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Award-winning UK comic to write play about Twin Peaks director David Lynch

Mr Twonkey promotes his Christmas in the Jungle in Brighton

So I had a chat with Mr Twonkey aka Paul Vickers at King’s Cross station in London.

He was on his way back home to Edinburgh. Last year, he won the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“How were your Christmas in the Jungle shows at the Brighton Fringe?” I asked.

“It was so hot,” he told me. “I don’t think people were feeling… They were… It occurred to me that maybe doing a Christmas show in the middle of the summer isn’t such a great idea.”

“But surely,” I said, “with your act, to do a Christmas show at Christmas would be a silly idea.”

“Well,” he replied, “I was pitching it as The only Christmas show on at Brighton in June. Unfortunately, there was another one called The Grotto. And, when I was flyering for it in the street, people were asking me: What’s wrong with you?”

“You are,” I checked, “still doing Christmas in the Jungle at the Edinburgh Fringe this August?”

“Yes.”

“Have you seen the new Twin Peaks TV series yet?”

“No. But I am trying to write a play about David Lynch.”

“Your previous play was Jennifer’s Robot Arm,” I said.

“Yes. That was more kitchen sink drama/science fiction. This would be about people who actually exist.”

“How are you getting the facts?” I asked. “From Wikipedia?”

“Various sources. There’s a few books about him. The trouble is none of them are any good apart from one which is not bad: Lynch On Lynch, which is a series of interviews with him.”

“Does he know anything about himself?” I asked.

“I would imagine there are a few gaps. But there’s also a good documentary online about someone following him around while he’s making Inland Empire.

“And there’s a book coming out in February 2018, published by Canongate Books which has his full support. I think it’s called Room To Dream.”

“So your play,” I asked, “is about… what?”

“I want to focus on is the time he spent in London. The early part of people’s careers is always the most interesting. He was living in a flat in Wimbledon, making a suit for The Elephant Man.

‘You know, in Eraserhead, there’s a little deformed baby. I think he kept it very damp. I think he used chicken and raw animal flesh, moulded it together and used maggots quite a lot – to eat away the face. And then he kept it damp. His daughter wanted to play with it and he told her: You can play with it as long as you don’t touch it.

“After Eraserhead, he was a cult figure – a young hotshot director – and he had a few films he was trying to pitch. One of them was called Gardenback, which was about a community of people who could only speak to each other by passing an insect between them, either through the ear or through the mouth.

“The studio kept pushing him to write dialogue for it and he couldn’t write any. He said: Well, that’s the whole point: that they don’t speak. They communicate by passing the insect. So that project was shelved.

“Then he had another project called Ronnie Rocket, which was for the actor of restricted height in the Black Lodge. It was like Rocket Man, but he was small and it was surreal and it had villains called The Donut Men. But no-one would pick it up.”

“Jam on the fingers?” I asked.

“Yeah. So then they just gave him a pile of scripts and he picked The Elephant Man without reading it. Mel Brooks was producing it.”

“Mel Brooks,” I said, “once told me that, whenever you get your photo taken, you should always open your mouth.”

“Did he? Anyway, Mel Books had had success with Young Frankenstein as a black & white film and I think he quite liked the idea of re-invigorating the genre and Eraserhead had been in black & white.

The Elephant Man was a big responsibility for David Lynch and apparently it was the closest he ever came to committing suicide. He almost put his head in the oven in Wimbledon during the development process. I was going to have a bit in my play where he puts his head in the oven and it turns round and Mel Brooks comes out from a theatre where he has been viewing Eraserhead.”

“This is live on stage?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Will the insects from Gardenback take part?”

“They could. But I was thinking focussing more around the fitting of the costume. They gave him six months to make a costume for The Elephant Man based on the fact he had done well with the baby in Eraserhead. And apparently what he created was horrendous. John Hurt came round for a fitting and he couldn’t hardly breathe or walk and certainly couldn’t act in the costume.

Mr Twonkey takes a train and a door north to Edinburgh

“So that process was unsuccessful and a lot of money had gone down the drain and I think that was when he thought about putting his head in the oven.”

“And the costume in the finished film?” I asked.

“I think, essentially, he got someone else to make it. There was a bit of controversy on the set because he was young but had experienced British thespians like Sir John Gielgud and Anthony Hopkins who had been round the block a few times. I think there was a friction with young David Lynch adapting to these older British actors.”

“Maybe they didn’t talk about it,” I suggested.

“What?”

“The elephant in the room.”

“That’s a good title.”

“You just have to make the play relevant to the title,” I suggested. “Would you perform in it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re the wrong shape for David Lynch,” I suggested.

“I don’t think I could play him convincingly enough for more than 5 or 10 minutes; then I would run out of steam. It needs to be a proper actor.”

“The good news with a play about David Lynch,” I suggested, “is that there’s no limit to the possible surrealism.”

“It can be a BIT eccentric,” Paul agreed. “It can be a bit Lady in The Radiator in Eraserhead.”

“But it can’t all be that. What would give it real poignancy is revealing a bit of his history that people didn’t know about. The main scene would be the fitting, where it goes wrong.”

“Hold on,” I said, “If you are going to do a show about David Lynch making a costume he can’t make, you have to make the costume, don’t you?”

“That’s true.”

“Is that a problem?”

“It will have to be a good costume.”

“The one that isn’t successful…”

“Yes. But it can be really horrendously bad. That will be good.”

