Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) was a physician recognised as a founder of clinical medicine and epidemiology who discovered Sydenham’s Chorea aka St Vitus Dance
What did he suggest caused illnesses? Humoural imbalance.
South East London’s Sydenham area is named after him and humour has been restored there, at least.
(That is an example of why I am not a comedian.)
Betsy, the club’s meeter-and-greeter…
The Poodle Club has re-opened for comedy in Sydenham. The club first opened in 2017 but, of course, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, had to close in 2020.
It’s run by indefatigable dog-lover Karen O Novak and her husband Darren Ball.
Unusually for UK comedy clubs, it’s not just some room in a pub; they own the lease and it was purpose-built as a comedy venue.
“Why call it The Poodle Club?” I asked Karen.
“Betsy, of course,” she told me.
Betsy is a tiny poodle: a very enthusiastic and much-loved meeter-and-greeter of audiences at the club.
My last blog was a chat with stand-up performer David Mills backstage at the sold-out grand post-pandemic re-opening of The Poodle Club.
In it, I used the word “unique” about the club. Because it is.
Karen O Novak and David Mills back in 2014
You can choose to share a toilet with Liberace…
The revitalised post-pandemic Poodle Club has a new state-of-the-art ventilation system which delivers 500 litres of fresh air per second.
It also aims to have an equal number of male and female comedians and to promote LGBTQ+ and non-white comics in order, says Karen, “to raise up voices that are sometimes lost in the traditionally straight, male-dominated comedy scene”.
The policy, she claims, has drawn an audience that is 70% female.
The club’s decor – like Betsy the Poodle – shows signs of quirky character.
…or visit Bloo Hawaii in the other poodle loo
There are two unisex toilets in the club: one lavishly decorated as a tribute to Liberace and one equally lavishly dedicated to Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii.
Despite being clearly marked as unisex, Darren tells me that, overwhelmingly – and for no known reason – men tend to go into the Liberace WC and women into the Elvis WC.
The audiences on the sold-out opening weekend came into the club beaming with joy – partly because of the warm welcome from Betsy, partly because of the club-wide OTT decor which greeted them and partly, I imagine, just because they were able to go to local comedy again.
There’s a plethora of poodle ornaments and ‘kooky’ knick-knacks crowding behind the bar…
“How,” I asked Karen, “did the good people of Sydenham react during the club’s pandemic closure?”
“There were,” she told me, “non-stop emails, weeping, people throwing themselves under buses.”
“Normal for Sydenham, then,” I said. “Has Betsy greeted audiences since the start in 2017?”
Poodle pooches are all over the place in this lovingly-decorated oasis of the comedy arts…
“Before Betsy,” said Karen, “there was Snoopadoo. She used to hold court here at the bar, but she was an elderly lady poodle and passed away at 19 years old.”
“Were Betsy and Snoopadoo related?”
The poodle obsession runs deep, though. In the backstage dressing room, even the signs on the wall board are held up with little pink poodle pins.
The club has performances every Friday and Saturday – during most other days it lies fallow.
But, ever-enterprising, Karen and Darren are running the First Annual ‘Sydenham Comedy Festival’ at the Poodle Club for a whole week this year – 10th-18th June.
The Festival will feature 20 one-hour shows – a series of Edinburgh Fringe previews by the likes of Arthur Smith, Paul Foot, Tony Law and Shazia Mirza..
The Poodle Club in Sydenham is far from Barking…
Like I said, I’m no comedian, but I know what I like.
I like originality. And The Poodle Club certainly has that.
The never-less-than-extravagantly costumed Ada Campe performing on stage at The Poodle Club
Every week, British-based US-born comedian David Millsposts online an extraordinary 5-point bulletin called Quality Time, a smörgåsbord of societal snippets, curated curious comment and interesting insights.
This week, in issue 67, there are items on the Mexican rodeo tradition, US abortion laws, personal advice from the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, unforgettable movie trailers and a suspected Basque Country serial killer of gay men who is still on the loose…
We had a chat backstage when I went to the grand re-opening of South London’s unique comedy venue The Poodle Club. David was headlining the opening night, of course.
JOHN: How would you describe Quality Time?
DAVID: It’s a column, really. It’s a window onto the world. Culture & commentary.
JOHN: Very you…You were born in LA?
DAVID: No, it’s where the family ended-up in the 1980s and 1990s. I was born in New Jersey, grew up in Pennsylvania and we travelled over to California when I was about 18. My family’s now in Northern California and Oregan.
JOHN: Recently, you’ve started performing in the UK AND in the US. Are the audience tastes different?
DAVID: Yes. What I’ve found, going back to LA and gigging is that a lot of comics out there are really great on stage and they’re really warm and they have tons of charisma, but they have none of the craft that you need to play comedy rooms in the UK.
JOHN: So what do you need in the UK?
DAVID: You need jokes. You need callbacks. It needs to be quick fire. You need to keep them laughing. In the US – at least in California – I think it’s very different in New York – they are happy to just have a charming host. Someone like a party host and maybe a joke comes and maybe it doesn’t.
David at the Underbelly’s Thames-side South Bank Festival in London, 2019
When you get UK acts like me or Brett Goldstein who go over there and… joke, joke, joke, joke… they don’t know what they’re even looking at but they LOVE it.
I was over there for two months at the end of last year and the beginning of this and I thought: There’s lots of opportunity here for UK acts and for me. And they’re also looking at me because I’m American but I’m not American. So I’m sort-of this interesting thing to them.
JOHN: And yet you are one of them…
DAVID: Yes. I AM ‘one of them’. It’s good to go back. It’s nice to be around. It’s always nice to come home, isn’t it? Look at James Cordon. He’s coming home to the UK.
