Tag Archives: heckling

The art and psychology of heckling comics and throwing objects at them

Malcolm Hardee – known for running notorious comedy clubs

Exactly 14 years ago tonight, comedian Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock in the Rotherhithe peninsula, London.

He maintained his principles, even in death.

When his body was raised from the dock several days later, he was still clutching a bottle of beer.

Malcolm was famed for spotting and helping talented comedians at the start of their careers. He was also known for running and hosting the Tunnel Palladium club night – a Sunday evening show with good professional acts but also an ‘open spot’ section so dangerous for new acts to perform in that aspiring comics would sometimes travel hundreds of miles to see if they could survive an audience known and feared for its razor-sharp heckling.

After the club was raided and closed by the police for drugs offences (NOT on one of Malcolm’s nights – he only did Sundays) he opened Up The Creek comedy club in Greenwich where, initially, the hecklers continued their trade.

Here, I chat to one of the Tunnel’s most effective hecklers – Gordon ‘Bres’ Breslin.


Gordon Breslin – a taste for heckling

JOHN: You got a taste for heckling at the Tunnel club…

BRES: Well, before that, me and a friend used to go to Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday afternoon and absorb some of the heckling of speakers that was going on. I remember heckling the Reverend Donald Soper on occasion, when he was preaching there. That’s where we cut out teeth.

JOHN: Did Lord Soper take it well?

BRES: He did indeed. He was a very nice gentleman. After that, though, we discovered the Tunnel club.

JOHN: You were regulars.

BRES: Yes. And the heckling was quite good fun. To start with, it was limited to the open mic spots.

JOHN: But all heckling is surely cruel and nasty.

BRES: Sometimes it is cruel and nasty but sometimes an act just needs to go if they’re not very good.

JOHN: But these poor, sensitive people have spent months refining their act…

BRES: Well, being heckled is how they know it needs more refining. If an act is really bad, something should be done apart from walking out. I think audiences have become too tolerant of bad acts these days. Back in the Tunnel days, it could be quite rude – “Get off! You’re shit!” This was 1984 to 1989.

But word got out about the heckling there and it got progressively more ermmm… ‘aggressive’ I guess is the word.

JOHN: Well, I guess throwing beer glasses at the acts is aggressive.

BRES: Yes, but people like Simon Munnery were cutting their teeth there and he didn’t mind a bit of heckling. There used to be a very good heckler at The Tunnel called The Pirate…

JOHN: I think Malcolm told me The Pirate was a stockbroker who retired early to Spain with lots of money.

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

BRES: His great one was… A comic would make his best joke of the night and The Pirate’s voice would be heard saying “Oh larf… Oh larf… Oh larf,” which would just floor the comedian. Some of the heckling was very very funny.

JOHN: And the best heckles are…?

BRES: I think the art of the heckle is… A heckler wants to make a funny gag and make the audience laugh and perhaps even get the biggest laugh of the night and – not necessarily make the comic feel small, but – make the comic appreciate the heckler’s one one-liner as well.

JOHN: Surely it is just solely to make the comic feel small.

BRES: Well, in a way. But the comic has the right of reply, so he can make the heckler feel even smaller. A lot of people don’t want to sit in the front rows because they don’t want to be picked-on by the comic. Let’s get it into perspective. For me comedians, if they are any good, will always pick on the front row. So they have more than ample opportunity to get their retaliation in first.

JOHN: So heckling is the audience picking on the comedian, not the comedian picking on the audience.

BRES: Exactly. That’s the one. As long as it’s fair and just. At The Tunnel, some of the comedians would come on looking nervous and, before they’d even said a word, the first thing shouted out was: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then someone else would take up the cry: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then the whole audience would end up shouting “Maaallcolm!!!” and, before the comedian had even said a word, it was not unknown for the act to walk off without even doing a joke.

JOHN: And the audience would sometimes call out for a taxi…

BRES: Yes. “Cab for (the comedian’s name)!” Those were the regular heckles. But then it got a bit overtaken by… Well, a bit violent, I should say – Throwing things and it… it got… erm… too bad. There was an incident where Clarence & Joy Pickles (Adam Wide & Babs Sutton)… I think it was a beer crate or something like that was thrown at them – something quite chunky…

JOHN: Malcolm told me he wasn’t the compere that night. I think he was maybe at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Malcolm made a mistake in giving a copy of this letter to each member of the Tunnel club audience

BRES: I think she sustained a cut – Joy Pickles. So, the following week, there was a letter to the audience from Tunnel Arts – which was Malcolm – asking all members of the audience to “refrain from throwing anything at the stage… The Tunnel Club is noted for its witty heckling and appreciation of a good act. Let’s not spoil it by behaving as animals. It is coming to a point where a lot of good acts are thinking twice about performing here (quite rightly so) and this means that your enjoyment will be impaired.”

