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My Comedy Taste. Part 4: There was a Scots woman, a Jew and a dead writer

Here is the final part of my conversation with comedy festival judge and linguist Louisette Stodel which took place in London’s Soho Theatre Bar one afternoon back in 2017.

I think Louisette was impressed by and appreciative of the insights I shared with her…


JOHN: Janey Godley is interesting… You know the story of her NOT being nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe?

LOUISETTE: No. Tell me.

JOHN: The Perrier Award judges individually went to see her show and it was not until they sat down together to discuss possible nominees that they realised they had all seen her perform totally different shows because she was making it up every night. Stories from her life. Very very funny. But different hour-long shows every night.

There was a big discussion about whether she was eligible for the Award. Some people were keen to nominate her but the rules were that you were nominated for performing ‘a show’ and what she was doing was not the same, single show every night. She was, it could be and was argued, simply chatting to the audience.

She was making up a different hour-long show every night for maybe 28 nights on the trot. Utterly brilliant and much more impressive than doing the same show every night. But, because it was NOT the same basic show every night, eventually, it was decided she was ineligible and she was not nominated for the Perrier.

LOUISETTE:  That’s exactly what you were talking about earlier, in a sense.

Janey Godley in Glasgow at Children In Need Rocks Scotland

JOHN: Yes. And, as far as I know, to this day, years later, Janey has never scripted a Fringe comedy show in her life. You get roughly the same show each year now – a different show every year – but she plays it by ear.

I remember once in London walking up Dean Street with her to the Soho Theatre for a supposed ‘preview’ of her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show and she told me not only did she not know exactly which stories would be in the show; she did not know what her opening line would be.

She maybe had twelve or fifteen or eighteen basic unscripted stories and could fit maybe five or six into an hour-long show, but there was no script and no pre-decided running order. And the show was brilliantly funny. Now THAT is talent. THAT I admire.

LOUISETTE: How does she end her shows on time?

JOHN: Well, I know one year she did have one climactic prepared story and it lasted exactly nine minutes. It wasn’t scripted, but it was structured tightly. So she had the sound technician at the back of the audience flash a torch exactly ten minutes from the end of her scheduled time and, whatever she was saying at that point, she would get seamlessly into the start of the final story and, every night, she would finish to within about 30 seconds of her scheduled end-time – every night. Brilliant.

LOUISETTE: So what excites you is seeing unique shows.

JOHN: Well yes. I like Lewis Schaffer shows, of course. The ultimate in unpredictable rollercoaster shows.

LOUISETTE: You prefer the uneven acts.

JOHN: Yes. Well, sort of. Janey’s shows are not uneven – they are uniformly funny and smooth, but they are not tightly pre-planned. She’s just a great, great storyteller.

LOUISETTE: Slick?

JOHN: Smooth. She has great audience control. But, in general – Janey is an exception – I prefer rollercoaster acts. And maybe, for that reason, I prefer newer acts. 

LOUISETTE: Lewis Schaffer is not a new act.

JOHN: OK. I prefer newer acts OR wildly unpredictable acts.

LOUISETTE: And Lewis Schaffer is dependably unpredictable.

“He doesn’t fit the mould. But he could… become a TV success” (Photograph by Garry Platt)

JOHN: To say the least. Sometimes he will, from nowhere, just go off on a complete tangent and come up with wonderful original stuff.

I like seeing unexpected, brilliant stuff coming from nowhere.

Lewis Schaffer is never going to get success as a TV comic. Not as a stand-up. He doesn’t fit the mould. But he could, like and unlike Johnny Vegas, become a TV success through personality.

In his case, I think he would be a good presenter of documentaries because he has all these bizarre angles. He has a Wikipedia mind: he knows a little about a lot.

LOUISETTE: He’s also very funny on his Facebook page. But what is it about Lewis Schaffer specifically on stage? OK, he’s unpredictable; he’s up-and-down; he has great ideas…

JOHN: If you see him once, you might think it’s a shambles but, if you see him five times in a row, you get addicted.

LOUISETTE: The first time I saw him, his show was brilliant.

JOHN: Is this the My girlfriend had a penis show?

LOUISETTE: Yes.

JOHN: Now that WAS a show!

LOUISETTE: Friends of mine who recommended him told me: “See this guy. You never know what’s going to happen…”

JOHN: Yeah.

LOUISETTE: …and it wasn’t like that.

JOHN: Not that show. It actually had a structure. I nearly fell off my seat with shock because it was a ‘real’ structured show.

Certainly, with Lewis Schaffer, you see the real person. You can’t bloody avoid it. With him, the attraction is the unpredictability and the flashes of genuine left-field insight. He’s the definitive rollercoaster.

LOUISETTE: …which excites you because you don’t know what’s going to happen?

JOHN: Yes.

Not relevant: L’Ange du Foyer ou le Triomphe du Surréalisme by Max Ernst, 1937;

LOUISETTE: You like amazing stuff coming from nowhere. I had been going to ask you if it is the writing, the performance or the delivery that gets you excited, but it’s actually none of those things.

JOHN: Well, ‘writing’ is maybe not the right word. It can be. But it’s something coming from the laterally-thinking recesses of the brain.

LOUISETTE: So with someone like Ross Noble, where you know it’s going to be a little bit unpredictable but you also know that he’s probably going to make it all come good, does that make it less interesting because it’s less dangerous?

JOHN: No. You can make something become good through talent.

LOUISETTE: So it’s the creation ‘in the moment’. You like seeing things happen ‘in the moment;’.

JOHN: Probably, yes. I like to be surprised by where something goes. It’s like a good twist in a film.