Mr Twonkey and Sir Nigel Gresley, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Northern Railway (1911-1923) and the London & North Eastern Railway 1923-1941). He designed The Flying Scotsman train.

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“Frenzied tit grabbing in Wetherspoons” after throat-slitting at the Grouchy Club

Yesterday, performer Samantha Pressdee posted in Facebook: “Frenzied tit grabbing in Wetherspoons, all in the name of feminism, is where last night’s Grouchy Club wound up.”

Critic Kate Copstick and I run The Grouchy Club. This was originally conceived by me as a one-hour chat show for the Edinburgh Fringe where I would not have to do any advance work – boring things like booking guests and thinking up subjects – and would not have to do anything on the day because the guests would be the audience and the audience would be comedy industry people self-obsessed enough to witter on for at least 55 minutes while I sat back and listened to the audience gossip and self-promote and Copstick got irate about something and ranted and raved.

It is the reverse of a normal show.

At the Grouchy Club, the audience performs and I do nothing.

Job done.

Copstick and I are back at the Edinburgh Fringe this year 14th-27th August with a daily 2.15pm Grouchy Club show. It is not listed in the main Fringe Programme because heaven forfend that I should have to fork out money or that ‘real people’ should turn up. It IS listed in the Laughing Horse Free Festival programme because that does not cost me money. Our shows are genuinely free – No collection bucket. Free to enter. Free to leave. Free to say what you like. May contain nuts.

It does not get vast audiences but does OK by Fringe standards and, as I said in a recent blog, at the Edinburgh Fringe, what is important is not the number of bums-on-seats you get but whose buttocks they are.

This original Fringe idea turned into a monthly Grouchy Club in London and a weekly podcast which I stopped in February this year after 100 editions but which may re-start around Fringe time, as Copstick likes to hear the sound of her own voice.

The latest monthly live London Grouchy Club was two days ago. It is always the second Tuesday of the month. Why? I have forgotten. I am old, bald and my grip on reality is loosening.

Anyway, semi-regular (in attendance, not in bowel movements) Siân Doughty observed yesterday on Facebook: “It was an eventful evening and the most fun I’ve had on a Tuesday in years”.

I billed it in advance as being about “the General Election; the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe; advice on writing, structure, performance and how to get publicity and reviews… Plus an insider’s description of the London Bridge terror attack… a 10 min excerpt from an upcoming Fringe show… and slanderous gossip.

Copstick – Her bark is worse than her bites

“Kate Copstick will be on painkillers,” I continued, “and have jet lag from Kenya. I will probably have had a tooth extracted a few brief hours before. Copstick will almost certainly be bad-tempered. I will gibber and dribble. Usually, we end up talking about dubious sexual practices and who the cunts are in comedy. And there are free biscuits.”

When it came to it, almost none of this happened except that Joe Palermo did describe being in the middle of the London Bridge terrorist attack (with a description of slit throats and all) Edinburgh Fringe/Eurovision Song Contest podcaster Ewan Spence had some unprintable gossip and there were free biscuits. Copstick was the healthiest I have seen her in about two years (but then, inevitably, she went in to hospital yesterday) and I still retain my tooth, at least for the moment.

At around 9.00pm, as often happens, everyone decamped to the nearby Wetherspoons pub and I went home, thus missing the bit Samantha Pressdee mentioned: “Frenzied tit grabbing in Wetherspoons, all in the name of feminism.”

Samantha is one of the studio psychics on and an occasional presenter for Psychic TV. Last night, she did a TED style talk on Maslow’s Pyramid and the Law of Attraction. But that is too up-market for this blog. I asked her to expand on the tit-grabbing. And she has:

“The tit-grabbing was a great relief to me,” she says, “as, earlier in the evening, I had found myself sandwiched between Noel Faulkner, former owner of the recently gazumped Comedy Cafe and David Gersch, new promoter of what was the Comedy Cafe. Noel (in effect) threatened he would set the comedy Illuminati onto Gersch.

“This time I had remembered to bring a bottle to the Grouchy Club. I was glad of a drink, having lugged my fat bin bags around London in the heat that day. The bin bags  contained some clothes and bedding that will shortly be off to Aleppo in Syria via the Mama Biashara collection point.

Samantha reads Gersch’s uncertain future in the cards

“With the threat of Illuminati forces in the air, I thought I should channel some positive energy so brought out my tarot cards. I began reading for Gersch who was wearing a a baseball cap backwards embroidered with his catchphrase CLASSIC GERSCH. Noel wished the death card on the 25 year old. And it was the first card to come up.

Are the Illuminati real? I wondered. Noel, as if psychic himself, nodded and explained they have a secret way of winking.

“He calmed down a bit after a beer and the angel cards brought some laughter to the room. The angels suggest Noel and Gersch take it outside when they both pulled the ‘fresh air’ card. They left the party early (but separately).

“Comedian Siân Doughty was given confirmation from the angels that her decision to opt out of our Prosecco drinking was the right one. Her calm energy had a taming affect on our debauchery but, still, she did not escape a tit grab later.

“Copstick is a well of a wisdom – we learned the most wonderful cure for a hangover. Which, like most of the best things in life, involves nudity.

Joe’s story, reported in the Evening Standard

“I made a new feminist friend called Sarah – on her arrival she lobbed a bag of bras across the room that are bound for Kenya, via Mama Biashara.

