Tag Archives: critics

Humour’s not a universal language – it’s a matter of personal or national opinion

I have sat through some weird shit in my time

Michael Powell’s movie Gone To Earth, Robin Hardy’s movie The Fantasist and Edinburgh Fringe stage show Sally Swallows and the Rise of Londinian. They spring immediately to mind.

And I can now add to that an ‘acclaimed’ Finnish ‘deadpan comedy’ movie The Other Side of Hope.

I was invited to an “influencer preview screening” in Soho yesterday afternoon. It was in English, Finnish and Arabic. With English subtitles.

The first person I saw when I arrived was Scots comic Richard Gadd. His factual movie drama Against The Law is being screened on BBC2 at the end of June.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m the lead actor in The Other Side of Hope.,” he told me, apparently slightly affronted that I had not known.

Some people will turn up to the opening of an envelope. I will turn up to anything which has the likelihood of free tea and salmon sandwiches. It does not mean I read the fine details of any press release.

“How come you are the lead in a Finnish film?” I asked Richard Gadd.

“Because,” said Richard Gad, “I am half-Finnish.”

“Heavens,” I said, slightly embarrassed, “I didn’t know that,”

“Well I am,” he told me, slightly wearily.

Thom Tuck (left) and Richard Gadd at Soho House yesterday

The next person I saw was comedian, writer and variably-hirsute thespian Thom Tuck, currently touring Britain in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.

“Are you playing Willy?” I asked.

“No,” he said slightly wearily. “He is in his 60s.”

I thought it unwise to mention anything about ‘playing with Willy’ so, changing the subject, I said: “I didn’t know Richard was half-Finnish.”

“I only know how to swear in Finnish,” Thom replied.

“Don’t let me stop you,” I told him.

“Kusipää…” he said. “Vittu pois… Kivekset.” Then, looking at Richard, he asked: “Was my pronunciation OK?”

“Pretty good,” said Richard, generously.

As for The Other Side of Hope – the film we had come to see…

Well, as for the film…

What can I say…?

One selling synopsis for it is:

MORAL CLARITY IN PLURALITY
A poker playing restauranteur and
former travelling salesman befriends
a group of refugees.

It is about a Syrian immigrant from Aleppo during the current civil war who is in Finland as a refugee.

The film won the Silver Bear Award for Best Director at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and rave reviews for it include:

“Combines poignancy with torrents of laughter” (5-stars. Daily Telegraph)

“’Surreal and screamingly funny” (5-stars. The Times)

“I laughed, I cried, I shrieked.” (5-stars, Observer)

It currently has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score.

People say comedy is a universal language.

Well, I am here to tell you it is not.

Rikki Fulton, Scotch & Wry: too straight-faced for the English

I remember working for a cable or satellite TV channel (I can’t remember which) and, in trailer-making mode, I sat through three episodes of Scotch & Wry, a legendary successful BBC Scotland TV comedy show which I had never seen and which I don’t think had been screened on English terrestrial television. It was absolutely terrifically funny,

After seeing the three episodes, I went back into the office.

“Have you seen Scotch & Wry?” I started to say. “Isn’t it absolutely…”

“Yes,” said someone. “It is utter shit, isn’t it?”

That was the general English view in the office and I think it was because star Rikki Fulton et al performed everything utterly straight-faced. I think deadpan comedy works with Scots audiences, not so well with English audiences and it may ultimately be a Scandinavian thing,

I worked in a Swedish TV company with Swedes, Norwegians and Danes. Each nationality’s sense of humour was slightly different and the Swedes in particular were very, very straight-faced though equally humorous.

My experience of Finns is mostly meeting them on holiday – particularly in the former Soviet Union and, as a result, in cliché mode, I think of Finns as very very amiable but almost always paralytically drunk (there are licensing problems in Finland and the exchange rate between blue jeans and vodka in Leningrad was highly in favour of the Finns).

All this comes as an intro to my opinion of The Other Side of Hope.

The film very-noir in its original Finnish: it translates appropriately as “Beyond Hope”

It was like watching zombies perform some dreary social-realist drama about Syrian immigrants in a grey city. It made Harold Pinter’s dialogue and pauses seem like Robin Williams speeding on cocaine.

The film opened with a woman wearing curlers in her hair. She was sitting at a table on which stood a spherical cactus with thin spines sticking out. I thought: This may be a commendably weird movie.

Well weird it certainly was but, for me, utterly titterless. Not a single titter dropped from my lips, missus.

There was a 10-15 minute section towards the very end of the film which showed signs of very straight-faced, deadpan humour involving a restaurant. But even that was titter-free.

