Tag Archives: comedy

Comedy clubber Martin Besserman on Greta Thunberg, drugs, dead animals…

Martin Besserman runs the long-established Monkey Business Comedy Club in London. He has decided to give profits from four of his shows to a charity…


MARTIN: Everyone knows about the bush fires in Australia – it’s been a bit deflected by other news stories like Donald Trump and the potentiality of World War III, but…

JOHN: Yes, I mean, the smoke from Australia has reached down to New Zealand – That’s about 1,500 miles away!

MARTIN: I have a sister who lives in Australia, so I hear about it first hand. It’s an absolute catastrophe. The fires are burning out of control. Many animals are seriously injured, burnt. Not just kangaroos and koala bears: all the other wildlife and birds too. It’s on such a huge level it’s going to be very challenging to recover from that. With global warming, there could be this issue every single year now.

“Young people can sometimes be more perceptive”

I think it’s the responsibility of every individual to try whatever they can to help defenceless animals. Greta Thunberg is absolutely right; I think she’s an incredible young lady. Some very articulate, persuasive people have tried to trivialise her arguments – to bully her and suggest that she should be a ‘happy’ girl. But this is all fake because she’s a thinker. I think young people can sometimes be more perceptive getting it right, whereas many of the older generation have got their comforts and a lot of their behaviour is selfish.

As she points out, economic growth is not sustainable. There should be another system where we are not competing with each other.

JOHN: Why is economic growth not sustainable?

MARTIN: Because of the result of continuing to dry up our resources. We are seeing it now with, for example, the meat industry. It’s not sustainable because all those animals create so much pollution in addition to the cruelty aspect. There’s the issue of the animals being injected with antibiotics in the industrial meat industry now. That’s the reason why people are becoming immune to antibiotics and getting very sick.

JOHN: That doesn’t affect economic being sustainable or not though, does it?

MARTIN: Well, a limited amount of economic growth is healthy. But the way it’s going on, obviously, is not. We are seeing catastrophes all over the world. Floods and fires. We can’t continue like this. We rely, for example on Bangladeshi workers but, inevitably, Bangladesh might not operate with the way things are going. It’s a flat country and they have many natural disasters.

The rain in Bangladesh stays mainly where it falls…

JOHN: Well, Bangladesh is a terrible place to have a country. You look at it on a map and it’s basically a delta. When I landed at Dacca Airport, I thought the whole area had been hit by terrible floods – all the fields were flooded and there was water lapping the edge of the runway – but I was told this was normal!

Surely you can’t stop economic growth?

The Chinese are never going to sign up for that.

MARTIN: Well, yes, the Chinese don’t care and Australia, in fact, is one of the largest polluters in the world.

JOHN: All that matters is how China and India develop.

MARTIN: But unless we actually stop to digest what’s going on and consider having less ‘stuff’ in our life – less stuff connected with capitalism and things we don’t really need, especially plastics – we will suffer in the end and we are already seeing it. These are the very early stages of what could be a world catastrophe and it will be a lot more expensive to put it right in the future than to put things right now.

JOHN: But try telling that to the poor in China and India.

MARTIN: That’s obviously very, very hard, especially when you’ve got somebody like Trump in power. Because nobody really rules the world, do they? But, coming back to the issues in Australia…

“The New Year’s Eve fireworks display was costing £3 million”

I’m a huge animal lover, as you know. I was furious when I heard the New Year’s Eve fireworks display in Sydney was costing £3 million – for 30 minutes of excitement and fun!

I personally think all fireworks should be banned all over the world. A lot of animals are very frightened of the noise and really do suffer. It’s very selfish. Man just does not care. It’s something I could never condone. £3 million could have been used to fight the fires or assist more animals.

JOHN: But, in reality, it wouldn’t have been, would it?

MARTIN: Well, you can never tell if money is going to go to the right cause. It does require a bit of research. That’s why, before making this decision to donate 100% of these Monkey Business gigs’ profits, I looked into reputable organisations and several people, including my sister, recommended Wires, an animal help organisation in Australia who are going round rescuing and treating animals. They’re very active, reputable and totally dedicated.

JOHN: Which are the shows that are raising money?

MARTIN: Last Saturday’s, tomorrow’s (Thursday) which is a new act night, Friday which is a cabaret night and Saturday which has big names. 100% of all profits will go to Wires.

JOHN: Surely suffering people should get precedence over animals?

Martin Besserman was down the market

MARTIN: I don’t buy that argument. I’m disillusioned with people.

JOHN: Human beings have been a great disappointment to me.

MARTIN: There are nice people. But there are many not-nice people. With animals… Some people say: “Well, animals eat other animals”. But they only do it for survival and that does not include all animals. The reality is that animals have benefitted Man in many many ways. Dogs and cats are now taken to hospitals to be with people who are terminally ill. Dogs help the blind; they can sniff out cancers; I think we underestimate their value. They give life some meaning and it’s important we don’t only think of ourselves.

JOHN: So you would donate to an animal charity, but you would not give money to cancer research for humans…?

MARTIN: No, no. Definitely not. Some cancer research involves torturing animals. I could never condone that.

JOHN: But if you don’t try out the cures on animals, then you might release drugs that might damage human beings.

MARTIN: I don’t buy that argument at all. There are many good alternatives. Why not use volunteers from prisons if they are prepared to volunteer for shorter sentences?

JOHN: Thalidomide happened because it wasn’t tested enough.

Martin Besserman – armed with good food

MARTIN: It might also have happened because it WAS tested and we are quite different from a mouse. So I don’t buy that argument. And the vast majority of drugs are not very effective. There is a huge debate, for example, about statins. I’m of the opinion they are not good for people, having done my research. Many people have muscular problems as a result of taking them.

All of this is to keep the pharmaceutical companies happy and rich as opposed to treating people comprehensibly.

JOHN: I’m always a bit unsettled we are said to be so close to rats.

MARTIN: We are definitely closer to pigs. Apparently, we have the same digestive system.

JOHN: Pigs have a bad rep. Apparently they are very intelligent and, left to their own devices, are very clean.

MARTIN: Yeah.

JOHN: The trouble is they taste so good. I have no moral defence about eating meat. You are a vegetarian?

Greggs’ now has meatless steaks

MARTIN: A vegetarian – almost vegan. In the UK, people are increasingly deserting meat-eating.

JOHN: When I was a kid, if you went past a butcher’s shop, they would have half an opened, gutted-out pig hanging up. That would cause offence now.

MARTIN: I remember years ago, when I worked in the market, there were dead rabbits hanging in the window and it really did upset the children.

JOHN: When did you stop eating meat? Was there a Road to Damascus, if that’s the right phrase?

MARTIN: I just realised it was not morally defensible.

JOHN: So you went vegetarian for moral not health reasons?

MARTIN: Yes, though the health benefits are…

JOHN: I had a friend who went into Canton free market in China in the 1980s. She went in a meat eater and came out a vegetarian. She said it was the owls that did it. The pussy cats too. But the owls in cages staring at her with their big eyes, waiting to be killed.

MARTIN: Yes, I think anyone thinking about giving up meat should certainly visit a slaughter yard.

JOHN: I have no moral defence at all. So what WAS your turning point?

MARTIN: I just worked it out. I thought about it.

JOHN: I’m sure, in 20 or 50 years time, the idea of eating meat or even seeing dead animal meat displayed in shops will seem stomach-churning.

Pret a Manger introduced a vegan croissant

MARTIN: Some people say we will be embarrassed that we ever engaged in meat-eating. Whether that will happen in China or not, I don’t know. But certainly in Europe I think we are becoming more and more concerned.

JOHN: In the 1960s, vegetarians were seen as freaks. And more recently – maybe the early 2000s – vegetarians were seen as OK but vegans were seen as freaks. And now vegans are becoming mainstream.

MARTIN: Absolutely. The world is changing and it has to change.

