Tag Archives: Ivor Dembina

Chasing pussy at Edinburgh Fringe + Lewis Schaffer develops terminal cancer

Lewis Schaffer (left) , Lach and Phil Kay last night

Lewis Schaffer (left in white), Lach and Phil Kay last night

It was 01.40am this morning, when I left Bob Slayer’s first Midnight Mayhem show which has no structure and simply has performers and members of the (if they want to) paying public doing pretty much whatever comes into Bob Slayer’s head – a risky concept at the end of the day, given Bob’s proclivity for drink.

Frank Sanazi croons “It’s Auschwitz" last night

Frank Sanazi crooned about Auschwitz craft

The show was still going strong with Phil Kay just about to start his second musical set.

Earlier, Frank Sanazi had performed one song to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft which he told us he now no longer sings in public (because of too many complaints) – Auschwitzcraft. And Lewis Schaffer had refused to perform his legendary three-part Holocaust joke.

A punter called Sally said it was her third visit to the Fringe over the years and she and her man had seen three shows at the major venues over the course of the day, two of which she said were “shit”. She asked what were the requirements for performing on the Fringe.

Kate Copstick, there to review Midnight Mayhem for the Scotsman newspaper, told Sally that it was a free-access festival and if you paid (one particular major venue) £5,000 up-front, then that was your qualification for performing.

Midnight Mayhem was happening in Bob’s Bookshop which, as a Pay What You Want show within the Free Festival within the overall Edinburgh Fringe, is in a rather different league but it was one which Sally seemed to say was what she had thought she was going to experience when she came to the Fringe for the first time. The earlier shows had not been this anarchic.

Andy Zapp - the current man in my bed at Edinburgh Fringe

Andy Zapp – the current man in my bed at Edinburgh Fringe

My day had started oddly, having breakfast with Lewis Schaffer at midday. Also at the meal – well it was a snack, really – were Ivor Dembina and the man currently sleeping in my bed, Andy Zapp. (I should point out I am sleeping in the living room next door.)

“What’s your best advice to young new comedians?” Ivor Dembina asked Andy.

“It’s good to make money while you’re still shit,” replied Andy.

Lewis Schaffer told us that his Fringe show next year would be called Lewis Schaffer Has Cancer and would contain details of his battle with a life-threatening form of cancer.

“What sort of cancer?” I asked.

“I haven’t decided yet,” he replied. All Lewis Schaffer knows so far is that his show will have to be life-affirming and he says he feels he has to establish the title Lewis Schaffer Has Cancer early, in case someone else uses it.

In a press release later in the day, he wrote:

I have never had cancer, nor do I have cancer, but I hope someday to have cancer. Cancer worked for comic greats Andy Kaufman, Bill Hicks and Tig Notaro – why shouldn’t it work for me? My apologies to everyone who has cancer and everyone who hasn’t had cancer.

Has anyone seen Kitler? Lost in Edinburgh.

Anyone seen Kitler? Allegedly lost by F.Sanazi

At around the same time I received this press release, Frank Sanazi phoned me up with news that he was sticking up posters all over Edinburgh about the tragic loss of his pet cat Kitler. The feline was not, as far as he knew, dead but (he claimed) had gone missing in action on Thursday.

He told me he would give me more information if I came to see his show Frank Sanazi’s Das Vegas Night II (which I had already arranged to do.)

Yesterday was a day I had chosen to see shows by other acts I already knew. For example, I saw two shows by previous winners of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

Johnny Sorrow (left) in The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society

Johnny Sorrow (left) – Bob Blackman Appreciation Society

The first was Johnny Sorrow, appearing as 50% of the Bob Blackman Appreciation Society. I laughed out loud throughout, something I rarely do. The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society Bonanza show included tap-dancing fleas and ‘the man with no act’ and – suitably for a show steeped in showbiz nostalgia and kitsch – it also included the soundtrack of an ITV trailer of the type I used to make for 20 years.

After the show, I chatted briefly with increasingly prestigious award-winning Johnny Sorrow and he told me:

“A couple of weeks ago in Stockport, Bob Blackman’s grand-daughter Abbie came to see our show. She lives in Macclesfield.”

“Poor woman,” I said. “How did she hear about you?”

“She saw us our name on the internet and thought What the hell’s this? and got in contact with us.”

Bob Blackman used to appear on TV hitting his head with a metal tray to the tune Mule Train. It was a memorable act, now sadly and unjustly forgotten by most subsequent generations of thrill-seekers.

“We found out where Bob Blackman actually started the act,” Johnny Sorrow told me yesterday. “It was at the Waterman’s Arms pub on the Isle of Dogs in London. At first, he used to do the act just by hitting the tray on his knees but then, one day, the Watermans Arms was so packed the tray couldn’t be seen, so he started hitting himself on the head with the metal tray and his fame just took off. His son Raymond told me that. You know you can get plaques put up on walls where cult comedians did famous things? We want a plaque up for Bob Blackman.”

The Rubberbandits at the Gilded Balloon yesterday

The rousing Rubberbandits at the Gilded Balloon yesterday

The second Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning act I saw yesterday was Ireland’s Rubberbandits, regaling a packed Gilded Balloon venue with their greatest hits including Spastic Hawk and Up The RA (including the appearance on stage of two balaklava-wearing fake IRA members).

I rather enjoyed the particularly bad taste of their Spoiling Ivan,

The Gilded Balloon seems to be on a roll this year. Earlier, I had seen two other shows by top-notch acts.