“She and I bonded over our mutual hatred of another feminist and found we both support The English Collective of Prostitutes in their bid to decriminalise sex work.

“When we went to Wetherspoons, we discussed the virtues of Chris Dangerfield and the problems with third-wave feminism before the conversation moved on to the wonders of tea tree oil. We shared our experience of using this magic potion as a natural cure for vaginal thrush.

“Socially conscious Sarah interjected: What if a woman is not privileged enough to own a douching kit?

“Copstick immediately swung in her seat, both legs erected up in the air, and jiggled. The Wetherspoon community, of course, did not bat an eyelid but it may have been too much for sweet Simba, a street musician I had befriended on my fag break. He was considering entertaining us at the next Grouchy Club on July 11th but, after the demonstration of how to achieve a healthy vagina using the upside-down method, he made his excuses and vanished into the night.

“What an adventure!

“Earlier, the angel cards had verified that John gives trustworthy guidance and Copstick is loved by many, bringing joy to those whose tits she touches.”

Samantha added to me:

“If the blog goes up, could you link to my Edinburgh Fringe crowdfunder at the end? I am offering my Tarot readings as a perk! Perhaps at the bottom it could say: Would you like a psychic reading from Sammie? As a mystic she regularly appears on Psychic TV, has featured in It’s Fate and has over 200 5 star ratings. For a £25 donation to her Edinburgh fund, you can get a 20-30 minute reading in person or on the phone.

The appealing Samantha’s Edinburgh crowdfunding video

I told her No – it is too blatantly commercial for this blog, because the whole point is to plug me and the Grouchy Club.

If she is psychic, I wouldn’t need to tell her this and she wouldn’t need to tell anyone anything.

I asked if she had any pictures of the tit-grabbing.

She said No.

Life is a never-ending frustration.

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How to win an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award…

Comic legend Malcolm Hardee knew a little bit about Africa. (Photograph by Vincent Lewis)

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe are all about originality. This blog is a lazy re-hash of a piece I wrote last year.

But, as Malcolm would have said – indeed, often did say – “Fuck it! It don’t matter. There are people starving in Africa. Not all over. Round the edge… fish.”

The best way to win an Award and to honour Malcolm’s memory would be to either steal one or to  ‘lend’ me £500 and not expect to get it back but, whatever your angle, the first thing is to know is what the awards actually are.

The three Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards await collection

There are three and they are given in memory of the late Malcolm Hardee.

Obviously.

Who he?

He was, according to The Guardian, the “patron sinner of alternative comedy, renowned for his outrageous stunts”.

The Daily Telegraph called him “godfather to a generation of comic talent” and, in their 2005 obituary, the Independent said he was “the greatest influence on British comedy over the last 25 years”.

The last quote must be totally true because I wrote the obituary myself and included that phrase on the basis that future lazy journalists would simply blindly copy it.

Several have.

But it is arguably entirely true.

The current three annual, increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards are:

THE MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD FOR COMIC ORIGINALITY

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award with Edinburgh Castle behind

Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

Basically, the judges have no idea what we are looking for. If we did know what we were looking for, we would be able to define it and it would not be original. The award is for a performer not for a show and anyone who approaches me touting a “family friendly” children’s show is way wide-of-the-mark. Malcolm was known for having the biggest bollocks in show business and for showing them to everyone. On stage, his habit of getting his knob out at the drop of a testicle was not ideal BBC1 primetime material.

If you are family friendly and mainstream, don’t even think of trying for the award.

If your act is literally incomparable – i.e. it is impossible to compare it with anyone else’s – then you could be onto a winner.

This automatically means that someone standing at a microphone telling brilliant gags has no chance unless there is something odd in the characterisation or delivery – simultaneously juggling a mixture of babies, kittens and blancmange might give you a chance. But it’s still basically stand-up comedy. I have seen it before. Likewise most sketch comedy (which also has the disadvantage of multiple performers).

Past winners of the award have been Reggie Watts, Doktor Cocacolamcdonalds, Edward Aczel, Otto Kuhnle, Robert White, Johnny Sorrow, The Rubberbandits, Adrienne Truscott, Candy Gigi, Michael Brunström and, last year, Mr Twonkey.

THE ACT MOST LIKELY TO MAKE A MILLION QUID AWARD

The Act Most Likely Award awaits its fate in Edinburgh this morning

For Act Most Likely To Make A Million Quid

The title says it all, really.

The judges have to take a wild punt on who may survive the vagaries of – and triumph over the good and bad luck inherent in – a comedy career to attain seldom-attained financial success.

There is no point anyone approaching us to suggest themselves. If we think you are likely to fulfil the future requirement and win it, that’s our call, not yours.

Past winners have been Bo Burnham, Benet Brandreth, Trevor Noah, Luisa Omielan, Laurence Owen and ’The Baby’.

I voted against the last one. The others argued that, by the time he was grown up and died, due to inflation, £1 million would be equivalent to £10 today.

THE CUNNING STUNT AWARD

Desperate pose with Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

I pose with the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

This is the one the press like. It is for the best CUNNING stunt promoting a Fringe performer or act or show.

Pay close attention to the inclusion of the word ‘cunning’.

Riding an elephant painted pink down Princes Street and inviting the press to see it is a stunt but it is not a cunning stunt.

This award was started when comic Gill Smith sent me an email saying she was nominating herself for the Malcolm Hardee Award on the basis that her email to me allowed her to legitimately put on her posters and flyers MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD NOMINEE. She said she thought Malcolm would have approved. I thought he would too and started the award.

