Tag Archives: game

John Cage: the avant-garde composer who won millions in TV gameshows

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

Martin Soan trawling the internet for John Cage

Martin Soan trawling the internet for tales of John Cage

I blogged yesterday about a chat I had with comedian Martin Soan.

When we were chatting, he mentioned he had read somewhere that avant-garde American composer John Cage had once won five million lire on a TV quiz show by answering questions on mushrooms.

Surely not, I thought. It sounds like an urban legend. But it turns out to be true.

John Cage puts flowers into a bathtub of water

John Cage puts flowers into a bathtub of water on US TV

John Cage’s first appearance on national TV in the US was when he appeared on I’ve Got a Secret, a show in which the panel had to guess what contestants’ secrets were.

John Cage’s secret was that he was going to perform his own musical composition involving a water pitcher,  an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a sprinkling can, ice cubes, two cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a Seltzer siphon, five radios, a bathtub and a grand piano.

This planned musical performance caused a “juristictional dispute” between two of the trade unions who were involved in the show. There was a dispute over which union should have the responsibility of plugging the five radios into the power supply.

This was resolved by John Cage, who said: “Instead of turning the radios on, as I had written to do, I will hit them every time I was supposed to turn them on. Then, when I turn them off, I will knock them off the table.”

His composition was entitled Water Walk, explained Cage, “because it contains water (in the bathtub) and because I walk during its performance.”

John Cage (right) on I've Got a Secret in 1960

John Cage (right) on the I’ve Got a Secret gameshow in 1960

The show’s presenter said: “Inevitably, Mr Cage, these are nice people (in the audience) but some of them are going to laugh. Is that alright?”

“Of course,” John Cage replied, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.”

That was John Cage’s first appearance on national TV in the US.

But the year before – 1959 – he had appeared on the Italian TV quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing).

Cage was in Italy to see the composer Luciano Berio who, at that time, worked at Studio di Fonologia, the Italian state broadcaster RAI’s experimental studio for audio research.

As a result, John Cage ended up making five appearances on the Lascia o Raddoppia gameshow, in which he answered questions on his specialist subject ‘poisonous and edible mushrooms’. He also provided musical interludes with his own compositions.

Reviewing his first appearance on the show, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported: “John Cage, an American very fond of mushrooms, left a very good impression. The lanky player revealed that he had begun getting into mushrooms while walking in the Stony Point woods near his house. He is now in Italy to perform experimental music concerts and play an extremely weird composition of his made of shrill squeaks and dreary rumbles via a specially-modified piano. Mr Cage sat by a special piano tweaked with nails, screws, and elastic bands, drawing unusual chords from it. The piece was entitled Amores and it sounded like a funeral march.”

Part marine

“A cross between a baseball player & a marine”

On his second appearance, La Stampa reported that Cage looked like “a crossbreed between a baseball player and a marine” and “was a sort of institution within New York University circles a while ago. Everywhere he went, students with a Jerry Lewis hairdo and their female mates in blue jeans forsook their books and gathered around a jukebox… That’s where Cage showed his incredible capabilities: he goggled his eyes with a disappointed face, he spread his long arms and uttered weird guttural sounds from his mouth. The students happily danced to the rock ‘n’ roll music around him… He once dragged a student marching band through the streets of New York, attempting a bizarre imitation of what jazz used to be at the beginning: only the police managed to stop Cage’s tumultuous enthusiasts.”

On his third appearance, according to La Stampa: “Before facing the 640.000 Lire question – which he answered brilliantly – John Cage performed an experimental music concert specially composed for the Italian TV audience. The piece, if we could call it such, was entitled Water Walk.” The result, said La Stampa was “a carnival bustle. The audience enjoyed the joke and applauded… It seems that John Cage is about to repeat the piece in all the Italian cities where he will perform his concerts. After which – he jokingly claimed backstage – I can commence my truck farming business.