I have obviously missed something.

It is oft – and truly – said that Tommy Cooper could walk on stage, do nothing, say nothing and the audience would laugh. I have often wondered if some American or German or Latvian who had never seen Tommy Cooper before would have laughed.

And there is the never-to-be-forgotten lesson of Scotch & Wry.

I am prepared to believe The Other Side of Hope has them rolling in the frozen deadpan-loving aisles of Helsinki. It left me totally enjoyment-free. It was a bleak film about a Syrian immigrant in Helsinki in which people didn’t say much. But, then, I did enjoy Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness, I like eating kimchi and, as a child, I enjoyed cod liver oil.

The Other Side of Hope has had great reviews. It can survive without me.

As a coda to all this, I should mention that, as we went into the screening room, Richard Gadd told me he was not half-Finnish and he did not appear in the film at all. He had just been invited along to see it because he is an “influencer”.

This turned out to be true.

He is not in the film.

Yesterday afternoon was just totally weird. I also met a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head like Carmen Miranda. He was not smiling. He may have been an actor of Finnish origin.

Oh, alright.

I made that bit up. I did not meet a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head.

The rest is true.

Though I am beginning to think I may have dreamt the whole of yesterday.

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Filed under Comedy, Finland, Humor, Humour, Movies

More advice to performers and other creative people and some plagiarism

SlaughterhouseFive-still

I stole the title of this blog: SO IT GOES.

Someone sent me a Facebook message this morning asking: “Is the origin of So It Goes down to Kurt Vonnegut? Or is it a reference to something wider?”

I told him it is solely down to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and my inherent nihilism.

He told me: “I read Slaughterhouse-Five recently and it just looked like something plugging your blog.”

According to Wikipedia – so it must be true – the refrain So it goes appears 106 times in Slaughterhouse-Five.

In yesterday’s blog, I stole another idea.

I wrote: Realise that no-one KNOWS anything.

This is actually a variation on William Goldman’s refrain “Nobody knows anything” – a refrain which Wikipedia correctly says “is repeated throughout” Goldman’s iconic book Adventures in the Screen Trade.

I often rattled on about it in much earlier previous blogs. It is often mis-emphasised as meaning everyone is ignorant – Nobody knows ANYTHING. But, in fact, it means Nobody KNOWS anything for sure in the creative process.

However experienced, intelligent and brilliant someone is, nobody knows for sure what will be a commercial – or even an ultimately critical – success.

When Michael Cimino was making his movie Heaven’s Gate, everyone assumed it would be a box-office success. It had all the ingredients for mega-success. But it was a disaster. It pretty much financially destroyed United Artists.

According to Wikipedia – so it must be true – it cost $44 million to make and got back $3.5 million at the box office.

When Kevin Costner was making Dances With Wolves ten years later, it was nicknamed Kevin’s Gate in Hollywood, because it was clearly a vanity project with no hope of commercial success – it was, for godsake, mostly in the Native American Lakota language.

It was a big critical and box office success. It cost $22 million to create and took $424.2 million at the box office.

The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring with inexperienced actors, producers, writers and directors and was shot shoddily. It was a vast financial success. It cost $22,500 to make and took $248.6 million at the box office.

Nobody KNOWS anything.

It’s a Wonderful Life – now usually high up any Best Movie Ever Made list when voted for by the public – was pretty-much director Frank Capra’s only critical and box office failure.

J.K.Rowling hawked the idea for her Harry Potter books round every big-time publisher in London and was turned down by them all. Quite rightly. No modern teenage boy (and certainly no teenage girl) is ever going to buy one book – let alone seven – about some nerdy suburban boy going to a witches and wizards school. And, if you think any adult would buy even one copy, you are out of your mind.

My point being: Nobody KNOWS anything.

My point being: Creating a work of art is not a science. The clue is in the name. It is an art.

My point being: Nobody can know for sure what will be a success critically or commercially – Not now. Not in the future.

Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, because everyone thought his paintings were crap.

Of course, in his case, they were and are crap.

But that’s only my opinion.

Which, as you may have noticed, is my point.

Nobody KNOWS anything.

Because there are no rules. Only taste. Which is personal. And which can and does change from generation to generation.

My point being… exactly the same as it was in yesterday’s blog.

Do what you think is right.

And tell everyone else to fuck off.

If you take my advice, though, remember…

Nobody KNOWS anything.

That might include me.

It might include you.

You can’t be sure.

You just have to go with your gut instinct and keep calm and carry on.