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Filed under Australia, Charity, climate change, global warming, vegan, vegetarian

Comic Scott Capurro on comedians who lie and Gordon Brown’s hot handshake

29 days ago – yes, 29 days ago – I chatted to American comedian Scott Capurro in London, after one of the Museum of Comedy’s Monday Club ‘new material’ nights. Then I got busy and/or distracted and/or just plain lazy. I have no excuse. But here it is, 29 days later…


SCOTT: It’s great to write new material. It’s really, really exciting. And I think the audience enjoys seeing us crush and then being crushed. They like to see us fail. It’s fun. And we enjoy watching each other fail on stage because the process of what we do – creating comedy – has to have an element of failure in it, otherwise it’s never going to work.

You will never find the joke in it unless you are able to tell it five or ten or twenty times on stage in front of somebody to find out where the humour is. We will famously rehearse something for days and think: This is perfect now; I’ll bring it in… and it doesn’t get a laugh. Not a whisper. Because to us it’s funny but, to a roomful of strangers who don’t know us, they don’t get it.  So you gotta make it accessible to a roomful of people who don’t know you – again and again and again.

It’s tough for comedians, because it’s hard to remember that what you do is difficult. Even though you know it’s a speciality and a very specific talent to take something like the stabbings on London Bridge and turn that into what has gotta be a joke. The only place where you can deal with it immediately after is on the comedy stage.

JOHN: So the relationship between the stand-up comic and the audience is…?

Scott Capurro (left) in London with his husband Edson

SCOTT: There has to be a moment where the audience remembers that the lights are pointed not at them, but at that solitary figure on that piece of the wood. And the problem I think with the current way we discourse through phones and iPads and so on is we don’t make eye contact.

I find myself now, when I’m talking to people in an audience, if they’re under the age of 25 and I make eye-contact with them, they are a little bit wary of me. And that can be difficult because, to them, a punchline sounds old-fashioned – something their bigoted uncle tells at a wedding when he’s drunk.

The focus of comedy has shifted a bit and my job now is to find a way to make what I do accessible to those people as well. There is no point blocking them out or saying they don’t get it or they’re ‘too woke’ or they’re ‘too PC’ or too ANYthing.

People are in a comedy club for a reason: they want to laugh. So you have to allow them the chance to do that.

JOHN: But that is, as you say, difficult…

SCOTT: And it SHOULD be a difficult struggle or else the audience is gonna know what’s gonna happen next. When I go see a comedian, what I find cynical is when I find them predictable or they seem lazy on stage and the audience knows where it’s going. What I think is great about live performance or really any performance I like is that I don’t want to know what’s round the corner.

Now, in this country and especially in comedy for some reason, it has become difficult sometimes to deal with certain subjects.

I was in Stoke at the weekend and told some jokes about Stoke terrorism.

JOHN: Stoke terrorism?

SCOTT: Well that guy who stabbed those people on London Bridge. I told some jokes and they got quiet, but it’s my job. I would not be doing my job if I didn’t do that.

JOHN: You started a podcast recently…

SCOTT: Scott Capurro Probes – I just talk to writers, comics, politicians – people that present their work publicly.

JOHN: Politicians? Like…?

“I got a real tingle from his handshake.” (Copyright: World Economic Forum)

SCOTT: I really want to interview Gordon Brown. I met him backstage at the Hay Festival. I had just met my (future) husband the year before and we were thinking of getting married. I think it was around 2009; Gordon Brown was Prime Minister at the time. He had some really handsome bodyguards.

I shook hands with him. He’s a really big guy. He’s very attractive in person. I found him extremely attractive to talk to. Just five minutes, but really funny, charming and affable and very self-deprecating. On camera, I don’t think his warmth comes across as much as it does in life.

We had shared a stage but not at the same time. A lot of the audience who had seen him in the afternoon stayed to watch me in the evening.

On stage in the afternoon, he had praised Tony Blair and I found out later the audience had not responded very well to that.

Not having seen that afternoon performance, I spoke about what a hero Tony Blair was to me. And the audience… I don’t think they turned on me, but they were not as receptive as I normally find an audience of Guardian readers to be. I was quite surprised by their response and then a woman who still writes for the Guardian wrote a SCATHING review of my performance. It upset me for years.

But people forget that, to gay men – even now – Tony Blair is a hugely iconic supportive figure, because he introduced marriage equality. That was a big deal for us. Huge. And he says it is still a shining moment of his legacy and he still thinks very proudly of it.

People also forget that, at a lot of Gay Pride functions, Tony Blair showed up as Prime Minister. That was a big deal to us. That had not happened before.

So, however smug or supercilious or middle class you want to be, watching me, thinking that you can judge me because I happen to be a supporter of Tony Blair, you can fuck off. That’s kind of what I told them that night.

I really admired Gordon Brown. I got a real tingle from his handshake. He held it for a while. I thought: This guy’s really hot. He’s gonna win! He’s gonna win!… And then it all went sour and here we are now.

JOHN: Are you doing a podcast because it allows you to be more serious? So you don’t have to do gag-gag-gag?

SCOTT: No. I just like chat. In comedy, I am very gag oriented. I am very jokey.

JOHN: You are very fast.

SCOTT: I don’t write set-ups. I tend to just tell punchlines for 25 or 30 minutes. When I first came over from the US and was playing the UK, I was very much nicer and, when I started breaking the mainstream, I felt I had to buffer. But I don’t buffer jokes now. I don’t at all. 

JOHN: Define ‘buffer’.

SCOTT: A set-up.

There’s a traditional joke set-up. You set the joke up. You do an example. And then you tell a punch.

My mother is tough. When I was a kid, she did this to me. And… PUNCH.

I understand that structure and it’s something audiences are very comfortable with. It’s familiar. But now I skip the first two parts. I just tell the punches.

Joan Rivers – Life in Progress at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe

I learned about ten years ago how to do it, watching Joan Rivers at the Edinburgh Fringe. And then I read an interview with her where she said: “I only pay comics for the punchlines; I never ask for the set-ups.”

I thought: That’s interesting. If you only told the punchlines in a set, I wonder how many you could squeeze in. That’s what the audience is here to hear. I mean, I don’t think they give a shit about my politics or my personal response to things.

JOHN: Don’t they?

SCOTT: I think, in Edinburgh, you can break that mould and do more personal stuff. It’s actually expected of you now in Edinburgh. They want a journey. They want you to be fingered or some sort of lie.

JOHN: Lie?

SCOTT: Yeah. 

JOHN: Explain?

SCOTT: Well, at least two shows that have done very well recently, I’ve been told by the premise-creators that they weren’t true… But, oh well. It’s a show anyway. Just a show.

JOHN: So they were telling a…

SCOTT: That’s all I’ll say about it.

JOHN: Comedians are paid to go on stage and tell lies…

SCOTT: They are. But if the show is based round something and you then talk about that thing seriously in public… (PAUSE) but it’s still just a story… I find that… (PAUSE) You know what, though? You are giving people what they want.

I mean, I saw a show in preview last year and, when the artist came off stage, the artist’s management said: “You didn’t put that thing in about your father dying…” And this artist said: “I didn’t think it was necessary.” And they said: “You need to put it back in if you want to get nominated.”

And I thought: That’s fine. Why not put it in? Why not write jokes about it? That’s our job… But then I thought: But you need to let the artist do their progression. I don’t want administrative staff stepping in and telling me what creativity is.

So that’s all.

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Filed under Comedy, Gay, political correctness, Politics

Performer Lynn Ruth Miller tastes life in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur

Lynn Ruth Miller concludes her 4-blog jaunt around SouthEast Asia…


I was in Singapore to open for Jinx Yeo, a young man who has become a hit in Asia. Wherever I go in this part of the world, the bookers know and respect him. He lived in London for a short time hoping to make a profitable career but his mother died and he returned to Singapore. Here he is a name and does corporate gigs as well as conventional stand-up performances.

The show was held at The Merry Lion. The place had been refurbished since I was there last. It used to be a very plain, no-frills place that looked more like an upstairs meeting room with a bar, but now it is painted with caricatures of comedians on the wall and a cute little lion to decorate the stage. The lighting has improved, as well.  

All this is thanks to Aidan Killian who took over direct management of the place several months ago. The Merry Lion now looks like a proper comedy club and since it does performances every night it will soon become the major club in Singapore. It is the place for both local and traveling comedians to get a good audience, proper payment and have a good, well-supported show.  

