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Forgotten famous British comedians and Sean Brightman’s comedy condoms

Sean Brightman at the Sanderson Jones gig

Sean Brightman this week at Sanderson Jones’ Internet gig

Yesterday, I blogged about Sanderson Jones’ geeky new comedy night All Your Internet Are Belong to Us and how this month’s show developed into a bit of a gross-a-thon.

But, before it went so entertainingly off-the-rails, it had stayed on its geeky theme with the end of a ‘tumblr battle’ between comedians Sean Brightman and Stuart Laws in which, for about three weeks, they had created collections of tumblr images.

Stuart Laws had created a collection of comic ‘riders’ demanded by performers.

Sean Brightman had gone for his rather more ambitious A-Z of Alternative Comedy – The Alternative Alphabet.

This proved interesting because, the All Your Internet Are Belong to Us show had a full audience of average-aged comedy punters, many of whom had simply never heard of a few of the famous comedians whom Sean had chosen.

Sic transit gloria.

It was an age thing. I guess it also demonstrates the power of television.

Comedian Charlie Chuck - aka “Donkey!"

Comedian Charlie Chuck – now popularly known as “Donkey!”

When Sean showed his tumblr graphic for Charlie Chuck and asked, “Does anyone know who this is?” someone immediately shouted out in a throaty voice: “Donkey!”

Everyone knew who Kevin Eldon is, presumably because of his current TV series; before that, I suspect, most comedy-watchers knew the face but not necessarily his name.

Everyone, of course, knew Stewart Lee but no-one knew his hero and inspiration Ted Chippington.

No-one in the audience had heard of the great Stanley Unwin – admittedly more of a personality than a comedian, but he did gain television fame in his day. Sean admitted Stanley was “not really an alternative comedian, but there is fuck-all else for ‘U’.”

Oy! Oy! - Who the hell is this unknown famous bloke?

Oy! Oy! – Who the hell is this unknown famous comedy bloke?

And absolutely no-one in the full room knew who Malcolm Hardee was, despite I think valiant efforts by me over several years to link the phrase ‘the godfather of alternative comedy’ and the name ‘Malcolm Hardee’ together in the comedic collective mind…

As Sean explained to the audience: “This is Malcolm Hardee. He was a famous… well, not too famous… but he was quite famous… erm.. around the comedy scene… especially round London… for being the… the… he was… Just buy his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. You’ll find out all about alternative comedy. He’s a comedy legend. He sadly died.”

Afterwards, I chatted to Sean.

“Why?” I asked. “Why do the tumblr Alternative Alphabet?”

“It was an educational device to teach people a little bit about alternative comedy,” he told me.

“Are you being serious?” I asked. “Are you going to take it into schools?”

“I think it could live on longer than a tumblr battle,” replied Sean. “It’s a project I’ve wanted to do for a while. I’m a designer as well as a comedian, so I present things all the time and this was a nice way of combining my skills.

“I’m doing a show with my wife Renata at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, which is going to be a PowerPoint presentation. It’s called Philip and Marjorie’s Marriage Preparation Course For Regular People and The Gays.

A man with a mission - well, quite a lot of missions, in fact

A man with a mission – well he owns rather a lot of missions

“Renata and I got married in September in a Catholic church. I’m not a Catholic. They send you on a marriage preparation course and you can either do it over five weeks or you can do it over one day. We did it over one very warm Saturday last year and it just struck us both how hilarious it was.

“In many ways, it’s good to get 26 or 27 couples together in a room and work through different scenarios and troubleshoot various areas of marriage that might come up.

“The spark for our show was that the couple teaching the course had been reading off this Comic Sans presentation – endless Comic Sans slides – and they stopped for a second and decided to ad-lib something. They looked at us all up and down and said:

“OK. You may have seen what’s going on in the news. How many of you, by a quick show of hands, believe that gay people should be allowed to get married?”

“A lot of people’s hands went up, including ours.

“They were taken slightly aback by this and I thought Wow! We’re at a Catholic event with a lot of people who ARE Catholic, yet there’s a big groundswell of support for this. 

“So the idea for our show is that these two (fictional) bumbling characters are doing a marriage preparation course and they’re trying to modernise things when, really, they probably shouldn’t and they don’t really have an understanding of the issues.

“But the show will be done from a place of love. Trying to walk that fine line between being offensive and putting on a show that’s educational and a bit different.”

“Renata’s a comic herself?” I asked.

