Tag Archives: Jimmy Carr

The difference between comics and comedians. Some are born; some made.

Penny Dreadfuls audio book

Penny Dreadfuls’ audio book

This week’s guest on the increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club Podcast was comedy performer Thom Tuck, whose idea was to come on and plug the two new Penny Dreadfulsaudio book releases. This seemed perfectly simple.

But, as always, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I got sidetracked. For example, in this section…


Kate Copstick and Thom Tuck at the Grouchy Club

Kate Copstick & Thom Tuck eat at the Grouchy Club in London

JOHN: What did you want to be when you were 16? Did you want to be a stand-up comedian and Doctor Who acolyte?

THOM: I’m pretty sure I wanted to be funny. I was always a performer and, in school plays, it was always: Well, you be the funny one.

COPSTICK: Oh good! Well, that’s a good sign! The great Mark Steel said to me that the great comics are the ones who could never have been anything else.

THOM: Yes.

COPSTICK: You say to them: So, what did you want to be?… Comic!… What would you have been if you hadn’t been a comic?… I’ve absolutely no idea. I couldn’t NOT be a comic.

THOM: With people like (Doug) Stanhope and Patrice O’Neal, that’s unavoidable. You ARE a comedian. There’s no…

COPSTICK: Michael McIntyre.

THOM: I think Michael McIntyre is born to be a light entertainer.

JOHN: Ah well, yes…

COPSTICK: (GROWLS)

JOHN (TO COPSTICK): That’s OK.

THOM: He’s very good. He’s a very good comedian, but he’s not a ‘comic’ in the same way. I think there’s a distinction.

JOHN: You mean stand-up…

THOM: Yes, a stand-up comic on the road. Inescapable. There’s no destiny beyond the road.

COPSTICK: Oh, I see what you mean. So, once you’re on telly doing a ‘shiny floor’ show, you are no longer a stand-up comic…

THOM: No, not necessarily. But I don’t think he’s…

COPSTICK: What about John Bishop?… Oh… He obviously wasn’t born to be a comic, because he spent most of his life not being a comic but…

THOM: He was in marketing, wasn’t he?

COPSTICK: Correct.

JOHN: Or whatsisname…

COPSTICK:Jimmy Carr.

JOHN: Yes.

THOM: Well, Jimmy Carr is classically not a born comedian. Not a born comedian in any way.

JOHN: He is a made comedian.

THOM: Yeah.

COPSTICK: He’s a brilliant…

JOHN: …brilliant…

COPSTICK: … a brilliantly made comedian, yes.

THOM: There are people who, if they hadn’t found work being stand-ups would have been just drunks in a corner.

COPSTICK: Exactly. Stanhope would have been an ugly drunk and drug addict.

JOHN: You can be both, Thom. You can be both.

THOM: Yes… I mean, I don’t think Stewart Lee is a natural comic.

COPSTICK: No.

THOM: He’s a comedian and he has made himself a comedian and he has made himself battle-hardened, but he’s not a natural… If he had ended-up not finding stand-up and becoming a writer, a novelist…

COPSTICK: Well, that is what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a writer.

THOM: I don’t think I am a natural comic either.

JOHN: Actually, I suppose Stewart Lee is a writer who performs, isn’t he?

COPSTICK: Yes, I think Richard Lee is a more natural.

THOM: Richard Lee?

COPSTICK: Not Richard Lee – Richard Herring. Oh my God! I’ve just come up with the perfect comedian! We are going to put them both in test tubes and meld them!

JOHN: Richard Lee and Stewart Herring.

COPSTICK: That sounds like a job for Doctor Who.

THOM: Fist of Fun crossed with The Fly.

COPSTICK: Stewart Lee will just get progressively hairier and hairier and hairier. That’s a recipe for some very interesting…

JOHN: …composite comedians.

Thom Tuck

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A proposal of marriage to comedy critic Kate Copstick + Jimmy Carr’s money

Some of the Kenyan children helped by Mama Biashara

Some of the Kenyan children helped by Mama Biashara

Comedy critic Kate Copstick has now arrived back in London from her work with her Mama Biashara charity in Kenya. Each time she returns from Kenya, she brings back goods to sell in the Mama Biashara shop in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.

Below are highly-edited extracts from her final week’s diaries. The full versions can be read on the Mama Bashers Facebook page.


SATURDAY

We go to Jowac where I try to calm my day’s tension with a Tusker beer. Felista arrives, then Doris. Much stewed chicken is eaten. A group of blokes at the table next to us are fascinated by our group. I am asked if I would like one of them to ‘carry me’. Sounds romantic, eh? Nah. It means fuck. I decline. My father would not like it, I tell them. They hoot with laughter. I am then proposed to. Several cows could wend my father’s way were I to accept. I suggest that the gentleman doing the proposing might not be up to (as it were) a Mzungu bride. As my father will be reading this, I will not go into detail about the discussion that followed about the sensory benefits of a dalliance with a woman who has not had eight children before the age of 25, but an hilarious time was had by all. He bought me a Tusker I bought him a quarter bottle of gin (the only way it is sold in these bars). I think we might be married. Hugely jolly times. And my tension of the day is completely dissipated.

