Tag Archives: improvisation

How did a stand-up comedian and improviser become a business guru?

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

In yesterday’s blog, I talked to Neil Mullarkey about his memories of 1980s alternative comedy.

I talked to him in the dressing room of London’s Comedy Store before he improvised two hours of comedy with The Comedy Store Players, the group of which he was a founding member in 1985.

Now, he mostly makes his living from running improvisation workshops for businessman and organisations – Improv Your Biz.

As well as this serious business guru career, Neil also occasionally pops up as spoof life coach guru L.Vaughan Spencer.

Neil’s chum PR guru Mark Borkowski advised him to distinguish between the two. So, as L.Vaughan Spencer, Neil sports a small beard and ponytail. L.Vaughan Spencer staged a show Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy in 2002 and, in 2008, published a book: Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy – The A to Zee of Motivitality.

Neil’s 2008 spoof book

L.Vaughan Spencer’s 2008 spoof book

What links Neil’s three worlds of comedy, spoof life coaching and real business training is improvisation

Neil explained: “One of my chums at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 1983 told me: I saw this brilliant show last night. – Omlette Broadcasting (Jim Sweeney, Steve Steen, Justin Case, Peter Wear). They were improvising. And I couldn’t believe it was possible. I thought: They must take a suggestion from the audience and then steer it towards the thing they’d already planned. In a sketch format, I didn’t realise you could do Funny without planning.”

“And you met Mike Myers,” I prompted, “who went on to do the Austin Powers films.”

“Yes,” said Neil. “I met him when he was selling tickets for the Cambridge Footlights show I was in at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London, and he made me laugh.

“He told me he had been at Second City in Canada and that was where my heroes were from. My heroes were John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. The Blues Brothers was the thing I wanted to do. American comedy was what I loved. American sitcom. And Mike told me about improv where it’s about ‘accepting offers’.

“When The Comedy Store Players perform, we are each listening intently to what the others are saying. Someone will throw me a line and I will take it on. Instead of thinking No, no, no, that’s not what I am saying – which is called ‘a block’ – I will take the other person’s line – ‘accepting the offer’. The more Mike told me about the whole ethos of improv, the more I said: This is intriguing! This is fantastic!”

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

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

“And,” I said to Neil, “you teamed-up and performed in Britain as Mullarkey & Myers in the early years of alternative comedy.”

“Yes,” said Neil, “we did quite physical visual parody sketches”

“Did you think of going over to America when Mike moved back?”

“I visited him a few times. We did our show in Toronto and the audiences got it. When I visited America, I did quite like being the foreigner. You become more English when you’re in America, because people say: Do that accent! I’m pretty English anyway, I suppose, even though I’ve got an Irish name and I was brought up in France for my early life. I went to LA a few times and thought This is great to visit, but I don’t want to live here. I like England and I like London.

“Mike wanted me to go and write on Saturday Night Live, but I fell in love with someone in Britain.”

“You fell in love and your partner wanted to stay here?”

“Yes. I did help Mike with the script on a film called So I Married An Axe Murderer, which was great fun… but I’m doing the thing I want to do now.”

“At what point did you get into your corporate teaching guru hat?” I asked. “And why? Was there one trigger for that?”

“In the late-1990s,” said Neil, “I thought: Do I want to be doing this when I’m 50?

“Going on stage in front of a drunken comedy audience?”

“Yes, a bit of that. But also, when you are an older comedian, you’re not as interesting to people in TV and radio. They want Who is the new person on the block? They want Who is the same age as me? – They don’t want to discover somebody that’s already been discovered.

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil's website

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil’s website

“I also found that the vehicle for most comedy on TV and radio was the panel show. It tends to be quite combative and un-collaborative and I’m not very good at that. But also, philosophically and psychologically, I was looking at other things. I was interested in how organisations and businesses function. My degree is in psychology, sociology and economics, so I was always interested in that.

“I suppose the big thing was I met a man called Frank Farrelly who created Provocative Therapy… Provocative Therapy uses humour to help people get better.”

“What does Provocative Therapy provoke?” I asked.

“It sounds confrontational,” said Neil, “but what you do is satirize people’s self-limiting beliefs in order to help them achieve mental health. You assume the answer – the solution – is within themselves.

If you say I want to give up smoking, I’ll say Why? Smoking is fantastic! It’s really cool – You should be smoking more! And then they go: Wait a minute. This isn’t what I expected and they begin to think Why DO I want to give up smoking?

“Frank Farrelly’s idea is that you hold up a weird hall of mirrors to people to make them look at themselves and think Hang on! What IS it I want?

Neil Mullarkey - inspirational businessman

Neil Mullarkey – inspirational and provocative businessman

“In improv, you basically treat what the other person has to say as an ‘offer’. You have choices of how to react to that offer. That works in the improv scenario. If you transfer that to business or organisational life and treat what your fellow employees or team say as an offer, then you have to figure out how you can accept their offer positively to say Yes AND rather than Yes BUT… It is an intent listening… Intentive listening.”

“Intentive?” I asked.

“It’s a word I made up,” said Neil. “It means you are listening with intent. You are so focussed on the other person that you pick up their threads.

“Provocative therapy is about accepting ‘the offer’ – like in improv – and almost taking it to absurd heights… How many cigarettes do you smoke in a day? 20 a day? No. You should be smoking 200. Can you make that a promise? 200? 

“Sometimes the client gets angry, sometimes they’re laughing. But what is going on is they are processing thoughts. They may be visualising themselves and thinking It’s absurd smoking 20 if I want to give up. Why am I not just giving up?”

“But surely,” I said, “if you use this technique with businessmen, they’ll think you are being sarcastic?”

“Well I do it. I am just teasing them. Frank Farrelly said you’re just teasing people back to mental health.