Janey Godley was untagged in Edinburgh yesterday

Janey Godley happily ungagged in Edinburgh

My chum Janey Godley has returned for two weeks only to the Edinburgh Fringe – after a break of a couple of years – with a stonkingly good show Janey Godley Is Ungagged mostly about social media.

But it also has one of the most interesting anti-police stories I have heard and Janey’s barnstorming performance occasionally teetered on the edge of successful rabble-rousing.

When she said she was thinking of standing as an MP (I think she was joking – although the late Margaret Thatcher once suggested Janey should enter politics) she was loudly cheered and, by the end, she was telling the audience to be ungagged and to realise words are just words and had them chanting along with her Cunt! Cunt! Cunt! which – as everyone knows – is a term of endearment in Glasgow.

Ashley Storrie with mother Janey at the Gilded yesterday

Ashley Storrie and mother Janey Godley at the Gilded Balloon

As always, Janey did the whole show unscripted and, for these particular Edinburgh shows, she is preceded by a 15-minute warm-up performed by her daughter Ashley Storrie.

I had never seen Ashley perform stand-up before. She got 4-star reviews at the Fringe when she performed as a 13-year-old in 1999, but lost interest in it shortly after that. A couple of years ago, she performed at the Fringe with sketch show Alchemy but, this year, she started doing pure stand-up again. I talked to her about it in January.

On-stage, she has her mother’s self-confidence and audience-controlling charm. Astonishing.

Juliette is torn between Gonzo and Jimmy Carr

Juliette Burton in her first grown-up solo show

As is Juliette Burton’s show When I Grow Up, also at the Gilded Balloon.

“I was walking round today flyering people,” Juliette told me after the show, “and I remembered the first time I came up to the Fringe in 2005, just as a punter. Back then, I was really, really jealous of all the performers and now I am one.”

“Which is what your show’s about,” I said. “realising dreams. Though the one thing you do not say in your show is that, as a kid, you wanted to be a comedian when you grew up.”

Juliette Burton gets a dream Fringe pass

Juliette gets her dream performer’s pass

“Not a stand-up comedian,” replied Juliette. “And that’s not what I am now. Why does comedy have to be stand-up? Why do you have to necessarily adhere to one specific form of comedy to be considered a comic performer? If you’re billed as a comedian, everyone assumes you’re going to do stand-up.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I saw Janey Godley earlier this evening and she’s called a comedian, but she’s really not a traditional comedian – she’s a brilliant storyteller who gets laughs.”

“I don’t see,” continued Juliette, “why comedy has to be set-up/punchline/gag. Why can’t comedy take different forms? Mine is very mainstream storytelling, but it would not fit in the theatre section of the Fringe Programme: it would be too comedic. On the other hand, it’s not stand-up comedy.”

“The videos are very funny,” I said. “I normally don’t like videos plonked into live shows to attract TV producers. But your videos and recorded interviews are a seamless part of the live show.”

“I guess,” said Juliette, “that it’s poking fun at some of the social boundaries that we’ve enforced upon ourselves in ways that – I don’t want to give away what’s in the show, but I like to do things that might seem absurd and crazy and like a nutcase, but actually the real crazy thing is not to enjoy what you’re doing with your life.”

“I suppose,” I said, “that your enthusiastic presenting style says to the audience that it’s a showbiz, comedic piece, but it’s not actually..”

Juliette foregrounded by either arms or legs

Juliette (right) sings at rockfest T In the Park

“How can you define comedy?” Juliette interrupted. “I’m very honest on stage. In a way, a stand-up comedian’s routine is more dishonest than what I’m saying. Several people have told me in the last couple of days that they are tiring of stand-up because it’s so predictable. They actually want something a bit different, something to surprise them.

“Stand-up – however shocking it might be – swearing and taboo subjects – is no longer pushing any boundaries. So maybe redefining what a comedy show is might be the next boundary to push.”

“I cried at one point in your show,” I said. “Not from laughter. From sadness. Despite the fact I had seen the show before and knew what was coming. It has shades and the audience don’t see what’s coming. Sometimes comedy is best when you laugh AND cry”

Juliette’s pop promo for her song Dreamers (When I Grow Up) – recorded specially for her show – can be seen on YouTube and the song can bought online. All money made during the Fringe will be donated to Children In Need.

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Ivor Dembina on UK comedy clubs and what’s gone wrong with Jewish comedy

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of comedy

Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club has been running 19 years. It is his main venue in North London.

Next Thursday night, though, Ivor is opening a second comedy club in South London.

Or, rather, re-opening it. The Brixton Comedy Club was originally opened at The Hobgoblin pub in 1998.

“I set it up,” Ivor told me yesterday, “with my no-frills approach of Get some acts, put ‘em on, low ticket price.

“It was unexpectedly successful for two reasons. The first was that, at the time, people used to go out quite a lot on Sunday nights. But also it was a time when well-known acts would come down and try out material. That was quite a new thing then and I think the Brixton Comedy Club was one of the first places where that happened regularly. People like Harry Hill and Jo Brand. So you could see these well-known acts very cheaply in an informal atmosphere.

“I’d been running clubs for over twenty years, but I learned a very important lesson back then: that if you develop a tradition of famous acts turning up, of course, as soon as they move on, people stop coming. And the club went downhill quite quickly.”

“So how did you recover?” I asked.

“Well, I didn’t, really,” said Ivor. “It coincided with The Hobgoblin pub being taken over by a different management who wanted to put music in.

“So I moved to The Dog Star pub to do the same thing on a slightly smaller scale and it was fine, but I learned another lesson there: that people had, by and large, stopped going out to comedy on Sunday nights. Somehow, Thursday had become a new going-out night. It was just a cultural shift.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“I guess about five years ago,” he explained. “People just wouldn’t come out on Sundays; they were watching TV.