SUNDAY

Ghastly. Pouring with rain. I start packing. When the rain stops for a bit, I leg it down to Corner where I meet Hassan. I have known him since very early Mama B days. Almost pre Mama B days. He is now a pikipiki driver and – although two of his daughters have graduated – is still with his nose to the grindstone to educate the rest of his family. I look dubiously at the leaden sky:

“How much to Yaya?”

“£1.”

I get on the bike and we sail off through the puddles.

Around halfway to Yaya, the heavens open again. It is like being in a cold power shower. But, once you are totally wet, you cannot get any wetter. I drip off up into the Yaya Centre.

MONDAY

David arrives at 9.00am to take the first lot of stuff to the cargo depot. When he leaves, I finish re-packing chess pieces inside paper and cardboard inside some hopefully robust baskets inside a box. The biggest one is on order and, if it arrives broken in any way I shall beat myself over the head with the (10kg) board.

David is gone a ridiculous amount of time and it is late when we set off with the second load.

It is all weighed and measured and the bill is about £750. Gulp.

So please, if anyone reading this is one of those customers in Shepherd’s Bush who comes in, picks up something and complains: “Your prices are very high. I could buy this for a twig and a pat of cow dung in my country”, please consider how many sales it takes to recoup £750.

En route to the airport, two ambulances come screaming up the wrong lane of the dual carriageway down to Nyayo Stadium.

“I hate these people,” observes David darkly. “They just don’t like to sit in jam.” Further on, at a big roundabout where there is a big Tusky’s shopping mall on one side and Strathmore University on the other, there is a bit of a to-do.

People are lining the road and indulging in a favourite Kenyan activity – Watching Something Ghastly Happen – This can be followed by Doing The Headless Chicken and Pointless Paranoia.

“Something very bad has happened,” says David with relish, rubbernecking enthusiastically. But we cannot see anything.

It is later we discover that (as has happened before at Kikkuyu University) the KDF (Kenya Defense Force) were carrying out a drill to test the students’ ability to act promptly and sensibly in the event of a terrorist attack like the one at Garissa. However there seems to have been a bit of a communications breakdown.

Because, when the KDF ‘attacked’ (firing rubber bullets and a grenade!!), the student body thought it was for real and one person died, three are in intensive care and over twenty are injured after flinging themselves from third floor windows in a panic.

TUESDAY

The Government – in a much publicised attempt at appearing like they give a shit – brought in a national insurance card at 2,000 Kenya Shillings meaning that all people with one had a way to get medical assistance and access to hospitals when necessary. One year on and, much to the government’s horror, the people had been USING their cards. Immediately, the cost of a card was raised to 6,000 Kenya Shillings. Hmmm.

As is usual the night before I leave, my house is stripped of everything. Felista and Doris share the spoils. I keep my tiny mattress and blankets till the next morning.

WEDNESDAY

David is early! We leave at about 7.15am. Zangi has not arrived to deliver my wooden ankh necklaces. So we just go. David takes the bypass. I worry. Rightly, as it happens.

Up past Langatta, a lorry has overturned and is blocking the way. We join a snail-like procession of diverted traffic. Zangi calls and we agree to meet on the Mombasa Road.

Amazingly, I do make the check-in on time. And the two sanduku are perfectly judged for weight – 19.8kg and 19.4kg.

Turkish Airlines are as lovely on the way back as they were on the way out. And the arrival into London Heathrow was extraordinary – straight off the plane into the passport control hall! No-one there, so straight through. Baggage came pretty quickly. Lovely Customs Men. And so home …

THURSDAY

Cargo has not arrived. Bumped by Kenya Airways AGAIN at the Nairobi end.

Today was not a happy day until, five minutes ago, Jimmy Carr came into the Mama Biashara shop in Shepherd’s Bush, en route to work. He had no idea we were here. Just wandered in. And he made an unexpected and seriously generous donation to Mama Biashara. My faith in life has been restored. For a bit at least. Thank you Mr Carr.

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Arthur Smith says Jimmy Carr is “working on a comedy algorithm”

Arthur Smith in a Soho alleyway

Arthur Smith at the Grouchy Club in a Soho alleyway

As Kate Copstick is still in Kenya, I was joined for this week’s Grouchy Club Podcast – in a Soho alleyway – by comedian Arthur Smith.

This short exchange cropped up:


ARTHUR
More and more, there are people creeping into the world who aren’t real. they’ve been fabricated by programmers.

JOHN
For example?

ARTHUR
Well, Jimmy Carr. I don’t think he’s a human being. He’s…

JOHN
Poor Jimmy Carr!

ARTHUR
No, he’s a synthesised creature working on a comedy algorithm that just creates jokes. But, obviously, there’s no feeling or soul or anything. And this is happening more and more. everyone’s job, soon, will be done by a synthesised creature and we’ll just be sort-of vegetables sat at home watching afternoon TV.

