Tag Archives: Eric

Three comedians & a baby in Australia + the problem of German stereotypes

(Part of this blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Things are looking up Down Under.

I got a message yesterday from Australia, which started:

Carlsberg don’t do Press Releases, but if they did perhaps it would read…

It then told me that amiable British sub-mariner turned stand-up comedian Eric had had a baby. Well, Helen had. This somewhat belated (it arrived on 31st January!) ‘press release’ read:

Tuesday December 27 2011 at Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide, South Australia …. 09:03hrs ACDT (23:33hrs Monday 26 Dec GMT)

Blonde Hair. Blue Eyes. Both mother and baby are doing well. After a process that began on Xmas morning at 9am Both parents are tired but absolutely delighted.

Sorry we couldn’t notify you before, but we are exhausted and so are our phone batteries. This info is somewhat belated, but as you can imagine our lives have been literally turned ‘upside down’. We have been trying to send you this for a while now…

I also got a message from a euphoric Bob Slayer in Australia saying:

Hey, Mr John, The Drum magazine wrote a nice feature on me on page 21 in their centre spread and I had an interview on RTRfm Radio in Perth. I like to think that I managed to be surprisingly funny, considering it was 8:25am. I did not know before this there were two 8.25s in the day. My first show is tonight, tickets seem to be selling at a beautiful rate and I have negotiated free beer from the venue!

Comedian three in this blog is Paco Erhard, who is taking his 5-Step Guide to Being German show to the Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival after a one-off at London’s Leicester Square Theatre on 13th February. This is the show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe last August and wrote about in a So It Goes blog and in Mensa Magazine (Paco is a member).

On his re-designed website, he quotes a line of mine:

Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

“Quoting a nonentity like me smacks of desperation,” I suggested to him. “And you have five star reviews you can quote from reputable publications. Festivals Review said you were one of the ten best shows at the Fringe!”

“Well,” he replied, “your quote expresses too nicely how I want to be seen to not use it.”

So what will Australians make of Paco’s German show?

“I try to refute German stereotypes,” he tells me, “but, ironically, I actually have quite a bit of difficulty making people believe I’m really German. I don’t look or sound stereotypically German enough, especially outside my solo show – ie in normal comedy gigs.

“Some people watch my act for 20 minutes, hear me talk about being German and they’ll still think Why is this Irish guy pretending to be German? It’s a weird, paradoxical situation. Should I put on a German accent and dye my hair blond, in order to convince people that Germans are not like they think?  It’s ridiculous that I should have to desperately convince people I am German, thereby conjuring up all the stereotypes that they allegedly hold about Germans, just in order to then blame them for thinking what I have just brought up and then telling them what we’re really like. Okay, this is an extreme description, but there is a bit of that involved in some comedy club gigs that I do.

“That’s why I like festivals more at present, because there the people come to see my show because they are interested in the topic and it is established well before the show that I am really German. That way I can just be myself more or less. However, I do have some sort of accent, so if I don’t say anything about where I’m from, they’ll sit there more focussed on trying to find out where my accent is from than on my comedy. Maybe I should just use my real name, Erhard Hübener. But I wanna see the MC who can pronounce that or the punter who will remember it after the gig, no matter how much he liked me. I could be on TV every day and, in the credits, I’d probably still be called The German guy. Oh well.

“I don’t think my show is a show about stereotypes. I try to go beyond that. But I do address the stereotypes at the beginning of the show. It’s important to me to do that in a clever, deconstructive, ridiculing way (although I still have one or two in there that are a bit naff… but hey, they get a laugh and I’m a whore…)… it would be a lie to say I don’t do stereotypes at all. However, I think you have to address them to get them out of the way. It would be silly to pretend they aren’t there. And, especially when talking to people who still cherish some of those stereotypes somewhere deep in their hearts, you have to pick them up where they are… they won’t follow you on the journey of your show if you depart from a point of knowledge or an attitude that they don’t have yet.

“I am off to Adelaide and Melbourne on the 21st of February and I think doing the Australian festivals will make me a much better comedian. In my comedy here in Britain I still lean on the (alleged) British-German conflict too much, which is one thing I really want to get away from. I was strongly influenced by my five or six years of being a compere to those Sun-reading package-holiday imbeciles in Majorca, most of whom I actually liked, but a considerable amount of whom gave me a lot of (stupid) shit about being German.