The winners have been:

GILL SMITH – for that initial piece of chutzpah.

LEWIS SCHAFFER – for convincing several publications that he was the new sponsor of the (formerly Perrier) Edinburgh Comedy Awards for £99 and that his mother and agent would be on the judging panel.

STEWART LEE – for successfully encouraging people to vote for little-known Japanese act Frank Chickens in a poll for Best Fringe Performer despite the fact they were not performing at the Fringe. (As a result of the publicity, ironically, they did end up performing at that year’s Fringe.)

KUNT & THE GANG/BOB SLAYER – for getting fans to put stickers depicting penises on the posters of rival acts to promote Kunt & The Gang’s show. Personally, I never liked the original stunt but Bob Slayer, Kunt’s promoter, kept the publicity stoked-up and refreshed for so long in so many ways it became a work of PR art.

STUART GOLDSMITH – for a series of YouTube videos about Fringe censorship of the title of his show Prick.

BARRY FERNS – for printing and distributing around Edinburgh fake copies of Broadway Baby which gave his show 6-out-of-5 star reviews and reported that his show had been nominated for the Fosters Comedy Awards, in both the main category and the newcomer category.

CHRISTIAN TALBOT – for using his 12-year-old daughter Kate to go up to strangers in the street, looking sad, ask them “Have you seen my daddy?” and, when they said “No”, handing out flyers to them.

MATT ROPER – for hacking into the Facebook account of Malcolm Hardee judge & Scotsman reviewer Kate Copstick and posting fake messages – purportedly from her – “bigging himself up”.

BECKY FURY –  for putting on Tinder her Fringe flyer in an attempt to lure lustful males to her show… and claiming on her publicity that she was a ‘Last Minute Comedy finalist’ – implying it was for the Lastminute.com Comedy Awards (the former Perrier Awards) when, in fact, it was for a little-known Hertfordshire comedy club contest


John Ward with some Malcolm Hardee Awards for Comedy

John Ward, designer and manufacturer of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards

The judges for this year’s Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards are:

MARISSA BURGESS
Freelance arts journalist/comedy critic for The List, Fest, Chortle etc.

KATE COPSTICK
Chief Comedy Critic of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.

BRUCE DESSAU
Comedy Critic of London Evening Standard; editor of beyondthejoke.co.uk.

JOHN FLEMING
Co-host (with Kate Copstick) of the increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club.

JAY RICHARDSON
Freelance journalist for Scotsman, Guardian, Sunday Times, Channel 4 etc.

CLAIRE SMITH
Freelance journalist, reviewer and feature writer for The Scotsman.


Malcolm Hardee – a new meaning to stand-up

The Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show takes place in the ballroom of The Counting House in Edinburgh on Friday 25th August as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

The two-hour bizarre variety show will include the announcement and presentation of this year’s awards and the annual Scottish National Russian Egg Roulette contest.

The show is free. You cannot buy tickets in advance. You have to queue. Life is a bitch. Live with it.

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How to alienate an Edinburgh Fringe audience with mis-conceived videos

Yesterday’s blog was about things which could be wrong in an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show’s script but which can be changed even at a very late stage.

Today’s blog is about something it is less easy to sort out.

AND IT IS BLOODY ANNOYING!!

When people ask me about performing at the Fringe, they are concerned about getting audiences in. They are concerned with bums-on-seats. Fair enough.

But one thing I remind them – rightly or wrongly – is that the real reason performers flock up to Edinburgh in August is not to fill seats with money-making ‘real’ members of the public (most performers make a loss) but to be seen by the media and the showbiz industry.

Many years ago, I was up in Edinburgh with one act who was unknown at the time and was getting virtually no audiences. He was talking about giving up and going home. I told him not to. One night (when I was not there) he had only four people in the audience.

But it turned out that two of them were TV producers looking for talent for a new series they were preparing. He was booked for two full runs of a BBC2 TV series.

Oh, alright, it was Charlie Chuck and the series was The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer where he performed as the Charlie Chuck character but was called Uncle Peter.

Another time, I turned up to see an interesting-sounding show at the Fringe. The only audience members were me and another man. But the two performers had given up a few days before and gone back to London. I was looking for acts for a Channel 4 TV show. The other man was a BBC Radio producer. We never saw the show or the performers.

It is not the number of bums-on-seats that matter… It is whose buttocks they are.

30 ‘ordinary’ punters in an audience cannot make you famous.

One person in the audience could make you a millionaire and the biggest thing in British entertainment.

Though not if it’s me, obviously.

It is all smoke and mirrors.

I remember several years ago, one act who was hot, hot, hot. He is now a known Name comedian. Everyone was talking about his Fringe show that year. It sounded massively successful. And it was. But, when I went to see it, he was performing in a small shipping container. Perhaps there was room for 30 people in the audience. But the right people had seen the show and the word-of-mouth was massive. I repeat:

It is not the number of bums-on-seats that matter… It is whose buttocks they are.

Richard Gadd clearly did it right at the Edinburgh Fringe

In 2015, Richard Gadd was booked into a venue in Niddry Street that turned out to be too small when the word-of mouth about his show Waiting for Gaddot became massive. People were getting turned away every night, which just fanned the flames of the word-of-mouth.

