Tag Archives: comedians

A daily club for comedians at the Edinburgh Fringe in August this year

Yesterday’s quickly-made logo

Yesterday’s quickly-cobbled-together maybe temporary logo

Next Thursday, the Edinburgh Fringe Programme is published.

I have talked to several people in the last few months who said they are not going to list their shows in the Programme this year (largely because of the cost). I have told them they are barking mad.

If you stage a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, it HAS to be in the Programme to get noticed amidst the hundreds of other shows and thousands of other performers.

So imagine my surprise, dear reader, when – yesterday – I arranged to put on a daily show at the Fringe which will NOT be listed in the published Programme.

Back in July 2011, I blogged about the vague idea of setting up a club for comedians at the Edinburgh Fringe catering (as I possibly unwisely phrased it) “not for the VIP top-of-the-billers but for the ordinary riff-raff of comedy”.

Although I did not name him in the blog, I had talked with New York promoter Calvin Wynter about setting up this club and calling it The Gaucho Club or The Grouchy Club – a club for ordinary scum whom London’s Groucho Club would never want to have as members.

It came to nothing because there seemed to be too much work involved in setting it up and running it throughout the Fringe.

But, at the weekend just past, Alex Petty of the Laughing Horse Free Festival had some shows fall through, so some spots became available.

Last year, I hosted five chat shows at the Fringe and I had thought of doing another week of chat shows this year but with no guests as such. The guests – the ‘stars’ – would be the audience.

I strongly believe that, if you go up at random to any person in any bus queue anywhere in the country and start talking to them, they will have the most extraordinarily fascinating tales of things which have happened to them.

Everyone is interesting.

So I thought of having a chat show this year where I simply interviewed the audience.

When the Free Festival said they had some drop-outs, though, I suggested that we could revive the idea of The Grouchy Club – somewhere that comedians could come to drink and gossip. The big venues tend to have their own VIP rooms for performers and press. But there is no general venue where comedians can come in general and bitch about what an awful time they are having at the Fringe.

So, every day, from 2nd to 24th August, at 3.45pm-4.45pm in the Lounge of The Counting House in Edinburgh, doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers Kate Copstick and I will host an hour long event called The Grouchy Club.

There is even a quickly-cobbled-together-yesterday one-page website plugging it – www.grouchyclub.co.uk

The pitch is:


Kate Copstick (doyenne of Fringe comedy critics) and blogger John Fleming (“The Boswell of the Alternative Comedy scene” – Chortle) host an hour-long chatty club to which all Fringe comedians are invited with any and all bitchy, bizarre and odd anecdotes about the Fringe.

The object is to get even the shortest of publicity mentions in either Copstick’s iconic Sunday newspaper column or John’s increasingly-prestigious daily blog. If members of the public come along with Fringe stories too, fine. Everyone is a star if they have a good story.

Basically, it’s a true storytellers’ schmoozathon with comedians trying to out-do each other to publicise themselves and their shows.

We would have called it The Harpo Club, except no-one would have spoken.

It is The Grouchy Club – you don’t have to be a member to join.


Whether anyone will come along, I do not know. It is the Edinburgh Fringe. Who knows anything about anything?

But it will be a place where performers – mostly comedians, I guess – can come along in a desperate bid to get noticed by Copstick or to get mentioned in my increasingly prestigious daily blog. They can chat, bitch, self-publicise to their hearts’ content and – staying this side of libel – anything they say may be quoted. It is part one-hour social, part schmooze, part (I suspect) one-hour piss-up.

If random members of the public come along, we may revert to my original idea of a chat show in which the audience are the stars.

If no-one at all comes along, then I know Copstick is capable of bitching to me in an entertaining way for a full hour every day for 23 days.

As I mentioned, I have told several people in the last few months that they are barking mad if they stage an event at the Edinburgh Fringe without putting it in the Programme.

We will see if I was right.

The moral, of course, is:

ALWAYS TAKE MY EXCELLENT ADVICE – AND DO WHAT I TELL YOU TO DO, NOT WHAT I DO.

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Comic Steve Best takes 440 snapshots of the collapsing (?) UK comedy circuit

On sale from this week

It’s a snapshot of the people who made the UK comedy circuit

This week sees the launch of Comedy Snapshota book of 440 photographs of UK comedians – mostly backstage – by fellow comic Steve Best

He is launching it on Tuesday with an exhibition of photos at the Nancy Victor Gallery in London’s West End.

The exhibition then continues 2nd-7th April, with Steve in the gallery every day. “I’ll just be chatting to people who come in,” he tells me. I think cups of tea may also have been mentioned. Perhaps I misheard that bit, but it’s worth a try.