JOHN
But surely Jimmy Carr is a traditional old-style comedian, in fact. He tells jokes, which people don’t do now. There’s Jimmy Carr, there’s Tim Vine, there’s about three other people doing jokes and everyone else is telling stories.

ARTHUR
Yes. Because that’s all synthesised creatures can do, because they’re working on a series of algorithms, like I say. So they regurgitate the form of a joke.

JOHN
You’re not a joke man yourself?

ARTHUR
A man goes to a doctor. The doctor says: “I’m afraid you’re going to have to stop masturbating.”

“Oh no!” says the man. “Why?”

“Well,” says the doctor, “I’m trying to im…examine you.”

I nearly fluffed the punchline… I’ll do another one.

A man goes to the doctor with a bit of lettuce sticking out of his bottom.

The doctor says: “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Oh, no, I like an ancient joke.

JOHN
But does this mean you’re an algorithm?

ARTHUR
Yeah, but I’m a Barry Cryer algorithm and that’s a different kind of creature altogether.

JOHN
Well, Barry Cryer is a sort of a gag merchant and Jimmy Carr’s a gag merchant. I have to say I quite like the gypsy moth joke myself.

ARTHUR
Hang on, whose gypsy moth joke is this one?

JOHN
Jimmy Carr.

ARTHUR
Oh, yeah, that one! Well he’s got in trouble again, I noticed. He’s quite clever. It was a classic; he wanted to do a very short joke and the joke was a dwarf shortage. But, of course, he was on The One Show and got in trouble for that.

JOHN
And, when people complained, he said: “Oh, grow up!” which, I thought, was a double funny.

ARTHUR
Yeah, I agree. I agree they’re good gags. I just wish he’d… Yeah, but he’s not a human, is he? There’s no heart; there’s no soul, is there?

JOHN
David Mills, who you probably don’t know, was saying that he…

ARTHUR
Yeah, I know David Mills – the American – he’s brilliant.

JOHN
He was saying he’s going to try and incorporate himself more into his act, because he’s never really done ‘himself’ before.

ARTHUR
The thing is, he was constructed, that’s why. He’s a synthesised comedian; I told you.

JOHN
David Mills??

ARTHUR
No, not David MIlls. Oh! I see! David Mills is going to incorporate…

JOHN
Yeah, David Mills is going to incorporate personal stuff whereas, before, he’s just been a man sitting on a stool.

ARTHUR
Yeah, well I think, in the end, that is a good thing to do.

JOHN
Sit on a stool? At our age?

ARTHUR
Well, you’re better off with a back to it. But I think having something of yourself is what makes you unique as a comedian whereas, if you haven’t, then you’re just a synthesiser.


You can hear the full 25-minute Grouchy Club Podcast HERE, in which Arthur talks about his theory of mindlessness, writing for Frankie Howard, being in a Danish pantomime, why he may go trans-gender, Shakespeare, being pedantic, semi-colons, creative writing courses, Daphne Fairfax and his several half-written novels… plus he performs the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno in the original medieval Italian. Oh yes he does.

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Amused Moose promoter and producer Hils Jago on talent spotting comedians

A strangely reticent Hils Jago yesterday at Soho Theatre

An unusually reticent Hils Jago yesterday at Soho Theatre

“Why Amused Moose?”

“I wanted a word beginning with the letter A because, back in the day, everything in Time Out was listed alphabetically. I chose ‘Amused’ and then had to find something that rhymed with it. I thought of ‘Moose’ two weeks later, when I was in the bath drinking red wine… and then comic Mark Watson told me it was a bad rhyme.”

Yesterday, I had tea at Soho Theatre with Amused Moose Comedy boss/promoter/producer Hils Jago. As well as the upcoming Amused Moose Comedy Awards, she runs Amused Moose clubs, tours acts and stages shows.

“Everything’s going through change at the moment,” Hils told me, “so I’m thinking How can I change? This will be our 15th year – before that we did previews and things. I learned my trade by helping run comedy at Sohoho for about five years.”

“I suppose,” I told her, “I should ask you about the fact people are talking about the death of comedy clubs…”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m not even talking about that. The death of comedy clubs is people not having any vision and taking too much money out of the business. You have to reinvest and you have to be creative and inventive. I’m making lots of changes to my business over the next six months. A few people have said Oh, production line comedy! about small comedy clubs. Which I always used to say about the two big comedy chains. I’m fearful that I could be seen quite soon as being part of that production line comedy. I need to re-invent what I do and how I do it.”

“Money,” I said, “seems to be tight all round at the moment.”