LOUISETTE: The unexpected. We are back to that. Tales of the Unexpected.

JOHN: Yes. The unexpected. Someone said the other day that I look like Roald Dahl. I don’t think this is a compliment. Do I look like Roald Dahl?

I sign some random books for a few of my appreciative blog readers in Amsterdam, in October 1988.
(Photograph by Rob Bogaerts / Anefo)

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My Comedy Taste. Part 1: Improvisation good and bad but not Michael McIntyre

The late Malcolm Hardee Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe

I started and used to run the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. They started in 2005. They were due to (and did) end in August 2017. 

To coincide with their end, I thought I might post a blog about my taste in comedy. What is the point in having a blog if you can’t be self-indulgent? 

So, in June 2017, I persuaded my chum, oft-times comedy judge and linguistic expert Louisette Stodel to ‘interview’ me in London’s Soho Theatre Bar for that planned blog. But then I never got round to transcribing the interview and actually writing it. Unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it too.

Time passed, as time does, and I was going to run the interview/blog to coincide with the start of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. But again I never got round to transcribing the interview and writing that blog. Again, unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it.

But, with performers now preparing to start to book venues and think about getting round to writing or at least pretending to start to write shows for the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, I miraculously got round to transcribing the interview at the weekend and here is Part 1 of that  June 2017 chat.


LOUISETTE: When did you first go to the Fringe?

JOHN: Well, I started going to the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid-1970s when I was reviewing movies for magazines and, around the mid-1980s, I switched to the Edinburgh Fringe, which is around the time comedy started taking over from naff university theatre groups. I was looking for acts to appear on TV shows.

LOUISETTE: How long have you been blogging about comedy?

JOHN: It has never really been a 100% comedy blog. I started it in 2010 to plug a movie I had foolishly put money into and it became daily around April 2011 to plug comedy-related stuff I was helping to stage at the Edinburgh Fringe that August and I stopped doing it daily at the end of December 2016.

But it has never really been a comedy blog. I tend not to write reviews of comedy. They tend to be previews in advance of the actual performance of a show. In a sense, I don’t care so much about what the show is like but about how it got created by this particular person. It’s about interesting people doing interesting things, usually creative and/or in some way quirky. It’s always about people, rarely about things. People, people, people. And I do like a quirky anecdote.

LOUISETTE: What is it about quirkiness you like?

JOHN: The TV programme stuff I used to do was usually related to quirkiness. I would be finding ordinary people who did bizarre things… a man rollerskating wearing a bright yellow plastic sou’wester while simultaneously playing the harmonica and spoons, with a seagull on his shoulder. Ah! Mr Wickers, a Tiswas Talented Teacher!

LOUISETTE: You like eccentricity.

Surprise! Surprise! – A show and a clue to what I really like

JOHN: Admire it, for sure. But I remember having a conversation with another researcher on Surprise! Surprise! at LWT and we both agreed, if you want to find a real eccentric, you do not go for extroverts. You do NOT want the person who makes all his mates laugh in the pub. They are just superficial.

What you want is an introvert with eccentricity within. The extrovert just likes the sound of their own voice and just wants attention. The eccentric introvert has got odd quirkiness in depth within them. 

Comedians are odd because you would think they would have to be wild extroverts, getting up on stage wanting applause, but loads are deep-down shy and terrified inside. Maybe it’s the dichotomy that makes them. I like people who think differently.

People often contact me and say: “Come and see my show for your blog.” And I may do but it’s not the show – not the end result – that attracts me. I don’t really do reviews. I am interested in interviewing the person about why or how they did the show or what they feel like when they are performing it. I’m interested in the psychology of creative people not the end result itself, as such.

In a sense, I am not bothered whether the show is good or not good provided it is interesting. I would much rather watch an interesting failure than a dull success. You can very often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what works.

LOUISETTE: So what is ‘interesting’?

JOHN: Lateral thinking is interesting. Instead of going from A-B, you go from A to T to L to B or maybe you never get to B.

LOUISETTE: So you like the unexpected.

JOHN: I think Michael McIntyre is absolutely brilliant. 120% brilliant. But I would not pay to see his one of his shows, because I know what I am going to get. I can go see him in Manchester and the next day in Swansea and the next day in Plymouth and it will be the same show. Perfect. A work of art. Superb. But the same perfect thing.

LOUISETTE: So you are talking about wanting unpredictability?

JOHN: Yes. And people flying, going off at tangents, trying things out which even they didn’t know they were going to do.

LOUISETTE: How do you know they didn’t know?

Boothby Graffoe – always the unexpected

JOHN: I think you can tell… Boothby Graffoe had a very very good 20 or 30 minute act he would do in clubs. (His 60-minute shows were good too.) Fine. It was all very good. Audiences loved it. But, in a way, he was better with a bad audience. The good audience would listen to his very well put-together material. But, if he got hecklers or distractions, he would fly off on wild flights of fantasy, even funnier than the prepared show, almost soar round the room then eventually get seamlessly back to the prepared show. Brilliant.

There was another act, now established, whom I won’t name. When he was starting off, maybe 50% of his stuff was OK, 45% was not very good and 5% was absolute genius. I would go watch him for that 5% genius. And I would still rather go see a show like that which is 5% genius than a solid mainstream show that is 100% perfect entertainment.

If someone creates something truly original in front of your eyes, it is like magic.

LOUISETTE:  Michael McIntyre get laughs from saying unexpected things.

JOHN: If I see Michael McIntyre, I do not know what is going to happen, but it is pre-ordained what is going to happen. It is slick in the best way. If people are on TV and ‘famous’, I am not that interested because they have reached a level of professional capability. I prefer to see reasonably new acts or lower middle-rung acts. And people untarnished by TV.