Steve Best at the Nancy Victor Gallery last week

Steve Best with his book at the Nancy Victor Gallery

“I’ve been taking the photographs for seven or eight years,” he told me in the gallery last week, while he was preparing the exhibition. “I took a load on 35mm, then digital came in, then camera phones. So I had a load of photos. I was talking to Bob Mills about a year ago and he said: Why don’t you do a book? That’s a great coffee table book. So, about 8-9 months ago, I started writing to the comedians I’d photographed and most of them – maybe 98% – said What a great idea. It’s a snapshot of the UK comedy circuit and the people who made the circuit.”

“Why 440 photos?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Steve, “someone said Why don’t you do 250 comedians? Hold some back, then publish another 250? But I thought This has been such a long project, just get it out there and, if something happens with it, I’ll either reprint for Christmas and add some more people in or do a second book.”

“Are you going to sell individual prints of the comedians?” I asked.

“No,” said Steve, “We were thinking of doing that in the gallery, but they’d be very expensive to print and I’d have to have another word with the comedians, because then you would be using them.”

Sixteen of the 440 comedians featured in Steve’s book

Sixteen of the 440 photographs featured in Steve’s book

“Was it difficult to get them all to agree to appear in the book?” I asked.

“No,” replied Steve instantly, “I was really amazed. People like Jo Brand, Harry Hill, Lee Mack were all up for it. Sarah Millican was great. I took my photo of her in 2008 and, in the meantime, she had become a TV star. It was only in June 2013 that I went back to all these people and asked each of them to give me a one-liner joke, to tell me three or four facts about themselves that had nothing to do with their comedy careers and to tell me when they started in comedy.”

“What were you before you were a comedian?” I asked.

“I’ve never been anything else.”

“You never wanted to be a photographer?” I asked.

“No. Actually, I did do some photography very early on for a company, but even then I was doing comedy as well.”

“So you’ve always been purely a comedian?” I asked.

“When I was young, I used to juggle before school. I would do an hour of juggling.”

“I think I’ve seen you juggle,” I said.

“I’ve never juggled on stage,” said Steve.

“Ah,” I said.

“I did study the guitar,” Steve said. “I did eight hours a day on the guitar for about three years. I do get obsessive about things and I do get obsessive about the quality – I will put the hours in. I’m a bit lazy otherwise. Doing this book was full-on. I’ve never had a full-time job. Doing stand-up, you do 20 minutes a night.”

Portrait of Milton Jones on the Comedy Snapshot website

A portrait of Milton Jones on the Comedy Snapshot website

Steve not only took all the photos and collected and collated all the written information, he also designed the book – no small task.

“Why is it not in alphabetical order?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Steve, “I’ve put pictures which look good on the page together. It’s a design thing. I think it’s a book you pick up and flick through and read it and put it down and take it on the train. That’s why I’ve done it this size: so you can just take it in your bag.”

“In the modern digital world,” I asked, “does it cost more to do a full-page photograph rather than a page full of text?”

“It’s expensive to print,” said Steve, “because I’m not doing a massive run. If they were colour photos, it would cost even more to produce.”

“£9.99,” I said, “is good for 440 photos of comedians.”

“And there must have been another forty comedians whose photos I have but who didn’t answer the questions I sent them.”

“Comedians as a breed,” I said, “are perhaps not always the most organised of people.”

“It took me ages to get an answer back from some people via Facebook or e-mail,” said Steve. “It was only about four weeks ago I said: I’ve got to sign this off and get it to the printers.

“Then I started Tweeting and Facebooking and getting news about the book out there so people know it is going to exist and one comedian apologised to me about a week ago. He said: I’m sorry I didn’t answer you. I’m really sorry. Is it too late? And I told him: You’re already in the book. You DID answer me. He had just forgotten!”

“I guess,” I said, “that people were more relaxed with you taking photos of them backstage. A professional photographer who had never met them before would not be able to get the same pictures you have, because you’re a fellow comedian and you’re on the same wavelength as them.”

A selfie taken by Steve Best for the book

A ‘selfie’ snapshot close-up taken by Steve Best for the book

“Yes,” said Steve. “When you’re backstage, you’re not doing a posed studio shot. They’re quite relaxed with me. They open up, though I’m not really asking for anything personal. As far as the words go, I didn’t want the text to be a CV, so I asked for facts not to do with comedy. It’s maybe a quirky book.”

“You told me,” I pointed out, “that maybe 98% of the people you approached were OK with the idea of the book. That still leaves 2%.”

“I think there was a problem at the beginning,” said Steve. “It wasn’t until I had some ‘names’ on board that they all thought: Oh, OK, this is not just a stupid project.