John Cage (right) on Lascia O Raddoppia in Italy, 1959

John Cage (right) demonstrates his musical talent, 1959

By the time he got to the five million lire question, La Stampa was even more enthusiastic, saying: “John Cage, the great American mushroom expert, looked a lot more determined. During the first question he had to complete the analytic key of the ‘poliporacee’ (a mushroom species) from which four names were deleted. He did it without hesitation, as well as adding the name, colour, shape, width and length of a particular mushroom whose picture was shown to him. The very last question, the 5 million one, shook his nerves and turned his blood cold. John Cage had to spell all 24 names of the white-spored ‘agarici’. Twenty-four questions in one! A very tough question, even for a real mushroom expert. However, John Cage – a little bit sweaty this time – quickly pronounced all of them in alphabetical order. A triumph! While he was receiving audience applause, he thanked the mushrooms and all the people of Italy.”

At the time, five million lire was worth around $8,000 and Cage used the money to buy a piano for his home in New York and a Volkswagon bus for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

John Cage died in 1992.

So it goes.

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Filed under Humor, Humour, Italy, Music, Television, US

Perhaps the true spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe is not dead: comedy, anarchy and loose genitalia over the weekend

The Assembly Hall on The Mound

So, on Saturday, I went to see Australian comic John Robertson’s show The Old Whore, at the Assembly Hall venue on The Mound at the Edinburgh Fringe, but I only saw half of it.

It was a hot, sweaty and humid night and the room high up in Assembly Hall was like a sweat box. So John decided halfway through to take the show and the audience outside into the cool mid-evening air.

His narrative – the show is a fascinating, full-throttle dissection of his very odd family – soon   merged into a fully-fledged outdoor event involving passing pedestrians, rickshaw drivers, people in double decker buses and, with the audience sitting on the pavement, a virtual recreation of the galley sequence from Ben-Hur. Every time a significant number of people was spotted coming up the slope, the audience were under instructions from John to mime as if they were, en masse, rowing an invisible Roman galley on the pavement.

The admirable Assembly staff did not complain; they just came out on the pavement with the audience, donning dayglo safety jackets and made sure passing pedestrians and the traffic were not obstructed. They also laughed a lot and enjoyed John’s seat-of-your-pants show.

Topless entertainment at its best at the Edinburgh Fringe

It ended, suitably, with John taking off his shirt and getting his entire audience to stand up so he could be crowd-surfed with his audience carrying him halfway down the Mound and then addressing them standing on the top of the railings.

When this sort of thing happens, it makes you think maybe the spirit of the Fringe is not dead and the pay-to-enter festival has not been taken over by bland comedy clones only intent on finding TV producers to impress. There was a smell of sought-for anarchy in the air.

I did find it a little suspicious, though, when John told me he had done this once before – on a similarly sweaty night.

Is John Robertson (left) schmoozing me?

“Yeah,” John told me, out of breath after his crowd surf. “It was the night reviewers from The Scotsman and The List were in. They ended up doing a review of the bit where we went outside instead of the show itself and this is a structurally sound narrative. It’s a really carefully-crafted monologue. So it made me a little unhappy they reviewed the going-outside bit. But, when a crowd is having a hard time because of the heat, I will take them outside and do whatever.”

Could he have reckoned there was a greater chance of me writing a blog – and a longer blog – if he went outside again. Who knows? Who cares? When in doubt, go with what makes a good story.

John Robertson in The Dark Room in Edinburgh

John is also performing a separate show, The Dark Room, as part of the Alternative Fringe/Laughing Horse Free Festival at Bob Slayer’s Hive venue. Bob is a wonderful publicist and so is John. So the two together are quite something.

The Dark Room – which I saw yesterday – is basically a video game, which John created, but performed as a live interactive show in Edinburgh. He put the original game on YouTube and, he says, “it went viral in February. Variety and Wired did feature articles on it and Kotaku covered it – they’re a big multi-platform video gaming anime thing.”

John Robertson after his Hive show yesterday

Comedian Brendon Burns has been coming daily to John’s shows at the Hive to play The Dark Room. And, John tells me, “Ron Gilbert, from LucasArts, who created the first two Monkey Island games played it. Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy and Games Workshop also came to play – and lost – and that was terrific.

