Tag Archives: comedy

Is David Mills the Dolly The Sheep of Dave Allen, Bob Newhart & Gore Vidal?

So I had a chat with David Mills, the American comic who lives in London, and we had trouble getting fully on-subject.

“My memory is shit,” I said, “and I have forgotten. How long have you been over here?”

“Seventeen years.”

“Are you here forever?”

“Well,” David joked, “now all these people are going down in Hollywood…”

“That’s not the best phrase to use,” I suggested.

“…there is,” he continued, “a lot of opportunity for middle-aged silver foxes like myself.”

“British TV?” I asked.

“If you’re not British,” said David, “you only get so far here. Look how long Tony Law’s been at it and yet he can’t get that regular spot on a panel show. The last one to manage it was Rich Hall.”

There can only be one David Mills in the UK

“Maybe,” I suggested, “there can only be one biggish North American ‘name;’ on TV at any one given time. Like you can only have one gay person ‘big’ at any one time – Graham Norton on BBC1, Paul O’Grady on ITV, Alan Carr on Channel 4. Maybe the most to hope for would be one big name American per channel.”

“Mmmm…” said David. “I think they’re happy to have people who come over from America. Every year at the Edinburgh Fringe, there’s always one or two. But the ones who are here… The attitude is: Who wants to listen to an American living in Britain talking about the UK? People want to hear Americans who live in America talking about America.”

Bill Bryson,” I suggested, “wrote about the UK when he lived in the UK. But, then, he was a writer, not a performer – different audience.”

“And writers have a longer shelf life,” said David. “Stand-ups can come very quickly and go very quickly.”

“Last year,” I started, “you were in the Meryl Streep/Stephen Frears film Florence Foster Jenkins…”

“Let’s not talk about that,” said David. “It’s too long ago. I can’t flog that horse any longer.”

“It must have done you some good,” I suggested.

Florence Foster Jenkins led David on…

“Well, that led me on to other things, I’ve had some big auditions with (he mentioned two A-list directors) and  (he named an A-list Hollywood star) is making a new film and I went up for the role of the baddie’s sidekick. A great part. But this film – I read the script – is so bad it might become infamous. I thought to myself: I really want this! I really want to be in this! I would love to be in an infamously bad film! That would be so much fun. But no.

“Are you a frustrated actor?” I asked.

“That’s where I started, but no I’m not – though I would be happy to do more. More and more is being filmed here, because the pound is low, they get a big tax break and the acting and production talent here is so high. I was up for a small role in the new Marvel Avengers film and the new Mission Impossible film.”

“Do you have another film part coming up?”

“Yes. It’s for TV. But it’s Showtime and Sky Atlantic.”

“You have a small part?”

“My part, John, is perfectly adequate.”

“This is an acting role in a serious drama?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s that serious.”

“But you’re acting seriously. It is not a red-nosed, floppy-shoe clown role?”

“I’m playing a version of me, John.”

“Sophisticated, then,” I said. “Suave. What were you in Florence Foster Jenkins?”

“A critic. Well, I wasn’t a critic, but I was critical.”

David Mills (left) and Gore Vidal – brothers under the skin?

“You were like Gore Vidal?” I asked.

“I would love to play Gore Vidal,” said David.

“Well,” I suggested, “now Kevin Spacey’s film about Gore Vidal has gone down in flames…”

“My Edinburgh Fringe show next year is called Your Silence is Deafening. It’s about being a critical person. I love people but that doesn’t mean I’m not critical. I am critical and I think that is good. The problem with the world is no-one likes critique.”

“Critical or bitchy?” I asked.

“They are different things,” said David.

“You don’t want to be ghettoised as being gay,” I said.

“No. I really don’t.”

“Your influences are interesting,” I said. “I never twigged until you told me a while ago that you partly model your act on Dave Allen.”

“Well, the act is different, but the look is inspired by him.”

“And you are very aware of the sound of the delivery.”

“Yes. A lot of things I say because I like the rhythm of the joke and the sound of it.”

“Are you musical?”

David with Gráinne Maguire and Nish Kumar on What Has The News Ever Done For Me? in Camden, London, last week

“No. But, to me, it’s all about precision. When I’m writing jokes or a show, it’s almost like a melody. I write it out and I do learn the words and I repeat the words. A lot of comics find a punchline and there’s a cloud of words leading up to it and those exact words can change every time. For me, that’s not the case. I may deliver it a little bit differently, but the wording is really important to me, because there’s a rhythm that takes me to the punchline.”

“You are a good ad-libber too, though,” I suggested.

“To an extent. But I am more heavily scripted than a lot of acts. Some other scripted acts are contriving to seem off-the-cuff, but there is something about that which, I think, feels wrong. I am trying to refer to a specific style – Dave Allen here and, in the US, Bob Newhart, Paul Lynde, people like that. They went out and had scripted routines and it felt more like a ‘piece’ which they presented, instead of shuffling on stage and I’m coming out with my observations. I aspire to the old school style: I have brought you this crafted piece and here it is. 

“Bob Newhart was so subtle and he had such an understated brilliance. He was able to get great laughs out of a short look. So studied and crafted. He developed that. You could put Bob Newhart in any situation and he would bring that same thing.”

“Yes, “ I said, “Lots of pauses and gaps. He looked like he was vaguely, slowly thinking of things. But it was all scripted.”

He’s not like Max Wall or Frankie Howerd…

“In British comedians,” said David, “I thought Max Wall was super-brilliant. And I love Frankie Howerd.”

“And,” I said, “the odd thing about him was that all the Ooohs and Aaahs were scripted.”

“Of course,” said David, “I have to do a lot of shows where I am still working it out, so it’s less crafted, but it’s all aiming towards me ‘presenting’ something. I think a lot of acts are not aspiring to do that. They are aspiring to a more informal kind of connection with the audience.”

