Tag Archives: corporate

How did a stand-up comedian and improviser become a business guru?

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

In yesterday’s blog, I talked to Neil Mullarkey about his memories of 1980s alternative comedy.

I talked to him in the dressing room of London’s Comedy Store before he improvised two hours of comedy with The Comedy Store Players, the group of which he was a founding member in 1985.

Now, he mostly makes his living from running improvisation workshops for businessman and organisations – Improv Your Biz.

As well as this serious business guru career, Neil also occasionally pops up as spoof life coach guru L.Vaughan Spencer.

Neil’s chum PR guru Mark Borkowski advised him to distinguish between the two. So, as L.Vaughan Spencer, Neil sports a small beard and ponytail. L.Vaughan Spencer staged a show Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy in 2002 and, in 2008, published a book: Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy – The A to Zee of Motivitality.

Neil’s 2008 spoof book

L.Vaughan Spencer’s 2008 spoof book

What links Neil’s three worlds of comedy, spoof life coaching and real business training is improvisation

Neil explained: “One of my chums at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 1983 told me: I saw this brilliant show last night. – Omlette Broadcasting (Jim Sweeney, Steve Steen, Justin Case, Peter Wear). They were improvising. And I couldn’t believe it was possible. I thought: They must take a suggestion from the audience and then steer it towards the thing they’d already planned. In a sketch format, I didn’t realise you could do Funny without planning.”

“And you met Mike Myers,” I prompted, “who went on to do the Austin Powers films.”

“Yes,” said Neil. “I met him when he was selling tickets for the Cambridge Footlights show I was in at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London, and he made me laugh.

“He told me he had been at Second City in Canada and that was where my heroes were from. My heroes were John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. The Blues Brothers was the thing I wanted to do. American comedy was what I loved. American sitcom. And Mike told me about improv where it’s about ‘accepting offers’.

“When The Comedy Store Players perform, we are each listening intently to what the others are saying. Someone will throw me a line and I will take it on. Instead of thinking No, no, no, that’s not what I am saying – which is called ‘a block’ – I will take the other person’s line – ‘accepting the offer’. The more Mike told me about the whole ethos of improv, the more I said: This is intriguing! This is fantastic!”

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photo by Bill Alford)

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“And,” I said to Neil, “you teamed-up and performed in Britain as Mullarkey & Myers in the early years of alternative comedy.”

“Yes,” said Neil, “we did quite physical visual parody sketches”

“Did you think of going over to America when Mike moved back?”

“I visited him a few times. We did our show in Toronto and the audiences got it. When I visited America, I did quite like being the foreigner. You become more English when you’re in America, because people say: Do that accent! I’m pretty English anyway, I suppose, even though I’ve got an Irish name and I was brought up in France for my early life. I went to LA a few times and thought This is great to visit, but I don’t want to live here. I like England and I like London.

“Mike wanted me to go and write on Saturday Night Live, but I fell in love with someone in Britain.”

“You fell in love and your partner wanted to stay here?”

“Yes. I did help Mike with the script on a film called So I Married An Axe Murderer, which was great fun… but I’m doing the thing I want to do now.”

“At what point did you get into your corporate teaching guru hat?” I asked. “And why? Was there one trigger for that?”

“In the late-1990s,” said Neil, “I thought: Do I want to be doing this when I’m 50?

“Going on stage in front of a drunken comedy audience?”

“Yes, a bit of that. But also, when you are an older comedian, you’re not as interesting to people in TV and radio. They want Who is the new person on the block? They want Who is the same age as me? – They don’t want to discover somebody that’s already been discovered.

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil's website

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil’s website

“I also found that the vehicle for most comedy on TV and radio was the panel show. It tends to be quite combative and un-collaborative and I’m not very good at that. But also, philosophically and psychologically, I was looking at other things. I was interested in how organisations and businesses function. My degree is in psychology, sociology and economics, so I was always interested in that.

“I suppose the big thing was I met a man called Frank Farrelly who created Provocative Therapy… Provocative Therapy uses humour to help people get better.”

“What does Provocative Therapy provoke?” I asked.

“It sounds confrontational,” said Neil, “but what you do is satirize people’s self-limiting beliefs in order to help them achieve mental health. You assume the answer – the solution – is within themselves.

If you say I want to give up smoking, I’ll say Why? Smoking is fantastic! It’s really cool – You should be smoking more! And then they go: Wait a minute. This isn’t what I expected and they begin to think Why DO I want to give up smoking?