A copy of this letter was put on every seat in the Tunnel club and, of course, when Malcolm came on stage, he got bombarded by people throwing screwed-up letters and paper aeroplanes at him. So the letter became a surreal heckle.

JOHN: My memory is that, sometimes, they didn’t just throw beer glasses at the acts; they sometimes threw half-full glasses so there was beer all over the place too.

BRES: Well, it was probably quite watered-down beer. 

JOHN: The heckling-off of acts was quite effective.

BRES: Yes. Sometimes self-defeating. Sometimes you might have seven or eight acts and the show would be over in half an hour because everyone had been heckled off – sometimes even the good ones.

Jools Holland (left) with Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel club in 1985 (Photo by Bill Alford)

JOHN: Malcolm told me that, after the trouble with Clarence & Joy Pickles, he had to make it a members-only club and he then discovered lots of the audience were not local. They were coming through the Blackwall Tunnel from north of the Thames and a lot were very highly-paid, highly-educated City workers, which was why the heckling was of such a high standard. I think someone was once heckled off in Latin and looked a bit surprised.

BRES: Yeah.

JOHN: What was your job at that point?

BRES: (LAUGHS) I was a Lloyds underwriter, working in the City.

JOHN: So basically it was up-market scum causing the problems.

BRES: Exactly. (LAUGHS) But I am from humble beginnings. I guess the Tunnel club had a timely demise and we were then a bit bereft of anywhere to go. We tried out Jongleurs club in Clapham, but the comedy was never great there and we weren’t allowed to heckle. We were physically told-off by bouncers. Luckily, Malcolm then set-up Up The Creek in Greenwich, which didn’t have the same notoriety as the Tunnel.

JOHN: I think the brothers who co-owned it with Malcolm told him after a few weeks that he couldn’t allow heckling and throwing things. Though I do remember some open spot act who got up on stage and started reading poetry. He was a bald man and you could see the blood trickling down his forehead after something was thrown and hit him.

BRES: I was there when Eddie Shit was performing. He came on dressed as Freddie Mercury and was singing songs by Queen with all the lyrics changed to refer to shit. I was sitting down the front and we were getting things passed to us from the back – including glass ashtrays – to throw at him. Which, obviously, we never did.

There was one occasion when an act which really was shit had been using a real frozen chicken and they ended up throwing this frozen chicken at the audience. The audience kept it then, slowly but surely, it made its way down the front. It came to me and I remember getting up on stage and offering it to Malcolm and I think I started up the chant “Shag the chicken! Shag the chicken!” which the whole audience took up.

So Malcolm got his knob out and duly obliged. 

That was quite amusing.

JOHN: Did you make friends with the other hecklers?

BRES: Yes. And some of the acts as well. It wasn’t all animosity. Simon Munnery, Martin Soan, Boothby Graffoe, Rich Hall. We would leave the good acts alone and they would leave us alone.

JOHN: Mostly, I thought the hecklers at Malcolm’s clubs were firm but fair.

BRES: I would like to think that.

JOHN: Part of the training process for new comedians. You don’t get much heckling nowadays.

BRES: The demise of heckling is down to the extra tolerance we have nowadays, even for bad acts. There are hidden boundaries these days. There’s too much respect for comics these days. Performers don’t know how to give a riposte and, as a heckler, you don’t want to show them up. It would just stump them.

JOHN: Isn’t that the point?

BRES: Not always. The next generation should learn what “Maaallcolm!!!” means.

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Heckling a serious play = comic success

The tower of Westminster Cathedral in Victoria, London

Last Friday, with my eternally-un-named friend, I stumbled on the funeral service of a 101-year-old Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral, London’s Catholic Cathedral (not to be confused with the Protestant Westminster Abbey).

I was brought up a Presbyterian – very low church – just occasional hymns, an organ and a bloke standing talking in a pulpit amid undecorated walls.

So the full-whack OTT pomp and theatricality of a Catholic funeral of a Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral was like watching some Las Vegas floorshow. High church Christianity is a bizarre old religion with undertones of gay cannibalism – all that dressing up in colourful camp costumes and eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ while waving smoke about from an amateur smoke machine.

Nearby, the Victoria Palace Theatre was finishing its multi-million pound refurbishment. It will have trouble out-camping the Cathedral.

Anyway, I am currently ill in bed (possibly minor ‘man flu’) and, in between sleeps, randomly surf.

