Tag Archives: compere

The best comedy compère I have seen

Yesterday’s blog

Yesterday’s blog complaint

Yesterday, I wrote a blog complaining about some comedy club compères who namecheck the next comic on-stage after encouraging a rising tide of applause, with the result that the name is inaudible under the final crescendo of noise. I also suggested that comics should end their act by namechecking themselves to the audience.

I thought one of the more interesting responses to my blog came from Raymond of the comedy act Raymond and Mr Timpkins. He commented:

Raymond without Mr Timpikns

Compère fan Raymond without Timpkins

“It seems common sense to structure the introduction so the act’s name is audible but, in reality, no-one will remember the act’s name anyway wherever it’s said. More important is the attitude from some promoters that the least experienced act will do as compère where in fact, at its best, it is a specialist role that really sticks the night together. Being funny enough to get the audience’s attention though disciplined enough to not take too much out of them – because that laughter is for the acts – is a rare talent especially in the world of inflated egos comics inhabit. A good compère is like a good goalie: no glory but takes a hell of a battering for the team. I say Hurrah for the good compère. Let’s appreciate them more and criticise less!”

Daphna Baram as ‘Miss D’ - Does she deserve to be killed off?

Daphna Baram: “Out-doing comedians is not a good thing”

Daphna Baram, who compères at several clubs, suggested to me yesterday: “A good compère can not make a night sparkle if the comics are all bombing, nor is he or she likely to completely destroy a gig that is going well otherwise, but they are holding the steering wheel of the gig, and they can make it hard or easy for the next comedian on the bill.

Ivor Dembina once told me that the compère’s only job is to be liked and make the audience feel they are in the good hands of someone who knows what he/she is doing. I tend to agree.

“It is also the MC’s job to keep the atmosphere in the room on the up so, if an act bombs, you need to tell a few jokes and get the laughter back into the room. If an act was just offensive or aggressive towards a member of the audience, it is your job to calm things down, to bring the friendly and hospitable atmosphere back into the room. If the audience was heckling or breaking the unwritten rules, it is the MC’s job to deal with it. In short, it is a pretty thankless job because, despite all this, the MC needs to aspire to be not too memorable and avoid being the funniest person in the room. Out-doing the comedians is not a good thing for a compère to do.”

It is maybe worth remembering that the French word compère can translate as ‘accomplice’ and com-père or comme-père comes from the medieval Latin ‘com-pater’… together-with-father. In Latin, it can also mean ‘gossip’. So there is an element of amiable paternal (or maternal) chatting in the origin of the word.

Malcolm Hardee presents Pull The Plug!

Malcolm Hardee sometimes took 20 minutes to end a show

The late, iconic club owner Malcolm Hardee was always, I thought, much-under-rated for his compèring skills. If the final act of the evening had stormed it, Malcolm would come on stage, say: “Oy! Oy! That’s it! See you next week!” and get off immediately.

If the final act had gone badly, he would spend up to twenty minutes (I saw him do it once) getting the audience back ‘on-side’ so that they left happy, content, fulfilled and feeling they had had a good night out.

On the other hand, he often used to introduce performers new to his audiences by saying: “Here’s the next act, (INSERT NAME OF ACT) Might be good. Might be shit. Dunno.”

I suggested to Raymond of Raymond and Mr Timpkins that his act was probably one of the few that Malcolm did not introduce in this way.

Up The Creek comedy club in 2009

Malcolm Hardee’s Up The Creek club in Greenwich, in 2009

“Oh he so did, “Raymond told me yesterday. “When we did our first ever open spot in London at his Up the Creek club, he introduced us in his usual style and Mr Timpkins used as our opening line Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We are shit – to get in first with the punters, who in those days were terrifying.

“We got away with it and we kept that line in our act. Malcolm came from the time before career comics, suits and any concept of comedy as a business. He was the real alternative, a naturally funny man. His funeral was one of the funniest and saddest things I’ve ever experienced. Like the speciality acts he always encouraged to perform, there are few, if any like him left in comedy. Shame.”