JOHN: Indeed. So that means there’s an empty space for a late night chat show host in the US. Perhaps a culturally-diverse person like you? They’ve had James Cordon and Craig Ferguson and Trevor Noah – all non-Americans. You are an American but, in a way you are not an American. So you…
DAVID: No. What they want is a woman. And there should be a woman. There is no woman on the late-night chat shows. Well, Joan Rivers did it. Samantha Bee does it. Others have done it, but they’ve never lasted.
What’s interesting is that James Cordon is going AND Ellen DeGeneres is going. Ellen is daytime and Cordon is evening. Ellen’s been doing it for 19 years. Cordon was tipped to replace Ellen but it seems he’s coming back to the UK.
JOHN: So they have two spots open and they want someone sophisticated who…
Multi-cultural David at the Bar Chez Georges, Saint-Germain in Paris, 2020
DAVID: I don’t know that they want ‘sophisticated’, but they want someone who can really connect with the audience. And that’s what you see on stage in LA. All these acts really connect with audiences. They’re not looking to be stand-up comics. They’re mostly looking to be actors or TV presenters or whatever – and they just want to get exposure.
They don’t need to be joke-joke-joke good comics. They do need to be charming and dynamite and look great and be friendly and likeable. And then they get picked up from that and thrown into something like an Ellen spot.
JOHN: But you’re an actor too. You were in Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. When are you going to be in another feature film?
DAVID: Well, there’s a small film I did – a small part – which I filmed last July in Glasgow.
JOHN: A small film called?
DAVID:Indiana Jones 5.
JOHN: And Glasgow is Gotham City?
DAVID: Yes. Glasgow is New York. Whenever they want to do New York in the UK, they do it in Glasgow.
JOHN: Might you go back to the US more full-time? Like 10 months a year?
“…there is,” he continued, “a lot of opportunity for middle-aged silver foxes like myself.”
“British TV?” I asked.
“If you’re not British,” said David, “you only get so far here. Look how long Tony Law’s been at it and yet he can’t get that regular spot on a panel show. The last one to manage it was Rich Hall.”
There can only be one David Mills in the UK
“Maybe,” I suggested, “there can only be one biggish North American ‘name;’ on TV at any one given time. Like you can only have one gay person ‘big’ at any one time – Graham Norton on BBC1, Paul O’Grady on ITV, Alan Carr on Channel 4. Maybe the most to hope for would be one big name American per channel.”
“Mmmm…” said David. “I think they’re happy to have people who come over from America. Every year at the Edinburgh Fringe, there’s always one or two. But the ones who are here… The attitude is: Who wants to listen to an American living in Britain talking about the UK? People want to hear Americans who live in America talking about America.”
“Bill Bryson,” I suggested, “wrote about the UK when he lived in the UK. But, then, he was a writer, not a performer – different audience.”
“And writers have a longer shelf life,” said David. “Stand-ups can come very quickly and go very quickly.”
“Let’s not talk about that,” said David. “It’s too long ago. I can’t flog that horse any longer.”
“It must have done you some good,” I suggested.
Florence Foster Jenkins led David on…
“Well, that led me on to other things, I’ve had some big auditions with (he mentioned two A-list directors) and (he named an A-list Hollywood star) is making a new film and I went up for the role of the baddie’s sidekick. A great part. But this film – I read the script – is so bad it might become infamous. I thought to myself: I really want this! I really want to be in this! I would love to be in an infamously bad film! That would be so much fun. But no.”
“Are you a frustrated actor?” I asked.
“That’s where I started, but no I’m not – though I would be happy to do more. More and more is being filmed here, because the pound is low, they get a big tax break and the acting and production talent here is so high. I was up for a small role in the new Marvel Avengers film and the new Mission Impossible film.”
“Do you have another film part coming up?”
“Yes. It’s for TV. But it’s Showtime and Sky Atlantic.”
“You have a small part?”
“My part, John, is perfectly adequate.”
“This is an acting role in a serious drama?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s that serious.”
“But you’re acting seriously. It is not a red-nosed, floppy-shoe clown role?”
“I’m playing a version of me, John.”
“Sophisticated, then,” I said. “Suave. What were you in Florence Foster Jenkins?”
“A critic. Well, I wasn’t a critic, but I was critical.”
David Mills (left) and Gore Vidal – brothers under the skin?
“My Edinburgh Fringe show next year is called Your Silence is Deafening. It’s about being a critical person. I love people but that doesn’t mean I’m not critical. I am critical and I think that is good. The problem with the world is no-one likes critique.”
“Critical or bitchy?” I asked.
“They are different things,” said David.
“You don’t want to be ghettoised as being gay,” I said.
“No. I really don’t.”
“Your influences are interesting,” I said. “I never twigged until you told me a while ago that you partly model your act on Dave Allen.”
“Well, the act is different, but the look is inspired by him.”
“And you are very aware of the sound of the delivery.”
“Yes. A lot of things I say because I like the rhythm of the joke and the sound of it.”
“Are you musical?”
David with Gráinne Maguire and Nish Kumar on What Has The News Ever Done For Me? in Camden, London, last week
“No. But, to me, it’s all about precision. When I’m writing jokes or a show, it’s almost like a melody. I write it out and I do learn the words and I repeat the words. A lot of comics find a punchline and there’s a cloud of words leading up to it and those exact words can change every time. For me, that’s not the case. I may deliver it a little bit differently, but the wording is really important to me, because there’s a rhythm that takes me to the punchline.”
“You are a good ad-libber too, though,” I suggested.