“Audience was large but anxious to laugh”

I opened for Jinx and did a 30-minute set. The audience was large but anxious to laugh and the response was wonderful. I stayed to hear Jinx because I love his comedy.  

The thing I have to remember is that comedy is artistry with words and Jinx is performing in his second language, while I  am using my native tongue. That anyone can get laughs in a foreign tongue is amazing to me, yet I know many comedians do this: Eddie Izzard, Des Bishop to name two 

I returned the next evening to do my solo show I Never Said I Was Nice and there were about 30 people there, most of them ex-pats. I did the show to ecstatic response, which was not easy because the first act was filled with novice comedians who, nice as they are as people, had not mastered the art of stand-up enough to connect with this audience.   

The exciting thing for me was that I was able to pick up a totally dead and very tired audience and make them laugh.

I got up at 6:30am the next day because Gary Tan, my wonderful friend, fellow comedian and taxi driver, wanted to be sure I caught the plane to Kuala Lumpur.

My plane was late (of course it was) and when I arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport I was met by Neal Kang, a 19-year-old Communication student whose brother Nat is a comedian and who had conned him into waiting several hours at the airport until I finally arrived. 

Neal goes to an international school. He and his family only speak English at home although he can also speak Malay. His parents are both Chinese but each one speaks a different dialect. Actually, his father is Indian but he was abandoned as a child and a Chinese couple adopted him.

“They have no sex education… No-one knows how to use a condom” (Photograph by Tim J)

Neal filled me in on the inadequate educational system in Kuala Lumpur  “They have no sex education,” he said.  “No-one knows how to use a condom.”

At 15? They are doing it? And using condoms? And this is a Muslim country ruled by Sharia Law?  

One of the required subjects is Morals (?) and, unless you pass it, you cannot get out of high school    

In ‘Morals’, they teach you the basic rules of politeness that our parents taught us in Western countries. 

The laws appear very restrictive but they do not seem to limit people’s lives. For example, you can only divorce if the man approves.  

Many couples separate and do not divorce unless the woman finds someone else and wants to marry him. In that case, they have to pay the first husband money to get him to approve the divorce.  

If the man wants to remarry, he can initiate a divorce with no problem.  

Abortion is illegal but still people do it.  

Being gay is illegal but there is a very large gay population in Kuala Lumpur.  

If you are a Muslim, you must abide by Sharia law but, if you are not, you need not worry.  

The Chinese in Malaysia are considered the wealthy faction of the population and the Indians are suspect.  

I do a joke where I say, “I say something no black person ever says: The policeman is my friend.  When I did my set at the Crack House in Kuala Lumpur, I changed ‘black’ to ‘brown’. It got a huge laugh. 

Kuala Lumpur traffic (Photo by Timothy Tan via UnSplash)

The traffic in Kuala Lumpur is horrid but not as bad as Jakarta.

Still, it took two hours to get from the airport to my hotel and I had just enough time to unpack, grab some food and get dressed for the gig that night.  

Neal’s brother Nat picked me up along with Prakash, the MC for the evening and an amazing performer.   

That night, a huge contingent from Starbucks Coffee came to the show and drank a lot of liquid that was not coffee. The entire audience was one of the best I have ever seen and the four comedians (all men) who made up the first act were unbelievably funny. Every comedian was spot on. I thought: Thank God there is an interval because I could never follow that much laughter.

I did 45 minutes in the second half and it went down to thunderous applause.  Afterwards, all the comedians stayed to drink, dance and chat. It was lovely to see how they all form a very close supportive community.

The next day I met a magnificent, seasoned cabaret performer, Joanne Kam. It was her birthday but SHE took ME to lunch. She has been performing for over thirty years so she initiated the comedy cabaret scene in Kuala Lumpur.  

She is a single mother but has managed to create a very respected and well-paid niche for herself in her part of the world. She must have had huge and daunting blocks to overcome: a woman performing in a male-dominated culture. But she has obviously won her game. She puts on her own shows and packs houses with hundreds of patrons. She is amazing and more important a very kind, giving human being. I never felt any sense of competition with either Joanne or any of the comedians I worked with in Kuala Lumpur and the standard there is exceptionally high. 

After Joanne dropped me off at my hotel, I met Jai and Mark, (with their one-year-old Elezer), a couple I met in London two years ago. We have kept in touch and they also were with me when I did the Merry Lion in Singapore.  

I am beginning to have friends I look forward to seeing again in every country I visit and that makes these trips even more exciting and rewarding.

I Never Said I Was Nice…

And then it was time for the grand finale of my trip to Southeast Asia.  

I did I Never Said I Was Nice – my one hour show – as the second half of the show at the Crack House and it was a hit. Thank goodness for that.  

After the show, all the comedians went out with me for a late dinner and wonderful talk about the meaning of being human, what love is about and why we do comedy. I have to say this comes pretty close to being THE most exciting evening of my life (so far, of course.)  

Wherever we live, whatever we believe, we all share similar goals and aspirations.  

I had a friend from St Petersburg who once told me: “Everybody needs a place to live, to stay warm and eat delicious.”

I guess that says it all.  

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Filed under Comedy, Malaysia, Singapore, Travel

Lynn Ruth Miller on comedy in Singapore, London and Edinburgh

In immediately preceding blogs, she wrote about performing comedy in Cambodia, then in Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi and Jakarta. Now London-based American Lynn Ruth Miller continues in Part 3 of a 4-part blog…


My next stop was Singapore.

The comedy scene there is not a good one in which to polish your craft. The open mike opportunities are sparse and, unlike London or even San Francisco, the only audiences at these events are other comedians and that is no way to judge if your comedy has a broad appeal.  

When I had been doing comedy for seven years I had already been elevated to paying gigs and could improve by listening to the reaction I got from larger more diverse audiences  

In Singapore, they have only two outlets.  

Umar Rana runs Masala and he always has international headliners. He is very good at employing locals, but his shows are only once a week and he cannot have the same person week after week. That means there is little opportunity to practice your craft with a real audience. There are too many comedians and too few slots to fill.  

The Merry Lion began two years ago and is not as established. I was very interested to see if it had improved. It had been a very basic room with few comforts or amenities when I last performed there. 

The result of this paucity of opportunity – only two outlets – is that the ‘big’ names here are not that effective in the larger international scene. 

Here they are local headliners; in European venues throughout the world they are mediocre at best.  

Comedians in Singapore who feel they have an edge want to go to the Edinburgh Fringe to get reviews and make an international name for themselves.  

I find that appalling because they do not understand the true nature of what the Edinburgh Fringe has become.  

It will cost them an inordinate amount of money. The cost of getting a show listed and advertising it – even if they are part of the Free Fringe or Free Festival – is very high. 

They will be paying twice as much for food and three times as much for lodging as they would anywhere else in the world. The reviews they receive for the most part will be by amateur reviewers hired for no pay by the reviewing outlets who do not understand the challenges of doing comedy in your second language. 

They may very well fill the house in Edinburgh (although I have my doubts about that) but, when they launch their career internationally, it founders because they are simply not sharp  or experienced enough.  

And that is not because they are not funny.

It is because, despite what people think, it takes years and years to polish a set so it has universal appeal.  

I have been doing this for 16 years and I have a natural talent for comedy. Yet, I am still far from there… and I have had plenty of opportunities to practice and to work on my delivery.

People in this part of Asia do not have those outlets. 

Furthermore, standup comedy has become a business. You have to have a name that people recognize if you are to be booked at the major clubs who make a profit from their shows.  

That becomes a Catch-22 situation because you cannot get that name unless you have the opportunity to perform and those chances are given to people who are already established.  

I always tell comedians that they have to truly love doing what we do for its own sake. This is easy enough for me to say because I am on a pension and only have myself to support. If you have a family and expensive tastes, I do not know what to advise. It is true that money can get you pretty far in the field but then even kids with rich daddies (and I see far too many of them on the scene) grind to a halt.   

Stand up comedy has changed my own life for the better. I am not sure even now if this is an individual thing because my previous life was such an unflushed toilet or something I can say will happen to anyone who devotes himself to it. 