“I never actually closed the Brixton Comedy Club, but I’ve mothballed it for the last three years, just putting on occasional shows to keep the name alive. Now, partly through sentiment and partly because I want to speed up the process of going broke, I’ve decided to re-open it on a monthly basis at the Dog Star.

“The general lesson in running clubs is that, once people go to a comedy circuit club to see specific acts rather than to visit the club itself, your club’s finished. A great comedy club is somewhere people come irrespective of who’s on.”

“A big factor in the club is the MC, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ivor, “People do like having a regular compere and I did build a rapport with that Brixton crowd. Both the Hobgoblin and The Dogstar were really nice venues: a good crowd.

“And we were helped at the old Brixton Comedy Club by the fact Daniel Kitson, who lived nearby… it became sort-of his favourite local club. So he became a regular fixture and you could say I’m the last person on the planet to successfully financially exploit Daniel Kitson.

“When word got around that Kitson was so good, we literally had people queueing round the block for the 200-capacity venue and it was so popular – I swear this is true – we even stopped putting it in the listings. We didn’t advertise at all and it was still filling up.”

“But a club is more than just acts,” I said. “It’s the format.”

“I think,” said Ivor, “that there are three basic precepts to running a club:

  • Keep it simple
  • Keep the shows varied with experienced acts and new acts
  • Keep the ticket price low

“We’re charging just £4.50 at the new Brixton Comedy Club. There’s no messing around with internet sales; you just turn up and pay £4.50 on the door. It’s the first Thursday of every month. I think the circuit works best when it’s uncomplicated.”

“So how are you going to keep the shows varied?” I asked.

“With experienced circuit comics and a few newcomers,” said Ivor. “So Lewis Schaffer’s headlining the opening night. And I’m going to mix it up just a bit more. Experienced stand-ups and newcomers plus perhaps a bit of music and poets – just to make it a bit more fast-moving and move it away from the traditional format.”

“And you’re still occasionally performing your own full-length show around and about?” I asked.

”Yes,” said Ivor, “I’ve got this really nice little show called Old Jewish Jokes which, obviously, is me telling my favourite old Jewish jokes, but interwoven with the story of a Jewish comedian – me – who turns up to perform at ‘an hour of modern comedy’ for his local Jewish community. Before he goes on, though, he’s given a shopping list of things he cannot mention: the Holocaust, Israel and so on.

“So the show is not just the jokes; it’s about the predicament of the modern Jewish comedian and why Jewish comedy has not moved on. It’s about Jewish people – who claim to have a great sense of humour but, when it comes to jokes about themselves, they’re not too happy!

“Traditional Jewish comedy is brilliant but, as someone who’s written a lot of Jewish comedy, I’m grappling with the question Why doesn’t it move on and tackle these difficult subjects like the Holocaust and Israel and the traditional perception of Jews? Why doesn’t it take these subjects on? Why is everyone so scared? That is embedded in the show, which I commend to you. You should come see it.”

“Very kind,” I said. “Well sold.”

“It’s on Tuesdays from 2nd October at the Alice House in West Hampstead.” continued Ivor. “And then the following five Tuesdays. Do you want me to give you the full spiel?”

“I’ll find it on the internet,” I said.

“I never normally tell people You should see this. It’s great,” Ivor said,But, with this one, I honestly think it’s very good. I think it really takes Jewish comedy by the scruff of the neck and non-Jews love it just as much as Jewish people.”

“Well sold,” I said.

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Videos: The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe

Footage shot from the audience by comedian Billy Watson at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Nothing to do with me, guv.

INTRODUCTION WITH DAVID MILLS AND SCOTT CAPURRO

CHARLIE CHUCK

IVOR DEMBINA

CHARMIAN HUGHES

FRANK SANAZI

LEWIS SCHAFFER

THE AWARD CEREMONY WITH KATE COPSTICK

JOHNNY SORROW AND THE BOB BLACKMAN APPRECIATION SOCIETY

KUNT AND THE GANG

BENET BRANDRETH

PUPPETRY OF THE PENIS
(Censored)

INTERVIEW WITH JOHN FLEMING

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A stand-up comedian is like a boxer

Bob Boyton: from punch-lines to punches

A couple of days ago, I blogged about seeing Mark Kelly’s second try-out of his show-in-the-process-of-being-written Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act, which took place at Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club. Comedian Martin Soan was also in the audience.

Afterwards, I got talking to comedian-turned-writer Bob Boyton about a novel which he has spent ten years writing and which is going to be published in May. But we got sidetracked into the link between boxing and comedy.

What’s the book about?” I asked Bob.

“It’s called Bomber Jackson Does Some,” he said. “The eponymous hero is a homeless ex-boxer called Anthony ‘Bomber’ Jackson. It’s not autobiographical, but I did do some boxing training while I was writing it. I trained with Mark Reefer, an ex-Commonwealth champion who didn’t become famous despite being a champion. He was good but perhaps not big enough at his weight. A great trainer. Someone who lavished love on his training. And I’ve worked with homeless people for many years, so there’s also a link there.”

“Is it a funny novel?” I asked.

“No, not really,” he replied. “A couple of jokes in it.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t like novels with jokes in ‘em,” Bob told me. “I hate when you buy a novel by a comic and he hasn’t really developed enough plot or done enough work on the characters, so he just pads it out with bits of his routine. I think it’s disrespectful of the novel and of fiction. And it’s a bit disrespectful of your act.