I stumbled on this Wikipedia entry for the Victoria Palace Theatre:


Victoria Palace Theatre, London, today

In 1934, the theatre presented Young England, a patriotic play written by the Rev. Walter Reynolds, then 83. It received such amusingly bad reviews that it became a cult hit and played to full houses for 278 performances before transferring to two other West End theatres. 

Intended by its author as a serious work celebrating the triumph of good over evil and the virtues of the Boy Scout Movement, it was received as an uproarious comedy. Before long, audiences had learned the key lines and were joining in at all the choicest moments. The scoutmistress rarely said the line “I must go and attend to my girls’ water” without at least fifty voices in good-humoured support.


This whetted my appetite and I found that, at some early performances, the Rev. Walter Reynolds would reportedly walk up and down the aisles of the theatre during performances telling people to be quiet. He soon changed his tune.

The actors (who otherwise played their roles straight) eventually made a game of ad-libbing if the crowd beat them to their lines. On one occasion the villain, when led away by the police, paused before saying “Foiled!” and the crowd shouted not only “Foiled!” but “Baffled!” “Beaten!” “Frustrated!” “Outwitted!” “Trapped!” “Flummoxed!” He waited until they were through, then hissed: “Stymied!”

Over a quarter of a million people saw the play.

Elaine Haddelsey of the Jot 101 website has done sterling research on the play and even found one of the theatre’s printed programmes, which has an introduction written by the esteemed Rev.Reynolds himself. I have shortened it:


The original theatre programme

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is a drama somewhere in every edition of our newspapers, and I at once confess that I have unblushingly cut out from them practically all the bits and pieces that were suitable for my story to illustrate the ups and downs of the life that you and I and all of us lead every day.

Having assembled these many snippets and scraps of material, I dovetailed them all together, and the result of my stage carpentering is what I am now venturing to present to you.

In Young England I have aimed at providing a solid three hours of clean and wholesome entertainment to put before you a theatrical bill of fare made up of the joys, the sorrows, the tears, the laughter, the sift romances and the hard realities of our work-a-day existence – idealised, of course, because that is what we all like – but, I hope, made interesting.

I have tried to re-introduce to the living stage some of its long-lost virility and its old-time attraction to provide three full hours of movement and action with clearly-to-be-heard words in place of the inaudibilities of our latter-day theatres. Again, what has impelled me to write Young England is the fact that nearly every week the Movie houses provide their millions of patrons with old-fashioned and often very crude melodramas, proving beyond any doubt that drama, even when it may be poor stuff is the sort of fare that theatregoers are always looking for.

In addition I have most respectfully woven into my play, as an extra pleasurable feature, some threads of the material of one of the most beneficent movements that have ever been instituted in the history of mankind, viz., the creation of the picturesque and practical Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement by the indomitable defender of Mafeking.


In a Spectator piece on 21st December 1934, after its transfer to the Kingsway Theatre, Rupert Hart-Davis wrote:


The Rev Walter Reynolds, serious author

Mn. Reynolds wrote Young England as a deeply serious play, a play with a purpose.

Between the conception and the creation, as Mr. T. S. Eliot has said, falls the shadow. 

In this case the shadow has turned his messages of good will into protestations as richly and unconsciously comical as Bottom’s wooing. Let us not mince matters: Young England is the funniest entertainment now showing in London.

The first act takes place in Wartime, “east of Aldgate pump”. Here there is such a riot of local colour that one has some difficulty in picking out the true blue of the distressed maiden and the white feather of Jabez Hawk, the villain. Jabez deserts the girl, who dies in a convenient Salvation Army shelter, giving birth to a son. A young War-widow takes pity on the infant, adopts him and gives him the simple but telling name of Hope Ravenscroft.

Hope’s betrothal to Lady Mary is a moving scene. “I must be the happiest Scout in England,” he cries; “And I,” echoes his beloved, “must be the happiest Guide.”

The curtain falls on the baronial hall, whose back wall has miraculously changed into Loch Lomond in springtime. Britannia, flanked by Brownies, Wolf Cubs, Scouts, Guides, and the complete company, stands superb against an erratically lowered Union Jack.

All of which may sound entertaining enough on its own account. But what raises it above any other such piece which we have seen recently is the attitude and the co-operation of the audience.

Led by a number of fanatics who have visited the play some twenty or thirty times, the whole body of the house joins continually in the play’s dialogue with quips, running commentary, advice to the characters.

Some of the vocal annotations have become traditional and are repeated at every performance. There is nothing of rowdiness or hooliganism in their attitude. All seem to realize that this unofficial accompaniment is the making of the entertainment. The actors themselves accept it, and it disturbs them not at all.