If you see someone who is REALLY starting off, they are crap, because they can’t adjust their act to the specific audience. When performers reach a certain level of experience, they can cope with any type of audience and that is interesting to see how they can turn an audience but, if they are TV ‘stars’ they may well automatically have easy audiences because the audience has come to see “that bloke” or “that girl off the telly” and they are expecting to have a good time.

If it’s Fred NoName, the audience have no expectations.

I prefer to see Fred NoName with a rollercoaster of an act and I am interested in seeing the structure of an act. I am interested in the mechanics of it.

LOUISETTE: And you like the element of danger? It could all go wrong, all go pear-shaped?

JOHN: Yes. On the other hand (LAUGHS) most improvisation is shit because the performers are often not very good.

LOUISETTE: Don’t you have to be very skilled to improvise?

“Most improvisation is shit: the performers are not very good.”

JOHN: In my erstwhile youth, I used to go every week to Pentameters club at The Freemasons Arms pub in Hampstead and watch the Theatre Machine improvisation show supervised by Keith Johnstone.

Very good. Very interesting.

But, for some reason, I don’t like most improvisation today.

Partly that’s because, a lot of the time, you can see it’s NOT fully improvised. You can see the…

LOUISETTE: …formats?

JOHN: Templates. Yeah. Certain routines they can just adjust. Give me the name of an animal… Give me a performance style… It sounds like they are widening possibilities, but they are narrowing them so they can be slotted into pre-existing storylines and routines they can adjust. 

Also, a lot of improvisation groups seem to comprise actors trying to be comedians… I have an allergy to actors trying to be comedians. They’re just attempting and usually failing to be comedic until a ‘real’ job comes along.

LOUISETTE: Surely an actor can be funny in character, though.

JOHN: Often I think: What I am watching here is like a showreel of their theatre school training. It’s like an audition show. They go through 20 characters just to show their breadth of ability – to impress themselves as much as the audience. But the audience has not come there to appreciate their versatility. The audience wants to be entertained not to be impressed. The audience wants to enjoy their material, not give the act marks out of ten for technique. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Don’t Think Twice – When scripting a movie, a story is not the same as a plot.

Five days; two movie previews; two bizarre starts.

Last week, before a movie preview, comic Richard Gadd persuaded me he was half-Finnish and starred in the film. Neither was true.

Last night in London, I went to a preview of the movie Don’t Think Twice. I had not actually been invited. I was a last-minute stand-in as someone’s +1.

I arrived well before they did, explained to the PR people who I was and who I was with. We got right through to the point where my name badge had been written out, put in its plastic sheath and handed to me when I – for no real reason – asked: “This IS for the Don’t Think Twice preview, isn’t it?

It was not.

It was for a New Statesman talk on Brexit and Trump.

I was tempted to go to that because I actually HAD been invited to that event and had not been invited to the film preview.

But I took the movie title to heart and went to the Don’t Think Twice preview.

It was what used to be called a ‘talker’ screening and is now apparently called an ‘influencer’ screening. In this case, an audience of comics and comedy industry people.

Afterwards, one comedian told me they loved it. Another told me they thought it was awful. Yet another told me that, as long as they remained within the confines of the building, they would say it was very good.

As I wasn’t officially invited to this screening, I feel I can actually be honest about my thoughts.

The story is about a New York improvisational comedy group – they are middling fish in a small pond – all of whom see their next career step as being invited to be one of the regular performers in the TV show Weekend Live (a not-really disguised fictionalisation of Saturday Night Live). The publicity says the movie “tells a nuanced story of friendship, aspiration and the pain and promise of change”. And therein lies the problem.

Well acted, well-directed, well-intended, but only an OK script

Mike Birbiglia is the director/co-star (it is an ensemble piece). He is a comedy performer as are most of the cast. It is shot in a successfully easy-going style. But it falls prey to the problem of a movie created by actors about and for actors.

Actors are interested in building atmosphere, character and relationships.

Which is good.

But that ain’t plot.

The movie tells a story – Which, if any of them will get on the TV show? There is a sub-plot about their live theatre closing and the father of one of the performers is dying. And there is the thought: Will success spoil existing relationships?

But those are stories, not a movie-movie plot.

Clichés are clichés because they tend to be right.

The cliché plot structure is:

  • You start with a major unresolved problem. That is the ‘hook’.
  • The body of the film involves the unravelling of the problem.
  • The problem is resolved at the end of the film.
  • Along the way, the hook is refreshed and additional subsidiary temporary hooks are inserted and resolved while the main plot continues.

A subsidiary ‘rule’ in a movie-movie is breadth of scale and that, ideally, the entire set-up of the movie, the main characters and the hook are established in the first 2-4 minutes. (The best example I have ever seen of this is the original Die Hard movie in which everything is set-up, including an important back-story, under the opening titles.)

Don’t Think Twice starts with sequences which establish the main characters and the general setting but the main hook (the not-quite-strong-enough Saturday Night Live Will-they?/Won’t-they? plot) is brought in far too late.

The film is high on atmosphere and fine on characters. Good.

It has a story.

But not a gripping plot structure.

There is nothing particularly wrong with it as a piece of entertainment. It will probably feel better watched on a TV or computer screen at home rather than in a cinema because it is not a movie-movie. It is a TV movie or (in olden days) a straight-to-DVD movie.

It got some laughs of recognition from the rather industry audience I saw it with. But, at its heart, it is a movie created by performers, about performers and for performers. Average punters Dave and Sue in Essex or Ohio, in South London or East LA have no real reason to be gripped.