Al Lubel, winner of the 2013 Amused Moose Laughter Award

Al Lubel, winner of the 2013 Amused Moose Laughter Award

“Yes” said Hils. “We do two awards. The Amused Moose Laugh Off and the Amused Moose Laughter Awards which come under the umbrella of the Amused Moose Comedy Awards. Unfortunately, the support we’ve had from BBC Worldwide for four years is finishing this year, so I am looking for new sponsors for next year. We could do it much more on a shoestring, but that would show, so I’m looking for sponsors to get us up to the same level we got to with the BBC. The BBC also did a £5,000 prize and that’s one of the things that will obviously have to go if we don’t get sponsorship next year.

“What we need is to find people who are either philanthropic or who see us as a good way of doing their scouting for them… which we have been doing, because we did find Jack Whitehall and Sarah Millican and people like that.”

“How do you spot talent?” I asked. “For large-scale success, what you’re actually looking for is bland, middle-of-the-road, unoriginal acts…”

Amused Moose winner Sarah Millican

One of the Amused Moose ‘finds’ Sarah Millican

“No you’re not,” said Hils. “I’m looking for people who have some style and pizzazz about them and can write a decent line or two. I knew within 15 seconds when Jack Whitehall walked on stage. I probably had a pretty good idea before he even walked on the stage. How he carried himself as a person. Same with Sarah Millican. It was obvious she was head and shoulders above the other people in her heat.”

“Years ago,” I said, “I heard you say to someone – it might even have been me – that, if you’re a manager/agent, it takes three years to launch a comedian.”

“Oh, it does,” said Hils. “And normally, from when someone starts, it takes seven years to get a DVD out – to be ‘DVD famous’ enough to be ready to sell a million. DVD companies want to sell a lot; they can’t just send out tasters, like you can with YouTube.

“This whole thing that’s happening now which Louis CK kicked off three Christmases ago by putting his stuff online for $5 – people were sending them as Christmas cards to people! – I can’t believe that no-one else has actually commercially got this model going.”

“Are the winners of your competitions tied to you, like Simon Cowell?”

“No. I don’t like managing people. I don’t like being responsible for other people’s livelihoods. I hate it.”

“But you have managed acts in the past.”

Jerry Sadowitz on a holiday with Richard Wagner

Jerry Sadowitz – immense talent but could you manage him?

“Yes. I managed Jerry Sadowitz for 15 months.”

“Bloody hell! That must have aged you.”

“It taught me a lot. I’ve managed a lot. I think you can spot talent. But it’s also actually finding people who’ve got the drive and determination to succeed and who have some sort of appreciation of how the business works, because it IS show BUSINESS. I don’t mean to say you have to do business, but you have to understand people need to make money and you’ve got to understand the constraints people are working under. If you look at Jimmy Carr, who was in our first final, he’s very aware of marketing.”

“Was he genuinely an oil executive,” I asked, “or is that PR bullshit?”

“Yes,” Hils told me. “He left with a racing green company car which they gave him with wire wheels – that’s how nice a car it was. Top of the range. And he was driving it round for about two years as an open spot, giving top comics lifts and they were saying: Where did you get this from? Leather seats, wooden dashboard, the whole thing. Superb.”

‘Moose’ rhymes with ‘Amused’? Opinion varies.

‘Moose’ rhymes with ‘Amused’? Opinion varies.

“The thing about comics,” I said, “is that they’re so phenomenally insecure and tend to be dithery and can’t manage themselves. Irresponsible by nature, which is what makes them good comics.”

“It’s just,” said Hils, “a matter of finding someone who’s got all the right character combinations. We all make allowances for comics, of course we do. The other problem is that, when you are a comedian – generally – you disclose a lot more about yourself than you would if you were a ‘real’ person. So everyone thinks they’re insecure and bonkers but, actually, they’re no more insecure and bonkers than the rest of us – but the rest of us can hide it.

“They show their insecurities and their vulnerabilities on stage. They have to, in order to charm an audience. Because that’s what makes them loveable. You can get someone who is a brilliant wordsmith and delivers very well, does all the tricks, but actually does not make it happen because they do not have any warmth about them. There has to be some warmth in there. Even if they’re a comic who does dark material, there has to be a twinkle in the eye.”

“Jimmy Carr ,” I said, “got terrible criticism for a joke about gypsy moths which I thought was unjustified. I never heard him tell it live but, in that cold cynical Jimmy Carr persona, he is able to deliver all sorts of potentially dodgy gags and they are fine.”

Jimmy Carr was a man with a car

Jimmy Carr was a man with a car

“Well,” said Hils, “Jimmy developed that style. He started off doing just one-liners which were not acerbic. It took him two or three years and it wasn’t until he did his first Edinburgh Fringe show and he had to work out how to do an hour that he started changing how he delivered.”

“I do think, though,” I said, “that if you are looking for someone who will become genuinely successful across the board, you have to look for someone who is not totally original.”

“It depends,” said Hils, “They can be offbeat… if that’s the way the trend is going… It’s that thing about catching the wave at the beginning. If there is no wave there, then you are a bit buggered. At the moment there IS… I think, in the next two or three years, we’re going to see a new breed of people coming through. Even some of the people who only go out to comedy clubs on a Saturday night are beginning to say: Excuse me. This is comedy by rote.”