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

His name? It is Lewis Schaffer

The comparatively alive and undeniably unique Lewis Schaffer told me yesterday:

“Yes, comics could do well to repeat their names. That is why I repeat my name Lewis Schaffer so often before I start and during the show. And after the show. I also repeat my name Lewis Schaffer because I find it soothing. I often joke about my name Lewis Schaffer, which helps people to remember it. But there is only one sure way to get someone to remember your name and that is to borrow money from them. HSBC knows who I am.”

I have seen many excellent stand-up comedians do a shit job compèring shows, because, as Raymond says, it is a specialist role that needs careful handling – not just spewing out chunks of your stage act.

David Mulholland, house compère at Soho Comedy Club told me yesterday: “If a compère does more than 5 minutes – 10 minutes max – of stand up material, it is either not going well or they’re a stage hog. Personal glory is not the role of the compère: it’s warming up the audience and making the night work as a cohesive whole.”

Janey Godley was untagged in Edinburgh yesterday

Janey Godley knows what she’s talking about

Probably the best compère I have ever seen is Scots comedienne Janey Godley, which is why she has compèred two of my annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Shows at the Edinburgh Fringe – and why she is (unless she gets an offer that pays a shitload of money) going to compère next year’s Awards show (with Miss Behave).

Inevitably, Janey got in first with her wise words about compèring before I ever mentioned it. Six years ago, the comedy website Chortle published a piece by Janey headlined Compèring? – It’s War…

“A comedy MC,” she said, “is someone who holds the gig together… who sets the tone and gets the room ready for the big event. A funny fluffer, if you will – rubbing the audience into a height of comedy readiness, the foreplay of fun.

“The MC is not supposed to be the big hitter of jokes on the night… No MC worth their wages should eat the show, bask in the headlights or try to out-do the big name coming on; the MC is a scene setter – not scene stealer.

“The MC can also be the front line defence on the coal face of live comedy… Knowing that the comics are sitting watching the crowd, hoping you can educate them in the art of listening within ten minutes can be nerve racking but really rewarding when you get the heaving mob to sit back and relax.

“In the event of an aggressive rowdy audience, you are sent out as the scout. It’s your impression on them and your consequential conquering of the ensuing enemy that will secure the safe passage of the acts that grace the stage.

Janey Godley in suitcase

Janey Godley reaches out to nuns, priests & drunk sports fans

“Being defensive and shouty doesn’t always work; it can serve to aggrieve the men who are not used to a woman speaking out loudly. Though a good funny put-down followed by some witty charm directed at the growlers usually works. I know this from my past life as a pub landlady. When a huge gang of antagonistic men descended on my bar, I always made it my point to find the ‘leader’ and recognise his management qualities.

“I would make sure he knew that I was aware of his influence over ‘his men’ and played on the power conflict within that dynamic. Basically, if he couldn’t contain his troops, then he was a weak man and I would make sure that the watching public were aware of his flaws.

“Men also assert themselves quicker when you relate to them as the female figure in their lives. Emotionally remind of them of their mother, sister or daughter and the mood can change… usually for the better. The same applies with mixed groups and females who seem to be getting out of hand.

“Mutual respect and acknowledgement of status can level most playing fields. Undermining people will always serve to fan the flames of anger.”

Wise words from a comedienne and comic who can play to and control any audience (literally) from the Glastonbury Festival to Jongleurs clubs and from nuns & priests to drunken football & rugby fans.

Now THAT is beyond compère.

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Why I am getting increasingly annoyed with compères in small comedy clubs

SennMicrophone_wikipedia

Ladies and gentlemen: Why bother introducing the acts at all?

There is a problem in British comedy clubs and it seems to be getting worse.

If I go to a large venue and see a famous comedian – a household name – although that is something I seldom do – he or she is normally introduced by a disembodied voice off-stage saying:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome (insert name of comedian)” and then (depending on the level of the comedian’s fame) loud applause of varying intensity starts.