“To an extent. But I am more heavily scripted than a lot of acts. Some other scripted acts are contriving to seem off-the-cuff, but there is something about that which, I think, feels wrong. I am trying to refer to a specific style – Dave Allen here and, in the US, Bob Newhart, Paul Lynde, people like that. They went out and had scripted routines and it felt more like a ‘piece’ which they presented, instead of shuffling on stage and I’m coming out with my observations. I aspire to the old school style: I have brought you this crafted piece and here it is.
“Bob Newhart was so subtle and he had such an understated brilliance. He was able to get great laughs out of a short look. So studied and crafted. He developed that. You could put Bob Newhart in any situation and he would bring that same thing.”
“Yes, “ I said, “Lots of pauses and gaps. He looked like he was vaguely, slowly thinking of things. But it was all scripted.”
“And,” I said, “the odd thing about him was that all the Ooohs and Aaahs were scripted.”
“Of course,” said David, “I have to do a lot of shows where I am still working it out, so it’s less crafted, but it’s all aiming towards me ‘presenting’ something. I think a lot of acts are not aspiring to do that. They are aspiring to a more informal kind of connection with the audience.”
(For those who do not remember Dolly The Sheep, click HERE)
“And,” David told me, “I had a chat show with another comic in San Francisco maybe 20 years ago – Late Night Live – with this hilarious woman called Bridget Schwartz.
“She has since given up comedy. A great loss.
“We had big local San Francisco politicians, some of the big newscasters and drag queens – the same sort of thing I’m trying to create here. Not just people from the comedy world, but people from politics and culture and newsmakers.”
“So The Mix will not be all comics?” I asked.
“No. That’s why it’s called The Mix, John. Next Wednesday, we will have comic Jo Sutherland and the writers of Jonathan Pie – Andrew Doyle and Tom Walker who plays Jonathan Pie – and London’s Night Czar Miss Amy Lamé who will be talking about the night-time economy.
“For the second show on 19th April, we are currently negotiating to get a controversial politician and we already have comic Mark Silcox and Daniel Lismore, who is the current reigning Leigh Bowery of the world – like a crazy creature who has come out of some couture closet. A sort of Art Scenester. I don’t want it to be all comics. It’s The Mix.”
“No. I won’t be playing Edinburgh this year. I’ve been going back to the US a lot – more regularly – so I haven’t been spending time writing a new show. I’ve been gigging in LA, gigging in New York, also I have family out there. Trying to make my way. But it’s a bit of a challenge to make your way in LA if you’re only there for two weeks every three months.”
“You could,” I suggest, “get a position in the Trump administration. He’s running out of people to nominate. Do you know any Russians?”
“There was Denis Krasnov,” said David.
“He seems,” I said, “to calls himself Jack Dennis now.”
“He’s the only Russian I know,” David told me. “He used to be on the circuit in London, then he went to New York. but I don’t think he can get me into government. Well, I don’t want to be in the Trump administration, but I’d work for Milania – perhaps as a stylist or a gay best friend.”
“It was a real stretch for me, John, because… I don’t have friends. For research, I had to hang around with people who have friends and let me tell you – I don’t know if you know anything about friends, but – they’re a lot of work. There’s a lot of lying involved. Lots.”
“Where was Florence Foster Jenkins filmed?”
“All over. North London, West London…”
“It was supposed to be New York?”
“But filmed in the UK, which is why I got the job. They needed an American gay friend in London. So there’s basically me or Scott Capurro and Scott wasn’t around.”
“Stephen Frears directed it,” I said. “Very prestigious. So you might appear in other films.”
“Well, I’m in the short Robert Johnson and The Devil Man directed by Matthew Highton and written by Joz Norris. Guess who plays The Devil Man.”
“No. They needed someone with a suit. Who looks good in a suit?… I always get those parts. When Tim Renkow did the pilot for A Brief History of Tim, they thought: We need some guy in a suit… Who?… David Mills! – so I played the part of ‘Guy in a Suit’.”
David Mills & Tim Renkow in BBC3’s A Brief History of Tim
“Yes,” I mused. “Who wears a suit? So it’s either you or Lewis Schaffer. Strange it’s always you that gets the sophisticated parts and not him.”
“That’s because he doesn’t wear a sophisticated suit,” said David. “I love Lewis Schaffer – I’m not tearing him down, right?…”
“But?” I asked.
“…he would tell you as well,” said David. “It’s sort of a shabby suit.”
“Though he would be less succinct telling me,” I suggested.
“…and shiny,” David continued. “The suit. He’s had that suit for about 15 years. I try to keep mine up-to-date.”
“What else is happening in your life?” I asked.
“I’ve got a solo show – David Mills: Mr Modern – at the very chic Brasserie ZL near Piccadilly Circus on 23rd March.”
“Why is it called Mr Modern?
“Because it’s about modern life… and about me.”
“You do have your finger in a lot of pies,” I said. “If you see what I mean.”
“I find myself increasingly on TV talking about cats,” replied David.
“Why?” I asked.
“I did a thing called LOL Cats on Channel 5. They show videos of cats, then turn to a comedian who tells jokes, then they go back to the video and then back to the comedian. It’s a ‘talking head’ thing.”
“Are you an expert on cats?” I asked.
David admitted: “I know very little about pussy…”
“No,” said David. “I know very little about pussy. But I seem to have a nose for it. And LOL Cats went well, so they had me come back to do LOL Kittens.
“The guy at the cafe I go to every morning asked me: What were you doing on TV talking about kittens? And someone at the gym said: Why were you on TV talking about cats?”
“Cats then kittens,” I said. “They will have to diversify into other species.”
“There are still big cats,” David suggested.
“Have you got cats?” I asked.
“Too difficult in London?” I asked.
David shrugged. “I’ve lived in London longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my entire life. 17 years I’ve been here. Sometimes, I have lived in London longer than most of my audience have been alive. Often they are students or other people aged under 22.