“Some Brits seem to think that they have a sense of humour or know how to be funny (there’s a difference between these two) when in reality they are just stupid, unoriginal and offensive. (But it’s okay, you know, because everybody knows that, just like fish, Germans don’t have feelings.) So I came to Britain thinking I would be up against a lot of hostility just because of my nationality and that I’d better talk about being German a lot and also giving them a bit of a hard time for being British. While I realised quickly that British people in Britain were very, very different from the ones I had encountered on Spain’s beaches, that old feeling of hurt and defensiveness paired with a certain aggressiveness remained with me for quite a bit of time and I think hasn’t completely gone away yet. It was a real epiphany a few months ago when I realised that most Brits actually quite like the Germans.

“Anyway, this whole issue won’t be, well, ‘an issue’ in Australia. Which will be a relief, a challenge and an adventure all rolled in one. I’m free of all that old We don’t like each other bullshit, that subconscious unrealistic feeling that somehow there is a rift between me and the audience (that I then involuntarily fortify by addressing it implicitly). I can’t use that as a crutch anymore. All of that material I had best forget about doing in Australia. They won’t care. So I will have to dig deep within myself for the things I really want to say. Which I already did to a large degree at the Edinburgh Fringe last August. But I know my show can definitely be further purged of all that. And I have a lot of stuff I’ve been wanting to say for a long time… and I will say it now in Australia. Also, I will improve the show’s structure a lot for Australia. And then I’ll bring all that back to Britain. (And also I will have free rein to say some rough things about Britain without hurting anybody’s feelings or getting bottles thrown at me :-D)

“I will need quite a bit of new material for Australia, but I see that more as an opportunity to finally use some great material I’ve been writing for years and that I never got to do.

“I have some concerns, but they are less to do with the art, than the marketing. I’ve been bitching about having gotten a lot of grief from Brits about being German, but being ‘a German comedian’ simply is a fantastic selling point in Britain. I do think I had a good or maybe even very good show in Edinburgh, so yes, I delivered, but I think lots of people came because GERMAN COMEDIAN stands out of the crowd more than “British white middle-class comedian, number 2417”. It’s a selling point and it helps me. Not when I’m on stage – then I better be funny – but to get people into my shows. And I don’t know if this selling point is quite so strong in Australia. They live on the other side of the world, so their attitude to Germany is bound to be very different from Britain’s, which has had a direct relationship with Germany – in good times and in bad ones – for centuries. They might not go for it as much. Who knows? I hope they do.”

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Filed under Australia, Comedy, Germany, Racism, Theatre, Uncategorized

You meet the most extraordinary people at the Edinburgh Fringe

Everything at the Edinburgh Fringe is inter-linked.

Do I look Jewish?

American Jewish comedian Lewis Schaffer had a bit of schtick in his Edinburgh Fringe show last year which he is not using this year – well, he won’t after reading it here.

He would ask a man in the front row of his audience: “Are you Jewish?”

Depending on the reply, he then said either “That’s great,” or “That’s terrible,” and added, “It must be terrible to LOOK Jewish and not to BE Jewish.”

Yesterday I was crossing the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and a still small voice asked: “Are you Jewish?”

Two bearded men were standing at a table dressed in black and wearing skull caps.

“No. Sorry,” I replied.

Three steps further on, I reconsidered my reply and turned back.

“But what would you have said if I were Jewish?” I asked. “What are you selling?”

“Nothing, But are you Jewish?”

“No, but I know someone who is a Jewish American comedian.”

The young man on the left was smiling. The older man on the right was not smiling; he never smiled. I think he was probably Israeli rather than Jewish.

“You know someone who is Jewish?” the man on the right said suspiciously.

“Do I know someone who is Jewish?” I asked. “Yes. He’s a New York Jewish comedian.”

“Give him this, then” the jollier Jew said, handing me a leaflet.

“He can come on Friday,” the unsmiling presumed Israeli said reluctantly.

The leaflet said:

Come join Chabad for your Shabbat live experience!

All in one Shabbat Dinner, Fun, Laughter, Friends, Great food. Lots of L’chaims and much more.

I was tempted to convert.

There was a Jewish thread running through the day.

A little later, I got chatting to highly charismatic part-Iranian actor-comedian Jody Kamali from Bristol who told me he had to get an Iranian passport and change his passport name to Sam (well, that’s what it sounded like) when he visited Iran otherwise they would not have let him in; there was a drawback to this because they might then have forced him to do three years military service in the Iranian Army.

That is not part of the Jewish thread to the day, but I also got chatting to Jody’s director. I have no idea what his name is. That is one of the quirks of the Fringe – you can have terribly interesting conversations with fascinating people but forget to ask their names. Anyway, he had a moustache, was tall and was not part-Iranian…

We are back now to being Jewish… well, Jew…ish.

What he was – indeed, is – is Jewish-Scottish-Portuguese; he speaks Portuguese to his mother and is living in dream accommodation while in Edinburgh – the Austrian Consulate.