If this behaviour appears to the reader to be both bewildering and in bad taste, one can only urge an immediate visit to the theatre. The great cyclone of laughter should captivate anybody. As a remedy for the author’s chagrin, one may suggest that to make a theatreful of people lose themselves in laughter during more than a hundred performances may be even more beneficent than the same amount of Boy Scout propaganda.


News of the play’s transfer to the West End and success at the Kingsway Theatre spread to Australia.

On 2nd February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported:


The proud author and some of the unfortunate cast of Young England

In no theatre or cinema or music hall can such uproarious laughter be found.

Mr Reynolds himself generally occupies a box, and he may well suffer agonies over the misrepresentation of his play. But, like the actors and actresses, he accepts the situation, in view of the lucrative consequences. 

Those who have seen Young England come a second time in order to bait the players or to add their own lines. When the errant Scoutmaster is observed to be cracking the Scout’s safe the audience urges him “not to forget to wipe the handle.” When this advice from the stalls is accepted by the villain and he carefully wipes his finger-tips the cheers are terrific.

At another juncture the villain mentions that when he was elected to Parliament the shares in certain companies in which he was interested went up.

“And up, and up, and up, and up,” roars the audience.

Not to be denied a retort, the villain generally interjects, “Well, that’s pretty unanimous,” directing his remark at the shouting stalls.

At another juncture the stage directions indicate that a duchess is calling up someone on the telephone. “Don’t keep the duchess waiting,” shouts the audience. The actor is purposely slow. He reaches the ‘phone amid cries of “Duchess! Duchess! Don’t you know the duchess is on the line?”


Five years later, in the US in December 1939, Time magazine reported:


The opening scenes of the full Young England experience

Shortly after World War II began, it was decided to revive the play. There were some fears that it might have ad-libbed its usefulness, that jesting at patriotism might not go down in wartime. The fears were groundless. With tension in the air, people have been gladder than ever to relax, and with soldiers in the audience, the wisecracks are even rawer than they used to be.

– One set shows a Salvation Army ‘citadel’ with doors marked MEN and WOMEN. Every time an actor starts for one, the crowd shouts: “Wrong door, wrong door.”

– When Boy Scouts or Girl Guides are assigned to “water detail”, voices pipe up: “Stay out of those bushes”; “Be careful of the side of the barn.”

– One night, when the hero was proved not to be illegitimate, someone yelled: “Consider yourself unbastardized.”

Walter Reynolds, Young England‘s 88-year-old author, still takes his dead-serious play seriously. He went to the opening of the revival, a sad, reedy figure in a great black cape, doddered up the stairs to his box holding on to both handrails, sat tense through the uproar, at the end bowed to the audience, thanked them. 

Asked in a BBC interview whether he wasn’t angry at the way audiences treated Young England, he answered:

“No. They’re a little noisy… but they pay as much as 10 pounds and 6 shillings for seats, so they must like it.”

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Malcolm Hardee, The Tunnel Club, the tap-dancing Swede and Madame Poulet

GrouchyClub11With co-host Kate Copstick’s internet links in Kenya still problematic, this week’s Grouchy Club podcast is an 8-minute audio clip of me talking in 1995 to the late comedian Malcolm Hardee.

At the time, we were writing his 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake by recording our chats.

This one was about how he started his legendary – some might say infamous – comedy club The Tunnel. The full 8-minute audio extract is online. This is a short extract from that audio extract.


Malcolm Hardee on stage at The Tunnel (Photograph by Bill Alford)

Malcolm Hardee on stage at The Tunnel Club in the 1980s (Photograph by Bill Alford)

Malcolm
The Tunnel became known – but I don’t know why – for its hard audience. It was like the Glasgow Empire of the South. I think possibly for where it was in South East London – who don’t suffer fools gladly to say the least. It got known for its heckling. At which point I can just put down my heckling stories, which we can just mention on the tape as Jim Tavare, Noel James, Jo Brand, tropical fish…

John
Tropical fish?

Malcolm
Tropical fish. That was a good heckle.

John
What’s tropical fish?

Malcolm
This double act whose names have got lost in the mists of time. Part of their act was wearing Red Indian headdresses. They started up and put their headdresses on and were about to beat the bongos and then one of the regular hecklers in the audience shouted out: Oy, Malcolm! You’ve got a couple of tropical fish on stage!

John
There’s a quote on one of the posters at Up The Creek – HOW LONG WOULD HITLER SURVIVE THE TUNNEL? (RADIO 4) – Is that true?

Malcolm
It was. That was on some Kaleidoscope nonsense.

John
So what did they say?

Malcolm
They’d been to this famous Open Spot. It was where people were trying out material or perhaps had not been on stage before. It always amazed me how many people were keen to do this. I still get – to this day – at least ten calls a week from people. There was Madame Poulet. I’ll just say that and it’ll all link up (in the book).