“There’s a risk with younger audiences that they won’t get my references, they may only have been in London six months and they may tend to be scared of anything remotely edgy.”
“Student audiences at the moment,” I said, “are very right-on PC.”
“It’s something,” agreed David, “that’s endemic across a lot of clubs where young people are the primary audience. They are very nervous about jokes that touch on any sort of identity issues – unless you are taking the ‘accepted’ position. I always try and tweak my audiences a little bit. Having come from a world of identity politics and having been through certain battles and marched on certain marches, I feel I have some justification to joke about that shit. But these people don’t have a sense of humour about sexuality or gender or race or…”
“Surely,” I suggested, “YOU can do gay jokes in the same way an Indian comic can do Indian jokes.”
“I do think it’s more charged when it comes to sexuality right now,” says David.
“You can,” said David, “if the target of your punchline is heterosexuality. But not if the target is homosexuality. Even if you ARE gay.”
“So,” I asked, “if I were a Scots or a Jewish comic, could I not safely joke about the Scots or the Jews being financially mean?”
“I think you can,” said David, “but I do think it’s more charged when it comes to sexuality right now. Particularly around gender. Gay comics invariably wave the rainbow flag.”
“You’re saying they can’t make jokes about,” I floundered, “I dunno, retro jokes about…”
David said: “It’s not retro to be critical, to have a critical take. It IS retro to be calcified in your position and unable to hear any criticism.”
“So you couldn’t,” I asked, “do a cliché joke about camp gays?”
“I wouldn’t want to. What I would want to joke about is the oversensitivity of the gay world and there is not a lot of interest in that at the moment.”
“What sort of jokes would you want to tell and can’t?”
“I do jokes about a drug a lot of gay men take – PrEP. They take it in order to then have un-safe sex – they don’t have to use condoms. It’s sort of a prophylactic for HIV. So I say: Of course I’m on PrEP. I am a gay white man. I demand a portable treatment for my inability to control myself. And You’re not getting your money’s worth on a gay cruise unless you come back with at least one long-term manageable condition. I try to collect them all.
“With those sort of things, people are thinking: Hold on! Are you making fun of people with HIV? It’s as if there is no ability for people to laugh at themselves.”
Arthur Smith at the Grouchy Club in a Soho alleyway
As Kate Copstick is still in Kenya, I was joined for this week’s Grouchy Club Podcast – in a Soho alleyway – by comedian Arthur Smith.
This short exchange cropped up:
More and more, there are people creeping into the world who aren’t real. they’ve been fabricated by programmers.
Well, Jimmy Carr. I don’t think he’s a human being. He’s…
Poor Jimmy Carr!
No, he’s a synthesised creature working on a comedy algorithm that just creates jokes. But, obviously, there’s no feeling or soul or anything. And this is happening more and more. everyone’s job, soon, will be done by a synthesised creature and we’ll just be sort-of vegetables sat at home watching afternoon TV.
But surely Jimmy Carr is a traditional old-style comedian, in fact. He tells jokes, which people don’t do now. There’s Jimmy Carr, there’s Tim Vine, there’s about three other people doing jokes and everyone else is telling stories.
Yes. Because that’s all synthesised creatures can do, because they’re working on a series of algorithms, like I say. So they regurgitate the form of a joke.
You’re not a joke man yourself?
A man goes to a doctor. The doctor says: “I’m afraid you’re going to have to stop masturbating.”
“Oh no!” says the man. “Why?”
“Well,” says the doctor, “I’m trying to im…examine you.”
I nearly fluffed the punchline… I’ll do another one.
A man goes to the doctor with a bit of lettuce sticking out of his bottom.
The doctor says: “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Oh, no, I like an ancient joke.
But does this mean you’re an algorithm?
Yeah, but I’m a Barry Cryer algorithm and that’s a different kind of creature altogether.
Well, Barry Cryer is a sort of a gag merchant and Jimmy Carr’s a gag merchant. I have to say I quite like the gypsy moth joke myself.
Hang on, whose gypsy moth joke is this one?
And, when people complained, he said: “Oh, grow up!” which, I thought, was a double funny.
Yeah, I agree. I agree they’re good gags. I just wish he’d… Yeah, but he’s not a human, is he? There’s no heart; there’s no soul, is there?
JOHN David Mills, who you probably don’t know, was saying that he…
Yeah, I know David Mills – the American – he’s brilliant.
He was saying he’s going to try and incorporate himself more into his act, because he’s never really done ‘himself’ before.
The thing is, he was constructed, that’s why. He’s a synthesised comedian; I told you.
No, not David MIlls. Oh! I see! David Mills is going to incorporate…
Yeah, David Mills is going to incorporate personal stuff whereas, before, he’s just been a man sitting on a stool.
Yeah, well I think, in the end, that is a good thing to do.
Sit on a stool? At our age?
Well, you’re better off with a back to it. But I think having something of yourself is what makes you unique as a comedian whereas, if you haven’t, then you’re just a synthesiser.
You can hear the full 25-minute Grouchy Club Podcast HERE, in which Arthur talks about his theory of mindlessness, writing for Frankie Howard, being in a Danish pantomime, why he may go trans-gender, Shakespeare, being pedantic, semi-colons, creative writing courses, Daphne Fairfax and his several half-written novels… plus he performs the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno in the original medieval Italian. Oh yes he does.
Yesterday, with the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominations announced, I bumped into performer Joz Norris in the street, who tried to persuade me it was not too late for him to win for a Cunning Stunt Award.
“What’s your cunning stunt?” I asked.
“Although the nominations have been announced and I’m not in them, you could give me the Award on Friday anyway. That would be a cunning stunt.”