“It’s a problem for comedians,” he continued, “that there’s no legacy with comedy. A little bit, maybe, if you’re one of a golden few. I heard Max Miller on record and he was obviously strong and then Jimmy Jones done a lot of his material. But generally, in 150 years time, no-one’s gonna go That’s a great gag, that!… In 150 years time, Jeremy Hardy’s act won’t make any sense.”

“So your novel isn’t autobiographical?” I asked.

“Well,” laughed Bob, “I did research some of the drinking myself.”

“Why did it take you ten years?”

“There were times I just got fed up with writing the bloody thing. I kind of knew there was a story to be told. It is a bit like being a stand-up, thinking Right, I wanna deal with that subject so I’m gonna write a gag about it. It’s just a much longer process with a novel. When I was doing stand-up, I could write a gag and probably try it out in two nights time and then I might keep it in or not. Whereas I found you can spend ten years writing a novel. That’s probably why you need an editor.

“Bomber Jackson is a bloke in his mid-40s. His last big fight was at least 20 years ago… which he fucked-up because he’d been drinking when he should’ve been training. He’s fallen into criminality and those various things that happen to boxers because, if you’re good at hurting people, then you’re worth a lot of money to unsavoury characters.

“He’s just come out of prison and he knows he’s gotta find a different life. He’s done a lot of prison, a lot of small sentences and he goes in search of redemption and I hope the book keeps the reader wondering whether or not he finds it.. right to the end.”

“Why write about a boxer?” I asked.

“Well, I have a bit of a guilty pleasure. I’m a boxing fan and I’m drawn to it because they are very much like comedians. So I started off… I don’t think it lasted very long but… It was a kind of a metaphor for when I gave up stand-up…. You do it on your own. It’s not like football, where you can blame other team members.”

“Fighting the audience?” I asked.

“Well, not so much fighting but, it’s you – if you win, it’s great. And, if you lose…”

At this point, Ivor Dembina was passing by and heard what we were talking about.

“The thing about comedians,” Ivor said, “is that we’ve all seen each other die the death on stage – everyone. However good you are, however famous, we all know you’ve been there. So there’s that kind of gut respect. And, with boxers, even though they’re competing, they all know they have put themselves in that same position of being humiliated. So there’s that kind of bottom line respect.”

“I remember,” I said, “Ricky Grover (boxer-turned comedian and actor) “told me that, when you box, all that matters is that you don’t humiliate yourself. Humiliation is the worst thing.”

At this point, Martin Soan passed by.

“I’ve based my whole fucking career on being humiliated,” he said as he passed.

“Every comedian…” Ivor continued, “All of us – We’ve all died the death. We all know what it’s like. You never forget that. And you respect other people because they go back. Even though they got booed off, they went back and had another go. You respect them. It’s the same with boxers. A boxer can take a really bad beating, but he’ll go back and fight again.”

“That’s right,” agreed Bob. “Not many boxers gave it up because they lost. The business might have given them up in the end. But either they’ve made enough money and they’ve realised they want to go out somewhere near the top. Or they just can’t get any fights.”

At this point, Bob and I gave up talking about Bomber Jackson Does Some. The conversation moved on and people talked about Malcolm Hardee, Ian Hinchliffe and pissing in wardrobes. I must have another chat with Bob Boyton about his novel at some point before it is published in May.

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The writer behind Stuart Leigh – the world’s No 1 Stewart Lee tribute act

Stewart Lee wins a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Yesterday, I had a meal with comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly in Soho. He sniffled. I coughed. We both had colds.

Last week, I saw an invitation-only try-out of Mark’s hour-long show Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act, which he is in the process of writing.

He first tried it out in Claire Dowie’s Living Room Theatre then, a few days later, at Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club – the performance I saw.

“What you saw last week,” Mark told me yesterday, “was a rough version of one of several series of texts. I’ve got nearly four hours to choose from. It was maybe 30% different from the first performance at Claire Dowie’s – and I performed it differently.”

Mark’s brief description of Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act is:

An all-night garage. 

A man attempts to make a purchase.

What could go wrong?

The monologue is delivered by a character who thinks of himself as The World’s No 1 Stewart Lee Tribute Act and who interacts with the man behind the counter, through the glass, at the garage.

“How did you describe the show to Stewart Lee?” I asked Mark.

“I haven’t particularly,” he replied. “I invited him to the gigs and he said he was worried, if he came, that people might be looking at him to see his reaction rather than looking at the piece. And he did not want to be seen as, in any way, approving or colluding because it would look wrong for both of us – he would look smug and it would undermine the idea of me as an outsider. I offered to send him a script – either a rough script or the finished script. He decided not to read it because, if there was anything in it he didn’t like or which would upset him, he would rather not know.”

The next try-out (possibly in July) may open with Vivienne Soan playing avant-garde saxophone in the style of Evan Parker, whom Stewart Lee likes: “There’s room in my piece to have a busker in the garage forecourt,” says Mark.

“My intention is to move it into a much more performance art type of thing. I’m probably going to make it a bit more poetic, with internal rhyming. Obviously, comics have scripts, but it’s disguised text; it’s written to be spoken as conversational monologue. I am going to make no attempt at all to disguise the fact my script is textual; I would highlight the fact it is.

“The next stage will probably involve an environmental soundtrack of late-night garage sounds treated to make them sound a bit dreamy and trippy – not intrusive, but they’d be there – probably some live music, a lot of visuals and the text broken up and done in a quite substantially different way. And the stage set will probably be projected – it’s a photograph of me at a garage in a hoodie with my back to the camera walking into a circle of light.