…CONTINUED HERE
IN SINGAPORE and KUALA LUMPUR

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Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, London, Singapore, Travel

Dragos, “the David Jason of Romania”, on comedy styles and the revolution…

Dragoş Moştenescu first appeared in this blog back in 2017 and in 2018,

When I try to explain who Dragos is, I tend to say he is the Romanian equivalent of UK TV star David Jason with a touch of Elton John. In other words, he is indescribable – in a good sense! We are talking an international level of top entertainer here.

On Sunday (15th December) he is performing his full-length stage show All Aboard for Christmas! in London, so we met up at the Soho Theatre Bar for a chat. Towards the end, we got interrupted by another performer…


JOHN: You’ve already performed All Aboard! at the Leicester Square Theatre in London and at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. So now you are going to stage it…

DRAGOS: …every three or four months. My next aim – which turns out to be not that easy – is to find an agent – I don’t expect to be ‘big overnight’! – Someone to provide work at least constantly. Perhaps not daily but maybe weekly. What I do is very suitable for let’s say private parties – playing the piano; my Elton John thing. ..

JOHN: Corporate gigs you would be ideal for.

DRAGOS: Exactly. I am realistic.

JOHN: What would be a good step for you?

DRAGOS: A three minute song on a morning TV show. Three minute songs on radio shows. Three minutes here and there.

JOHN: You are more of an hour-long solo show performer but you can also do 5 and 10 minute spots…

DRAGOS: Yes. If you have 5 minutes of material, it is very difficult to extend it to 10 or 20 minutes; but, when you have 60 minutes, it is easier to extract 5, 10 and 20 minute routines. But they are different styles.

JOHN: (I NAME ANOTHER PERFORMER) does great one-hour shows and, in fact, I’ve seen (THE OTHER PERFORMER) do brilliant two-hour solo shows, but they are never going to be on BBC TV on Live at the Apollo, because The Apollo wants gag-gag-gag, punchline-punchline-punchline.

Five-minute acts tend to be full of quick gag punchlines.

DRAGOS: Exactly. It is very difficult to catch the audience within five minutes and keep them. You need to use one-liners and I respect that and salute it. But, when you are doing a 60-minute show, you cannot have the audience punched every minute. You have to bring people into the story… A beginning, a punchline or two or three and sections and an end and maybe you draw a conclusion from the story. The pace has to be different.

The trend is for stand-ups which I am not… entirely.

What I want now is not even money. I want people to be aware I can bring an hour of ‘light’ entertainment and people will go home more content, more relaxed and re-charged like a battery for work the next day.

JOHN: You must have had to learn what sense of humour British audiences want. 

DRAGOS: When I came here, I didn’t use any of my Romanian routines. When I first started in Britain, one routine I had was about people lacking money and being in a shopping mall where money was flying around but it didn’t work with the audiences. People were laughing reluctantly. They didn’t relate. 

Someone told me: “Everybody in the world needs more money but it is not an issue for us. We are not that poor. Not comedy audiences. They can put food on their tables. They can travel around the country or even the world. So people do not personally relate to being poor in comedy routines.”

But the rent in London is not low and audiences can personally identify with that. So I have a song about it and, at the end, I have sometimes had standing ovations. Especially if there are a lot of young people in the audience. They identify – Shared house, high rent, poor living conditions.

Dragoş created, wrote, produced and starred in Romania’s first television sitcom after the Revolution – La Bloc

JOHN: What is the sense of humour in Romania?

DRAGOS:
We still tend to laugh about what British people used to laugh about 20 or 30 years ago – the disabled, drunken people, less-minded guys…

JOHN: Punching down.

DRAGOS: Exactly.

JOHN: And now, in Britain, we punch up not down.

DRAGOS: Yes. But, on the internet, I have seen shows from 20 or 30 years ago and it was the same here in Britain. People laughed at different things then.

JOHN: Did Romanian TV charge after Ceausescu was overthrown?

DRAGOS: Under Ceausescu, there were only three hours of television per night.

JOHN: And that was mostly about what Ceausescu had done that day.

DRAGOS: Yes. And occasional Romanian movies. And, once a week we had an international – specifically American – film. That is why Romanians speak English with an American accent. The only foreign languages we heard were French, a bit of Russian and a lot of American.

JOHN: And television after Ceausescu…?

DRAGOS:
He fled with his helicopter and his entourage on 22nd December 1989 and landed at a cabin in the mountains. But he was captured and he and his wife were shot on Christmas Day.

JOHN: And, after that, television changed…?

DRAGOS: The revolution caught them unprepared. They had no regulations about what you could show on TV. They transmitted an uncensored Romanian film with nudity at 8 o’clock at night and…

(…AT THIS POINT, PERFORMER NARIN OZ ARRIVED IN THE SOHO THEATRE BAR…)

JOHN: (TO NARIN) Do you know Dragos? You should go and see his show at the Hen & Chickens on Sunday.

NARIN: I can’t. I’m filming in a horror movie. I play Death. I’m the villain.

JOHN: That’s typecasting. It’s the evil eyes. Dragos is the David Jason of Romania. Ask him something.

Narin Oz unexpectedly arrived during my chat with Dragos at the Soho Theatre Bar in London

NARIN: What’s your background?

DRAGOS: I graduated in engineering from the University of Timișoara, where the Romanian revolution started. in 1989.

JOHN: You were there?

DRAGOS: Yes. I was there in the beginning. Things expanded dramatically. Within four days, there was blood on the streets. We didn’t have weapons. We had the mentality at that time to go out bare-handed and, as they say, bare-chested. But I wasn’t that crazy. When things changed and became quite serious, I ran. I ran and I was kind of a prisoner in the students’ area.

Nothing was working. Not the public transportation, not the trains, not nothing. I was blocked up to about the 24th December. The spark was on 18th December and rolled over and smashed all the country, but it ended up in Bucharest within two or three days on 21st of December and, on 22nd, Ceausescu fled, then was killed on 25th. They call us religious people, but we killed our leader on Christmas Day: come on!

NARIN: So your show is about Romania…

DRAGOS: No. Not at all. I just put all that in brackets – what I just said.

NARIN: Those are very big brackets. Is it a tragedy or a comedy?

JOHN: It’s not a comedy show as such. It has comedy but with lots of music. It’s like an old-time variety show but solo.

DRAGOS: Though I think, when you walk away, you have some ideas and a conclusion maybe?

NARIN: Are you singing?

DRAGOS: Yes. Singing and playing the piano and comedy.

JOHN: Songs you have written yourself.

DRAGOS: Ten songs written especially for the show.

JOHN: And a bit of Elton John.

“A serious piece of music… an impersonation of Elton John.”

DRAGOS: Yes. That is a more serious piece of music. I do an impersonation of Elton John. (HE SHOWS A VIDEO ON HIS PHONE)

NARIN: You’re a bit of a legend.

JOHN: He is. Twenty years daily on television. Multiple series. And he wrote and produced and starred in this sitcom which…

DRAGOS: That was the first sitcom ever in Romania because, before 1989 and the overthrow of Ceausescu, we didn’t have such entertainment there. Then, after ten years of importing Seinfeld and Married With Children, we started our own sitcom on Pro TV – a private one, like ITV here. It lasted for ten years and 524 episodes.

JOHN: Produced and written by you…

DRAGOS: Well, there was a whole team of writers…

JOHN: But mainly you…

DRAGOS: Yes, because I created the idea; so I was like the head writer; I would re-touch and revise a little bit and I also acted in it.

NARIN: So, why did you come here? You were known there. You had everything.

DRAGOS: Yes, but I felt I needed somewhere to go and something to do NEXT. When you become very comfortable within your situation, that can lead to lack of inspirational creativity.

I have built up this new stage show and now I am struggling to get it going because I am in-between worlds.

Romanians in Britain would come to see me but, when they find out the show is in English… Not many have perfect English, especially the guys who just come here to work, to get some money to build something back in Romania. In London, there are doctors, lawyers and others who have been here about ten years and speak good English, but…

NARIN: Why don’t you do a Romanian language show?

DRAGOS: I have. But it’s not what I came here for. When I address things in English, I have to have a British audience. And the non-Romanian, English-speaking audience do not know me at the moment. I’m not complaining.  This is the normal way to do it. To build a new audience. 