(For those who do not remember Dolly The Sheep, click HERE)

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Filed under Comedy, Gay, Humor, Humour

Political comic Joe Wells doesn’t know what he thinks, but The End is Nigh…

Comedian Joe Wells has just released two CDs – of his two latest Edinburgh Fringe shows – 10 Things I Hate about UKIP and I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative.

When I met him at the Soho Theatre Bar in London, he showed me his arm.

Tattooed on it were the words SO IT GOES.

This, alas, was not because he is an obsessive fan of this blog but because, like me, he is an admirer of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five in which the repeated refrain So it goes appears 106 times, usually linked to death, dying and mortality.

“Why Vonnegut?” I asked.

“I sort of,” Joe replied, “fell into doing a literature degree at Portsmouth University and, when you read people like Vonnegut and James Joyce, you think: Oh! I didn’t realise you could do that.”

“Are you an aspiring novelist?”

“Well, I wrote a book when I was basically a child. I wrote a book about OCD when I was 15.”

“A non-fiction book?”

“Yes, about growing up with OCD.”

“You went to Portsmouth University, but you addressed the Cambridge Union last year,” I said, “proposing a motion that The end is nigh.”

“They just saw something on YouTube and asked me,” said Joe.

“So when are you going to become Prime Minister?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’m going to be Prime Minister,” said Joe, “because I don’t think I know what I’m doing and I don’t think I know what I believe.”

“Surely that is a pre-requisite for the job?” I suggested.

“If you listen to the CDs,” said Joe, “a lot of it is about me not really knowing what I’m talking about. But, even though I don’t know what I think, the shows themselves have a viewpoint. Those two shows have quite clear messages.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“The 2016 show 10 Things I Hate about UKIP was not really about UKIP. It was saying that the only hope for the world is the political Left but the political Left are useless, so there is no hope. For a long time, I felt like a good person because I was Left Wing and that is one way to make yourself feel good about yourself. It was about having a crisis of belief.

“And the show this year – I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative – is spelled out quite explicitly at the end. It is about how we sneer at young people for being naive but what we need in the world is naive hopefulness and what is holding us back is older people thinking: We should just give up. It doesn’t matter. It really was about me feeling completely… It kind of came about when I was writing lots of bits of material that contradicted themselves politically and had very different tones.

“Some were saying: I think we should change things and make a better world. And other stuff was: Everything is fucked and it’s awful and we should give up. And then other bits were… not Right Wing but I suppose more critical of the Left. The premise of the show is it starts as a children’s story, getting older as I go through. So I can put the more hopeful bits at the beginning and, as I get older, I can more and more sell out and become more Right Wing.”

“You imply,” I said to Joe, “that you are deeply cynical and say you don’t know what you are talking about. So you really should be in politics proper.”

“I’m from a relatively middle class background. My father was a Probation Officer. I wasn’t growing up in poverty. But you go to the Cambridge Union and I’m aware of every bit of my accent and aware of everything I say differently and it’s a very elitist thing there; a kind of feeling you get: Oh, I don’t belong here at all.

“Why are you doing political shows if you’re not really that interested in being a politician?”

“I think my aims in comedy when I started were very different to what they are now. When I started, I was very much someone who wanted to bring about a Socialist world and I saw comedy as way to rally the troops.

“Now I don’t know. I feel very uncertain about where I stand on things. I suppose I want to make people feel less entrenched and make them question things. Often people say that and what they are actually saying is Be more sympathetic to very very Right Wing racists or whatever. I am NOT saying that. I don’t think that. I just don’t understand how people are not as confused and uncertain as I am. I think people can’t really be as sure about things.

“I think it is all about values. The reason why I’m still broadly on the Left is because my core values are that I think we should be nice to people, we should share things, forgive people if they make mistakes. But I think often the Left doesn’t value competence.”

“This is going to be quoted,” I said. “Is that OK?”

“Yeah. Yeah. The values of what the Left are trying to achieve I really support. I want a world where people share things and we don’t have people who are homeless. But often the Left doesn’t seem to think through how these things are going to work. The practicalities of how to bring it about.”

“So are you,” I asked, “now stuck in a comedic cul-de-sac where you have to ‘do’ politics? You can’t suddenly start doing surreal comedy routines about giraffes mating with albatrosses.”

“I think my next show may be going away from politics completely.”

“Towards?” I asked.

“I found out recently that, when I was a teenager, there was talk about me being autistic and I’m looking into that more. I didn’t know about it. So I’m doing a show about that in 2019. I am going to take a year off from the Edinburgh Fringe so I can be lazy about writing it. I want to write a good show about being an outsider.

Touch and Go Joe, about OCD, written by Joe when he was 15

“As a teenager, I loved Marilyn Manson in a very obsessive way. I think I saw him as an outsider and that’s what I felt like at school. Growing up, I had OCD and I was a very big music fan but the OCD made it very difficult for me to go to CD shops and flick through all the CDs.”

“Why?” I asked.

“My OCD was around tapping things in sequence. So, if I touched a new thing, I had to tap it in a long sequence. It’s hard to flip through CDs because you touch loads of things. There is a complicated thought process behind it, but it made sense to the OCD.”

“Have you embraced MP4s?” I asked.

“I have got Spotify because it makes train journeys go easier, but I just like CDs. I like having the sleeve notes and the pictures…”

“Have you had interest in your comedy work from TV and radio?”

“I’ve done bits and pieces. I did some writing for Have I Got News For You. A producer came to see my show last year. and liked it But I find writing jokey-jokes for other people sometimes a bit tricky. My own stuff I always start with an opinion on something and work up from that and that doesn’t always lead on to neat jokes.”