“I’m playing with the idea of having a disguised series of foot pedals linked to the microphone with different effects on and I can press the pedals. But I have to decide how funny I want it to be because I don’t think anyone’s ever performed treated voice comedy. And there’s a good reason for that. If you concentrate on jokes, you want the voice to be clear and audible. So the idea of doing jokes with echo and reverb is a bit alien.”

Reaction to the two try-outs has been varied, Mark tells me.

“There are a handful of people who think it’s absolutely brilliant. And there are a handful of people who absolutely hate it. I mean really really dislike it.

“My old double-act partner Paul Brightwell loathes it. We used to perform as Cheap and Nasty – I was Mr Nasty.

“Paul tends not to like anything I do and then gradually warms to it, though not always. He is one of two or three people who think it’s a complete waste of time in every sense, that there’s nothing happening, there’s nothing of interest, there’s a passable impression of Stewart Lee’s style, there are a few jokes about comedy which are amusing but there’s no substance to it, there’s nothing happening… What point is it I am trying to make? Why don’t I just fuck off? That kind of stuff.

“I’m quite happy that some people hate it, as long as some people really like it. Those people who said it was really boring said so in terms that implied they were really infuriated by it, which is quite good.

“Other people have actually got it, though one person who saw the show actually asked me: Why do you hate Stewart Lee? – I said: No! No! He’s a friend!

“When you perform, obviously, people assume the character speaks for you, which is not the case at all. My piece doesn’t have to be about Stewart Lee. It could be about a tribute act for a fictional act. It’s about identity, about someone who is alienated struggling to find some sense of identity and a way in the world. But it’s also about what, to me, is the nightmare of post-modernism, which I think we’ve already entered. It is very difficult to find an argument that galvanises any more, because everything is immediately presented with its opposite or is presented with a counter argument. It’s very, very difficult to find arguments out of any situation and everything repeats so, in a way, Stewart Lee is the comic de nos jours. Stewart Lee’s act is very, very useful.

“It seems to me it’s also about the solipsism of digital culture. I refer to the Chortle comedy website. The important bit about the Chortle reference is the line …and, through the medium of ill-informed comedy criticism, I have managed to gather together a network of like-minded individuals in low-paid jobs at all-night garages the length and breadth of Britain.

“That, to me, is the important image, because it is just true. Everywhere around Britain, there are these people on low-paid jobs, really bored out of their minds in all-night garages. The all-night garage is the symbol of a certain type of labour, a certain type of situation. To me, it just spells alienation in all sorts of ways. You are stuck behind this glass, often in a very small space, and the only people you talk to are very often stoned or drunk.”

“Watching your play,” I told Mark. “was very odd. I somehow lost all my critical faculties. I was listening to the writing and watching the delivery, which so mesmerised me I ended up having no opinion on what I was actually watching except that it was very densely and well written.”

“Well,” said Mark, “I know what I want the effect on the audience to be. I want it to be quite hypnotic and dreamlike and for the audience to enter a sort-of trance-like state. That again is why using Stewart Lee’s act is quite good, because he does all that repetition stuff anyway… So feeling ‘mesmerised’ is good.

“One thing I accidentally missed out when I performed it last week – and it really needs to be in – is that, at one point, the character says to the guy in the garage who is going to be his manager, So you see what I’m offering is an overview of Stewart Lee’s style done in the style of Stewart Lee and then there’s talk about the existentialism involved in it. Then he says: I’m not suffering from an identity crisis, I’m suffering from a lack of bookings.

“That’s kind of the heart of it.

“The idea for that line was lifted from a TV programme about a guy who has that collecting mania where you can’t throw anything out and he’s taken it to the most amazing extent imaginable. He inherited quite a large house and every single room is piled up to the lintels. He was actually having to crawl on top to get in. They brought in this psychiatrist to help him and you could see this psychiatrist gradually having to admit defeat. It was utterly dysfunctional. And eventually the guy tells the psychiatrist: My problem is not psychological. my problem is a lack of storage space.

“To me that was a moment of comedy and tragedy simultaneously. That’s one of the things that’s going on in my piece.”

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Accidental meetings and a comedy revelation at the Edinburgh Fringe

I pretty much started the Malcolm Hardee Awards as an ongoing annual event in 2007, saying they would run until 2017, on the basis that I would then be able to get free tickets to all comedy shows on the Edinburgh Fringe for ten years.

Tragically, until this year, I have been involved in other shows and been unable to make full use of this fine scam – mostly just seeing shows recommended by other judges. But this year, with the five Malcolm Hardee shows happening only in the final week, eureka! –

Yesterday at the Fringe, I saw seven shows.

My day started with the always excellent Steve Day‘s definitely at least 4-star show Run, deaf boy, Run about how he took part in the London Marathon this year. There is an interesting reason – explained in the show – why ‘deaf boy’ in the title does not have capital letters. Afterwards, Steve told me one story not included in the show.

He was given his first comedy bookings by Malcolm Hardee at his Up The Creek club in Greenwich, which is on the London Marathon route. As Steve was running past Up The Creek this year, he tried to Tweet the fact on his phone but failed because of the large amounts of Vaseline transferring from his fingers onto the phone.

Alright, alright. You have to see his show to understand that but – hey! – you should see his show. And yes, he had been pretty much doing what you might think he had been doing with the Vaseline.

I was sitting in the Pleasance Dome thinking how funny this story was – though admittedly only if you’ve seen Steve’s wonderful show – when American comic Lewis Schaffer sat down at my table; it was akin to an Assyrian descending like a wolf on the fold – though admittedly only if you ignore his Jewishness, which is difficult.