In small comedy clubs where I and other audience members are often seeing comedians they have never heard of, there is an increasing habit for the compère’s introduction to go along the lines of:

“Now our next act. Let’s start with a little ripple. You sir, clap gently. Now let it spread round the room… give it up, make it louder… now everyone… all together… give it all you got… give him/her a big welcome, it’s (insert name of comedian).”

By this point, if the compère has successfully done what they think is their job, there will be riotous applause and no-one in the audience has any chance of actually hearing the comedian’s name.

Occasionally, a shrewd comic will end their act with: “Thankyou very much. I’ve been (insert name of comedian). You’ve been (insert genuine or sarcastic adjective).” But it is rare.

In a bill with six or eight comics, none of whom you know, you can’t even look at the bill and guess who you may have seen unless you trawl through Google and look up images of each of the names on the bill until you find the right face. Who is going to do that?

Far more effective an introduction would be to say: “Now our next act (insert name of comedian). Let’s start with a little ripple. You sir, clap gently. Now let it spread round the room… give it up, make it louder… now everyone… give it all you got… give him/her a big welcome…”

In an industry where ego, insecurity and desperation vie for top billing in performers’ psyches, it is extraordinary that, increasingly, the least clear words spoken in the entire evening are often the names of the performers.

It is a surefire way not to get famous.

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Comedy club owner Martin Besserman: from sexually-frustrated middle-aged women to increasing monkey business

MartinBesserman1

Martin Besserman last night: “They were bewildered”

I thought Martin Besserman must have been running comedy clubs in London for the last 25 years. He seems to have been around forever.

I was wrong, as I found out when I talked to him last night.

He currently runs two Monkey Business comedy venues in north west London – in Belsize Park/Hampstead and in Kentish Town – the first for higher profile acts; the latter mostly for newer acts.

“Initially,” said Martin Besserman, “I ran a club in Kentish Town at a bar called O’Reilly’s which, when you go in, it looks like everyone’s done something bad in their life.”

“And they probably have,” I said. “It’s your ideal comedy audience.”

“I was upstairs there for about a year,” continued Martin, “and then their former manager recommended me to the Sir Richard Steele pub in Hampstead. And they were very impressed because, within the first month, I had acts like Harry Hill and Omid Djalili and they were bewildered and really impressed that I managed to build it up so quickly. I’ve been there eight years now.”

“I’m still bewildered,” I said “that people like Harry Hill try out new material at Monkey Business.”

“He did four shows with me last year,” said Martin.”He’s a very nice man and he remembers his roots. If they’ve had a good time at your club, then they remember you. People sometimes take a chance on you and, if you form some sort of bond… I mean, we do come from different backgrounds.

East Street market in London, where Martin worked

East Street market, London: net curtains & frustrated women

“My background was doing what my father did – selling net curtains at East Street market in the Elephant & Castle to sexually-frustrated middle-aged women. In fact, I worked next to Jade Goody at one time. She got sacked for nicking a quid about one year before she became famous on Big Brother.”

“Monkey Business,” I said, “is a very well-known club now.”

“I think because I’ve been running it for such a long time,” said Martin. “People have said there’s no other promoter like me, that I have a certain style and I don’t try to  copy any other club. So maybe there’s a uniqueness, because the philosophy of the MC and the person organising the club is certainly significant.”

“What’s your philosophy?”

“It’s all about individuality,” explained Martin. “People go to expensive workshops and think that they can learn to perform. I’m sure sometimes it can help them develop whatever potential they might have but, at the end of the day, you just have to have natural funny bones. There has to be something about you that is special.”

“I suspect,” I said, “that workshops give people who have ability the confidence to do what they could do anyway. And, if you have no ability, you will still have no ability at the end.”

“I think so,” said Martin. “I did go to Tony Allen’s workshop in the late 1980s which was good but, before then, I was a public orator at Speakers’ Corner.”

“You still do that?”