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Comedy critic Kate Copstick on what she likes and giving 1 & 2-star reviews

Copstickeither yawning or orgasming on a tow horse. It is difficult to be conclusive

Copstick in her Mama Biashara charity shop in London, either yawning or orgasming on a toy horse.

Comedy critic Kate Copstick and I are reviving our Grouchy Club chat show at the Edinburgh Fringe this August and also doing it as a one-off in London on 22nd February during a Jewish Comedy Day. (Neither of us is Jewish, but we are both Scottish and they are paying a fee).

“Initially, I wanted to be an actress,” Copstick told me this week, “because then I would never need to be myself. But I have never wanted to be a stand-up comic.

“Why?”

“Because a good stand-up comic is about being yourself. In the very short time that I did try stand-up, the primary thing that was wrong with me was there was nobody there.”

“Well,” I told her: “You say you didn’t want to be yourself, but you are the most opinionated, apparently-self-confident big-mouth in town. Your reviews are full of your own character. You would admit your reviews can be acerbic?”

“Yes.”

“So isn’t that cowardly? You don’t want to be yourself as a stand-up comedian to say what you think to people’s faces; but you can acerbic behind a pen”

“Maybe it is cowardly,” replied Copstick, “but, if someone gave me the chance to do a live review show I would happily do that. I happily sit in The Grouchy Club and rip into shows and criticise people. But that’s not stand-up. Stand-up is self-motivating and, the older I get, the more I realise not everyone is remotely interested in what I want to chunter on about.”

“Why are they interested?” I asked. “You clearly are the most influential and feared critic at the Edinburgh Fringe. Is it because you’ve been around so long? – You started in 1999.”

“No,” said Copstick, “I’m a good critic because I’m honest – sometimes brutally. I know what I’m talking about. I can communicate my thoughts well.”

“You say you know what you’re talking about,” I argued, “but you’ve not done stand-up properly. “

“I know enough about stand-up as the audience and about comedy in general. I think it’s a good thing to be able to criticise with inside knowledge but, on the other hand, there is absolutely no point saying: This guy was absolutely dreadful, but I feel his pain and I know what it’s like and, frankly, the audience was dreadful. That is not a valid critique.”

“Are you open-minded?” I asked.

“Very open-minded. Much more than I used to be. I’m happy to give anything a chance.”

“What did you used to be closed-minded about?”

“I used to be much more likely to go folded-armed and pursed-lipped at some free-form craziness. I used to require ‘form’. I used to think: I want to see this is a show. I want to see you’ve thought about this. I want to see you have not just wandered on-stage and are burbling to me.”

“And now you like Lewis Schaffer,” I said.

“Yes. Quite possibly Lewis Schaffer in 1999 might have driven me absolutely crazy.”

“At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe,” I said, “I know you saw Njambi McGrath’s show Bongolicious, but decided not to review it. Why?”

Njambi McGrath - Bongolicious

Njambi McGrath -“Brilliant” Fringe show

“It was listed in the Comedy section of the Fringe Programme and it wasn’t a comedy show. I thought it was a brilliant show, but not a comedy show. In the criminal areas of auto-theft, they call it a cut-and-shunt: you take the front half of one car and the back end of another car and slam them together. She had a strange little 10-minute warm-up at the start and then this EXTRAORDINARILY powerful piece of theatre about the atrocities perpetrated by white colonists in Kenya. I wrote little bits about it elsewhere, where I was not required to put a star-count on it… It was a brilliant show, but was not a 5-star comedy show. It was in the wrong section of the Fringe Programme and it would have been unfair to review it as Comedy.”

“You were telling me at the Fringe,” I said, “what you sometimes do when you write a 1-star or 2-star review of a comedy show.”

“I am hired as a critic,” said Copstick. “I have to say what I think and feel, otherwise I would just be a PR. But I think all performers deserve a fighting chance and I am, after all, only one person. If I really loathe the show, I try to make my review as entertaining as possible and as polemical as possible because I know a 1-star review will sell almost as many tickets as a 5-star review and, if you make your 1-star review polemical enough, people will go Oh my God! I have to see that! because everyone wants to see a car crash.”

“So,” I said, “in a way, a 2-star review could be worse than a 1-star review.”

“What I try to do in a 2-star review,” explained Copstick, “is seed it with combinations of words or even just one word which, if the performer is smart, they can ‘pull’ a quote from that I am happy for them to mis-use.