“And you opened for Frankie Boyle,” I said.

“Yes, he contacted me through Twitter. I think he heard me on a podcast. I did a couple of shows with him at Leicester Square two years ago and then last year a longer run at the Pleasance in Islington and a few dates in the Spring. It means a lot when it’s a comic that you like.”

“Have you a 5-year game plan?” I asked.

“No,” said Joe. “Not at all.”

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Politics

Heckling a serious play = comic success

The tower of Westminster Cathedral in Victoria, London

Last Friday, with my eternally-un-named friend, I stumbled on the funeral service of a 101-year-old Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral, London’s Catholic Cathedral (not to be confused with the Protestant Westminster Abbey).

I was brought up a Presbyterian – very low church – just occasional hymns, an organ and a bloke standing talking in a pulpit amid undecorated walls.

So the full-whack OTT pomp and theatricality of a Catholic funeral of a Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral was like watching some Las Vegas floorshow. High church Christianity is a bizarre old religion with undertones of gay cannibalism – all that dressing up in colourful camp costumes and eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ while waving smoke about from an amateur smoke machine.

Nearby, the Victoria Palace Theatre was finishing its multi-million pound refurbishment. It will have trouble out-camping the Cathedral.

Anyway, I am currently ill in bed (possibly minor ‘man flu’) and, in between sleeps, randomly surf.

I stumbled on this Wikipedia entry for the Victoria Palace Theatre:


Victoria Palace Theatre, London, today

In 1934, the theatre presented Young England, a patriotic play written by the Rev. Walter Reynolds, then 83. It received such amusingly bad reviews that it became a cult hit and played to full houses for 278 performances before transferring to two other West End theatres. 

Intended by its author as a serious work celebrating the triumph of good over evil and the virtues of the Boy Scout Movement, it was received as an uproarious comedy. Before long, audiences had learned the key lines and were joining in at all the choicest moments. The scoutmistress rarely said the line “I must go and attend to my girls’ water” without at least fifty voices in good-humoured support.


This whetted my appetite and I found that, at some early performances, the Rev. Walter Reynolds would reportedly walk up and down the aisles of the theatre during performances telling people to be quiet. He soon changed his tune.

The actors (who otherwise played their roles straight) eventually made a game of ad-libbing if the crowd beat them to their lines. On one occasion the villain, when led away by the police, paused before saying “Foiled!” and the crowd shouted not only “Foiled!” but “Baffled!” “Beaten!” “Frustrated!” “Outwitted!” “Trapped!” “Flummoxed!” He waited until they were through, then hissed: “Stymied!”

Over a quarter of a million people saw the play.

Elaine Haddelsey of the Jot 101 website has done sterling research on the play and even found one of the theatre’s printed programmes, which has an introduction written by the esteemed Rev.Reynolds himself. I have shortened it:


The original theatre programme

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is a drama somewhere in every edition of our newspapers, and I at once confess that I have unblushingly cut out from them practically all the bits and pieces that were suitable for my story to illustrate the ups and downs of the life that you and I and all of us lead every day.

Having assembled these many snippets and scraps of material, I dovetailed them all together, and the result of my stage carpentering is what I am now venturing to present to you.

In Young England I have aimed at providing a solid three hours of clean and wholesome entertainment to put before you a theatrical bill of fare made up of the joys, the sorrows, the tears, the laughter, the sift romances and the hard realities of our work-a-day existence – idealised, of course, because that is what we all like – but, I hope, made interesting.

I have tried to re-introduce to the living stage some of its long-lost virility and its old-time attraction to provide three full hours of movement and action with clearly-to-be-heard words in place of the inaudibilities of our latter-day theatres. Again, what has impelled me to write Young England is the fact that nearly every week the Movie houses provide their millions of patrons with old-fashioned and often very crude melodramas, proving beyond any doubt that drama, even when it may be poor stuff is the sort of fare that theatregoers are always looking for.

In addition I have most respectfully woven into my play, as an extra pleasurable feature, some threads of the material of one of the most beneficent movements that have ever been instituted in the history of mankind, viz., the creation of the picturesque and practical Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement by the indomitable defender of Mafeking.


In a Spectator piece on 21st December 1934, after its transfer to the Kingsway Theatre, Rupert Hart-Davis wrote:


The Rev Walter Reynolds, serious author

Mn. Reynolds wrote Young England as a deeply serious play, a play with a purpose.

Between the conception and the creation, as Mr. T. S. Eliot has said, falls the shadow. 

In this case the shadow has turned his messages of good will into protestations as richly and unconsciously comical as Bottom’s wooing. Let us not mince matters: Young England is the funniest entertainment now showing in London.

The first act takes place in Wartime, “east of Aldgate pump”. Here there is such a riot of local colour that one has some difficulty in picking out the true blue of the distressed maiden and the white feather of Jabez Hawk, the villain. Jabez deserts the girl, who dies in a convenient Salvation Army shelter, giving birth to a son. A young War-widow takes pity on the infant, adopts him and gives him the simple but telling name of Hope Ravenscroft.

Hope’s betrothal to Lady Mary is a moving scene. “I must be the happiest Scout in England,” he cries; “And I,” echoes his beloved, “must be the happiest Guide.”

The curtain falls on the baronial hall, whose back wall has miraculously changed into Loch Lomond in springtime. Britannia, flanked by Brownies, Wolf Cubs, Scouts, Guides, and the complete company, stands superb against an erratically lowered Union Jack.

All of which may sound entertaining enough on its own account. But what raises it above any other such piece which we have seen recently is the attitude and the co-operation of the audience.

Led by a number of fanatics who have visited the play some twenty or thirty times, the whole body of the house joins continually in the play’s dialogue with quips, running commentary, advice to the characters.

