Tag Archives: improvisation

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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Elfin comedian Laura Lexx gets bigger ideas after meeting the real Santa Claus

At the University of Kent, you can study Stand-Up Comedy. My natural tendency would be to think this is a right load of old wank if it were not for the fact they seem to have produced some rather good rising comedy performers.

There is (in alphabetical order) Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, The Noise Next Door and Pappy’s.

And then, out of alphabetical order, there is elfin Laura Lexx. I call her ‘elfin’ because she actually did for a period literally work as an elf in Lapland as part of the Father Christmas industry. I have seen the photos. She is low on height but high on energy. Which is just as well – not just for elfing around in Lapland.

All the way through July, Laura is promoting a month of London previews for other people’s Edinburgh Fringe shows at the Glassblower in Soho, with a line-up which includes Bridget Christie, Phil Nichol and Paul Sinha.

Then she takes off her promoter hat and she’s off to Edinburgh for the Fringe where she’s in both the Comedy and the Theatre sections – performing, producing, writing and directing.

She’s performing daily as part of the improvised comedy game show Quiz in My Pants at the Opium venue

She’s performing and directing the cast in her own straight play Ink (about the 7/7 London terrorist bombings and the media) at the Kiwi Bar.

And she has also done the very neat trick of spotting a new way to finance Edinburgh Fringe shows via wedidthis.org where people who want to support the Arts in a positive way can donate money to the month’s chosen projects. If you reach your target within the month, you get the money donated. If you don’t reach your target, the promised donations made so far are not collected.

At the time of writing this blog, she has another fortnight to raise £175 to cover some of her Edinburgh costs. The donations page is here.

I wonder if anyone would fork out money to cover my modest and artistically-vital publicity costs for Malcolm Hardee Week at the Fringe.

Or maybe I should get work after the Fringe as a Father Christmas clone in Lapland. I would need a wig, I could grow the beard, but I would need no padding.

Oh, to be an elf…

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The Three Golden Rules of Comedy

The percentage likelihood of strange things happening is almost always mis-quoted by the media. For example, the odds against any one specific person being killed by a pig falling on his or her head are VERY high. It is very unlikely ever happen to you yourself or to any specific, named individual. But the odds of some one person being killed by a falling pig somewhere in the world at any time during your lifetime are much lower. It is highly likely to happen

Shit happens all the time to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit. Which brings me to comedy improvisation.

I am a tad wary of improvisation groups perhaps because, when I was a student, I used to go most weeks to see shows called Theatre Machine supervised by Keith Johnstone at the Freemason’s Arms pub in Hampstead. Keith later went on to create Theatresports. His earlier Theatre Machine shows were so effective and so entertaining that it arguably ruined me for any other improvisation groups.

The other problem is that, by their nature, improvisation groups are often reliant on their audiences for inspiration.

On Tuesday, I went to see The Couch at The Miller pub behind Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge. The venue has different impro groups each week and this week there were nine improvisers – possibly four people too many but all very good and – strange but true – they included Mensa’s former financial director Neil Goulder.

They were uniformly good as performers and improvisers, but two of their sketches showed the difficulties of the art. Two good punters suggested two good sketches, but one routine was doomed from the start by its very origin.

The successful one started with pulling one punter out of the audience and asking him about his childhood to provide the bare bones of the sketch. It turned out that, as a child, his hobby was, in all truth, keeping and breeding small creatures – principally snails, butterflies and wood lice. This was a pure gift for the comedy improvisers. It also turned out that the punter’s brother had accidentally trodden on and killed his favourite snail called (I’m not sure this can be true) Eric. Starting from those basic facts, the improvised comedy sketch could almost not fail. And it didn’t.

The other sketch, though, was doomed from the start because its original basis was so deeply bizarre that nothing the troupe could ever improvise could ever have made the story stranger. Funny haha stood no chance of outshining funny peculiar and it reaffirmed my belief that, if you pluck a punter at random from anywhere – a bus queue, a venue audience, the cheese aisle in Tesco – they will have the most extraordinary true stories in them. Because shit happens to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit.

This particular punter was asked what his most disastrous romantic date had been.

There was a pause before he replied: “Oh, there have been soooo many…”

The audience laughed.

He then talked about a date in which he had taken his prospective girlfriend to a restaurant. Halfway through the meal, she had an epileptic fit. He tried to help her as she writhed on the floor. But the other diners and restaurant staff thought he had been in some way responsible for what had happened – they thought perhaps he had given her Rohypnol or some other drug. The police were called and dragged him off into custody.

This sounds like the perfect basis for a dark comedy because it is so bizarre, but it was and is too bizarre. There was and is no way of exaggerating the reality into comedy. The truth was so beyond belief that there is no way of manipulating it and comedy usually requires the re-arrangement of reality. When the improvisers tried to recreate the event in three different movie genre styles it was partly successful but ultimately anti-climactic.

The improvisers had and have my sympathy. They stood no chance, through no fault of theirs, which exposes the odds against improvisational comedy being successful; by its nature, it is always hit-and-miss; you are sometimes totally dependent on the audience. The only thing that might have worked would have been to follow the late Malcolm Hardee’s Three Golden Rules of comedy as expressed on page 173 of his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:

1. If in doubt, wobble about.

2. If that don’t work, fall over.

3. If that don’t work – knob out!

The third is, perhaps, not a practical option for everyone.

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Janey Godley – the greatest British improviser of her generation

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

The Daily Telegraph called Scottish comedienne Janey Godley “the most outspoken female stand-up in Britain… The most ribald and refreshing comedy talent to have risen from the slums of Glasgow since Billy Connolly.”

The Scotsman called her “Scotland’s funniest woman… the Godmother of Scottish Comedy” and talked of her “effortless stream-of-consciousness riffs that Virginia Woolf might have written.”

I’m not sure about the Virgina Woolf comparison. In my opinion, Virginia Woolf wasn’t that good.

But what Janey doesn’t get recognised for is being one of the best comedy improvisors of her generation – because people don’t realise that she has never – and I mean never even roughly – scripted any of her hour-long comedy shows.

At the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe, she performed a show called Caught In The Act of Being Myself. This got, reportedly, 12 visits from Perrier Award panel members and, after a big bust-up of opinion among the panel, her performance was disqualified from consideration because they decided she was ad-libbing a totally different show every night so, technically, the Fringe run was not the performance of a specific single show.

This year she has almost outdone herself. She didn’t know what the content of her comedy show The Godley Hour was even when she walked on stage on the first night yesterday; not even when she was halfway through. She told her first night audience: “I’m hearing this for the first time too.”

Today, she told me three of the previously untold stories she included in that first night show and which she will try to include every night in the full run of the show – and they were cracking crack-up and fall-down-clutching-your-stomach and kicking-your legs-in-the-air anecdotes.

There was a national newspaper critic in the first night audience. I will await the newspaper review with interest.

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