“She is a comic, explained Sean. “She was performing a lot in Australia and then came over here to pursue comedy and met me. But then she had a horrible back accident and had to rest and stop. She broke her coccyx and had to take time off. So she’s just finding her way back into it now and she’s helping me run my We Love Comedy gig in London.”

“She was born in Australia?”

“Yes,” said Sean. “Australia’s a great place. I’d love to live there at some point in the future.”

“But,” I argued, “it’s just a big desert with bits round the edge.”

Australia - a big desert with bits round the edge

Australia really IS just a big desert with bits round the edge

“Yes,” agreed Sean. “Desert is the word, but it’s not what we’ve got here. It’s summer here now and it’s snowing outside. We had plans to move to Australia, but we’ve put them off because we’ve now adopted a three-legged dog and a cat.”

“Have you done the posters for your Edinburgh show?” I asked.

“We’re going to do very simple printed leaflets,” replied Sean, “of the sort you’d see in a church. And then we’re going to staple condoms to them.”

“This afternoon,” I said,” I was talking to Kate Copstick and she told me that, if you go to Poundland, you can buy 12 condoms for £1.”

“It’s been worth talking to you tonight,” Sean said and left quickly.

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The indiscreet charm of a slobbering, innocent singer at the Edinburgh Fringe

The wonderful world of sexist, slobbering Wilfredo

Wilfredo has been described as a “grotesque caricature of Falstaffian appearance: trousers pulled up to the top of a corpulent stomach, a tight flamenco shirt, a wild black mop wig and a set of prominent prosthetic teeth. Typically, the character will always hold a pint of beer on stage, even whilst dancing and singing. He smokes his way throughout songs, salivating over the audience and musicians while berating them with rich expletives.”

The character of Wilfredo was created by comedian and actor Matt Roper, whose father George Roper was on TV in my erstwhile youth with Bernard Manning et al in the ITV series The Comedians. When I went to see Wilfredo’s Edinburgh Fringe show The Wonderful World of Wilfredo this week, I was fascinated by the number of women in the audience. Wilfredo is a sort of sleazy, greasy singer who slobbers saliva as he talks, yet he has built up a female fan base.

“I don’t understand why women like the character,” I said to Matt Roper. “They certainly wouldn’t be attracted to him in reality.”

“And they certainly aren’t at point blank range,” admitted Matt. “Sometimes I flyer in the streets as the character and, when he’s presented out of context, they certainly don’t want him coming up to them.”

“So maybe,” I suggested, “they like the on-stage character because there’s a willing suspension of disbelief because they know it’s satirical. He’s sexist but they know it’s a joke.”

“I think there’s an outlandish quality to him,” said Matt, “which they find attractive. When I did a preview down in Devon which is kinda my adopted home town area – Totnes – a friend’s mother came backstage afterwards and said The thing I love about Wilfredo is that nobody seems to have taught him the rules.

“If it’s a character you can get away with being ironic. And all the peacenik stuff Wilfredo spouts is very positive; it’s so important. He says Come on you cunts, but I think Wilfredo’s positive innocence – I’m the greatest singer in the world – he believes it’s true… That’s Wilfredo for me.

“There’s a strange innocence about the character which maybe makes him acceptable. He’s slobbering and he’s grabbing his penis and he’s calling the audience cunts but it’s all undercut by a form of charm, really. The charm is the licence. If Bernard Manning were not a real person and was a character, would…”

“Bernard wasn’t charming, though,” I interrupted.

Matt knew that generation of ‘old school’ comics through his father.

“You must have mixed with alternative comedians of your generation,” I said, “who were slagging off your father’s generation of comedians.”

“Yes,” said Matt. “I think Liza Tarbuck used to have that a lot. She’d be at a bar watching comics and people would turn their back on her. The first thing I did was News Revue at the Canal Cafe in the late 1990s and, yes, when Bernard Manning is considered the apotheosis of the Northern comic… that’s pretty hard. ”

“There are a few children of famous comedians up in Edinburgh this year,” I said.

“Yes,” said Matt. “Milo McCabe is here doing a show with his father Mike McCabe who, like my dad, was an old school comic; he’s actually got his dad performing in his show with him. Phil Walker’s here: Roy Walker’s son. And Katie Mulgrew, Jimmy Cricket’s daughter. We don’t know each other but, when we do meet each other, it’s acknowledged that our parents knew each other.”

Matt’s dad George Roper, one of “The Comedians” on ITV

“Your dad was never really tarred by the ‘old school’ criticism, wasn’t he?” I said. “He never had any of the bad image that Bernard Manning had. People never criticised him for his material.”