“I went to see him at his home in Wisconsin. then he came over to the Netherlands to do a workshop and I discovered all these people. What do you do? – I’m an executive coach – I had never heard of that. Loads of people from Belgium. I gradually found this other world of coaching business executives – as well as arts-based training in the business world.”

“Arts-based training?” I asked.

“Basically using theatre, art, music to help people do their job better. Whether it’s to work better as a team, to be more creative, to be a better leader, whatever.”

“It sounds like executives paintballing to bond with each other,” I said, “but indoors.”

“That’s what it is,” said Neil. “But my contention is Why go build a raft and do paintballing? – That has nothing to do with your job. Do something that is relevant to your job – and what is the thing you most do in a job? You talk to other people. So here is a ready-made philosophy – improvisation – which actually started in the 1920s in Chicago as part of the New Deal. Social workers helping children who were diffident in class, didn’t speak English as their first language… Exercises to enhance their confidence..

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt and schmooze

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt, schmooze, network

“That was done by a woman called Viola Spolin and, 30 years later, her son Paul Sills created what became The Second City theatre company that Mike Myers and I talked about.”

“So,” I said, “Provocative Therapy helps business people to schmooze.”

“You can use improv to flirt, to schmooze, to network,” said Neil. “Any word you want to use because – really – it is just listening with intent. When people are laughing, they’ll learn more. You can blindside them with funny.”

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Robert White: gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, webbed-toed comic

Robert White, award-winning comedian with a record

Robert White sitting in a small room

“Sometimes people have tried to blame things on me because it’s easier to blame someone who may be presumed to have a reputation,” comedian Robert White told me yesterday.

Today, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a research study by Oxford University and the Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust which suggests that “an unusual personality structure could be the secret to making other people laugh”.

Well Hump-de-dinki-doo!

I do not know how much this research study cost, but I could have done it cheaper for them.

Yesterday at London’s Soho Theatre, I bought one drink and got 44 minutes of similar insight from Robert White who is – correct me if I am wrong – the only gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, webbed-toed comedian working on the UK comedy circuit. He also won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality in 2010.

“In 2001, I was initially diagnosed as having Asperger Syndome by a psychologist when I went for depression,” Robert told me, “and it was like a light shining. It was like Wow! This is what my mind is thinking! and it cleared up so many things and, over the last few years, I’ve gradually got better.”

He has been performing comedy for ten years.

“Before comedy,” he told me, “I’d misunderstand things and, one time, that led to a practical joke that the police mis-translated as a crime and, as such, I got three months in Wandsworth Prison.”

“What was the practical joke?” I asked.

“Dressing up in a ballgown and walking down the street with a music stand. I was going to go into the shop where my ex-boyfriend worked and I was going to say to him: Music stand and deliver!

“But I didn’t do it. I stopped in the street, walked home and, as I did so, I walked in front of a police car and they asked me what I was doing and told me past intent to do something was the same as present intent to do something and, just because I’d rescinded and hadn’t done it, I was still culpable.”

“What’s illegal,” I asked, “about saying Music stand and deliver to someone while holding a music stand?”

“Well,” said Robert, “initially they were going to charge me with armed robbery but, on a plea bargain, they brought it down to attempting to threaten with an imitation firearm.”

“Ah! You didn’t mention the imitation firearm,” I pointed out.

“Well,” replied Robert. “It wasn’t. It was a music stand.”

“How was that an imitation firearm?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Robert, “in the police interview, I called it a gun because – for the joke – I was a comedy armed robber. I had originally been going to say Hand over the notes – you know – it was a music stand – Hand over the notes – but then I decided I was going to say Music stand and deliver.

“When I was in Wandsworth Prison, I was in the remand wing. One of the ways I deal with depression is to write music and they didn’t have paper or pen. So, by spreading toothpaste on a piece of newspaper and pulling my finger through it, I was writing a symphony.

“A guard came up to me and said What are you doing? and I said I’m writing a symphony and they put me in the mental wing of Wandsworth Prison, which is where all the hard nutters are. My solicitor came to me and said Either we can try and explain this in front of a jury or we can take a plea bargain. If you explain it in front of a jury, you may get seven years because they won’t understand you. A plea bargain? Three months.

“Incidents like that used to happen but comedy has cured me – well, not cured me, but it has resolved many, many issues.”

Robert White with Kate Copstick in 2010, after he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

Robert White with Kate Copstick in 2010, after he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

This year, Robert intends to return to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time since he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality in 2010. His new show will be about having Asperger Syndome.

“Last time I was at the Fringe,” he told me, “I won the Malcolm Hardee Award, I had one of the Top Ten jokes, I got loads of 4-star reviews and people were raving about me and I got one zero-star review which, at the time, I blamed on Asperger’s but the truth was it was a gig on the day of my father’s birthday a month after he died of cancer and I was feeling horrific.”

“This was the review on the Chortle website?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Robert. “Basically, I started, played the trumpet and – before I even said anything – I ran off, because my head was full of a million different things. Yes, it was wrong. Maybe other people would have cancelled the show.”

“And your new show is about having Asperger’s,” I asked.

“Yes. About fitting in. Most people might think I’m a bit odd. Before comedy, I’d fallen out with my family, I’d been in an abusive relationship, I couldn’t go into places on my own and I constantly got fired from jobs – 36 jobs in seven years. Everything from telesales through to being a music teacher.

“Once, I was at work and I was trying to do something clever with my pay and the manager said to me: Are you trying to be clever? and I said Yes and I got fired.

“Another time, there was this list of things you could not do at a call centre and it was such a specific list that I noticed it did not state that you couldn’t answer the phone wearing a Gareth Gates face mask. So I put on a Gareth Gates mask and got fired.

Comedy makes Robert feel he fits in

“Comedy makes me feel I fit in” says a reflective Robert White

“Performing comedy makes me feel I fit in. The problem is that, because I don’t understand social relationships, sometimes I can go a bit wobbly.