“So what is this new wave?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“The original alternative comedy,” I said, “was stand-up, jugglers, music, magicians, poets…”

“It was Variety,” agreed Hils, “I think that’s one of the things that may be coming in. There will always be stand-ups, but I think we might see a wider variety.”

“Did you ever try stand-up yourself?” I asked.

“No.”

“Because?”

“I was a teacher and lecturer for six years and keeping a disinterested audience occupied for five hours was quite enough.”

“In what subject?” I asked.

“Business and IT. I trained for science but there weren’t any jobs. My degree was Earth Sciences.”

“I’ve never known what that means.”

“Geography and Geology and bits of stuff like that… You don’t want me going on for hours, because you’ve got to type it all up.”

“You are very shrewd,” I told Hils.

“Well,” she said, “I’ve been a journalist. I’ve done all sorts of things. I’m old. I go back to rock ’n’ roll. I used to drink with Jimi Hendrix…”

“Did you?”

“Yes. I knew Jimmy Page when we were both at school.”

“Oh Lord,” I said. “I feel another blog coming on…”

… TO BE CONTINUED … MAYBE …

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How ex-garbage handler Bruce Dessau owes his career as a comedy critic to the ‘uninteresting’ comedian Stewart Lee

Bruce Dessau as he likes to be seen on his Facebook page

Bruce Dessau as he likes to be seen on his Facebook page

In yesterday’s blog, highly-regarded London Evening Standard comedy critic Bruce Dessau defended his profession. But how did he become a comedy critic?

“Did you ever perform?” I asked him.

“No. Absolutely never performed. Not really had any interest in it,” he said.

“You came up through local newspapers?” I asked. ”Reports on garden shows?”

“Never really had any interest in journalism either,” he told me. “Never wrote anything for the college magazine. After I left London University, I wanted to stay in London because I was a music fan. I was staying at a house in Camberwell with a typewriter and thought I’ll write a review of that gig I saw last night. I sent it to the NME. They said: We really liked it. Why don’t you tell us what gigs you’d like to review and we might commission you and we’ll pay you. So I became a music journalist, but never trained.”

“So you went straight from university to journalism?”

“Via being a dustman in Belsize Park,” explained Bruce. “I was Peter Cook’s dustman. The funny thing is when I left my house in Camberwell at 6.30am I often saw a near-neighbour Peter Richardson (of The Comic Strip) coming home from a late night out, so it was a bit of a comedy route as well as my comedy roots. But that’s the only other job I’ve ever had. Being a dustman.

“I was at Time Out for about 8 or 9 years – started on music, then more on the TV section and then edited things from there. But, when I was doing TV, they used to call me ‘Mr Comedy’ – I would always do Vic & Bob or The Fast Show or Harry Enfield.

“The 1990s were my Time Out years. I handed in my notice the day the New Year Millennium edition went to press. I planned to go freelance – there were actually jobs in journalism in those days – only 14 years ago! – but, out of the blue, I got offered a job editing the TV section of the Saturday Express magazine. That was when the paper was edited by Rosie Boycott, so it was a different paper then, with different aspirations. About a year later, it was taken over by Richard Desmond and he wanted to strip everything back – no pun intended – so I left to go freelance again and… basically I owe everything to Stewart Lee.

Stewart Lee’s North American friend Baconface at the 2013 Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards (Photography by Keir O’Donnell)

Comic Stewart Lee’s Canadian friend Baconface performs at the 2013 Malcolm Hardee Awards (Photograph by Keir O’Donnell)

“I got sent a copy of one of Stewart Lee’s books when he was in the doldrums and he wasn’t doing very well and no-one was interested – I think it was the one called The Perfect Fool. I was getting quite pressured from his agency (Avalon) to do an interview with him but I didn’t really think anyone would be interested in Stewart Lee. As a courtesy, I thought Oh, I might as well pitch this to someone, so I emailed the Arts editor of the Evening Standard – I had never written for them before – and they said No, we’re not remotely interested in Stewart Lee, but we ARE looking for a new comedy critic. So I started at the Evening Standard in the summer of 2001, just before 9/11 and I never did do the Stewart Lee interview, but I owe it all to him.”

“The fickle finger of fate,” I said. “Now everyone wants a Stewart Lee interview. You can never tell who is going to succeed.”

“Sometimes you know when people are going to be stars,” said Bruce. “Maybe I should have stayed a music journalist. I would be much better spotting future music stars than future comedy stars. I saw U2 at the Half Moon and it was obvious Bono should be climbing on amplifiers at the O2 Arena and not at a pub in Herne Hill.

“But, with comedy, the acts I have really loved I’ve usually thought They’re never going to be big and often I was wrong.

“Like Micky Flanagan who I used to see doing stuff at The Hob when he was about 40. I thought Yeah, he’s very good. I like him very much. But this is kind of his level. Then somehow, when the Comedy Gods decided to make comedy for arenas, he got swept up and I think he now does more dates at the O2 than Beyoncé.

