Tag Archives: Diane Spencer

Comedian Diane Spencer gave birth to a giant dwarf and sees numbers as colours

Diane Spencer - photograph by Steve Ullathorne

Diane Spencer has had a colourful life in more ways than one (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

Yesterday afternoon, I had tea with comedian Diane Spencer at Soho Theatre in London, to talk about the recording next Tuesday of Diane Spencer: Power Tool, her sixth hour-long show (at the Backyard Comedy club in Bethnal Green). We got diverted from the subject, though it started off OK.

“DVDs are on the way out,” I said.

“And there is a slight problem,” said Diane, “because a DVD may be region encoded. I sell them through a website where people can digitally download the stuff and watch it on their computers, iPads or phones. And I put all my work on YouTube anyway.”

“For free?” I asked.

“Yes. And people can buy a copy if they would like to. I did have a DVD deal for a while but the collapse of HMV had a knock-on effect and then the European version of HMV also collapsed and that had a knock-on effect to the company I had a DVD deal with.

“A lot of people have told me putting my shows online for free is bonkers but, equally, what’s now starting to happen is what I wanted to happen – people are coming from the online world to my gigs because they’ve seen everything I’ve ever done. I’ve just come back from a festival in Denmark and there were a couple in the front row. Afterwards, the woman told me: I’m so glad I got to see you live. I saw you on YouTube and think you’re great. So she bought a ticket to come see me.”

“Richard Herring,” I said, “reckons his online podcasts get him a bigger audience for his live shows in theatres. Everybody has to move on. You were in a play at Edinburgh this year. Any plans to act more?”

Diane Spencer - photograph by Steve Ullathorne

Diane Spencer – an actress before a comic (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

“I was an actress before I was a comedian,” said Diane. “I’ve been in several commercials and I was at the end of a Japanese film.”

“Called?” I asked.

Climbers High. It ended with the man finding his son in New Zealand with his Kiwi wife – me.”

“When was this?’

“Around 2009. I also got nominated as Best Actress in a 48-hour film festival – a short film called Nature’s Baby, where I gave birth to a giant who also had achondroplasia – dwarfism.”

“So you gave birth to a dwarf?”

“A giant dwarf,” Diane corrected me, “and he rampaged through the city.”

“So what is next for you?” I asked.

“I’ve decided to get serious about making a sitcom. I got an email today from a company who have made very successful, award-winning radio programmes. We’ve been working together on a comedy sci-fi radio sitcom. I’ve always wanted to write sitcoms: that’s why I got into stand-up comedy – I wanted to check I was funny. So there’s that and I’ll be working on my next hour-long live show.”

“Do you know what it’s about?” I asked.

“At the moment, I can only describe it in terms of almost shapes, colours and feelings.”

“I’m happy with that,” I said, “Go for it.”

“It’s pinky-blue with a little bit of green. Pinky-blue is definitely there.”

“What shapes?” I asked.

“I’d say triangles. But dark triangles.”

“And feelings?” I asked.

“It needs to be direct. There’s an issue of communication there. And it’s going to be uplifting. I know that much.”

“So,” I said, “it will be uplifted pink triangles.”

“Uplifted pink and blue triangles,” Diane laughed.

“Why pink and blue?” I asked.

“I dunno. I just see pink and blue.”

Diane Spencer has had a colourful life in more ways than two

Diane Spencer at the Soho Theatre Bar yesterday afternoon

“Once,” I told her, “I was directing a voice-over man I had never worked with before and he asked me: What colour are the words? He said: Are they brown? They feel brown or orange.

“Of course they did,” Diane told me. “He probably had synaesthesia. I have it too. My brain makes an automatic connection between letters and colours and numbers and colours. Some people make an automatic association between music and colours or music and tastes. I once wrote a sci-fi thing about this. I wrote the pilot episode. We recorded it at the BBC with seven comedians. It was about how anybody with synaesthesia went on to develop telepathy. It didn’t get anywhere.

“Synaesthesia only affects 4% of the population. There is a book called The Tell-Tale Brain by Vilayanur Ramachandran and he had a chapter on it. The funny thing was he was writing Is it real? and I was thinking Trust me, buddy, I’m looking at the colours in your words. It is real.”