Some of the vocal annotations have become traditional and are repeated at every performance. There is nothing of rowdiness or hooliganism in their attitude. All seem to realize that this unofficial accompaniment is the making of the entertainment. The actors themselves accept it, and it disturbs them not at all.

If this behaviour appears to the reader to be both bewildering and in bad taste, one can only urge an immediate visit to the theatre. The great cyclone of laughter should captivate anybody. As a remedy for the author’s chagrin, one may suggest that to make a theatreful of people lose themselves in laughter during more than a hundred performances may be even more beneficent than the same amount of Boy Scout propaganda.


News of the play’s transfer to the West End and success at the Kingsway Theatre spread to Australia.

On 2nd February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported:


The proud author and some of the unfortunate cast of Young England

In no theatre or cinema or music hall can such uproarious laughter be found.

Mr Reynolds himself generally occupies a box, and he may well suffer agonies over the misrepresentation of his play. But, like the actors and actresses, he accepts the situation, in view of the lucrative consequences. 

Those who have seen Young England come a second time in order to bait the players or to add their own lines. When the errant Scoutmaster is observed to be cracking the Scout’s safe the audience urges him “not to forget to wipe the handle.” When this advice from the stalls is accepted by the villain and he carefully wipes his finger-tips the cheers are terrific.

At another juncture the villain mentions that when he was elected to Parliament the shares in certain companies in which he was interested went up.

“And up, and up, and up, and up,” roars the audience.

Not to be denied a retort, the villain generally interjects, “Well, that’s pretty unanimous,” directing his remark at the shouting stalls.

At another juncture the stage directions indicate that a duchess is calling up someone on the telephone. “Don’t keep the duchess waiting,” shouts the audience. The actor is purposely slow. He reaches the ‘phone amid cries of “Duchess! Duchess! Don’t you know the duchess is on the line?”


Five years later, in the US in December 1939, Time magazine reported:


The opening scenes of the full Young England experience

Shortly after World War II began, it was decided to revive the play. There were some fears that it might have ad-libbed its usefulness, that jesting at patriotism might not go down in wartime. The fears were groundless. With tension in the air, people have been gladder than ever to relax, and with soldiers in the audience, the wisecracks are even rawer than they used to be.

– One set shows a Salvation Army ‘citadel’ with doors marked MEN and WOMEN. Every time an actor starts for one, the crowd shouts: “Wrong door, wrong door.”

– When Boy Scouts or Girl Guides are assigned to “water detail”, voices pipe up: “Stay out of those bushes”; “Be careful of the side of the barn.”

– One night, when the hero was proved not to be illegitimate, someone yelled: “Consider yourself unbastardized.”

Walter Reynolds, Young England‘s 88-year-old author, still takes his dead-serious play seriously. He went to the opening of the revival, a sad, reedy figure in a great black cape, doddered up the stairs to his box holding on to both handrails, sat tense through the uproar, at the end bowed to the audience, thanked them. 

Asked in a BBC interview whether he wasn’t angry at the way audiences treated Young England, he answered:

“No. They’re a little noisy… but they pay as much as 10 pounds and 6 shillings for seats, so they must like it.”

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Filed under Comedy, Theatre

Harvey Weinstein, Lewis Schaffer, an iPhone and Becky Fury’s fanny print

James Harris (with microphone) talks to his guests at the wedding party in Hackney this afternoon

This afternoon, I was at comic James Harris’ wedding party in Hackney. He got married yesterday to Ke Zuo.

I was sitting talking to Hannah George and to Toby Williams, the comic who used to perform as character Dr George Ryegold. I was suggesting to them that, when the inevitable movie of the sudden downfall of film producer Harvey Weinstein is made, Lewis Schaffer should play the part of Weinstein.

The Hackney wedding party included a non-hackneyed show.

Not because of Lewis Schaffer’s sexual proclivities (Brian Simpson, the English character actor who plays the role of Lewis Schaffer is gay) but because he would be able to play the New York Jewish character to a tee – ironic, given that Brian Simpson is neither Jewish nor a New Yorker.

Imagine my surprise then, dear reader, when my left nipple began to be tickled by the vibrations of an incoming text message on my iPhone.

The message was from a comedy promoter. It said:


Where are you? Sounds like fun.

And why do you keep saying Lewis Schaffer’s name in vain interspersed with Harvey Weinstein?

Intrigued.


The iPhone in my shirt’s breast pocket must have phoned the comedy promoter of its own accord by pressing itself against my erect nipple… Yes, the party was that exciting.

I sent a message back. It said:


Oops! You can’t trust mobile phones.


I put the phone back in my breast pocket.

A little later, it tickled my nipple again.

Janey Godley’s iPhone told her I had left a 10 second message

It was a text message from comic Janey Godley, in Aberdeen to perform two shows with Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond. It said:


John did you leave a message?


I had not phoned her. But her iPhone told her I had left a 10 second audio message on her phone.

Mysterious cyberspace keyboard not sent by me to Aberdeen

And I also seemed to have sent her a photograph of a keyboard.

A little later, I got an email from comic Becky Fury, the winner of last year’s Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award who has taken to calling herself a double Malcolm Hardee Award winner because of a dubious event in a London pub.

Becky Fury’s new weekly show project

Becky’s email was inviting me on Tuesday to a new weekly show she is organising in Victoria Park, London. The show is called the Demokratik Republik of Kabaret but she has inexplicably abbreviated that not to DRK but to DPRK, the abbreviation for North Korea.

As the weekly comedy night is new, she wants acts who want to perform to get in touch with her.

Her message said:


Anyone who wants to come down and try new or experimental material in a lovely venue please email Demokratik Republik of Kabaret with a submission – PeoplesCabaret@gmail.com


Becky Fury – a woman in search of the bizarre and original

I am not a performer so I think Becky assumed I would not be interested in this message and that is why she included a story for me.

