fine. No problem there. Good man Simon. I was told that Simon Fanshawe did it on radio. No attribution. I wrote to his agent at Noel Gay Artists three years ago for a clarification but he must be a slow typist. No response as yet. But not everyone is called Simon.

“A young film maker contacted me last month. Apparently he’s doing a documentary on Malcolm Hardee. Wanted to know if I wrote Malcolm’s gag. Malcolm’s? Apparently some of the older comedians who’d first seen me do it had told him it was mine. Anyway, he intimated they would be using the TV clip of Malcolm doing my gag and, er, was I okay with that. And maybe it was the Irish blood coursing through my veins, but my response was a good deal less than civil. Listen, I said. You people stole my country. I’m fucked if you’re nicking my act. Does that answer your question?

All those quotes from Ian have been stolen by me from Robert Wringham’s original article in the British Comedy Guide.

Well, not really stolen. I look on my use of them as an homage to Robert’s work and I recommend you buy his book on Cluub Zarathustra, a show that deserves to be remembered.

Robert Wringham’s assuredly excellent book which I have not read but buy it…

Robert Wringham’s assuredly excellent book which I have not read… But buy it

As a post-script to this tale of joke theft, I should also mention that juggler Steve Rawlings, who often played Malcolm Hardee’s clubs, also got in touch with me yesterday after reading my blog.

It is a widely-read blog and has probably had bits repeated from it without attribution.

Malcolm Hardee had handfuls of oft-repeated catchphrases. He used one of them to put-down anyone unwise enough to heckle him. He would say: “Isn’t it a shame when cousins marry?”

Yesterday, Steve Rawlings told me: “He got that line from me. I’d got it from a big-headed American juggler who was doing put-down lines on the other acts while we were sat drinking before a gig.

“He came out with three when I was sat alone with him.

“One was the when cousins marry line.

“One was It’s hard to believe out of millions of sperm you were quick enough to get there first.

“And the last was Living proof that Indians DID fuck buffalo, which was never going to work in England.

“I had the first two lines to myself for about two months and they were killing.

“Then Malcolm phoned me and said: Oy oy – Is that ‘when cousins marry’ line yours?

“I said: No, I nicked it off this American act.

“He said Oy oy again and hung up.

“Not long after that, everyone was using it. But for just a little while I had it to myself.”

I did ask Ian McPherson yesterday if there was anything he wanted to add to his British Comedy Guide tale of Malcolm stealing his opening routine. He said: “Say hello to Martin Soan and Steve Bowditch. Lovely, lovely boys and a credit to their respective mothers.”

Both are members of The Greatest Show On Legs which included Malcolm before he drowned and both are currently performing in Switzerland, where BBC TV executives had to smile and accept compliments for Simon Munnery’s cancelled series Attention Scum!

What the relevance of that is, I have no idea, but it sounds good – something which should never be underestimated.

Here is a YouTube clip of Steve Rawlings juggling.

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, UK

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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Filed under Books, Comedy, Religion, Theatre