“What colour was his book?” I asked.

“A whole book,” explained Diane, “wouldn’t be a colour for me. To me, it’s individual letters and numbers.”

“What colour,” I asked, “is 666?”

“That’s purple-purple-purple,” Diane said immediately. “But not quite purple: it’s more like a burgundy purple. A six is almost like a two-tone purple.”

“What is 665?” I asked.

“Five is blue,” Diane said immediately. “a steely blue, like a grey-blue.”

“What,” I asked, “is Fleming?”

“What’s interesting,” said Diane immediately, “is that the F in Fleming is overshadowed by the L. So F is green – L is white – E is light blue – M is orange – I is a weird one because it can be white or black – N is a warm colour like a yellow – and G is dark green like a bottle green, a darker green that the F.”

Diane Spencer (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

Diane Spencer – She is one of the 4% (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

“So,” I asked, “are these colours unique to you? Do all the 4% of people with synaesthesia feel the same colours?”

“No, we don’t have the same colours. Everybody has different colours.”

“Does it help you write your scripts or perform?”

“I don’t know. It helps me remember things, because I can see the shape of them.”

“So you don’t see one word as one colour,” I said. “It’s individual letters.”

“Yes.”

“So,” I said, “looking at a poster on the Soho Theatre wall, “if I said Olivier Award winning, as a phrase, that wouldn’t have any effect at all?”

“Well, it does, because I’m aware of the different colours in the words. Every single word has its own colours. I know that, on that poster, all the words are in white, but the A is also so clearly in red.”

“That’s fascinating,” I said. “And you have always thought this way, even as a child?”

“I thought everybody saw the same things I did. The shock was when I discovered not everybody had it. I was working at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and had decided I wanted to be a comedian…”

“You could have been a chameleon,” I suggested.

“…and an e-mail went round,” Diane continued, “from one of the research students saying Do you see colours over letters? and I thought Doesn’t everyone? and then, when I realised not everybody had it, I went Oh my God! I’ve got a THING?

“But,” I asked, “your eyes don’t see a letter as yellow? Your brain understands it as yellow?”

“It’s like two layers,” explained Diane. “It must be a cross-wiring of the senses, though I can’t see how a colour can be a sense. My eyes quite clearly see that’s white lettering on that poster there, however I can also see-but-not-see the imprint on top and that’s clearly yellow.”

“You’re seeing the imprint with your eyes?” I asked.

“No, but I know it is yellow. The thing is, if you tell someone that, you sound like a loon… But my new show is nothing about that.”

“Maybe it should be,” I suggested.

Diane Spencer - Power tool

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Exquisite bad taste gets UK comedian Diane Spencer into trouble in Bahrain

(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)
(NOTE: I have changed the names of the people in Bahrain)

Diane Spencer’s DVD recording next week

Diane Spencer’s DVD recording next week

Next Wednesday, Diane Spencer is recording a live DVD of her Exquisite Bad Taste comedy show.

“What is your image?” I asked her yesterday via Skype. “I guess it’s fresh-faced, clean-cut English rose who shocks by saying rude things?”

“I prefer ‘edgy’ instead of ‘rude’,” she told me. “I have never told a joke to offend anyone. The first time I was called ‘shocking’, I was surprised. I thought Am I? And the first time I got called ‘crude’. I was really surprised. I’ve never aimed to be crude. When people call me ‘foul-mouthed’ I think OK, well I understand. I think I just have an in-the-pub sense of humour.”

“So that promoter booking you in Bahrain recently was surprising,” I suggested.

“When they initially booked me to go to Bahrain,”said Diane, “I actually asked them: Are you sure about this? You’ve seen my act. And they told me: You’re exactly what they want in Bahrain. They’ll love it. Don’t censor your act. They have people going over there censoring their acts and that’s not what they want at all. They want you to do what you do.

“There were two gigs: one at a local comedy club and one in the hotel where we were staying.

“I was nervous about the whole trip , but I talked to my friends who had been there and they said: As long as you’re polite and you observe the customs...

“Well, I don’t walk around in short skirts and sleeveless tops anyway. I’m ginger. I don’t do very well in the sun. I wore a headscarf. I was trying to be respectful of other people’s culture.