“Frank Farrelly’s idea is that you hold up a weird hall of mirrors to people to make them look at themselves and think Hang on! What IS it I want?

Neil Mullarkey - inspirational businessman

Neil Mullarkey – inspirational and provocative businessman

“In improv, you basically treat what the other person has to say as an ‘offer’. You have choices of how to react to that offer. That works in the improv scenario. If you transfer that to business or organisational life and treat what your fellow employees or team say as an offer, then you have to figure out how you can accept their offer positively to say Yes AND rather than Yes BUT… It is an intent listening… Intentive listening.”

“Intentive?” I asked.

“It’s a word I made up,” said Neil. “It means you are listening with intent. You are so focussed on the other person that you pick up their threads.

“Provocative therapy is about accepting ‘the offer’ – like in improv – and almost taking it to absurd heights… How many cigarettes do you smoke in a day? 20 a day? No. You should be smoking 200. Can you make that a promise? 200? 

“Sometimes the client gets angry, sometimes they’re laughing. But what is going on is they are processing thoughts. They may be visualising themselves and thinking It’s absurd smoking 20 if I want to give up. Why am I not just giving up?”

“But surely,” I said, “if you use this technique with businessmen, they’ll think you are being sarcastic?”

“Well I do it. I am just teasing them. Frank Farrelly said you’re just teasing people back to mental health.

“I went to see him at his home in Wisconsin. then he came over to the Netherlands to do a workshop and I discovered all these people. What do you do? – I’m an executive coach – I had never heard of that. Loads of people from Belgium. I gradually found this other world of coaching business executives – as well as arts-based training in the business world.”

“Arts-based training?” I asked.

“Basically using theatre, art, music to help people do their job better. Whether it’s to work better as a team, to be more creative, to be a better leader, whatever.”

“It sounds like executives paintballing to bond with each other,” I said, “but indoors.”

“That’s what it is,” said Neil. “But my contention is Why go build a raft and do paintballing? – That has nothing to do with your job. Do something that is relevant to your job – and what is the thing you most do in a job? You talk to other people. So here is a ready-made philosophy – improvisation – which actually started in the 1920s in Chicago as part of the New Deal. Social workers helping children who were diffident in class, didn’t speak English as their first language… Exercises to enhance their confidence..

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt and schmooze

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt, schmooze, network

“That was done by a woman called Viola Spolin and, 30 years later, her son Paul Sills created what became The Second City theatre company that Mike Myers and I talked about.”

“So,” I said, “Provocative Therapy helps business people to schmooze.”

“You can use improv to flirt, to schmooze, to network,” said Neil. “Any word you want to use because – really – it is just listening with intent. When people are laughing, they’ll learn more. You can blindside them with funny.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Comedy

£500 ticket price to see one Edinburgh Fringe comedy show this August

I have been called to do Jury Service in England from 3rd June, so what follows is of more than passing interest to me…

Norman Lovett will be an Edinburgh Fringe judge

A bewigged Norman Lovett will be an Edinburgh Fringe judge

In a blog three months ago, I mentioned the live This Is Your Laugh comedy events.

At the Edinburgh Fringe this August, they are being re-titled This Is Your Trial and five shows are currently being financed via the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

At the time of posting this blog, there are 11 days left.

The Kickstarter pitch has twelve levels of pledges ranging from £5 (you get a postcard sent to you from Edinburgh) to £600 (for which you get a bespoke Christmas comedy trial tailored for you). But, for £500, you can get your own Edinburgh Fringe show especially designed and written for you or (perhaps more probably) for your business. For the £500, you also get a “guarantee of special guest celebrity comedian in the role of the judge and up to 40 guests with special souvenirs and surprises”.

Organiser David Allison told me yesterday: “Tickets are being sold as individual tickets per show, priced at £500. I’m sure they must be the most expensive tickets on this year’s Fringe.”

There are only five show slots at the Fringe (5th-9th August) and, at the time of writing this blog, two people have already forked out £500.

The This Is Your Trial format is that a group of friends or business co-workers basically have a jolly time. One or three people from the group, are put on trial before their friends and colleagues to face ‘charges’. Friends are brought forward to provide evidence and witness statements. Comedians play the roles of Judge, Prosecutor and Defence counsel. It is, says the pitch, “like a comedy roast but far more creative, interactive and less insulting!”

Comedians already signed-up to perform at the shows include Mark Dolan, Tim FitzHigham, Janey Godley, Tony Law, Norman Lovett and Glenn Wool.

