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The future of UK comedy – and a comic threatens to sue me for defamation

There has been some reaction to my blog of yesterday about the comedy industry “crisis meeting” at the Monkey Business club two nights ago.

Bob Slayer (left) naked & drunk at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe

Comedian Bob Slayer took exception to the fact I said he sometimes pretended to be drunk on stage. He threatened to sue me for defamation and damage to his professional image over the use of the word “pretended”. He also told me soberly – or not – his view of the alleged comedy business crisis:

“The alchopop crowd that traditionally fill mainstream gigs are losing interest in live comedy. They can probably get all they want on TV. When they go out they will go see one of their TV stars at an arena and the only way to get them to go to a club is to heavily discount. Groupon!

“However, there are plenty of other audiences out there and it is a simple fact that comedy clubs which don’t adapt will struggle to find those audiences.”

Bob argues that those who survive will be those who “put something interesting on in interesting settings” like Pull The Other One, Knock2Bag, the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society and his own Heroes of Fringe gigs. He tells me “gigs in breweries are doing really well” and “maybe the 99 Clubs can be added to that list, but James doesn’t book me so I don’t know his gigs!”

He adds: “It’s interesting to note that our current gold medal winning comedian Dr Brown rarely played clubs over the past few years – although he did do the ones mentioned above. He prefered to tour around Fringe festivals and now he can do a month at Soho Theatre. He is not the only one.

“Are traditional comedy club nights going to become less and less relevant or worthwhile for comedians? Maybe. Acts will find a way to keep busy and develop their own audience, running their own nights, free nights, cabaret and variety gigs, gigs in odd places and so on. There is not a crisis but there is a change… and now I’m off to another brewery to set up some gigs and drink a lot.”

I also got a reaction to yesterday’s blog from a regional comedy club promoter who prefers (I think wrongly) to remain anonymous.

“Here’s the problem as I see it,” he says, adding “and I book big names as well as newcomers…

“Firstly, talent oversupply. Acts are produced at an alarming rate by agencies/management companies. I see this as the main structural problem in the comedy market – Agencies have a stranglehold on both live comedy and TV and, as such, they rig it to their requirements and they have distorted the market with an oversupply of mediocre talent, ensuring that we have lots of identikit comedians and very little originality or individuality. I sometimes struggle to recognize acts who do my middle spots and opens because they all LOOK THE SAME. And, if I hear one more open spot use the words ‘paedo’ or ‘rapey’, my hamster eats lead…

“Along with talent oversupply, there are still acts playing the bigger clubs who were doing those clubs back in 1995 or 1996 and what you have is no movement at the top and a massive pressure build-up at the bottom. Comedy courses make the problem worse because they convey the impression to new entrants that there is a living to be had out there and that anyone can be a comedian. This is simply not true. Traditionally, this kind of economic impasse leads to protectionism of some sort, so don’t be surprised if someone suggest either a club owners confederation or a comedians ‘union’!”

Reacting to Lewis Schaffer’s comments quoted in my blog yesterday, this club owner continues:

Lenny Bruce said you can be amazing AND be consistent – the two are not mutually exclusive and this should be the aim of all performers in comedy – aiming for an 80% wow rate. Anything lower and you aren’t a pro standup.

“As a medium-sized promoter running a number of clubs outside London, it seems the most pertinent comment in this debate is that comedy is a business. Like any other, it works on business lines and conforms to the rules of economics.

“There is an oversupply of talent and there is an oversupply of clubs (in London) and a seeming decline in demand/less customers to go round. So the customer will seek a USP which makes them go out and spend their declining leisure dollar.

“In most businesses, that is price, quality or service or all three. There are clubs – no names no pack drill – who are charging £15 for a seriously average night in a back room of a pub with no decent compere, a crap mike and crap lights. These will be the first casualties in the coming comedy shakedown. If they want to save themselves, the answer is simple – Up your game, lower your price and vary your talent menu a bit more.

“One major creative step they could take is investing in pro MCs and having a few more women on their bill. The audience is 50% women, so why oh why oh why do some promoters fail to put on female acts?”

He also sees a problem with the comedy agencies.

“The main agencies,” he says, “seem to be picking up talent via competitions at a very early age and most of these acts are just simply incapable of creating anything spectacular, mainly because they are produced by agencies desperate to create identikit money-making machines.

“These kids are dumped onto the comedy market with no real experience of working a room or doing a consistent performance and with massively overblown expectations of what their ‘career’ will entail. Agencies are simply not chasing down real talent but going for those acts which look good or who are young enough to have an alternative career as a pop performer. I have seen too many acts punted my way by agencies who just don’t have the creative cojones to create anything worth watching over the longer term.