‘Story’ is not the same as ‘plot’.

But – Hey! – What do I know? I did not like the multi-5-star-reviewed Finnish film The Other Side of Hope and liked Guy Ritchie’s $175 million mega audience disaster King Arthur.

Don’t Think Twice was shown in the US last year. It opened on one screen in New York City and grossed $92,835 in its opening weekend, the highest per-screen gross of 2016. Rotten Tomatoes currently gives the film an approval rating of 99% based on 111 reviews.

What do I know?

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Zuma Puma is on her way to Mexico via Canada: “Clown is nothing like improv!”

Zuma Puma on Skype from the Midlands

Zuma via Skype, going to Mexico via Canada

Canadian performer Zuma Puma aka Nelly Scott is leaving Britain next Thursday. She has left her London flat and was with family up in the Midlands when I talked to her via Skype.

“Why are you going back to Canada?” I asked.

“To get to Mexico.”

“Why via Canada?”

“Because it was £100 cheaper and I can visit my family in Toronto. I might even teach a clown intensive at my mum’s university – Brock University. She teaches playwriting and directing there. I am going to Mexico on a one-way ticket.”

“Why Mexico?” I asked. “It’s full of Mexicans.”

“Exactly,” said Nelly. “I love the Mexicans. I have wanted to go there for a very long time.”

“Why? Are they lacking clowns in Mexico?”

“Yes. I’m going to work with my friend and his company La Bouffant Sociale. He was my clown partner in the Cirque du Soleil School in Montreal. I studied there for a year – L’École de Clown et Comédie.”

“You are going to Mexico City?”

“We are just meeting there and then we’re going to a salty beach where we have a 15-day artist residency, building a show out of beach garbage. So that’ll be exciting. Then there is a tour in Mexico.”

“But before you go, you’re busy in London,” I prompted.

“Yes. This Thursday, we’re doing One Man, Two Ghosts at Unscene 199 Festival at New River Studios in Manor House.”

“Which is…?”

“You saw it in Edinburgh and said you liked it.”

“I did, but for those who didn’t see it…”

“It’s a clown farce: basically Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit as told by three complete idiots. A two-layered story of what’s happening in the play and with the players beneath the play.”

“And then,” I said, “your last Lost Cabaret show in Stockwell on Friday.”

Annie Bashford and Nathan Lang at the Edinburgh Fringe

Annie Bashford and Nathan Lang at last month’s Edinburgh Fringe

“Well, it’s not the last. I’m handing it over to Nathan Lang and Annie Bashford who will be continuing it monthly.”

“Until you come back from the Americas?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I don’t know if I will come back to London. I might come back to Bristol. I feel I’m pretty much done in London.”

“You’ve been invited back to do a full run of One Man, Two Ghosts at next year’s Edinburgh Fringe at the New Town Theatre.”

“Yes. I will be back maybe in June or July next year to take One Man, Two Ghosts to the next stage.”

“And this coming weekend you are also doing your Clown Life Intensive workshops…”

“Yes. At The Pleasance Theatre in London on Saturday and Sunday.”

“What is Clown Life Intensive?” I asked.

“It’s a merging between the world of clown and personal development. So it’s clowning but not just for performers – it’s for anyone who’s interested in building their confidence and personal development, discovering their humour and looking at tools to play and understand themselves a bit more. So it’s a deep development process. You look at yourself and it’s an amplification of who you are.

“There are bits of themselves that most people don’t want to admit – they’re OCD or forgetful or a bit slow. Everyone’s got an issue. It is taking that issue and amplifying it, owning it and saying Yeah, this is a part of me. For instance, in One Man, Two Ghosts, I play a bit of a star diva and it’s all about me and how good the show is and a perfectionist and that IS me – that’s who I am. It’s just amplified to the next extent where everyone can laugh about it because it’s something and someone they all recognise.

clownlifeintensive“Clown is honest and it’s real. It’s liberating for audiences but also for the performers and my objective with the workshop is not for everyone to leave saying: I am now a clown! I am interested in people who are interested in personal development and understanding self and owning themself as a person and understanding how they connect with audiences and relate to people in life.

“Clown has been the most healing and incredible tool for personal development in my life. And there are loads of tools and techniques that have a real parallel between life and performance that I want to teach.

“It’s not like a weekend of intense guru-type development. I’m not there to be a therapist. But there are loads of tools and techniques and exercises that can teach someone a lot about themself and which are loads of fun. It’s basically a weekend of insane amounts of laughter and play, which is good for anybody… with the added bonus of being challenging at times. It is rewarding for anybody.”

“You did the Gaulier course in Paris, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Why would these people not go to Gaulier instead?”

Sacha Baron Cohen - What was the hardest thing he has done?

Sacha Baron Cohen – The hardest thing he has done? (Photograph by Michael Bulcik)

“To go to Gauilier, you have to be the most committed performer in the world. Gaulier is the hardest school anyone’s ever gone to. Sacha Baron Cohen said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life. You have to really want to be a performer to go to Gaulier.”

“Why is it hard?” I asked.

“Because he is so challenging. He does not accept anything that is not your most brilliant. You are shit until you find magic and how rare is it to find magic? When you have the whole audience in your hand, that happens once in a while and he teaches you to recognise when that happens and how to make that happen as much as possible. You are not hungry enough as a performer until you want every performance to be at that level. That’s what he teaches.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. “You happy with all that?”

“As long as you don’t say again that Clown is just like improv. Last time you said that, I had to write this whole post about No! It’s nothing like improv! It is so far from improv.

Alright.

