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Harry Deansway: UK comedy publisher turns Edinburgh Fringe stand-up comic

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Harry suggested I shoot him next to a rubbish bin last week

Harry suggested I shoot him next to a rubbish bin last week

Harry Deansway published and edited The Fix comedy magazine for several years. He has also written comedy criticism, promoted and produced comedy shows and managed and directed acts.

In August, he is performing as a stand-up in his first full-length comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Was The Fix magazine your first thing?” I asked him when we met in London’s Soho last week.

“Pretty much, yeah.” he replied. “It went on for four years: I lost about £30,000 on it and, obviously, I fell out with a lot of people through it, as I imagine you have through your blog. Have you upset anyone?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“We would upset people on a monthly basis,” said Harry.

“Why on earth are you becoming a performer?” I asked.

“I’ve worked with a few acts,” replied Harry Deansway, “and they can be unreliable. I was doing a lot of work with other people and you get to a certain point when they go off with someone else and you’re left with nothing. So I thought I’d have a go at the performing side and, that way, I’m in complete control of my career.”

“Is your Edinburgh show going to be straight stand-up?” I asked.

“Without getting too pretentious about it…” started Harry.

“Feel free,” I told him.

“Well,” he continued, “straight stand-up, but working at a slightly different rhythm. Stand-up in its traditional form, but maybe subjects that aren’t as commercially dealt with, you know what I mean?”

“What sort of subjects?” I asked. “Chicken sexing? There’s a lot of money in chicken sexing.”

“I guess it’s more playing with the form of stand-up,” said Harry. “Obviously, I’ve observed a lot and understand the form a lot. Things like when acts get angry in a set and they’re not really angry. So I’ll do that in my act, but I’ll actually say I need to get angry for this bit.

“Deconstructing?” I suggested.

“Deconstructing,” agreed Harry. “There’s a lot of similarities between jazz and comedy in the rhythm and the improvisations. John Coltrane really inspired me for my Edinburgh show. The way he would take a song and break it down into its parts. It still sounds like a song, but it’s completely out of control and improvised. So sometimes it feels like he’s lost control of the song. That’s what I want to try and do with my Edinburgh show. Is it in control or isn’t it? Oh my god, he’s totally lost the audience! It’s fucked! And then you bring it back.

The Fix comedy magazine ran for four years

The Fix magazine ran for four years

“A deconstructed show, playing with the form, rhythms. A lot of comedy is like Build laughter until there’s a big laugh. I prefer to make it really awkward, get it worse and worse so people think it’s completely out of control and then you pierce that tension with a big laugh. It’s kind of the opposite of how other comedians do it. They like to build-and-build-and-build. I like to knock down and lower expectations.”

“That’s original,” I said. “trying to not get a laugh.”

“It’s been working pretty well recently,” said Harry.

“Isn’t there a chance people might think you’re a crap comic?” I asked.

“Yes, definitely,” said Harry.

“Would they be right?” I asked.

“I struggle to know the answer to that myself,” replied Harry. “Sometimes they would be; sometimes they wouldn’t be. Maybe inconsistent. Not crap.”

“How will you know,” I asked, “if you’re not getting a laugh successfully or not getting a laugh unsuccessfully?”

“It’s like Andy Kaufman,” said Harry. “People like that.”

“Or George Osborne,” I suggested.

“They make a career out of it,” said Harry. “It’s a long and hard road. I did a gig last night. The first three minutes, complete silence. Then some bloke in the front row leaned over to his mate and said Is it always this bad? and I said Do you think you could do better? and he said Yes, so he got up on stage and proceeded to tell two racist jokes. And the audience didn’t like me, but they hated him even more. It created this awful atmosphere that not even I could…”

“Well, you succeeded in being Andy Kaufman,” I said. “You know all comedians are mad. Do you aspire to be mad?”

“They are,” agreed Harry, “but to certain degrees. Some of it manifests itself in unreliability. In others it’s complete madness. Badly organised, unreliability, arguing all the time with people.”

“It’s OK to quote that?” I checked.

“Yes, you can quote anything,” Harry told me.

“There must have been something in you that was always a frustrated performer,” I suggested.

“Yes,” said Harry. “I’m definitely a happier person since performing comedy. Obviously there was a hole there.”

“So you are stopping being an entrepreneurial person?” I asked.

“No. What that did for me was give me a really good grounding, so that gives me a head’s start over any other act. I don’t mind doing my own admin and press, whereas that terrifies a lot of other acts. I’ve spent ten years as a highly unsuccessful businessman in the comedy industry.”