“Here is a man who is responsible for people like me not getting laid in high school because we were indulging in his wonderful imagination, his wonderful flights of fantasy… and he turned up to play my game and lost! And he knew exactly what he was doing; we thought in a faintly similar way, though his games were made to be fun and my game was made to be fun to watch.”

John Robertson may do very well from The Dark Room because, as I say, like Bob Slayer, he knows how to promote and knows how to insert himself into situations which may get him publicity.

Bob Slayer (left) and John Robertson talk seriously (not)

So when, in the Hive bar after yesterday’s Dark Room show, hard-drinking and frequently drunk Bob Slayer ordered only a Coca Cola and I switched my iPhone audio recorder on, John leapt in as Bob’s interrogator and interlocutor – some people will do anything to get mentioned in this blog.

There was much talk of the fact that Bob had ordered a Coca Cola from the bar, but we will join the conversation at the point at which I said: “I enjoyed the wanking Jeff Leach story.”

“I didn’t enjoy wanking off Jeff Leach,” said Bob wearily.

“Yes you did,” said John.

“Jeff Leach was on stage at Espionage,” said Bob. “It’s not for me to assess another comedian’s performance, but the audience all hated him. So he turned his back on them and decided to talk to one man in the booth, off-mike.

“After about five minutes of this, I was sent on to go and pull him off and, unfortunately, that’s exactly what I did. I misunderstood them.”

“And did the crowd go wild?” asked John.

“Well,” said Bob, “I sold tickets for my show this morning on the back of wanking in a man’s wife’s face last night.”

Bob Slayer gets carried away during his storytelling spree

“In a man’s wife’s face?” I asked. “Don’t forget this is being recorded.”

“Well, she’s coming today,” Bob said with no sense of knowingness.

“Would you like to re-phrase that?” I asked.

“Today she is visiting his show,” suggested John.

“To be more precise,” said Bob. “I was wanking Jeff and Jeff was wanking me. There was a lot of coming and going. Well, there was no going. That was the whole point: he wouldn’t go so I had to make him come.”

“So you began to jerk the jerk?” John asked.

“You know how I won’t back down?” Bob asked me. “Well, we were playing that Who’s going to back down first? game and nobody was backing down.”

“Are we saying through the pants?” asked John.

“No,” said Bob.

“You put your hand in the pants?” asked John.

“No,” said Bob.

“You took him out of the pants?” asked John.

“The pants were down,” said Bob.

“The pants were down,” said John.

“Yes,” said Bob.

“The little Leach in full view?” asked John.

“The little Leach and big Bob.”

“Not too much detail,” I suggested.

“Was there engorging involved?” asked John.

“I don’t think there was any engorging going on,” said Bob. “Certainly not on my part: I’d had a bottle of Jagermeister.”

“So you were wanking this…” started John.

“Pulling a flaccid member,” corrected Bob.

“It didn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth?” I asked.

“No,” said Bob, “The man’s wife on the other hand…”

“And, faced with this chunky comedian porn, the crowd responded with…?” asked John.

“They seemed to quite like it,” said Bob. “I wouldn’t say all of them did, but the point is I sold some tickets today off the back of it, so some people liked it, therefore it’s entertainment and it should be done on a regular basis….” Bob paused and thought for a couple of seconds. “I’m never doing it again,” he added.”I’m disgusted with this hand. It’s the one I dislocated as well. We had already fallen out.”

Bob Slayer holds his hand, if not his head, high yesterday

He held his right hand up so I could photograph it. One of his fingers is missing a joint.

“You look like Dave Allen there,” I said. “Jeremy Beadle built an entire career based on this.”

“What?” asked Bob, “Pretending to be Dave Allen?”

“No,” I said, “you know he had…”

“…a shrunken hand,” said Bob. “Yes.”

James Doohan,” said John.

“Who?” I asked.

“Scotty, from Star Trek,” said John.

“Oh?” said Bob.

“Only four digits on one hand,” said John. “One of his fingers was shot off in the War…. And you know Radar from M*A*S*H?”

“Him too?” I asked, incredulous.

“He’s got a deformed left hand,” said John. “He’s always holding a clipboard.”

“Is any of this true?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” said John.

“Mickey Mouse – three fingers,” I said.