To hold my attention.

I do to know if the story is true or not.

I seem to live in a world in which comics pretend to be doctors. Or not.

And English character actors pretend to be Jewish New York comics. Or not.

And iPhones phone each other without asking permission from the people who own them.

Becky Fury’s message read:


I went to see
Betty Grumble sex clown
(Not available for children’s parties)
And she gave me a paint print of her fanny
(If you think that’s bad you should see the one
Coco the clown did with his anal beads
That’ll be the last time he gets booked to play that village fete)
So I put a picture of it on Facebook
(The paint print of the fanny
Not the anal bead one
Coco’s management have taken out an injunction on that)
I put on Facebook ‘I went to see Betty Grumble Sex Clown and she presented me with this paint print of her fanny’
The next day this comedian comes up to me and says
‘I just went to see Betty Grumble
and she gave me a paint print of her fanny…
And she signed it’ I didn’t believe him
So I said
‘Where did she stick the pen?’
He didn’t know
So I said ‘Betty Grumble didn’t give you a paint print of her fanny, did she?
You didn’t get a signed paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny, did you? You didn’t get an unsigned paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny. You didn’t get any paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny. You’re just saying that because you are jealous Betty Grumble chose to give me a paint print of her fanny
And I was angry
And a man on the way home said ‘What’s wrong?’
I put on Facebook ‘I got given a paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny and this guy came to me and said ‘Well, I got a signed paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny and I said ‘You didn’t get a signed paint print of Betty Grumble’s fanny, you didn’t get any paint print of Betty Grumble’s Fanny’
And the man said
‘Jesus you’re angry about who’s been given a paint print of a clown’s fanny
That is ridiculous
You’re meant to be a comedian
Do you not think that’s funny?’
And I thought ‘Yes, ridiculous. Ridiculous one-upmanship. Hilarious.
When I get home I’m going to put a post on Facebook saying
Marcel Marceau mimed/handed me a card which said ‘You are the best comedian in the world’
And a Malcolm Hardee Award made out of modelling balloons
And then Coco the clown gave me a necklace made of his anal beads


That is the message that Becky Fury sent me.

I think I will go and lie down now. It has been a long day.

Sex clown Betty Grumble’s alleged fanny print as photographed by Becky Fury, cunning stuntress

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Filed under Comedy, Surreal

“Parrotopia” – one step beyond British Music Hall, The Goons and The Bonzos

Michael Livesley (left) and Rodney Slater, Lords of Parrotopia

“Why should I talk to you?” I asked Rodney Slater, formerly of the Bonzo Dog Do0-Dah Band and Michael Livesley who, in the last few years, has revived Vivian Stanshall’s 1978 epic Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.

“Because,” said Michael, “of our wonderful new collaborative CD effort Parrotopia.”

“You  sound like,” I told him, “a Northerner trying to be posh by using long words – collaborative, indeed!”

“But it IS collaborative!” he insisted. “The crazy thing about this CD is that, without any kind of planning, it has 12 tracks, six of which are mine and six of which are his. We then cross-pollinated it, of course.”

“You’re using big words again,” I told him. “So the music is random?”

“Yes, it’s very random,” Michael said. “I suppose, if it has a genre, it might be front step.”

“That is a pun beyond my ken,” I told him.

“The young folks,” Michael told me, “have something called ‘dubstep’. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe that was ten years ago or more.”

“A couple of days ago,” said Rodney, “I got a magazine from PRS and I didn’t know what they were talking about in it.”

The Bonzos’ 50th Anniversary show at KOKO in Camden, 2015

“It’s been a helluva lot of fun,” said Michael. “A gestatory nine months.”

“You’re at it again with the words,” I said. “But why another CD? Artistic inspiration or the lure of more filthy lucre?”

Michael laughed.

Rodney laughed: “Gross money is pouring out of our pockets! Why did we do this?”

“Because,” Michael told him, “we couldn’t not. Let’s be honest, we’re never going to become rich doing this. As it is, we’re selling teeshirts as well as the CDs to get money back. We do the music and the songs because we have to do it. Essentially what happened was we started talking during the Bonzo’s Austerity Tour last year, as things got increasingly more fraught…”

“In what way ‘fraught’?” I asked.

“It was nice amongst us,” said Michael. “Lovely among the players… Let’s not talk about it.”

“So the new CD… Parrotopia.” I said.

“The initial spurt,” explained Michael, “was that Rodney bought an iPhone and, all-of-a-sudden, you could email him. And there was no holding him after that. Pretty soon, we were sending each other stupid things about long-dead Northern comics and long-dead, obese footballers. Just tittle-tattle in general.”

Susie Honeyman of The Mekons, Rodney Slater and Michael Livesley during Parrotopia shed recordings.

“It’s just a collection of stories, really,” said Rodney. “Stories we wanted to tell that happened between 2016 and when we finished it in June this year. Our reaction to what was happening in the world and what was particularly happening to us in that context.”

“Not,” I checked, “what was happening politically in the grand scheme of things, but…”

“There was a sprinkling of that,” said Michael.

“You can’t get away from that,” added Rodney, “because that’s the time we were doing it.”

“Well, Parrotopia was almost like a coping mechanism, wasn’t it?” Michael suggested.

“It’s all about stories,” said Rodney. “Stories we tell ourselves. All of us. Fantasies we enact in our own heads when we go to bed at night. Michael said to me: We’ll make the album that we want to listen to. And that’s what has come out.”

“Why is it called Parrotopia?” I asked.

Mr Slater’s Parrot,” said Rodney.

It is a 1969 song by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

“What we said we were originally gonna do,” Michael explained, “was to declare ourselves The People’s Republic of Parrotopia, because there was stuff going on – and that name stuck.”