I forgot to mention he is also part German/Austrian. His grandparents were Jews in Germany before the War. They managed to get out when Hitler was on the rise and moved to Austria. The words ‘frying pan’ and ‘fire’ spring to my mind, but, throughout the War, they pretended to be Catholic and went to a Catholic Church.

“So I’m Jewish and I’m a Catholic,” the director said to me, shrugging. “The guilt, my dear! the guilt!”

You do meet extraordinary people with extraordinary stories at the Fringe and Edinburgh can be a very small place, throwing up one degree of separation.

I spent last night with Charlie Chuck.

I will re-phrase that.

I spent yesterday evening with Charlie Chuck, starting at a launch for the SpaceUK venues at Surgeon’s Hall and I had a fascinating chat with their sound supremo Wayne. I forgot to ask his surname. This is the Fringe. He had vivid stories of growing up as a Forces child – his father started in the Forces on the Borneo campaign and ended with the Falklands. As a child, Wayne wanted to be a Queen’s Messenger because it was well-paid and meant travelling the world with a briefcase handcuffed to your wrist.

He has an extraordinary knowledge of the ethnic ebbs and flows of history. You would think he was a history teacher in ‘real’ non-Fringe life. In fact, he owns a record label in Manchester. He says there are 13 record labels in Manchester and he vaguely knew 24-Hour Party Person Tony Wilson – now there was an extraordinary person if ever there were one; I encountered him very peripherally at Granada TV in the 1980s.

Wayne also knew late comedian Malcolm Hardee’s brother Alex, a music executive… as did SpaceUK boss Charlie Pamment who, in one of his former  professional incarnations as an agent, remembered putting Malcolm Hardee on at the Raymond Revuebar in London’s Soho. Now that must involve anecdotes worth dining out on!

One can but hope against hope that Malcolm turns up as a character in Michael Winderbottom’s planned movie Paul Raymond’s Wonderful World of Erotica.

Charlie Pamment told me that his SpaceUK venues are staging the largest number of shows at this year’s Fringe – 229 separate productions. Other operators have more venues, but SpaceUK has more shows.

After that, Charlie Chuck and I we were off to the Laughing Horse Free Festival launch party at the Counting House, future scene of the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on 26th August.

Never underestimate the power of a random blatant plug.

The Laughing Horse Free Festival launch party seemed to be less a party than a full-scale rehearsal for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony staged in a pub complex on a hot night. The throngs were so large that I never did find comedian Eric, whom I was supposed to meet. A regular audience member at Malcolm Hardee’s Up The Creek club in Greenwich, he was persuaded by Malcolm to become a stand-up and used to be a submariner.

But I did bump into singing Hitler comic Frank Sanazi and Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award inspiration Gill Smith and Scots comic Keara Murphy who, like Janey Godley, is not playing a full Fringe show this year but has picked up seemingly endless one-off gigs in town.

The Free Festival launch party was some crowded sweatathon which seemed to merge together an extraordinarily large family birthday party, the Black Hole of Calcutta and a Swedish sauna. I stuck my head into the performance area – the Ballroom – looking for Eric, and you could have grilled a sausage by simply holding it in mid-air over the audience.

Comedian, blogger and sometime professional photographer Ian Fox was taking photos for Laughing Horse at the event and, for a time, had to abandon taking photos in the Ballroom because his lens steamed up. He showed me three photos which he said had been taken within three seconds.

The first showed the audience but with a cream discolouration area rising from the bottom.

The second was starting to be blobbily out-of-focus all-over with the condensation.

The third was an abstract of giant blobs – taken at a point at which the water particles had overwhelmed the lens.

I felt very much like the lens.

It is easy to be overwhelmed at the Fringe.

Then my phone rang.

It was Malcolm Hardee’s son Frank.

“I thought you were in South Korea,” I shouted.

“I’m back for a few days,” he told me. “Then, next week, I am off to see Poppy in Palestine.”

Poppy is Malcolm Hardee’s daughter.

The late great would have been chuffed his kids are globetrotting.

Let us not get into any discussion of whether or not a passing reference to Palestine continued the day’s Jewish thread. To quote Malcolm:

“Fuck it! It don’t matter. There are people starving in Africa. Not all over. Because, round the edge… fish.”

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The comedians’ cricket team goes down swatting

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the village of Staplefield in West Sussex, to see the annual cricket match between the locals and a comedians’ cricket team organised with Germanic efficiency by Frank Sanazi.

I am not a great lover of cricket. I think the British Empire may have been built by armies going to foreign countries and insisting that the locals played cricket with the English/British until they lost the will to be independent and handed over their countries and natural resources rather than play another match.