“I went over there with Joe Lycett and Jarleth Regan and Joe was already slightly nervous. He told me: I keep asking them about the gay thing.

The Gulf Daily News promotes the fateful show

The Gulf Daily News publicised the fateful show in Bahrain

“I told him: Well, you’re a gay guy. I’m an outspoken ginger woman. So I think they’ve sent us on purpose. I think it’s going to be fine, otherwise they wouldn’t have made this particular weird selection.

“So we fly into Bahrain and meet Peter, who has organised everything, He says to me: I saw your show at the Edinburgh Fringe. I really enjoyed it.

I say, relieved: So you’ve already seen my act! 

“Yeah yeah yeah! he says. It’s gonna be fantastic!

“So we arrive at the comedy club that night and they’re mainly British people. There were not many people wearing the headscarf.

“We sat backstage and there was an exit to the outside where there was this massive wall at least eight feet high. Then we met the guy who was organising the gig.

Hi! My name’s Muhammad! he tells us. I’m in telecommunications! I’m a bum! I don’t do anything! And you just know he’s like a billionaire. I don’t do anything! he says. What do I do? I do nothing! I just bum around! I just get comedians in! 

So everything’s OK and the woman who books the comedy – Susan – comes in and she’s lovely. She’s enthusiastic: Oh, I’m so excited about this! she says. I’m so excited!

“So Joe and I think: This is all going to be good.

Muhammad tells us: Just do it! Just unleash! Just do it! I don’t care what happens! If they don’t like it, who gives a shit? It’s comedy! You guys are hilarious! Go for it! Whatever they say, I’ll take it!

And I thought: Well, that’s lovely. How nice. He’s giving me creative freedom.

So the gig starts and Jarleth gets up on stage and does his act and everybody loves it.

“Then Joe gets up. They LOVE Joe. He keeps saying Salam in such a camp way they find him absolutely hilarious.”

“And he mentions being gay?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” said Diane. “No problem. But then I get up…

Sunset at King Fahd Causeway linking Bahrain/Saudi Arabia

Sunset at King Fahd Causeway linking Bahrain/Saudi Arabia

“I walk on stage and there’s two tables of women who fold their arms and glare at me. They are the Any other woman is a threat kind of women.

“I start off gently and it’s going well and it’s building and then I hit… erm…

“Well we WERE given censorship rules. Two rules…

“First rule: Do not mention politics or the local situation or the recent troubles. One of the boys did touch on it, but very lightly.

“The other rule: Nothing about the Bahrain Royal Family. 

“Now, being called Diane Spencer, I had pointed out to Susan beforehand: Look, I do have jokes about the Royal Family, but it’s the British Royal Family – Is this OK? 

“And she said: Oh, God, yes!

“So I start off gently and it builds and builds and builds… and then I get into my Prince Harry jokes which then lead on to my Princess Diana jokes, which I have only ever written to make people laugh. And I underline that.

“When people laugh, it’s really great. Sometimes they don’t laugh and I do try and say to them: Look, it did happen in 1997 – Diana’s death – so I think it’s OK if we laugh about it now.

“But, in Bahrain, I start to lose half the crowd. The people who are enjoying me are getting quiet. The people who are not enjoying me are getting vocal.

Diane Soencer performing at Soho Theatre yesterday

Diane performing recently at Soho Theatre

“So then what happens is I fall back to my super-clean, completely non-offensive material about my eyesight, my tooth, my ginger hair. I start to win them back and then I realise I haven’t got many options left now in my immediate mind. I have got options. But I can’t remember them. I can only really remember my British comedy club set. So I do my club set.

“And the reaction is incredibly mixed.

“At the end, when I say Well thankyou very much, half the crowd cheer and applaud. Twenty people have walked out. And the other half of the remaining crowd seem to be in a kind of weird shock.

“I walk offstage and… well, I don’t just walk offstage, I walk out of the building to this place with the high wall and I just stare up at the sky feeling a million miles from my culture.

“Joe comes out to say Hi and he can see I’ve got tears in my eyes and he’s telling me: No, no. Just relax, relax. 

“Then Susan comes out and Peter and Muhammad come out. Susan is panicky and stands about two inches away from my face and says: I’m going to be taken down to the police station! They say it was public obscenity!