“Yes, in the summer. I occasionally drag performers there – I dragged Reg D.Hunter there. For all the black guys at Speakers’ Corner, he was the new Obama, although Reg wouldn’t get up until I bought him a bottle of vodka.”

“And you go there in the summer because it’s sunny?” I asked.

“I prefer it when it’s warm,” agreed Martin.

“Has it changed?” I asked.

“It has lost,” said Martin. “a lot of great orators like Lord Soper (a prominent Methodist minister, socialist and pacifist at the end of the last century) and lots of interesting eccentrics. But, for me, it’s still important because it’s a symbol of our democracy: the fact one can go there and express what one feels to be fundamentally right or wrong with Society.’

“So what’s your soapbox schtick?” I asked.

“I learnt from Lord Soper when I was 16 that, if you want to convey a message, you should always do it with humour. There IS a serious point I’m trying to make there: Make Love, Not War, though you would have to listen to me for a long time to work that one out.

“It’s difficult because I’m Jewish and there are a lot of Moslem people at Speakers’ Corner – you’ve got Edgware Road close by, which is mainly Arabic – so Jewish speakers tend to have a fairly hard time – they’re heckled fiercely. There are some people there – not all – who are quite radical in their opinions and you have to address that. So, for me to convey a message which is not about taking sides but about uniting… it really amounts to me trying to get them to laugh with me – to buy in to my humour.

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

“I started my first comedy club in Edgware Road at a bar called the Hanging Tree. In those days, you got a lot of support from people like the Evening Standard and Time Out. I got 250 people turn up for the first gig.”

“Did you always want to be a club owner, as opposed to a jobbing comedian?”

“No,” Martin replied. “It happened by mistake. I used to enjoy comedy at the King’s Head, Crouch End. I knew that I liked it. I knew I wanted to be part of entertainment. I was in a band. It happened because I split up with a girlfriend and I wanted to impress her, so I started a comedy club. I thought there was more to me than just being a market trader.

“I had no idea that, eleven years later, I would still be running a comedy club which is one of the more well-known clubs.”

“At the moment,” I said, “the economic climate is very bad for comedy clubs. They’re closing down all over London and all over the country and you’ve just decided to open one in the heart of the West End of London. Have you gone mad?”

“It’s out of necessity,” explains Martin. “Eventually, they will be turning the Sir Richard Steele pub into flats and my time there is limited. It could be in a few months or a few years – getting the planning permission, the builders and all that – but it is going to happen.

“I’m a survivor. I’ve got a taste for the business. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to leave a club. I’ve had all sorts of things – I’ve had managers trying to hijack my club, I’ve been replaced with karaoke. It’s very difficult when you have to start a new club and have to build up your reputation all over again. But I feel confident in the West End.

MonkeyBusiness_logo“There are two venues in question. One is Leicester Square – that’s only a 65-capacity venue, one minute from the tube station. Because it’s not a very large room, it would be quite easy to fill up.

“The other possible venue is above a very beautiful Turkish restaurant in Covent Garden – Sofra in Tavistock Street – two of the chefs there used to cook for the Royal Family – and they are going to let me do a trial show on New Year’s Eve. The room accommodates 100 people.”

“So,” I asked, “if that works well, you would be running a Leicester Square club AND a Covent Garden club?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “I have operated two clubs on a Saturday night before. It’s difficult. You have to trust the staff at the other venue. You can’t be at both.”

“Being a compere at a comedy club,” I said. “…People seem to think it’s easy, but it is very, very, very difficult. I have seen very good comedians try to MC and it can be a disaster – if they just tell gags – because it’s not about telling jokes between other people’s jokes.”

“Well,” said Martin, “there’s no rules about being a good MC. The testimony is if the audience have a good time. Sometimes I’m on form; sometimes I’m not. The MC can make or break a show. The job is not to hog the stage. An MC should have a minimum amount of time on stage, unless you’re Michael McIntyre. The job is to relax the audience. If the MC doesn’t deliver, all the acts he introduces will have a harder task, no matter how good they are.”

“When you compere,” I said, “you don’t really perform, you schmooze; you chat to the audience.”

