Tag Archives: Gong Show

Are live comedy clubs doomed and is the future of British comedy online?

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)
davesleicester_logoThis morning, I was on a panel as part of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival – ‘Dave’ being the UK TV channel which sponsors the festival.

Also on the panel were Don Ward of The Comedy Store, Kate Copstick doyenne of UK comedy critics and Nica Burns, founder of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, currently sponsored by Fosters, formerly sponsored by Perrier.

Copstick and I are both judges on the unsponsored yet increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards.

Towards the end of the two hour session, conversation got round to The Comedy Store: Raw and Uncut, due out in UK cinemas in a fortnight.

“Sony approached me,” explained Don this morning, “and said they would like to put the Comedy Store into cinemas as a feature film. We’ll make four of them and see what happens and we’ll show it as it is, warts and all.

“So we filmed it over four nights. We filmed digital and you should see it – it is The Store. It comes out on the 22nd of this month in around 160 cinemas. It’ll go out all over the country and it will go out as a stand-up show as you would experience it in London.”

“How much,” asked Nica Burns, “will people pay for their ticket?”

“Normal cinema prices,” replied Don.

“Less than at the Comedy Store?” asked Nica.

“Yes,” said Don.

“So,” said Nica, “You’re beaming out your extremely good stand-up evening to 160 cinemas for less than what people pay at your original Comedy Store. What is that going to do for every single small comedy club in Britain, every single little person who is trying to passionately be part of the comedy industry? What is that going to do to the rest of the comedy industry?”

“It interests me,” I said, “because, beyond the feature film, some high-quality club like the Comedy Store with high-quality acts will be able to live-stream for micro-payments. They can charge, say, 99 pence and they’ll make a fortune – 99 pence per view around the English-speaking world. If I’m going to pay 99 pence to see top quality acts in a top quality club, live-streamed. Why should I pay £5 or £10 to see less-good acts learning their craft in a real comedy club down the road?”

“But,” said Copstick, “there is something about the experience of going to a comedy club that is special and will always appeal to lovers of comedy and I don’t think what Don is doing is any different from… I honestly don’t think it’s going to be that destructive, because I don’t think that proper, core, real, comedy-loving audience is necessarily going to go and see that.”

“It’s the same as football, I suppose,” I said. “You can see football better, closer and faster edited on television, but people still go to football matches.”

“I think,” said Nica Burns,” this is a new development on a very large scale. I can’t recall the comedy industry having an experiment like this on this kind of scale. I think we’re looking at potentially enormous changes in how people watch their comedy, from what Don is doing to the live streaming that’s coming. And the ramifications of that, I think, is fewer people becoming more powerful.”

“You can’t stop change,” I said, “you can only adapt to it. In the mid-1990s, Malcolm Hardee said to me that the Edinburgh Fringe was getting very commercialised and he was like the small independent corner shop while the big supermarkets were coming in – agents/managers like Avalon and Off The Kerb.

“I think in the future, the big supermarkets are going to be big Don Wards doing live streaming of their shows around the country and the small corner shop will be YouTube, with individuals doing amateur comedy. But people will still go to big ‘events’ like arena tours.”

“I think the best is yet to come,” said Don Ward. “People want to go out. They will still go out to clubs for the foreseeable future. Comedy is a serious night out.”

“The internet,” said Copstick, “is, if nothing else, totally democratic. Maybe Don is leading live comedy into cyberspace. But, once he’s done that, any tiny comedy club – the smallest comedy club – has the technology to do that. Music has now created so many music stars online. In comedy, (Malcolm Hardee Award winner) Bo Burnham – utterly brilliant – nobody hired him, nobody did anything. He made himself online.

“I’m not 100% sure about the future of live comedy clubs,” she continued, “but I genuinely do believe and absolutely hope that real, core comedy fans will continue going to live comedy, continue having that whole experience and taking the rough with the smooth provided there’s some smooth. But, if actual live comedy withers, then I believe where it will migrate is online. And that is completely democratic. That is not like having to placate and show some muppet at Channel 4 that your idea can attract the ‘right demographic’.”