“Once, when I was sent to my room as a kid and I thought that was wrong, I sat in my room for ages, then dressed up my large cuddly toy panda in my own clothes and chucked it out the window. So, when it went plunging past the window where my mum was having dinner, she thought I had committed suicide. Which was quite funny but also quite horrific.”

“When you say you might go a bit wobbly, does that affect your performance?” I asked.

“Not any more,” said Robert. “But, because my mind is built up of facts – that’s the way I see the world – if my mind is thinking quickly and lots of facts present themselves, they just over-take my head because there’s too much to think about.”

“So your brain seizes up?” I asked.

“Not any more,” said Robert. “Because now I have various ways of overcoming it. The way you compensate for not having instinctive understanding is learned responses: a sort of cognitive behavioural therapy. That’s happened before, therefore this will happen now.

“Before I go on stage, I write various things on my hand. I write CAN DIE on my hand, because you don’t want to get complacent because that’s the time when you do die. I write YOU’RE BEST THIS GIG which makes me focus on how I do at this one gig.

“So I have certain rules written down. One of the rules is KEEP ON. JUST DO. I’ve got the word SWEAR written on one finger because, in some gigs, the C word is not appropriate and I’ve got NO MENTAL written on my hand to tell me not to go mental.

“I have to input facts into my head before I start the gig. Then I’ve got facts about the audience. All these facts are building up in my head before I go on and that is how I build up a picture of the world.

Robert White looks ahead to a hopefully brighter future

Robert White looks ahead to a hopefully even brighter future

“I’m also very good at improvisation. I can make up songs 1-5 minutes long about what’s happening in the moment. You can get riotous responses from making something that’s in the moment. I played the trumpet when I was a teenager, I was a jazz improviser, so I’ve got a memory for remembering little licks. I’ve got a mind that can remember little snippets, then repeat them in different orders as appropriate.

“My comedy over the last ten years has been filling-in the fuck-up of my life – the hole which the previous years have been. I feel I’ve now made a foundation and I’m building on that now. I still am autistic and occasionally my mind will be wobbly, but now I can deal with it much better. I think this year will be very positive. I’ve got my head together.”

__________________________________________________

In 2010, panel judge Kate Copstick interviewed Robert White after he won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality, presented by Simon Munnery. There is a clip on YouTube.

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Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma on clowns, feminists, being a schizophrenic Fascist singer and living in a cave in Canada

nellyscott_24sept2013_cut

Nelly aka Zuma Puma talked to me in London this week

I have blogged three times before about the charismatic Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma – about her schizophrenic Fascist singing Nancy Sanazi character at the Edinburgh Fringe in Frank Sanazi’s Das Vegas Night II and at the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show… as part of the Fringe show Almond Roca: The Lost Cabaret… and last week as host of the weekly Lost Cabaret club shows in London.

But I have never been sure how to categorise her. Actress, comedian, clown, puppeteer, singer/songwriter? She seems to do ’em all. I also made the initial mistake of thinking she was from the US. Never a good thing.

“I’m Canadian,” she reminded me this week. “Originally from St Catherines, Ontario near Toronto. Well, actually, I’m from everywhere. We moved around a lot.”

Zuma Puma grabbed two audience members last night

Nelly as Zuma Puma at the weekly Lost Cabaret club shows

“So what did you want to be as a kid?” I asked. “An actress?”

“My mother is a theatre director and my father’s a set designer,” Nelly/Zuma told me, “So I was just like doing theatre forever.”

In fact, aged 12, she was also dancing with Canada’s Opera Atelier. When she was 17, she had an award-winning role at one of Canada’s most prestigious theatres – the Shaw Festival Theatre.

“I was one of the witches in The Crucible in a 6-month run in the main stage,” she told me (without mentioning the award she got).

“That was when it all started,” she told me. “The woman who played Abigail in The Crucible became a great mentor for me and she had studied at Canada’s National Theatre School, which is where I wanted to go. But she said: Don’t go to the National Theatre School. I spent four years there and then I went to L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris and re-did it all and now I’m getting all the work… Gaulier’s a genius. If you can, just go straight to him.

Philippe Gaulier, memorable mime muse and more of Paris

Philippe Gaulier, memorable mime muse and more of Paris

“So, when I finished high school in Canada, I went to study with Philippe Gaulier in Paris. I showed up there thinking I was this very serious actress and just flopped every day for about six months. Every day I’d come on and Philippe Gaulier would say Oh you are this boring Canadian little rabbit lost in the forest taking a poo poo. Oh she is so beautiful. Wow. You love her. You want to fuck her every night of your life. That’s what he’d say every day and then he’d ask someone I had had a crush on in the class and they would say No, she’s a boring rabbit poo poo in the Canadian forest.”

“This sounds like some cult breaking down your personality,” I said.

“But I WAS shit,” insisted Nelly/Zuma. “He was training us to find the magic, to know how to identify it when we were on our own. And so, after six months of flopping every day trying to be this serious actress, we started the character section – character/clown/comedy – and I came out the first day and I stayed on stage for 15 minutes and everyone was laughing and I’d never… It was the best moment of my life… For some reason, all this time I’d thought I was a serious actress and it turned out that I was a lot funnier than I thought I was.”

“And after that you went back to Canada?” I asked.

Almond Roca: The Lost Cabaret at Edinburgh Fringe 2013

Almond Roca: The Lost Cabaret at Edinburgh Fringe 2013

“I went from Paris back to Victoria, British Columbia,” said Nelly/Zuma, “where I lived in a cave with a man named Caveman Dan and then I hitchhiked to California and around California. I was singing at this time – R&B, Blues, jazz and a little bit hip-hop.”

“With bands?” I asked.

“Yeah, doing stuff with producers and musicians and all sorts of people for years. I ended up teaching at a circus school in Costa Rica, met a band there and toured with them to Peru for ten months. Kind of just being an idiot on the road.