“Micky Flanagan was the first person who responded with a Yes. When I took his picture, he wasn’t famous. And Alistair McGowan. I took a picture of him in the Chuckle Club: he was famous then, but was trying out stuff. He said Yes.

“Then, when I then approached other people, I could say: Look, I’ve got Alistair McGowan and Mickey Flanagan and loads of circuit comedians. Then I got Harry Hill, Andy Parsons and others. In the end, I had loads of big names and everyone was fine.”

“But some said No?” I asked.

Steve Best is The King – of comedy snapshotters

Steve Best is The King – of comedy snapshotters

“One,” said Steve, “told me Why would I want to be associated with all those cunts? But he was perfectly amiable about it. Some people didn’t want to be in it very early on but I think once it was clear I was doing a snapshot of the circuit and the people who made the circuit what it is… then it was OK.

“And the circuit is not going to last as it is for much longer. Everybody’s talking about it, aren’t they? It’s all going different ways and it’s very much television and touring and big stuff – or small. There’s nothing much in-between now. It’s very hard to make a living as a circuit comedian. The book is a snapshot in time of the circuit and the people who made it.”

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Forgotten famous British comedians and Sean Brightman’s comedy condoms

Sean Brightman at the Sanderson Jones gig

Sean Brightman this week at Sanderson Jones’ Internet gig

Yesterday, I blogged about Sanderson Jones’ geeky new comedy night All Your Internet Are Belong to Us and how this month’s show developed into a bit of a gross-a-thon.

But, before it went so entertainingly off-the-rails, it had stayed on its geeky theme with the end of a ‘tumblr battle’ between comedians Sean Brightman and Stuart Laws in which, for about three weeks, they had created collections of tumblr images.

Stuart Laws had created a collection of comic ‘riders’ demanded by performers.

Sean Brightman had gone for his rather more ambitious A-Z of Alternative Comedy – The Alternative Alphabet.

This proved interesting because, the All Your Internet Are Belong to Us show had a full audience of average-aged comedy punters, many of whom had simply never heard of a few of the famous comedians whom Sean had chosen.

Sic transit gloria.

It was an age thing. I guess it also demonstrates the power of television.

Comedian Charlie Chuck - aka “Donkey!"

Comedian Charlie Chuck – now popularly known as “Donkey!”

When Sean showed his tumblr graphic for Charlie Chuck and asked, “Does anyone know who this is?” someone immediately shouted out in a throaty voice: “Donkey!”

Everyone knew who Kevin Eldon is, presumably because of his current TV series; before that, I suspect, most comedy-watchers knew the face but not necessarily his name.

Everyone, of course, knew Stewart Lee but no-one knew his hero and inspiration Ted Chippington.

No-one in the audience had heard of the great Stanley Unwin – admittedly more of a personality than a comedian, but he did gain television fame in his day. Sean admitted Stanley was “not really an alternative comedian, but there is fuck-all else for ‘U’.”

Oy! Oy! - Who the hell is this unknown famous bloke?

Oy! Oy! – Who the hell is this unknown famous comedy bloke?

And absolutely no-one in the full room knew who Malcolm Hardee was, despite I think valiant efforts by me over several years to link the phrase ‘the godfather of alternative comedy’ and the name ‘Malcolm Hardee’ together in the comedic collective mind…

As Sean explained to the audience: “This is Malcolm Hardee. He was a famous… well, not too famous… but he was quite famous… erm.. around the comedy scene… especially round London… for being the… the… he was… Just buy his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. You’ll find out all about alternative comedy. He’s a comedy legend. He sadly died.”

Afterwards, I chatted to Sean.

“Why?” I asked. “Why do the tumblr Alternative Alphabet?”

“It was an educational device to teach people a little bit about alternative comedy,” he told me.

“Are you being serious?” I asked. “Are you going to take it into schools?”

“I think it could live on longer than a tumblr battle,” replied Sean. “It’s a project I’ve wanted to do for a while. I’m a designer as well as a comedian, so I present things all the time and this was a nice way of combining my skills.

“I’m doing a show with my wife Renata at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, which is going to be a PowerPoint presentation. It’s called Philip and Marjorie’s Marriage Preparation Course For Regular People and The Gays.

A man with a mission - well, quite a lot of missions, in fact

A man with a mission – well he owns rather a lot of missions

“Renata and I got married in September in a Catholic church. I’m not a Catholic. They send you on a marriage preparation course and you can either do it over five weeks or you can do it over one day. We did it over one very warm Saturday last year and it just struck us both how hilarious it was.

“In many ways, it’s good to get 26 or 27 couples together in a room and work through different scenarios and troubleshoot various areas of marriage that might come up.