“The late, usually-great, Jason Wood did a show once which I thought was just appalling. It was lazy, using old stuff – ten years after people had died, he was doing half-baked impressions of them – I was really angry because Jason was a funny, funny, clever, talented guy. I ripped into the show and gave him a 1-star review but, by midnight that night, the Assembly Rooms where he was performing (under its previous owners) had big banners all over the place saying:

“A STAR!” (KATE COPSTICK, THE SCOTSMAN)

Copstick does not mind taking the piss - in this case to her doctor

Copstick likes taking the piss – in this case to her own doctor

“It was brilliant! Brilliant! Just wonderful. I am devastated to say that The Scotsman made him take the quote down. But I thought it was brilliant. If performers can be creative with their show and I can be creative with my review, then why can’t they be creative with my review of their show?

“The FringePig website – which popped up last year and which reviewed the Fringe reviewers – they did a review of me and it was surprisingly accurate. One of the things they picked up on was that now I absolutely love a maverick – Johnny Sorrow, Bob Slayer, for godsake.

“Again, we’re back to honesty and passion. I would rather see Bob Slayer – honesty, passion and drink – than some pointless, say-nothing, manufactured wannabe. Now that comedy has become an industry, one of the things that is wrong is a load of people coming in thinking Oh! I can be the next Jack Whitehall! and they stand up and are a kind of manufactured persona. There’s no real person there.

“Someone like Simon Munnery ought to get a bloody knighthood. He’s been nurturing his crazy since most of the people on stage now were foetuses.”

“You should get back on stage,” I suggested.

“I am peripherally involved in a comedy show at the Fringe this year… as well as The Grouchy Club and The Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show.”

“Are you?” I asked, surprised. “I didn’t know that.”

“It’s about assisted suicide.”

“Ah! The Exit guy!” I said.

“Yes. Philip Nitschke.”

Philip Nitschke

Philip Nitschke – ‘Dr Death’ does stand-up comedy

“Are you going to be killed every day?” I asked.

“No, I’m sort-of directing it. Philip is the most wonderful guy, though it’s very difficult to get him into the country because they ask: Have you come in to kill people? – No, I’m coming in to do a comedy show in Edinburgh.

“The show is Philip and female stand-up Mel Moon, who suffers from a horrible endocrine disorder. She joined Exit with a view to topping herself before she turned into a puddle.

“I love the idea, because it’s a way of using comedy to get across an incredibly powerful message. I think you can ‘kick a lot of ass’ comedically or satirically that you can’t do when presenting it straight. So we’re doing satirical sketches. Hopefully I’m also filming a documentary, looking at previews, people’s reactions, the creative process. It’s part of a bigger idea.”

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How ex-garbage handler Bruce Dessau owes his career as a comedy critic to the ‘uninteresting’ comedian Stewart Lee

Bruce Dessau as he likes to be seen on his Facebook page

Bruce Dessau as he likes to be seen on his Facebook page

In yesterday’s blog, highly-regarded London Evening Standard comedy critic Bruce Dessau defended his profession. But how did he become a comedy critic?

“Did you ever perform?” I asked him.

“No. Absolutely never performed. Not really had any interest in it,” he said.

“You came up through local newspapers?” I asked. ”Reports on garden shows?”

“Never really had any interest in journalism either,” he told me. “Never wrote anything for the college magazine. After I left London University, I wanted to stay in London because I was a music fan. I was staying at a house in Camberwell with a typewriter and thought I’ll write a review of that gig I saw last night. I sent it to the NME. They said: We really liked it. Why don’t you tell us what gigs you’d like to review and we might commission you and we’ll pay you. So I became a music journalist, but never trained.”

“So you went straight from university to journalism?”

“Via being a dustman in Belsize Park,” explained Bruce. “I was Peter Cook’s dustman. The funny thing is when I left my house in Camberwell at 6.30am I often saw a near-neighbour Peter Richardson (of The Comic Strip) coming home from a late night out, so it was a bit of a comedy route as well as my comedy roots. But that’s the only other job I’ve ever had. Being a dustman.

“I was at Time Out for about 8 or 9 years – started on music, then more on the TV section and then edited things from there. But, when I was doing TV, they used to call me ‘Mr Comedy’ – I would always do Vic & Bob or The Fast Show or Harry Enfield.

“The 1990s were my Time Out years. I handed in my notice the day the New Year Millennium edition went to press. I planned to go freelance – there were actually jobs in journalism in those days – only 14 years ago! – but, out of the blue, I got offered a job editing the TV section of the Saturday Express magazine. That was when the paper was edited by Rosie Boycott, so it was a different paper then, with different aspirations. About a year later, it was taken over by Richard Desmond and he wanted to strip everything back – no pun intended – so I left to go freelance again and… basically I owe everything to Stewart Lee.