“Before I was in comedy, I worked in marketing and my advice to the industry would be this:

  • Lower your price and raise your game – offer things that other clubs do not offer and, if you can’t do this, offer better service.
  • Seek talent out and nurture it.
  • Avoid agencies. Like all middlemen, they add little value.
  • Make new talent tread the boards for a while and avoid competition winners. With a few exceptions, competitions do not a good stand up make.

“Lastly – and this is something beyond my control – TV comedy needs to change. TV producers are about 6-18 months behind the zeitgeist. They are booking acts and following trends that were happening on the circuit in 2009/2010 and TV puts NOTHING back into the circuit that it exploits. It’s about time that the TV people really started to engage with the live circuit… much like they used to do before alternative comedy.”

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The truth about “A Clockwork Orange” and why some movie critics deserve a colonoscopy

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned actor Rutger Hauer’s famous death speech in Blade Runner and someone complained on my Facebook page that, in fact, I should have credited the film’s writers – the screenplay was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

In fact, it’s almost inconceivable but true that Rutger Hauer actually made up the speech off the top of his head. I saw a TV interview with the film’s director, Ridley Scott, where he said Rutger just went over in a corner and came back with the speech in its entirety:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

It wasn’t in the script; it wasn’t in the book; the director didn’t write it; the actor made it up.

But the guy who complained about my crediting the actor not the writer is quite right in general. People tend to overlook who actually creates movies: the writers. Without them, zilch. A director may be brilliant – for example, David Fincher with Fight Club and The Social Network – but the 1950s French-spawned cult of the director is just as stupid as any other piece of intellectualising about movie-making.

It never fails to amaze me what pseudo-intellectual bullshit some so-called critics spout about the movies. When you create an academic subject, it seems that reality goes out the window and, rather than look at the movies, some people just look up their own arses

Last night, I went to a special screening of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 movie If…. introduced by Sir Alan Parker. He had chosen If…. as the movie which had most influenced him, despite the fact that its director Lindsay Anderson didn’t much like him and had once (with John Schlesinger) sued him in the courts for defamation of character over a cartoon he had drawn.

In fact, it seemed, Alan Parker had mostly chosen If…. because he greatly admired its director of photography Miroslav Ondricek, not its director.

A lot of film criticism is utter twaddle written from the bizarre ivory towers of academia. I can never get over the stupidity of film courses which claim that the ideal movie is Casablanca and therefore, by extension, people should follow the example of Casablanca when writing a film script.

Casablanca was a terrible mess of movie production. The truth is that the actors – along with everyone else on the movie – had no idea what was going to happen at the end and had no idea if the Ingrid Bergman character was going to go off with Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid in the final scene, so could not tailor their performances accordingly.

Virtually each night, after completing a hard day’s shooting, they were given new script pages and script rewrites for the next day’s shooting. Neither the director not the producer and especially not the writers (credited as Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch with an uncredited Casey Robinson, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) – nobody – had any idea what was going on.

So the ideal way to shoot a movie would be (in this ludicrous theory) to start shooting with no finished script and actors who have no idea what their characters think or feel.

Much has been written about the fact that If…. has some sequences in colour and some in black & white. I had heard this was because they had run out of money and (surprisingly in 1968) it was cheaper to shoot in black & white.

Alan Parker said last night that he had heard the interiors of the church were shot in black & white because shooting in colour would have required much more lighting and, as a relatively low-budget film, they could not afford that, so Miroslav Ondricek shot with faster black & white film. The rest of the black & white sequences appeared to be simply random and done on a whim.

As for the auteur theory that the director creates and controls everything, at the summit of this must be Stanley Kubrick, who was a legendary control freak. There are stories of him going to suburban cinemas with a light meter and taking readings off the screen so he would know the intensity of light with which his films had to be screened for optimum viewing by ordinary audiences.

He insisted on take after take after take of scenes – sometimes 50 times for one shot – so that the lighting, framing, acting et al were perfect.

A Clockwork Orange is one film of his that has been written about endlessly

But, last night, Alan Parker said the star of A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell, had told him that, when cast in the lead role of Alex, he wasn’t sure how to play the part and had asked Lindsay Anderson for advice. Anderson told McDowell to remember the slight smile he had put on his face as the character Mick Travis when entering the gym for the beating sequence in If…. and to play the character of Alex like that throughout A Clockwork Orange. McDowell said it was the best piece of direction he had ever received.

The auteur theory?

Academic film critics?

They might as well get a colonoscopy and stick the camera up their arse.

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