“After that, I decided I wanted to finish my clown school in Montreal because I’d sort of started it and done little bits here and there.”

In fact, she studied puppetry at the Banff Arts Centre, completing L’Ecole Clown et Comedie with Gaulier’s Protege and Cirque du Soleil’s first clowns Francine Côté and James Keylon in Montreal.

“I had just finished the clown school,” Nelly/Zuma told me, “when my grandfather passed away in 2012 – he was British. We all came here for the funeral and, afterwards, my parents asked me When do you want to leave? and I said Give me an open flight and I’ll figure it out. Then I went to Buddhafield and met Adam Oliver (her cohort in Almond Roca: The Lost Cabaret at the Edinburgh Fringe) at a hippie festival and came to London to visit Annie Bashford who I’d gone to Gaulier with.

Nelly as Nancy Sanazi at the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show

Nelly: Nancy Sanazi at the Edinburgh Fringe

“She was playing Anne Stank (a singing Anne Frank) in Frank Sanazi’s Das Vegas Night gigs with Agent Lynch playing Nancy Sanazi. Then Agent Lynch got picked up to perform with La Clique and Annie suggested me to Pete (Frank Sanazi) as his new Nancy Sanazi; I was only staying with her for a week.

“After doing Nancy Sanazi at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, we had a few gigs lined up and Pete said Stay a couple of months so I said I’d stay until Christmas and I was also doing a double act with Annie back then – we were called Grumpy Lettuce.

“At the end of October, we did a show at Lost Theatre in London and the artistic director wanted to start up a cabaret night called Lost Cabaret at the Priory Arms in Stockwell and was looking for a compere, so I did that.”

“You’re certainly busy,” I said. “Do you have an agent?”

“No, I’d like one. Actually, I don’t know what’s happening with the Adam Lost Cabaret at the moment. He’s so busy producing a million and one things… Maybe we’ll do some double acty stuff in various places.”

“And then you’ve got these London Play Group workshops for adults that start next Wednesday,” I asked, trying to be helpful. “What are they about?”

Nelly (left) & Annie - Grumpy Lettuce

Nelly (left) & Annie – Grumpy Lettuce

“Well, replied Nelly/Zuma, “a bunch of adults will come and we’ll get absolutely ridiculous, have loads of fun, play ridiculous games together – just like playful children’s games – improvisation, clown games – like how to find your ridiculous self, how to become free in your self-expression on stage and how to bring that play into life. That’s what we’re exploring. Finding pleasure in life, connecting to people in a playful community and making friends with this hub of people who feel they don’t have enough play or laughter in their life because we’re forced to live this adult lifestyle. Finding a way to be ridiculous.

“I’m also starting a feminist theatre show as part of a group of four people. We’re just starting to talk about it. We feel there’s loads of feminist festivals all over the country that we’d love to tour with our bizarre show. We feel there’s a lot of angry feminists who have made it all about angry women who hate men and we want to bring it back to equality and involve men in feminist theatre and say a man can be a feminist too.”

“So there are men involved?”

“Dan Lees,” said Nelly, “who was in Moonfish Rhumba.”

“And so the bizarreness continues,” I said.

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Odd inventions at the Edinburgh Fringe plus gangsters and a bit of name-calling

I got woken by heartburn this morning around 4.00am and started mini-puking around 6.20am. I think it must have been from the chicken curry I had with Janey Godley and her daughter Ashley Storrie last night at a restaurant in Edinburgh.

‘Janey Godley’ might or might not be her real name, depending on your viewpoint, as anyone who has read her autobiography Handstands In the Dark will know.

Perception is everything at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Bob scarred himself by falling down his own trapdoor

Bob scarred himself by falling down his own trapdoor

As I was walking along Chambers Street yesterday, on my way to comedian Bob Slayer’s solo comedy show Bob Slayer: Worldwide Bawbag, a middle-aged couple passed me. The woman asked the man:

“Who are we going to see?”

“I can’t remember his name,” replied the man. “He’s on one of those Never Mind The Buzzcocks type shows.”

“Oh,” the woman said, “so he’s not a proper comedian.”

Whoever they were talking about, I suspect he is a ‘proper’ comedian, but I see their point.

Is Bob Slayer a proper comedian? It depends on your perception. He likes to take risks, which is always a good start. People tend not to twig that ‘Bob Slayer’ is not his real name. It is a sporting pun.

Perception is everything.

When I arrived at the corner of South College Street yesterday afternoon, I perceived Bob Slayer chasing a girl in a red dress down Nicolson Street. She had, perhaps rather foolishly, refused to take one of the flyers for his show.

Bob Slayer failing to attract women in Edinburgh yesterday

Bob Slayer failing to attract women in Edinburgh yesterday

A few minutes later, as I sat in Bob’s Bookshop, waiting for him to come back and start his show, I chatted with one of the other members of the audience.

“Where do you come from?” I asked.

“Edinburgh.” he said in an English accent.

“How long have you lived here?”

“About a year.”

“Why did you move up here?”

“Because my friend got a job as an anaesthetist – teaching anaesthesia at the vet school here.”

“So you moved up here to do what?”

“I’m training as a cyclist,” he told me. “And I’m an inventor.”

“What do you invent?”

Greg Dickens in Bob’s Bookshop yesterday

Extraordinary inventor Greg Dickens in Bob’s Bookshop…

“In the last year,” he told me, “I’ve been working on prosthetic joints, pieces for an engine – hopefully for Jaguar – a driving tool for the AA and make-up and hopefully chocolate for the Third World.”

“What’s your name?”

“Greg Dickens.”

“You have a website?”

“I do. gregdickens.org.uk.”

“Org?” I said, “That implies you don’t make any money.”

“It means I don’t make any money through the website,” laughed Greg.

When Bob Slayer arrived in the room, he had a scar on his arm.

“How did you get that?” I asked.

“I fell down my own trapdoor,” Bob replied.