Stewart Lee’s North American friend Baconface at the 2013 Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards (Photography by Keir O’Donnell)

Comic Stewart Lee’s Canadian friend Baconface performs at the 2013 Malcolm Hardee Awards (Photograph by Keir O’Donnell)

“I got sent a copy of one of Stewart Lee’s books when he was in the doldrums and he wasn’t doing very well and no-one was interested – I think it was the one called The Perfect Fool. I was getting quite pressured from his agency (Avalon) to do an interview with him but I didn’t really think anyone would be interested in Stewart Lee. As a courtesy, I thought Oh, I might as well pitch this to someone, so I emailed the Arts editor of the Evening Standard – I had never written for them before – and they said No, we’re not remotely interested in Stewart Lee, but we ARE looking for a new comedy critic. So I started at the Evening Standard in the summer of 2001, just before 9/11 and I never did do the Stewart Lee interview, but I owe it all to him.”

“The fickle finger of fate,” I said. “Now everyone wants a Stewart Lee interview. You can never tell who is going to succeed.”

“Sometimes you know when people are going to be stars,” said Bruce. “Maybe I should have stayed a music journalist. I would be much better spotting future music stars than future comedy stars. I saw U2 at the Half Moon and it was obvious Bono should be climbing on amplifiers at the O2 Arena and not at a pub in Herne Hill.

“But, with comedy, the acts I have really loved I’ve usually thought They’re never going to be big and often I was wrong.

“Like Micky Flanagan who I used to see doing stuff at The Hob when he was about 40. I thought Yeah, he’s very good. I like him very much. But this is kind of his level. Then somehow, when the Comedy Gods decided to make comedy for arenas, he got swept up and I think he now does more dates at the O2 than Beyoncé.

“The main case of me being wrong was Vic & Bob. When they had their residency in Deptford and they did pubs, I used to go and see them every Thursday night long before they did TV. I thought: This is brilliant. They can attract 100 people every Thursday night in South London but, if they try North London, they’ll get 3 people. I could never have predicted Vic & Bob would get as big as they did. But, once they make it, it kind of makes sense.

“The interesting thing I’ve seen in comedy in the last few years is a whole new generation becoming the establishment. And the whole conveyor belt nature of comedians where they fall off the other end and fall out of favour – or not even fall out of favour, but people like Vic & Bob and Harry Enfield or Ben Elton.

“I used to watch the TV series Skins and suddenly all the comics I thought were young, hip comedians were suddenly all playing the parents. Harry Enfield, Morwenna Banks, Bill Bailey and even at one point Chris Addison cropped up as a dad.

“It all moves on. Jack Dee is a bit Tony Hancock and a bit Les Dawson. And you now can’t imagine Alexei Sayle as an angry 21-year-old.”

Bruce’s book on the dark side of comedy

Bruce’s book on comedy’s dark side

“Your latest book is Beyond a Joke,” I said, “about the dark side of comedians.”

“It was about the history of comedy,” said Bruce, “and the history of all these troubled comedians from Grimaldi to Tony Hancock and so on and I kind of thought it was a thing of the past – comedians being slightly dysfunctional.

“I wrote the book around the time Russell Brand was breaking through and he’s in the book, but it’s quite obvious there are plenty of other stories – Malcolm Hardee’s in the book, obviously.

“My dilemma to resolve was Are strange people attracted to stand-up comedy or does stand-up comedy make people strange? I think I concluded it’s a bit of both. Strange people are attracted to it but, if you’re normal and you’re attracted to it, you’ll end up strange. It doesn’t make strange people normal, but it does make normal people strange.

“It’s like Jimmy Carr says – You’re the only person in a room with 2,000 people facing the wrong way. You’re on your own. That’s why it’s weirder than being in a band. It’s a solo thing. And it’s weirder than being an actor because you’re supposedly saying your own words, particularly this autobiographical, authentic comedy. Various comedians say It’s like therapy but, rather than us pay a therapist, we do our gigs and we get paid for the therapy. But I don’t know if it’s effective as therapy, because they still seem a pretty screwed-up bunch.”

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What is the point of professional critics? Would airheaded amateurs be better?

Nick Awde on Skype from France this morning

Writer Nick Awde talking from France on Skype this morning

Yesterday, I got a message from writer Nick Awde in France asking if I wanted to be interviewed because, he said, “it might give you a blog and might give me a half page feature”.

So I Skyped him this morning.

“I’m now editor on a new international literary magazine called Font,” Nick told me. “I thought I’d write something about critics, but there aren’t really such things as literary critics – just people reviewing their mates’ books – so I thought I’d talk to you, given your overview of people doing creative things in general, and then we’ve both got something. You’ve got a blog. I’ve got a piece….”