“The spark for our show was that the couple teaching the course had been reading off this Comic Sans presentation – endless Comic Sans slides – and they stopped for a second and decided to ad-lib something. They looked at us all up and down and said:

“OK. You may have seen what’s going on in the news. How many of you, by a quick show of hands, believe that gay people should be allowed to get married?”

“A lot of people’s hands went up, including ours.

“They were taken slightly aback by this and I thought Wow! We’re at a Catholic event with a lot of people who ARE Catholic, yet there’s a big groundswell of support for this. 

“So the idea for our show is that these two (fictional) bumbling characters are doing a marriage preparation course and they’re trying to modernise things when, really, they probably shouldn’t and they don’t really have an understanding of the issues.

“But the show will be done from a place of love. Trying to walk that fine line between being offensive and putting on a show that’s educational and a bit different.”

“Renata’s a comic herself?” I asked.

“She is a comic, explained Sean. “She was performing a lot in Australia and then came over here to pursue comedy and met me. But then she had a horrible back accident and had to rest and stop. She broke her coccyx and had to take time off. So she’s just finding her way back into it now and she’s helping me run my We Love Comedy gig in London.”

“She was born in Australia?”

“Yes,” said Sean. “Australia’s a great place. I’d love to live there at some point in the future.”

“But,” I argued, “it’s just a big desert with bits round the edge.”

Australia - a big desert with bits round the edge

Australia really IS just a big desert with bits round the edge

“Yes,” agreed Sean. “Desert is the word, but it’s not what we’ve got here. It’s summer here now and it’s snowing outside. We had plans to move to Australia, but we’ve put them off because we’ve now adopted a three-legged dog and a cat.”

“Have you done the posters for your Edinburgh show?” I asked.

“We’re going to do very simple printed leaflets,” replied Sean, “of the sort you’d see in a church. And then we’re going to staple condoms to them.”

“This afternoon,” I said,” I was talking to Kate Copstick and she told me that, if you go to Poundland, you can buy 12 condoms for £1.”

“It’s been worth talking to you tonight,” Sean said and left quickly.

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A chat about a Christmas video turns to talk of comedians in court in the 1960s

Matt Roper - Christmas in Soho

Matt Roper spends a Happy Goddam Christmas in Soho

Comedian Matt Roper is flying to India on New Year’s Eve for two months. At least, that was what he intended to do.

“I think my new principle should be Don’t book flights when you’ve had two bottles of wine and a load of Guinness and a few tequilas,” he told me over pizza in London’s Soho.

“I’d had a heavy night out and woke up in the morning. My life most mornings, if I’m being honest is… Well, if you’ve ever seen a window with condensation on it and it slowly clears away… That’s my brain in the morning… I remembered doing something about a flight, so I went and checked my emails and the Confirmation was there… Flying out on 31st December, which is perfect for me because I don’t like New Year… and coming back on June 3rd…. What?… June 3rd?!!… but the most surprising thing was I’d managed to choose my seat and decide what sort of meal I was having.

“I’ve been many, many times to India. I love it out there, but I haven’t been for about six years. I’ll go to Goa and then hopefully write my Edinburgh Fringe show in some hill station. But my point is Never book a flight when you’re hammered.

“Maybe that should be your Fringe show title,” I suggested: “Never Book a Flight When You’re Pissed. But you shouldn’t go to India. You’re in the iTunes Comedy charts at the moment with Happy Goddam Christmas, this Christmas song of yours.”

“Well, it’s an anti-Christmas Christmassy song, really,” Matt corrected me, “like Fairytale of New York.”

“When that was released,” I said, “it was inconceivable it could become a standard festive song like White Christmas.”

“It’s a British thing,” suggested Matt. “We’re maybe not drawn to the natural sugary, positive ditties.”

“Is it the first song you’ve written?” I asked.

“No,” said Matt. “All the Wifredo stuff you hear at Edinburgh is all orginal songs, though I did one of those in collaberation with Pippa Evans.

“With Happy Goddam Christmas, I had the music for a long time – the basic structure of the song – it was about an ex I was feeling particularly, you know, bitter and jaded about. But the song isn’t iactually about me feeling bitter about an ex. I took it to Pippa Evans and she added a middle eight onto it and we worked together on the lyrics.”

Pippa Evans performs as her on-stage character Loretta Maine. Someone once described her as ‘Dolly Parton as seen through the lens of Mike Leigh’.

“Arthur Smith has a little cameo in the video,” Matt told me, “and we have Sanderson Jones and Imran Yusef – in the video, they’re in the band – Arthur’s in the toilet brandishing his Hammond organ.”

“So you wanted to make lots of money with a Christmas song?” I asked.