In 2016, he was nominated for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award because – now much much better-known and guaranteed to sell out a much bigger venue – he had booked himself into the same small venue on the basis that even more people would NOT be able to see his equally superb show Monkey See Monkey Do, thus making himself and the show even hotter.

At least, that was the story. It might have been bullshit to get nominated for a Cunning Stunt Award. But, if it was untrue, that was a successful Cunning Stunt in itself.

My point is that acts perform on the Edinburgh Fringe to be seen by the press, TV & radio producers and prospective managers, agents, promoters, whatever. They want to be talked about. They want to be hot and to be seen to be hot.

But, as a result of this, an appalling habit has crept in over the years.

Pre-recorded video clips.

They started, I think, because people wanted to demonstrate to TV producers what fine comedy sketches they could do if given a TV show.

That was bad enough.

BUT, OH COMEDIAN OF LITTLE SELF-BELIEF, YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE PERFORMING A LIVE STAGE SHOW, NOT SCREENING A SHOWREEL!!!!

It has now got worse than trying to demonstrate TV sketch performance potential on stage via pre-recorded video clips. Comedy performers are now willy-nilly bunging pre-recorded videos in their solo shows, having ever-changing stills backdrops and all sorts of appalling visual distractions.

This CAN work and it CAN be relevant.

In Richard Gadd’s aforementioned, rightly-acclaimed 2015 stage show Waiting for Gaddot, the conceit was that he was not there. The pretence was that he was late for the billed show and other people performed while waiting for him to arrive – and this was interspersed with make-believe-live video clips of his various problems trying to get to the venue. Eventually he did arrive and he ran into the venue just as the show was about to end.

In that case, the video clips had a very well-thought-through purpose which was part of the cleverly-conceived format of the show.

But, mostly, comedy performers – an insecure and neurotic breed at the best of times – witter on about wanting to add ‘production value’ to the show and how just watching them stand at a microphone talking for 55 minutes would be dull for the audience. They want to make the show “more interesting”

Well, if you are worried about people getting bored watching you talk to them uninterrupted for 55 minutes, you should not be taking a show up to the Fringe and you should consider a career change. If you want the show to be more interesting, then be more interesting.

One thing you definitely don’t want in your show – feared comedy critic Kate Copstick commenting via a video screen. (In this blog, this is an example of an irrelevant distraction.)

Adding videos to the show is not ‘adding production value’, it is distracting the audience and interrupting their concentration. Every time you show a video or a series of stills to ‘add production value’, the audience has to switch attention from the performer’s face to a TV screen of totally different luminosity. Their visual focus literally shifts and their ears have to re-tune to a different type of sound wave. And sometimes there is also a lighting change involved to further distract their concentration.

It destroys whatever momentum the performer has built up.

The audience, who have been (or should be) intent on watching the performer’s face and listening to his/her carefully-crafted spiel, have to mentally switch off and re-tune to the ‘other’ (pre-recorded) video performance or visual.

At the end of that, they have to mentally, visually and aurally re-adjust back to the performer. Literally change their focus, literally re-adjust to a totally different visual display.

Every time the performer stop/starts his/her performance, the momentum is stop/started and the audience’s concentration diluted or lost.

Also, the audience must inevitably have at least a slight thought in the back of their minds: I came here tonight to see a live comedy performance. Why am I sitting watching a TV screen/projected image that has been pre-recorded?

And, while they are watching this unexpected interruption, they are half-flicking their attention every now-and-then back to the performer who is just standing around like a wanker doing nothing or – God forbid! – has walked off-stage for the duration of the clip.

The audience will and must think: Hold on! Am I watching this because the performer doesn’t have enough confidence to risk doing it live and has pre-recorded it? Or: Is the performer not talented enough to entertainingly describe in fascinating language what I am watching?

I am not a performer. I can show you a video of a monkey juggling a meringue and get laughs. A talented comedian can describe it to you and get even more laughs.

Every time I have to sit through bloody video clips in a live show in which the performer stands to one side and scratches his/her nose/anus, I start to wonder: If this wanker can’t perform the whole show live, why not just record the whole thing, email the video file to me and I wouldn’t have to come out on a wet night, have my luxuriant hair half-blown off by the wind and be shat upon by giant seagulls with attitude problems! (This is Edinburgh, after all.)

These annoyed and annoying thoughts will also, most of the time, be shared by the TV or (God help them) radio producers whom the performer most wants to impress.

If you don’t think you are interesting enough to hold people’s attention in a 55 minute live show, just don’t go to the Edinburgh Fringe. (This is another distracting picture.)

If you are trying to demonstrate what a good writer and live performer you are in front of a live audience on a stage, then don’t go multi-bloody-media luvvie unless it is vital to the whole caboodle (like it was in Richard Gadd’s show).

If you are a sketch group, don’t bloody have me sit in a darkened room in Edinburgh watching you being clever in Take 13 of some video you pre-recorded in a London park four months ago. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s not going to impress me. If you can’t think of an entertaining way to perform sketches live on stage in a room in Edinburgh, then don’t go up there and go get a job stacking shelves in a supermarket.

If you can’t do 55 minutes of straight-to-the-audience stand-up material then (unless you can make it VERY original and an integral part of the live-to-the-audience act), don’t have video inserts. Just do a bloody stand-up routine entertainingly. Or send a showreel to Netflix or Amazon or BBC3 or put it on YouTube. Don’t inflict it on me, sitting on an uncomfortable chair in some annexe to a church or some student lecture room draped in black curtains in Edinburgh.