“What you’re saying,” said Bob, holding up his hand, “is that people with deformed hands are genii.”

“Genii?” asked John.

“I think genii is the plural of genius,” said Bob.

“I don’t think Mickey Mouse is a genius,” I said. “and I am going to have to transcribe all this.”

“You may regret it,” Bob said.

“We may all regret it,” I said.

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Filed under Comedy, Computers, Gaming, Sex

Computer game storytelling and the man who wants it to be a force for good

This morning, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme had a strange report on ‘Bibliotherapy’ and the psychologically-positive healing power of reading books. It sounded to me like Californian inmates had taken over the asylum and managed to confuse someone at the BBC into giving them an advertising slot.

Apparently there is also something called Writing Therapy.

I am all for reading and writing, of course, but I am not convinced it is a branch of medical science. Stroking furry animals is apparently psychologically comforting for hospital patients (if they don’t give you fleas or eat you). That sounds sensible, but it ain’t a new branch of medical science.

I recently blogged about being on the panel at a Storywarp event in which telling “Other People’s Stories” was discussed. Afterwards, I got an e-mail from Simon Fox, who was in the audience.

“We’re working on this collaborative storywriting game called The Written World,” the e-mail said, “and it’s currently out to tender on Kickstarter.”

I know nothing about online games. When I bought an ancient Apple Mac at some point near the Dawn of Time it came with a demo version of Prince of Persia and I thought I’m not interested. I have better things to do with my life than try to achieve Level 53 in some virtual game.

I may have been wrong about the course my life would take.

But I went to have a chat with Simon Fox on a freezing cold day this week, in an attempt to upgrade myself to v2.0.1.1 in our brave new 21st century world where publishers and bookshops equate to passengers and the Titanic. His idea was far more interesting than Bibliotherapy, though it perhaps sounded a bit overly altruistic at first.

“We started developing The Written World about five years ago,” Simon told me, “and, in the meantime, I’ve become involved in Playlab London which is a company that focuses on games which do ‘good things’. That’s maybe a lofty flag, but we try to find games which involve some sort of action which can be objectively defined as good or which encourages people to behave in that way.”

But, I asked him, aren’t computer games just a trivial, mostly shoot-em-up way to waste time?

“Well, what excites me,” he says, “is that, if you play a game, you absolutely cannot avoid learning something. So, for someone like me who is interested in producing games that can concretely be shown to be doing good things…”

How can you angle it so it is ‘good’, though?

“Here in the UK,” says Simon, “one in six people have a literacy level lower than that expected of an 11-year-old. To me, that figure is shocking. Anything that gets people interacting with writing in a new way is good. It’s the experience that’s important.

“I think there’s something really interesting about what a game is. It’s the only piece of media that tries to make you achieve something by intentionally putting obstacles in your way. Games are as old as the human race.

“Games mostly used to be a thing where a group of people communed together over a set of rules. Then, with computers, they became one person dealing with a machine that handled the rules. Now we have come back to people getting together online and dealing with, essentially, a set of data.”

But all this involves developing the Written World idea further.

“That’s why we are running a Kickstarter campaign,” Simon told me. “We are a really small, young company which needs to put together enough cash to develop it more. Kickstarter is a way of getting your audience to pledge a little money to help you bring them better product.

“A big game like Battlefield is like the Hollywood of games. We’re just a small group of people. It’s a labour of love as much as anything and our costs are comparatively very low. We are looking to raise just $17,500 in total, which is about £12,000. It will cover our coding costs, our hosting costs. It will cover us to the point of getting the product to a group of people on the internet so they can use it for free and then we can develop it further.

“We are big believers in ‘agile development’ – you get your product to your audience and then you work with them to make it better. We have a set of tools for writers so they can create a story. Readers can then put a character together for themselves and come and experience someone else’s story. We boil the story down into a set of assets – characters, locations, story arcs and the beats of the story.

“We would love to see really prolific writers in our system getting to a point where they can package together stuff they’ve made and sell it to other users for a really small amount of money – 50p or whatever – just as a way to make cash back from helping other people have a really cool experience. We are both a game and a writing tool.