“Not really,” said Matt. “It was just about having a bit of fun. It’s easy to release whatever you want on iTunes. It’s quite incredible how the music industry’s changed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Edinburgh Fringe were along similar lines? If you could cut out all the middle people.”

“Well,” I said, “the Free Fringe and the Free Festival sort-of do that. Are you thinking of doing one of the two free festivals next year?”

“Possibly. I had a lot of fun with Just The Tonic this year. I would like to see the Fringe level out into an event where your established comics and TV names are on the ticketed Fringe and the less-established acts can realistically afford to do it and make at least a little bit of money by the end of it.”

Matt’s father, George Roper, was one of The Comedians on the seminal Granada TV comedy stand-up show of the 1970s.

It was a different era.

“There was a club called The New Luxor Club in Hulme, Manchester,” Matt told me.

I raised my eyebrow at the mention of a club in Hulme. I went to Hulme a few times when I worked at Granada TV in the 1980s. If you went to the Aaben Cinema there, when you came out, you might find three youths sitting on your car bonnet saying: “So how much are you gonna pay to get your car back?”

“In the 1960s,” Matt told me, “they would have ‘gentlemen’s evenings’ at some of the Manchester social clubs, working men’s clubs, cabaret clubs. It would not be uncommon to have six stand-up comics and six female strippers/exotic dancers on one bill. At this point in the 1960s, it was legal to be naked on-stage, but it was illegal to move.

“The police decided to bust The New Luxor Club and my father was one of the six comics performing there that night. The police raided the club and charged the comedians with aiding and abetting the club owner – a guy called Vincent Chilton – for running a disorderly house.

“The six strippers and the six comics were in the dock at Manchester Crown Court and the police had to stand up in the court and tell the jokes. I swear – no word of a lie.

“I don’t know the exact date, but the police had to get up and say something like On the 28th of June 1965, George Roper stood up on stage and said the following joke: ‘A policewoman and a policeman were walking ‘ome from t’station one night. Ooh, she said, I’ve left me knickers back at t’station. Ooh, don’t worry, said t’policeman. Hitch up yer skirt, let the dog ‘ave a sniff. Half an hour later, t’dog comes back with t’sergeant’s balls in its mouth’…

“Can you imagine? In the Crown Court? The public gallery had to be cleared because everyone was laughing so much.

“There was a guy called Jackie Carlton, who was the apotheosis of Manchester club comics at the time and all the younger comics like Frank Carson and Bernard Manning looked up to him. He was very camp, very flamboyant. When it was his turn in the dock, the judge asked: Was that one of your jokes? and he said, Yes, but I tell it much better than that. He was found guilty.

“My dad was the last comic up and, when it was his turn to stand in the dock, the judge asked Is that one of your stories? and he said Oh! Not heard that one before and, for some reason, he got off with it by playing the underdog, as he always did. The other five comics got fined, but my dad got off with it.

“I asked my uncle about it not long ago and he said people were queueing round the block to buy the Manchester Evening News to read the jokes that were told in court.”

* * *

Below, Jackie Carlton talks in the 1970s about camp comedy and obscenity…

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There are some nasty people in comedy …Is Lewis Schaffer one of them?

For a short period last night, I thought I was going to write a vitriolic blog today, but then I remembered some advice I gave to a comedian several years ago.

Last night, I was invited to an event organised by a comedy company. I arrived. I could not get in. I had the invitation in my hand. It was bad PR. Especially as I bear the company no good will. They have a surprisingly good reputation considering the guy who runs it is a vicious, amoral little shit.

I thought. That will make a good blog. I will slag ‘em off. I will tell tales.

But then I decided not to. And not for legal reasons. No. I decided not to because I remembered my advice to the comedian.

A few years ago, this comedian wanted, very justifiably, to bitch online about another (in my opinion clinically psychopathic) comedian.

My advice was: “Don’t name the other person. If you name the other person in print, it just gives them publicity. Even if you slag off the person with a very good story, people will remember the name attached to the story longer and stronger than the actual shittiness of the story you are telling them. If you name the person in print, you would just be raising their profile.

“It’s like most TV commercials. They cost zillions and they’re very visual but, basically, all they are really trying to do is impress the product’s name on punters’ brains so that when people go into a shop and see four brands, one of the brands’ names will feel more familiar to the punters than the other three.

“They could put the name of the company up there on screen in black letters on a white background for 30 seconds without music and it would have much the same effect for less money.

“All publicity is good publicity unless it involves a sex crime.”

There are some nasty people and companies in comedy, but there is no point naming them in print because it would simply increase the people’s profile and the companies’ macho standing.