I could be watching re-runs of old Tommy Cooper shows instead.

Of course, if you take all the advice above, you will never be nominated for, let alone win, an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality.

Life is a bitch.

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How to mess up an Edinburgh Fringe comedy script and lose one review star

The Edinburgh Fringe Programme is published tomorrow – almost two months before the world’s biggest arts festival actually starts.

So here is my two happence on why some comedy shows will fail or will lose at least one star in reviews.

Performers have to think up their show title in around February, usually well before they have written the show and often before they have developed any ideas they have.

During the much-later writing process, they then discover what their show is actually about. This is often barely relevant to the show title.

And, even if they think they know what their show is about when they start writing, it may turn into something totally different by the time they are finished – and even further-removed from the title which they are now (because of unnecessarily-early Fringe Office deadlines) stuck with.

If they are sensible, they will preview the show a good few times in front of genuine audiences (ie NOT their friends) to see where the laughs really are. These laughter-points may be totally different to what they assumed. And the audience may be uninterested or extremely interested in parts of the show unforeseen by the performer.

This is good. Dry runs of the show are good. But there is a danger.

The comedy performer will often, perhaps usually, have written the show themselves. This is good.

If they are wonderfully creative, they will have had hundreds of ideas and sidetracks swirling through their brain as they constructed the show. This is good.

They test-run the show in front of audiences to see where the laughs are so that they can adjust the structure. This is good.

But they are comedy performers. They crave laughs. They feel in their heart, mind, body and soul that, if the audience is not laughing, they are failing as performers.

Or, more to the point, they are not having their egos boosted as they constantly require.

So, after each dry-run performance, they will tweak the structure of the show so they keep in the laughy bits and cut out the non-laughy bits. In theory this is good.

But there is that fine cliché saying: You can’t see the wood for the trees.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, people choose to go to a live stage show.

The live stage show has a title. If it is a literally attractive and very specific title, it will have drawn the audience in.

If the title bears little or no relation to the content of the show, there is a high risk of confusing or alienating the audience during the performance or, at least, distracting them.

They are sitting there thinking (even if only subconsciously):

This show is called FISHING IN GUATEMALA and there has been no mention of fishing or Guatemala so far. When is he/she going to mention it? Is all this stuff I am sitting through heading towards a story about a fish-based tourist trip which will pull all these funny but unconnected jokes/stories together?

The other danger is that, during the writing process, the performer has bunged-in and kept-in everything funny they can think of to get laughs. And, during the previews, he/she has kept in everything that gets laughs while removing everything that doesn’t get laughs. Including the linear narrative that holds the bleedin’ show together.

So, even if there was originally a single unifying idea to the show, it is now a mishmash of funny but unconnected and disconnecting 2-or-3 minute items swirling around uncontrolled within a 55 minute show.

If it is a pure ‘gag’ show a la Jimmy Carr or Tim Vine or Milton Jones, that works. Especially with those three, because they are brilliant, highly-experienced performers with total control of their content, linking and pacing.

But, if it is a show that supposedly has a subject and/or a show with a title that implies a subject but the subject is not constantly holding the show together or propelling it forward, then, dear performer, you are fucked with a very sharp stick indeed.

You will lose the audience’s concentration and you will lose – at the very least – one star in reviews.

Even at a late stage, though – like tomorrow, when the Fringe Programme is published – not all may be lost.

In 2005, the Scots comic Janey Godley wrote her autobiography, which I edited. She wrote every word. It was a single flowing narrative which could happily have had no division into chapters but, for ease of reading, it was broken into chapters.

I gave Janey advice and wrote the chapter titles. She wrote 100% of the text of the book.

We had both suggested titles for the book to the publishers. Some were random thoughts which might lead to other thoughts.

One of these was Handstands in the Dark because, during her very very dark childhood, Janey would do handstands, sometimes without the room light on.

The publisher liked the counterpoint of the happy handstands and the darkness of her life and insisted on Handstands in the Dark as the title. I personally think the publisher also liked it because it sounded classy and publishers are partly in business to boost their egos when they talk about their books to wanker friends at Islington dinner parties.

When, while writing the book,  Janey prepared her next Edinburgh Fringe show – which would be used partly to publicise the book and covered the same autobiographical subjects – she chose the much more commercial Good Godley! as her show title. The publisher could have used this title but had brain-freeze on Handstands in the Dark.

So, when structuring the book – which was not fully written when Handstands in the Dark was decided-on as the inevitable title – we had to bear in mind what the tenuously-relevant title of the book was.

One of my contributions as alleged editor was to get a reference to Janey doing handstands on the first page with a brief mention of why. She wrote:

“I liked doing handstands. I loved the world upside-down. It made me dizzy but I liked that feeling…  Sometimes I would only talk upside-down. Sometimes I would talk in a code only I knew. Sometimes out in the street I would kneel down and scoop water from puddles with my hands coz I was thirsty but too scared to go home and face what was there…”

The book has 27 chapters.

The first chapter is titled THE WORLD UPSIDE-DOWN.

The penultimate chapter is titled THE HANDSTAND, implying that the book builds towards a particular handstand and there is a relevant handstand theme important to the structure and (that terrible publishers’ term) ‘story-arc’ of the book.

But the importance of the concept of handstands in a dark world is something added on top of the book. It is not what the book is about.