“Your show isn’t listed in the main Edinburgh Fringe Programme,” I said.

“As a marketing tool, I think it’s ineffective,” explained Harry.

“How long are you going to give yourself to become successful?”

“This Edinburgh. If I don’t win any awards, I’m giving up.”

“In September?” I asked.

“It needs to go well, I’ll tell you that much.”

“What happens if it doesn’t?” I asked.

“Over these last ten years,” said Harry. “I’ve had a feeling that I’m right. If it doesn’t work in August, then maybe I’m wrong.”

“Remind me what’s your Edinburgh Fringe show is called?” I asked.

Wrong Way.

“Because?” I asked.

“It just sounds good,” said Harry. “It’s a good hashtag for Twitter. My poster is me the wrong way round.”

The Fringe poster image for Harry Deansway: Wrong Way

The Fringe poster image for Harry Deansway: Wrong Way

“So this is going to be an anti-comedy comedy,” I said. “But is it going to work up to a climax?”

“Yes. But by messing around with the format of the Edinburgh show. It’s kind of taking the piss out of all those ‘journey’ shows where they get to the end and it’s poignant and all that bullshit. It’s really subverting that. I’ve seen so many Edinburgh shows and I hate any one that’s Joe Bloggs woke up one day and found his wife was cheating on him! Here’s the journey he took!”

“Doesn’t Andy Kaufman type anti-comedy only appeal to a minority audience, though?” I asked.

“But you can make a living out of it,” argued Harry, “though I haven’t even got to that stage yet.”

“You’d be happy making a living as opposed to being a superstar?” I asked.

“Oh, definitely,” said Harry. “Just the freedom… to… to keep innovating.” He laughed a rather embarrassed laugh. “That’s what I said, but I don’t mean it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s so bullshit. No, the freedom to build an audience who like what you’re doing and you can make a living out of it. The Stewart Lee / Simon Munnery model. It’s a longer process but, in the long term, you’re gonna have a more secure audience that are gonna want to see everything you do and it’s not going to be such a flash-in-the-pan thing. That’s what I’m doing, but I’m just in a hurry to get some sort of recognition. I’ve been doing this for ten years and I just don’t feel I’ve got the recognition I deserve, so I really need that.”

“What if reviewers don’t like your show?” I asked.

“They can say what they like,” replied Harry. “I watched this documentary about jazz and all the critics on it understood the form and theory of jazz and the way they spoke about it was amazing. But the majority of comedy critics are not up to scratch. In rock journalism, there’s a culture of Hunter S.Thompsons and Lester Bangs but it doesn’t feel like there’s been the same volume of good journalists. They’re all silver foxes.”

“I’m more of a slaphead fox,” I said.

“I set up a magazine – The Fix,” said Harry, “but really struggled to get interesting journalists for it. People who could really take the art of comedy seriously. I just don’t think there’s anyone who does that. We’re crying out for a great comedy journalist.”

“You’ve just started a podcast,” I said.

“Yes. Three or four weeks ago.”

“Why?”

“Profile,” replied Harry. “I interview big names and hope that they bring an audience to hear about me.”

“In our American cousins’ terms, how do you monetize that?” I asked.

Harry the performer - as he wants to be seen

Harry the comedy performer – the image he wants to be seen

“I’m not doing it to monetize it at the moment. It’s purely promotional for me and the act. Though, if someone set up a podcast advertising agency, there is money to be made there.”

“Perhaps you should do that,” I suggested.

“No thanks. I’m going to use all that knowledge for my own career. I’m not going to be helping acts any more. It’s all about me now. That’s what Edinburgh 2013 is all about. It’s my turn.”

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The comedian and magician who used to tear his name off publicity photos

Mystery man of comedy Ray Presto on stage at Up The Arts

“The first time I met Ray was in 2004 at a Linda Trayers gig in Kilburn where Russell Brand headlined and only three people turned up,” Paul Ricketts told me yesterday.

“The gig was pulled but, Russell Brand still demanded his money (£100), leaving Linda Trayers in tears. Straightaway, Ray saw his opportunity to console Linda whilst at the same time continually asking for a gig.

“If he fancied and wanted to impress any lady or promoter he would do his ‘£5 of my own money’ trick which did have overtone of bribery when he paid over his ‘Bank Of Presto’ note with his own face printed on it.”