“The main case of me being wrong was Vic & Bob. When they had their residency in Deptford and they did pubs, I used to go and see them every Thursday night long before they did TV. I thought: This is brilliant. They can attract 100 people every Thursday night in South London but, if they try North London, they’ll get 3 people. I could never have predicted Vic & Bob would get as big as they did. But, once they make it, it kind of makes sense.

“The interesting thing I’ve seen in comedy in the last few years is a whole new generation becoming the establishment. And the whole conveyor belt nature of comedians where they fall off the other end and fall out of favour – or not even fall out of favour, but people like Vic & Bob and Harry Enfield or Ben Elton.

“I used to watch the TV series Skins and suddenly all the comics I thought were young, hip comedians were suddenly all playing the parents. Harry Enfield, Morwenna Banks, Bill Bailey and even at one point Chris Addison cropped up as a dad.

“It all moves on. Jack Dee is a bit Tony Hancock and a bit Les Dawson. And you now can’t imagine Alexei Sayle as an angry 21-year-old.”

Bruce’s book on the dark side of comedy

Bruce’s book on comedy’s dark side

“Your latest book is Beyond a Joke,” I said, “about the dark side of comedians.”

“It was about the history of comedy,” said Bruce, “and the history of all these troubled comedians from Grimaldi to Tony Hancock and so on and I kind of thought it was a thing of the past – comedians being slightly dysfunctional.

“I wrote the book around the time Russell Brand was breaking through and he’s in the book, but it’s quite obvious there are plenty of other stories – Malcolm Hardee’s in the book, obviously.

“My dilemma to resolve was Are strange people attracted to stand-up comedy or does stand-up comedy make people strange? I think I concluded it’s a bit of both. Strange people are attracted to it but, if you’re normal and you’re attracted to it, you’ll end up strange. It doesn’t make strange people normal, but it does make normal people strange.

“It’s like Jimmy Carr says – You’re the only person in a room with 2,000 people facing the wrong way. You’re on your own. That’s why it’s weirder than being in a band. It’s a solo thing. And it’s weirder than being an actor because you’re supposedly saying your own words, particularly this autobiographical, authentic comedy. Various comedians say It’s like therapy but, rather than us pay a therapist, we do our gigs and we get paid for the therapy. But I don’t know if it’s effective as therapy, because they still seem a pretty screwed-up bunch.”

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Political comedy, racism and Jew jokes

Liam Lonergan. Is all racism a black and white issue?

A Liam Lonergan photo. Not everything is so black and white.

Yesterday’s blog was a continuation of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Earlier in our chat, we talked partly about my idea that British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time have often been set in tragic not comic situations.

Here is another extract:

__________

Liam: It’s sort of a rubbish question and I hate asking it but Is comedy actually important?

John: I guess it must be important because if there’s a totalitarian regime they don’t allow it. I somehow suspect there were not many Nazi comedy clubs – or, if there were, the jokes were all about Jews. So maybe they had some great Jewish jokes. Swings and roundabouts.

But totalitarian regimes are frightened of comedy and frightened of humour. If you made a joke about General Franco in Spain in the 1950s you would got arrested. Because I think you can change people’s opinions – slowly – with comedy. The trouble with a lot of political comedy, of course, is that comics are preaching to the converted. The left wing comedians who seem terribly popular are popular with left wing audiences. So they’re not actually doing anything at all.

Liam: Politics has merged into one now…

John: In the 1980s alternative comedy started because it was Mrs Thatcher. It took off because she was perceived as a right-wing, fairly authoritarian prime minister and the left-wingers had a field day. With the Conservatives (effectively) back in power, I don’t quite understand why that left-wing political comedy thing hasn’t come back again.

Liam: I think it’s easy to chuck something at something that’s made of lead – like Thatcher – but something that’s made of marshmallow, like Cameron… there’s no point chucking anything at it. It just moulds itself to accommodate the object that’s being flung at it.

Ben Elton used to be a political comic

Ben Elton – he used to be a political comic back in the 1980s

John: Maybe it was all done before in the 1980s and you can’t repeat… you can’t swim the same river twice or something. I dunno… Errr.. I have no idea where I’m going with this. Have you found out what your actual thesis is yet?

Liam: Well, I think you opened it up for me when you talked earlier about this comedy/tragedy thing. That’s something I’ve been really interested in for ages. So I think I might lean it towards that.

John: Well, American TV sitcoms like Cheers and all those shows, they’re written by committees and it’s gag, gag, gag, gag, gag and not really primarily personality based. David Croft’s BBC ensemble sitcoms, which are almost in a class of their own, were by-and-large written by two people: David Croft and someone else. They are by-and-large personality based. They’re not primarily gag based. Dad’s Army does have lots of gags in it but it’s actually personality based.

Most other British sitcoms that have lasted are personality-based in a tragic situation… Terry and June has not lasted; One Foot In The Grave has.

Liam: Do you think there’s any American comedy that has that vein – that sort of dark thread running through it – that you like?