Also involved is the ubiquitous Bob Slayer – the shows will be staged in his new Fringe venue Bob’s Bookshop.

Bob Slayer - unusually clothed - at a previous show

Bob Slayer – unusually sober and clothed – at a previous show

Yesterday, he told me: “I am really chuffed with the response before it is even in the Fringe Programme – I always knew it could become a show that acts want to do… With the quality and experience of the acts we already have getting involved it will be very interesting to see how differently they approach the roles. There is a lot of flexibility for an act to make their own impression on the role and really take it wherever they want to go. A couple of TV producers are already showing interest in the format and the next step will be to start speaking to agents to represent the format after Edinburgh… maybe someone reading your blog will get in touch?!”

So This Is Your Trial is part comedy show, part corporate business gig and part TV show format tout.

“I’m taking this unusual Kickstarter approach,” David Allison told me, “to try to get more awareness of what we’re doing – being very public trying to raise funds to do the shows.

“I’m offering decent rewards for pledges (I think) which will each help further push the message and brand out there. I’m offering souvenir programmes, T-shirts, pens, discounted shows in London – I’ve already sold one of those – a birthday we’re doing in July.”

“So who has actually forked-out 500 quid?” I asked.

“One Fringe show,” replied David, “has been booked by a solicitor firm in Glasgow called Inksters. Brian Inkster came to that London show you came to with Norman Lovett.”

“And,” Bob Slayer added, “we will be doing a show with the two sponsors of my Heroes venues – Scottish Borders Brewery and Bawbags underpants, based in Edinburgh. Two good local businesses who have a suitably irreverent approach to business. We have other folks interested – but it’s not bad to have 40% of tickets sold before they have even officially gone on sale. May 9th is when they go on sale online and then the Fringe Programme is published on 30th May.”

“And TV?” I asked.

“The TV format is shaping up,” David Allison told me, “and there’s a great company on board: CC-Lab. We’re hoping to be pitching that very soon. I’m also working out how to broadcast the shows via MixLr as live podcasts to attract businesses seeking additional promotions by doing it.”

I suspect there will be more laughs – and justice – at these Scottish comedy gigs than in the English court on 3rd June, where a highly-paid Prosecutor will presumably hide evidence and the court system will, as always, assume the defendant to be guilty unless he can afford to prove himself innocent.

There is a clip on YouTube of a previous This Is Your Laugh show featuring Phil Kay:

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, Television

How Doug Segal changed his image from top corporate advertising agency man to successful comedy mind reader

Changing his image - Doug Segal in 2008 (left) and in2011

To help change his image, Doug Segal lost 8 stone in weight

This Saturday is Star Wars Day – May The Fourth be with you – and I am probably going to Stowmarket in Suffolk to see two early Edinburgh Fringe previews – by comedian Juliette Burton and mind-reader Doug Segal.

Both are also performing their shows at the Brighton Fringe next month.

Whether I go to Stowmarket or not depends on the carpet man from John Lewis. Trust me. You do not want to know.

But I had a chat with Doug Segal in case I do not go.

Yesterday, he told me: “Stowmarket will be the first time I’ve ever done an actual ‘preview’ as opposed to a fully-honed show, so I’m packing extra trousers! I’ve already identified a bunch of major changes I’ll be making between this weekend and Brighton – but I’m leaving them in because I want to work on other stuff and I need to try that in front of a real audience.

“The new show is called I Can Make You a Mentalist and premieres properly on 24th and 25th in Brighton, then there are about ten dates around the country, then it runs at the Gilded Balloon throughout the Edinburgh Fringe in August and it tours the country in Spring next year.”

Doug is very successful but does not have an agent.

“I’m really struggling to get an agent,” he told me.

“But you have bookings coming out of your ears!” I said, surprised. We were talking in London at lunchtime; he was on his way to Brighton to play a corporate afternoon show, then he was returning to London in the evening to play another big gig.

“I’m playing big venues,” agreed Doug. “I played York Theatre Royal two weeks ago. It’s frustrating. I’ve got 15% of an on-going business that I’m desperate to give away.

Wrestling with the problem of agents who cannot categorise him

Agents’ problem with Doug’s act is they cannot categorise it

“Agents come along and say: I absolutely love what you do!

“Then they have a little think: Oh! I can’t just put it into the machine, crank the handles and it’ll fall into the normal places. I’ll have to actually think about it.

“Then all of them tell me the same thing: We adore what you do! Amazing! But it’s a lot of work for us at the moment and we’re not sure we’ve got the manpower.