“Well,” I said, “there’s the argument that Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, become critics. Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe are always complaining about inexperienced critics reviewing their shows. Bob Slayer talked to one comedy critic this year who had never heard of Morecambe & Wise – not just never seen them, but never heard of them. I guess it’s happening because more and more – to save money – newspapers are not having staff critics.”

The Independent on Sunday,” Nick reminded me, “recently re-launched, with all of its staff arts writers sacked.”

“And some newspapers,” I said, “have now started using readers who write or Tweet in with their opinions. It’s ironic that newspapers are sacking staff critics to save money because, if you’re a newspaper owner, you should be building up reviewers as personalities.

“As far as I understand it, with The Times and other newspapers which are behind paywalls, one of the attractions to the paying public is not that they can read news on the website – you can get that 24-hours-a-day on TV – The attraction is you can read features written by known columnists.

“So presumably if you have a critic whose opinions you trust – it used to be Dilys Powell on British cinema or Clive Barnes on the New York theatre scene and now maybe it’s Bruce Dessau on London comedy and Kate Copstick on Edinburgh comedy – if you have an ongoing, named, trusted critic, then that’s going to increase your brand awareness and get more punters reading your product.

“The counter-argument is that the audience is not made up of people who have been going to comedy shows four times a week for the last 15 years. You read reviews to decide whether or not to go to a show or a film or to buy a book. Do you actually want to read reviews written by people you actually share nothing with – they live in Islington in three-storey Georgian houses – or do you want to hear the views of the sort of people you might actually go to the performance with?

“Why are professional critics writing reviews? Is it because they want to sound very knowledgable and refer to arcane events 35 years ago at the London Palladium when they should be telling you I thought this new show was quite good and you should go? Maybe the more experienced critics get, the more out-of-touch they get with the people they’re writing for.

“The comedy audience is mostly maybe between 19 and 30. So maybe you want those sort of people writing reviews.

“The argument against that is you will then have 1,000 opinions by people who may not know what the hell they’re talking about and may actually just be friends of the performer who are ‘bigging’ him or her up.

“I would argue that having ongoing, paid, Big Name critics is better but it IS arguable. You could equally argue that having 100 different people will average out to what the punter may like or not like.”

“Also, in Britain,” said Nick, “we’ve got different words. We’ve got ‘critic’, ‘reviewer’, ‘pundit’.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “When people talk about critics, they’re mostly talking about reviewers. There are very few critics who analyse things.”

“We don’t like that any more, do we?” asked Nick.

Jerry Lewis - viewed as comedy genius in France

Jerry Lewis – hailed as a true comedy genius in France

“Well, that’s too French for us,” I said. “It’s too intellectual. The British are suspicious of intellectualising. If someone writes a critique – which is a French word – it’s viewed as someone being up their own arse. Whereas a ‘reviewer’ is just someone saying Oh, this is quite good. The British don’t like intellectualising… Having said that, yesterday I went to a lecture on The Science of Laughter at University College, London. And, this afternoon, I’m going to the launch of the Centre For Comedy Studies Research at Brunel University. What are critics like in France?”

“They still have a big newspaper industry here,” said Nick, “and you can have about four pages of daily opinions and two pages of that you can give over to your theatre critic, because he will work in a mention of the President’s latest hairstyle or a politician’s toilet habits. This is permitted… plus they all fucking know their philosophy. So they just throw that into it. They can do it. Whereas in Britain, as we all know, no-one will pay you to do that. Our ‘opinion pieces’ are people talking about the size of Katie Price’s tits or the width of her latest autobiography.”

“This interview,” I asked, “is possibly going to appear where?”

“In Font magazine,” said Nick. “It’s a literary magazine but really about the Arts in general – from a UK perspective but on what the rest of the world are doing.”

“Does Font have a website?” I asked.

“It should be up by the end of this week, I think,” said Nick, “at www.fontmagazine.org.”

“But I have a much bigger project called Open Theatres, which I’ve been working on for about five years. It would work for comedy or anything. You have a sort of shop window website in which everyone puts up what they do with their contact details and they just update it occasionally. It’s not Facebook, it’s not pretending to be any of that. There’s no privacy, no chats but if someone gets a mention in your blog, for example, they can add a link. It’s just that, on one site, you find all of it. For international theatre, there’s nothing like that out there. For international comedy and for the book world, there’s nothing like that out there.

“You can be a performer, a pundit, a critic, a production company, a physical venue and you just put everything up there. The thing to do is to work out the search patterns for it.”