“But,” asked Nica, “how do they make their living? How will they feed their kids and pay their rents by being a comic on the internet?”

“Well,” said Copstick, “what you do is establish yourself online. If you’re shit, you don’t feed your kids. They starve and you wise up and get a proper job. If you’re good, marvellous. Bo Burnham’s not short of a bob or two.”

“But he makes his money live now,” suggested Nica.

“Then that’s where you migrate,” replied Copstick. “Maybe that’s what the circle’s doing. Maybe the feeder, the starter level is online, because anyone under the age of 20 is physically unable to leave their seat and the only fully-functioning bits of their anatomy are their mouths, their cocks and their thumbs. So maybe that’s where the ‘babies’ go: they go online, they find their audience – because everybody will find their audience online – The bad ones will wither, die and drop off and the good ones will go on. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?”

(A slightly edited podcast of the panel session is on the Demon FM website.)


Filed under Comedy, Internet

Good-bad comedy and bad-bad comedy on TV and at the Edinburgh Fringe

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Malcolm Hardee presents Pull The Plug!

Malcolm Hardee presents Gong Show rip-off Pull The Plug!

To rip-off American politician Donald Rumsfeld’s quote about known knowns and unknown unknowns… In comedy, there are good acts who think they are good and are good, there are bad acts who think they are good but are bad and there are bad acts who think they are bad but are good.

I am, myself, a great lover of good-bad acts and variable acts wh0 can rotate from genius to urinal on a 2p piece. In fact, you can often learn more from watching a bad-bad act than from watching a good act. Good-bad acts are to be encouraged and treasured.

When the late Malcolm Hardee and I worked at Noel Gay Television in 1990/1991, producing entertainment shows in the UK for what was then BSB, a producer called Cecil Korer came to Noel Gay suggesting a TV series called The Cockroach Show – a rip-off of infamous US TV ‘talent’ programme The Gong Show.

I loved (and love) The Gong Show which I always thought was misunderstood by people who had never seen it. People who had never seen it thought it involved bad acts. But, in fact, it involved knowingly bizarre acts: an entirely different thing. They were good-bad acts.

Unless my memory deceives me, I remember one very overweight lady on The Gong Show, dressed as Marlene Dietrich from The Blue Angel, trying and failing to get up onto a high stool while singing Falling In Love Again. It was very funny. She had great timing.

Another act involved a man (and I think also a woman) who came on and juggled a doll. Except that, after about 15 seconds, viewers (and the open-mouthed judging panel) realised it was not a doll but a real flesh-and-blood child. The act was quickly gonged off.

If only Malcolm Hardee and I could have found such an act while we were at Noel Gay…

Instead, we had Cecil Korer who, I think, had actually been responsible for Channel 4 buying and screening The Gong Show in the UK and now (1990) had this idea to rip it off as The Cockroach Show.

Cecil had a good pedigree having been, at one time, involved in BBC TV’s glorious Good Old Days music hall show. He had also commissioned entertainment shows for Channel 4, including the almost indescribable Minipops.

This mostly seemed to involve pre-pubescent little girls singing, while bumping and grinding suggestively and thrusting their hips to raunchy pop music tracks. Cecil claimed he saw it as a cute talent-type show. Many saw it as toe-curlingly and unsettlingly sexist or worse. Today, the words “Jimmy Savile show” would not be too far off the mark.

Pull The Plug judges Ned Sherrin, Liz Kershaw and Jools Holland

Pull The Plug judges Ned Sherrin, Liz Kershaw, Jools Holland

Anyway, Malcolm and I co-produced two rip-off pilots for BSB with Cecil Korer credited as producer and us as associate producers but, in fact, one show Pull The Plug! included acts chosen by him and one The Flip Show had acts chosen by Malcolm and me.

The way Malcolm tells it in his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:

I went round the country auditioning acts with this old guy Cecil Korer and some glamorous girl he was taking round. Cecil was a TV bloke of the Old School. One of his proudest claims to fame was as producer of the appalling 1980s Channel 4 series Minipops. He liked young girls, did Cecil. Some of the acts we saw were indescribably bizarre. You had to be there. One old woman sang to backing tapes and danced about in a peculiar fashion. She tried her best to look glamorous but everything was wrong: she had no co-ordination, no glamour, nothing. Somehow, it was extremely funny and she should’ve got on the show.