NARIN: You could do, say, a 4-day run with two shows in Romanian and two in English.

DRAGOS: I could, but doing the same show in English and in Romanian doesn’t work. The topics are slightly different. With the Romanian shows I have to be very specific with Romanian references and culture. Every other month, we have a 2-hour Romanian show with various acts.

But I want to move on, move up.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, Romania

Comic Nathan Lang: “Self-loathing is not normal unless you are a comedian”

Nathan Lang is from Melbourne. He used to appear in the Australian TV soap Neighbours. But I know him from the London stand-up comedy circuit.

I got an email from him:

“For better or worse, I’m back in the UK. Yes I managed to have a baby in Perth and survive the existential breakdown that comes with living in the most isolated city in the world and now I’m back. 

“I’m running a Comedy Cabaret in aid of Hackney Winter Night Shelter again this year on Tuesday 3rd December. The line up is fantastic. Last year we sold out and raised much more money than expected, it’s a really wonderful night deep in the heart of artsy Hackney Wick.

“It’s not stand-up. The line-up a beautiful, colourful, lighthearted, crazy, unique acts that don’t do stand-up.”

So we had a chat. About two weeks ago.

And I have only just transcribed it.

I got severely side-tracked.

The charity cabaret is tomorrow. Mea Culpa. But, as with many of my blogs, we went way-off subject anyway…


Nathan, baby Chilli and Shelley Lang in Australia

NATHAN: My wife Shelley and I went to Perth on 25th November 2018 to have a baby. Shelley’s family live there. They emigrated from Scotland.

JOHN: I remember I was terribly impressed by your wife when I met her ages ago. Perhaps because she’s Scottish.

NATHAN: Because she’s Scottish, she is a radiant beauty and just the most exhilarating person. That’s definitely what impresses me about her.

JOHN: How long were you back in Australia?

NATHAN: Eight months. We came back on the 9th September 2019. Our daughter is ten months old now.

JOHN: Shelley must have been well-progressed in pregnancy when you got there.

NATHAN: We just scraped in. We really needed the family support and the health care in Australia is really amazing. 

JOHN: And the comedy?

NATHAN: The comedy scene in Perth is stand-up. A very small scene, but the standard is really high. The quality really pushed me to improve quite a lot. It’s similar to a Brighton crowd. They go out; they want to have a really good evening of laughs. Great audiences and one pro comedy club. Just stand-up. It’s stand-up or cabaret there and their version of cabaret is really highly-skilled circus acts who take their clothes off.

JOHN: I want to go there.

NATHAN: Then it’s probably worth that 30-hour journey. 

JOHN: Australia is a faraway place.

NATHAN: And Perth is the most isolated city in the world and it feels like it too.

JOHN: So what are you doing on 4th December, the day after your Hackney charity gig?

NATHAN: That’s my day with chilli.

JOHN: With what?

NATHAN: That’s my day with Chilli – my daughter – Her name is Chilli Bobcat.

JOHN: She’s going to get hell in school with those names.

NATHAN: I was going to call her Strawberry until a friend said: “Remember she’ll go to school one day.”

JOHN: So Bobcat is better?

NATHAN: My middle name is Luke.

JOHN: Biblical?

NATHAN: No, my father used to work for a company that distributed cutlery and our cutlery drawer was full of knives and forks that had ‘Luke’ printed on them… I am named after kitchen cutlery.

JOHN: But, basically, you think Bobcat is a more feminine name than Strawberry?

NATHAN: No, Strawberry was going to be her first name but Shelley came up with the brilliant idea of calling her Chilli – after the pepper – which is a cool name.

JOHN: So why Bobcat…?

NATHAN: On Christmas Day, Shelley and I were sober. She was heavily pregnant. Her Scottish family, obviously, were steaming and we said they could choose a middle name. We had not told them whether it was going to be a boy or girl, so they chose a unisex middle name – Bobbie. But then, knowing her first name, we obviously couldn’t call her Chilli Bobbie.

JOHN: Why?

NATHAN: The rhythm of that and the two double consonants…

JOHN: So Chilli Bobcat is better than Chilli Bobbie?

NATHAN: We squeezed Cat in because my grandmother’s name was Kathleen.

JOHN: Just to recap… You had thought Strawberry was a good name…

NATHAN: Just for a while… Do you know it’s illegal to call your kid ‘Strawberry’ – ‘Fraise’ – in France?

This would be illegal in France if a child (Photo: Irene Kredenets via UnSplash)

JOHN: Why?

NATHAN: Bullying. There is a list of names you cannot call your kid in France – ‘Hitler’ is one of them.

JOHN: Strawberry is on a level with Hitler in France?

NATHAN: It’s child protection. Social Services. For the welfare of the child. They care about their children’s future in France.

JOHN: They don’t want a future generation of fruits?

NATHAN: Who knows. But Chilli Bobcat Lang: it has a nice ring to it.

JOHN: I think the surname lets it down. It’s a bit ordinary after Chilli Bobcat.

NATHAN: She might just call herself CB. Or she might go by a symbol like Prince did for a while. It might be her first squiggle on a piece of paper. Or she might change her name from Bobcat. She might prefer Caracal.

JOHN: Caracal?

NATHAN: It’s a type of cat that lives in the savannah desert. They jump really high and catch birds in mid-air.

JOHN: Anyway, so what ARE you doing after the Hackney charity gig?

NATHAN: I’m always pursuing my acting career.

JOHN: You seem happy.

NATHAN: It’s the anti-depressants.

JOHN: You’re on them?

Nathan Lang at St Pancras station, London

NATHAN: Yeah. You have obviously never lived in Perth.

After my daughter was born, I had a psychological breakdown and was put on very strong anti-depressants immediately and entered into depth psychotherapy analytic psychotherapy – which was well overdue.

JOHN: Because of Perth?

NATHAN: Well, I can’t blame Perth any more than I can blame my parents, really.

JOHN: Why was it long overdue?

NATHAN: It’s not like I had a psychosis or anything. I had a very sudden intensification of what turned out to be a pre-existing condition of depression and anxiety that I had been living with for so many years I just thought it was normal.

But, after speaking to a GP and a therapist, I was led quite quickly to realise it’s not normal to wake up every day under a huge weight, a huge pressure of knowing that everything you do all day is never going to be good enough and you are going to punish yourself for everything at the end of the day as you run through every single thing you’ve said and done in your mind or just drink yourself to sleep.

It’s not normal to exist in every waking – and sleeping – moment in a state of constant self-loathing and believing you’re a worthless piece of shit… unless you are a comedian, in which case of course (LAUGHS) it IS normal.

So… yes… anti-depressants are wonderful… I feel like I got myself back… and I got my joy back.

JOHN: And you are OK now?

NATHAN: I’m able to be an engaged and joyful father. I was really, really worried about what Chilli would absorb. And it was so hard on Shelley. The first few months of being a new mother AND having me falling apart was… I tried my best to hold together but your most intimates see what’s happening.

JOHN: Men are not supposed to get post-natal depression.

NATHAN: Well, they do, though I have never met one who will admit he has. But I don’t think that’s what I had. It was not a sudden, acute affliction. It was just the exacerbation of a feeling that I was already quite familiar with.

JOHN: I guess women get post-natal depression because they suddenly realise the full enormity of what they’ve let themselves in for.

NATHAN: I heard some interviews with British women who suffered postpartum psychosis and they were sectioned immediately after their children were born and those stories were horrendous.

JOHN: Why did you come back to the UK?

NATHAN: Our careers.

JOHN: What is Shelley?

NATHAN: A trainee psychotherapist.

JOHN: That’s useful.

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Filed under Australia, Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology, UK

Lynn Ruth Miller says Amsterdam is not all about marijuana and prostitution…

Lynn Ruth Miller arrives at Schiphol Airport

Lynn Ruth Miller (86 years old physically; in her twenties mentally and creatively) is an American comic and burlesque performer living very happily in London. But she has been off on her travels again, performing in Amsterdam. 