At one Edinburgh Fringe, I paid at the box office of a venue to buy a full-price ticket for a highly-regarded comedian’s show. Instead of giving me a ticket in return for my money, the guy at the box office picked up a half-price newspaper voucher for the show, tore it in half, kept one half and gave me the other half. He had a pile of these half-price vouchers. My assumption was and is that, when giving the comedian a percentage of the box office returns, the venue was skimming off money claiming that a lot of tickets were being bought at half price when, in fact, the full price had been paid.

On another occasion, someone was opening up a new comedy club in a city (not London) and, for some reason, asked the advice of the owner of a competitor club. The competitor had had a vicious long-running feud with a particular comedian. “You don’t want to book XXXX XXXX,” he told the new club owner. XXXX XXXX’s an alcoholic. Unfunny. Unreliable. An alcoholic.” The guy knew that, in fact, the award-winning, highly reliable comedian was a non-drinker. But it was a double whammy. Bad advice to the other club. Damaged the comedian.

If you name the baddies in print, though, it simply publicises them.

The point is that, last night, instead of attending the event I had been asked and invited to attend, I went off in a huff (or it might have been a minute and a huff) to see American comedian Lewis Schaffer‘s rolling Free Until Famous show which, I knew, started at the same time and was only a three-minute walk away.

Look, “a minute and a huff” was funny when Groucho Marx said it.

Maybe it has dated badly.

Anyway, last night’s show was bizarre even by Lewis Schaffer’s high standards of oddity.

In the full-house audience, for one thing, were two Italian students studying comedy in Britain. Quite what they learned from a night of titters with Lewis Schaffer, I don’t know. But, after the show finished, he stayed behind with them and seven others for a special re-telling of his “award-winning Holocaust joke”.

It took 20 minutes.

The translations did not speed things up.

But it was the funniest part of the evening.

Afterwards, in his traditional after-show Soho ice cream parlour, I told Lewis Schaffer (always include both names when referring to him) about my non-vitriolic upcoming blog.

“There is no point quoting names,” I said to him. “All publicity is good publicity, right?”

“That’s what I told the captain of the Costa Concordia after it hit the rocks,” he replied.

“Mmmm…” I said.

“Look,” he said. “Never say bad things about anything or anyone. It comes back to bite you. You think you’re beating up a nobody but he’s got a million friends and one day you’re gonna need the guy. The key thing is that, if you trash one person, everybody thinks you will trash them too. They think, Well, he’s going to say bad things about me too.

“I’ve made enemies in this country,” he continued, warming to the self-criticism, as he always does. “I’ve only been here 11 years and already people hate me. I’m not even being paranoid. I don’t think people like me.

“Every day, I have a fight with someone. Every day, there’s somebody I’m really, really angry with and I wanna go on Twitter and every five minutes say something bad about the guy. But, as soon as I write my first Tweet, I realise it makes me seem like a twat.”

“Ah!” I interrupted him. “What did you say that venue owner in Edinburgh called you?”

“She called me a dreadful, dreadful man,” he replied, perhaps slightly irritated at having his flow of self-criticism interrupted.

“Why did she say that?” I asked.

“Because she’s a friend of my ex-wife and refused to listen to my side of the story about how horrible my ex-wife was… If my ex-wife was horrible at all… She’s probably no more horrible than any woman and…”

“Ah!” I interrupted him again, “On stage tonight, you joked that you’re trying to get away from racism in your show. You want to put in more misogyny.”

“Because there’s a bigger market for it.” Lewis Schaffer explained, exasperated, “Maybe I’m the horrible one. Maybe that’s the problem… But women stick together like a Romanian village. They fight with each other to the death until someone from a neighbouring town comes in. Then they just join together to… I dunno, they’re just horrible people – women. They’re loyal. I respect them for that. They’ll stick up for each other.

“My problem,” Lewis Schaffer mused, “is I’m not nice enough to be nice and I’m not nasty enough to be nasty.”

“Nice sentence,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“It means I’m… It means… For someone who people think of as a strong personality, I’m like white bread.”

“Mmmm…” I said.

“I don’t know what it means. What d’you think it means?” Lewis Schaffer asked me.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “You’ll figure it out eventually.”

“You’re not going to get anything out of this for your blog,” Lewis Schaffer told me.

“I dunno,” I said.

“I know,” Lewis Schaffer said.

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The Kray Twins have been replaced by a bunch of comedians in the East End

What is happening with Bethnal Green in the East End of London?

I think of Bethnal Green as being the home of the Kray Twins and the Museum of Childhood. Admittedly queer bedfellows to begin with. Now there appears to be a giggle gulag of recently-opened clubs featuring new and rising comedians.

On Mondays, David Mills and Maureen Younger run their Unusual Suspects comedy club at the Sebright Arms.