I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake

Malcolm Hardee’s 1996 autobiography

John
What was the best Open Spot at The Tunnel?

Malcolm
Best or worst?

John
Both.

Malcolm
The best Open Spot was Phil Cool.

John
That was his first time?

Malcolm
He must have done the clubs, but that was his first ‘alternative’ London gig and it was from there that he got discovered and got his TV series and went on to where he is today. The worst, I think was the tap-dancing Swede.

John
What was that act?

Malcolm
He was Swedish and he had the most piercing blue eyes I’ve ever seen. He decided he had a tap-dancing act but, unfortunately, the stage at The Tunnel was fully carpeted; it was about the only place that was.

So he’s come on and he has the tails on and the whole thing and he’s immaculate and he’s got this backing tape and he started tap-dancing but, of course, no-one could hear him and he’s doing all the smiling things and, in the end, they just shouted out Cab for the Swede! and he went off.

And, to this day, people shout out – when another act is going down particularly badly – Bring back the Swede!


Malcolm Hardee at The Tunnel Club

Malcolm Hardee at The Tunnel Club in the 1980s… (Photograph by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm expanded on his reference to the open spot Madame Poulet and Her Singing Chicken in his book I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. He says:


I booked Madame Poulet over the phone and, when she arrived, she tried to convince me she was Madame Edith and that Madame Poulet would arrive later. She left the ‘chicken’ under a cloth in my office. I lifted the cloth when Madame Edith wasn’t there and it was a fake chicken made out of chicken feathers, some of which were painted pink for no apparent reason. It was like the Barbara Cartland of the Chicken World.

When she did her act, she had a little triangular screen about waist height on stage, so she could kneel down behind it.

That night, I announced:

“Ladies and gentlemen. Will you please welcome Madame Poulet and her Singing Chicken……”

And Madame Edith walked on having disguised herself as Madame Poulet by wearing a hat with a black veil over her face. She went and knelt behind the screen, the chicken appeared over the top and Madame Poulet started singing Je Ne Regret Rien completely straight in her own voice with the chicken miming to it.

This went on for about five minutes and then about ten blokes at the back of the audience, as one, all went:

“Cluck-Cluck…..Cluck-Cluck…..Cluck off!”

Madame Poulet got up, almost flew off the stage, left the club without saying a word, and I’ve never seen her since.

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BBC Radio women + a woman wearing only a lettuce at the Edinburgh Fringe

The BBC are giving away plastic pints

I woke up this morning to two things. One was the sound of comedian Janey Godley trying but failing to vomit in my toilet. I fear, dear reader, that you and I may hear more of this in the days to come.

The other thing was an e-mail which started:

Hi John,

 Just writing to say how much I enjoy reading your site. We at Lifeinsurancequotes.org recently published an article “8 Ways Funeral Homes Will Try To Rip You Off”, that we think is tailor-made for your readers.

Either their computerised spam system is totally out-of-control (surely not!) or I must be mis-targeting this blog.

I have little good advice on funeral homes.

Janey Godley once told me that, if you are going to murder someone, the best hiding place for the body is in a graveyard – the police will not look in a graveyard for a dead body and, if they are tipped-off, they will be wary of causing a public outcry by potentially digging up a body which may not be the missing victim.

That is my only funeral tip for today, but it may prove useful for Israeli comic Daphna Baram.

Whoever killed Jesus, it wasn’t Daphna

Yesterday, she told me: “There was a very drunken guy in the audience at my Frenemies show (it’s only on until Saturday) – Yuri from the Czech Republic. At some point during my set, the idea that I was Jewish – at least nominally – penetrated through the layers of beer in Yuri’s mind and he started heckling: You killed Jesus! You killed Jesus!

“I remembered I had a routine from my first Christmas as a comedian. Clearly this was a good moment for resurrection.

“In my most authoritative voice (I do authoritative well) and with, I regret to say, a certain degree of c-word usage, I informed Yuri that the whole 30 shekel story is highly non-credible as no Jew I’ve ever heard of would sell a hippy to the italian mafia for the equivalent of a fiver…

“He kept silent for a while but, in a later section about my military training in Israel, he started heckling again. I told the audience. I saw Yuri outside and invited him to the gig and thought Great! I’ve pulled!… But now all I can think about is where I am going to hide his body…

Well Daphna now knows, courtesy of Janey Godley, she can actually do this with little comeback.