“And I think: Well, I’m managing it AND doing the act, so why can’t you?”

Perhaps that might be because Doug is a better salesman than most agents.

He started off selling space to advertisers in the Today newspaper, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard.

“I left advertising and did corporate after-dinner mind-reading shows for about six years,” he told me. “Then I went off and started a second career doing stand-up comedy and got to the point where I was getting regular paid middle-of-the-bills and the odd paid opener. And then I quit… because the whole point was learn how to make my act funny. So then I had a comedy mentalism act and started doing public shows and that took off beyond my expectations.”

“What first interested you in mind reading?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I used to fanny around when I was doing psychology at London University – Birkbeck College – I started doing party pieces. I usually tell people I was taking hard science and perverting it for tawdry entertainment. I also did some acting with a theatre company and I’d been in bands in my teens – from 14 to 19. We supported some decent bands.”

Who knows what is going on here?

Mind reading? Who knows what is going on?

“So you had a desperate urge to be famous,” I said.

“I had that once,” said Doug. “Now I just want to make a decent living performing. I think Stewart Lee’s model is you want 10,000 people who are prepared, each year, to pay you £15 to come and see a new show.

“So I only want sufficient fame to make that happen. I would hate the level of fame where your life becomes a pantomime played out on the public stage. That would be horrific; I genuinely don’t want that.

“What happened was I had a son really, really young and needed to provide for my family and needed to get a sensible career, so I sold advertising space for newspapers and worked for an advertising agency. I learnt about persuasion, extended my repertoire of party pieces and then I had a client who bullied me into doing a show for a car manufacturer’s conference.

“It went down really well and I thought I could give this a go! I miss being on stage: I’ll give it a shot! And I sold out the Baron’s Court Theatre for two weeks and then things escalated from there.

“I was at quite a senior level in advertising when I left. I was on the board of a major agency: the third biggest agency in the UK at the time. I was one of the first people in Britain to spend money on posters in toilets. And I was one of the ad agency people developing all these LED sites you see on the roadside and in the underground.”

A sophisticated act, Doug never resorts to know gags

Off stage, Doug is an art connoisseur

“Can I say in my blog that you were very big in toilets?” I asked.

“Only in the context of posters,” replied Doug.

“What are you going to be doing in ten years time?”

“I have no idea. What I wanted to do when I left the corporate world was to effectively have an early semi-retirement. The principle was: Don’t work very often but charge an obscene amount of money when you do. That model worked right up to the Recession.

“Then my wife told me: You need to do a tour. I said No, self-funded public tours lose money. So she said: You should do the Edinburgh Fringe. I said: Absolutely not. It’s a money pit. But she talked me into it and it went really well.

“That first year – 2011 – I did ten days on the Free Fringe, picked up ten 4 and 5 star reviews and, after accommodation costs, made £350.

“Last year, I played the Gilded Balloon and the average loss you make at a paid venue is something like £8,000… But, after taking into account accommodation and everything, I only lost £102 over the full run and that was only because I had a bloody expensive screen and TV camera. If it hadn’t been for that, I would have made a decent profit.”

“So this new show…” I said. “You do a mind-reading act… Mind-reading is mind-reading. Basically, it’s the same as your previous shows. It’s the same old – highly successful – tosh.”

“No,” said Doug laughing, “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t the same old tosh. I’ve really ramped-up the comedy angle and there is a storyline. Things happen dramatically through the show. I don’t just move from one thing to another. There are ‘events’ within the show.

“It’s always been a comedy mind-reading show – there are gags and stuff – but, as well as that, there’s now sketch comedy, animation and music. The sketches I’ve co-written with James Hamilton of Casual Violence and Guy Kelly from the Beta Males.”

“Good grief,” I said.

“This year’s show,” explains Doug, “starts with a random audience member being chosen and then they do the show. They do all of the tricks in the show. I have this enormous machine on stage called the Brainmatiser 3000. It’s like my TARDIS, I guess. Stuff happens. The narrative of the show gets taken off-track. Unexpected events happen and then get resolved. Lots of physical comedy.”

“But you’re screwed on TV,” I said, “because there’s only room for one mentalist act at any one time on TV and Derren Brown is already there.”