MartinBesserman2

“You’ve got to know the boundaries,” said Martin last night

“The audience should be your friends for the evening,” explained Martin. “You should act familiar with them, but you’ve got to know the boundaries of how far you can go. I have seen other people compere and they can be crude.

“Sometimes you can be crude but not if it doesn’t suit your personality: if it all seems out of place. I’m not saying I’m crude, but it’s tongue-in-cheek humour and I would like to think it’s not offensive.”

“All comedians manipulate the audience,” I suggested, “but the compere more than anyone is manipulating the atmosphere for the other acts.”

“It’s like boyfriend/girlfriend,” said Martin. “The relationship has to be that you have to feel comfortable in that other person’s company.”

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Ivor Dembina on UK comedy clubs and what’s gone wrong with Jewish comedy

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of comedy

Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club has been running 19 years. It is his main venue in North London.

Next Thursday night, though, Ivor is opening a second comedy club in South London.

Or, rather, re-opening it. The Brixton Comedy Club was originally opened at The Hobgoblin pub in 1998.

“I set it up,” Ivor told me yesterday, “with my no-frills approach of Get some acts, put ‘em on, low ticket price.

“It was unexpectedly successful for two reasons. The first was that, at the time, people used to go out quite a lot on Sunday nights. But also it was a time when well-known acts would come down and try out material. That was quite a new thing then and I think the Brixton Comedy Club was one of the first places where that happened regularly. People like Harry Hill and Jo Brand. So you could see these well-known acts very cheaply in an informal atmosphere.

“I’d been running clubs for over twenty years, but I learned a very important lesson back then: that if you develop a tradition of famous acts turning up, of course, as soon as they move on, people stop coming. And the club went downhill quite quickly.”

“So how did you recover?” I asked.

“Well, I didn’t, really,” said Ivor. “It coincided with The Hobgoblin pub being taken over by a different management who wanted to put music in.

“So I moved to The Dog Star pub to do the same thing on a slightly smaller scale and it was fine, but I learned another lesson there: that people had, by and large, stopped going out to comedy on Sunday nights. Somehow, Thursday had become a new going-out night. It was just a cultural shift.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“I guess about five years ago,” he explained. “People just wouldn’t come out on Sundays; they were watching TV.

“I never actually closed the Brixton Comedy Club, but I’ve mothballed it for the last three years, just putting on occasional shows to keep the name alive. Now, partly through sentiment and partly because I want to speed up the process of going broke, I’ve decided to re-open it on a monthly basis at the Dog Star.

“The general lesson in running clubs is that, once people go to a comedy circuit club to see specific acts rather than to visit the club itself, your club’s finished. A great comedy club is somewhere people come irrespective of who’s on.”

“A big factor in the club is the MC, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ivor, “People do like having a regular compere and I did build a rapport with that Brixton crowd. Both the Hobgoblin and The Dogstar were really nice venues: a good crowd.

“And we were helped at the old Brixton Comedy Club by the fact Daniel Kitson, who lived nearby… it became sort-of his favourite local club. So he became a regular fixture and you could say I’m the last person on the planet to successfully financially exploit Daniel Kitson.

“When word got around that Kitson was so good, we literally had people queueing round the block for the 200-capacity venue and it was so popular – I swear this is true – we even stopped putting it in the listings. We didn’t advertise at all and it was still filling up.”

“But a club is more than just acts,” I said. “It’s the format.”

“I think,” said Ivor, “that there are three basic precepts to running a club:

  • Keep it simple
  • Keep the shows varied with experienced acts and new acts
  • Keep the ticket price low

“We’re charging just £4.50 at the new Brixton Comedy Club. There’s no messing around with internet sales; you just turn up and pay £4.50 on the door. It’s the first Thursday of every month. I think the circuit works best when it’s uncomplicated.”

“So how are you going to keep the shows varied?” I asked.