John: I did like Maude. Have you ever seen Maude?

Liam: No.

John: It was with Bea Arthur. She went on to be in The Golden Girls as well. But Maude was sometimes wonderfully dark and she was an arguably sometimes unsympathetic central character. In Britain, it was transmitted as a half hour with one commercial break in the middle.

Bea Arthur as Maude with Bill Macy as husband Walter

Bea Arthur as Maude; Bill Macy as husband Walter

She’s a married late middle-aged woman and, in this one particular episode I remember, her husband’s long-lost chum who had been with him during the War was gonna turn up. He turns up at the end of Part One and he’s excited to meet his long-lost comrade and goes “Urghh!!” and falls on the floor behind the settee. Cut to commercial break. When you come back… he’s dead! So for the whole of the second half of the episode, the husband’s going: “Oh my god. I killed him! If I hadn’t arranged this today!… Oh my god, he had a heart attack…I killed my best friend!”

Bloody hell! This is an American sitcom! And Maude was sort of dark and had… It was more sort of vaguely Jewish humour.

Liam: With the American Office you’ve got to separate it from the British version. It’s a completely different sort of beast. The main character played by Steve Carrell is, in a more subtle way… he’s a dark character. The fact that he’s absolutely full of desperation and is in love with this idea of love but it’s never fulfilled.

John: Another British comedy set in an unfunny situation (that was funny) is Till Death Us Do Part. I saw a few episodes of the American version – All In The Family –  and it wasn’t as dark. He was not as dislikeable a character.

Also ‘dislikable’ is in the eye of the beholder.

Till Death Us Do Part was interesting because it was written by Johnny Speight and supposedly Alf Garnett was a character to be despised and frowned upon. But I always had a feeling that it reinforced people’s prejudices. People who were already bigoted wouldn’t be turned by the way his character was written. We’re talking about trying to change people’s attitudes. The whole point of that was to turn people’s attitudes so they realised what a bigot he was and I’m sure…

Liam: …it reinforced it.

John: Yes, absolutely reinforced the bigotry. I’m sure if you were that sort of person you would sit there and think: “Yeah, Alf’s quite right. That Liverpool yobbo son-in-law IS a wanker and Alf is the voice of reason.”

Liam: I think Jimmy Carr has used quotes… holding a mirror up to racism and laughing at racism rather than race. He’s laughing at the racism rather than race.

Love Thy Neighbour - top-rating comedy show

Love Thy Neighbour – a top-rating comedy show of the 1970s

John: I always thought Love Thy Neighbour – which has not lasted, because it wasn’t tragedy – was always very dodgy. I saw it when it first went out and I always thought: “I’m not sure I like this very much”. And Mind Your Language, which was set in a language school, was just full of stereotypes and I thought it…  was just about OK but it wasn’t really… It was just… There’s a difference between…

Liam: Like, cartoon racism?

John: There’s a difference between making fun of stereotypes and being too close to being racist. I think you can say (I’m Scottish myself) all Scots are drunks as a joke. And that’s fine. That’s actual comic social observation, taken to an extreme. There is a drinking problem in Scotland. So Scots are drunk and dour. The Irish are drunk and sing Tiddle-ee-aye music. The Welsh sing a lot in choirs. The English are either toffee-nosed or football hooligans.

Liam: Or sexually repressed.

John: Or sexually repressed. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a difference between taking a slight tendency to an extreme simply to deliver a punchline and laugh about it… and saying people are to be despised or reviled because of something. That’s arguably the difference between Jewish jokes and jokes about Jews. It’s attitude.

If you’re abroad, the English are seen as two simultaneous stereotypes which are mutually exclusive but which run together. The English are either very snooty, upmarket public school people who look down on you and have a superiority complex – or they’re the dregs-of-society football hooligans. Both views have some basis in reality. And you can make jokes about both. But the first tends towards humour, which is acceptable, and the second tends towards xenophobia, which is not. It’s a fine line and it moves.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

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Comedy without gags but with tragedy

Liam Lonergan: man of comedy

Liam Lonergan: man looking for a good laugh

Last October, I got an e-mail from Liam Lonergan saying:

“I’m currently compiling a portfolio of long-form articles re. stand-up, local theatre, comedy revue and comedy theory as part of my dissertation at the University of Portsmouth. I was wondering if I could borrow some of your time to have a little chat with you? I’m a regular reader of your blog and feel, with your background and obvious enthusiasm for the subject, you would be great to talk to!”

Enthusiasm? Me? About anything except chocolate? Is he mad?

Nonetheless, we had a chat and yesterday he sent me a 13,000 word transcript of what we had talked about. Liam is doing a BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing. Here, with his permission, much shortened and tidied-up to mask my incoherence, is an extract:

________________________

Liam: Are you a fan of… I mean, there’s a current vogue for this… Are you a fan of awkward comedy?