“Why should I?” I asked.
“Because I can give you £10 right now.”
“Times are tough,” I said. “It is a tempting offer. Let me think about it.”
Keep your eyes out for the Awards announcement on Friday and see what my conclusion was.
This morning, I got a Facebook message about the Awards from performer Ashley Frieze. He wrote:
Is there room in the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards for the “luckiest Fringe venue company”? – It has to go to the Freestival for losing one venue, then another, then all their acts, then having their poorly-attended venue broken into and set on fire… surely… I just wanted to nominate them for something, but “biggest clusterfuck of 50 years of the Fringe” seemed unkind.
I almost regretted the Award shortlist had already been announced on Monday because of some of the shows I saw yesterday.
Not quite… If any of the judges DID see a worthy show, it COULD in theory win because, as a fitting tribute to Malcolm Hardee, the rules are whatever rules we make up along the way.
(Right-to-left) Johnny Sorrow, Richard Drake and their possibly deaf sound man yesterday
The shows I saw yesterday started with former main Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Johnny Sorrow, performing with a man in a balaclava who used to be known as Sir Richard Swann and who is now known as Richard Drake. the last couple of days, he has been coming in to The Grouchy Club and sitting in the corner of the room in his red knitted balaclava saying nothing. He could grow to be an elephant in the room.
He and Johnny Sorrow are performing this year as Bob Blackman’s Tray. they previously performed as The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society.
Yesterday, when I came into the Three Sisters venue, I bumped into performer Ian Fox who, last year, was helping out the Bob Blackman duo as their sound technician.
“You’re not doing it this year?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “This year, they have a deaf sound technician.”
I think this was literally true. It would be par for the brilliantly surreal course.
While waiting to go into the Bob Blackman show, I just had time for a half hour chat with Irish-born writer Ian Smith, whom I blogged about last month. He lives in Sri Lanka, has just been working in Algeria and is over in Scotland for a week. But we were interrupted. He only had time to tell me that he once opened a Cuban bar in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and that, in 2012, the current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had his iTunes account hacked into and it turned out he was a massive fan of camp novelty group Right Said Fred. Ian wrote about it in his own blogBlood and Porridge.
“I am a big Heavy Metal fan,” Ian told me, “and you never get murderous dictators who are into Heavy Metal.”
Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl in Auld Reekie
At this point, we got interrupted by an American girl dressed as a showgirl. She was flyering for her show Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl which, annoyingly, I don’t think I can fit-in in Edinburgh (though I will see it in London).
The show sounds fascinating because it is the story of how she – Amelia Kallman – went to Shanghai and opened China’s first burlesque nightclub. The Chinese authorities and the Triads were not amused.
Since relocating to the UK, she has lectured at Cambridge University, written a graphic novel, scripts for television and a book also called Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl.
Equally interesting was her husband Norman Gosney who was born in Bristol but lived, for 25 years, in the penthouse of the legendary Chelsea Hotel in New York (where he and Amelia ran an illegal speakeasy The Blushing Diamond). It was a conversation we had no time to have, but Norman, Ian Smith and I have all been to North Korea at various points and, when you have, you always want to talk to fellow travellers about it.
There is a promo video for Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl on YouTube.
Other stand-out shows I saw yesterday included Patrick Monahan’s extraordinarily entertaining and energetic audience-thrilling romp The Disco Years. It is his first show where autobiography creeps in but, yet to come, there is still what I suspect will be a humdinger of a future autobiographical Edinburgh show.
Then I was able to catch the end of Spencer Jones’ show as The Herbert in Proper Job – wildly inventive prop-based comedy.
And, when I got back to my Edinburgh flat, there was a message from this blog’s South Coast correspondent Sandra Smith, currently roaming the streets of Edinburgh.
David Mills with a misunderstood flag behind him (Photograph by Sandra Smith)|
We are both enormous fans of gay (it becomes relevant in the next paragraph) American comic David Mills.
“During his show, “Sandra told me, “I said: Oooh look. The ISIS flag is behind you. It really did look like it.”
Actually, on closer inspection, it turned out to be a black flag with a PBH Free Fringe logo.
Equally confusing is a video that has appeared today on YouTube.
On Monday, we nominated Miss Behave for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for putting brown cardboard signs up around town with the hashtag MBGS (tangentially promoting Miss Behave’s Game Show). She claims that it is not her putting up these signs and now this bizarre semi-hidden-camera video has appeared on YouTube.
Comedian Matt Roper is staying in my spare bedroom until the Edinburgh Fringe starts in August. In the middle of last night, he posted this on his Facebook page:
Well, friends. Here I lay on the bed of bewilderment in what is known as a cockroach hotel. I’ve known far too many of them in my time. The owners of such places tend to decorate bedrooms like mine with the strangest objects of paraphernalia. For example: who the hell is this grinning at me from the wall opposite my bed? I’ll be fucked if I know.
This photo accompanies his Facebook post.
The face on the wall in Matt Roper’s bedroom
I should point out that Matt is in Istanbul for a week. But I will re-decorate my spare room so he feels more at home when he gets back. I have a much-admired framed portrait of Nicholas Parsons above my own bed.
Meanwhile, I have a backlog of blog chats to post and things keep happening to prevent me transcribing them.
Yesterday included being dragged willingly to the National Theatre by my friend Lynn, seeing Kate Cook’s excellent Invisible Woman show preview at RADA and (for a second time) seeing Sara Mason’s both funny and deeply traumatic show Burt Lancaster Pierced My Hymen (When I Was 11) as part of the ongoing Edinburgh Fringe previews at the back of Kate Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity shop in Shepherd’s Bush. This was followed by Copstick telling horrendous after-show tales of a Somalian vagina crawling with maggots in Kenya. She has shown me the video too. I am lucky I do not remember my dreams.