“Cultural Revolutionary,” Rodney said, apparently thinking out loud.

“There is,” Michael continued, “a song, one line of which is: Reflecting feudalist tags. That’s the general disjecta membra that is left over.”

“Oooh!” I said.

“Did you make that up?” asked Rodney.

“No,” Michael told him. “It’s a real word. In many ways, we were sort of living this madness through a shared past. A strange shared past, because Rodney is older than I am, but I was brought up by my nan – my grandmother – and she was brought up around the same time as Rodney’s parents. So we maybe both have a similar outlook. We see what we’ve done as very much as a continuation of British music hall and The Goons and The Bonzos.”

“Are you going to do a musical tour of Parrotopia?” I asked.

“Costs money,” said Rodney. “It would need a cast of 10 or 12. We would need some man with a lot of money who was honest, which is a very rare thing in this business.”

“Any videos?” I asked.

William ‘Fatty’ Foulke, Sheffield United goalkeeper 1894-1905

“Well,” said Michael, “we talked to John HalseyThe Rutles’ Barry Wom – who plays drums on our CD – and we discussed making some films – particularly a little silent movie of a track called Fatty – who was a goalkeeper for Sheffield United in 1902. Rodney as the referee with a twirling moustache and a top hat.”

“I think,” I told him, “you should write a song called Rodney Bought An iPhone.”

Rodney responded: “Writing used to be a slow and laborious process by hand. Now, if we have an idea, rather than me learning it, I hum something, he plays it on the keyboard and there’s the dots.”

“It’s a very quick way of working,” said Michael. “I can come up with a melody, I play it on the keyboard into the iMac computer and literally just press a button and the music dots are there for him to play. The computer is the real paradox here. Well ‘irony’ is better. Rodney has this disdain for computers and…”

“I don’t want a computer,” Rodney emphasised.

“But you have an iPhone,” I said. “That’s a computer.”

“I know it is,” he replied, “but it’s not a two-way mirror quite as much.”

“Would you care to expatiate on that?” asked Michael.

“It’s too intrusive in one’s life,” said Rodney. “It’s like walking around naked. It’s just my way of thinking about it. It’s like radio. Originally, radio was a wonderful, educational tool. All manner of communication. It’s when the arseholes get hold of it and then the big money comes in. I have utter contempt for the people running these things. Utter contempt because of what they’re doing with it. I’m not very good technically. I manage an iPhone; well, part of it.”

“One of the tracks on the CD,” said Michael, “is One Step Behind where Rodney sings about Who harvests your data? He was telling me about opinions being shaped and formed by…”

“Algorithms,” said Rodney. “I’m very interested in all that. The way it shapes human behaviour. I don’t like the sort of society that these things are making. The parallel worlds that we all live in. I prefer to go down the pub and play darts and crib and have a fight.”

“What attitudes are being formed that are bad?” I asked.

“Isolation,” he replied. “Parallel lives. Self-centred interest. What really pisses me off is that people are totally inconsiderate of the consequences of their actions on other people. They don’t think about that.”

Michael says Rodney’s Parrotopia album is “riddled with it”

“Are you going to do a second Parrotopia album about it?” I asked.

“We are doing another one,” said Michael.

“Parrot-toopia,” said Rodney.

“And when is that out?”

“Maybe next year,” replied Michael, but this one is riddled with it. Virtual reality. Augmented reality.”

“I just think, as I get older,” said Rodney, “it is time to write things down. I’m not a grumpy old man. I don’t write grumpy old man songs. I write reality, looking from now to what I’ve known, which is 76 bloody years. It’s a bloody long time. I was born at the beginning of the Second World War and I saw all that social evolution…”

“You retain a lot of optimism,” said Michael.

“A lot of optimism,” said Rodney, “from a bad beginning.”

“There is a lot of attitude on the CD,” said Michael.

“You have had a haircut since we met last,” I observed to Michael.

“Yes,” he said. “I went to Chris the barber near where I live. It is in the back of a garage. You go through his car sales bit and there’s a shed and you sit there surrounded by Classic Car Weeklys.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“Between Andover and Southampton.”

“I think there is a stuffed cat museum in Andover,” I said. “In tableaux.”

“I don’t think so,” said Michael.

“Maybe it’s in Arundel,” I said.

“There’s a pencil museum up in Keswick in the Lake District,” suggested Michael helpfully.

“And a vegetarian shoe shop in Brighton,” I said.

“I know,” said Michael. “I popped in once.”

I looked at him.

“I was starving,” he added.

Parrotopia was successfully financed by crowdfunding, using this video…

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The art of political war compared to a comedy club and Disney studio politics

I usually keep away from overt politics in this blog so, no doubt, I will regret posting this one…

Jonathan Pie’s initial comic success came courtesy of RT

A comedian I know was recently asked about the possibility of appearing in the UK-produced comedy series which Russian TV station RT  is apparently planning to screen next year. He said he would not appear on RT, which is financed by the Russian government. I think he was wrong. All publicity is good publicity and, if he is allowed control over his own material, I see no real problem.

But why RT, the former Russia Today – a current affairs channel akin to the BBC News channel – should be thinking of screening a comedy show is interesting.

I was also told that RT is especially interested in screening Right Wing satirists who find it tough to get on UK TV.

Why would RT be interested in Right Wing not Left Wing comedians?

Well, presumably for the same reason that, allegedly, the Russian state set up hundreds of Facebook accounts promoting Right Wing rallies supporting Donald Trump during the US Presidential elections.

The Daily Beast’s view of who was behind Right Wing posts

They supported the more Right Wing candidate against the (comparative to Trump) more liberal, anti-Right Hillary Clinton.