“When I watch old footage of him performing,” said Matt, “it’s very much his own laid-back manner. He was a storyteller.”

“Did you always want to be a performer because of your dad?” I asked.

“Well, I was exposed to the business because of him,” Matt replied. “I was always doing impressions and getting in trouble at school for clowning around.”

“All comedians, to an extent, hide behind a character,” I said.

“Well, we’re all hiding behind an alter ego, definitely – even the old school, my father’s lot.”

“Have you ever done straight stand-up?”

“When I was a lot younger,” said Matt. “I stopped when I was around 24 because I had nothing to say. I started when I was about 17 or 18. What does an 18 year old have to say? I might go back to it and I have got things to say, but it’s fun to inhabit somebody else, though I think maybe it’s less ballsy to hide… I think Jo Brand was talking about this re female comics. There tends to be a high ratio of female character comics and she was saying that’s because it’s easier to stand back from it if it doesn’t work if you’re hiding behind a character.”

Matt has been playing the character of Wilfredo for the last five years. It evolved from a a character he played at festivals, singing twisted versions of songs by John Lennon, the Rolling Stones and Amy Whitehouse.

“Are you coming back to the Fringe next year as Wilfredo?” I asked.

“Maybe as Wilfredo. Maybe in some multi-character show. I know you’d like to see that.”

“I just think it would show you have more breadth,” I said. “You do have other characters.”

“Yes,” said Matt, “there’s a performance poet character, but I don’t think the other characters I have would fit in with a Wilfredo audience.”

“How do you sell him when you flyer?” I asked.

“If I am out-of-character, as myself, I stop people by saying Entertainment for the discerning!… If I’m in character, I say: Hey! Hey! Come here! The character is a complete licence to take it as far as I want.”

“He is perversely attractive,” I said.

Matt replied: “Someone Tweeted yesterday: Recommend seeing Wilfredo at The Tron – Funny and disturbingly moving.

“I still don’t really understand why the character has such a female following though” I said.

The real Matt Roper at the Edinburgh Fringe this week

“It seems to be,” said Matt, “that there’s a high proportion of women who find funny men attractive and, as far the reverse is concerned, men are threatened by funny women.”

“That’s a whole different blog,” I said. “A whole different can of comedy worms to open.”

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What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.

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The god-like comedian Ken Dodd is more mugger than con man + he got a standing ovation in Bournemouth

Morecambe and Wise were not famous.

Yes, they were justifiably famous in the UK. But go to some village in western China and ask them who Morecambe and Wise were.

M&W are and always were total unknowns except in the British Isles.

Fame is relative and mostly regional.

To save my life, I could not tell you who the world water ski champion is. But presumably he or she is a Big Name if you follow water skiing.

The world is full of champions, each famous in their own little world.

I see quite a lot of club comedy and what is still called alternative comedy. Some of the acts are called comedy stars; some may even think they are stars. Audiences even flock to and fill large venues to see some of these people who have appeared in TV panel shows.

But they are not big stars even in the UK. They are minor and transient cults with a few disciples. Admittedly they have more disciples than Jesus did when he started but, just because you can get more than twelve people to listen to you in a room above a pub in Camden Town, don’t start thinking you are more famous than the Son of God.

Unless you are known and regarded in awe by a random 50-year-old housewife in a bus queue in Leamington Spa, you are not famous in UK terms. If you can fill a big venue at the Edinburgh Fringe with 23 year old fans for 27 nights, you are not famous. You are a very minor cult.

Last night, I saw Ken Dodd’s show Happiness at The Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth. Ken Dodd is unquestionably famous in the UK and the venue was filled with a well-heeled middle-of-the-road, middle class Middle England audience of the type TV commissioners mystifyingly ignore. This audience was the great TV-viewing audience en masse on a rare trip out to see a live show.

Upcoming shows at The Pavilion include The Gazza and Greavsie Show, Roy Chubby Brown, Joe Pasquale, Jethro and Jim Davidson. Never, never, never underestimate the Daily Mail. Their readers are the mass audience. Admittedly Dylan Moran and Russell Kane also have upcoming shows at The Pavilion, but the phrases “sore thumbs” and “stand out” spring to mind.

London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer has a routine in which he says his ex-manager told him he will never become famous unless, like a currently ‘famous’ alternative comedian, he can be a true professional and tell the same jokes in every show and repeat each show exactly.

Last night, the first half of Ken Dodd’s 5-hour show proved the danger of being too experienced and too professional a performer if you are on a long tour.

There was an audibility problem.