“We also want to see established properties entering our system in the same way – our huge dream would be for something like the Discworld series to live inside The Written World. At the moment, we are talking with publishers and directly with authors about ways that we might bring existing stories into it.”

So what about copyright in a finished product perhaps created by 714 or 500,000 people – a story which someone might want to make into a movie or novel in its own right?

“Our approach to this is to be as open as possible,” says Simon. “We want everything created by anyone to be available to the community to use and re-use and re-mix through the Creative Commons.”

So where would the company profits come from?

“For me, what’s exciting is not the money but seeing something get done. I would love it if this developed into a real platform for people to write collaboratively. In my mind’s eye I can see, in five years’ time, The Written World being somewhere that millions of stories have taken place and it has grown into this huge living thing just slowly built over time from all the stories people have been telling and there are different genres of stories intermingling with each other in a beautiful repository of collective literary achievement.

“And it would be fantastic if people were able to make some money for themselves by writing stories for and with each other. For me, that would be wonderful.

“We are using Kickstarter to get finance because, right now, it’s a tough landscape for funding out there. You set your target – for us, $17,500 – and you either reach it in the given time and get the money or you don’t reach it and get no money. Obviously, on top of that, there is our own time and money going into this as well. We just want extra money to get us to definitely the next milestone – definitely producing something that gets to people.”

A worthy idea and Kickstarter funding may be their breakthrough. Stranger things have happened.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, since 1991 I have been able to write books but have been unable to read printed books. Books on computer screens are another matter. So Simon Fox’s The Written World is for me. Bibliotherapy is clearly not.

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Filed under Books, Internet, Writing

Comedy notoriety: good or bad?… or “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it…”

Being nominated for this year’s main Malcolm Hardee Award for comic originality AND winning the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe would be good for your career you might think.

Well, you might think that…

Except Bob Slayer won both those prestigious comedy industry accolades two weeks ago and yesterday he told me:

“Ever since I was nominated as the OTT comedian, no club seems to want to book me…

“To be fair, I have a full-on Edinburgh hang-over and I haven’t spoken to that many – but it would be nice if they would speak to me! They should know that I would not get my knob out in polite company… I did not get it out at any children’s gigs and I would not in a golf club, for example!”

It is not all gloom and doom in Bob’s award-winning household, though:

“There are some nice things lining up,” he tells me. “Like touring my show in the UK and Ireland and supporting other tours. So there are some folks more than happy to embrace the mayhem… Maybe it will all be OK?”

Let’s hope so.

When Malcolm Hardee managed a young Jerry Sadowitz in the 1980s, he succeeded in getting him noticed by playing up (with good reason) the outrageousness of the act and that Jerry was so OTT he was untransmittable on TV. The result, both Malcolm and Jerry came to realise in retrospect, was that TV producers never even considered Jerry for TV because they ‘knew’ he would be untransmittable. This was perhaps not helped by the Gobshite audio album which was withdrawn over fears it might be libellous to Jimmy Saville.

I produced a one-hour TV show for BSB in 1990 titled The Last Laugh with Jerry Sadowitz in which Jerry performed live to an audience at the Astoria Theatre in London. From memory (which might be faulty) I think I told him he could  have a handul of “fuck”s and to try to keep the “cunt”s to maybe two at most.

BSB’s guidelines to comedy producers at that time were that you could not have casual ‘conversational’ fucks or cunts in a sentence – you could not, for example, include “I was walking along the fucking road” – but the words were allowed if they were an integral part of the joke and if removing them would weaken the routine. I told Jerry something like: “Try not to say “fuck” or “cunt” at all and, that way, a few will inevitably come out but it will be OK over the course of an hour.”

He did the entire hour-long show with neither a “fuck” nor a “cunt”. Not a single one. I was amazed. I had thought the swearing was so much a part of the rhythm of his sentences – delivered at breakneck speed – that he would not be able to avoid using the words without screwing up his flow.

A couple of years later, he quite rightly got a late-night BBC TV comedy series The Pall Bearer’s Revue.