Here she tells all…


Everyone thinks Amsterdam is all about marijuana and prostitution, but that isn’t the way it is for me these days. It could be because my estrogen has flown the coop or I am so small they don’t notice me but my Amsterdam experience is like a warm, fluffy blanket. I always feel like I have just flown into a cozy cloud of senior love even before I land in Schiphol.

While I was waiting for my plane, I met Fred, a man from the south of the Netherlands who does publicity for theatres. He offered to charge my phone but I am a very proper lady and I do not plug into strangers until I am confident I won’t get a shock.  

However, we did have a spirited conversation about Dutch theatre and love. Fred told me why he married his second wife. I asked him why they couldn’t just live together until one or the other of them got bored and he said: “When you love a beautiful woman, (I realized immediately that I was out of the running… but I was still curious) you are so proud that she loves you back that you want to show her off to all your friends and say You see? This gorgeous creature wants only me!

I have to say that was how it was with my father and mother.  

My daddy was a very homely man – short, and stocky with a bad complexion and horn-rimmed glasses. My mama was exquisite. She was a tiny redhead with sparkling blue eyes and she was built like a brick shit-house.  

When my father took her out to a movie or to someone’s home for dinner, he wore my mother like a jewel.

Listening to Fred’s defence of marriage clarified why my two husbands left me so quickly. Obviously, if you are stuck with a dreamy idealist who is flat chested and clomps around the place in sensible shoes, you want to hide her under the carpet as soon as possible.

But I digress.

On the plane, I chatted with Emma who is from Paris, studying economics at UCL in London. She and I bonded over our cream cheese and spinach (that is what the label SAID was in that little sandwich; although it tasted like nothing at all to me) because Emma has a dog named Balthus, a beautiful Jack Russell mix. I am confident that I will be occupying her Parisian guest room in the spring. Oui, in effet.

I understand her bathroom is equipped with a luxury bidet and a hot tub big enough for two. I am thinking Balthus and me, of course… not that I would refuse her father. French men are quite an experience, so I hear.

Amsterdam: “I felt like a miniature Lilliputian among a horde of blonde giants.” (Photograph by Sávio Félix via Unsplash)

As soon as I disembarked from the plane, I felt like a miniature Lilliputian among a horde of blond giants. The average height of a Dutch gentleman is well over 6 feet and the women are all about 5’7”.  

I am now 4’10” and I spend all my time in Amsterdam staring at belt buckles while I make scintillating conversation (in English of course).  

If I am particularly witty (which is all the time) I am often aware of a visible male reaction… and THAT is surprisingly rewarding for me.

I got a cab to take me to my lodging. And that was when I met Mustafa.  

Mustafa’s father escaped from Afghanistan when he was a little tyke of eight years old. His daddy hid out in another country, but he sent Mustafa, his sister and his mother to Amsterdam and followed a couple years later.

Everyone always thinks people who are granted asylum are hysterically grateful for being granted a safe haven in a benevolent foreign land, but we are wrong. Mustafa told he how terrified he was moving to a city filled with tall, blond people he couldn’t understand, who made fun of little brown boys. His mother couldn’t find the foods that comforted him because she had no way of communicating what they were to the local grocer.  

And the weather was abysmal.  

In January, the weather in Holland is a wet, rainy 36 degrees Fahrenheit while in Mustafa’s hometown in Afghanistan it was always a sunny 44.

I was staying in Edo Berger’s guest house this trip.

Nina, Edo’s beautiful wife, met me at the door with Doris, their 14-month-old daughter. The two decided to name their daughter Doris because they wanted her to be able to spell her name. They wanted to keep it simple – only 5 letters. After all, one never knows how intelligent one’s offspring will be.   

They need not have worried about Doris, however. At 14 months, she carries on an only slightly unintelligible conversation, expresses her opinions vociferously and crawls with great energy into toilets, cupboards and under tables.

Nina is an abortion doctor and we discussed the strict limiting laws against abortion in some of the American states.

She explained abortion is not an issue in Holland because anyone can have one whenever they please. However, she recalled when her clinic had to close for a couple months and she read about a woman who had hanged herself.  

“I am pretty sure she was one of my patients,” Nina said.

It was Anna Quinlan who said: “When men legislate for women’s bodies, the coat hangers come out.”  

So do the ropes.  

Take heed all you men who think you know best about a woman’s right to give birth.

That night I was booked to headline at Mezrab, a wonderfully vibrant club in Amsterdam and Mustafa drove me there. He even walked me to the door and, as we made our way together, I thought: Here we two are, a Muslim and a Jew, who just love to be together sharing stories. 

Listen up, Israel and Palestine.

International comedy line-up at the Mezrab club, Amsterdam

Mezrab is a crowded, exciting place to perform comedy.

Their line up is always diverse.  

This time, they had Aidan Killian from Dublin, Henrik Elmer from Sweden, Raul Kohli from Manchester (a foreign country to me) and Jia Yuan from China, now living in Amsterdam.   

On Sunday afternoon, I met Mikaelia a comedian who is originally from Detroit. I was born a mere 40 miles away in Toledo, Ohio, a town that borders a dead great lake, Lake Erie. The town fathers there were so upset to have this polluted dead body of water on their shore that in 2018 they passed a law creating a Bill of Rights for the lake. They agreed that their residents were deliberately dumping garbage into the dead lake and letting objectionable creatures pollute it.

Would that they would pass a similar law for their politics.

Ohio was one of the states that gave the world Donald Trump, a man one of my friends refers to as That Orange Turd.

Mikaelia and I went to the Amsterdam Affordable Art Fair and I was shocked at how different the art was there from the same fair in London.  

Although the London Affordable Art Fair is always very original and interesting, the one in Amsterdam had a completely different definition of what visual art can be.

There were many three dimensional pieces, many that used unusual optical illusions, a great deal of photography combined with paint and collage. It was a spectacular exhibition.

Comedy Cafe, Amsterdam: “always filled with tourists…”

But, in Amsterdam, the frosting on the cake for me is always my gigs at The Comedy Café run by Tim van’t Hul, a very capable comedian in his own right. He will be coming to London to make everyone here laugh at the beginning of January.  

His shows are always filled with tourists, which means I can do the same set over and over without boring anyone but myself. Sunday was especially good with a packed house and a lot of funny men on stage. Sadly no women in the line up except me and, at my age, I think I am more neutral.

My plane left on Monday and Mustafa drove me to the airport for my good-bye gift.  It was both beautiful and touching to share life experiences with this very young man who had endured far more trauma in his life that I have yet to see, yet is so generous with his time and so kind to old ladies.  

In many ways, our friendship should be an example of what can happen in this angry turbulent world of ours to make it a more comfortable place to live. Recycling isn’t the only way to make our lives better.

The plane was an hour late. Evidently, KLM has a problem with timetables. I am guessing their schedule is Jewish.

I did arrive home in London in time to have two very lovely men cook me a vegetarian dinner.

I now have two blissful weeks in London basking in the autumn downpours and debilitating winds, until I hurry off to sunshine and political unrest in Southeast Asia.  

The bug spray has been purchased and I am so ready to sweat.

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Filed under Comedy, Holland, Humor, Humour, Uncategorized

Romina – Il Puma Londinese – with English variety and multilingual comedy

Romina – Il Puma Londinese – is back with a vengeance

Romina Puma used to run a fortnightly Italian language comedy night in London – Il Puma Londinese. I blogged about it in 2014.

She stopped in 2016.

But now she is back with more than one show.

This week, on Monday (tonight) there is The Puma Goes Wild at the Craft Beer Co in Islington. (It’s really more like in Angel).

On the next four Wednesdays, there is filming at the same Islington venue of an Italian-language show for the internet.

And, on 28th November, there is another Il Puma Londinese show at The Colonel Fawcett in Camden.

So I chatted to Romina…


JOHN: Il Puma Londinese ran until October 2016 then stopped. Why?

ROMINA: Giada Garofalo had been helping me with the night and she went back to Italy. I was too tired. I needed a break. And when I came back from the Edinburgh Fringe last year, I said: I’m not going to do comedy any more! 

JOHN: But now you’re back again. What made you start again in September this year?