This was partly because the sound system at The Pavilion was occasionally indistinct – certainly where I was sitting, centre right in the audience – and partly because Ken Dodd, after 55 years in showbiz and on his seemingly endless UK tour, has been doing the same routines and telling the same stories for too long. He came on stage and spoke what, for the first part of the show seemed to be a script which he had got so used to he didn’t actually perform it: he just threw the words out. He galloped and gabbled through the words and syllables with the result perhaps a quarter of what he was saying was indecipherable.

And this was an audience with possible inbuilt hearing problems where I half expected the colostomy bags to break during the show to create a tsunami that could have washed the entire population of Bournemouth into the English Channel.

When an established act, instead of saying “Ladies and gentlemen” says “lay-ge-me” and all the other words and phrases are gabbled and elided indistinctly in much the same way, he is not performing an act, he is going through the motions on autopilot. He has heard the jokes 1,000 times; the audience has not (well, not most of them).

His saving grace was an astonishing gag rate of perhaps one potential laugh every ten seconds. And the material is gold. You couldn’t go wrong with that material. But Doddy was getting laughs because the jokes (when heard) were good, not because of any technical skill in the delivery.

There are very few successful gag tellers in modern alternative comedy – Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine are exceptions not the rule. Most successful alternative comedians nowadays tell stories: not necessarily funny stories, but stories told funny.

Ken Dodd mostly told gags in the first half and funny stories in the second half (in which he found his feet more). But it struck me that his slightly more old-fashioned (or let’s say traditional) approach was very similar to inexperienced circuit comics today.

He told stories as if they were gags, with token links between each story, but with no over-all arc. If he told ten stories, the first and second might have a token link and the seventh and eighth might have a token link, but there was no over-all progression, no shape, no thread to the stories. So the over-all effect was like getting beaten round the head with gags by a mugger for five hours, not drawn into a personal fantasy world by a con man, which is what a stand-up comedian is.

It struck me Doddy’s unlinked gag structure was very like comics new to the current comedy circuit who have some material but can’t stitch it into a unitary act. They can do 10 or 15 or 20 minutes but are not yet capable of putting on a 60 minute Edinburgh Fringe show.

I suppose the transition from beating people into submission with barrages of gags rather than bringing them into your own personal world with smoothly-linked stories is a relatively recent development which Doddy has no need to embrace because he has so many gags and stories which he can throw at the audience from his years of experience.

Because he is so experienced and so good, I could not tell how much of the second half was scripted and how much he was just plucking and throwing in gags and stories from a mental storehouse.

One ad-lib which surely must have been planned and, indeed, ‘planted’ was a piece of banter with the audience in which Dodd asked a woman “How many children do you have?”

“Eight!” came the unexpected reply.

Dodd professed bewilderment at this and meandered for a couple of sentences about her husband, then asked:

“Have you sewn up the gap in his pyjamas yet?…. (pause)… You know what they say… A stitch in time saves…” (Immediate audience laughter – though strangely not as much as it deserved)

This cannot possibly have been an ad-lib. It had to have been planted in the audience because he feigned bewilderment at the initial reply of “Eight,” which he would not have done in the way that he did if it were not a lead-up to the punchline.

There were also glimpses of an unexpected (to me) Ken Dodd – a ventriloquist act with a Diddy Man doll that almost verged on being post-modernist and a sequence in which he was doing a series of very passable regional accents and which went into a whole non-Ken-Dodd realm.

Small numbers of the audience left during the single interval – including the friend I went with, who had been exhausted by the first two and a half hours – she went paddling in the sea by the pier and then found a strange Greek Orthodox priest intoning his way through a Paschal Celebration in a small chapel watching by an old woman with a bell and an old man in a shabby grey suit. He had started at 10.00pm – about halfway through Doddy’s show – and was still intoning, watched by his two fans, at 15 minutes past midnight after Doddy’s show had ended and we went to see if he was still going strong.

Whether Christianity or Ken Dodd’s shows will last longer is a moot point, but they probably have the same fans.

At the end of Ken Dodd’s Happiness show, people rose from their seats to leave while still clapping and, partially blocked from leaving by other people possibly with mobility problems, this turned into a standing ovation and a sudden flutter of flashes as people with mobile phones snatched quick photos of the god-like Doddy on stage.

The standing ovation in both the stalls and the balcony was warm and heartfelt and passionate but perhaps was more for being a national institution than for the show itself.

It was an event as much as a show.

Much like Jesus preaching to the converted, in retrospect, it will be loved, treasured and much talked about and the Master’s fame will spread, though perhaps neither further nor wider nor to western China.

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