“She’s now shitting herself and repeating: I just think you went too far! I just think you went too far! I mean, you did some clean material, but then I think you went too far! I think you went too far! They’re talking about taking me down to the police station!

“She is talking very, very fast and Peter is trying to calm her down while saying at the same time to me: No, that’s OK. You did… I love what you did and I… and everybody is kinda really confused. And what happens eventually is that Peter sweeps Susan and Joe away, leaving me and Muhammad outside.

“I’m one side of this eight-feet wall and I think maybe if I go outside I’m going to have stones thrown at me… by British people!

“But Muhammad says to me: This comedy club! This thing! Oh, I lose thousands on it! And then he tells me this story about when the troubles were happening a couple of years ago and they took him into custody for two weeks – He told me what happened – And then he says: 36 million? Gone! 

I say What?

“He says: $36 million. Gone! And I’m never going to get that back. That’s fine. Whatever.

They seized his assets.

“$36 million.

So then I thought: Well, my problems really are nothing. My bad gig is not an issue.

Diane remembers the Bahrain gig, talking on Skype yesterday

Diane remembers the Bahrain gig, talking on Skype yesterday

The next day, I sat by the pool at the hotel and restructured my set. I know people say Oh, you should just do what you do but, no, it’s about the crowd.

“I played Tetris in my mind with all my old material.

“That night, we re-arranged the second gig, which was in the hotel. Jarleth went last, Joe went first and I went in the middle. The hotel had drawn a bigger crowd, because people had heard what had happened at the comedy club the night before and were coming to see this cataclysm.

“Joe went on first. They loved him. Then I went on and I knocked it out of the fucking park. It built up, built up, built up and it was just lovely.

“In the break, people were coming up to me saying: We thought you were fantastic! You should START with the filthy stuff! Those people last night! What’s their problem? That was great!

“I also found out that the manager of the local comedy club had actually run into the dressing room the night before, after the gig, to try and find me and tell me that he loved it and to say he didn’t know what was wrong with the twenty people who walked out. He said I loved it!

“But, because of me, they’re now putting a disclaimer on the local club’s leaflets stating that they do not control any of the comedians.”

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How Set List marketing and Sarah Palin made comic Rich Hall soar last night

There seem to be comedy improvisation shows all over London at the moment. If comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll, then I guess improvisation is like the occasional fad for long guitar riffs.

I have mentioned in a previous blog that, when I was a student (around the time Louis XIV was on the throne of France), I saw Keith Johnstone’s seminal weekly Theatre Machine in Hampstead.

I have also blogged before about the comedy improvisation show Set List, when it was the sleeper comedy hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

It started small but gathered extraordinary word-of-mouth, especially among performers and, despite venue and time changes which would have scuppered other Fringe shows, it very quickly had full houses and ‘Name’ comics lining up, desperate to perform and – just as important – to be seen to perform. It was a show with prestige among comedians.

Last night, ending a run at the Soho Theatre in London, Set List had a packed audience, up for anything, full of anticipation at attending an ‘event’.

You know you are onto a winner if your first-on-the-bill is the wonderful Rich Hall, your final act Andrew Maxwell has ploughed through Saturday night London traffic from a performance in Greenwich to take part in your show and, when a billed act drops out, you can get a last-minute stand-in of the calibre of Dave Gorman.

Quite how this ‘hot ticket’ feeling happens is almost always beyond comprehension.

Of course, it helps that the man behind Set List is Paul Provenza director of the cult comedy industry documentary The Aristocrats(who flew over from Los Angeles to attend the last few shows) and that his man on British soil is the well-connected comic Matt Kirshen, but there is also very shrewd marketing going on.

The sense of anticipation last night (in an audience who had overwhelmingly not seen Set List before) was built-up partly by its late start – there’s nothing like being stuck in an over-crowded entrance hallway filled with chatty Guardian readers for 20 minutes to build a sense of up-market expectation – but also by an on-stage screen which, as the room filled up, was flashing rave quotes about the show from publications and, surprisingly, one from the excellent rising comic Diane Spencer.