ROMINA: Well, it’s what you like to do and you miss it after a while and you need to carry on. It was a show I did in December 2018 for Radu Isac, the Romanian comic. He had a free slot in one of his shows and asked me to perform all in Italian. It went really well.

JOHN: So Il Puma Londinese is back again in Camden on 28th November with stand-up acts in Italian and in English. 

ROMINA: Yes.

JOHN: But The Puma Goes Wild – The shows in Islington/Angel. They’re not straight stand-up comedy shows…

ROMINA: I wanted to do something different. So I am the only stand-up. The others are all surreal, weird, character, impro, sketch – all other styles. I’m trying to create an English/British following because, before, my audience were mostly Italian.

JOHN: And the Puma Goes Wild nights are in English.

ROMINA: Well, they can perform in any language they like. French, English, Italian, Spanish – any language. If it’s that type of comedy – surreal, impro – people will more-or-less understand in any language. Whereas, with stand-up, you need to know the language.

So far, I’ve always had an improv group who perform in Italian. All the others have been in English, including me.

JOHN: Would mime groups perform in English?

ROMINA: I still haven’t had a mime.

JOHN: What were you doing when you were having a break from comedy?

ROMINA: Recipe videos… Italian recipes online. There are lots of recipe/cookery groups on Facebook.

JOHN: And getting a following?

ROMINA: Yeah.

JOHN: Italian?

ROMINA: From America mainly. I was doing it in English. An Italian recipe, Italian cuisine, but in English.

JOHN: Any chance of a TV version in Italy?

ROMINA: Well, as you’ve mentioned it, there is an Italian online TV service based in London – Tele Londra – and this Wednesday in the Puma Goes Wild venue in Angel – we are recording a competition show – Il Puma Londinese Approda su Tele Londra – four episodes with me as MC, all in Italian.

JOHN: A competition show?

ROMINA: Two acts will compete against each other. The audience decides who wins. The final will be recorded on 4th December.

JOHN: Recorded. Not live.

ROMINA: At first, they wanted to stream it all live, but then they were too worried about the signal.

JOHN: Will there be further ones after the initial four?

ROMINA: We will show it to people and see if we can find a sponsor for next year.

JOHN: Other plans?

ROMINA: I am preparing a new stage show.

JOHN: About?

ROMINA: Well, the title is Freewheeling. It’s mainstream, light, fun. I’ve been asked to do the show in Italy next year, in Turin. 

JOHN: Where are you from?

ROMINA: Near Milan.

JOHN: Oh, just round the corner from Turin. That would be your first time performing in Italy?

ROMINA: With a full hour show, yes.

JOHN: Why Turin?

ROMINA: I know a girl who runs a comedy night there and she asked me. I would also do it in London. 

JOHN: And at the Edinburgh Fringe next August?

ROMINA: I’m not sure I’m keen on Edinburgh any more. After my last one – It’s All My Mother’s Fault – I… Well, you spend a lot of money just to be in the brochure and it doesn’t really help to get audiences in, so what’s the point? My plan is to go round the UK on my own – various cities – without festivals, getting people in via Facebook and so on.

JOHN: And it’s called Freewheeling?

ROMINA: Yes.

JOHN: Appropriate.

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Filed under Comedy, Italy

Union JACK radio station wants to hear from unusual and innovative comedians

“If people say It’s safe, that’s not really what we want to hear. We want clever ideas which will appeal to a wider audience. We want to hear ‘unusual’ and ‘innovative’. Some people may say: It’s crazy. It will never work, but that’s fine. We like to hear that. ‘Safe’ is what everyone else is doing. We are not interested in that.”

That’s what Donnach O’Driscoll told me when I chatted to him. Strangely, I believed him. He is the CEO of Union JACK Radio. They are now one of the sponsors of the Leicester Comedy Festival and Leicester Comedy Festival boss Geoff Rowe is now part-time Director of Comedy at Union JACK.

But, like I said, I chatted to Donnach O’Driscoll…


Donnach and I supped tea at Soho Theatre

JOHN: You started as…?

DONNACH: My very first job was straight out of university – Trinity College, Dublin. Three years working for Bank of America in Washington DC. I went through their management training programme.

Then I worked three years for Gaston Thorn. He was leaving office as President of the European Commission, leaving Brussels and he wanted a Chef de Cabinet…

JOHN: A chef?

DONNACH: Not a chef. The French call it a Chef de Cabinet… It’s like a personal private secretary in Whitehall.

I wrote speeches, travelled with him, met everyone he met. Before he was President of the European Commission, he had been President of the United Nations General Assembly.

When I was with him, he was Executive President of the largest media company in Europe – RTL so after that, through him, I then worked for RTL for seven years as Head of Radio Development and then as Vice President for UK Activities.

JOHN: What did that involve?

DONNACH: Getting RTL into Channel 5 as 29% of the original investors. I said: “If we want to be a truly pan-European media group, we need to have a presence in the UK.” So I was on the board of Channel 5 when we were originally awarded the licence. RTL ended up buying out the other shareholders before recently selling it to Viacom.

I was also in the process of building a radio group for RTL in the British Isles – We had Atlantic 252 in Ireland. We bought Talk Radio. We were original investors – 15% – in XFM.

But then we were bought by German media group Bertelsmann who were only interested in television. Radio went out the window. So I left and went to Capital Radio for one year and then, with friends, we set up Absolute Radio International.

In 2003, we partnered with UTV in Northern Ireland and bought the Juice radio station in Liverpool. Then, in 2005, UTV decided to buy Talk Radio group and bought the three of us out of Juice. 

In 2006, we bought an FM station in Oxford and won a second Oxford FM licence in 2007. We leased a successful US radio station format JACK from its North American owners and Anglicised it. We aimed our first Oxfordshire station JACKfm at 25-45 year-old males. The second FM station we branded as JACK 2 Hits for a younger, mainly female audience.

There are 50+ JACKs in North America, targeting a 25-45 year old male audience. It has no presenters; it is very irreverent; it has attitude, lots of humour and is, in a way, unpolished. Everything that the rest of commercial radio is not.

Around this time, Virgin Radio was up for sale. We had national ambitions. Through RTL, I knew Times of India – the largest media company in India, who had never invested in anything outside of India. But they backed us and we got it in 2008. 

I became the CEO of Virgin Radio and we re-named the station Absolute Radio. People thought we were mad to change the name. We launched it into the teeth of a Recession. Our three core pillars were music, sport and comedy.

When we bought Virgin Radio, it had about 1.8 million listeners. As Absolute Radio, we built that to close to 4 million.

As featured in the ad industry’s Campaign magazine after the Virgin Radio takeover

We made a point of live music and doing live music in unique locations, like the first rock music concert in the House of Commons. Elbow did a concert in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. We closed Regent Street in London and Madness did a concert. On the comedy side, we wanted two comedy anchors – Frank Skinner on Saturday morning and Dave Gorman on Sunday morning. We brought in Ronnie Wood (of the Rolling Stones) as a presenter.

In 2016, we launched a third station in Oxfordshire on DAB only – JACK3 & Chill – a ‘chill’ station for over-50s. The same humour, the same irreverence, but calmer. Still a very wide playlist, unlike most commercial radio.

We wanted to take the JACK brand national; there was no FM spectrum available so we went DAB to launch Union JACK, which celebrates/plays the best of British music and comedy. Music and comedy are both equally important. All of the music is chosen by the audience. Our app allows people to vote songs up and down a playlist and add songs onto the playlist. To date, we have had over 22 million votes.

JOHN: So you are a franchise of the American JACK Radio…

DONNACH: No. Before we launched our two national stations, we, as it were, bought the freehold for Europe in perpetuity. It was like what we did at Virgin. We felt we needed to hold the freehold for the brand. We can launch JACK stations anywhere in Europe.

Jack Radio – aimed by women for women (and some men)

We launched our second national UK radio station – JACK Radio – a year ago: music aimed at a female audience. And we’ve started to introduce editorial content into it. We have a women’s sports show. Not just ‘women’s sports’… Things like a female perspective on the Premier League. There’s now a relationship show. We’re working on a wellness show. And we will introduce comedy. It won’t be as important as on Union JACK Radio; it will just be one additional element. A bit like the glossy magazine which appeals primarily to a female audience but in no way deters a male audience and actually, at the moment, there are more male listeners than female to JACK Radio.