The book has its own terrifically strong structure of throat-gripping hook-after-hook-after-hook (all Janey’s doing, not mine), leading up to an unforeseen end.

When published, Handstands in the Dark was a top-five hardback bestseller in Scotland and a top-ten paperback bestseller in the UK. It is still in print and selling 12 years later because it is an extraordinarily well-written book (and I did not write a word of the text).

My point is that the content of the book itself is actually not defined by the title. It grew organically and brilliantly as Janey wrote it. The addition of the penultimate chapter title and the inclusion of the first-page reference were to make the irrelevant title seem relevant.

So my advice to anyone with an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show stuck with an irrelevant title is this…

Bung in a reference to the title of the show at least three, ideally five times, scattered throughout the show. This will make it seem like the title defines the show.

If your comedy stage show meanders all over the bloody place, then you are probably dead in the water, but…

In your own mind, define in one single short sentence exactly what the show actually IS supposed to be about (which may well have changed since you first thought you knew what you were going to write). And make sure that everything – EVERYTHING – in the show relates to that short single sentence concept.

It does not matter if one 2-minute section gets big laughs. If it is irrelevant, cut it. You can use it in another show.

An audience can be carried along on laughs and an idea.

But, if you have laughs and no single central idea which is developed through the show and builds to a logical, relevant climax, then (unless you really are as technically brilliant as Jimmy Carr) you are going to have a show with laughs but no actual audience involvement – you will lose the audience’s attention and emotional involvement and you will probably lose at least one less star in any review.

If your show is called FISHING IN GUATEMALA then, for fucksake, at least mention fish and Guatemala.

(My apologies to anyone who actually HAS written a comedy show titled and fascinatingly about fishing in Guatemala.)

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I ask about Musical Comedy Awards but get sidetracked by exploding intestines

Tamara Cowan was the one who brought up the intestines

“So,” I said, “he now lives in Austria or wherever, but you are his representative here on earth.”

“I think my official title is Creative Director,” Tamara Cowan told me, “but it’s sort-of producing and being The Man on The Ground. I am The Man on The Ground. We do it together.”

“How,” I asked, “did the annual Musical Comedy Awards start?”

“Ed Chappel set it up on his own nine years ago, when he was at Warwick University as part of an Events Management thing. He started it with online entries then hired out the Pleasance, Islington, for the final. The first one was won by Adams & Rea (no longer together as an act).

“The next year, Ed and I were both flyering for Bound & Gagged (comedy promoters) up at the Edinburgh Fringe and he thought it would be really fun to have live heats the next year. I had just had half my intestines chopped out and I was at home recuperating. I was lying there thinking: I don’t really know what I’m going to do when I get back to London. And he texted me saying: Oh, you seem to be good at comedy/chat stuff. Do you want to come and help me with it next time? In fact, I didn’t know anything about comedy.”

“Why,” I asked, “did you need to have half your intestines out?”

“Well, it was actually only a third. I exaggerated.”

“Even so,” I said, “it still begs the question Why?

“They had twisted.”

“Isn’t that what intestines do?” I asked. “Why had they twisted?”

“I don’t know. They twisted and then they got a bit infected and the doctors had to lop a bit off. Apparently it only happens to very young babies and very old people.”

“How old were you?”

“I was 25.”

It was this or a picture of intestines – Ed Chappel publicising the Musical Comedy Awards in 2009.

“The doctors,” I asked, “never mentioned why?”

“I did loads of research and it didn’t really explain it.”

“The doctors never said exactly why they wanted to chop bits out of you?”

“They had done scans and seen it had twisted and exploded.”

“Exploded?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have trouble digesting things now?”

“No. I have to eat quite a lot of fibre to make sure I ‘go’ regularly but, basically, it holds as much as it holds and, if it has less room to hold it, it will just push it out quicker. Tell me you are not going to write about this.”

“Probably.”

“Oh dear.”

“You were in hospital…”

“Yes. As the NHS was a bit overstretched at the time, I ended up updating my own chart sometimes because no-one else was.”

“The chart thing hanging on the end of your bed?”

“Yes.”

“You updated your own chart?”

“Yes. I opened it up and saw all the pictures and it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Your own intestines?“

“Yes. Open. Urghh! That near-death experience put me off acting.”

“Acting?”

“I did an MA at Mountview.”

“So you were an aspiring actress?”

“I was. But that near-death experience put me off. I thought I don’t want to be an actress and then I found comedy and thought This is more fun.”

“So you had a third of your intestines out then decided to move into comedy? There’s a pun there somewhere. We just have to find it.”

“Belly laughs?”

“Mmmm…”

“Gut instinct?”

“Could be.”

“So you moved into comedy but not as a performer, despite the fact you had wanted to act.”

“Well, going to drama school put me right off wanting to go on stage. Then having a near-death experience made me want more of a tangible career.”

“Why did learning to be an actress put you off being an actress?”

“It made me quite self-conscious because you over-thought everything. And, after the near-death experience, I wanted to actually do things rather than rely on people employing me. Rather than have casting directors decide if I was going to do something, I wanted to decide myself to create stuff and do things. And I found the Musical Comedy Awards at that point. It meant I could be in charge of making something actually happen and putting on productions.”

“You wanted to be in control of your own destiny?”

“Yes.”

“So, you organise the Musical Comedy Awards annually but, the rest of the time, you are…?”