With Bob Slayer, far less controversial than Jerry, the problem is not so much swearing as ad-libbed physical anarchy – having people throw (real, genuine) darts at him or suddenly decide to have five people hit him on his back and on his head with folded-up metal audience seating – but he can tone that down appropriate to the situation and is amazingly good with audience members.

Oddly, I think he is, in television terms, a gameshow host. Kept under control, he is Michael Barrymore without the swimming pool. Barrymore was genuinely good with real people and equally at his best going off-script – provided he had a producer with the self-confidence to let him improvise within certain format and time restrictions.

Bob Slayer fronting a personality-led real-people game show would breathe novelty, energy and fresh air into a tired TV format. And, after all, as well as winning the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award, Bob was also nominated, for the second consecutive year, for the main Malcolm Hardee Award for comic originality.

One to watch.

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Filed under Comedy, PR, Television

Has British comedy stagnated since Monty Python, Hardee and Tiswas?

Beware. This is my blog. These are my very highly personal opinions. You can object. Please do.

People have said Alternative Comedy is not dead, it has just ceased to be Alternative. It has become the Mainstream. But they seldom talk about the next new wave of British comedians who will replace the now mainstream Alternative Comedians.

I desperately want to spot any new wave for the annual Malcolm Hardee Awards, which I organise. Our avowed intent is to try to find “comic originality”.

We do find admirably quirky individuals to award the main annual Comic Originality prize to – last year, the one-off Robert White; this year, the one-off Johnny Sorrow.

And their one-offness is as it should be. You cannot have comic originality if 37 other people are doing something similar.

But where are the new style comedians performing a recognisable new type of comedy genre? There has not been anything overwhelmingly new since so-called Alternative Comedy arrived in the mid-1980s – over 25 years ago.

As far as I can see, there have been four very rough waves of post-War British comedy, most of them comprising overlapping double strands.

The first double wave of ‘new’ comics in the 1950s were reacting partly to stuffy mainstream 1930s Reithian radio comedy, partly to the necessary order of the 1940s wartime years and partly they were rebelling against the dying music hall circuit epitomised by John Osborne‘s fictional but iconic Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957).

The Goon Show (1951-1960) on BBC Radio, at the height of its popularity in the mid 1950s, was the antithesis of the ‘old school’ of pre-War comedy. The Goons were a surreal comic equivalent to John Osborne’s own rebellious Look Back in Anger (1956) and the kitchen sink realism which surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Osborne was ultra-realistic; The Goons were ultra-surreal.

But Osborne’s plays and The Goons‘ radio comedy were both reactions to the rigidly ordered society in pre-War, wartime and immediately post-War Britain and The Goons‘ new anarchic style of comedy (although it owes some debt to the pre-War Crazy Gang and although the Wartime radio series ITMA was slightly surreal) really was like the new rock ‘n’ roll (which was not coincidentally happening simultaneously). It was startlingly new. They were consciously rebelling and revolting against a clear status quo which they saw as stuffy and restrictive.

Hot on the heels of The Goons came a different form of rebellion – the satirists of the 1960s – with Beyond the Fringe (1960) on stage and That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963) on TV. These two slightly overlapping Second Waves of new post-War British comedy were again reacting to a stuffy status quo.

The First Wave, the surrealist Goons wave, then reasserted that it was still rolling on when a Third Wave of influence – Monty Python’s Flying Circus – appeared on BBC TV 1969-1974 and – as satire declined in the 1970s – it was Monty Python‘s (and, ultimately, The Goons‘) comedic gene pool that held sway for a while – also epitomised, oddly, by the children’s TV show – Tiswas (1974-1982).

The Goons, Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was had been rebelling against something; Monty Python was surreal and Tiswas was anarchic just for the sheer sake of it. Monty Python and Tiswas were one-offs, but they have pale imitations trundling on even to today.

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, a Fourth Wave of new comics arose in the early and mid-1980s – a generation influenced by the satire gene not by the Goons/Python gene. These mostly-university-educated young left wing things rebelled against Thatcherism with their often political-based humour which became known as Alternative Comedy.