As well as being an excellent comedian, Paul Ricketts runs the Up The Arts comedy club in London (with Verity Welch) and booked Ray Presto regularly. I asked Paul about Ray Presto because, when he died aged 74 last week, Ray was said in an obituary to be a “stalwart of the London open mic circuit” and “a regular at clubs including Pear Shaped and, most notably, the Comedy Store‘s King Gong show, where he would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences… He returned time after time to the show – until 2009, when he was asked to stop, after a new booker took over.”

This intrigued me, because I had never seen his act and the phrasehe would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences” sounded interesting. Especially when Fix comedy entrepreneur Harry Deansway wrote in the obituary: “Famed for his strange but smart appearance, unique delivery of out-of-date jokes and magic tricks, Ray Presto often left audiences baffled. Was this a well thought-out character act, or a delusional Seventies throwback? Was he in on the joke? ”

Paul Ricketts told me:

“Ray was the last of the line of strange acts that I saw during the mid to late naughties – which included Phil Zimmerman, Joel Elnaugh, Linda Trayers, Persephone Lewin and Bry Nylon. Some of these acts were knowingly playing with the conventions of stand-up, while others could be seen as deluded in their ambitions.”

“Ray,” Paul told me, “stood apart because he did take himself very seriously. Because of his previous incarnation as a magician he felt he had the experience and stagecraft to make it as a comic. Right from the start he aggressively sold himself as a comedy performer.

“He became a monthly fixture at the Comedy Store Gong Show, cleverly realising that his Happy Days Are Here Again intro music took up at least one minute of the five minutes he needed to survive. His material was made up of inoffensive old jokes – the sort you’d find in Christmas crackers – delivered at a pace that would make Stewart Lee sound like fast-talking Adam Bloom. It was this slow, deliberate delivery which made him distinctive and generated much of the laughter.

“But his self-belief meant that he didn’t like to take advice from anyone. Don Ward of the Comedy Store liked Ray, gave him several 10 minutes spots and wanted him to develop his act from old jokes mixed with magic tricks to include more observations about his life and age. Ray, however, was wary of moving in this direction as he didn’t want to reveal too much about himself. Instead he tried to add more ‘racy’ material – notably a joke about underage sex – which led to him being immediately ‘gonged off’ at the Comedy Store.”

Anthony Miller of Pear Shaped remembers that Ray “became so successful at the Comedy Store that they had to ban him from the gong as he was undermining the object of the Gong Show – to be cold, intimidating and unwelcoming. He told me he didn’t understand why they stopped him doing the gong and seemed a bit put out by it and so I suggested to him that probably someone like him making it ‘human’ was undermining it a bit and that he shouldn’t let that undermine any relationship he had built up with them if they still gave him gigs. To which he replied That is very deep.”

Paul Ricketts tells me Ray was very ambitious, but would hand out publicity photos of himself with the corner torn off, presumably because they were old photographs and had his real name printed on them.

“He was as impatient as any younger comic about his progression in stand-up,” Paul says, “He would badger people for gigs and hand out leaflets and photos to any and everyone. Once he’d been on or turned up at a gig hoping to get on, Ray would heckle some acts by falling asleep in the front two rows. Not only would this disconcert those on stage, it would disconcert the audience who would be scared to wake him up as they weren’t sure if Ray was dead or alive. In any event ‘falling asleep’ would ensure that Ray became the centre of attention.

“Despite me asking Ray many times,” Paul told me, “he wasn’t forthcoming about his past – all he ever said was that he was a magician from Hull.”

Harry Deansway reveals that Ray moved from Hull to London in 2002 “with the aim of getting more work as a writer, but struggled to get published. Off stage, he was a committed atheist and hedonist, having published a book in 1972 called Choose Your Pleasurea collection of essays on the pros and cons of hedonism and self-indulgence. Off the back of this he got regular writing work as a columnist in Penthouse magazine, which he contributed to under his real name David Shaw… Although he will be remembered by many on the circuit, it will not be for what he wanted to be remembered for – as a serious writer.”

Paul Ricketts adds: “I had some political conversations with him and he was a libertarian in the way that he instinctively distrusted Government, especially the tax authorities. This could explain the occasion when he asked to perform his magic act at a children’s centre but changed his mind when he was asked to give his bank account details and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check.

“On another occasion, he asked me how he could open a bank account under his stage name so he could avoid paying tax.

“All I really knew about Ray was that he had an eye for the ladies, he was ambitious to do well in stand-up and he seemed to have enough money to annually spend the winter months in Thailand and showed me pictures of himself strolling through Thai food markets wearing Bermuda shorts.”

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