Performer Louise Reay was in the audience and told me her Chinese language It’s Only Words Fringe show (which I blogged about appropriately on 1st May) has now been sponsored by the Chinese government in the form of The Confucius Institute – China’s version of the British Council.
Cleaning a great wall may have helped Louise Reay in China
“How did you get them to sponsor you?” I asked.
“I asked them and they said Yes,” Louise replied. “It’s a real lesson in just posing the question.”
“What did you tell them the show was about?”
“I didn’t. I just said: My show’s all in Chinese, but for an audience that doesn’t speak any Chinese as all. I think they thought it would attract new people to the Chinese language.”
“So they have no idea what your show is about and they’re covering your costs?” I asked.
“And then some,” said Louise. “I’ve taken four months off work.”
My day had started with sophisticated comic David Mills sending me an e-mail:
I’ve just confirmed UK-boxing promoter Kellie Maloney (formerly Frank Maloney) as a guest on my chat show / podcast The In Crowd with David Mills at the new Camden Comedy Room on 8th July. Can I entice you to come along?
David knows me well enough to know that I am not going to turn down the chance to see a chat show involving a transsexual boxing promoter. I asked him more about the show.
David Mills – will be strutting his stuff, talking boxing
“As you know,” he told me, “I’ve been itching to take the reins of my own chat show for ages and I’ve trialled The In Crowd with David Mills out and about a few times. The new Camden Comedy Room has really got behind the show and will be recording it as a podcast as well. We’re sort of seeing how this goes before hopefully launching something more regular after the Edinburgh Fringe. I approached Kellie on Twitter and she agreed immediately.”
This seems to confirm what Louise Reay says. “It’s a real lesson in just posing the question.”
Shortly after chatting with American comic David Mills in London, I met my eternally-un-named friend, who is a fan of David’s sophistication.
For some reason, I said to her – it may have been some after-effect of the flu – “And did that dark Satanic Mills walk upon England’s mountains green?”
“Not Satanic,” she corrected me. “Sardonic.” And she is, of course, right.
“Americans!” I said to David when we met at Soho Theatre. “So appallingly upbeat, so depressingly, eternally optimistic.”
“Don’t tar me with that brush!” David shot back.
Have I mentioned before in this blog that I have a shit memory? And there is now the continuing post-flu vagueness to add to my innate vagueness.
“Have I never done a full blog on you before?” I asked David.
“No,” he told me. “I have sort-of flitted in and out your blogs. I have been a bit player in your cyber life…”
“When did you come to the UK?” I asked.
“2000… The point is I am not 22. I had other lives prior to the one I have at the moment. I was the only person who said I was going to leave the US if George Bush got elected who actually did.”
“So was that your reason for coming here?” I asked.
“No. I came over in a different career in a whole different world and just stayed.”
“What was your career before?”
“And it was what?” I asked.
“Too tedious to get into,” replied David. “So I’m not going to. It was literally another life. I was a different type of person. Do you know how long it’s taken me to put that behind me?”
“How often I have heard you say that,” I told him. “What were you into? Business? Sex? Espionage? Butter-sculpting? International drug-running?”
“None of those things,” said David. “It was super-uninteresting.”
“You are an international man of mystery,” I said.
“I’m not going into it,” said David.
“I can keep this going for hours,” I told him.
“I was doing something else,” said David, “and had a breakdown and stopped doing that.”
“You had a breakdown?”
“No. I was being hyperbolic… Alright, I went off the grid and lived in Lewisham.”
David is not a Lewisham man
“No,” said David. “Of course not. That is ridiculous. I certainly did not live in Lewisham. Anyway, I had been an actor and cabaret act and stand-up in San Francisco in the 1990s and then moved to New York to be a big star and was a huge failure and then stopped performing and got a professional job and that brought me to London and I did that career for about eight or ten years.”
“And that career was?” I asked.
“The other one,” said David. “But finally I decided I needed to get back on stage, because I was having a breakdown – a ten-year-long breakdown. So I got back on stage and the rest is herstory.”
“So,” I said, “you left the US, the place where all showbiz people dream of ending up…”
“I would like to have a career over there,” said David, “but it’s a weird, weird place. Super weird. Super fundamentalist. And, in terms of unspoken rules… You put a foot wrong in the US and they come at you.”
“But,” I said, “you’re talking about the middle, aren’t you? The coasts are more European. The East Coast, anyway.”
“Yes and no,” said David. “Compared to the middle, yes. But there are plenty of restrictions in comedy on what you can and can’t talk about. There’s a lot of consensus in the US. They talk about being divided. The truth is there’s tons of consensus. Anyone who has been there two weeks… they have all signed-up to this American vision. You can be in Britain for generations and you’re still not British.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. “I think the opposite. You go down the East End in London and the son of some West Indian immigrant couple is talking like Hello, luv, ‘ow are you? to people and he’s become British after one generation. In America, there’s the Italian areas, the Swedish town, the German town, the Jewish thing…”
“There is that,” admitted David. “But they all believe the same shit. And, in the US too, no-one retains their accent. They become an amalgam of American. If they’re in New York for two weeks, they’re saying: I’m a Noo Yoiker! Here, when do you ever really become a Londoner?”
“That’s not true,” I argued. “Almost no-one in London was actually born in London.”
“Tell that to an East Ender,” said David.
“They’re all from the Indian sub-continent!” I told him.
“The point is.” said David. “The point is, let’s focus, John. I have a show happening here at the Soho Theatre from the 3rd to the 7th February. Me. David Mills: Don’t Get Any Ideas. Me and my band.”