JOHN: So how do you make Union JACK stand out among all the other radio brands?

DONNACH: Commercial radio, generically, is tight playlists, researched heavily, very slick. They will do a short bit of talk, then play Rihanna for the third time in an hour. JACK is the antithesis of that. JACK is spontaneous. As soon as something happens, we have our station voice recording funny, irreverent lines about what Boris Johnson has just done or whatever.

We look to play two new unsigned music acts every hour. We have a character on the station called Lucy Leeds – she’s from Leeds – and she goes round interviewing new bands and effectively familiarising our audience with those new bands.

We’re not a big corporate. We don’t have the resources of Global or Bauer or News International. So, within our limited financial resources, we have to stand for something. It’s very difficult to find audience niches. You have to try to be creative. Our ethos is to try and support new talent in music and in comedy.

JOHN: The pace on Union JACK is very fast. 

DONNACH: What we do NOT want is traditional DJs and traditional presenters doing 4-hour blocks. Turn on Heart or Magic or Kiss and that’s traditional radio. It’s two songs, 5 or 6 minutes of ads. From our perspective, we are trying to do it differently.

JOHN: Between your music, short scattered ads and the scattered station voice stuff, you also drop in short extracts from classic BBC comedy shows.

DONNACH: In order to familiarise the audience with the output and the brand, I thought it would help to have some classic comedy clips in there. But new comedy is what we want to do. Original comedy. We want to meet comedians with ideas.

JOHN: What’s your pitch to comedians?

Part of the increasing original comedy output on Union Jack

DONNACH: We are small. We are self-funded. We don’t have big corporate backing, but we want to develop relationships with comedians… If you can’t get exposure because the limited space on BBC Radio 4 is effectively locked-up with shows you can’t get near and you don’t have the resources to do a national tour… then we have a national platform and we are looking for content. Please come and talk to us. Even if it’s the nuttiest idea.

JOHN: And they presumably have to record in your studio in Oxford.

DONNACH: No. There’s plenty of studios around.

JOHN: So you might rent them a sound studio in Soho or…

DONNACH: Wherever. Wherever. If they’re in Newcastle, Doncaster, wherever, we’ll find a studio which we would pay for. We have a platform. We will make it work including finding the studio, recording it, getting it onto a podcast, whatever. We will do the mechanics of it. 

I hope that, as we develop, the ‘talent’ may see us as even more of a friend than their agent. They may have an agent who is keen to develop their careers but who gets a commission. We don’t take a commission. We are not in it other than to find great content. 

We want content and we want people who feel they haven’t had an outlet for their content. We don’t have preconceived ideas. 

If you go to the BBC, it can take up to two years to get something on air. We can get something to air very, very quickly. If we like the idea and we can make the finances work, we can get it to air on Union JACK Radio within a couple of weeks.

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Heavens! It’s the 86-year-old stripping granny in her blue chemise in Japan!

American comedian and burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller, based in London, has been on her travels again…

Here she tells all…


I finally got to Japan after two days worth of flights.

It was HOT: about 30 C and humid.

“This was a girly-girly revue with a difference”

My first gig was burlesque in an after-hours club. This was a girly-girly revue with a difference; there were four acts altogether and the finale was a trio of contortionist dancers that were absolutely amazing, synchronized and graceful. After each performance, the performer greeted each member of the tiny audience personally (I would guess there were 15 people there, mostly men) and each person tucked money in their clothing. Since the women were not wearing much, it was easy to tuck in a 10,000 bill and get a little extra.

The audience tucked nine of those bills in my little chemise and told me I was amazing. I said no, I was not – I was just old.

A city filled with flashing lights…

On the way home, I was struck with how bright the streets are in Tokyo no matter how late the hour. The city is filled with flashing lights and tall buildings that create the same aura as Times Square in New York without the noise, the honking horns, the crowded streets or the smoke. No-one is allowed to smoke on the street in Japan.

The Japanese are very security-conscious and I needed a code to get into the building itself and another to get into the room. When you are my age with no memory whatsoever there is a real danger of spending the night on the streets. The consolation is that the streets are very safe.

The next night was the reason I took the trip to Japan: Alex Camp had booked me to headline at his venue The Good Heavens Comedy Club. The event is held in an English Bar and the menu is very British featuring fish and chips, pork pies and a lovely chicken curry. The audience is just about all English-speaking.

The first half of the show was a standard comedy line-up with four comedians doing five to ten minute sets. There was an interval and then I took the stage to do my hour-long comedy show, I Never Said I Was Nice. I got a standing ovation (actually, it was one person… but still) and, to my surprise, the following was posted on Facebook the next day:


“What happened today on the stage of Good Heavens…?”

What happened today on the stage of Good Heavens? The world’s oldest comedian, 86 years old Jewish lady, flew over to Tokyo, wore her blue chiffon dress, silver bracelet, stepped on the stage, held that microphone and broke our chests – first with that laughter we couldn’t resist and then with those tears we had to breathe really deep to hold down.

Her story took one hour to tell and the whole life to build.

We sat there, sat still, all equally amazed – learning each his own lesson, smiling each at his own angle.

But then she sang. A 86 years old Jewish lady, in her blue chiffon dress and silver bracelet who crossed the ocean to tell us her story, was choking with happiness on that stage singing to us and to the Universe.

“I don’t know if I make it to the end of the year,” she sang… “I don’t know if I make to the end of the show,” she ended. “But all I need is time. Please give me time, as I’ve got plans.”

What I was lucky to witness today is a great storytelling talent. Great comedy talent. But, most importantly, a talent of praising the gift of life.

When I grow up, I want to be like her.

ELENA DAVYDOVA FROM THE UKRAINE


I almost literally floated home to my hotel I was so happy.

“In 1945 over 42% of it was reduced to rubble”

The next day, Alex Camp and I were both in a show in Yokohama. It was run by a young Southern American named Taylor at a place called Antenna America.

The audience was mostly American, many from the military bases there. The show felt more like the ones I did in San Francisco, probably because almost all of the comics had American accents. After the show, we walked the streets of Yokohama to find a restaurant and I was struck with how modern Yokohama was.

Alex explained that was because it had to be totally rebuilt after World War II.

In 1945, over 42% of it was reduced to rubble in a little over an hour after one disastrous bombing. Now it is clean and modern with wide streets and pedestrian walkways.

“My standard Stripping Granny routine – everyone went wild”

On the Friday, Taylor Wanstall created a show just for me, called the Tokyo Closet Ball. This was burlesque variety and it reminded me very much of the old fashioned British Music Hall shows. Casual, outlandish and camp, it was another highlight of this trip. I finished the show with my standard Stripping Granny routine and everyone went wild.  Taylor bought drinks for the cast afterwards and promised to have me back in April.

The next morning, Alex took me to the train station to go to Fukuoka for my final show. This was to be my big finale since Fukuoka Comedy is very well known and features major English speaking comedians. The train was immaculate and very spacious. Everyone is very quiet on the trains in Japan: no music; no conversation. Fukuoka was also torn apart during World War II and had been rebuilt extensively. It is a beautiful, clean port city and, in 2006, it was voted one of Newsweek’s 10 most dynamic cities.

Sadly for me and happily for the country, Japan had won the rugby games the night before. So my audience was six people, two of whom were the comedians in the show.

I did the same performance I did for Alex at the Good Heavens Comedy Club and, small though the audience was, it was very appreciative. After the show, we all went out for dinner at a place that served every part of the chicken on skewers. Yes, even the part that goes over the fence last (my favorite part…which says something very negative about my personality). It was a delicious meal and a memorable evening.

Whenever I do these long jaunts across a couple of oceans and several time zones I am so jet lagged when I get back to London that it takes me days to figure out where I am and what time to eat dinner. This time, however, I did not have the luxury of lolling around trying to figure out when it was night and when it was day.

I had a rehearsal for two shows coming up and a dinner date.

Thank goodness for Melatonin.

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Filed under Burlesque, Comedy, Japan, Travel