Clown is not like improv.

There. I have said it.

onemantwoghosts

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The young improvisers who ended up in a scripted West End comedy success

The Duchess Theatre wit its back-to-front title sign

The Duchess Theatre with a back-to-front sign

“I’m not sure it can get much better than this,” Charlie Russell told me yesterday. “We’re all very early on in our careers and to perform in a show where we have artistic input… AND it’s in the West End… AND it’s your best mates… That is good. I’m enjoying it while I’ve got it.”

The Play That Goes Wrong opened at The Duchess Theatre this September and has now had its run extended until at least next September.

Yesterday I chatted to two of its cast members – Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn.

The play began just before Christmas 2012 as a one-act hour-long show at the Old Red Lion in Islington. Last year, it transferred to Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall and played the Edinburgh Fringe, still as a one-act show.

Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn at Duchess Theatre yesterday

Dave Hearn and Charlie Russell at Duchess Theatre yesterday

“Then,” Charlie told me, “when Kenny Wax and Mark Bentley got involved as producers, they wanted to take it on tour, so it needed a second act and an interval.”

The bizarre thing, to my mind, when I saw it last week, was that the second act is even better than the first.

“Who,” I asked, “thought up the title?”

“I did,” said Dave.

“It is brilliant,” I said.

“It was originally called The Murder Before Christmas,” explained Charlie, “because it was a Christmas show at the Old Red Lion. After that, it was going to be called Murder at Haversham Manor.”

The Play That Goes Wrong - does what it says on the label

The Play That Goes Wrong – It does what it says on the label

“But The Play That Went Wrong,” I said, “is utterly brilliant because from the title alone you know the set-up, you know the entire plot and you know it’s a comedy without even being told it’s a comedy. It’s up there with the movie title Snakes On a Plane. The title tells you everything you need to know. You know it’s farce, it’s slapstick, it’s comedy and it’ll be fast-moving – all the stuff that you deliver.”

“This Christmas,” said Dave. “We will have been doing it for two years.”

“My fear,” said Charlie, “is that I might not be able to do real ‘serious’ acting any more. What happens if people give me texts I’m not allowed to change?”

“You’ve also now started doing a monthly show here,” I said. “Lights! Camera! Improvise! which has played at the last five Edinburgh Fringes.”

Lights_Camera_Improvise

A boost for the performers and also for improv in general?

“Yes,” said Charlie. “We did the first one here on Monday and then it’s going to be the first Monday of every month.”

“Did you,” I asked, “decide to do that because it gives you a bit of freedom away from the scripted restrictions of The Play That Goes Wrong?”

“We had lots of reasons,” explained Charlie. “It’s really nice to be able to improvise once a month, as well as doing the same show every day. But also our company – Mischief Theatre – is bigger than just this group of people doing The Play That Goes Wrong and they’re all involved in Lights! Camera! Improvise! – It’s a boost for them and also a boost for improv in general; getting it on the bigger stage.”

“It’s always tough to sell improv,” agreed Dave. “How people perceive improv is often quite damaging. So giving it a West End platform and using the success of this show to springboard it is good. But, if I’m being honest, it’s really more for us because we enjoy it and it genuinely is completely different every performance. We will do it once a month and you do feel a sense of freedom – that you can just let loose.”

“Improv,” added Charlie, “was an element of how we created The Play That Goes Wrong, so it does connect to Lights! Camera! Improvise!

All the cast of The Play That Goes Wrong studied, at various times, at LAMDA.

“You must be the crème de la crème of LAMDA,” I said.

“Probably the opposite,” said Charlie. “The reason we did The Play That Goes Wrong was because we were not working. We were the ones who were not successful, so we put on our own show.”

“And then ironically,” I said, “you are the ones who end up with a West End success… Are Americans happy to come and see farce?”

Americans love English people looking stupid

Americans love stupid English people

“They love,” said Dave, “the very quintessentially English nature of it. I think they love English people looking stupid.”

“And Fawlty Towers is big over there,” Charlie pointed out.

“But why a farce?” I asked. “Surely farces are way out of date?”

“The play kind of developed,” said Dave. “We never really thought of it as a farce to start with; we just thought it was a clown show: the idea of a bunch of clowns trying to put on a show and it goes wrong.”

“Literally clowns?” I asked.

“Not circus clowns,” said Dave.

“So like Lecoq?” I asked.

“Well,” Charlie replied, “the teacher who inspired a lot of us at LAMDA and ended up directing the show – Mark Bell – he went to Lecoq.”

“Basically,” I said, “you are all improvisers. “But can you improvise during this show? It’s very finely timed.”

“Well,” said Dave, “one time a table got knocked over by accident and liquid went everywhere, so some of us just slipped on it several times to make a point of that having happened… And, if one audience is really, really going for a particular joke, we can add in more ‘business’ or move on quickly if an audience don’t go for that joke in another show. If you’re not on your toes and somebody else is, you might get left behind, so everyone has to be constantly on the front foot.”

“I heard,” I said, “that the bin which shoots flames genuinely went wrong one night.”

“Yes,” said Dave, “it nearly set fire to one of our understudies. He was covering the part of the actor who is playing the dead man and he accidentally kicked the bucket – literally – and a massive flame shot up. The problem is that, when stuff actually goes wrong, it can be quite difficult because everything is so specifically timed.

“So, when that fire went off, it meant we didn’t have the fire effect when we actually needed it later in the play. We had to improvise around that, which was a lot of fun but it messed with the structure of the play.”

The Play That Goes Wrong

“Sometimes things can go wrong because they go right…”

“If someone forgets a line, we can get around it,” said Charlie, “but sometimes things can go wrong because they go right. If something does not fall when it is meant to, that is not good, because it interferes with the way of doing the gag and getting the laugh.”