On Tuesdays, comedian Oli (son of comedian Janet) Bettesworth runs The Painted Grin at Benny’s Bar.

And another comedian I know is also thinking of starting a new monthly club in Bethnal Green.

In the sometimes bitchy world of comedy, it all seems surprisingly chummy down the East End.

Last week, I went to the Unusual Suspects to see 2010 Malcolm Hardee Award winner Robert White (whose comedy is so fast it must leave scorch marks on his brain) and David Mills & Scott Capurro (who hosted this year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe). In the audience, was Janet Bettesworth. Not only that, but she raved to me afterwards about the end chat between David and Scott.

Comedy can be about more than just getting laughs, which Scott and David proved in their Scott Capurro’s Position chat show in Edinburgh and at the Soho Theatre this year – and very much so in what appeared to be their totally improvised, highly libelous and astonishingly personal routine last Monday. In fact, it was more an extended riff than comedy routine – very insightful and very funny.

Janet Bettesworth reckons: “The hundreds of comedy nights around town are perhaps just a stress-release valve for overworked Londoners. However, take two seasoned gay American comedians, David Mills and Scott Capurro and you get some kind of magic.

“Some kind of magic is certainly what took place last Monday,” she says. “Suddenly mere stand up comedy (more specifically one-liner gags) seemed flat and one-dimensional in comparison. The tete-a-tete between the two of them was one of the rarest and best things I have ever seen. I wished it had gone on longer. No-one recorded it, so an ephemeral happening, perhaps born out of adversity (a scheduled act had been called elsewhere) and delivered to a small and privileged audience is lost forever. It is impossible to describe, except to suggest that together they are (even) more than the sum of their parts – they presented something extraordinarily real and multi-dimensional, full of rawness, pain, tenderness, love, wit and finely-distilled camp humour.”

It certainly was an astonishing public tete-a-tete.

And there is certainly some exceptional live comedy going on out there in small clubs – a lot of it, apparently, now oddly happening in Bethnal Green – all of it ephemeral, unrecorded and, like most of the best comedy, once performed lost forever.

In the Kray Twins’ era, it was criminal lawyers who reaped the benefit.

In modern-day Bethnal Green it might be comedy club audiences and libel lawyers.

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Stand-up comedians: are they funny people?

(This article previously appeared in Mensa Magazine)

FUNNY PEOPLE

by John Fleming

You are a stand-up comedian. You get up alone on stage. A spotlight shines on you. If you now perform the greatest show of your life, your future is downhill. If you get badly rejected by the audience, their objective reaction reinforces your own insecurities. You’re in a Lose-Lose situation. Who can be attracted to that? A masochist. That’s what I thought. So I asked Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina who has run many successful comedy clubs over 20 years, has seen comedy talent of all types fail and succeed and who, in his show Sadojudaism, jokes at length about his penchant for sadomasochism.

“Well, stand-up can be painful,” he initially agrees, “but the point about masochism is that it’s a state where pain is pleasurable and I’ve never heard a comic describe the frustrations and humiliations of public failure as something to be enjoyed.”

So why does he do it?

“I’m aware of a a core desire within me to please others which I can trace back to early childhood, being rewarded by my parents with smiles and approval whenever I made them laugh.  In adulthood I’ve acquired a desire to control situations and an irrepressible need to prove I’m right. Stand-up comedy is the best outlet I’ve found for both characteristics.”

Comedian Ricky Grover comes from London’s East End:

“Whether they admit it or not,” Ricky suggests, “most comedians live their life in depression, even feeling suicidal. They feel like they’re shit, feel like they’re not going to be able to do it again. If you don’t laugh you’d cry. That’s your options.

“There was a lot of violence going on in my childhood and sadness and depression and one of the ways to escape from all that was humour. I would make ‘em laugh and sometimes I’d make my stepfather laugh to deflect a confrontational situation. A lot of humour where I came from was quite dark. I wanted to be like my stepfather – an armed robber – because that was the only person I had to look up to. I had him or my little skinny grandad who was really quite verbally spiteful to me. I thought, well, if it’s between the little skinny grandad or the ex-boxer/armed robber, I’ll be the ex-boxer/armed robber and I suppose that’s why I went into… boxing.”

Scottish comedienne Janey Godley was raped by her uncle between the ages of 5 and 13; at 19 she married into a gangster family; at 21 her mother was murdered; for 14 years she ran a pub in Glasgow’s tough East End; and, in a 22-month period, 17 of her friends died from heroin.

“I do sometimes think everything I say’s shite,” she admits, “and I do sometimes think nobody’s ever gonna laugh at it and I get worried.”

So why get up on stage and face total personal rejection?