He told me:

“I have new shoes. They are so tight, John. They hurt my feet and make me feel like a girl…”

I looked at him.

“My act has changed,” he said. “I have gone full-on flexible.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“You know what it means,” he replied. “Full-on is a British phrase.”

“No it isn’t,” I said, “it’s an American phrase and even if it were British English, I have gone full-on flexible still doesn’t mean anything.”

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know what it means either. Kate Copstick is coming to review my show tonight for the Scotsman. I’m not ready.”

“It’ll be OK.” I said, trying to be reassuring. “She likes you.”

“Well, I find that irritating,” Lewis said.

“What?”

“That she likes me. Does she really like me? I find it irritating when people like me. My girlfriend likes me. I find that very irritating.”

It is sometimes very difficult to talk reasonably to Lewis Schaffer.

We walked off together to the Counting House venue and passed comedian Diane Spencer, flyering for her show All-Pervading Madness.

“Are you coming to see it?” she asked me. “I know you saw it in London, but it has changed so much – out of all recognition.”

“I did think about it,” I said, “but I don’t need to see you because I know how good you are.”

She thought I was bullshitting.

I was not.

She IS that good.

I keep thinking I should suck-up to Diane Spencer so that when, inevitably, she is highly successful she may one day buy a Big Issue from me when she comes out of some future BAFTA Awards ceremony. Forward planning is important, but young women tend not to take it very well when a man of my age tries to suck-up to them. The police are a constant sword of Damocles.

At the Counting House, I saw Ivor Dembina‘s show which he calls Ivor’s Other Show because he… has another show at the Fringe. His other show Free Jewish Comedy is his stand-up comedy show; the clue is in the title. Ivor’s Other Show is a sit-down chat show in which he and two different comics each day talk about jokes and comedy with the audience joining in – it’s Ivor’s own format idea called Desert Island Jokes.

It was certainly interesting to see Ivor’s Other Show, because I will be chairing two panel shows about comedy as part of Malcolm Hardee Week – the final week of the Fringe.

Ivor is a surprisingly good chat show host. Most comedians are too self-obsessed and keen to make an impact to be a good, moderately self-effacing host, but I guess Ivor’s many years compering at his Hampstead Comedy Club have given him the vital necessary experience.

Yesterday’s show was also interesting because, in my own mind, it clarified why you can listen to a Beatles’ song 25 times and enjoy it equally each time… and listen to a comic story 25 times, enjoying the experience and the ‘journey’ equally each time, but you cannot hear a joke 25 times with equal pleasure: you are unlikely to ever repeat the scale of the large belly-laugh at the punchline to an equal extent on subsequent hearings because the element of surprise at the punchline is missing on repeated tellings.

The exception might be Tommy Cooper gags where, although they may be straight punch-line-based gags, it is the style of the telling of the joke at which you are really laughing.

But what do I know?

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In praise of the Daily Telegraph and Pear Shaped Comedy Club’s quirkiness

To start at the end of this blog and to reply to your reaction…

Look.

It’s my blog. I am allowed to witter.

So, for fans of Tristram Shandy

Brian Damage and Krysstal’s weekly Pear Shaped comedy club has been running in London’s West End for eleven years. Brian and Krysstal promote it as “the second worst comedy club in London”. I prefer to call Pear Shaped the Daily Telegraph of British open spot comedy clubs.

Let me explain.

When I blogged about last weekend’s six-hour event celebrating the anarchic life of Ian Hinchliffe, I did not mention that I told ex-ICA Director of Live Arts Lois Keidan about my admiration for Bernard Manning as a comic, Margaret Thatcher as a Parliamentary debater and the Daily Telegraph as a newspaper. I do not think she was impressed with this triple whammy.

But – in addition to my love of quirky Daily Telegraph obituaries in their golden era under Hugh Massingberd and their sadly now-dropped legendary Page Three oddities – I think the Daily Telegraph is the only actual national NEWSpaper left. All the others are, in effect, magazines with ‘think’ pieces and additional background to yesterday’s TV news.

But the Daily Telegraph prints a high quantity of short news reports and (outside of election times) maintains an old-fashioned Fleet Street demarcation between News and Comment. The news reporting is, mostly, unbiased straight reportage; the comment is what non-Telegraph readers might expect.

They have also consistently displayed an admiration for rebels.

The Daily Telegraph – perhaps moreso the Sunday Telegraph – always showed an interest in and admiration for comedian Malcolm Hardee. They loved quirky MP Alan Clark, though they disapproved of his sexual amorality. The Daily Telegraph even surprisingly championed early Eminem. When the red-top tabloids were claiming his music and his act were the end of Western Civilization, the Daily Telegraph reviewed his first UK tour as being in the great tradition of British pantomime.

I once met a Daily Telegraph sub-editor at a party who hated working at the paper for exactly the same reason I loved reading it. People would yell across the room at him: “Give me a three-inch story!” not caring what the actual story was.

So the Daily Telegraph ended up with an amazing quantity of news stories, often not fully explained because they had been cut short.

I remember reading on a classic Page Three of the old Daily Telegraph, a brief court report about a man accused of scaring lady horse-riders by leaping out of hedges in country lanes dressed in a full frogman’s outfit, including flippers, goggles and breathing tube. That was, pretty much, the whole news item. If ever a story needed more background printed, this was it.