“Doesn’t it, as improvisers,” I asked, “get boring doing the same things daily?”

“It’s very personal to each audience,” said Charlie. “Even if nothing were to change from one show to the other, it can’t possibly be the same because it’s comedy and the audience is the variable.”

Dave added: “You get the immediate feedback from the audience. Each show is totally different. Sometimes you get quiet audiences, sometimes loud, sometimes people heckle.”

“Heckle?” I asked, surprised.

“Sometimes,” explained Dave, “they shout out: It’s under the chaise! You know that bit.”

“There’s one point,” said Charlie, “where two characters want to kiss and there’s a line No-one wants to see that – and one night a little boy’s sweet, high-pitched voice in the audience shouted out: Yes we do!

“The physical slapstick and the set is amazing,” I said. “Extraordinary. Was the set added just for the West End production?”

“We toured with it,” said Charlie.

“Surely not with the collapsing floor?” I asked. “It has three positions.”

“Four including its upright position,” said Charlie.

“So could you develop the concept of the show?” I asked. “You could do The TV Play That Goes Wrong.”

Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn - The Play That Goes Wrong trailer

Dave and Charlie in a trailer for The Play That Goes Wrong

“We’ve been talking to TV people about it,” said Charlie, “but one problem is how you could maintain the level of danger.”

“You would have to transmit it live,” I said.

“But even then,” said Charlie, “would it translate on the screen? For a live audience it works well but, if it is performed live but viewed through a screen, it might not be the same.”

“It can’t really be made into a film,” I said, “because it relies totally on being a live performance.”

“The idea I would like to do on film,” said Charlie, “would be something about this group of characters we have created. They have so much back story that the audience don’t see. I’d like to see a fly-on-the-wall of their relationships.”

“Front and back stage like Noises Off?” I said. “Though I have never seen Noises Off.”

“I’ve not seen it either,” said Charlie. “None of us have seen it, though everyone always compares us to it.”

“So,” I asked, “as The Play That Goes Wrong is commercially successful, is there going to be a second?”

Peter Pan Goes Wrong

It’s not just a murder can go wrong, so can a children’s classic

“There already is,” said Dave. “Peter Pan Goes Wrong. We did it last year at the Pleasance Theatre in London and, as of last week, it’s just finished its first opening of tour in Guildford. Then it’s going to Manchester this month and then it’s touring until July next year.”

“Are they all LAMDA people in the cast again?” I asked.

“Quite a few,” said Dave.

“Not exclusively, though,” said Charlie. “There are some Mischief Theatre members in it, but not exclusively.”

Meanwhile the list of celebrities coming backstage after The Play That Goes Wrong is growing – an eclectic mix including Joanna Lumley, Dara Ó Briain, Angus Deayton, Joe Pasquale and JJ Abrams, the film director behind the reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars.

The night I was there, Paul Merton was in the audience.

There is a trailer for The Play That Goes Wrong on YouTube.

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Why comedy writers and performers are different and clowns are not clowns?

James Hamilton at the Soho Theatre bar yesterday

James Hamilton – Soho Theatre bar yesterday

So yesterday afternoon I went to the Soho Theatre bar to talk to Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma about her weekly – always unique – Friday night Lost Cabaret shows in London.

It never happened.

I arrived early and found multiple Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee James Hamilton sitting at a table, writing his sketch group Casual Violence’s next show for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

“How much have you written?” I asked.

“10%,” he said glumly.

“I was going to do a solo show this year,” he told me, “but I got talked into doing a Casual Violence one. Do you remember the Siamese Twin hit-men from Choose Death? I am giving them a full story. They work together as assassins until one of them decides he would rather be a baker instead. They fall out and decide to go their separate ways.”

Casual Violence 2014 Edinburgh show

Casual Violence: new 2014 Edinburgh show

“The Siamese Twins?” I asked.

“Yes,” said James. “It’s about the brotherly dynamic.”

Then Nelly arrived.

James and Nelly had never met before, but it transpired they had both been on Dr Brown/Phil Burgers‘ clown workshops.

Clown workshops seem to be trendy for performers at the moment but, as far as I can see, have nothing to do with clowns as any normal person would recognise the word. They are actually improvisation workshops under a ‘sexier’ title.

Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, James (a writer who performs) found the workshops more difficult than Nelly (a performer who can write).

“The people who could be themselves or a version of themselves on stage,” said James, “were the people who did best in the workshop and I wish to god I could do it. I loved the workshop and got so much out of it but I also really struggled. It was so difficult.”

“It is really difficult,” agreed Nelly. But those people had probably been to loads of these workshops and practised a lot of dropping it and ‘being with themselves’. Or hadn’t been to anything at all.”

“Yes,” said James, “a lot of people who did best in that workshop had never done any performing of any kind.”

“The people who find it hardest, I think,” said Nelly, “are people like actors or stand-up comedians. With actors, there’s always this mask: that they never want to show themselves. With comedians, they’ve always got to have a punchline. Stand-up is very wordy; it’s always about what they’re saying, not what they’re doing. Whereas, in clowning, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it and how you do it. It’s all about How not What.”

Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma with James Hamilton

Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma with James Hamilton yesterday

“It’s a very performance-driven thing,” said James, “whereas I tend to approach stuff from a very writery point of view. Writing is very introverted and thinking about ideas and not letting go. All the clowning stuff is very counter to that. Not in a bad way. But it’s the opposite of what you’re taught as a writer.