“An assistant agent. I’ve been with Hollie Ebdon for almost two years now. I used to work in corporate property, but I gave that up because it was horrible. Have you ever worked in corporate property?

“No…. Anyway, you decided you wanted to be master or mistress of your own destiny so, after having a third of your intestines out and deciding not to be an actress, you went into corporate property?”

“No. I went into theatre administration and then got accidentally found and offered a job by a cool and fun property company but then they got capital investment and it all started turning a bit horrible. Then Hollie’s thing came up and she was the first person who had given the MCAs an opportunity because she had been doing the booking for the Wilmington Arms in Rosebery Avenue where we did jam-packed musical comedy days with people like Abandoman. That was in 2010.”

“You said earlier that, when you started, you knew nothing about comedy.”

“Well, when I finished at London Metropolitan University, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe and worked with Bound & Gagged for the summer, like I said, and someone had to explain to me who Stewart Lee and Nicholas Parsons were. I really didn’t know anything about comedy.

“Then I went and got a job at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, tearing tickets. Through that, I met Tracey Collins – Tina Turner, Tea Lady – and Charlie, who helps with the MCAs.  And this year we are magically ending up back there because there was a delay with the Underbelly. So, after ten years of not working at the Lyric, we’ve all ended up doing the Musical Comedy Awards Finals there this coming Monday.”

Everyone’s back at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, this year

“That is fairly weird,” I said.

“Yes. And then Ed Chappel found this bit of paper – an obituary for his great-great uncle, who was a famous actor in the early 20th century – and his great-great uncle’s first West End production was Of Mice and Men at the Lyric Theatre.”

“So you’ve been doing the Musical Comedy Awards for eight years. Getting bored?”

“I love the variety. Musical comedians are a mixture. You get people who are basically comedians but who can play a bit of music. Then you’ve got cabaret people. Then actors who are all-rounder triple-threats: acting/singing/dancing.”

“Is it easier,” I asked, “to hide weak material if you are a musical comedian? Take (I named an act). Their material is OK but their personality is so overwhelming you almost don’t notice some of their material is weak.”

“But isn’t that the same with stand-up comics?” Tamara suggested. “It’s all in the balance. If you had someone else doing Stewart Lee’s material, it wouldn’t be as good without his stage charisma and timing. In some ways, yes, musical comedy is easier because you do have a kind of energy level that comes with playing the musical instrument, but it is harder as well because you have a lot more balls to juggle and make it click and work and get the audience to buy it.”

“There are no real musical comedy shows on TV,” I prompted.

“I think,” Tamara responded, “that a musical comedy show would work well on TV, but I don’t think they want to take a risk.”

“Maybe because it sounds expensive ,” I suggested. “Like putting on 42nd Street.”

“But,” said Tamara, “it can be very cheap. It’s usually just a… well, a white guy in his early 30s with a guitar. People get musical comedy and musicals mixed up.”

“You still have no urge to pluck a ukulele yourself?”

“No. I’m almost tone deaf. I can’t sing in tune. I can appreciate music but I can’t do it myself. I used to play the saxophone. I wasn’t too bad but it did give me an awful rash on my bottom lip and you don’t want a rash on your lips when you’re a teenager. And it is almost impossible to do musical comedy if you have something in your mouth.”

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April Fools jokes can rebound on jokers

I am doubtful I would make a good woman.

It is April 1st today and yesterday I thought about planting a story I was changing gender and wanted, from now on, to be known as Jean Fleming.

But, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered setting it all up believably and the self-publicity was not necessarily all positive.

April Fool jokes can turn and bite the begetter.

As I write this, it is 09.30am and already April 1st stories have appeared, a couple good, one bad.

At 00.25am this morning, comedy club-runner Martin Besserman posted a Facebook message saying:

An excellent idea, because it is just about believable, especially at 00.25am in the morning. I almost fell for it, because Martin is an increasingly prestigious man, or so he tells me. In any case, what you remember longer-term is Monkey Business being associated with some sort of up-market area.

That man in the white suit on the left is a hologram. Or not.

When I woke up an hour ago, I had a Facebook message from Dan Berg of go-getting comedy streaming company NextUp saying:

Hey John, Hope all’s well! I remember you sat in the front row for our gigs so thought you might like this – a lil bit of NextUp technology which launched today so the front row is never too far away… http://lologram.co.uk

It was touting a new concept in which you can project video holograms of comedians in any location.

Exactly the sort of thing he and NextUp might do and it projected a PR image of a futuristic forward-thinking company. A comedy hologram called Lologram sounds like a great name. Good PR for NextUp.

Detailed but backfiring?

I also received an email from the Edinburgh Fringe which announced that they are building a roof to cover the area of the Royal Mile sponsored by Virgin Money… and they want you to fork out money to crowdfund it… So they have a financial sponsor (Virgin Money) and they want punters to help finance the financial sponsor.

A good April Fools joke – maybe – but one which rebounds as bad PR for the Fringe, given that it makes you wonder yet again what Virgin is actually sponsoring. Not the Fringe Programme, where a 40-word entry costs £300-£400 for 40 words and costs an arm-and-a-leg for a quarter page ad.

The seed is also planted in your brain (even though you know it is not true) that Virgin Money are calling themselves sponsors but do not have enough money and are asking ordinary people for crowdfunding to make what they do seem better.

April Fools jokes should be jolly, but not leave a funny PR taste in the mouth or egg on the face.

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