“With experienced circuit comics and a few newcomers,” said Ivor. “So Lewis Schaffer’s headlining the opening night. And I’m going to mix it up just a bit more. Experienced stand-ups and newcomers plus perhaps a bit of music and poets – just to make it a bit more fast-moving and move it away from the traditional format.”

“And you’re still occasionally performing your own full-length show around and about?” I asked.

”Yes,” said Ivor, “I’ve got this really nice little show called Old Jewish Jokes which, obviously, is me telling my favourite old Jewish jokes, but interwoven with the story of a Jewish comedian – me – who turns up to perform at ‘an hour of modern comedy’ for his local Jewish community. Before he goes on, though, he’s given a shopping list of things he cannot mention: the Holocaust, Israel and so on.

“So the show is not just the jokes; it’s about the predicament of the modern Jewish comedian and why Jewish comedy has not moved on. It’s about Jewish people – who claim to have a great sense of humour but, when it comes to jokes about themselves, they’re not too happy!

“Traditional Jewish comedy is brilliant but, as someone who’s written a lot of Jewish comedy, I’m grappling with the question Why doesn’t it move on and tackle these difficult subjects like the Holocaust and Israel and the traditional perception of Jews? Why doesn’t it take these subjects on? Why is everyone so scared? That is embedded in the show, which I commend to you. You should come see it.”

“Very kind,” I said. “Well sold.”

“It’s on Tuesdays from 2nd October at the Alice House in West Hampstead.” continued Ivor. “And then the following five Tuesdays. Do you want me to give you the full spiel?”

“I’ll find it on the internet,” I said.

“I never normally tell people You should see this. It’s great,” Ivor said,But, with this one, I honestly think it’s very good. I think it really takes Jewish comedy by the scruff of the neck and non-Jews love it just as much as Jewish people.”

“Well sold,” I said.

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In praise of the Daily Telegraph and Pear Shaped Comedy Club’s quirkiness

To start at the end of this blog and to reply to your reaction…

Look.

It’s my blog. I am allowed to witter.

So, for fans of Tristram Shandy

Brian Damage and Krysstal’s weekly Pear Shaped comedy club has been running in London’s West End for eleven years. Brian and Krysstal promote it as “the second worst comedy club in London”. I prefer to call Pear Shaped the Daily Telegraph of British open spot comedy clubs.

Let me explain.

When I blogged about last weekend’s six-hour event celebrating the anarchic life of Ian Hinchliffe, I did not mention that I told ex-ICA Director of Live Arts Lois Keidan about my admiration for Bernard Manning as a comic, Margaret Thatcher as a Parliamentary debater and the Daily Telegraph as a newspaper. I do not think she was impressed with this triple whammy.

But – in addition to my love of quirky Daily Telegraph obituaries in their golden era under Hugh Massingberd and their sadly now-dropped legendary Page Three oddities – I think the Daily Telegraph is the only actual national NEWSpaper left. All the others are, in effect, magazines with ‘think’ pieces and additional background to yesterday’s TV news.

But the Daily Telegraph prints a high quantity of short news reports and (outside of election times) maintains an old-fashioned Fleet Street demarcation between News and Comment. The news reporting is, mostly, unbiased straight reportage; the comment is what non-Telegraph readers might expect.

They have also consistently displayed an admiration for rebels.

The Daily Telegraph – perhaps moreso the Sunday Telegraph – always showed an interest in and admiration for comedian Malcolm Hardee. They loved quirky MP Alan Clark, though they disapproved of his sexual amorality. The Daily Telegraph even surprisingly championed early Eminem. When the red-top tabloids were claiming his music and his act were the end of Western Civilization, the Daily Telegraph reviewed his first UK tour as being in the great tradition of British pantomime.

I once met a Daily Telegraph sub-editor at a party who hated working at the paper for exactly the same reason I loved reading it. People would yell across the room at him: “Give me a three-inch story!” not caring what the actual story was.

So the Daily Telegraph ended up with an amazing quantity of news stories, often not fully explained because they had been cut short.