Bob’s Bookshop has a trapdoor in the floor, as if it were all part of a pantomime.

Bob Slayer yesterday demonstrated how the Bloodhound Gang urinated on each other

Bob Slayer yesterday demonstrated how the Bloodhound Gang urinated on each other

I told Bob: “This man designs chocolate.”

“What sort of chocolate do you design?” Bob asked Greg.

“Chocolate for hot countries, so it doesn’t melt,” Greg told him.

“So,” suggested Bob, “you looked at the Malteser and said They want it to melt in the mouth not in the hand in Africa.”

“Yeah,” said Greg Dickens. “Testing finishes in a few months time.”

Bob (of course) did not have any script for his show, but managed to stumble onto a rounded show starting with how, as a rock music manager, he had turned down the Arctic Monkeys.

This then developed into extensive, increasingly OTT and surreal tales of touring with the Bloodhound Gang, who are currently stranded in a Russian hotel for pissing on a Russian flag in the Ukraine. When they arrived on Russian soil, they were reportedly pelted with eggs at the airport, thrown by Cossacks.

After Bob’s show, I rushed to The Hive venue to see Matt Price Is Not In The Program: Turkeygate, Tinky Winky & The Mafia.

Matt Price with his agent, who appears in his show’s story

Matt Price & agent Sarah Higgins, who appears in his story

Matt Price only had ten days to prepare his show – because the performance slot only became available after Chris Dangerfield cancelled his show at the last moment due to alleged threats (see my blog of a week ago).

Matt was worried that he had not had enough time to prepare the show. But, because it is all true – about his encounters with the Turkish Mafia on a very recent, abandoned series of gigs of Turkey – I told him there was no problem forgetting the stories and he did not need a script.

He still had to decide, though, whether to name some of the men in the story on stage. He did. (The main name had already been reported in a Chortle news story on Matt’s problems.)

I thought I already knew what had happened, but he has rounded it into a slick (in the best meaning of the word), entertaining and funny show. He was worried it was too serious a subject for comedy. But he is not telling a funny story; he is telling a story funny.

Unexpectedly (for me) it all started with him being persuaded to ghost write the autobiography of a well-known London gangster (whom he did not name, though I have been in the chap’s sex dungeon) and it ended with Matt saying he was going to write a book about the psychology of gangsters.

As I left the gig and walked up to the Royal Mile to get a taxi, someone said to his friend as he passed me: “The trouble is there are too many old people alive right now.”

I was not sure if I should take this personally.

I needed the taxi to get to Hearts FC’s Tynecastle Stadium, where their manager Gary Locke was facing a comedy This Is Your Trial show with comedians Norman Lovett as judge, Janey Godley as prosecutor and Bob Slayer as defence. The charge seemed mostly to be about Gary Locke’s hairstyle.

Janey Godley, Norman Lovett & Bob Slayer at Hearts FC yesterday

Janey Godley, Norman Lovett and Bob Slayer at Hearts FC

Despite having Bob Slayer as his defence counsel, Gary was found Not Guilty. Even more bizarre, I thought, was the fact that Janey – a woman not without experience in matters of crime, the court system and let’s not even mention gangsters – was cast as the Prosecution. But I guess she has taken the saying Know Your Enemy to heart. As a prosecutor, she was both aggressive and highly, highly funny (mostly ad-libbed).

Which brings us back to the Indian meal and its after-effects.

When I was up with heartburn and would-be vomiting early this morning, I looked up the website www.gregdickens.org.uk

It does not exist.

Then I remembered that Greg Dickens, the man in Bob Slayer’s show, had said he had just come from an improvisation show.

I should have realised what he meant when he said he was “an inventor”.

You must never believe anything anyone says during the Edinburgh Fringe. It is all smoke and mirrors. It is all perception.

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Comedian Luisa Omielan is targeting young girls, gays and Beyoncé fans

(A version of this piece was also published by India’s We Speak News)

Luisa Omielan after her show at the Comedy Cafe last night

Is there life after the Edinburgh Fringe for a Free Festival show by a relatively unknown comedian? Well, judging by last night, Yes.

I went to the first night of Luisa Omielan’s eight-week run at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre and she got a standing ovation from a full house whooping for a show which had played to full houses and multiple 5-star reviews throughout the Edinburgh Fringe.

The show is called What Would Beyoncé Do?

“It’s about how Beyoncé songs have helped me,” Luisa told me last night. “How I think I should be a diva but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. I showcase Beyoncé songs to highlight how very different my life is to what Beyoncé has.”

My eternally-un-named friend saw the show with me. She (admittedly off-colour and with a possible ear infection) thought the pre-show music was much too loud. So did I. But, after the show, Luisa told me:

“It was to get the audience hyped. It’s not a show where you just sit down and don’t get involved. It’s very much a Yeeeaaahhhhh!!! Paaaarty!!!! show.”

She has performed in various shows at the Edinburgh Fringe for nine years, but What Would Beyoncé Do? was her debut solo show there and last night was her first ever full-length solo show in London.

The Beyoncé poster/flyer designed by Luisa

“From the first day in Edinburgh,” Luisa told me, “it had a full house of 12o people in the audience. About a week in, the fire brigade came and said: You can’t have this many people in the room! and they capped it at 75 and, after that, I was turning away maybe 20 or 30 people a night. They came because of the title and because I got listed as One To Watch and it was a good poster. Title and poster count for a lot.”

“You’ve done a lot of improv and been in other full-length shows at the Fringe,” I said to her. “You are very experienced. But doing a full-length solo show is different. Have you found it scary?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I cried twice before I went on tonight. Petrified. When I went to Edinburgh, I went completely by myself. I planned and dealt with every aspect of the show myself including the poster and the PR. But I was quite confident because I thought I’ve done the Fringe before. This’ll be fine. Whereas here tonight… I’ve never done a London show. I felt I had a lot to prove. There are 99 seats in the Comedy Cafe. How am I going to fill friggin’ 99 seats?