But back to the Edinburgh Fringe proper…

Three Weeks – on the streets of Edinburgh now

In my first weekly column for Fringe magazine Three Weeks today, Mervyn Stutter criticises the BBC for putting on too many free shows at this year’s Fringe, to the detriment of hard-working performers who are already having a bad enough time with the big TV names and the Recession. You can read the Three Weeks piece by picking it up in Edinburgh or clicking here or you can download the whole issue here. I will post my golden words here on this blog in one week’s time (when the paper is no longer on the streets of Edinburgh).

I had another BBC-bashing angle punted to me last night, when I got chatting to someone who had better remain nameless. He works for a radio production company and has a lot of dealings with the BBC.

“It’s an odd thing,” he told me, “because, in America at the moment, there’s a huge flowering of female-driven comedy. You’ve got 30 Rock, Girls, the Mindy Kaling Project – loads and loads of female driven comedy – and people say part of the reason for this is the influx of women into US TV production. But, in Britain, we are not having that same increase in female-driven comedy.”

“Maybe because most producers here are male,” I suggested.

“Not now,” he corrected me. “Not in radio. Most of the level entry producers at the Beeb – the ones who comics new to radio would be working with – are female.

“At the BBC, there’s actually a big influx of women into radio production but, as yet, that doesn’t seem to be translating into a flowering of female comedy – certainly not at Radio 4 which has traditionally been a proving ground for comics before they get onto television. Radio 4 does not have many female-led, female-driven, female-written, female-fronted shows.

“That’s a generalisation, of course,” he said, “Jane Berthoud is top dog there and she’s tremendously supportive of women, but the increased number of female producers has not helped women in comedy.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” he said. “All I’m saying is it’s an interesting area. There are now lots of female producers, which is good. Maybe the heterosexual ones are more interested in and more physically attracted to the male acts and therefore female comics are getting an even bummer deal that they were before.”

“You mean the female producers want to screw the male acts?” I said. “Now there’s a dangerous idea to say out loud. But surely, traditionally, there were more male producers and they would have wanted to cop off with female acts so there should have been lots of female shows around in the past. In theory, female comics should have always done better than men because there were more male producers. But that’s not the case.”

Possibly realising he was on dangerously non-PC ground, he continued: “It’s very difficult to un-pick because, statistically, if you looked at the number of shows made by men over all… Maybe there are more shows made with male stars because there are more men pushing to get in. Maybe sometimes there’s a lot of schmoozing and, rather than being about talent, it’s about who gets on with people and who people want to sit in a pub and chat and get drunk with.”

It is certainly an interesting idea and there must be something psychological going on beyond my fathoming.

Checkley & Bush’s Comedy Riot is just that

Last night, I was at a party thrown to celebrate ten years of the Funny Women organisation. Very hard-working. Very effective in raising the profile of female comedy, But still British TV and radio shows are generally skewed-away from female performers.

I left the party to see excellent character comedy from Checkley & Bush. They’re better than a lot of the under-experienced new male comics who pop up on TV and in radio.

And, earlier in the day, I had attended a ‘knittathon’ – a publicity stunt organised by Charmian Hughes at which the audience was invited to knit throughout her show to create something she could use in her climactic and erotic ‘Dance of the Seven Cardigans’… Charmian was listed at No 7 in the Chortle comedy website’s Ten Most Underrated Comics – the only woman in the list.

Lewis Schaffer, a masterclass in offending

No 8 in the list is American comic Lewis Schaffer, whom I had been chatting to even earlier in the day. There was a lot of chatting yesterday.

As I came out of Checkley & Bush’s show, I got a text message from Lewis which said simply:

I had 65 punters at tonight’s show. There were 40 walkouts.

I texted back:

Tell me more and I may blog about it.

He later told me what he had said.

“I can’t put that in my blog,” I told him. “You will get lynched.”

Perhaps being truly offensive is one thing women comics cannot get away with. As if to prove this, later I was walking down Niddry Street, and found comedian Bob Slayer standing in the street outside his Hive venue.

“I had to get naked in my show,” he told me. “I think it was the worst show I’ve ever done so I had to get naked. Jamie the sound guy sees my show every year and he told me: You failed on so many levels there, but it was definitely my favourite show. I had to get naked and there was a lady in the audience who turned up just wearing a lettuce.”

“Just a lettuce?” I asked.

“Just wearing a lettuce on her fanny,” said Bob.

Bob Slayer has his nipples tweaked

“She had nice tits,” a female staff member added, tweaking one of Bob’s nipples. Passers-by ignored it. This is the Edinburgh Fringe.

“The lady with the lettuce was a friend of Frank Sanazi’s,” said Bob.

“That might go some way to explaining it,” I said.

“Well,” said Bob, “Frank came and then that happened and then I had to get naked. It depends how you rate a show. It was the most avant-garde show I’ve ever managed to do. Apparently there was a reviewer for The Skinny in there, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they made of it. I hope it was the guy who refused to get on stage. There’s no way I’m going to get a good review but I hope it was that guy because he HATED it.”

