Tag Archives: improvised

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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The Kray Twins have been replaced by a bunch of comedians in the East End

What is happening with Bethnal Green in the East End of London?

I think of Bethnal Green as being the home of the Kray Twins and the Museum of Childhood. Admittedly queer bedfellows to begin with. Now there appears to be a giggle gulag of recently-opened clubs featuring new and rising comedians.

On Mondays, David Mills and Maureen Younger run their Unusual Suspects comedy club at the Sebright Arms.

On Tuesdays, comedian Oli (son of comedian Janet) Bettesworth runs The Painted Grin at Benny’s Bar.

And another comedian I know is also thinking of starting a new monthly club in Bethnal Green.

In the sometimes bitchy world of comedy, it all seems surprisingly chummy down the East End.

Last week, I went to the Unusual Suspects to see 2010 Malcolm Hardee Award winner Robert White (whose comedy is so fast it must leave scorch marks on his brain) and David Mills & Scott Capurro (who hosted this year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe). In the audience, was Janet Bettesworth. Not only that, but she raved to me afterwards about the end chat between David and Scott.

Comedy can be about more than just getting laughs, which Scott and David proved in their Scott Capurro’s Position chat show in Edinburgh and at the Soho Theatre this year – and very much so in what appeared to be their totally improvised, highly libelous and astonishingly personal routine last Monday. In fact, it was more an extended riff than comedy routine – very insightful and very funny.

Janet Bettesworth reckons: “The hundreds of comedy nights around town are perhaps just a stress-release valve for overworked Londoners. However, take two seasoned gay American comedians, David Mills and Scott Capurro and you get some kind of magic.

“Some kind of magic is certainly what took place last Monday,” she says. “Suddenly mere stand up comedy (more specifically one-liner gags) seemed flat and one-dimensional in comparison. The tete-a-tete between the two of them was one of the rarest and best things I have ever seen. I wished it had gone on longer. No-one recorded it, so an ephemeral happening, perhaps born out of adversity (a scheduled act had been called elsewhere) and delivered to a small and privileged audience is lost forever. It is impossible to describe, except to suggest that together they are (even) more than the sum of their parts – they presented something extraordinarily real and multi-dimensional, full of rawness, pain, tenderness, love, wit and finely-distilled camp humour.”

It certainly was an astonishing public tete-a-tete.

And there is certainly some exceptional live comedy going on out there in small clubs – a lot of it, apparently, now oddly happening in Bethnal Green – all of it ephemeral, unrecorded and, like most of the best comedy, once performed lost forever.

In the Kray Twins’ era, it was criminal lawyers who reaped the benefit.

In modern-day Bethnal Green it might be comedy club audiences and libel lawyers.

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