But my Twitter followers went up by 400 during Edinburgh and, because it’s a free show (on the Free Festival/Free Fringe model) people feel ‘invested’ – they really support with the social media networking. So I’ve been using Facebook and Twitter to promote this show.”

“Are you an improviser or a stand-up?” I asked.

“I’m both” said Luisa firmly. “I see them both as my strengths, both as my art forms and I want a show which combines the two.”

“And you want to be an actress…” I said.

“No,” Luisa corrected me. “I want to be what you just saw. I’m doing what I want to be. I’ve never wanted to be anything else but a comedy performer, since I was about four or five. I did do acting at college (she studied Performing Arts) but my thing was always I wanted to be famous for being me. I wanted to be like Whoopi Goldberg or Robin Williams – where they’re a personality. Whoopi Goldberg gets booked as Whoopi Goldberg. I wanted that.”

“When I was watching the show,” I told Luisa, “I was impressed by the audience control.”

“Well,” she said, “over a year ago, I went to Chicago for three months, to the big improv school at Second City and studied clowning over there, which I loved. And clowning’s all about raising and lowering and raising… it’s all audience control.”

“You wanted to move there?” I asked.

“I would have done,” Luisa said. “If Edinburgh hadn’t gone well, my plan was to go back. But Edinburgh went amazing.”

“So you’re going back to Edinburgh again next year?”

“Yes, with the same show at the Free Festival.”

“The same show?” I asked.

Luisa singing – and dancing – at the Comedy Cafe last night

“Yes,” she replied. “Because this show is perfect for my target audience. The people who come to my comedy show are people that wouldn’t necessarily go to a comedy show normally. So there’s a lot of my target audience out there who need to know I exist.”

“And your target audience is…?” I asked.

“The young girls and the gays, because they identify with what I say and what I talk about.”

“You had a significant scattering of black people in that audience,” I said. “That’s strangely unusual in a normal comedy club, though I’ve never known why.”

“But that’s who I want to appeal to,” explained Luisa. “An urban crowd. Absolutely I want to appeal to that audience because it’s all-encompassing. The show is a party. In so many comedy shows you see the same old thing. I don’t fit into that environment. So I did my own thing and they came and, now I’ve found that niche, it’s very important that I build an audience and a following from the bottom up.”

“Where does that go if you’re stuck with young girls and gays?” I asked. “Doesn’t that mean you don’t hit the mainstream audience?”

“I think you’ll find they are the mainstream audience,” said Luisa. “If you get the girls and the gays, then the rest of the world follows.”

“Aren’t comedy audiences mainly young males, though?” I asked.

“People say they are, but there’s actually lots more women coming to comedy now and I want to try and encompass more women in comedy and get more women to go. You look at Jessie J or Beyoncé… Men didn’t pay for that. Women paid for that.

“Women pay for entertainment, not men. Men might pay for football. Women will decide what film you watch, where you go, what you go see. Women will decide that. Women are spending the money. This old men v women thing is bullshit. I have no time for that. Women will pay for a show. I want women in my show. End of. There’s no What about the men? Fuck ‘em. They’ve got Jongleurs. Go to that.”

“So Young heterosexual males piss-off?” I asked.

“No, not piss-off. But there’s plenty of comedy out there. This is my comedy for my target audience which I have found. There’s enough of them there.”

“Have you based your stage persona on someone else?” I asked.

“Who?”

“That’s why I asked,” I said.

“No,” said Luisa firmly. “I’ve based myself on me.”

“Who were your idols?”

“Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Cher, Beyoncé.”

“Steve Martin’s different,” I suggested.

“Yeah, but in his films, he’s very physical and clowny.”

“You dance very well in the show,” I said.

“You’re joking,” laughed Luisa. “I can’t dance at all. I just dance with conviction. Improv is all about conviction. If you’re pretending to die, do it with conviction. If you’re dancing and you’re nervous about it, you dance harder and that’ll get you through.”

“I saw an interview with Fred Astaire,” I mused, “where he said Ginger Rogers actually couldn’t dance… but she could act dancing brilliantly.”

“Exactly,” said Luisa. “You do it with enough conviction and people will believe you. And dancing is a big thing with Beyoncé.”

“But what if people don’t know a lot about Beyoncé?” I asked. “That excludes them from the show?”

“No, because they just see someone dancing silly and enjoying it for dancing silly’s sake.”

“But why should I – if I’m a 26 year-old comedy-goer – go see a show about Beyoncé with Beyoncé in the title if I don’t know about or like Beyoncé?”

“Well, there’s plenty of other shows for you to go and see!” laughed Luisa. “I’m not the only choice, God bless you!”

“Maybe you are the only choice.”

“For my audience, yeah.”

“So you are playing the Comedy Cafe here every Tuesday for eight weeks,” I said, “and then…?”

“I want to tour with it next year. So it’s me building a following and attacking it from different angles, making a good comedy show free and making it accessible. When I got 5-star reviews in Edinburgh, the next day I got comedy-savvy-goers who would come and be boring and sit there and think Oh, this is very interesting blah-blah blah-blah blah. My audience was alright those days, just a bit dead.

“But when I had groups of girls – black, white, Asian – dressed up to the nines coming in for a night out, that’s when I’d have that big reaction you saw tonight where it would blow the roof off. They’re the people that I’m trying to get. The people who don’t normally go to comedy and especially wouldn’t go to Jongleurs on a Friday or Saturday night. They’re the people I want to come to my comedy show and it’s a show that’s honest and truthful and relevant and it’s not pretentious, pretending to be something else or being clever with wordplay. If it’s not for you, by all means don’t come. But, if you want a bit of a party with jokes in, you’ll love it.”

“You don’t need a PR,” I told Luisa, “You are your PR. Have you seen Beyoncé perform live?”