“Presumably,” I said, “you don’t want me to mention that, though, because someone may steal the idea.”

“Well,” replied Nick, “I’ve been telling everyone about it and no-one’s done it so far, because it needs someone insane like you or me or Bob Slayer to do it.”

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The incomparability of Rod Stewart and The Wasted Talent Variety Show….

Rod Stewart’s show at the O2 Arena last night

Rod Stewart’s show at the O2 Arena in London last night

Last night, I went to see 68-year-old Rod Stewart perform at the O2 Arena. Towards the end of the almost two-hour show, he sang a rousing version of Hot Legs and spent most of the song kicking footballs into the audience.

On the same day in 2001 – just ten days after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York – I went to Hoxton Hall, an 1863 Victorian music hall in London, to see something billed as The Wasted Talent Variety Show.

The show started unannounced with Johnny Dance, a formally-dressed man with a sharp (presumably fake) scar down his left cheek growling 1950s standards in a rough-edged, discordant voice. His version of Fever was strange and worrying. The backing tape slowly developed electronic, experimental sounds and the audience talked throughout. There were about 50 people downstairs, sitting at round, candle-lit tables plus about 20 in the upper tier of the thin rectangular music hall. Johnny Dance sang in darkness, lit only by a small white strip light attached to the microphone stand just below his chin.

Andrew Bailey

Andrew Bailey lent a hand at the show

Next to appear was performance art regular Andrew Bailey as his wordless character The Great Podomofski. He was dressed in a long black overcoat, black bowler hat and black (instead of red) clown’s nose and gave a fair approximation of an Australian Aboriginal sound by placing a glass tube containing first one then several white ping pong balls between his mouth and the microphone. As he blew and sucked, the balls moved and the tones changed. His other inventive triumph was to have a vacuum cleaner tube sticking upward blowing a pillar of air on which he balanced a ping pong ball. Using a small glove puppet, he then used the ping pong ball as a boxer’s punching bag.

Tony Green was Sir Gideon Vein

Tony Green was Sir Gideon Vein, his dead giveaway character

Following that, Tony Green appeared as dead Victorian Sir Gideon Vein and performed real Victorian poetry in an intentionally OTT hammy way backed by a string quartet making abstract noises.

He was followed by real modern poet John Bentley who performed to a music backing tape. The room then began to fill up because the next performance was Arnold Frenzy’s Flea circus, an OTT tongue-in-cheek genuine flea circus backed by electric guitar and drums.

A man dressed like Mozart then appeared – The Amazing Tomasini – who sang castrato, then tore his costume off to reveal a bizarrely tattered red and pink costume which I think represented the inside of a human body. His obviously operatically-trained voice then alternated between castrato and deeply masculine.

This was followed by a very professional group called the Flea Pit Orchestra – a banjo-playing male singer, cello, double bass, drums and a violin played brilliantly by a Vietnamese girl in such a way that it made the basically pub-folk music sound rather Jewish. They described their music as “bar-room ballads and hard-edged skiffle, pubkadiddley Cockney-Weimar cabaret and chamber-pot music hall”.

It’s an egg, but is it art?

It’s an egg, but is it art? It’s an egg, but is it art? It’s an egg

A stripper then appeared – La Goulou – holding two giant white fan feathers. She performed her fan dance to taped music, her breasts occasionally visible, but never her groin. There was something odd about her spindly arms, shoulders and legs.

At this point, our host for the evening – wearing rubber gloves – carried onto the stage a large bird’s nest. La Goulou squatted by the nest, straining her face and body until an egg plopped out of her nether region. The host picked the egg up, put it in the nest and took it round the audience to show them.

“If it’s an egg its art,” our host told us. “If its a ping-pong ball it would be pornography.”

Rod Stewart and The Wasted Talent Variety Show.

Which was better?

You simply cannot compare them.

Both very entertaining in their own individual ways.

This probably says something about the validity of giving awards but, frankly, I don’t care.

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Four unfunny things related to the world of comedy which have happened so far this week – plus one lucky insect

The Heroes of Fringe on a London rooftop

The Heroes of Fringe pose on a London rooftop this week

ONE

So I went to a London photoshoot arranged by Bob Slayer to publicise the two venues he is running at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

Both come under the banner of his Heroes Of Fringe outfit so he asked people to come dressed as superheroes. We all had to wear Bawbags’ Scottish underpants over our clothing. They are sponsors.

My So It Goes chat show at the Fringe is in Bob’s Bookshop.

