Tag Archives: Jim Sweeney

Lynn Ruth Miller on the warmth of burlesque and off-putting US comics

Lynn Ruth Miller doing burlesque in San Francisco

After a brief pause for the last two days of my blogs on the late actress Jacqueline Pearce, London-based American comedian and late-blossoming burlesque performer 84-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller continues tales of her experience returning to the US for three weeks of gigs in and around San Francisco…


This afternoon I met with Beth Lemke, an enterprising woman who started a wine bar in Pacifica where the majority of the establishments are blue-collar, junk food and cheap.  

The odds were against her in every way and yet, seven years into it, she has a profitable business that supports her in the Bay Area where the cost of living is over the moon and out.  

I always love being with her because she confirms my idea that you make the life you get. 

No-one needs to be a victim. 

No-one needs to shut up and take it. 

And Beth does not in any way. 

Her new thing is travel and she is planning several trips in 2019. Hopefully a return to London is one of them.    

Tonight I returned to Jim Sweeney’s Hubba, Hubba. Jim is the one who really established me in the burlesque scene here in San Francisco. Dottie Lux picked me up later and has been a wonderful loyal supporter but it was Jim who booked me over and over again. 

Tonight I did our old classic – Johnny Mercer’s Strip Polka – with the two songs I composed to go after it and then I tried Zip out on a San Francisco audience.

I was a bit uncertain about Zip because it gets standing ovations in London – but it has several British references.

I need not have worried. It was a triumph!!! 

Several of the girls remembered me and the audience went mad for me, which is a very feel-good situation.  

I stumbled around on the stage singing my classic Strip Polka number although I certainly did not polka. I did not want to risk ending up in an emergency ward. And I followed this with Zip.  

Most of the audience was standing by now. You would have thought that watching an old lady play with her zipper would have put them all to sleep. It did not. I will never understand why the burlesque community does not care that I cannot dance, cannot sing and I have a body that should have been trashed years ago. 

Nothing in this vast world of ours is predictable, is it?

Burlesque communities worldwide are not only more accepting of every age and body type but are actively welcoming. I have found this so in London, Cardiff, Glasgow, Bridgwater, Bristol and here in the San Francisco area. I think women who do burlesque are far less judgmental and far more anxious to give everyone the latitude to prosper being themselves.  

Even more interesting, the women in comedy over here are very off-putting and determined to assert their own excellence and demean anyone else’s. 

In London, women support and love one another and it is a pleasure to share a stage with them. Here in the US, it seems that we are in a competition which is a definite lose/lose situation.

Everyone’s comedy is unique to them and is as it should be.  

A performance is not a contest.  

… CONTINUED HERE

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

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

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

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

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

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

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

Neil’s 2008 spoof book

L.Vaughan Spencer’s 2008 spoof book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil's website

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil’s website

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

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

“What does Provocative Therapy provoke?” I asked.

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

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

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

Neil Mullarkey - inspirational businessman

Neil Mullarkey – inspirational and provocative businessman

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

“Intentive?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Arts-based training?” I asked.

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

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

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

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt and schmooze

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt, schmooze, network

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

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

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

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Ian Hinchliffe: “You’ll never work here again” – Never any point asking WHY!

It is not often that a celebration of someone’s life includes a tribute by a belly dancer, four people smashing wine glasses with small hammers and two people with blood capsules in their mouths eating beer glasses with the result that apparent glass and blood spews down onto the stage, but Ian Hinchliffe was the sort of performance artist/comic/artist/musician/absurdist in whose memory this seemed an almost understated tribute.

Ian drowned while fishing on a lake in Arkansas on 3rd December last year.

An obituary written by his friends said he “was a performer who could bring a sense of menace, unpredictability and a surreal/absurd humour into any creative arena, unrivalled by any other artist of his time.”

He was indisputably – and perhaps again this understates the reality – mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Roger Ely was a friend and occasional co-performer. He organised yesterday’s six-hour event Ian Hinchliffe: The Memorial at Beaconsfield arts studio in London. As part of his tribute, Roger said Ian was “one of the most loveable people and one of the most difficult people” he had ever met. “He could be an evil sod,” he added, but one who created occasional “pieces of genius”.

Writer and performer Jim Sweeney was too Ill to be there yesterday, but sent a tribute saying: “He was the best of drunks and he was the worst of drunks.”

Dave Stephens is now a sculptor but was originally a performance artist often credited as an early forerunner of alternative comedy. He said that, in the early days performing with Ian, the routine was to “go down the pub, get pissed and see what happens”.

There were colourful reminiscences aplenty, including a tale of furniture being thrown out of a pub window and, when people went in to discover why, they found Ian with porridge coming out of his trousers because he was simulating an abortion.

I only met Ian a handful of times but, when I got chatting to Lois Keidan who was Director of Live Arts at the ICA in the 1990s, she told me he had once set fire to his own foot there. Why he did that she had no idea. But Why was perhaps always an unnecessary and unanswerable question in Ian Hinchliffe’s life.

Lois also told me a story about police going into the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and saying to the staff: “There’s a man outside doing strange things in the roadworks.”

“Oh,” the police were told, “that’s just Ian Hinchliffe. It’s art.”

The police, to do them justice, apparently accepted this answer though exactly what “strange things” he was doing remain lost in the mists of anecdote.

At Beaconsfield yesterday, Simon Miles and Pete Mielniczek did a tribute performance in which a small plastic skull, perhaps not irrelevantly, quoted those famous lines from the Scottish play…

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

The indomitable Tony Green told a true story about Ian Hinchliffe performing at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith and, not for the first time, Ian was naked. He got hold of a chair and cut about three inches off one of its legs so it was unstable. He then got a broom handle and broke it in half. He managed to stuff about six inches of it up his arsehole, leaving half a broom handle protruding. He then balanced a full pint of beer on the chair, put both hands on the sides of the chair, leant forward so that his genitalia were in the pint of beer and lifted his feet off the ground so he was balancing.

“You’ll never work here again,” he was told afterwards.

I presume the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith was not the first venue to have told him that.

There is a YouTube video of Ian Hinchliffe performing in 1990 here.

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