I was in TV promotions and marketing for 25-ish years and have always been interested in techniques of persuasion and how to sway beliefs and perceptions.

As well as in marketing, that is actually what Art does too: you try to take the audience – whether viewers, listeners or fiction readers – along with you.

Which is also relevant to the art of war in the 21st century.

Sun Tzu says in his influential book The Art of War that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” because the object of war should be not to destroy your enemy’s assets and power structure but to take them over intact.

In the modern world, you no longer need to physically take over your rival’s cities, economy and means of production. You do not need to actually take over your enemy’s assets and decision-making processes. What you want is the power to influence your opponent’s economic and political directions and decisions.

Undermining their strength and influence is equivalent to increasing your own.

Lest we forget, the reason Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (written in the 5th century BC) came back to prominence in the mid-1990s was that Disney company president Mike Ovitz recommended it or (in some versions of the story) allegedly gave copies to all his Hollywood executives as a training manual for navigating the corporate world. It was said that the only two books you needed to read to succeed in corporate politics were Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Sun Tzu’s view in the 5th century BC

Two of Sun Tzu’s oft-quoted and closely-linked insights include:

“You have to believe in yourself”
and
“The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

In the modern world, corporations are – it could be argued – equivalent to non-geographically specific states.

You do not need to fully take over a company to influence its direction. A large shareholding will give you a voice – or being able to influence the main shareholders may suffice.

In the modern world, it is pointless – it always has been – to primarily seek to influence the thoughts and beliefs of those who agree with your own views. They already agree with and believe what you believe. To change things, you need to influence the thoughts and beliefs of those who support/bolster your opponents.

There is no point only targeting the fans of your product, although you do have to remind them your product exists.

The important thing is the target (Photo: Christian Gidlöf)

Your aim is to sell a ‘belief’ in your product to people who are not yet convinced or who are actually actively resistant and opposed to your product. Or – and this is the point – you can undermine their existing beliefs in the product they currently buy, which will increase the comparative impact of your own product.

If that product is a political system, then you do not even have to convince your opponents that your beliefs are right. By undermining their confidence in their own political system, you can strengthen your own comparative position.

If you were to bizarrely and possibly unwisely transfer this to the situation of a stand-up comedy show featuring only two comics then, if you undermine the audience’s belief and confidence in one comic, you increase their (comparative) belief in the other comic. The MC can do this in his/her introduction of the other comic to the audience. Or one comic can undermine the other’s self-belief and thus performance.

In the case of the US, let us just imagine for a moment that the Russians wanted to install Donald Trump because they believed he would be more receptive to their overtures, reduce or remove economic sanctions related to Ukraine etc etc…

Well, they must be very disappointed because he has proved to be a rogue player.

It is a bit like the Kray Twins springing ‘Mad Axeman’ Frank Mitchell from Dartmoor Prison in the 1960s and then finding that he actually was uncontrollably mad.

US cartoonist Ben Garrison’s view of the Washington ‘Swamp’

But – swings and roundabouts – Trump’s appeal is to Right Wing voters in the US and his constant harping-on about how the Washington Establishment and the ‘Fake News’ media are corrupt must relentlessly and effectively chip-chip-chip away at his loyal Right Wing voters’ belief in their own system.

That is something that no Left Wing politician could ever do.

If you undermine a building, it will collapse.

As for my comedian chum, I think he was wrong to refuse to appear on RT.

If they give him an unfettered, uncensored voice which he cannot get onto UK TV then, in terms of Art, that is a ‘win’ situation for him.

The fact that the financiers of RT may see comedy on existing British society as a way of undermining belief in the current system and appealing to the always-malleable 18-35 year old age group while appearing to be the voice of individual freedom of expression is a side issue.

Morality was never a necessity in Art.

And, of course, abroad, many took individually-seen videos of fake reporter Jonathan Pie as those of a real reporter whose off-camera personal views had been caught between recordings, thus showing the duplicity of Western reporting.

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Japanese Rakugo storytelling from a Canadian in London and New York

When I met Canadian performer Katsura Sunshine at Camden Lock in London, he was wearing a denim kimono and a bowler hat.

“What was your original name?” I asked.

“Gregory Conrad Robic,” he told me. “I’m a Slovenian citizen, born in Toronto.”

“So why are you doing Japanese stuff?” I asked

I met Katsura Sunshine in Camden Lock, London

“In my youth,” he told me, “I was writing musicals based on Aristophanes. One musical version of The Clouds ran for 15 months in Toronto. As I was researching, I read that ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh and Kabuki had all these similarities yet there was no chance of cross-pollination. They were coincidental similarities. I thought that was really interesting, so I went to Japan to see Kabuki. I intended to stay for 6 months, but 18 years went by and now I live in Tokyo and London.”

“Half and half?” I asked. “You are based in Tokyo and Camden Town?”

“Yes, for the last few years. I am going to perform at the Soho Playhouse in New York in November and then I might move to New York. Nothing is planned. I might not.”

“So,” I asked, “how are ancient Greek theatre and Japanese theatre similar?”

“Use of masks,” said Sunshine. “And the same actors playing different roles. And the musical instruments are very similar.”

“And, from Noh and Kabuki,” I said, “you got interested in other styles?”

“Yes. I loved being there so, after five years, when I could actually speak some Japanese, someone introduced me to Rakugo performance, which is quite inaccessible to a non-Japanese speaker; it’s not commonly done in English. Kabuki is very visual, but Rakugo is basically kneeling on a cushion and moving your head left and right to delineate different characters.”

The Kamigata Rakugo Association Hall in Osaka, Japan

Sunshine is currently the only professional non-Japanese storyteller officially recognized by the Kamigata Rakugo Association.

“It’s traditional Japanese storytelling,” I said.

“Yes.”

“So what attracts you to Rakugo?”