John: No. I think the current vogue for awkwardness is a current vogue for people who aren’t very funny and they’re pretending that it’s post-modern and they’re being anti-comics when in fact it’s because they’re not being bleedin’ funny. The original joke when Alternative Comedy started was people went: “Oh, it’s alternative because you don’t laugh”. Unfair at the time, but a lot of modern supposedly post-modern comedy is pseudo-intellectual people who are not actually very funny.

Liam: Would you say you’re more inclined to the tailored jokes and the gagsmiths rather than the…

John: There aren’t really many stand-up comedians nowadays who tell gags. There’s Jimmy Carr and there’s Milton Jones and there’s Tim Vine. Almost any new comic who is doing gag, gag, gag material is copying one of those people. Most of the comedy today is actually storytelling comedy.

I enjoy those three comedians as gagmeisters but I prefer stories. A lot of comedians worry about getting laughs and I say they shouldn’t worry because ‘interesting’ is as good as ‘funny’ and the epitome of that is my good friend Janey Godley who in her entire life, I swear to god, has never told a funny story or told a gag. She doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny. And that works just as well.

Liam: Yeah, I follow her on Twitter. She’s Scottish as well, isn’t she?

Janey Godley’s bestselling autobiography

Janey Godley’s 2005 autobiography

John: Yeah, Scottish. I edited her autobiography which is the most horrendous autobiography you’ve ever read in your life. It’s like Edgar Allen Poe. A nightmare from beginning to end. You think the worst has come and then you turn over the page and there’s something even more horrifying. It’s a phenomenally horrific autobiography. And her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was the comedy version of that, which was Good Godley.

People who never saw the show thought she must be making fun of serious subjects but she wasn’t. She was basically just telling some of the same stories that were in the book but because of the way she… It’s the Frank Carson line “It’s the way you tell ‘em”… and, with her, she tells the stories in such a way that you can laugh. In her case, it’s laughter as a release of tension. There’s a wonderful clip on YouTube. What she does is, it’s the beginning of her show and she tells the audience: “Don’t get freaked out but, when I was five, I was sexually abused by my uncle. Now I don’t want you to all rush the stage and give me a hug. It’s OK, cos I got him killed for my birthday later on.” And the audience laughs…

Liam: (Laughs)

John: That’s not funny.

Liam: No. No.

John: Which is the point. Because she then says, “No, I did,” and they laugh even more. She then says, “That’s not a joke,” and they laugh even more. Then she says, “Got his cock cut off,” and they all laugh even more. So she tells them with a completely straight face four separate times that something horrendous has happened and it’s not remotely funny but they laugh more and more and more and more.

Liam: Is it because, like, an expectation?

John: It’s very difficult. I haven’t quite got my head round it. What it is is Janey’s brilliant performance skills. It’s partly, possibly, that they don’t believe it. The killing bit. And I wouldn’t say whether it’s true or not. It’s not even a release of tension. I don’t know why they laugh. You FEEL why they laugh because you laugh along with them. But it’s simply the way she tells it. She doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny. She could read the telephone directory and make people laugh. She’s brilliant. Possibly the best teller of stories I have ever seen.

But she doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny.

My theory on sitcoms that last the test of time in Britain is that they aren’t comedies. They’re tragedies. So, in America, the best sitcoms are gag, gag, gag, gag written by fifteen people in a room. In Britain the sitcoms which have lasted with the exception of the David Croft ensemble comedies – Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served? all those ones – With the exception of those, all the best sitcoms which have lasted have been tragedies.

Liam: Things like Steptoe and Son, where they’re eternally bound to each other but they want to escape each other.

Steptoe and Son - a tragedy

Steptoe and Son, comedy on screen; tragedy if it were real life

John: Yes. I mean, Steptoe is a tragedy because you’ve got two people who are totally trapped in a situation they can’t get out of. Hancock is fascinating because he’s not a sympathetic character. You wouldn’t want to be trapped in a submarine or a lift with him.

And in One Foot In The Grave the central character is (if he were real) actually not a very nice man and it’s a terrible situation where they’re trapped and he’s frustrated by life and there’s one wonderful episode with the two of them just lying in bed in the dark, talking and nothing else happens. The payoff to that episode is it turns out they had a child earlier in their marriage and the child died. And that’s the climax of the comedy show.

There’s also a one hour Christmas special where the car breaks down and he goes off to find help. He’s on his own, goes into this old people’s home and it basically then turns into a Hammer horror film because of the way they’re mistreating the old people.

Liam: I can relate. I work in an old people’s home as well. The pathos and the sort of joke divide is so clear in places like that.

John: It’s a Hammer horror film. It’s not a comedy at all. Extraordinary. So I think most of the best sitcoms in Britain are tragedies and a lot of the best Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows are things like Janey Godley talking about her mother being murdered or Mike Gunn talking about his former heroin addiction.

So ‘serious’ comedy I like.

Awkward comedy, I think, is usually bullshit. But you can do…

Liam: Uncomfortable?

John: Yes, there’s always Lewis Schaffer, who I can watch and enjoy endlessly.

… CONTINUED HERE

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