At the Fringe, being loved or being hated are good. Being ignored is bad. Oscar Wilde was born before his time.

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The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd… and the terrified comedian

The stage. The spotlights. And the fear.

Three major things performers get off on.

And, when comedians are inexperienced, the third is so strong, they often forget the first two.

You can spot inexperienced comedians because they step forward, out of the stage lights, so they can see the audience’s faces and the audience becomes more human, less of a faceless beast in the dark.

But the result is that the performer’s face becomes dimmer and less distinct.

So you have a dimly-lit performer standing in front of a well-lit background and the human eye is overwhelmed by the bright background, which makes the performer’s face even dimmer.

The audience can’t see the performer’s eyes and facial expressions clearly. The effect and impact of what the performer says is lessened.

What the performer has done through fear in an attempt to have more impact has had the opposite effect.

Even worse – and I saw it happen twice recently – some performers without careful pre-planning and with their head filled with professionally suicidal fog actually come down off the stage to directly interact with the audience. They think it’s ‘bonding’. In fact, it’s wanking.

You can get away with it after a lot of careful thought, detailed pre-planning and a lot of live performance experience. But not “cos I feel like it”.

It makes the performer feel better – real live interaction with real live people – but it means, off the stage and in semi-darkness, most of the audience can see fuck all of what the performer is doing. The audience might as well be listening to a radio programme in the dark. If the performer has actual genuine eye contact with one punter, it means all other members of the audience are being excluded.

Eyes, Facial expressions. Brightly lit. Details seen clearly. That’s why audiences go to live shows. To see the performer clearly. That’s what communication is about.

Rule One of stand-up comedy… even in a small room…

If you can see the audience’s eyes in the middle of the room, you are standing in the wrong place. Get back into the light.

Rule Two of stand-up comedy… even in a small room…

If you cannot feel the warmth of the light(s) on the front and sides of your face, you are standing in the wrong place. Get back into the light.

Rule Three of stand-up comedy… even in a small room…

If there is a stage and you have come off it to ‘bond’ with the audience, get your mind off your insecurities and think about the audience’s viewpoint not your own. Get back on the fucking stage. Get back into the light.

Don’t think of the audience as a faceless beast in the dark, about to rip your soul asunder at any moment.

Think of your light as a warm womb protecting you. The faceless beast out there in the dark is just a bad dream and you will be backstage drinking lukewarm tea in less than an hour – perhaps less than ten minutes…

Stay in the light.

It’s why you wanted to perform in the first place. To communicate with people. Clearly.

(This blog was also published by the comedy industry website Chortle.)

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The black man fails to show up but the god-like comic Simon Munnery shines

Last night, comedy club Pull The Other One’s second monthly show in Herne Hill was packed, so word-of-mouth must have spread about last month’s bizarre events which I blogged about here.

During last month’s show, a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and a doctor’s stethoscope round his neck sat in a gold costume alone at a table right in front of the stage occasionally re-arranging half-glimpsed works of art on the surface in front of him. In any other show, he would have been a disruptive distraction but, given Pull The Other One’s unique mix of surreality, alternative variety and downright bizarreness, he actually fitted right in with the show. It turned it into a two-ring circus.

I went to the Half Moon venue in Herne Hill again last night half-hoping the black man and his half-glimpsed mysterious works of art would make a comeback. Alas he wasn’t there. But Charmian Hughes, who had been one of four comperes last month and was one of three comperes last night  (look – it works, it adds to the oddness, so don’t ask) told me:

“That man with the stethoscope gave me a picture of a face which is half pharaoh and half enslaved black man. It’s actually really effective and I’ve hung it up. The title is Was my ancestor illegally detained?’’

Charmian had done a sand dance during last month’s show (again, don’t ask).

“He must,” Charmian continued, “have found it quite a strange coincidence that he went to a show on his night off from Egyptology or whatever he’s into and someone started talking about Egypt and the pharaohs and did a sand dance on stage.”

“Well,” I thought, “It wasn’t just him who found it strange.”

Last night, in an unusual move for Pull The Other One, they actually had three straight(-ish) stand-up comics in among real magic from David Don’t, Sam Fletcher’s fake magic, Charmian’s explanation of the Abelard & Heloise story using pandas, Holly Burn’s… well… indescribably odd performances… and the equally odd Nick Sun’s audience-baiting.

Towards the end of his set, Nick Sun persuaded the audience to show their appreciation (and they were very enthusiastically appreciative of his odd act throughout) to boo him and heckle him and he refused to leave the stage except in silence. He took any clapping as inappropriate and refused to leave except to complete silence. A good bit of memorable schtick.