The Pear Shaped Comedy club is a bit like the Daily Telegraph in that it is an extraordinary hodge-podge of fascinating items apparently thrown together randomly but somehow holding together as a recognisable whole with its own personality. Quirky, eccentric and barely under control. Last night, in addition to the consistently good and massively under-praised Brian Damage & Krysstal themselves, the show included increasingly-highly-thought-of Stephen Carlin, rising new comics Laurence Tuck and Phillip Wragg and very new but intriguing Samantha Hannah.

And then there was long-time comic, club owner, compere, comedy craftsman and humour guru Ivor Dembina. He had come down to try out some new material as he is performing in four shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, including the fascinatingly unformatted Ivor’s Other Show. He told me:

“I might just invite on people I’ve met in the street. Anything that takes my fancy.” Then he added, “Do you want to come on it one afternoon, John? Can you do anything?”

“No,” Pear Shaped co-owner Vicky de Lacey correctly interrupted, “he can write but he can’t actually do anything.”

But that never stopped Little and Large, so I may yet appear on Ivor’s Other Show, perhaps as a human statue. There is, inevitably, a ‘living statue’ resource page on the internet.

We live in wonderful times.

I refer you to the start of this blog.

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Is comedy more or less important than sewage management?

Years ago, I was on a BBC shorthand writing course and one of the other guys on the course was a BBC News Trainee and Cambridge University graduate called Peter Bazalgette; there was something interesting about his eyes – a creative inquisitiveness – that made me think he had immense talent.

But he never got anywhere in BBC News.

He ended up as a researcher on Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life! and, from there, he became producer on one of the most unimaginatively-titled BBC TV shows ever: Food and Drink. 

He made a big success of that and in doing so, it is often said, he created the new concept of celebrity chefs. He then started his own company, making Changing Rooms, Ground Force and  Ready, Steady Cook amongst others.

His company ended up as part of Endemol and it is Bazalgette who is credited with making the Dutch TV format Big Brother such a big success in the UK and worldwide. By 2007, he was on Endemol’s global board with a salary of £4.6 million.

Last year, I saw another Cambridge University graduate perform at the Edinburgh Fringe – Dec Munro – and he had a creative inquisitiveness in his eyes similar to Peter Bazalgette’s.

Dec currently runs the monthly Test Tube Comedy show at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London’s Little Venice. I saw the show for the first time last night and he is an exceptionally good compere.

I always think it is more difficult to be a good compere than a good comedian and, very often, I have seen good comedians make bad comperes.

Ivor Dembina and Janey Godley – both, perhaps not coincidentally, storytellers rather than pure gag-based comics – are that rare thing: good comedians AND good comperes.

The late Malcolm Hardee – with the best will in the world – was not a particularly good comedian in a normal stand-up spot on a comedy bill – he really did survive for about 25 years on around six gags – but he was a brilliant, vastly underestimated compere as well as a club owner and spotter of raw talent and, as was often said, his greatest comedy act was actually his life off-stage.

Dec Munro has strong on-stage charisma and, judging by last night’s show, a good eye for putting together a bill, combining the more adventurous parts of the circuit – George Ryegold and Doctor Brown last night – with new acts who are very likely to have a big future – the very impressive musical act Rachel Parris

Of course, if they read this, I could have just destroyed Dec Munro’s and Rachel Parris’ careers. There is nothing worse than reading good mentions of your performance and believing them.

And I don’t know where either will end up.

In three years, Rachel Parris has the ability to be a major TV comedy performer. And Dec Munro should be a TV producer. But broadcast television is yesterday’s medium even with Simon Cowell’s successful mega shows. And no-one knows what the replacement is.

Perhaps Dec Munro and Rachel Parris will ride the crest of an upcoming wave; perhaps they will fade away. Showbiz is a dangerously random business. But, then, so is everything in life.

Peter Bazalgette is the great-great-grandson of sewer pioneer Sir Joseph Bazalgette who created central London’s sewer network which was instrumental in stopping the city’s cholera epidemics.

Sometimes handling shit in a better way can be more important than being a successful showbiz performer or producer.

You can create your own punchline to that.

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Stand-up comedians: are they funny people?

(This article previously appeared in Mensa Magazine)

FUNNY PEOPLE

by John Fleming

You are a stand-up comedian. You get up alone on stage. A spotlight shines on you. If you now perform the greatest show of your life, your future is downhill. If you get badly rejected by the audience, their objective reaction reinforces your own insecurities. You’re in a Lose-Lose situation. Who can be attracted to that? A masochist. That’s what I thought. So I asked Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina who has run many successful comedy clubs over 20 years, has seen comedy talent of all types fail and succeed and who, in his show Sadojudaism, jokes at length about his penchant for sadomasochism.

“Well, stand-up can be painful,” he initially agrees, “but the point about masochism is that it’s a state where pain is pleasurable and I’ve never heard a comic describe the frustrations and humiliations of public failure as something to be enjoyed.”

So why does he do it?

“I’m aware of a a core desire within me to please others which I can trace back to early childhood, being rewarded by my parents with smiles and approval whenever I made them laugh.  In adulthood I’ve acquired a desire to control situations and an irrepressible need to prove I’m right. Stand-up comedy is the best outlet I’ve found for both characteristics.”

Comedian Ricky Grover comes from London’s East End:

“Whether they admit it or not,” Ricky suggests, “most comedians live their life in depression, even feeling suicidal. They feel like they’re shit, feel like they’re not going to be able to do it again. If you don’t laugh you’d cry. That’s your options.