There are currently bigger comedy names than Diane Spencer, but I suspect the Set List originators have rightly thought, “She is likely to become very successful,” and are getting into her good books early.

Shrewd marketing. If the punters recognise her name, they give themselves a pat on the back for having their fingers on the pulse. If that is physically possible.

All improvisation shows are, by their nature, a variable ride, but the (justified) self-aggrandisement of Set List works wonders. You are left in no doubt from the flyers, pre-show build-up and great sales technique of compere Matt Kirshen that you are attending an ‘event’ of some importance and that you are a superior punter for having chosen to be there.

Of course, it also helps that, unlike most improvisation shows which have built-in safety-nets of pre-prepared arcs and relationships, Set List is genuinely improvised by the comics and often savagely exposes comedians who are falling back on their own old material or who cannot link the six bizarre topic titles they are given.

If they perform six little separate routines based round the six given phrases, it does not work. They look like open-spot beginners.

But, if they can knit the six unconnected Set List topics together with one or more ongoing subject threads, then they can soar – as Rich Hall did last night with Alaska, grisly bears and Sarah Palin working wonders for him.

He triumphed, but I think the reason top comedians want to perform on Set List is really because it is creatively dangerous. The risk of falling off the comedy high-wire is greater because the performers are not in as much control as in a normal stand-up act and, as I have written before in this blog, I think comedians are a bunch of masochists with an urge to fail.

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Accidental meetings and a comedy revelation at the Edinburgh Fringe

I pretty much started the Malcolm Hardee Awards as an ongoing annual event in 2007, saying they would run until 2017, on the basis that I would then be able to get free tickets to all comedy shows on the Edinburgh Fringe for ten years.

Tragically, until this year, I have been involved in other shows and been unable to make full use of this fine scam – mostly just seeing shows recommended by other judges. But this year, with the five Malcolm Hardee shows happening only in the final week, eureka! –

Yesterday at the Fringe, I saw seven shows.

My day started with the always excellent Steve Day‘s definitely at least 4-star show Run, deaf boy, Run about how he took part in the London Marathon this year. There is an interesting reason – explained in the show – why ‘deaf boy’ in the title does not have capital letters. Afterwards, Steve told me one story not included in the show.

He was given his first comedy bookings by Malcolm Hardee at his Up The Creek club in Greenwich, which is on the London Marathon route. As Steve was running past Up The Creek this year, he tried to Tweet the fact on his phone but failed because of the large amounts of Vaseline transferring from his fingers onto the phone.

Alright, alright. You have to see his show to understand that but – hey! – you should see his show. And yes, he had been pretty much doing what you might think he had been doing with the Vaseline.

I was sitting in the Pleasance Dome thinking how funny this story was – though admittedly only if you’ve seen Steve’s wonderful show – when American comic Lewis Schaffer sat down at my table; it was akin to an Assyrian descending like a wolf on the fold – though admittedly only if you ignore his Jewishness, which is difficult.

He told me:

“I have new shoes. They are so tight, John. They hurt my feet and make me feel like a girl…”

I looked at him.

“My act has changed,” he said. “I have gone full-on flexible.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“You know what it means,” he replied. “Full-on is a British phrase.”

“No it isn’t,” I said, “it’s an American phrase and even if it were British English, I have gone full-on flexible still doesn’t mean anything.”

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know what it means either. Kate Copstick is coming to review my show tonight for the Scotsman. I’m not ready.”

“It’ll be OK.” I said, trying to be reassuring. “She likes you.”

“Well, I find that irritating,” Lewis said.

“What?”

“That she likes me. Does she really like me? I find it irritating when people like me. My girlfriend likes me. I find that very irritating.”

It is sometimes very difficult to talk reasonably to Lewis Schaffer.

We walked off together to the Counting House venue and passed comedian Diane Spencer, flyering for her show All-Pervading Madness.

“Are you coming to see it?” she asked me. “I know you saw it in London, but it has changed so much – out of all recognition.”

“I did think about it,” I said, “but I don’t need to see you because I know how good you are.”

She thought I was bullshitting.

I was not.

She IS that good.

I keep thinking I should suck-up to Diane Spencer so that when, inevitably, she is highly successful she may one day buy a Big Issue from me when she comes out of some future BAFTA Awards ceremony. Forward planning is important, but young women tend not to take it very well when a man of my age tries to suck-up to them. The police are a constant sword of Damocles.