David Mills: Don’t Get Any Ideas with edge
“Yeah. Rock band. The Memes.”
“How many Memes are there?” I asked.
“Male?” I asked.
“One of them. I don’t see what gender has to do with it. There’s a guitar and a keyboard. We’re very stripped down.”
“That was my next question,” I said. “And this is what? A sophisticated 1950s Monte Carlo style cabaret show?”
“More 1970s scuzzy New York basement,” said David. “Because that’s me.”
“But you are Mr Sophisticated West Coast American,” I argued.
“There’s going to be sophistication,” said David. “Don’t worry. But I’m mixing it up. I’m sort-of bored with cabaret land. There will be some of that, but it’s gonna have an edge.”
“What sort of an edge?”
“Rock ’n’ roll.”
“You’re going to be wearing a leather jacket?”
“No. I’m going to look dynamite, don’t worry. The suit is the act, let’s be honest.”
“It’s a great act,” I said.
“It’s a great suit,” said David.
“And you are going to sing?”
“My version of singing. And jokes. Don’t worry.”
“Why is it called Don’t Get Any Ideas?” I asked.
“It’s a threat. I’ve got edge. Take a look at me. I’ve got edge.”
“When you started off in the US,” I asked, “were you always this sophisticated on-stage guy?”
Dave Allen was influencial in the US?
“I always liked Dave Allen’s style,” explained David.
“Dave Allen?” I asked, surprised.
“Well, a stool and a suit. That sort-of says it…”
“You saw Dave Allen in the US?”
“When I was growing up, they showed his old British shows on PBS. I was influenced by him. And people like Paul Lynde, who was a big US homo in the 1970s. He was like – I don’t want to say Kenneth Williams, but… He had this sort of bitchy kind of homo humour that was not overt but was certainly there. And I liked Stephen Colbert a lot. He didn’t wink with the jokes. He just told them in character and the audience had to get the fact he was joking. In the 1990s, he was around being funny as an actor.”
“This Soho Theatre show Don’t Get Any Ideas is going to be your Edinburgh Fringe show this year?”
David Mills – always looking for an original angle – in Soho
“Edinburgh will be a version of this. I’m a topical comic, not political, so the topics change. Let’s focus, John. My show here at the Soho Theatre from this Tuesday coming to Saturday. David Mills: Don’t Get Any Ideas.”
“Your mysterious previous career was not selling double-glazing?”
Passing through Blackfriars station, I heard a woman sitting on a metal bench with a younger man (possibly her son) say: “I want to have a proper chat and I can’t with you because you don’t drink.”
It was like a flat stone skimming across the surface of water. Briefly touching a few seconds of other people’s lives.
Comedian Lewis Schaffer met me at Peckham Rye station with his bicycle. We walked to Charmian’s. Lewis did not ride the bicycle. We talked of heart attacks, lungs and cholesterol levels. At one point, he said: “This is old men’s talk.” I had to agree. It is wise to agree with Lewis Schaffer. It saves time.
Magic David Don’t at the party last night
At the party, Charmian’s husband, magician David Don’t, told me he had recently been asked to perform at a charity gig. As it was for a charity gig, he quoted a low fee. After the show, they sent him a cheque for triple the amount agreed because they had enjoyed his act so much. I do not know what this demonstrates in terms of charities, but it must demonstrate something.
Before I left, I was talking to very amiable Polish lady Ewa Sidorenko and to Karen O Novak’s equally amiable husband Darren. We talked of toilet bowls and taps. Charmian Hughes and David Don’t do own a genuine Crapper toilet.
Conversation turned from that to the consistency of ceramics and, from there, to the fact that the British – unlike Europeans – have a separate hot tap and cold tap in sinks, rather than have a logically more sensible mixer tap.
Karen O Novak & David Mills did NOT talk of Crappers & taps
I think (though I may be wrong) that Ewa Sidorenko and I came to the conclusion that having two separate taps, with the risk of scalding one’s hand with piping hot water, fulfilled the triple traditional British benefit of identifying foreigners, humiliating them and maiming them.
On my way home, at Blackfriars station again, a young man who looked a little like Prince Harry asked me if he was on the correct platform for King’s Cross. I said he was, although the train actually passed through St Pancras not King’s Cross. We got on the train together and had a long conversation about his university course and job prospects.
This is St Pancras station last year not this year and is definitely not King’s Cross station
I told him I had once been on the same Thameslink line and heard a Japanese lady ask, as the train pulled into St Pancras if she was on the correct train for King’s Cross. To her increasing confusion, as she looked at the signs on the walls clearly stating ST PANCRAS INTERNATIONAL, three people told her: “This IS King’s Cross”.
Last night seemed to be a slightly strange evening, but I could not quite put my finger on why. Everything was normal.
But normality can be slightly abnormal.
During the evening, on trains, I saw two people with reindeer antlers on their heads. That is perfectly normal in London at Christmas.
“She,” said Karl, “was my favourite thing about Edinburgh. She’s got thousands of just amazing stories. What can you not like about her? I love Janey. She’s a comic who can handle anyone and she won’t be precious. She is so great. I can imagine her being an amazing actor. I fell in love with her the way I fell in love with David Mills when he first did it.”
“Very different comics,” I said. “What were you like when you started performing comedy?”
“When you start,” said Karl, “it comes as a shock. I was about 19 the first time I performed and you’re in this big nervous energetic space. It was like a heightened reality. I was thinking faster. I had different conversations going on in my head – what I was saying and what I was thinking – almost like Eskimo singers.”
“Eskimo singers?” I asked.
“Hitting different octaves,” replied Karl. “Then years go by and, even though you might be constantly surprised, shock doesn’t visit you as much. I believe shock is way more important to growth than something being ‘moving’. A moving gig is either good or bad, but a gig that shocks you has real impact.