I remember reading on a classic Page Three of the old Daily Telegraph, a brief court report about a man accused of scaring lady horse-riders by leaping out of hedges in country lanes dressed in a full frogman’s outfit, including flippers, goggles and breathing tube. That was, pretty much, the whole news item. If ever a story needed more background printed, this was it.

The Pear Shaped Comedy club is a bit like the Daily Telegraph in that it is an extraordinary hodge-podge of fascinating items apparently thrown together randomly but somehow holding together as a recognisable whole with its own personality. Quirky, eccentric and barely under control. Last night, in addition to the consistently good and massively under-praised Brian Damage & Krysstal themselves, the show included increasingly-highly-thought-of Stephen Carlin, rising new comics Laurence Tuck and Phillip Wragg and very new but intriguing Samantha Hannah.

And then there was long-time comic, club owner, compere, comedy craftsman and humour guru Ivor Dembina. He had come down to try out some new material as he is performing in four shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, including the fascinatingly unformatted Ivor’s Other Show. He told me:

“I might just invite on people I’ve met in the street. Anything that takes my fancy.” Then he added, “Do you want to come on it one afternoon, John? Can you do anything?”

“No,” Pear Shaped co-owner Vicky de Lacey correctly interrupted, “he can write but he can’t actually do anything.”

But that never stopped Little and Large, so I may yet appear on Ivor’s Other Show, perhaps as a human statue. There is, inevitably, a ‘living statue’ resource page on the internet.

We live in wonderful times.

I refer you to the start of this blog.

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Edinburgh Fringe publicity stunts: the planned drowning of Malcolm Hardee

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – there are currently three of them – are being given every August until the year 2017. This is because that’s the number of physical awards I got mad inventor John Ward to make.

Of these three prestigious annual prizes, the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award (won last year by Stewart Lee) honours the best publicity stunt for any act or show at the Edinburgh Fringe that year.

There are no rules for the Malcolm Hardee Awards. If there were, Malcolm’s ashes would turn in their urn. But one rule-of-thumb for the Cunning Stunt Award is that people do not have to apply to be considered. Because, if you have to tell the judges you have done a publicity stunt then, by definition, the stunt has failed.

I started the Cunning Stunt Awards because it seemed to me that the marketing and publicising of comedy shows on the Fringe had become too serious and what was lacking was a bit of mindless irresponsibility. The Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award aims to encourage this.

The late lamented Malcolm was a comedian, club owner, compere, manager and sometimes agent, but it was often and correctly claimed that his real comedy act was his life off-stage and, at the Fringe, he was known for his stunts – writing a review of his own show and conning The Scotsman into printing it under the byline of their own comedy critic; driving a tractor naked through American performance artist Eric Bogosian’s show; announcing at a press conference that Glenda Jackson had died then eventually adding, “No, not that Glenda Jackson.”

If it had not been his mother who phoned me up in 2005 and told me Malcolm had drowned, I would probably have thought it was a publicity stunt.

Especially as, a few years before, I had tried to persuade Malcolm to fake his own death by drowning, as a publicity stunt.

The Assembly Rooms venue (now re-branded as simply Assembly) were paying him that year to do a show for the duration of the Edinburgh Fringe but he had also somehow managed to double-book himself on a mini-tour of South Africa.

“My kids have never been to South Africa,” he told me dolefully. This was after he had already started his Fringe run at the Assembly Rooms. “I think I’ll just do a runner.”

“How will the Assembly Rooms react?” I asked.

Malcolm shrugged his shoulders, blinked a bit and mumbled something inaudible, as he often did.

“Rather than pissing-off the Assembly,” I suggested, “why don’t you fake your own death?”

Malcolm had once been in prison with disgraced MP John Stonehouse, who had faked his own death by drowning then been found living with his mistress in Australia.

“You could hire a car in Edinburgh,” I suggested, “and drive it to North Berwick. Leave it near the beach with your clothes in a bundle nearby and something in the clothes which has your identity on it – a letter addressed to you, maybe. Then piss off to South Africa.”