“What I really want,” said Doug, “is for people to come out of my stage show this year and say I have really no idea what that show was. This year’s show is a Fast Show type comedy with mentalism plus a storyline running through. That’s something different. You could put that on screen and it would not be the Derren Brown show.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Ad industry, Comedy, Psychology

The Edinburgh Fringe is sick. What is missing? The true spirit of the Fringe…

A comedy god has vomited on Edinburgh

The anonymous Poster Menace has e-mailed me another photograph. It is of an food trolley standing unattended in the street after some unknown accident. Unexplained. It could be an exhibit from Tate Modern. To me, it looks like abstract vomit. And a sign of the former essential anarchy now largely missing from the Edinburgh Fringe.

Walking round the streets of Edinburgh this last week, I have realised there is something odd this year.

Things are neater.

They were neater last year.

They are even neater this year.

The Fringe is sick.

The original basis of the Fringe is that it is an open festival. No-one is invited; no-one is organised. Anyone can come, put on any show they like in any place they can get and no-one actually controls what they do. The central Fringe Office simply issues a Fringe Programme with information provided by the performers. It does not control what goes into the Programme or what the performers do.

Except now it does.

As of this year, it has censored shows’ titles, it has censored shows’ descriptions, it has even insisted that the written description of shows printed in the Fringe Programme should use correct English grammar in the phrasing. It has become a schoolmasterly control freak.

Parallel to this, Edinburgh Council has controlled how shows are advertised on the streets. You can still say COCK, PRICK, SHIT in large letters on your posters prominently displayed in public thoroughfares throughout the city (although the Fringe Office has banned these words in its printed Programme – despite the fact they were acceptable in previous years).

In a seemingly reasonable move a couple of years ago, Edinburgh Council stopped turning a blind eye to random postering in the streets by rogue postering companies. This seemed reasonable enough. You cannot, so the argument goes, have people randomly postering on private and public properties and walls all over the city. It also meant the Council could charge for postering. But there was a consequence.

Now you can only poster in designated ways on designated sites using designated postering companies.

Look around the streets of Edinburgh and it still seems like hundreds of different shows are being advertised. But, look closer, and you see that (ignoring the mega big posters which were always put there by big companies) the ‘normal’ sized posters on the streets are almost all for the Big Four venues or for acts being put on by the big promoters.

Any small or middling shows have been marginalised to the half-glimpsed windows and doorways of small shops or, almost invisibly, inside and to a tiny extent outside the smaller venues.

The original basic and essential anarchy and uncontrollability of the Fringe is being reined in and controlled. The big venues are becoming bar areas with performance rooms not performance rooms with bars. The Fringe Programme is becoming a magazine where people have to pay to advertise but have no final control over their own paid-for words. The street advertising has already been moved into more corporate control.

The Fringe has been officialised, standardised and controlled. The PBH Free Fringe  and Laughing Horse Free Festival (occasionally bitter rivals) have re-invented the spirit of the old Fringe. But it may be too late.

On the other hand, there are still some free spirits and uncontrollable events.

Janey Godley and Paul Provenza in Edinburgh last night

Last night I went to see my comedy chum Janey Godley perform on Paul Provenza‘s (terrifying for performers) improvisation-based Set List. She stormed it, but told me afterwards: “It’s like the opposite of normal comedy. Set List gets harder the more you do it. You run on adrenaline the first time but then, the more you do it, the more your brain knows how difficult it is and tries to sabotage you!” 

An extra last-minute guest on the show was Phil Kay, who arrived without a plectrum for his guitar. Someone lent him a credit card and he played with that. There will probably be some Fringe rule preventing this soon, unless the credit card belongs to a Fringe-sponsoring bank.

When I got back to my flat at 3.30am, I found Free Festival/Alternative Fringe promoter Bob Slayer had sent me yet another e-mail. Is there no end to his quest for self-publicity? Let us hope not.

His venue The Hive is on Niddry Street, a narrow, steep street linking the higher Royal Mile with the lower Cowgate. A couple of doors down from his venue is the rival PBH Free Fringe venue The Banshee Labyrinth. At the bottom of the street are Bannerman’s pub and some Just The Tonic venues.

Bob’s latest e-mail reads :


Bob Slayer’s show has ended up in the gutter

John –

I want you to know that it wasn’t me! 

The blocked drains at the PBH Banshee Labyrinth that are causing poo and pee to flow down the street into PBH Bannermans are nothing to do with me! The Alternative Fringe flyers which are floating out of the drain and along the river of tepid toilet water are merely a coincidence… 

Earlier in the week, Daryl at Just The Tonic came up and asked me if I had anything to do with their power cut. 

And now I am getting fingered for blocking drains… ____________________ 

Some people will do – or, at least, suggest – anything to get mentioned in this blog.

1 Comment

Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Marketing