I had been given a Superman teeshirt a few months ago – but it was a rather distressed and faded one so I thought, given my age and the fact I could not be bothered to shave, I should perhaps take along a walking stick (my dead grandfather’s) and wear a piece of green Kryptonite round my neck (a USB memory stick given away as a freebie by the Gilded Balloon venue a few Fringes ago).

The Dark Superman returns

Dark Superman Returns

I reasoned this might turn the fact that I looked older than the other people in the photoshoot from a negative ageist thing into a semi-ironic humorous thing and perhaps give it a slight whiff of The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen.

The strange thing is I do not drink and do not take drugs.

The actual effect of the outfit was, of course, that it just made me look old.

Comic Lewis Schaffer did not turn up for the photoshoot because, he said, he was performing a benefit gig for dogs. When I suggested the dogs should, perhaps, be performing a benefit gig for him, I got no reply.

Dangerous Chris Dangerfield DID turn up, told me about the benefits of Bitcoins and of the parallel, dark internet and then left on a black bicycle saying there were too many other people. (There were twelve).

Frank Sanazi was never going to appear on the show

Führer Frank Sanazi – A conflict with David Cameron?

TWO

While I was coming back from the photoshoot, Frank Sanazi got in touch with me.

He said he had been booked to perform at Cornbury Music Festival in Oxfordshire at the weekend.

But it was belatedly thought by the organisers that his act might offend the festival goers of Middle England who had come to see Squeeze, Van Morrison, The Proclaimers, Alan Davies, Julie Burchill, Malcolm Hardee Award winner Stuart Goldsmith et al.

Frank Sanazi performs looking like Adolf Hitler but singing in Frank Sinatra’s voice. He was billed in the festival programme as headlining the ‘Tew Drop Inn’ Cabaret tent on Saturday night.

He told me he thought his sudden ban might be something to do with the fact the festival takes place in Prime Minister David Cameron’s constituency and the great man (Cameron, not Sanazi) was there last year and was rumoured to be there this year. The management appeared to have booked his act without wondering why he was called Frank Sanazi – a clue, surely, is in the name.

“When the organisers saw my YouTube footage,” he told me, “they decided to bar me. Having paid me already.”

So it was silver lining time for the Führer of Fun.

Anna Smith ignores the BBC in Canada

Anna Smith remembers a man in a box

THREE

When I got home, I found an e-mail from the So It Goes blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith. It read:

“Have you ever seen Daniel Rovai? I first saw him balancing ladders on his chin in the circus tent at Glastonbury. He is now apparently living in a small plywood box somewhere in the Netherlands and he appears to be very happy and philosophic.

“I once travelled on tubes and buses and then a long way on foot though a deserted warehouse district, to see him do a performance at a club in the middle of nowhere – Woolwich or somewhere like that. It was very disappointing because it turned out that I was the only person in the whole of London to show up. He approached me, sitting alone in the small cheap theatre, and offered to drive me home.

But aren’t you going to do the show? I asked.

“He said, I can’t do it just for you, and so he drove me home in an old Citroën.”

This morning, I got an update from Anna:

“I just googled Daniel Rovai,” she told me. “He appears to be living in a cheerful-looking caravan now, a step up from the plywood box.”

The Tomatina Festival - people covered in tomatoes - in 2006

The Tomatina Festival – people covered in tomatoes – in 2006

FOUR

I also opened an e-mail from Alex Petty, organiser of the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe. Sent to Free Festival participants, it said:

A unique Fringe  event run by Free Festival’s Peter Michael Marino during this year’s Fringe for your diaries on Thursday 15th August from 3pm-4pm on the Meadows.

Critics crushed your show? Did your lack of stars make you see stars? Want to get even? Join fellow performers, producers, venues, critics and press for the first-ever Critical Mass Tomato Toss!

Inspired by Spain’s annual Tomatina Festival, this special Edinburgh Fringe event is for anyone who’s ever dreamed of letting the critics know what they think of their nasty reviews.

You’ll get your chance to toss tomatoes at the faces of the critics who’ve taken the piss, slammed your show, tarnished your name and lowered your audience attendance. Of course, it’s all in good fun… isn’t it?

“Let it live!” - “Let it live!"

“They only live for about three days. Let it live!” So it goes.

FIVE

After reading that e-mail this morning I was sitting on the toilet, as one does, and saw a daddy long-legs in the bath.

I am not good with fast-moving winged insects, especially if they suddenly brush against my face. This one brushed against my face. Normally this is rapidly followed by the death of the insect.

But, a couple of days ago, seeing me try to kill a daddy long-legs with a quick clap of my hands, my eternally-un-named friend reminded me: “They only live for about three days. Let it live.”

So, this morning, I let it live.

Life is random.

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