“After four years of doing Matthew Kelly, I found that I wasn’t writing as much material as I should have. I had a bit of material but was improvising the whole time and Improv often stands for impoverished as much as improvised.”
“But you are continuing the character?” I asked.
Karl as his character ‘Matthew Kelly’ with some Chinese fans
“Yes,” said Karl. “What I’m enjoying with Matthew Kelly at the moment is playing with biographies. There is the character as himself. There’s Matthew Kelly telling stories about me when I was younger, almost as if Karl Schultz was the character. Then there’s me as Matthew Kelly, talking about experiences I have had as the Matthew Kelly character. And then there’s the sort of philosophy behind the whole thing. But it’s complicated to do that.
“I had this idea a couple of months ago… When you wake up, it takes you a couple of seconds to find yourself and I was obsessing over that and the idea that the day is a parasite and you, in that moment of awakening, are the host. So the parasite of the day lives through you as the host. It’s not comedic in itself, but I thought Matthew Kelly could be the day having fun on someone. It’s like a playful parasite. Even if I don’t communicate it to the audience, that can be what motivates the character.
“In a very American way, I subscribe to the idea of personal growth and the idea that a young artist should be trying to move his brain forward. That’s partly why I do all these different things: as a vehicle to move my personal philosophy forward.”
“What,” I asked, “helps you do that?”
“More than anything,” said Karl, “making mistakes and owning up to them. Nothing undermines something difficult to face up to more than accepting it. If you think: I am going to be visited-upon by dark clouds in my mind… If you can accept that, it completely undermines it.
Karl Schultz is not going to Switzerland soon
“Two days ago, I had a dark night of the soul on the District Line between Temple and Bow stations and the way I got through that was just by accepting it. All the credence I wanted to give to those imaginings of trips to Switzerland… it was undermined.”
“Trips to Switzerland?” I asked.
“Well,” said Karl, “you know…”
“Oh,” I said, “Exit. So why did you start It Might Turn Ugly?”
“I wondered if I could create a performance space where you are watching someone do something that might move them forward and you are watching that play out. I told people: Fifteen minutes. No ‘material’. Try to be honest. The idea is that you should not be able to do it the next night.”
“What,” I asked, “did you want to be when you were aged 16? A novelist?”
“No. I wanted to be Nick Drake. If I hadn’t been a comedian, I would have been some jazz-inflected folk guitarist. I used to play guitar for about 8 or 10 hours a day.”
“Nick Drake is like Joe Meek,” I suggested. “More of a cult than generally famous.”
“Everyone wants to be a more famous version of their hero,” said Karl.
“So are you trying to fit musical styles into comedy?” I asked.
Karl Schultz: one of his more understated stage performances
“I think my thing is just the life I had. Being an only child, moving every three years.”
Karl’s father was a Salvation Army officer and moved location throughout the world every three years.
“Having different voices in different groups,” said Karl. “That’s my thing. Having an assimilative personality where I can change my accent. I’ve had many different accents. Negotiating and reconciling.”
“Fitting into things you don’t naturally fit into?” I asked.
“Trying to make things fit,” suggested Karl. “I’m obsessed with reconciliation. If you have an early life like I had, it can be very confusing, so you try to make sense of it, which might lead you towards philosophy, poetry and so on. What is very attractive about prosodic things is finding disparate meanings but bringing them together, making them work. Something like Matthew Kelly is synesthetic – it is supposed to be.”
“You want everything to be ordered?” I asked.
“No. Not at all.”
“You want everything to be ordered even though your act is surrealism and anarchy?” I tried.
“My act is not anarchic,” said Karl. “It’s surreal in the sense of being unreal. I take ‘surreal’ to mean dreamlike and what I’m really obsessed with is that type of hypnagogia.”
“Hypno-what?” I asked.
Karl’s tattoo – a hypnagogic fantasy of a dodo with flamingo’s wings and peacock’s feathers
“Hypnagogia,” Karl explained, “is that state between wakefulness and being asleep where, as a child, you can just as easily be talking to your mother as a figure in a dream.”
“And,” I suggested, “you can know you’re dreaming yet think it might be real?”
“Yes. It’s a bizarre state. You only have to read anything Oliver Sacks has ever written about memory to know that you can appropriate memories, which is terrifying.”
“I remember,” I said, “being in a pram in Campbeltown where I was born, but I don’t know if I really remember it or if it’s something my mother told me about.”
“Everything for me,” said Karl, “is like a palette where you just play out ideas and let them run.
“What I’m obsessed with at the moment is neurophilosophy and the idea that, since the advent of cognitive science, our understanding of consciousness has moved on and so the language – the lexicon of philosophy – should catch up. What we know has moved on, but our language hasn’t. I think that’s exactly the same with comedy. It feels like we’re using Saxon language. We end up inventing words like dramady which is horrible.”
“What did you study at university?” I asked.
“Philosophy, but I was a real philosophy student in that I was a drop-out. I went off to become a comedian aged 20.”
“At least you didn’t study comedy,” I said. “I get twitchy when people think they can learn comedy.”
“Someone who’s a writer,” said Karl, “told me the other day: I knew more about writing before I started. Getting a degree in maths means that you are just as aware of how much you don’t know – and that’s the real education.
“When I came into comedy, I thought someone was going to go: Well done. Go to Level 2. I thought there were hierarchies and pyramids. But then you realise: Oh! It’s just a common room! You end up meeting the producers and commissioners and you can either have a really nice time with them or think they are milquetoast.”
“Milk toast?” I asked.
“Milquetoast. A bit cowardly. Not willing to take risks… But someone explained to me that is almost written into their job description.”