In the end, we selected enough acts to do two pilots: The Flip Show, which had hand-held hooters instead of a gong, and Pull The Plug! where lights were turned off progressively until the act was in total darkness and had to stop. We recorded the shows in Gillingham with Jools Holland, Cardew Robinson and Ned Sherrin on the panel. The two pilots were not going to set the world alight, but I thought they were quite good. They never got taken up by BSB, though. We were never told exactly why.

In fact, that is not true. We were told.

We had been directed by BSB to make the two pilots “slightly tacky” and “a little cruel”. We mostly ignored the second suggestion but, when BSB eventually saw these pilots, they rejected them, with apologies, because they claimed they had had a “re-appraisal” of the BSB image and the two shows were “slightly tacky” and “a little cruel”.

There are some brief extracts from the shows in the Malcolm Hardee obituary video on YouTube.

One of the acts Cecil chose was, basically, a girl in her 20s dressed as a St Trinian’s schoolgirl doing quite a bit of jiggling. The acts Malcolm and I chose were more knowingly bizarre.

All this came to mind a couple of days ago, when the eternally entrepreneurial Bob Slayer sent me the pitch for his Hive venue at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

I think The Hive is a justification of my theory that it usually takes three consecutive years to get anywhere at the Fringe.

The first year, people are not necessarily even aware you exist.

The second year, they are aware you exist because you were there last year.

The third year, you seem an established fixture at the eternally ephemeral Fringe and have some profile.

Bob started running The Hive venue within the Free Festival two years ago.

He had an advantage in the first year that people vaguely knew of him as a solo act, though not as a venue-runner. He was also able to attract a big Fringe act – Phil Kay – to the venue.

Last year, he was getting treated even more seriously and the venue had a real buzz about it with Phil Kay and semi-breakthrough shows like Chris Dangerfield’s Sex Tourist and John Robertson‘s The Dark Room as well as the return to the Fringe of The Greatest Show on Legs. This year, I expect even more of a buzz around The Hive, so I was interested to see, as part of Bob’s pitch to acts who might want to appear at The Hive:

Is it really terrible? I mean so shockingly bad that we want to see it every day? If so yes apply and mark your application “Even worse than Bob Slayer’s show…”

“That was an interesting paragraph,” I said to Bob.

Bob Slayer at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe

Bob Slayer in The Hive at the 2011 Fringe:. This photo can never be printed too often.

“Ah,” he replied. “We are very oversubscribed this year so I have been doing all I can to put people off. But there is always room for a real proper stinker. I realise this ‘terrible’ show slot is very important. In the past, I have mostly found these shows by accident, but you can’t rely on that.

“In the year before I took over booking at The Hive, there was a one-woman play about sexual abuse. She was on before my show and hers ended with a graphic reconstruction which she would perform to her audience of only two or three people. She was always over-running and my audience would be waiting outside… So, when she went off-stage prior to her graphic end scene, I would usher my audience into the room, telling them the intro to my show was about to start.

“Her audience would then suddenly swell and they would cheer loudly as she was entered by the devil himself. It was a beautiful piece of theatre and a perfect set-up for my show.”

Good comedy?

Bad comedy?

It can often be the same thing.

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“Britain’s Got Talent”, Eric Morecambe, Malcolm Hardee and the question of torturing teddy bears

Last Sunday, at the late Malcolm Hardee’s annual birthday celebrations (he drowned in 2005), excerpts were screened from Jody VandenBurg’s long-planned feature-length documentary about the great man. If the mountain of great anecdotes which I know Jody has can ever be edited down to 90-minutes or so, it will be an extraordinary piece of social history: a vivid glimpse into the early days of British Alternative Comedy.

Last Thursday, I saw a vivid insight into an earlier British showbiz era: a preview of the first episode of BBC TV’s The Story of Variety with Michael Grade – it’s a two-part documentary to be broadcast much later this year.