“Yeah,” said Luisa. “She’s amazing. I nearly died. The way she performs – I thought I wanna perform like that… but with stand-up.”

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3 Angry Daddies, 3 Real MacGuffins & an elfin comedian upstaged by a mouse

The three Angry Daddies having a gay old time in Los Angeles

Yesterday, I thought I knew what today’s blog was going to be about.

Last week I blogged about Mike Player, organiser of America’s gay Outlaugh Comedy Festival

This Friday, at the Outlaugh Festival/Hollywood Fringe, Mike is performing an improvised show as one of the three Angry Daddies: they are Mike (one of the Gay Mafia comedy group), Mark S.Barnett (from Second City) and Dave Fleischer (from iO West)

Oh, I thought, That might make an interesting blog: the difference between being a solo comic and being part of a comedy group. And Mike is now in at least two comedy groups.

“Does this mean you got bored with the Gay Mafia gents?” I asked him.

“No,” he told me. “It’s just like I’m just taking a lover on the side. It’s very French to do that. At least that’s what I was taught as a child.”

“But why would a straight audience watch three gay guys doing comedy?” I asked, trying to rile him.

“Well,” he replied, undermining my ruse, “only two of the Angry Daddies are gay. One is straight. Mark is an actual father of progeny. The Daddies are ‘post-gay’ where the gay thing doesn’t matter as much but is not shied away from. Dave and I play straight guys and Mark plays gay. We mix it up. There’s something for everyone, except dogs. And dogs don’t understand comedy.”

“Would it work in the UK too?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied, “Mark is from Bath, England, and has an English accent and everything. So we come fully equipped. In a commercial, Mark played a giant hotdog that runs through a park and explodes…twice. We have got it all covered.”

Still, I thought, there is something to be said about the difference between solo and group work.

“What’s it like to be in a group rather than being an individual performer?” I asked him. “Don’t all performers want to be the sole centre of attention?”

“I like groups,” Mike told me, “because you can react and do physical comedy in scene work. With good improv, there is collaboration which can be very exciting. Plus you can blame other people if the laughs aren’t big enough. I like to blame Dave and Dave always threatens legal action.”

I thought I would see if a couple of British comics thought the same.

So, early yesterday morning, I e-mailed ever-amiable Englishman Dan March, one of The Real MacGuffins.

The Real MacGuffins lean on a metal post in Soho yesterday

“The major difference with doing group instead of solo for me,” he e-mailed me back a couple of hours later, “is that when a gig goes wrong I blame Matt and Jim and when it goes right I take all the credit. Doing solo work it’s different – obviously I take the credit when it goes well but when it goes wrong I blame the audience. Also the writing process is more fun with a group – I get to shout ‘Not funny!’ at Matt which is very therapeutic.”

Laura Lexx played cricket last year

My elfin comedy chum Laura Lexx, is appearing as part of Maff Brown’s Parade of This at this August’s Edinburgh Fringe. Yesterday, she told me: “The main thing is that with more than one person you simply have to rehearse, which is not something comedians really naturally do (for the most part). So it feels quite unnatural and hard to make yourself do it properly. We struggle to rehearse for more than about an hour without getting horrifically distracted and trying to go to the pub! It’s hard to rehearse and then it’s also hard not to ad lib once you’re on stage because that’s where you’d naturally go with stand up. I think they’re two completely different disciplines.”

So, late yesterday afternoon, strolling through Soho, I was content in my blog about the nature of doing group comedy. I can do something with all that, I thought.

Then, just six feet ahead of me, I saw Dan March and the other two Real MacGuffins standing round an unexplained black metal post, leaning on it, looking at me.

“I’ll take your picture for the blog,” I said.

And I did. And that was it. A perfectly rounded blog idea.

If it were not for the mouse.

Two nights ago, my eternally-un-named friend was staying at my home (we are an ex-couple). She was born and partly brought-up in the Mediterranean. I was brought up in Scotland. She leaves outside doors open because she thinks it’s hot outside. I shut everything because I think the cold outside air will make my penis drop off.

There was also the trauma of the mouse a few years ago. I have not yet written about this in my blog. But I will, dear reader. I will. Perhaps in a few days. It was about five years ago. I still bear the psychological scars.

Yesterday morning, my eternally-un-named friend confessed to me:

“I saw a mouse last night.”

Relative of the wee, not-so tim’rous beastie loose in ma hoose

“Where? There on the stair?” I asked.

“In the living room,” she said, worried at my reaction, given my previous rodent-induced trauma.

“I have built a trap,” she told me reassuringly.

“You built a mouse trap overnight?” I asked.

“It’s a piece of newspaper,” she explained, “put across the top of a bowl which is half-full of water. The newspaper has a cross cut in it in the middle with bait on top of it, balanced on the cross cut. The weight of the mouse, as it goes across the paper to reach the bait will make the paper cave-in and the mouse will fall into the water below. Hopefully I’ve done it so it’s deep enough that the mouse will drown.”

“Where is the bowl?” I asked.

“Under the dinner table,” she told me.

“Rats swim, don’t they?” I asked, searching my memory for movie references.

“They’re more intelligent,” she said. “and it’s a very small mouse.”

“What’s the bait?” I asked.

“Half a Mars bar,” she replied.

“You won’t let ME eat Mars bars!” I almost shouted.

“They would make you fatter,” she replied rather too smugly.

“Why do you want to kill it?” I asked. “A poor little baby mouse.”

“Don’t be stupid!” she said. “You’re going to turn this into a ridiculous blog because you’re stupid.”

“You like Tom & Jerry cartoons,” I pointed out, “but now you are trying to kill Jerry.”

“You kill flies,” my eternally-un-named friend riposted.

“They’re insects,” I replied.

“So?” she asked.

“A mouse is a mammal,” I said.

“You eat chicken,” she said.

“That’s a bird” I said.

“Lamb,” she countered.