“There was a lot of violence going on in my childhood and sadness and depression and one of the ways to escape from all that was humour. I would make ‘em laugh and sometimes I’d make my stepfather laugh to deflect a confrontational situation. A lot of humour where I came from was quite dark. I wanted to be like my stepfather – an armed robber – because that was the only person I had to look up to. I had him or my little skinny grandad who was really quite verbally spiteful to me. I thought, well, if it’s between the little skinny grandad or the ex-boxer/armed robber, I’ll be the ex-boxer/armed robber and I suppose that’s why I went into… boxing.”

Scottish comedienne Janey Godley was raped by her uncle between the ages of 5 and 13; at 19 she married into a gangster family; at 21 her mother was murdered; for 14 years she ran a pub in Glasgow’s tough East End; and, in a 22-month period, 17 of her friends died from heroin.

“I do sometimes think everything I say’s shite,” she admits, “and I do sometimes think nobody’s ever gonna laugh at it and I get worried.”

So why get up on stage and face total personal rejection?

“Because it’s challenging,” she explains. “Because, with me, every show’s different. I don’t really tell jokes; I tell anecdotes that are unusual in that I talk about child abuse and murder and gangsters and social issues. I get up and do something different every time and it’s a really exciting challenge because I think: I wonder how that’ll work? And, when it really works it makes me really happy. When it completely dies, I think, I’m going to do that another twenty times, cos that was strange. Most of the stuff I do is reality with bits of surrealism. I tell a big true story with funny bits and talking animals in it and sometimes glittery tortoises. It might not affect their lives, but the audience WILL remember it because it’s different.”

So what is the X Factor?

“In my case, delusions about my own self-importance,” says Ivor firmly. “That’s why I decided to become a comic.”

“You’re split between two extremes,” says Ricky. “Really low self-esteem and a massive ego. They’re the two things you need to do stand-up and they come hand-in-hand. Deep down inside, there’s a little voice inside that tells you you’re shit but you want to prove you’re not. Stand-up comedy is the nearest you’ll ever get to being a boxer, because you’re on your own and you’re worried about the one same thing and that is making yourself look a cunt in front of everyone.”

Ivor believes: “Successful comedians tend to be characterised by a slightly ‘don’t care’ attitude. They can be philosophical about failure and speedily get over things like bad gigs and hostile reviews and move on to the next performance without dwelling on setbacks.”

“I have the confidence to get up on stage,” Janey tells me, “because after the life I’ve led – all the madness and the pub and the gangsters and the abuse – there is nothing frightens me any more. So, if I ever stood in a room with 600 people and talked for 15 minutes and nobody laughed, then it’s no worse than having a gun held at your head and I’ve already had that, so it doesn’t really scare me.”

“Boxers ain’t worried about getting hurt,” explains Ricky, “because, when your adrenaline’s flowing there is no real pain. In fact the pain’s quite enjoyable. I used to like soaking up the pain in the ring and smashing it back into them. My favourite comedy gigs are when I’m watching comedian after comedian go under and get heckled and I think, Right, I’m going to conquer this. And I sort of go into battle and then I can turn a gig round and make something happen.”

“I’ve had gigs which were going too well,” says Janey, “and I’ve intentionally ‘lost’ the audience just so I can work hard to get them back again.”

“Yeah, sometimes,” says Ricky, “There can be a really happy great big roar on every word you say and the gig’s almost too easy and you think, I’m going to throw something in here and make this a little bit hard, and I’ll come out and say something that may be offensive to some people and the whole room will go quiet and then you can play with that quietness and see where you go with it and that can be an interesting gig. So it’s a battle going in your head all the time.”

The late great club owner Malcolm Hardee once told me he was unimpressed by jugglers because, if anyone practised for several hours every day over several years, anyone could become good. “Juggling is a skill you can learn,” he insisted. “Stand-up comedy is a talent. However hard you work, you can’t become a great stand-up without underlying talent.”

So is comedy a skill or a talent? Can you learn it?

“All that’s required,” believes Ivor, “is a bit of talent, a modicum of common sense, a thick skin and an ability to learn from your mistakes. Stand-up isn’t nearly as difficult as people imagine. I started by running small comedy clubs and witnessed the efforts of many others whom I thought I could be better than. It was as simple as that.”

“It’s not just one thing,” Janey believes. “Thirty things are important on stage. There’s talent, confidence, timing, connecting with the audience, empathy, humour, the human touch. People have said the most bizarre things to me on stage. A woman once stood up and told me she’d been raped a couple of weeks ago and this was the first night she’d laughed since then. That’s not talent or technique; that’s being able to connect with another human being in a room full of people. But I do it for me, not really for them, because there’s nothing better than standing on stage. I don’t do it because of ego or because of lack of confidence. I do it for the experience of doing it because I love the applause.”

“I suppose,” admits Ricky, “that you’re looking for someone to say This bloke is a comedy genius. But, if someone does say that, there’s this little voice inside your head which disagrees: No you’re not, you’re shit. Then, if someone writes a review and says you’re shit, you think: No I’m not, I’m a comedy genius.”

Rejection is the thing that binds comedians together,” says Ivor, “because they’ve all experienced it at some time or other. What separates those of us who eventually become stand-ups from those who give up is that we are prepared to risk rejection time and time again.”

“You know what I think it is?” says Ricky “What all us comedians have in common? What we want? It’s not about being famous. It’s not about having fortunes. I think it’s just about having a bit of recognition. The thing that drives us all mad is not getting recognition for what we do.”

But, once you have proved you can do it once or ten times or fifty times, why keep doing it? Why constantly risk rejection?

“If you have the best sex of your life,” suggests Janey, “It doesn’t stop you doing it again. You’ll keep on doing it and keep on doing it.”

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