“Because it’s challenging,” she explains. “Because, with me, every show’s different. I don’t really tell jokes; I tell anecdotes that are unusual in that I talk about child abuse and murder and gangsters and social issues. I get up and do something different every time and it’s a really exciting challenge because I think: I wonder how that’ll work? And, when it really works it makes me really happy. When it completely dies, I think, I’m going to do that another twenty times, cos that was strange. Most of the stuff I do is reality with bits of surrealism. I tell a big true story with funny bits and talking animals in it and sometimes glittery tortoises. It might not affect their lives, but the audience WILL remember it because it’s different.”

So what is the X Factor?

“In my case, delusions about my own self-importance,” says Ivor firmly. “That’s why I decided to become a comic.”

“You’re split between two extremes,” says Ricky. “Really low self-esteem and a massive ego. They’re the two things you need to do stand-up and they come hand-in-hand. Deep down inside, there’s a little voice inside that tells you you’re shit but you want to prove you’re not. Stand-up comedy is the nearest you’ll ever get to being a boxer, because you’re on your own and you’re worried about the one same thing and that is making yourself look a cunt in front of everyone.”

Ivor believes: “Successful comedians tend to be characterised by a slightly ‘don’t care’ attitude. They can be philosophical about failure and speedily get over things like bad gigs and hostile reviews and move on to the next performance without dwelling on setbacks.”

“I have the confidence to get up on stage,” Janey tells me, “because after the life I’ve led – all the madness and the pub and the gangsters and the abuse – there is nothing frightens me any more. So, if I ever stood in a room with 600 people and talked for 15 minutes and nobody laughed, then it’s no worse than having a gun held at your head and I’ve already had that, so it doesn’t really scare me.”

“Boxers ain’t worried about getting hurt,” explains Ricky, “because, when your adrenaline’s flowing there is no real pain. In fact the pain’s quite enjoyable. I used to like soaking up the pain in the ring and smashing it back into them. My favourite comedy gigs are when I’m watching comedian after comedian go under and get heckled and I think, Right, I’m going to conquer this. And I sort of go into battle and then I can turn a gig round and make something happen.”

“I’ve had gigs which were going too well,” says Janey, “and I’ve intentionally ‘lost’ the audience just so I can work hard to get them back again.”

“Yeah, sometimes,” says Ricky, “There can be a really happy great big roar on every word you say and the gig’s almost too easy and you think, I’m going to throw something in here and make this a little bit hard, and I’ll come out and say something that may be offensive to some people and the whole room will go quiet and then you can play with that quietness and see where you go with it and that can be an interesting gig. So it’s a battle going in your head all the time.”

The late great club owner Malcolm Hardee once told me he was unimpressed by jugglers because, if anyone practised for several hours every day over several years, anyone could become good. “Juggling is a skill you can learn,” he insisted. “Stand-up comedy is a talent. However hard you work, you can’t become a great stand-up without underlying talent.”

So is comedy a skill or a talent? Can you learn it?

“All that’s required,” believes Ivor, “is a bit of talent, a modicum of common sense, a thick skin and an ability to learn from your mistakes. Stand-up isn’t nearly as difficult as people imagine. I started by running small comedy clubs and witnessed the efforts of many others whom I thought I could be better than. It was as simple as that.”

“It’s not just one thing,” Janey believes. “Thirty things are important on stage. There’s talent, confidence, timing, connecting with the audience, empathy, humour, the human touch. People have said the most bizarre things to me on stage. A woman once stood up and told me she’d been raped a couple of weeks ago and this was the first night she’d laughed since then. That’s not talent or technique; that’s being able to connect with another human being in a room full of people. But I do it for me, not really for them, because there’s nothing better than standing on stage. I don’t do it because of ego or because of lack of confidence. I do it for the experience of doing it because I love the applause.”

“I suppose,” admits Ricky, “that you’re looking for someone to say This bloke is a comedy genius. But, if someone does say that, there’s this little voice inside your head which disagrees: No you’re not, you’re shit. Then, if someone writes a review and says you’re shit, you think: No I’m not, I’m a comedy genius.”

Rejection is the thing that binds comedians together,” says Ivor, “because they’ve all experienced it at some time or other. What separates those of us who eventually become stand-ups from those who give up is that we are prepared to risk rejection time and time again.”

“You know what I think it is?” says Ricky “What all us comedians have in common? What we want? It’s not about being famous. It’s not about having fortunes. I think it’s just about having a bit of recognition. The thing that drives us all mad is not getting recognition for what we do.”

But, once you have proved you can do it once or ten times or fifty times, why keep doing it? Why constantly risk rejection?

“If you have the best sex of your life,” suggests Janey, “It doesn’t stop you doing it again. You’ll keep on doing it and keep on doing it.”

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