“Mmmmm…” Malcolm mumbled.

“You go off to South Africa for two weeks,” I continued, “When you come back, you can read your own obituaries, with luck you can go to your own funeral and everyone including the Assembly will think it’s a great joke that’s in character. It’s a triple whammy. You get to go to South Africa for two weeks, you get publicity and you don’t piss-off the Assembly too much.”

Malcolm thought about it for a bit.

“I can’t do it,” he eventually said to me. “The only way it would work is if I didn’t tell Jane (his then wife) or my mum.”

Malcolm was a surprisingly sensitive man:

“They’d get hurt,” he said. “It wouldn’t work unless I didn’t tell them and I couldn’t not tell them.”

So that particular publicity stunt was never pulled.

One day, he just never turned up for his show at the Assembly Rooms. He had gone to South Africa. I don’t think, under the circumstances, the Assembly Rooms took it too badly.

I guess they just shrugged their shoulders and thought:

“Fuck it! It’s just Malcolm.”

(This year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards, including the Cunning Stunt Award, will be announced on the evening of Friday 26th August during a two-hour comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe.)

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Is comedy more or less important than sewage management?

Years ago, I was on a BBC shorthand writing course and one of the other guys on the course was a BBC News Trainee and Cambridge University graduate called Peter Bazalgette; there was something interesting about his eyes – a creative inquisitiveness – that made me think he had immense talent.

But he never got anywhere in BBC News.

He ended up as a researcher on Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life! and, from there, he became producer on one of the most unimaginatively-titled BBC TV shows ever: Food and Drink. 

He made a big success of that and in doing so, it is often said, he created the new concept of celebrity chefs. He then started his own company, making Changing Rooms, Ground Force and  Ready, Steady Cook amongst others.

His company ended up as part of Endemol and it is Bazalgette who is credited with making the Dutch TV format Big Brother such a big success in the UK and worldwide. By 2007, he was on Endemol’s global board with a salary of £4.6 million.

Last year, I saw another Cambridge University graduate perform at the Edinburgh Fringe – Dec Munro – and he had a creative inquisitiveness in his eyes similar to Peter Bazalgette’s.

Dec currently runs the monthly Test Tube Comedy show at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London’s Little Venice. I saw the show for the first time last night and he is an exceptionally good compere.

I always think it is more difficult to be a good compere than a good comedian and, very often, I have seen good comedians make bad comperes.

Ivor Dembina and Janey Godley – both, perhaps not coincidentally, storytellers rather than pure gag-based comics – are that rare thing: good comedians AND good comperes.

The late Malcolm Hardee – with the best will in the world – was not a particularly good comedian in a normal stand-up spot on a comedy bill – he really did survive for about 25 years on around six gags – but he was a brilliant, vastly underestimated compere as well as a club owner and spotter of raw talent and, as was often said, his greatest comedy act was actually his life off-stage.

Dec Munro has strong on-stage charisma and, judging by last night’s show, a good eye for putting together a bill, combining the more adventurous parts of the circuit – George Ryegold and Doctor Brown last night – with new acts who are very likely to have a big future – the very impressive musical act Rachel Parris

Of course, if they read this, I could have just destroyed Dec Munro’s and Rachel Parris’ careers. There is nothing worse than reading good mentions of your performance and believing them.

And I don’t know where either will end up.

In three years, Rachel Parris has the ability to be a major TV comedy performer. And Dec Munro should be a TV producer. But broadcast television is yesterday’s medium even with Simon Cowell’s successful mega shows. And no-one knows what the replacement is.

Perhaps Dec Munro and Rachel Parris will ride the crest of an upcoming wave; perhaps they will fade away. Showbiz is a dangerously random business. But, then, so is everything in life.

Peter Bazalgette is the great-great-grandson of sewer pioneer Sir Joseph Bazalgette who created central London’s sewer network which was instrumental in stopping the city’s cholera epidemics.

Sometimes handling shit in a better way can be more important than being a successful showbiz performer or producer.

You can create your own punchline to that.

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