But again, just as there had been a second overlapping wave of comedy in the previous generation, this mostly ‘serious’ comedy was paralleled by a different wave possibly more low-key but epitomised by the decidedly fringe appeal of the hugely influential Malcolm Hardee, whose release from prison and subsequent comedy career coincided with the start of and overlapped with the future stars of Alternative Comedy.

Malcolm’s strand of mostly non-political comedy was spread by the clubs he ran and the acts he managed, agented, booked and/or nurtured: acts including the young Paul Merton (performing as Paul Martin when Malcolm first managed him), Jenny Eclair and later Keith Allen, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavaré and Johnny Vegas.

While London’s Comedy Store nurtured future mainstream acts (some progressing there from Malcolm’s clubs), the more bizarre and original new acts continued to flock to Malcolm’s gigs and clubs including his near-legendary Sunday Night at the Tunnel Palladium gigs and later his lower-key but just as influential Up The Creek club.

These two strands of 1980s comedy – the alternative political and the Hardee-esque – successfully came together in a Channel 4 programme – not, as is often cited, Saturday Live (1985-1987), a mostly failed hotch-potch with different presenters every week, but its long-remembered successor, Geoff Posner‘s Friday Night Live (1988) which supposedly firebrand political polemic comic Ben Elton presented every week in what was supposed to be an ironic sparkly showbiz jacket.

Political alternative stand-ups mixed with strange variety and character acts, oddball comics and cross-over acts like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield and many others nurtured by Malcolm Hardee.

This was both the highpoint and the start of the decline of Alternative Comedy because serious money was spent on the relatively low-rating Saturday Live and Friday Night Live on Channel 4, both ultimately shepherded by Alan Boyd’s resolutely mainstream but highly influential Entertainment Department at LWT.

Since then, where has the next giant New Wave of British comedy been? There are random outbreaks of originality, but mostly there has been a barren mediocrity of pale imitations of previous waves – and the desolate, mostly laugh-free zone that is BBC3.

At this point, allow me an even more personal view.

I thought I spotted a change in Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows around 2003 when Janey Godley was barred from consideration for the Perrier Award (despite a very lively verbal fight among the judging the panel) because it was decided that her seminal show Caught in the Act of Being Myself did not fall within the remit of the Awards because it was not a single ‘show’ repeated every night: she was basically ad-libbing a different hour of comedy every performance for 28 consecutive nights.

That same year, Mike Gunn performed his confessional heroin-addict show Mike Gunn: Uncut at the Fringe although, unlike Janey, he lightened and held back some of the more serious details of his life story.

It seemed to me that, certainly after 2004, when Janey performed her confessional show Good Godley!,  Fringe shows started an increasing tendency towards often confessional autobiographical storytelling. Good Godley! was one of the first hour-long comedy shows at the Fringe (though not the only one) to use material that was not in any way funny – in that case, child abuse, rape, murder and extreme emotional damage. Janey did not tell funny stories; she told stories funny. Viewed objectively, almost nothing she actually talked about was funny but audiences fell about laughing because it truly was “the way she told ’em”.

Since then, too, there seems to have been a tendency towards improvisation, probably spurred by the financial success of Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard. The traditional 1980s Alternative Comics still mostly stay to a script. The 21st Century comics influenced by Janey Godley, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble often do not (to varying degrees).

So it could be argued there has been a tendency in this decade away from gag-telling (apart from the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine) towards storytelling… and a tendency towards improvisational gigs (bastardised by the almost entirely scripted and prepared ad-libs on TV panel shows).

But long-form storytelling does not fit comfortably into TV formats which tend to require short-form, gag-based, almost sound-bite material – you cannot tell long involved stories on panel shows and on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow type programmes. So a tendency in live gigs and certainly at the Edinburgh Fringe – a tendency away from gag-based comedy to storytelling comedy – has been unable to transfer to television and has therefore not fully developed.

Occasionally, a Fifth Wave of British comedy is sighted on the horizon but, so far, all sightings have turned out to be tantalising mirages.

One possibility are the Kent Comics who all studied Stand Up Comedy as an academic subject in the University of Kent at Canterbury. They include Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club, Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, Laura Lexx and The Noise Next Door. But they share an origin, not a style.

Whither British comedy?

Who knows?

Not me.

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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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