“I remember at the workshop,” James continued, “being told off because I had an idea before going on stage. So what I did for the rest of the workshop was every time I had an idea ahead of going on stage I would immediately dismiss it because I knew if I went ahead with that idea he would pull me up on it. He wanted people to go on stage with nothing and then find something.”

“Well,” said Nelly, “it’s OK for you to come on stage with an idea, but you have to be ready to drop it in a split second if the audience hate it. People who come on stage with an idea can be more in love with their idea than they are with the audience. It’s not necessarily that he wants people to come onto the stage with nothing, because some people literally don’t have anything and it’s boring. You need to have something. What’s your impulse? What are you thinking? But, if it doesn’t work, you just throw it out the window. You do whatever it takes to make the audience love you.”

“I think, when I do more solo things,” said James, “it will be more of an even balance but the way it works at the moment is I’m the sole writer for a group of people, so I need to bring stuff in. It doesn’t need to be perfectly finished. We play with it and develop it. But it does come from a very scripted starting point.”

“When I go on stage,” said Nelly. “I always have an idea of something. I’ll have a character and a costume or I’ll come up with a game and go on stage and play with that.”

“The fact people can do that is amazing,” said James. “It just terrifies me. Though in an appealing way. It makes me want to do it.”

“It doesn’t matter if you flop at some point,” said Nelly, “provided you bring the audience eventually to this place of magic and then they forget about the bit that flopped.”

James had told me earlier that he had been “talked into” doing a Casual Violence show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and, in a sense, the same thing had happened with Nelly and Lost Cabaret.

Zuma Puma (centre bottom) + her collective

Zuma Puma (centre bottom) + her collective

“I wasn’t going to go to the Fringe this year,” she told us. “I thought: I need a break. I’m going to be in Spain for the month lying naked on the beach or hitchhiking to Morocco and singing on the top of mountains until five in the morning. But then (regular performer) Dan Lees applied for a spot for Lost Cabaret at the Fringe and told me about it after we had been accepted.”

“So,” said James, “you will have to defer your month of naked hitchhiking to the top of mountains at five in the morning.”

“I’ll still do that,” said Nelly. “Maybe before I go to the Fringe.”

“You told me,” I said, “that you’ve been going for lots of castings recently.”

“Lots of auditions for short films,” said Nelly, “which I’m finding interesting, because a lot of writers are shit.”

“Are you cast as Girl 1 or Girl 2?” asked James.

“I’m usually cast as a femme fatale killer,” Nelly replied, “which is fun. I’m OK with that. But how many scripts are just so degrading to women?”

“Women are either in films to have sex or to be killed,” I said.

“There is a website called Casting Call Woe,” said James, “which has genuine casting calls which are horrendously sexist and awful.”

Currently on the site are these four descriptions of projected movies:

The actress would need an ‘Easy Access Skirt’ with leggings underneath so that the skirt could be lifted up and it would look convincingly like she was ‘being taken from behind. Consent to have fake vomit thrown on her. 

Please send a pic of your tongue so I can approve of your tongue length.

The egg shoots from her vagina and directly into the doctor’s mouth.

Bikinis will get this movie attention. Great acting will get it respect. 

“I got a script for a short film,” said Nelly. “Somehow they had got funding for it. I don’t know how. They were looking for an actress who could play seductive but bad and I thought Oh, I can play femme fatale no problem. But then I read the script and there is a scene where a female crime investigator is talking to me – I’m this girl who is covered in blood and freaking out – and she starts putting her hand up the girl’s skirt and fingering her. There was no conversation before the investigator starts randomly fingering the girl. And, in the next scene, her face is in the girl’s vagina – there’s a shot of the investigator’s head between this girl’s legs. What the fuck has this got to do with the investigation? And then she kills the girl. It drives me nuts. I will have to start writing.”

There is a Lost Cabaret showreel on YouTube.

and also a trailer for Casual Violence’s comedy.

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How Chicago’s Second City bred a new Overlooked Edinburgh Fringe show

Lizzy Mace in Soho this week

Lizzy celebrating in Soho pre-Brighton this week

I first saw Lizzy Mace as half of comedy duo Mace & Burton – the other being this blog’s regular Juliette Burton.

“Juliette’s up in the air right now,” Lizzy told me when we met in Soho this week.

“Juliette is always up in the air,” I suggested.

“Physically in the air,” said Lizzy. “On her way back from Australia.”

Lizzy was just about to leave for the Brighton Fringe. She is previewing her new soon-to-be Edinburgh Fringe show Overlooked: A Roll Call of The Small there tonight, tomorrow and Monday. She came up with the idea for the show’s title and theme when she was at The Second City in Chicago last summer.

“I was there for six weeks,” she told me. “I did a 4-week intensive improvisation and sketch comedy course where we did improv for 3 hours every morning and then sketch comedy for 3 hours every afternoon. Then, for my final week, I did a solo performance class which was 10.00am-5.00pm every day, just working on solo stuff. At the end of the week, we had a showcase where we had to pitch an idea for a solo show – we didn’t have to do the show, just the 5-minute pitch of an idea – and the idea I came up with just lodged in my brain and I kept working on it and decided I would go ahead and do it in Edinburgh this year.”

“You went to drama school,” I said. “Why did you have to go to Second City?”

“Because drama school was about acting,” explained Lizzy. “Second City focussed on improvisation and sketch comedy writing. Different skills. Slightly different focus. Also, it’s important to keep your skills topped-up.”

“Why did you go to Second City in Chicago,” I asked, “and not that Gaulier bloke in Paris who seems to be terribly trendy at the moment?”