“Sheep are stupid and deserve to die,” I parried.

“Stupidity doesn’t enter into it,” she said. “You don’t deserve to die. Well, not for that… It is a small mouse. I have put a ruler resting on the side of the bowl, so it can climb up from the carpet to get to the bait on the newspaper over the water.”

“It’s like you are making it walk the plank!” I pointed out.

“Precisely,” she said, I thought unecessarily triumphantly.

I was out in central London all day yesterday. When I got home late last night, I asked her: “Why do you want to kill the mouse? We should trap it alive and take it out into a field and release it into the wild.”

“You’re turning into a Buddhist,” my eternally un-named friend said. “Why don’t we just open the front and back door and let all the mice come in? Then you could have a little family of cute mice and any time you wanted to kill one it would be easy. There would be a whole festering mass of them crossing the bloomin’ floor.”

Bloomin?” I queried.

“Bloomin,” she insisted.

“Let the mammal live…” I pleaded. “Or I could buy a cat.”

“You could rent a cat,” she said. “That’s what people did in days-gone-by.”

“We should try to take a picture of it for the blog,” I suggested.

“The cat?”

“The mouse… I suppose it moves too fast…”

“I saw it twice today,” my eternally-un-named friend told me. “It just sauntered across the floor from under the bureau to under the sofa. Then, a little later, it sauntered back again. It was in no hurry.”

“You saw it?”

“I looked at it…It looked at me…We were both surprised… What can I say?”

“Perhaps it doesn’t like Mars bars,” I suggested.

“I was going to drop a file of papers on it,” she said. “but my file was in the kitchen. I have added peanut butter to the Mars bar. I Googled how to trap mice and people were saying mice like peanut butter. Cheese has no effect.”

“I’m sure I tried honey when I had the previous mouse,” I said.

“But, when that happened, did…” she started.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I interrupted. “It was traumatic.”

Then, half an hour later, my eyes got itchy and I started sneezing. A lot.

“I think I may be allergic to mice,” I said.

“And I have a sty in my eye,” she said. “It started about two hours ago. I didn’t like to tell you.”

“We have to out-think it,” I said. “We have to think like a mouse.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” my eternally-un-named friend said. “I don’t want to have to keep shutting the living room door to keep it trapped in here. I’ll let it go upstairs. I’ll help it upstairs. It can get into your bed.”

“Don’t remind me,” I said. “I don’t even want to think about that.”

We left my home and drove late-night to Greenwich where we stayed overnight.

I am still there.

I will have to face the mouse again later today.

“It is very small, but seems to have inner confidence,” my eternally-un-named friend tells me.

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How Set List marketing and Sarah Palin made comic Rich Hall soar last night

There seem to be comedy improvisation shows all over London at the moment. If comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll, then I guess improvisation is like the occasional fad for long guitar riffs.

I have mentioned in a previous blog that, when I was a student (around the time Louis XIV was on the throne of France), I saw Keith Johnstone’s seminal weekly Theatre Machine in Hampstead.

I have also blogged before about the comedy improvisation show Set List, when it was the sleeper comedy hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

It started small but gathered extraordinary word-of-mouth, especially among performers and, despite venue and time changes which would have scuppered other Fringe shows, it very quickly had full houses and ‘Name’ comics lining up, desperate to perform and – just as important – to be seen to perform. It was a show with prestige among comedians.

Last night, ending a run at the Soho Theatre in London, Set List had a packed audience, up for anything, full of anticipation at attending an ‘event’.

You know you are onto a winner if your first-on-the-bill is the wonderful Rich Hall, your final act Andrew Maxwell has ploughed through Saturday night London traffic from a performance in Greenwich to take part in your show and, when a billed act drops out, you can get a last-minute stand-in of the calibre of Dave Gorman.

Quite how this ‘hot ticket’ feeling happens is almost always beyond comprehension.

Of course, it helps that the man behind Set List is Paul Provenza director of the cult comedy industry documentary The Aristocrats(who flew over from Los Angeles to attend the last few shows) and that his man on British soil is the well-connected comic Matt Kirshen, but there is also very shrewd marketing going on.

The sense of anticipation last night (in an audience who had overwhelmingly not seen Set List before) was built-up partly by its late start – there’s nothing like being stuck in an over-crowded entrance hallway filled with chatty Guardian readers for 20 minutes to build a sense of up-market expectation – but also by an on-stage screen which, as the room filled up, was flashing rave quotes about the show from publications and, surprisingly, one from the excellent rising comic Diane Spencer.

There are currently bigger comedy names than Diane Spencer, but I suspect the Set List originators have rightly thought, “She is likely to become very successful,” and are getting into her good books early.

Shrewd marketing. If the punters recognise her name, they give themselves a pat on the back for having their fingers on the pulse. If that is physically possible.

All improvisation shows are, by their nature, a variable ride, but the (justified) self-aggrandisement of Set List works wonders. You are left in no doubt from the flyers, pre-show build-up and great sales technique of compere Matt Kirshen that you are attending an ‘event’ of some importance and that you are a superior punter for having chosen to be there.

Of course, it also helps that, unlike most improvisation shows which have built-in safety-nets of pre-prepared arcs and relationships, Set List is genuinely improvised by the comics and often savagely exposes comedians who are falling back on their own old material or who cannot link the six bizarre topic titles they are given.

If they perform six little separate routines based round the six given phrases, it does not work. They look like open-spot beginners.

But, if they can knit the six unconnected Set List topics together with one or more ongoing subject threads, then they can soar – as Rich Hall did last night with Alaska, grisly bears and Sarah Palin working wonders for him.

He triumphed, but I think the reason top comedians want to perform on Set List is really because it is creatively dangerous. The risk of falling off the comedy high-wire is greater because the performers are not in as much control as in a normal stand-up act and, as I have written before in this blog, I think comedians are a bunch of masochists with an urge to fail.

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