At the Counting House, I saw Ivor Dembina‘s show which he calls Ivor’s Other Show because he… has another show at the Fringe. His other show Free Jewish Comedy is his stand-up comedy show; the clue is in the title. Ivor’s Other Show is a sit-down chat show in which he and two different comics each day talk about jokes and comedy with the audience joining in – it’s Ivor’s own format idea called Desert Island Jokes.

It was certainly interesting to see Ivor’s Other Show, because I will be chairing two panel shows about comedy as part of Malcolm Hardee Week – the final week of the Fringe.

Ivor is a surprisingly good chat show host. Most comedians are too self-obsessed and keen to make an impact to be a good, moderately self-effacing host, but I guess Ivor’s many years compering at his Hampstead Comedy Club have given him the vital necessary experience.

Yesterday’s show was also interesting because, in my own mind, it clarified why you can listen to a Beatles’ song 25 times and enjoy it equally each time… and listen to a comic story 25 times, enjoying the experience and the ‘journey’ equally each time, but you cannot hear a joke 25 times with equal pleasure: you are unlikely to ever repeat the scale of the large belly-laugh at the punchline to an equal extent on subsequent hearings because the element of surprise at the punchline is missing on repeated tellings.

The exception might be Tommy Cooper gags where, although they may be straight punch-line-based gags, it is the style of the telling of the joke at which you are really laughing.

But what do I know?

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The Malcolm Hardee Awards presentation + Arthur Smith’s tour of Edinburgh

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

The Malcolm Hardee Awards were presented late night on Friday and it was, at last, my first chance to meet the very charming, very very amiable Bo Burnham, who had had PR trouble earlier in the week.

In honour of the late Malcolm Hardee, everything was thrown together after the Award winners were decided at Friday lunchtime. Around 6.00pm, it was decided doyenne of Scotsman critics (and Malcolm Hardee judge) Kate Copstick would present the awards with comic Simon Munnery… and Nik Coppin, within whose Shaggers show it was happening fitted everything smoothly in with Arthur Smith coming along as a last-minute top of the bill.

Perhaps the most interesting act of the evening to me was Diane Spencer, who appeared at first to be a seemingly newish stand-up. She must be underestimated by many. Very very likeable. And very professional. I have seldom seen anyone play a post-performance room that smoothly or that effectively. I think she will go far.

After the show and a break to e-mail out press releases, at 2.00am I joined a growing and expectant crowd outside Edinburgh Castle for Arthur Smith’s legendary  tour of the Royal Mile.

This year, it involved a philosophical dissertation on the meaning of life and the existence or non-existence of God and… as we wandered down half The Mile… a mermaid sitting on a stone wall, a man in a white suit singing on a mini roundabout to the confusion of taxi drivers, the three Segue Sisters singing in rickshaws, a very lucky busker, soldiers singing from fourth floor windows, yellow-jacketed local council workers dancing in the street and Simon Munnery donning a German accent but, unlike in previous years, failing to get arrested by the local police.

In among the crowd, there was also a placid man in an orange plastic vest jacket with the words (as I remember them) LEGAL OBSERVER on his back; he took occasional notes. I thought he must be part of the surreal festive frivolity and would become relevant later on but, it seems, he was the real thing. Quite what he was observing, I know not. Perhaps he was trying to gather evidence to grass up Simon Munnery to the Leith Police. Arthur, as always, encouraged the unusual along the way which, this time, involved synchronised rickshaw driving and paying £20 to anyone who would stand on their head in a full-to-the-brim smelly rubbish bin; one young man, of course, took up the challenge and got the money.

Among the crowd were London Evening Standard critic Bruce Dessau turning up on a bike after phoning Arthur to see where he was on the Royal Mile, Steve Bennett editor of comedy industry website Chortle apparently trying to merge anonymously into the stone walls in case an aggrieved comic spotted him,  comedienne Hattie Hayridge wearing a big black coat and hood saying she felt like she’d come as the Scottish Widow and a desolate Comedy Store Player Richard Vranch arriving 45 seconds after the tour ended.

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