Tag Archives: Comedy Unleashed

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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Ria Lina on Comedy Unleashed, non-PC audiences and the Edinburgh Fringe

Comedian Ria Lina has been about a bit. Her German father was an oil painter; her Filipino mother trained as a physicist then moved into computer programming in the 1960s.

Ria was born in England.

Aged 1, she moved to California. Aged 9, she came back to England. Aged 14, she moved to the Netherlands, where she studied at The American School of The Hague.

At 17 (note that early age), she attended St Andrews University in Scotland, where she obtained a BSc in Experimental Pathology, then got a PhD in Viral Bioinformatics at University College, London.

Oh! And then she became an IT Forensic Investigator for the Serious Fraud Office in London.

And now she’s a comedian.

She is a regular MC at the monthly Comedy Unleashed shows in East London which some see as Right Wing although it bills itself as ‘The Home of Free-Thinking Comedy’ and says the real divide is no longer between Left Wing/Right Wing but between Authoritarian and Libertarian with itself in the Libertarian camp.

Now read on…


JOHN: I think you’re probably a Left Wing liberal…

RIA: I don’t know what that means any more.

JOHN: … yet you’re a regular MC at the monthly Comedy Unleashed shows.

RIA: I MC Comedy Unleashed because I fundamentally believe what it’s trying to achieve. I believe in giving everyone a platform.

It has ended up that the audience has skewed in a particular political direction. There have been some shows where they have been so skewed towards one political direction that I have actively said on stage: “Actually, I disagree with you all.” But when it isn’t an issue – when I don’t think that politics is the over-riding feel of the room – then it’s just a comedy show for people who want to see comedy.

JOHN: I have been to about four and they are very very good shows. The last one was a cracker. They are potentially difficult to MC but you make it look easy.

RIA: I suppose part of it is selfish. At this month’s show, I got to MC 250 people and that’s not easy. It’s like surfing or driving a chariot with horses. Surfing an 80 ft high wave takes practice. It takes skill. It’s hard enough to control one horse, but if you are trying to control 250… 

JOHN: The Comedy Unleashed slogan is NO SELF-CENSORSHIP… IF IT’S FUNNY, IT’S FUNNY. Comedy elsewhere at the moment can be very PC.

RIA: If you go on stage now and you say ‘rape’ there are people who will be triggered by your use of that word regardless of the context.

If you say: “Fracking is raping the Earth,” that is a very Left/liberal thing to say and you can go on to do a routine about it, but just the word itself can set an emotional trigger that means some people in the audience are not in a position to be comfortable laughing at what you are actually saying because, in their heads, they are thinking: She didn’t have to use that word!

JOHN: Are audiences different about that in different parts of the country? A North/South divide?

RIA: I find the differences are not so much geography as density of population. The biggest difference is what you find inside cities and outside cities. You can do jokes in a central London comedy club that you can do in a central Glasgow comedy club. But, even if you go outside Glasgow (or other big cities) just 10-20 minutes in the train, THAT is where you see the different sensitivities. 

I see it in smaller communities where there is less exposure to diversity of thought and diversity of humanity. If you’re not exposed to diversity, you are not as acclimatised to it and not as open to the idea of it. 

JOHN: So you have to change your set accordingly?

Ria Lina, BSc, PhD, MC and comedian

RIA: You are going to them. Your job is to make them laugh. You want them to have a good time so, if that means rolling back your jokes five years, then that’s what it is. 

I don’t mean you should undermine your own principles but I don’t personally agree with travelling somewhere and behaving like: Well, this is what I do and if you don’t like what I do…

JOHN: So are they less PC and more racist?

RIA: I am not saying they are more racist. They are more insecure about what is acceptable. They have heard that ‘things are changing’ but they are not seeing it or feeling it themselves where they live. So, if I walk in with my Asian face and my American accent… there are times when I have told jokes and their reaction is: Ooh! We don’t know how to process this!

It is not even That’s wrong! She shouldn’t have said it! – It’s just We have no idea how to process what you have just said… You are saying it’s OK. But we only have your word to go on and you are one woman who we are never going to see again in 20 minutes.

JOHN: How do audiences react to your American accent?

RIA: Most of my set, they don’t really need to know I’m British. They don’t need to know my back story to accept my point of view and my sense of humour.

JOHN: Does it not slightly distance the audience from you if they think you are American?

RIA: The best way to over-ride that is to be funny. Bottom line. Any barrier can be overcome in a comedy setting if you’re funny. What I enjoy is making people laugh and people enjoying their evening. I’m happy to adapt to them in that instance.

JOHN: Say in a village hall in the middle of nowhere…

RIA: Yes. 

JOHN: And the audience there is different to a London audience…

RIA: Humour evolves and places like London are at the forefront of the evolution of comedy. When I first started doing comedy, the place to find the most evolved joke range was The Comedy Store. You would go there and see people with no boundaries pushing their art form to the limit. But that doesn’t mean you can go somewhere else and do the same stuff if they are not AS comedy literate, 

The evolution of comedy goes hand-in-hand with audiences who are comedy literate – comedy savvy. They have seen more of it; they understand the rules; you can experiment more with them. That is not necessarily the case for the village hall that only has comedy ten times a year.

Ria Lina’s show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe

JOHN: The Edinburgh Fringe audiences are particularly comedy literate…

RIA: Mmmm… I dunno. I find the Fringe audiences are more theatre crowds. You DO get your avid stand-up comedy fan. But there is going to a comedy club with various acts on the bill once or twice a month and then there’s going to see a single performer who has developed an hour’s worth of thought… And those are two different art forms. Your brain can’t focus for more than 40 minutes at a time at best. That’s why they tell you to have that 40-minute pathos moment in Edinburgh shows.

JOHN: The ‘dead dad’ bit…

RIA: Yes. In Edinburgh, it’s a different skillset. You’re driving a different vehicle. Similar animals but different vehicles and you are traversing different courses. Audiences at the Fringe are so often theatre audiences because the shows are more like theatre shows and they are done in theatre settings not comedy club settings – except the Free Fringe and the Free Festival where you have more comedy club-like set-ups.

The bigger pay venues are giving you a theatre experience. Theatre-style seating, ushers, lighting. Theatre-style audiences listen differently, think differently, laugh differently.

JOHN: So are you doing the Fringe next year?

RIA: I haven’t been since 2016. I am thinking of doing a show and touring it in the UK; just skipping the Edinburgh Fringe… and I’m booked in Dubai next August.

JOHN: Dubai? How horrible! The weather! All that sun and heat!

RIA: (LAUGHING) Well, you know, the last time I went to Dubai, it rained. It hadn’t rained for two years. I show up – Suddenly it rains! The cars weren’t working. Their engines got wet. It was too cold for me to go to the beach. So Dubai owes me!

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