But this cricket match and this cricket team was different.

Yorkshire comedian Keith Platt inexplicably dressed as a footballer.

Former submariner Eric was wearing a tennis headband when he fielded but black-rimmed Groucho Marx glasses as a batsman. He claimed these were not comedy props and he needed them, but I wasn’t totally convinced as he developed the hint of a strange gangling run when he wore the Groucho glasses.

Meanwhile, Bob Slayer dressed in black with a normal white sun hat on his head which, when erect (the hat, that is), oddly made him look like a rather down-at-heel TV celebrity chef wearing a rugby strip. He did, though, manage the impressive multi-tasking triumph of drinking at least one pint of beer while fielding.

I had to leave during the second half to see a friend who told me tobacco companies had been discovered putting sugar in their cigarettes to make them more addictive.

And, mid-evening, Frank Sanazi texted to tell me that the comedians had lost by 69 runs – 209 to 140 – but that Bob Slayer had finished 31-not-out and was “now a comedy cricket legend, as he developed a batting style called ‘swatting’ in which he maniacally tried to bash every delivery like he was Zorro.”

An interesting cricket match.

Now there’s an oxymoron.

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The Three Golden Rules of Comedy

The percentage likelihood of strange things happening is almost always mis-quoted by the media. For example, the odds against any one specific person being killed by a pig falling on his or her head are VERY high. It is very unlikely ever happen to you yourself or to any specific, named individual. But the odds of some one person being killed by a falling pig somewhere in the world at any time during your lifetime are much lower. It is highly likely to happen

Shit happens all the time to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit. Which brings me to comedy improvisation.

I am a tad wary of improvisation groups perhaps because, when I was a student, I used to go most weeks to see shows called Theatre Machine supervised by Keith Johnstone at the Freemason’s Arms pub in Hampstead. Keith later went on to create Theatresports. His earlier Theatre Machine shows were so effective and so entertaining that it arguably ruined me for any other improvisation groups.

The other problem is that, by their nature, improvisation groups are often reliant on their audiences for inspiration.

On Tuesday, I went to see The Couch at The Miller pub behind Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge. The venue has different impro groups each week and this week there were nine improvisers – possibly four people too many but all very good and – strange but true – they included Mensa’s former financial director Neil Goulder.

They were uniformly good as performers and improvisers, but two of their sketches showed the difficulties of the art. Two good punters suggested two good sketches, but one routine was doomed from the start by its very origin.

The successful one started with pulling one punter out of the audience and asking him about his childhood to provide the bare bones of the sketch. It turned out that, as a child, his hobby was, in all truth, keeping and breeding small creatures – principally snails, butterflies and wood lice. This was a pure gift for the comedy improvisers. It also turned out that the punter’s brother had accidentally trodden on and killed his favourite snail called (I’m not sure this can be true) Eric. Starting from those basic facts, the improvised comedy sketch could almost not fail. And it didn’t.

The other sketch, though, was doomed from the start because its original basis was so deeply bizarre that nothing the troupe could ever improvise could ever have made the story stranger. Funny haha stood no chance of outshining funny peculiar and it reaffirmed my belief that, if you pluck a punter at random from anywhere – a bus queue, a venue audience, the cheese aisle in Tesco – they will have the most extraordinary true stories in them. Because shit happens to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit.

This particular punter was asked what his most disastrous romantic date had been.

There was a pause before he replied: “Oh, there have been soooo many…”

The audience laughed.

He then talked about a date in which he had taken his prospective girlfriend to a restaurant. Halfway through the meal, she had an epileptic fit. He tried to help her as she writhed on the floor. But the other diners and restaurant staff thought he had been in some way responsible for what had happened – they thought perhaps he had given her Rohypnol or some other drug. The police were called and dragged him off into custody.

This sounds like the perfect basis for a dark comedy because it is so bizarre, but it was and is too bizarre. There was and is no way of exaggerating the reality into comedy. The truth was so beyond belief that there is no way of manipulating it and comedy usually requires the re-arrangement of reality. When the improvisers tried to recreate the event in three different movie genre styles it was partly successful but ultimately anti-climactic.

The improvisers had and have my sympathy. They stood no chance, through no fault of theirs, which exposes the odds against improvisational comedy being successful; by its nature, it is always hit-and-miss; you are sometimes totally dependent on the audience. The only thing that might have worked would have been to follow the late Malcolm Hardee’s Three Golden Rules of comedy as expressed on page 173 of his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:

1. If in doubt, wobble about.

2. If that don’t work, fall over.

3. If that don’t work – knob out!

The third is, perhaps, not a practical option for everyone.

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