The three stand-ups included the extremely good Maureen Younger, who shamed me. I was then and still am ashamed because I had never seen her perform before and I am amazed I had not seen someone that good. An absolutely top-notch and clearly highly experienced professional. My only excuse is that she seems to have worked abroad a lot. And that’s not much of an excuse. Woe is me. The shame. The shame.

Steve Jameson’s Borscht Belt character act Sol Bernstein – much admired by many – leaves me a bit cold because I have some general problem with watching live character comedy, which brings me on to Simon Munnery, who is on stunningly good form at the moment.

He was introduced as “a legend” which he certainly is, even though his existence is not in question and has been independently authenticated. He has always been extremely good but I have now seen him twice in two weeks and I am very surprised.

It’s rare for a comic to keep getting better. After a lot of experience, a good comic usually reaches a plateau of excellence. You don’t expect him or her to get better and he or she doesn’t have to. They have reached a plateau of excellence. Simon Munnery reached that plateau ages ago but now seems to be getting even better. It’s not that he wasn’t excellent before, but he is even better now.

As I said, I have a blank and difficult-to-explain spot about character comedy and I was never much impressed (though everyone else was) with Simon’s very early character Alan Parker: Urban Warrior.

I’ve always liked Simon as a person but it wasn’t until I saw Cluub Zarathustra at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994 that I really started to appreciate his act. I thought the subsequent 2001 TV series Attention Scum! slightly watered-down the amazingly admirable nastiness of Cluub Zarathustra.

Simon’s original character which was OTT with audience-despising Nietzschean superiority and contempt for the audience in Cluub Zarathustra had (it seemed to me) been watered-down into the less-though-still-effective League Against Tedium.

The Attention Scum! TV series (directed by Stewart Lee) was highly original and, legend has it, much disliked by BBC TV executives until it was nominated for the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux in 2001, at which point they had to feign enthusiastic support despite having already decided not to produce a second series.

Perhaps it was too interesting for them.

Simon’s League Against Tedium and Buckethead character shows were always interesting but sometimes variable – you can see that a man with an orange bucket over his head spouting poetry might partially alienate a more mainstream audience.

I think the less Simon hid behind a character and the more he started to perform as himself (well, as much as any comic does) the better and better and better he became.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the Random House anthology of original writing which Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited to which 19 stand-up comedians contributed short pieces. (Now newly available for download in Apple iBooks for iPad and in a Kindle edition.)

Simon at first submitted Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind – basically a print version of his 2002 Edinburgh Fringe show which I thought was fascinating. It took me aback that the printed version was even better than the performed version. I think I had seen the hour-long show twice yet, when I read it on the page, I realised I had missed some of the verbal and mental cleverness.

He eventually supplied The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes, a wonderfully original story. When I read it, it was one of only three times in my life that I have ever laughed out loud while reading a piece of writing (the other two occasions were both Terry Southern books – Blue Movie and one tiny section of The Magic Christian)

Simon wrote The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes after the publishers of Sit-Down Comedy thought Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind was too complicatedly experimental. Well, I think they thought it was too original and too intellectual; that’s often a problem with publishers.

And it has always been Simon’s semi-problem. Arguably too clever. Too original.

Until now, quite a lot of his acts – with sections often tending towards performance art – have been slightly hit-and-miss and I think sometimes too dense with intellectual, mental and linguistic cleverness to fully succeed with an only-half-paying-attention mainstream comedy audience. That’s not a criticism of audiences as dim; but sometimes audiences who had not seen Simon perform before were not expecting what they got. You had to pay very close attention.

Last night, there was a gag involving Sisyphus and Icarus which was wonderfully explained, became part of a cluster of linked, overlapping gags and even managed to bring in modern-day, up-to-the-minute economics.

Simon used to be intellectual and much-loved by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington – and he still is. But now he seems to have pulled off the neat trick of losing none of his intellectual content but performing a highly intelligent act which is populist and maintains a uniformity of laughter-making for all audiences.

In other words, he’s bloody funny from beginning to end and has an astonishing act of overlapping, densely-packed gags and observations which in no way dumbs down yet is totally accessible to a mainstream audience.

How he has done it I don’t know, but he has.

I once tried to persuade Simon that we should follow in L.Ron Hubbard’s footsteps and write a book about philosophy which many in the UK would see as a joke but which many in California might read without irony and blindly believe in as a new religion. That way, we could make money now, have a laugh and statues of him might be worshipped in 2,000 years as a God-like figure.

He wasn’t impressed.

Maybe because today many already worship him as a godlike figure in British comedy.

Quite right too.

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