“The simplicity of it. All you need is a kimono, a fan and a hand towel to create a storytelling world for people. The first half is a lot like stand-up comedy, where you are just doing anecdotes and trying to feel out the audience and, while you are doing that, you are trying to figure out which story to tell… When you decide which story would suit this audience, you take off your upper kimono and launch into the story.

“The stories have been passed down for 200, 300, 400 years from master to apprentice, from master to apprentice. There is a shared pool of stories. My own master (Katsura Bunshi VI) has made up around 250 different stories.”

“The style of the stories,” I said, “is traditional but the details in them could still involve something like travelling on a metro or in an aeroplane?”

“Yeah. Stories about city life, the neighbourhood, human relations. The style of the story transcends the centuries.”

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever…”

“So when you tell a story,” I asked, “are you improvising details within a template story?”

“No. You improvise in terms of the choice of material but the actual material is set. You limit yourself to two characters in conversation or, at most, three and every story ends in a punchline, as if it were one long, extended joke.”

“A funny punchline?” I asked.

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever, but it’s something that ties the whole story together in a satisfying ending.”

“You said ‘wordplay’ OR ‘funny’,” I pointed out. “As if Japanese wordplay is not necessarily comedic.”

“There are so many levels,” Sunshine explained. “Japanese has a limited number of sounds so there are many levels to wordplay. Some are funny; some are beautiful. It’s not always making someone laugh with wordplay.”

“So sometimes the audience just appreciates the cleverness?”

“Yes.”

“There are basically three types of venue,” I said. “Comedy, theatre and music venues. Which is Rakugo most suited to?”

“That’s an interesting question,” said Sunshine. “It is a theatrical form that happens to be comical.

Sunshine at the Leicester Square Theatre, March 2017

“The first year I went to the Edinburgh Fringe, I listed myself in the Comedy section, but I think a lot of the audience were expecting guffaws from the very beginning. It is storytelling, but not laugh-a-minute and there is a through-line and I don’t think it suited that audience. The next year, I put myself in Theatre and I think it suited the audience much better.”

“How many years have you played the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“This would have been the fourth year, if I had made it. I had to cancel my whole run because, once you get out of hospital, they instruct you not to fly for a certain amount of time.”

“And you were in hospital,” I prompted, “because you had…?”

“Deep vein thrombosis and Economy Class syndrome – pulmonary embolism. I had one long flight back from New York which… I think that’s where I contracted it.”

“But you are OK now?”

“Mmmmm….”

Earlier this year, in March, Sunshine played one night at the Leicester Square Theatre in London, packed to its 400-seat capacity.

“You are,” I prompted, “doing ten more shows at the Leicester Square Theatre starting this Sunday and running until October 15th.”

“Yes.”

“In English.”

“Yes. Rakugo is surprisingly translatable. I don’t really adapt the stories. They are directly translated into English. The points where people laugh in Japanese are generally the same points where people laugh in English. The humour of the traditional Rakugo stories is very situation-based and character-based – miscommunication; husband and wife fighting; a thief who never manages to steal anything. It doesn’t depend on the intricacies of language as much as situations which anybody in any culture can understand.”

“Comedy audiences in this country,” I said, “are maybe in the 20-35 age range. Below that, they can’t afford to go out a lot. Over that, they may be stuck at home with children. So the material is aimed at younger adult audiences.”

“Rakugo is very ‘clean’,” said Sunshine. “Very family-oriented, so the whole family come; they bring the children.”

The chance of Rakugo dying out is about this…

“Is Rakugo dying out in Japan,” I asked, “with each new generation?”

“No. There are 800 professional storytellers in Japan and they all make a living from it. There’s a huge number of shows going on every day all over Japan, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka, but we travel all over the country all the time.”

“Is there storytelling on Japanese TV?”

“Not too much. Storytellers get on TV in the variety shows.”

“So it is not dying out?”

“No. No chance, though it goes in waves. Maybe every 3 or 4 years, there are TV series looking at Rakugo and that gets people interested again. In terms of the number of storytellers, it’s at its peak right now.”

“Men AND women perform?” I asked.

“It’s traditionally quite a male world, but now more and more women are joining the ranks. Out of the 800 storytellers, there are maybe 40 or 50 women. About 30 years ago there were almost none. In the Osaka Tradition of storytelling, the most senior Master is a woman and she is I think under 60 years old.”

“When you do your shows in Japan,” I asked, “do you see the audience?”

“Yes. One big difference to Western theatre is that, in Japan, we keep the house lights on. You want to see everybody in the audience. The visual communication is very important.”

Sunshine posters in London’s tube

“The lights will be up at the Leicester Square Theatre?”

“Yes.”

“You have,” I said, “posters promoting the show on escalators in Leicester Square tube station.”

“And in Piccadilly Circus station,” said Sunshine. “My dream was always to perform in the West End with posters on the escalators and my face on a London taxi.”

“You have ads on taxis?” I asked.

“Well,” said Sunshine, “to really advertise effectively on a taxi, you need about 200 of them.

“We just got one taxi painted. It is about £250 to have it painted and then something like £200 per month for one taxi plus £75 for one hour with a driver.

Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!”

“So we paid a driver for two hours and just took pictures all round London. So, in terms of social media, the cost to have a Sunshine taxi all over the internet was maybe £600.

“When I put the pictures up in Japan maybe six months ago – six months before these shows in Leicester Square – people were like: Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!

“And,” I said, “the name Leicester Square Theatre will impress the Americans.”

“Yes.”

“You are a very clever man,” I said. “And it is a very nice denim kimono.”

“I designed it myself,” Sunshine told me. “The sleeves are removable so I can change them. I will wear a more traditional kimono on stage.”

I did not ask him about the bowler hat.

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