Brighton poster for Lizzy’s new comedy show

A Brighton poster for Lizzy’s comedy show

“I think he’s mostly physical comedy – clowning,” said Lizzy, “and what I really wanted to work on last year was my writing because I was more confident as a performer than I was as a writer and I wanted to do more character stuff but didn’t feel confident in writing it for myself. Second City felt like the best place to go for sketch and improv.

“Also, I read in your blog in 2012 that Luisa Omielan had been there a couple of years ago. Until I read that, I hadn’t realised you could do summer courses there. Then, when Juliette and I had a chat with you last April, you mentioned in your blog that I was going over to do Second City but I hadn’t actually booked it at that point; I had been humming and hahhing. Your blog appeared and Juliette told me: Well, you have to do it now because it’s in John’s blog!”

“You mean, ”I said, “my increasingly prestigious blog.”

“Increasingly prestigious and influential,” laughed Lizzy. “Then, when I was back from Chicago, you blogged about seeing the Red Bastard show in Bethnal Green and you mentioned me among a group of what you called ‘potentially not-far-from-breakthrough acts’ and I thought Well, I’d better get on with it, then. I’d better write my show. Did you realise you had such an influence on my life, John?”

“I am increasingly prestigious and influential,” I said. “So what’s Overlooked about?”

“Characters who all feel overlooked.”

Catherine Tate?” I suggested.

“Well, it’s me, not her,” said Lizzy, “though people have, in the past, likened my performance style to Catherine Tate’s.”

“I’m notoriously allergic to most character comedy,” I told her.

“Why?”

“I think I don’t like character comedy when it’s too close to being believable people,” I explained, “because I spent a lot of my TV career finding eccentrics and one-off originals, so I always think Why am I watching this fake, acted eccentric when I could be watching the real thing? But I do like cartoon character acts like Charlie Chuck and Frank Sanazi because they’re so over-the-top that they are not fake versions of possibly real people. Are you cartoony or fake-real in Overlooked?”

Lizzy Mace - overlooked

Is this a character close to the real Lizzy Mace?

“I think I have a bit of a range,” said Lizzy. “There’s one who is pretty close to myself. She’s a stage manager and she bookends the show. She’s possibly the closest one to me. She’s basically all the negative thoughts I might have about myself. So she just bitches about the performer the whole way through and talks about how terrible the show is and how, if it was her, she would have done it differently. But, then, I’ve also got one sketch where I play three different fruits…”

“Fruits?” I asked.

“Fruits,” said Lizzy. “The overlooked fruits. Little felt fruit things on sticks with silly voices. They get into an argument over who is the most overlooked. I think there’s a range from the realistic to the closer-to-the-bone and over-the-top cartoony characters.”

“All human life is there,” I suggested.

“All overlooked human life,” said Lizzy. “In the solo performance week in Chicago, we were doing a lot of solo improvisation and – at the end of the week when we had to pitch an idea – we had to look back at all our week of characters and try to see what the unifying theme was. I noticed that all my characters just felt secondary in their own lives. They felt like supporting characters in their own story and felt undervalued.”

“So you know what my next question has to be…” I said.

“I clearly,” said Lizzy, “have a lot of…”

“Issues?” I suggested.

“Material I can mine from my own…” started Lizzy, then she said: “I’ve always enjoyed acting, as in being someone other than myself. That’s why I’m excited about doing a character show.”

“Have you done straight stand-up?” I asked.

“I did Logan Murray’s Stand Up And Deliver course two years ago,” Lizzy replied. “He was very good at helping people discover their unique voice and bring it out. I just never got into the whole open-mic circuit – it wasn’t quite me. But, in January, I teamed up with Logan to devise Overlooked. He’s been my director. I’ve written it all myself, but he helped me to bring out what I had to bring out.”

“You’re also doing a second show at the Edinburgh Fringe, aren’t you?” I asked.

“That also came out of Chicago. Everything I’m doing this year has come out of that trip to Chicago.”

“And the second show spawned by Second City is…?”

The Cleek (with Lizzy bottom left)

The Cleek’s new international troupe (with Lizzy bottom left)

“It’s an international sketch and improv troupe called The Cleek, made up of people that I met on the course last summer. It’s quite ambitious – people from the UK, America and Australia. We’ll be writing it remotely, arrive in Edinburgh, probably have one day to rehearse and then we’ll be up-and-running at the Fringe.”

“Are Mace and Burton dead?” I asked.

“We’re not doing any live stuff,” replied Lizzy, “because we’re both pretty busy on our own projects, but we’re still working on some YouTube stuff. We’ve recorded some audio of us having silly conversations and we’re working with an animator. Fingers crossed there will be videos on YouTube sometime this year. And the movie screenplay of our Rom Com Con show is still in the works. Plus I’m working on the Powerpoint for Juliette’s next Fringe show Look At Me – and on the flyers and posters.” (Lizzy is a freelance graphic designer.)

“So whither then?” I asked. “A TV show? If you do a one hour solo stage show, you normally can’t transfer it to TV because there are no one hour slots for that sort of thing, but TV can pick up a sketch show or a character show. Is that your idea?”

“Well,” said Lizzy, “I’ve always loved acting and I’d love to be in a sitcom, but just being represented by an agent and waiting for those roles to come in doesn’t work, so that’s why I started writing my own stuff.”

“Are you represented by an agent?” I asked.

“I was until yesterday,” Lizzy told me. “I belonged to a co-operative agency but it’s on rocky ground at the moment, so I’ve left and I’m now representing myself… I am, as they say, available for representation.”

“You just need to get mentioned in an increasingly prestigious and influential blog,” I said. “But where can you find one of those?”

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