I learnt stuff.

I didn’t know that smooth, sophisticated pianist Semprini was such a wild ladies’ man. There is a wonderful story about a showbiz landlady with the punchline “Oh, Mr Sanders, what must you think of me!”

I remember staying at the legendary Mrs Hoey’s theatrical digs in Manchester where there were no sexual shenanigans, but getting breakfast in the morning involved choosing from a roll-call of every type of egg available since the dawn of time and she and her husband (a scene hand at BBC Manchester) used to go on holidays to Crossmaglen, one of the most dangerous places in Ireland during the then Troubles.

Mrs Hoey’s was impeccably clean, but I had not heard the story – told in The Story of Variety – that you could guess in advance if a theatrical bed-&-breakfast place was not of the best if a previous act staying there had written “…quoth the Raven” in the visitors’ book.

I had also never heard the story of young English comic Des O’Connor’s first time playing the notorious Glasgow Empire where they famously hated all English acts. He went so badly on his first nightly performance that he figured the only thing he could do was pretend to faint, which he did and got carted off to the Royal Infirmary.

Old-style variety was much like modern-day comedy in that, as the documentary says: “You couldn’t be in Variety and be in elite company. It just wasn’t done. But, if you became a very big star, you could mix with kings and princes.”

Except kings and princes are thin on the ground nowadays and have been replaced by other gliterati.

The Story of Variety with Michael Grade is wonderful stuff for anyone interested in showbiz and bizarre acts. Ken Dodd talks of the old Variety theatres having “a smell of oranges and cigars”. In Ashton-under-Lyme, the performers had to hang their shoes up in the dressing rooms because of the rats.

But after-screening anecdotes and opinions were as interesting as what was in the documentary.

I had never spotted, until Michael Grade mentioned it to Barry Cryer after the screening, that now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Hylda Baker’s stage persona was actually an almost direct copy of now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Jimmy James. Like the sleight-of-hand in a good magic act, once you know it you can see it.

I was vaguely aware that Eric Morecambe’s famous catchphrase “Look at me when I‘m talking to you” was actually lifted from ventriloquist Arthur Worsley’s act – the dummy Charlie Brown used to say it to Worsley. (Eric freely admitted where he had got the line from.)

Most interestingly, Michael Grade said he would not have commissioned ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent series (which he likes) because he wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to get so many interesting acts.

But bizarre and interesting variety acts have always been and are always out there. I know from personal experience, looking for Gong Show style TV acts, that you just have to put an ad in The Stage newspaper on three consecutive weeks and they spill out like a tsurreal tsunami. A combination of real-people adding interest to their drab lives in godforsaken towns and suburbs around the UK… and struggling professionals who in previous times might have played clubs but who now often play street theatre.

The Story of Variety with Michael Grade comes to the conclusion that live Variety was killed off in the mid-to-late-1950s by a combination of television, scheduling rock stars in Variety stage shows (which split the audience into two groups, neither of which were fully satisfied) and adding strippers (which destroyed the appeal for family audiences). But this did not kill off the acts, merely the places they were showcased. Sunday Night at the London Palladium thrived on ITV in the 1950s and 1960s.

Michael Grade was wrong.

There are loads of good variety acts playing the Piazza in London’s Covent Garden every week and there is a third tier to the annual Edinburgh Fringe, which no-one ever seems to mention. There are the paid-for Fringe venues… plus the two organisations offering free venues… plus the free street theatre with which Edinburgh is awash throughout August.

And Variety is not dead elsewhere. Mr Methane still farts around the UK; Charlie Chuck is more speciality/spesh act than stand-up, The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper doubles as The Great Voltini and the ratings success of Britain’s Got Talent on ITV1 and The Magicians on BBC1 show that there are not just loads of good spesh acts out there but that there is an appetite for them.

Now, what was the name of that bloke who used to torture teddy bears on a wheel of death at Malcolm Hardee’s old clubs The Tunnel Palladium and Up The Creek?

Was it Steve someone?

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Filed under Comedy, Magic, Television, Theatre